Alexander Hamilton Papers

To Alexander Hamilton from Oliver Wolcott, Junior, 9 August 1798

From Oliver Wolcott, Junior


Phila. Aug 9. 1798

Dear Sir

Before I recd. your favour of the 6th. instant I had a plain conversation with Mr. McHenry and represented the necessity of having you called into service. It is unnecessary to repeat arguments—you must know their nature. The Presidents permission has been applied for by Mr. McHenry as I presumed1—since his illness Colo. Pickering has reinforced the request.2

You must my friend come on with the expectation of being Secy of War in fact. Mr. McH’s good sense, industry & virtues, are of no avail, without a certain address & skill in business which he has not & cannot acquire.

But before you begin inlisting men, let me I pray you request your attention to the state of the public Supplies, & to some plan for conducting the Department. Depend on it, that you can take nothing for granted in respect to the Military Department, and you with the rest of us will be disgraced if measures productive of much expence are adopted, without a previous system & some considerable reforms.

A division has taken place in the Comn for settling the claims of British Creditors under the Treaty from which I apprehend trouble, this is a subject upon which I shall wish to consult you.3

I am Dr. Sir   yrs.

Oliv Wolcott.

A Hamilton Esqr

The progress of sickness renders it probable that all the Offices, will be removed to Trenton.4

ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.

1On August 4, 1798, McHenry wrote to John Adams: “I hope, Sir, after considering this summary view, of a part of my business, that you will give me leave to call effectually to my aid the Inspector General, and likewise General Knox; and to charge them with the management of particular branches of the service …” (ALS, Adams Family Papers, deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston).

2Timothy Pickering to Adams, August 8, 1798 (ALS, Adams Family Papers, deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston).

3Wolcott is referring to the mixed commission authorized by Article 6 of the Jay Treaty. This commission, consisting of five members, was charged with the responsibility of examining the claims of British subjects for pre-Revolutionary debts owed to them by Americans. Two of the commissioners were to be named by the British government, two by the United States, and the fifth was to be mutually agreed upon or chosen by lot. The American nominees were Thomas FitzSimons of Pennsylvania and James Innes of Virginia; their British counterparts were Thomas Macdonald and Henry Pye Rich. The first meeting of the four commissioners was held on May 29, 1797. Because the two sides could not agree on a fifth member, John Guillemard, a British merchant then visiting the United States, was chosen by lot. The substantive work of the commission had to await the filing of complaints and applications, and it was not until January, 1798, that the commission began to meet regularly and continuously. By the summer of 1798, however, the work of the commission was hampered by dissension between the British and American commissioners over such issues as what constituted “lawful impediments” to the collection of debts and upon whom the burden of proof of solvency or insolvency of the debtor should be placed.

In the Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress, is an undated document in the handwriting of FitzSimons with additions in H’s handwriting. This document reads: “What shall be Considered as Legal Impediments within the Meaning of the Article.

“[The meaning of the word debts as it respects interest.]

“In Cases where Judgements have been rendered in the Competent Courts.

“Can the Cr. Claim before the Commrs. for injustice (as he may alledge) done to him by the Jury.

“For instance if he Can make it Appear that Interest during the War was disallowed and that the Comrs. decree Interest during the War ought it be allowed upon debts due to British subjects—will the decision of A Jury in such Case take it out of the Power of the Commrs.

“In Cases Where debts have been paid in paper Money to British Crs. or their Agents in States Where paper Money was by Law Made Legal tender & penaltys annexed to the refusal of it—Can the depreciation be now Claimed before the Commrs. notwithstanding the Evidence of the debt was deliverd up or discharges given & Where no other proof of Compulsion is pretended than Merely the Existance of a tender Law [that law requiring the surrender of the evidences under penalties.

“What description of persons shall be considered as British subjects:

“On whom does the proof of insolvency &c lie?

“Bond for book debt—can the question of depreciation retrospect?

“Are they obliged to recur to the Courts first where relief can be had?]”

The material within brackets in the document printed above is in H’s handwriting.

4This is a reference to the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. It lasted from early August until late October, 1798. On August 16, 1798, Robert Troup wrote to Rufus King: “Almost all the public offices are moved to Trenton” (King, The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King description begins Charles R. King, ed., The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King (New York, 1894–1900). description ends , II, 391).

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