Alexander Hamilton Papers

From Alexander Hamilton to Oliver Wolcott, Junior, [13 April 1797]

To Oliver Wolcott, Junior

[New York, April 13, 1797]

My Dear Sir

The post of today brought me a letter from you.1 I am just informed that an order is come to the Custom House not to clear out any Vessel if armed, unless destined for the East Indies.2 Under the present circumstances I very much doubt the expediency of this measure. The excesses of France justify passiveness in the Government and its inability to protect the Merchants required that it should leave them to protect themselves. Nor do I fear that it would tend to Rupture with France, if such be not her determination otherwise.

The legality of the prohibition cannot be defended. It must stand on its necessity. It would I think have been enough to require security that the vessel is not to be employed to cruise against any of the belligerent powers. Perhaps even now where vessels have been armed previous to the receipt of the prohibition, it is just and adviseable to except them on the condition of such security. Think of this promptly. The general measure may be further considered at leisure. Nor am I prepared to say that having been taken it ought to be revoked.

I will send you shortly some remarks in reply to Questions you propose.3 Adieu. Yrs


Ol Wolcott Jun Esq

ALS, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford.

2H is referring to a Treasury Department circular to the collectors of customs, which was signed by Wolcott and dated April 8, 1797. The circular reads: “The depredations, to which the commerce of the United States is at present exposed, have given rise to a question which being of general concern, is therefore made the subject of a circular communication.

“The question is, Whether it be lawful to arm the merchant vessels of the United States for their protection and defence, while engaged in regular commerce?

“It is answered—that no doubt is entertained, that defence, by means of military force, against mere pirates and sea rovers, is lawful; the arming of vessels, bona fide engaged in trade to the East Indies, is therefore on account of the danger from pirates to be permitted as heretofore; but as the arming of vessels destined for European or West India commerce raises a presumption, that it is done with hostile intentions against some one of the belligerent nations and may cover collusive practices inconsistent with the act of Congress of June, 1794, unless guarded by provisions more effectual than have been hitherto established; it is directed that the sailing of armed vessels, not bona fide destined to the East Indies, be restrained, until otherwise ordained by Congress.

“Information has been received that some vessels are arming by strangers for the purpose of capturing the vessels of the United States. The utmost vigilance on the part of the Collectors to prevent the progress of this evil is enjoined; where there is reasonable ground to believe that vessels are equipped for the purpose of being employed against the commerce of this country, they are to be arrested, and the circumstances stated to this Department.” (DS, RG 36, Records of the Bureau of Customs, Letters from the Treasury, 1789–1807, Vol. 4, National Archives.)

Section 3 of “An Act in addition to the act for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States” stated “That if any person shall within any of the ports, harbors, bays, rivers or other waters of the United States, fit out and arm … any ship or vessel with intent that such ship or vessel shall be employed in the service of any foreign prince or state to cruise or commit hostilities upon the subjects, citizens or property of another foreign prince or state with whom the United States are at peace …, every such person so offending shall upon conviction be adjudged guilty of a high misdemeanor, and shall be fined and imprisoned …” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 383 [June 5, 1794]).

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