George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Edmund Randolph, 2 March 1794

From Edmund Randolph

Philadelphia March 2. 1794.


In your message to both Houses of Congress on the 5 of December 1793, you inform them that “the vexations and spoliations, understood to have been committed on our vessels and commerce, by the Cruisers and Officers of some of the belligerent powers appeared to require attention”: that “the proofs of these, however, not having been brought forward, the description of Citizens, supposed to have suffered, were notified, that on furnishing them to the Executive, due measures would be taken to obtain redress of the past, and more effectual provisions against the future;”1 and that “should such documents be furnished, proper representations will be made thereon, with a just reliance on a redress, proportioned to the exigency of the case.”

On my succession to the department of State2 I found a large volume of complaints, which the notification had collected, against severities on our trade, various in their kind and degree. Having reason to presume, as the fact has proved, that every day would increase the catalogue, I have waited to digest the mass, until time should have been allowed for exhibiting the diversified forms, in which our commerce has hourly suffered. Every information is at length obtained, which may be expected.

The sensations excited by the embarrassments, danger, and even ruin, which threaten our trade, cannot be better expressed, than in the words of the Committee of Philadelphia.3 After enumerating particular instances of injury, their representation to Government proceeds thus—4

“On these cases which are accompanied by the legal proofs the Committee think it unnecessary to enlarge; as the inferences will of course occur to the Secretary; but they beg leave to be permitted to state other circumstances which tho’ not in legal proof, are either of such public notoriety as to render legal proof unnecessary, or so vouched to the Committee as to leave them in no doubt of the truth of them.

“It has become a practice for many of the privateers of the Belligerent Powers, to send into Port all American Vessels they meet with, bound from any of the French Ports in the West Indies, to the United States, and it is positively asserted that the owners of some of them have given general instructions to their Captains to that effect—And tho’ many of those Vessels have been afterwards liberated, yet the loss by plunder, detention and expence is so great as to render it ruinous to the American Owner—In many cases where the Cargoes have been valuable, the owners of the Privateers after acquittal have lodged appeals which they never intended to prosecute, but merely with a view of getting the property into their hands upon a valuation made so unfairly, as to insure them a considerable profit, even if they should be finally made liable.

“Fourteen days only are allowed to an American owner to make his claim which renders it impossible for him except he is on the spot, and every difficulty which a combination of interested persons can devise is thrown in the way to prevent his getting security; and in few instances can it be done but by making over his Vessel & Cargo to the Securities, and thereby subjecting himself to the heavy additional charge of Commission, Insurance &c.—it may be added that the most barefaced bribery is sometimes practised to prevail on unwary boys or those who know little of the obligation of an Oath to induce them to give testimony in favor of the Captors.

“Beside the cases here enumerated the committee have information of a number of vessels belonging to this Port, being captured, and carried into different Ports, but as the legal proofs are not come forward they forbear to mention them.

“It is proper however for them to add that besides the loss of property occasioned by those unjust captures & detentions the masters and crews of the Vessels are frequently subjected to insults & outrages that must be shocking to Americans. Of this the case of Captn Wallace is an instance, there are others within the knowledge of the committee of which they only wait the legal proof to lay them before the Secretary.5

“To this list of grievances the Committee are sorry to find it their duty to add that by reason of the vexation loss and outrages suffered by the Merchants of the United States it’s commerce already begins to languish, and it’s products are likely to be left upon the hands of those who raise them. Prudent men doubt the propriety of hazarding their property when they find that the strictest conformity with the laws of nations, or of their own Country will not protect them from the rapacity of men who are neither restrained by the principles of honor, nor by Laws sufficiently coercive to give security to those who are not subjects of the same Government.

“The Committee conclude this representation with an assurance that they have in no degree exaggerated in the statement they have made, and that they will continue to communicate all such information as they may further receive, of which nature before the closing of this report they are sorry to add is that of the irruptions of the Algerines from the Mediterranean in consequence of a truce concluded with that regency it is said by the British Minister on behalf of Portugal & Holland6—This alarming event to which some American Ships we hear have already become Victims is of so distressing a nature as must soon deprive us of some of the most lucrative branches of our Commerce, if not speedily checked or prevented. The immediate rise it has produced in Insurance and the fears it may instil into our Seamen and Commanders are of a nature highly deserving the serious consideration of Government, on whose protection and zeal for the interests commercial and agricultural of the Country the committee implicitly rely.” 7

In a supplementary letter the Committee of Philadelphia, make this conclusion; [“]that the cases, which they recite, and others less formally announced serve to shew, that there are frequent instances of suppression of papers, registers &c: very prejudicial to our shipping⟨,⟩ on their trials, and of injuries—by the destruction of Letters, to the general correspondence of the Country with foreign nations.” 8

When we examine the documents, which have been transmitted from different parts of the Union, we find the British, the French, the Spaniards and the Dutch, charged with attacks upon our Commerce.

It is urged against the British—

1. That their privateers plunder the American Vessels; throw them out of their cour⟨s⟩e, by forcing them upon groundless suspicions into ports other than those to which they were destined; detain them even after the hope of a regular confiscation is abandoned; by their negligence, while they hold the possession, expose the cargoes to damage, and the vessels to destruction—and maltreat their crews.

2. That British Ships of war, have forcibly seized mariners belonging to American vessels, and in one instance under the protection of a Portuguese fort.

3. That by British regulations and practice our Corn and provisions are driven from the ports of France; and restricted to ports of the British & those of their friends.9

4. That our vessels are not permitted to go from the British ports in the Islands, without giving security, (which is not attainable but with difficulty and expense), for the discharge of the Cargo in some other British or a neutral port.

5. That without the imputation of a contraband trade as defined by the law of nations,10 our vessels are captured for carrying on a commercial intercourse with the French West Indies, altho’ it is tolerated by the laws of the French Republic: and that for this extraordinary conduct no other Excuse is alledged than that by some edict of a King of France, this intercourse was prohibited—and

6. That the conduct of the British Admiralty in the Islands, is impeachable for an excess of rigor, and a departure from strict judicial purity; and the expences of our appeal to England too heavy to be encountered, under all the circumstances of discouragement.

Against the French it is urged.

1. That their privateers harrass our trade no less than those of the British.

2. That two of their Ships of war have committed enormities on our vessels.

3. That their Courts of Admiralty are guilty of equal oppression.

4. That besides these points of accusation, which are common to the French and British—the former have infringed the Treaty between the United States and them, by subjecting to seizure and condemnation our vessels, trading with their enemies in merchandize which that treaty declares not to be contraband; and under circumstances not forbidden by the law of Nations.11

5. That a very detrimental embargo has been laid upon large numbers of American vessels in the French ports; (There is reason to believe that the embargo was removed in December last, and the detention compensated by an order of the Committee of public safety in France)12—and

6. That a Contract with the French Government for Coin had been discharged with depreciated assignats.13

Against the Spaniards the outrages of privateers are urged; and against the Dutch one condemnation in the Admiralty is insisted to be unwarrantable.

Under this complication of mischief, which persecutes our commerce, I beg leave Sir, to submit to your consideration, whether as far as facts may justify, representations ought not to be immediately pressed upon the foreign Governments in those of the preceding cases for which they are responsible. Among these I class, first the violences perpetrated by public Ships of war; secondly prohibitions or regulations, inconsistent with the law of nations; thirdly the improper conduct of Courts; fourthly, infractions of treaty; fifthly—the imposition of embargoes; and sixthly—the breach of public Contracts. How far a government is liable to redress the rapine of privateers, depends upon the peculiarities of the case. It is incumbent upon it, however, to keep its Courts freely open; and to secure an impartial hearing, to the injured applicant. If the rules, prescribed to privateers, be too loose, and opportunities of plunder or ill treatment be provoked from that cause, or from the prospect of impunity, it is impossible to be too strenuous in remonstrating against this formidable evil.

Thus, Sir, have I reduced to general heads the particular complaints; without making any inquiry into the facts beyond the Allegations of the parties interested.

I will only add, that your message seems to promise to Congress some statement upon these subjects.14 I have the honor, sir, to be with the highest respect yr mo. ob. serv.

True copy
Geo: Taylor Jr. C.C.D.S.15

Edm: Randolph

DS, DNA: RG 46, Third Congress, 1793–95, Senate Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages; LB, DNA: RG 59, Domestic Letters; LB, DNA: RG 233, First Congress, 1789–91, House Records of the Office of the Clerk, Reports from Executive Departments.

1Thomas Jefferson included the notification announcement in a circular letter of 27 Aug. 1793 that was addressed to specific American merchants in thirteen states and also widely printed in the newspapers (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 , 26:767–69).

2Randolph succeeded Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state on 2 Jan. 1794 (Randolph to GW, 2 Jan. 1794).

3The original letter from the Philadelphia committee has not been identified.

4The following seven paragraphs are in a different clerk’s handwriting.

5This case may be that of William Wallace, master of the schooner Dispatch of Virginia, which was captured in October 1793, according to an article in the 22 Oct. 1793 issue of the Gazette of the United States (Philadelphia).

6On the British role in obtaining a truce between Portugal and Algiers, which left American shipping in the Atlantic Ocean vulnerable to seizure, see n.9 of Tobias Lear to GW, 4 February. Great Britain did not negotiate a truce between the Netherlands and Algiers at this time.

7The handwriting reverts at this point to that of the original clerk.

8The supplementary letter has not been identified. The punctuation in angle brackets is from the letterbook at DNA: RG 233.

9For the British order-in-council of 8 June 1793, which prohibited the shipment of U.S. corn, flour, or meal to France or French colonies, see ASP, Foreign Relations description begins Walter Lowrie et al., eds. American State Papers. Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States. 38 vols. Washington, D.C., Gales and Seaton, 1832–61. description ends , 1:240.

10This is a reference to Emmerich de Vattel’s three-volume work, which was published in English as The Law of Nations; or Principles of the Law of Nature: Applied to the Conduct and to the Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns (London, 1760).

11For the 1778 Treaty of Amity and Commerce between France and the United States, see Miller, Treaties description begins Hunter Miller, ed. Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America. Vol. 2, 1776-1818. Washington, D.C., 1931. description ends , 2:3–34.

12For French decrees currently affecting U.S. merchants, see the enclosed “translation of the French act of navigation,” enclosed in Randolph’s letter to the U.S. Senate of 28 Jan. (ASP, Foreign Relations description begins Walter Lowrie et al., eds. American State Papers. Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States. 38 vols. Washington, D.C., Gales and Seaton, 1832–61. description ends , 1:316–23).

13The contract for payment in specie, and not in paper assignats, has not been identified.

15Taylor was the chief clerk at the Department of State, and the attestation and signature are his.

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