Alexander Hamilton Papers

To Alexander Hamilton from Oliver Wolcott, Junior, 3 September 1800

From Oliver Wolcott, Junior

Washington Sept. 3d. 1800

Dear Sir.

I am favoured with your Letters of the 3d. & 19th. instant.1 You will have thought it strange that the first has not been acknwledged—it has been out of my power: the effects of a new Climate2 want of exercise and too much application to official business, produced a serious indisposition, which disabled me from writing for a forth-night; I am now recovering, though I remain weak.

I had commenced the Statement which I promised & soon found myself embarrased with the reflection which has occurred to you. We know that the present humiliation of the federal party, is to be attributed to the violent & inconsistent conduct of the President. We also know that opinions have been frequently express⟨ed⟩3 by him, not only unjust to individuals, but highly imprudent & dangerous in relation to the public Interests. It is as I conceive perfectly proper & a duty, to make known those defects & errors which disqualify Mr. Adams, for ⟨th⟩e great trust with which he is now ⟨inves⟩ted; but the publication of particular ⟨inci⟩dents & conversations, the knowledge of ⟨which⟩ has resulted from official relations ⟨will⟩ by many good men be considered as improper.4 The most flagrant outrages in decency attended the demands of Mr. McHenrys resignation5—perhaps there exists no obligation to conceal what occurred at the time when the official relation was disolved & it is I presume equally fair to deduce evidences of unfitness from any notorious circumstances, which have attended the Presidents administration—my Statement will be made on these principles.

But the situation in which we are both placed is delicate & somewhat perplexing—whatever you may say or write, will by a class of people be attributed to personal resentment—while it will be said that the President has not injured me; that he has borne with my open disapprobation of his measures & that I ought ⟨not to⟩ oppose his administration by disclosing what some will term, personal or official Secrets.

Having reflected on the dilemma, I have concluded, that as it respects myself, I was justifiable in continuing in Office during the present year, on the ground of the sudden innovations in ⟨the⟩ adminstration which afforded ⟨me no⟩ opportunity for reflection, befor⟨e the⟩ termination of the last Session of Congress: that the unsettled state of the Departments; the removal of the Offices to this place; the absence of the President from the Seat of Government6 & the duty of preserving order in that branch of business, which had been committed to my care, were circumstances, which justly disuaded me from an abrupt resignation, while they left me free to exercise my opinion & rights as an individual, upon any question relative to the public policy & interests.

To secure myself against the imputation of being concerned in a secret Cabal, I have however thought it my duty to express my opinions and intentions frankly to my Colleagues, in the same manner as I have done to my private correspondents. I am apprized that I shall by some be considered as factious but the accusation is less offensive, than the suspicion of cunning or subserviency to measures which I seriously disapprove, to which I should otherwise be exposed.

The result of a free correspondence with my friends in Massachusetts & Connecticut is, that the former are disinclined to a public discussion of the conduct of the President: those of Connecticut, think as we do, & probably may express their sentiments by their Votes, but they will not agitate the public mind without perceiving that some important object is to be acquired.7

I have been much surprized & chagrined to find our party so unstable & inefficient. We must however take things as we find them—they are indeed bad, but they may be made worse. I am clearly of opinion that you ought to publish nothing with your signature at present. It is the business of some less conspicuous characters to commence an investigation: the President cannot except for a moment injure your character—his project of placing himself at the head of a new Party will not succeed8 & the impressions which his declarations respecting a British Party9 first made, have already in a great measure been effaced. From my correspondence I infer that Genl. Pinckney will obtain all the Votes of Massachusetts. I conclude however that Mr. Jefferson will certainly be elected Prest. The Anties have the command of the Press. The current of public opinion is in their favour. Those who are confirmed in opposition are interested in classing the friends of Mr Adams & Genl. Pinckney together. Their Interests could only be seperated by a bold & united effort. The time for making this effort has been permitted to elapse. The only remaining chance is to be expected from the result of the mission to France10 & I am inclined to think that even this will operate in favour of Mr. Jefferson.

Our dispatches are only to the 17th. of May11 at which time nothing had been done beyond a mutual disclosure of the points in controversy—the discussions had been temperate, but firm on both sides. I have little doubt that the negociation has failed and that the report from St. Sebastians12 is true both as to the general fact as well as the particular cause of rupture. You will judge, whether in the present languid state of the federal party it will be possible to resist the impression which the Democrats will attempt to make, that an accomodation ought to take place, on the ground of compensation for illegal captures on one hand and a revival of the old Treaties on the other. Will our people listen to arguments derived from a sense of national honour & permanent policy in opposition to their desire for Peace & to the immediate Interests of the merchants? will they patiently bear to be told, that the Treaty with G. B.13 already the supposed cause of much embarrassment opposes an insuperable obstacle to the revival of the antient Treaties with France?14

To return to the point in which we are interested—namely whether a formal defense against Mr. Adams’s observations is expedient—permit me to say, that the poor old Man is sufficiently successful in undermining his own Credit and influence. Strange Reports are in circulation many of which are well founded and believed. At N Haven he told Mr. Edwards,15 that a British faction existed here, which it was necessary to break up—to another person of great respectability, he said that this Country could not get along without an hereditary Chief.16 The Jacobins report both Stories17 & the people believe that their President is Crazy. This is the honest truth & what more can be said on the subject.

I have attended to the publications in the Aurora,18 we may regret, but we cannot now prevent the mischiefs which these falshoods produce. The Aurora is but one of many papers, which contain similar misrepresentations. They are echoed by organized Committees through a great part of the Union; we may as well attempt to arrest the progress of fire in a mess of gun powder as to suppress these calumnies; they must have their course and the vindication of official characters must be left to an enquiry by Congress.

I feel entire confidence, that the manner in which the business of the Treasury has been conducted both during your own & my administration, will bear the strictest scrutiny. The accounts relative to the payment of pensions and Interest while you was in Office, have long since been settled, and it will appear that no improper advances were made.19 The accounts which have been published, through the infidelity of some of the Clerks are among the most recent transactions of the Department. Colo. Pickerings conduct will be found correct; Mr. Daytons incorrect—but the advances were made on his written applications & it was impossible for me to foreknow, that he intended to force a Loan from the Treasury, or that he would unjustifiably delay to settle his Accounts.20 The advances for Pensions never exceeded and frequently fell short of the precise sums required by the War Department; the payments for dividends of Interest have been governed by a person which rendered Estimates unnecessary. It is my present intention to invite an Enquiry, which will confute every calumny against your or my character & shew the state of the Dept. at the close of this year.21 It is incumbent on those who have raised the Storm to watch its future progress & effects.

At the moment of closing this Letter I have recd. a Letter from Mr. Cabot, by which I find that Mr. Adams will be supported in Massachusetts in conjunction with Genl: Pinckney.22 This confirms the ideas which I have suggested of the inexpediency of any thing being published with your signature. I will soon compleat my statement though I do not see that it can be of any present use. We must it seems renounce our plan or continue it, without support. Mr. Jefferson will probably be elected, for I hold it to be impossible that men of sense should cordially support Mr. Adams, whatever they may affect. I am truely & sincerely yrs.

Oliver Wolcott.

Alexander Hamilton Esqr.

N.B. Mr. Adams’s Letters to Tench Coxe23 will serve instead of Volumns for an illustration of character. The enquiry of the Duke of Leeds24 after a Classmate, was a strange ground for impeaching the integrity of an old Soldier & Patriot as well as the wisdom of the American Govt. Besides the Journals of Congress will prove, that the limitation of Mr. Adams’s commission to three years, was established by the Votes of all the Eastern States and among others by the Vote of the favourite Gerry.25 See the Journal of the ⟨17th, 18th and 2⟩4th of February 1785.26

O W.

ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress; ADfS, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford.

1This is a mistake, for Wolcott should have written “ultimo.” H’s letter of August 19, 1800, has not been found.

2The offices of the Federal Government had been moved from Philadelphia to Washington in June, 1800. See Wolcott to H, July 7, 1800, note 3.

3Material within broken brackets has been taken from the draft of this letter.

4This is a reference to H’s proposal to write a public letter criticizing John Adams. See H to Wolcott, July 1, August 3, 1800; Wolcott to H, July 7, 1800; H to John Jay, August 19, 1800; Jay to H, 25, 26, 27, 1800; George Cabot to H, August 21, 23, 1800; Fisher Ames to H, August 26, 1800; H to James McHenry, August 27, 1800.

5See McHenry to H, May 13, 20, June 2, 1800.

6“President Adams was as attached to his country house in Quincy as George Washington had been to Mount Vernon. Washington … was away during eight years at least 181 days.… Adams followed the precedent, indeed amplified it, for he was gone 385 days in four years, some times several months at a time” (Leonard D. White, The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History [New York, 1959], 42).

7See Cabot to Wolcott, June 14, July 20, 1800; Benjamin Goodhue to Wolcott, July 10, 1800; Ames to Wolcott, July 22, 1800; Chauncey Goodrich to Wolcott, August 26, 1800 (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 , I, 370–71, 379–80, 383–84, 386–87, 411–12). See also Cabot to H, August 23, 1800.

8In the Massachusetts gubernatorial election in the spring of 1800, when many of Adams’s friends supported the Republican candidate, Elbridge Gerry, a rumor began to circulate that Adams planned to organize a new party composed of moderate Federalists and Republicans. See J. Russell’s [Boston] Gazette. Commercial and Political, July 21, 1800. See also Ames to Wolcott, August 3, 1800 (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, 396).

10For information on the United States peace mission to France, see Theodore Sedgwick to H, February 19, 22, 25, 1799; H to Sedgwick, February 21, 1799; Timothy Pickering to H, February 25, 1799; H to Washington, first letter of October 21, 1799, note 2.

13This is a reference to Article 25 of the Jay Treaty. For the text of this article, see “Remarks on the Treaty … between the United States and Great Britain,” July 9–11, 1795, note 74. In September, 1800, Cabot wrote to Wolcott: “… The French say they will not treat with us unless we put them on the same footing as the English, but in the 25th article of Mr. Jay’s Treaty we have stipulated that we will make no new Treaty which shall give to a nation at war with England the advantages of our ports to shelter Privateers Prizes &c.” (ALS, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford).

14The United States had abrogated the Franco-American Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, both dated February 6, 1778 (Miller, Treaties, II description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America (Washington, 1931), II. description ends , 3–47) by “An Act to declare the treaties heretofore concluded with France, no longer obligatory on the United States” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, I (Boston, 1845). description ends 578 [July 7, 1798]). See Uriah Tracy to H, May 17, 1798; Rufus King to H, July 2, 1798, note 1.

15Pierpont Edwards, a New Haven lawyer and politician, was a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1777, from 1784 to 1785, and from 1787 to 1790, and a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1787 and 1788. In 1800 Edwards was organizing Jeffersonian Republicans in Connecticut.

16In this paragraph Wolcott is repeating information sent to him by Goodrich in a letter dated August 26, 1800 (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, 411).

17On September 3, 1800, the [Philadelphia] Aurora. General Advertiser stated: “We thus learn that Mr. Adams and Mr. Hamilton and their partizans agree exactly in principles and sentiments. Let us then learn what are their sentiments. The editor has now before him a letter from a clergyman in New-Haven, Connecticut, dated August 12, 1800, which will give us some ideas of Mr. Adams’s sentiments and principles. We need not discuss the sentiments or principles of Mr. Hamilton, for they are too notorious.


“‘The president of the United States when he was in this city, in the beginning of last month declared to a very respectable character here, that the people of the United States would never have liberty and happiness until their chief magistrate is hereditary.’”

18The Aurora. General Advertiser had recently published a series of articles concerning the expenditure of public money by certain Federalist officials. See H to Wolcott, August 3, 1800, note 2.

20In answer to charges made by the Aurora. General Advertiser that Timothy Pickering had embezzled one-half million dollars in public funds, Wolcott issued a “Notice to the Public” denying the allegations and stating that Pickering’s account with the Government had been settled (Aurora. General Advertiser, June 25, 1800).

On June 18 and 20, 1800, the Aurora accused Jonathan Dayton, former Speaker of the House of Representatives and a Federalist, of using eighteen thousand dollars of Government funds to purchase twenty-four thousand acres of land. According to Wolcott, Dayton had overdrawn on his account with the Government in July, 1798. Wolcott maintained, however, that Dayton had settled his account in early 1800 (Wolcott to Cabot, June 18, 1800 [ADfS, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford]).

21On November 22, 1800, Wolcott wrote to Theodore Sedgwick, Speaker of the House of Representatives, stating that he would resign as Secretary of the Treasury on December 31, 1800, and submitting “the whole of my conduct to an investigation which the House of Representatives may be pleased to institute” (Journal of the House description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States (Washington, 1826). description ends , III, 726). Wolcott’s letter was referred to a committee, which was instructed on December 2 “to examine into the state of the Treasury Department” (Journal of the House description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States (Washington, 1826). description ends , III, 727, 734). The conclusion of the committee’s report, which was presented to the House on January 28, 1801, reads: “On the whole, after such an examination as they have been enabled to make, the committee beg leave to express their opinion that the business of the Treasury Department has been conducted with regularity, fidelity, and a regard to economy. That the disbursements of money have been made pursuant to law; that every attention consistent with the magnitude and nature of the business has been bestowed in removing delinquents from office; in compelling them to account; in securing moneys due from them, and in preventing an improper and unreasonable accumulation of moneys in the hands of public agents; that the loans effected on account of Government, have been procured on the most advantageous terms for the public; that the most eligible modes of remittance to Europe have been devised; and generally, that the financial concerns of the country have been left by the late Secretary in a state of good order and prosperity” (Annals of Congress description begins The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and all the Laws of a Public Nature (Washington, 1834–1849). description ends , X, 986).

22Cabot to Wolcott, August 23, 1800 (ALS, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford).

23In May, 1792, John Adams wrote to Tench Coxe concerning the appointment of Thomas Pinckney as United States Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain and describing an incident which took place while Adams was envoy to the Court of St. James’s, a position he held from 1785 to 1788: “I Should have been happy to have seen Mr. Pinckney before his departure but more from individual Curiosity, than from any opinion I could have given him any information of importance to him. If he has the Talent of searching Hearts, he will not be long at a loss: if he has not no information of mine could give it him.

“The Duke of Leeds, once enquired of me very kindly after his Class Mates at Westminster School the two Mr Pinckneys, which induces me to conclude, that our new Ambassador has many powerful Old Friends in England. Whether this is a Recommendation of him for the Office or not, I have other reasons to believe that his Family have had their Eyes fixed upon the Embassy to St James’s for many Years, even before I was sent there, and that they contributed to limit the duration of my Commission to 3 Years in order to make way for themselves to succeed me, I wish they may find as much honour and pleasure in it as they expected. And that the Public may derive from it Dignity and Utility. But knowing as I do the long Intrigue and suspecting as I do much British Influence in appointment, were I in Any Executive Department I should take the Liberty to keep a vigilant Eye upon them” (copy, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia). On November 10, 1799, McHenry wrote to Washington: “… Mr. [Alexander J.] Dallas has in his possession, a letter from Mr Adams to Mr Tench Coxe written at the time, and on the occasion of the appointment of Mr Pinckney to London, as Minister plenipotentiary, in which he ascribes his appointment to British influence, and adds, that were he on the administration he should think it proper to watch attentively the course of things or words to that effect” (ALS, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress).

Adams’s letter was not made public until 1799, when the [Philadelphia] Aurora. General Advertiser used portions of it to support its views of the deleterious effect of the “British influence” on politics in the United States (Aurora, July 24, August 9, 1799; May 23, 1800). The Aurora published the full text of the letter on August 28, 1800, and again on August 29, September 9, October 3, 21, and 30, 1800.

Thomas Pinckney, the brother of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, was governor of South Carolina from 1787 to 1789, Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain from 1792 to 1794, and Envoy Extraordinary to Spain from 1794 to 1795. In 1796 he was a Federalist candidate for President. Pinckney was elected as a Federalist to the Fifth Congress to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of William Loughton Smith and served from November 23, 1797, to March 31, 1801. For Pinckney’s reaction to the publication of Adams’s letter to Coxe, see Pinckney, Thomas Pinckney description begins Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Life of General Thomas Pinckney (Boston and New York, 1895). description ends , 158–73.

24Francis Osborne, marquis of Carmarthen, fifth duke of Leeds, was British Foreign Secretary from 1783 to 1791.

25Elbridge Gerry.

26JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress 1774–1789 (Washington, 1904–1937). description ends , XXVIII, 75–86, 98–101.

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