Alexander Hamilton Papers

George Washington to James McHenry, 13 December 1798

George Washington to James McHenry1

Philadelphia, December 13, 1798


You will observe that in the arrangement of the officers allotted to New York2 there is an alternative of Wm. S. Smith3 or Abijah Hammond4 for Lt Colonel Commandant. Various considerations demand that the motive of this hesitation should be explained. Had military qualifications alone been consulted the name of Colonel Smith would have stood singly and he would have been deemed a valuable acquisition to the service. Had there even been no other source of objection than the erroneous political opinions of late attributed to him, his honor and attachment to his country would have been relied upon. But as well myself as the two generals whose aid I have had in the nominations5 have been afflicted with the information well or ill founded that he stands charged in the opinion of his fellow citizens with very serious instances of private misconduct; instances which affect directly his integrity as a man. The instances alleged are various but there is one which has come forward in a shape which did not permit us to refuse it our attention. It respects an attempt knowingly to pledge property to Major Burrows6 by way of security, which was before conveyed or mortgaged for its full value to Mr. William Constable;7 without giving notice of the circumstance, and with the aggravation, that Major Burrows had become the Creditor of Col Smith through friendship to an amount which has proved entirely ruinous to him. While the impossibility of disregarding this information forbade the selection of Col Smith absolutely, the possibility that it might admit of some fair explanation dissuaded from a conclusion against him. As it will be in your power to obtain further lights on the subject it has appeared adviseable to leave the matter in the undetermined form in which it is presented and to assign the reason for it. You are at perfect liberty to communicate this letter to the President. Candour is particularly due to him in such a case. It is my wish to give him every proof of frankness, respect and esteem. Lest it should be suspected that Major Burrows has officiously interfered to the prejudice of Col Smith, it is but justice to him to declare that such a suspicion would be entirely without foundation.

With great consideration & regard   I have the honor to be   Sir   Your obed servt

Df, in the handwriting of H, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.

1For evidence that this draft was sent to McHenry, see H’s draft of Washington to McHenry, first letter of December 13, 1798, note 1.

2This is a reference to a list in an unknown handwriting entitled “Company Arrangement New York,” which is in the George Washington Papers, Library of Congress, and is filed at the end of the year 1798. The list contains the names of thirty men with their military rank and the county in which each lived.

3William S. Smith, John Adams’s son-in-law, was at this time engaged in land speculation in western New York. In addition to accusations of personal dishonesty, Smith was accused of having interfered in the New York gubernatorial election. On September 3, 1798, McHenry wrote to Uriah Tracy, United States Senator from Connecticut, enclosing a certificate which stated that Smith had not interfered in the election (copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress). On July 18, 1798, Adams nominated Smith adjutant general, but the Senate rejected the nomination (Executive Journal, I description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate (Washington, 1828), I. description ends , 292, 293). See Timothy Pickering to H, July 18, 1798, note 4. On January 8, 1799, Smith was commissioned lieutenant colonel of the Twelfth Regiment of Infantry (Executive Journal, I description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate (Washington, 1828), I. description ends , 299, 303).

4Hammond, a native of Massachusetts, served throughout the American Revolution as a lieutenant of the Continental Artillery. Hammond was neither nominated nor appointed to the Army.

5H and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.

6William Ward Burrows of Pennsylvania had been appointed a major of Marines on July 17, 1798 (Executive Journal, I description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate (Washington, 1828), I. description ends , 286, 290). See also Jacob Read to H, January 18, 1798.

7Constable was a New York City merchant and land speculator.

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