George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Edmund Randolph, 18 May 1793

From Edmund Randolph

(Private)[Philadelphia] May 18. 1793.

E. Randolph presents his sincere respects to the President.

I was from home, sir, on the business of your letter, when you did me the honor of stopping at our house.1 I really believe, that restitution is the wish of the majority of the merchants. But I find, that they do not distinguish the cases very accurately. Some, when they speak of restitution, think, that the Grange is the object; others, that the improper granting of the commission can be animadverted on by restitution only; others, that there can be no other mode devised, for punishing the American citizens. A few, and but a few, seem to have separated the conduct of Mr G——t, and our own people, from the rights of the Captors. As I knew Colo. Griffin to mingle hourly and intimately with the merchants, I called upon him to converse with him indirectly. He affirmed roundly, that nine out of ten were against restitution. I suspect that he has mistaken the persons: the bulk of the citizens are undoubtedly opposed to it; but the existence of our poor mercantile capitals is so interwoven with those of Great Britain, that the pleasure of the British merchants must always be a rule of action to Ours, who are necessarily for restitution.2

I fell in with Mr B—ngh—m, and soon found an opportunity of turning the discourse very easily into the practice, observed by the French, during the last war, before they had declared themselves in favor of the U.S.3 He mentioned two or three instances of punishing the French Subjects, who took commissions for privateers against the English; but could not recollect one of restitution. He said indeed, that a small privateer, which he secretly fitted out, captured a guinea-ship, under a commission, granted within the French jurisdiction; that the captain was imprisoned; but that either from the negroes being quickly dispersed into various parts of Hispaniola, or some other cause, restitution was not attempted. He added a circumstance, which is pretty obvious, that our situations are not precisely parallel; France then being backward in countenancing those, who were deemed rebels; while we are now an independent neutral nation in the fullest sense. But this predicament of France furnishes A further observation, that restitution would not have been much-scrupled by France, if there had been plausible grounds for it; and therefore an example of this kind not being known is some argument against its propriety.

When we left your house yesterday, I urged Mr Jefferson to discover from Mr Genest his temper upon this subject, and his participation in the affair of the commission. He expressed his hope, that something might result from a communication with him, which might lessen the present embarrassment.4 Perhaps an intimation to Mr J. may induce him to be more Earnest in this pursuit.5


1GW’s letter to Randolph has not been found. GW, in this letter, apparently asked Randolph to seek the opinions of influential Philadelphia businessmen about what to do with prizes that French privateers brought into American ports.

2For GW’s neutrality policy, French privateering, the involvement of Edmond Genet in commissioning the privateer that captured the British ship Grange, and the subsequent protests lodged by the British minister to the United States, George Hammond, see Neutrality Proclamation, 22 April 1793, and source note, and the Memorandum of Alexander Hamilton, 15 May, n.1. GW’s administration continued to debate the subject of compensation and restitution for the owners of vessels and cargo captured by privateers (Cabinet Opinion, 3 Aug. [second letter], Thomas Jefferson to GW, 7 Aug. [first and second letter]; JPP, description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed. The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797. Charlottesville, Va., 1981. description ends 215). Virginia congressman Samuel Griffin was pro-French and opposed American neutrality (James Madison to Jefferson, 12 April, Nathaniel Anderson to Jefferson, 26 May, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 25:532–34, 26:121).

3Randolph is referring to William Bingham, a Philadelphia banker who during the Revolutionary War outfitted privateers to sail against British shipping in the West Indies.

4For Jefferson’s meeting with Genet on this topic, which occurred shortly after the cabinet meeting mentioned by Randolph, see Jefferson’s Memorandum, 26 July.

5No written evidence has been identified to indicate that GW followed Randolph’s advice.

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