George Washington Papers

Cabinet Opinion on French Privateers, 1 June 1793

Cabinet Opinion on French Privateers

[Philadelphia, 1 June 1793]1

On the letters & papers from Genl Williams & Colo. Smith.2 It is the opinion that the writers be informed that with respect to vessels armed & equipped in the ports of the U.S. before notice to the contrary was given,3 the President is taking measures for obliging them to depart from the ports of the U.S. and that all such equipments in future are forbidden: but that as to the prizes taken by them, no power less than that of the legislature can prohibit their sale. that as the Attorney General is to pass through Baltimore shortly, it is better that this answer be given verbally by him, any other gentleman being free to do the same in writing in his private capacity.4 also that they be informed that measures are taken for punishing such citizens as have engaged in hostilities by sea against nations at peace with the U.S.5

Df, in Thomas Jefferson’s writing, DLC: Jefferson Papers.

Neither GW nor Hamilton attended this cabinet meeting because of illness (Tobias Lear to Jefferson, 31 May; Hamilton to Jefferson, 3 June, in Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 14:513–14). For background on the creation of this opinion, see GW’s Neutrality Proclamation of 22 April 1793, and Lear to Jefferson, 31 May, and note 6. For GW’s apparent approval of the suggestion concerning Attorney General Edmund Randolph, see Randolph to GW, 11 June.

Jefferson enclosed this opinion in his letter to Hamilton of 1 June, noting that it “is merely in the form of a memorandum to which no signature was thought to be requisite” (ibid., 508–9).

1At a later date and below the original text, Jefferson added “May. (about the end of the month) 1793,” despite the fact that the Cabinet met to discuss French privateers on 1 June (Tobias Lear to Thomas Jefferson, 31 May, and note 6; JPP description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed. The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797. Charlottesville, Va., 1981. description ends , 156–59).

2In his letter to Hamilton of 28 May, Otho H. Williams, the collector of customs at Baltimore, reported “the arrival of a french privateer called the Sans Coulote, with a prize at Baltimore,” and he asked for advice on the proper response (ibid., 156; Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 14:489–90). The letter from Baltimore merchant and congressman Samuel Smith has not been found, but it stated “the apprehensions of the people of Maryland on acct. of the captures made by the french Privateers which had been fitted out from the U.S.” (JPP description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed. The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797. Charlottesville, Va., 1981. description ends , 156).

3While the Neutrality Proclamation of 22 April implied a prohibition on fitting out foreign privateers in American ports, Jefferson’s letters of 15 May to George Hammond and Ternant, the respective British and French ambassadors, made that policy more explicit, as did the administration’s correspondence with state and local officials (Tobias Lear to Jefferson, 15 May, and enclosures, and Henry Knox to GW, 24 May, and note 2; 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 , 26:38–40, 42–44).

4For Edmund Randolph’s journey to Virginia and his subsequent conversation with Smith at Baltimore, as well as his discussions on the administration’s neutrality policies with several other prominent men of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, see his letters to GW of 11 and 24 June. Hamilton apparently wrote to Smith on 8 June about the legal issues raised by privateers in American ports (Smith to Hamilton, 16 June, Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 15:1–2).

5The administration’s first attempt at prosecution came in the case of Salem, Mass., mariner Gideon Henfield (General Advertiser [Philadelphia], 3 June 1793; Thomas Mifflin to GW, 22 June [third letter], and notes; Documentary History of the Supreme Court description begins Maeva Marcus et al., eds. The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789–1800. 8 vols. New York, 1985-2007. description ends , 2:340–41, 413–24; Edmund Randolph’s Opinion on the Case of Gideon Henfield, 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 , 26:145–46). Capt. Gideon Henfield (c.1753–1800) had commanded a number of ships during the Revolutionary War, including the schooner Sentepe in 1779, the brigantine Griffin in 1780, and the ship Roebuck in 1780, before his capture by the British in January 1781. In November 1782 he received a commission to command the ship Friendship.

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