Alexander Hamilton Papers

From Alexander Hamilton to Timothy Pickering, 4 April 1799

To Timothy Pickering

New York April 4. 1799


I observe by the Boston papers, that some dispatches have been lately found on board a vessel from this port which was carried into Gibralter.1 The late consul here, Mr. Rosier, has just been with me and suggested that the dispatches are probably from him and allude (but without naming me) to some conversations with me relating to his being received as Consul General some time last Winter. Being so much engaged as not to have been able conveniently to call upon you, I mentioned the subject while in Philadelphia to Mr Wolcott, and was informed by him that Mr Rosier could not then be received. In the interviews respecting this object some general conversation took place about the state of things between the two Countries. Mr Rosier will write to you offering the means of deciphering his dispatches, which he assures me with every appearance of candour will be found to contain nothing unfriendly to this Country. It is his wish in the meantime that no idea may circulate of his being a Conspirator.

With great regard Dr Sir   Your obed servt.

A Hamilton

Timothy Pickering Esqr.

Copy, in the handwriting of Philip Church, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.

1On Friday, March 29, 1799, the [Boston] Massachusetts Mercury reported: “On Wednesday arrived from Alicans, via Gibraltar, the fast-sailing armed brig Alers, Capt. Rich, only 29 days from the latter port, where he remained but 8 hours. The American Consul [John Gavino] confided to his care a package of Dispatches, written in cyphers, addressed to Citoyen Talleyrand, and found on board the ship Astrea, capt. Pearce, from New York, and professedly bound to Corunna in Spain. The ship was met with at sea by a British frigate—and capt. Pearce was desired to receive on board a few Spanish prisoners, which he refusing, with singular vehemence, suspicions were excited respecting her true designation, and the neutrality of her cargo. In consequence of which she was taken possession of. A few days afterwards, the Cabin Boy, in taking a bottle of porter from some straw in the stern locker, drew forth a letter, which the Captain, who was standing by, with confusion, instantly seized and pocketed. This being communicated to the Prize Master, induced him to search for other papers; and between the sealing and the quarter deck over the cabin was found the Dispatches in Cyphers. The nature of the letter from the locker, we have not heard. When the Prize arrived at Gibraltar the Captain and a Passenger were put into confinement. Soon after Capt. Rich arrived, on Wednesday. These papers were carried to the President at Quincy. Nothing has yet transpired of their contents.”

A document, entitled “List of papers received … Samuel Cooper Esqr on Wednesday afternoon 27th March 1799,” indicates that on that date Cooper presented these documents to President Adams at Quincy (copy, Adams Family Papers, deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston). Two letters were given to Adams: Jean Antoine Bernard Rozier to Talleyrand, October 27, 1798, and Rozier to Talleyrand, November 22, 1798, which included an extract of a letter from Rozier to General Gabriel Marie Théodore Joseph, comte de Hédouville, November 20, 1798. Both letters are in code. Cooper also delivered to Adams a number of dispatches from John Gavino, United States consul at Gibraltar, including his letter of February 13, 1799, to Pickering explaining how the Rozier letters had come into his possession (AD, Adams Family Papers, deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston; copies, Adams Family Papers, deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston). Adams asked Cooper to have the Rozier letters deciphered. On March 28, 1799, Cooper wrote to Adams: “I find that Mr. [James] Lovell is the only Man in Boston capable of decyphering intricate papers. I have conversed with him upon the subject & shown him the method in which the figures are placed. He despairs of being able to find a Key to the papers, but will nevertheless wait upon your Excellency to see if there is a possibility of obtaining a Key by which he can decypher them” (ALS, Adams Family Papers, deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston). On April 1, 1799, Adams wrote to Pickering: “Mr. Samuel Cooper came out with a packet from the consul at Gibraltar. My son [Thomas Boylston Adams] and Mr. [William] Shaw have taken the tedious pains to copy them. No man in Boston is found to undertake to decypher them. I hope you will find one in Philadelphia. Mr. Lovel the naval officer, who was much occupied in congress formerly in cyphering & decyphering, came out to see them; but despairs of being able to make a key. These numbers may contain much treason & they may be as empty as the tubs & bucketts at Charlestown. I thought it best to keep the copies from abroad for the present” (LC, Adams Family Papers, deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston).

The letters in cipher were written by Rozier, former French vice consul at New York. On May 31, 1799, Pickering wrote to Joshua Sands, collector of customs at New York, that he had reason to think the letters in question were “harmless” (ALS, letterpress copy, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston). For a summary of the contents of the letters in question, see Pickering to H, June 18, 1799.

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