Alexander Hamilton Papers

From Alexander Hamilton to Oliver Wolcott, Junior, 13 March 1799

To Oliver Wolcott, Junior

New York March 13. 1799

Dear Sir

It is natural for people where their interest is concerned to die hard. Mr. Juhel,1 the bearer of this, goes to Philadelphia to lay before you some supplementary evidence with regard to the Ship Germania, which he hopes may vary your determination.2 At his request I give him this line to you merely to say—that he is a Merchant of this City of Reputation, and so far as his conduct has fallen under my observation of candour and probity. I wish him success as far as personal considerations alone are concerned & no general rule of policy is contravened.

But having occasion to write you on a subject connected with the law prohibiting intercourse with the French Territories—I ought not to withhold from you an opinion which I deliberately entertain. It is that whatever may have been the intention of the legislature in framing this law,3 it is in fact so worded, that it will be a very violent thing in a Court of Justice to pronounce that the prohibition of the 3d. Section extends to any but a French Bottom.

The leading and prominent feature of the Prohibition as to the subject, is a “French Ship or Vessel.” There are subsequent words which by implication look to vessels of other descriptions but they may be understood consistently with this main & preliminary feature.

Thus the provision excepts Ships or Vessels “bona fide the property of, or hired or employed by Citizens of the UStates.” A french bottom, by her built & registry, may be the property of Citizens of the UStates. Again these words will be satisfied by supposing that they intend Ships & Vessels which were French immediately before the Voyage in question but were purchased for the Voyage by Citizens of the UStates.

And this construction will better consist with the principles which govern the interpretation of penal laws than to extend the prohibition which is to constitute the penalty beyond the letter by implication & force of a proviso which is introduced to make an exception to the general terms.

I am well aware of the Course which in such a case policy will dictate to the Executive—but if this view of the law be correct it may afford an argument for a mitigated course where no actual intention to evade appears.

Yrs. truly


O Wolcott Esq

ALS, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford.

1John Juhel was a French merchant who lived in New York City and specialized in importing wine.

2This is a reference to the petition of Juhel to the United States District Court for New York on February 21, 1799. As the agent for the firm of Rendtorff and Moller of Hamburg and consignee of the ship’s cargo, Juhel asked the court to allow the ship Germania, which arrived on February 14, 1799, to enter the port of New York. He contended that the ship should be exempted from the law prohibiting trade with French territories because it was owned solely by Danish subjects and its cargo was the property of Rendtorff and Moller. He also maintained that the cargo of wines, brandies, and liquors, shipped from Bordeaux to New York, belonged to Rendtorff and Moller until it was sold in New York by their agents, John Juhel and Company. The court ordered that the facts and papers collected at the inquiry be sent to the Secretary of the Treasury for a decision (RG 21, Minutes of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, 1789–1801, National Archives).

On March 7, 1799, Wolcott stated that the “arrival of the said Ship Germania within the limits of the United States subsequent to the first Day of December last, was not occasioned by distress of weather or want of provision, and moreover that the said Ship and her Cargo are wholly owned by persons not resident within the United States and not Citizens thereof.” He concluded that “said Ship Germania be required to depart with her Cargo out of the limits of the United States avoiding all unnecessary delay” (RG 21, Minutes of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, 1789–1801, National Archives).

Under the date of February 6, 1799, H made the following entry in his Cash Book, 1795–1804: “John Juhel Dr Costs for Opinion concerning … intercourse Bill & Petition &c to Court 20” (AD, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress).

3This is a reference to Section 3 of “An Act to suspend the commercial intercourse between the United States and France, and the dependencies thereof” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, I (Boston, 1845). description ends 565–66 [June 13, 1798]). This section reads: “And be it further enacted, That from and after due notice of the passing of this act, no French ship or vessel, armed or unarmed, commissioned by or for, or under the authority of the French Republic, or owned, fitted, hired or employed by any person resident within the territory of that republic, or any of the dependencies thereof, or sailing or coming therefrom, excepting any vessel to which the President of the United States shall grant a passport, which he is hereby authorized to grant in all cases where it shall be requisite for the purposes of political or national intercourse, shall be allowed an entry, or to remain within the territory of the United States, unless driven there by distress of weather, or in want of provisions. And if contrary to the intent hereof any such ship or vessel shall be found within the jurisdictional limits of the United States, not being liable to seizure for any other cause, the company having charge thereof shall be required to depart and carry away the same, avoiding all unnecessary delay; and if they shall, notwithstanding, remain, it shall be the duty of the collector of the district, wherein, or nearest to which, such ship or vessel shall be, to seize and detain the same, at the expense of the United States: Provided, that ships or vessels which shall be bona fide the property of, or hired or employed by citizens of the United States, shall be excepted from this prohibition until the first day of December next, and no longer: And provided that in the case of vessels hereby prohibited, which shall be driven by distress of weather, or the want of provisions into any port or place of the United States, they may be suffered to remain under the custody of the collector there, or nearest thereto, until suitable repairs or supplies can be obtained, and as soon as may be thereafter shall be required and suffered to depart: but no part of the lading of such vessel shall be taken out or disposed of, unless by the special permit of such collector, or to defray the unavoidable expense of such repairs or supplies.”

See also “An Act further to suspend the Commercial Intercourse between the United States and France, and the dependencies thereof” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, I (Boston, 1845). description ends 613–16 [February 9, 1799]).

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