George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Alexander Hamilton, 9 May 1794

From Alexander Hamilton

Philadelphia May 9. 1794.


The enclosed letter from Mr Hammond of the 6th instant was transmitted to me by the Secretary of State with a request that after satisfying myself of the step proper to be taken, I would communicate it to you & notify your determination to Mr Hammond.1

The copy herewith sent of a letter from Mr Rawle, exhibits the facts, which appear in the case; and reasoning from them, the conclusion is, that the proceeding complained of is as wanton & unprovoked as it is illegal & disorderly. There is no doubt, that justice to the parties concerned, the maintenance of the Laws and the discouragement of a practice, which attempts an usurpation of the functions of Government and goes in subversion of all order, requires that steps should be seriously taken to bring the offenders to justice.2

It is the opinion of the Attorney of the District, that the case is not of the cognizance of the Federal Judiciary. Hence it becomes necessary, that it should be referred to the authority of the State. But it appears to be proper, under the special circumstances, that a letter should be written on the part of the President to the Governor of Pennsylvania communicating the case & the complaint of the minister, & calling upon him in earnest terms to cause the proper legal steps to be taken to bring the offenders to Justice, and thereby give security to the parties and repress so exceptionable & disorderly a spirit.3

With regard to the restoration of the Vessel, in the condition in which she was preceding the trespass, it is not perceived that the nature of the case requires the extraordinary interposition of the Government for that purpose, and the precedent might be an embarrassing one. The vessel is one belonging to Citizens of the United States, employed indeed as is now stated by a british consul, but for the personal accommodation of certain subjects of Great Britain, that is, to convey them to their own Country, nor for a purpose properly governmental. It is not perceived, that this situation sufficiently distinguishes her case from the common one of a Vessel suffering injury by the trespass of unauthorised & lawless individuals, for the redress of which, including indemnification, the ordinary course of law is competent. It is not understood that there exists any impediment to the repossession of the Vessel by her Commander.

If these ideas are approved by the President, it will remain to direct the proper communications to the Governor & to the british minister.4 With perfect respect &c.

Alexander Hamilton

P.S. I will have the honor of waiting on the President between 12 & one o’Clock to know if he has any further commands on the subject.


1British minister George Hammond’s letter to Randolph of 6 May concerned insults offered to some British officers, prisoners of the French on parole, who arrived at Philadelphia aboard the schooner Swift Packet. The first paragraph stated the officers’ willingness to provide information about the incident. The second concerned the vessel "which has been seized by the tumultuous assemblage of some of the inhabitants of this city." Hammond claimed that as the vessel had been engaged by the British consul at Norfolk to carry the officers, "she cannot be regarded strictly as a private merchant vessel, but in some measure as in the service of the British government," and he asked that the U.S. government "direct her to be immediately restored to the commander of her in the condition, in which she was at the period of her unauthorized capture." A third paragraph complained about GW’s denial of a passport for the vessel to carry the parolees to England (DNA: RG 59, Notes from the British Legation). When Randolph wrote Hamilton on 7 May transmitting Hammond’s letter, he pointed to the second paragraph as requiring a reply (Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 16:388-89).

2For the letter from William Rawle, the federal district attorney for Pennsylvania, to Hamilton of 8 May, see Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 16:390-93.

3On 10 May, Secretary of War Henry Knox wrote Pennsylvania governor Thomas Mifflin as suggested here (see Knox to GW, 10 May, n.1).

4Hamilton wrote Hammond on 10 May, enclosing a copy of Rawle’s letter, expressing "sincere regret" at the "irregularity" that had occurred, and notifying him that the matter had been brought "to the notice of the authority of the State." In regard to the vessel, Hamilton stated to Hammond the opinion given here (Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 16:402-3).

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