Alexander Hamilton Papers

From Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, 3 May 1799

To George Washington


New York May 3d. 1799.

Dr. Sir

At length the recruiting for the additional regiments has begun in Connecticut New York New Jersey Pensylvania and Delaware. The enclosed return of cloathing1 will sufficiently explain to you that it has commenced at least as soon as the preparations by the Department of War would permit. It might now also proceed in Maryland and Massachusettes, and the next post will I trust enable me to add Virginia—but that I do not think it expedient to outgo our supply of Cloathing. It will have the worst possible effect—if the recruits are to wait a length of time for their cloathing.

I anticipate your mortification at such a state of things. Various causes are supposed to contribute to it.

It is said that the President has heretofore not thought it of importance to accelerate the raising of the army2—and it is well understood that the Secretary of the Treasury is not convinced of its utility.3 Yet he affirms that for a long time past he has been ready & willing to give every aid depending on his department.

The Secretary of War imputes the deficiency in the article of Cloathing to a failure of a contract which he had made and to the difficulty of suddenly finding a substitute by purchases in the market. It is however obvious that the means which have been since pursued have not been the best calculated for dispatch. The materials procured at distant places have been brought to Philadelphia to be made up. They are stated to be adequate in quantity.

You will observe that 6⟨00 suits⟩4 are numbered 1—This applies to a Regiment in the Western Country. I proposed to the Secretary to change the buttons.5 It has not been done.

Yet if the Secretary’s energies for execution were equal to his good dispositions, the public service under his care would prosper as much as could be desired. It is only to be regretted that good dispositions will not alone suffice, and that in the nature of things there can be no reliance that the future progress will be more satisfactory than the past.

Means, I trust sufficient, have been taken to procure from Europe a supply of Cloathing for the next year. And the Secy has assured me that he would immediately take measures for procuring a supply for the succeeding year.

As to other supplies I believe things are in tolerable train—and that there is a certainty of the most essential articles in due abundance.

The officers for North Carolina have been appointed.6 No nomination has yet come forward from South Carolina.

Not a single field Officer has yet been appointed for the Regiment to be raised in New Hampshire Vermont & Rhode Island.7 It seems the members of Congress dissuaded from the nomination of those who were proposed by the General Officers and promised to recommend preferable characters—but this promise has not yet been performed. This want of organisation is an obstacle to the progress of the affairs of this Regiment.

It is understood that the President has resolved to appoint the Officers to the provisional army8 and that the Secretary has thought fit to charge the Senators of each state with the designation of characters.

With the truest respect & attachment   I have the honor to be Dr. Sir   Your Obed ser

A Hamilton

General Washington

ALS, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress; two copies, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.

2As early as October 22, 1798, John Adams had written to McHenry: “As to the Recruiting service—I wonder whether there has been any Enthusiasm which would induce Men of common sense to enlist for five dollars a month who could have fifteen when they pleased by sea or for common work at Land? …

“There has been no national Plan, that I have seen, as yet formed for the Maintenance of the Army. One Thing I know, that Regiments are costly Articles, everywhere and more so in this Country than any other under the sun. If this Nation sees a great Army to maintain, without an Enemy to fight, there may arise an Enthusiasm that seems little to be foreseen. At present there is no more prospect of seeing a french Army here, than there is in Heaven.” (ALS, Adams Family Papers, deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.)

3Although no record has been found of the opinion of Oliver Wolcott, Jr., on the Army when H wrote the letter printed above, Wolcott subsequently revealed that he had consistently opposed plans for increasing the strength of the Army. On December 29, 1799, he wrote to Fisher Ames: “The only question which will arise respecting the army, will be whether it shall be disbanded, or the present establishment continued upon condition of suspending further enlistments. The subject is attended with vast difficulties in whatever light it is considered. The Generals, and I believe I may say the officers, with their connections and a great proportion of the wisest and best friends of the government, think the existing army ought to be preserved as a permanent establishment. Nothing, however, is more certain than that the army is unpopular, even in the Southern States, for whose defence it was raised. Who is to defend the army if the Southern members oppose the establishment, or even support it faintly? The Northern people fear no invasion, or if they did, they perceive no security in a handful of troops; nobody has thought it prudent to say that the army is kept on foot to suppress or prevent rebellions; for such a purpose, the troops are worse than nothing, especially as the state of idleness to which they are necessarily condemned, tends to corrupt their principles.…

“I anticipate your surprise at the perusal of these observations; candour requires me to say that my opinions are singular, and have been kept in my own breast as much as possible. A year since, the army was in the power of the government, and I then freely explained my sentiments to General Washington and General Hamilton, that it ought to be the immediate object of the government to form ample arsenals, and deposit therein arms and ammunition adequate to the supply of the whole force of the country; that but few officers ought to be appointed, and the expense of supporting idle men avoided as much as possible. I stated my doubts whether the best selection of officers could be made at that time, whether the best men could be enlisted, and whether it was probable that the establishment could be maintained. The reply was, that if money could be borrowed, the army ought to be raised; and that the delay which had happened was hardly to be excused. Finding the decision against my sentiments, the money was procured, and nothing has been omitted on my part to give success to the system of government.…

“I beg you to believe that my observations respecting the army are not dictated by a desire of being thought wiser, even on the point in question, than General Washington and General Hamilton. My self love, if I am not deceived, carries me no further than a desire that you may understand that I have been consistent, and have not adopted a new opinion in opposition to my friends at this critical period. My sentiments are but little known. I should not disclose them at this time, did not the plan of this letter require that I should open my whole heart.” (Gibbs, Wolcott description begins George Gibbs, Memoirs of the Administrations of Washington and John Adams: Edited from the Papers of Oliver Wolcott, Secretary of the Treasury (New York, 1846). description ends , II, 317–18.)

4The material in broken brackets has been taken from a copy of this letter.

6See McHenry to H, April 10, 1799 (listed in the appendix to this volume). In this letter McHenry enclosed a list, which had been approved by John Adams, of officers for the troops to be raised in North Carolina.

8H is referring to the Eventual Army, which had been authorized by “An Act giving eventual authority to the President of the United States to augment the Army” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, I (Boston, 1845); II (Boston, 1850). description ends 725–27 [March 2, 1799]). See the introductory note to H to James Gunn, December 22, 1798.

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