George Washington Papers

To George Washington from George Clinton, 1 August 1794

From George Clinton

Greenwich [Village, N.Y.] 1st August 1794.


Inclosed you will receive Copies of several Letters which have passed between the Minister Plenipotentiary of his Britannic Majesty, Captain Cochrane Commander of the British Frigate Thetis, and myself occasioned by Captain Cochrane’s Arrival in this Harbour, and the expected Arrival of other Vessels belonging to Admiral Murray’s Fleet, and also of other Papers connected therewith.1 By the Absence of my private Secretary I am prevented from furnishing you with some particulars relative to Captain Cochrane’s Conduct which shall be transmitted on his Return.2

Notwithstanding the failure of Captain Cochrane to furnish the requisite Proofs of the Insult of which he complained I immediately requested the Mayor of this City (our Attorney General being Absent) to institute an Inquiry & take every proper Measure to bring the Offenders to Punisshment, should they be discovered.3 I am with the highest Respect and Esteem your Most Obedient Servant

Geo: Clinton

ALS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters. In a letter from Clinton to Edmund Randolph of this date, he stated that this letter to GW was actually posted on 31 July, but "thro’ mistake" dated 1 Aug. (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

1Alexander Forrester Inglis Cochrane (1758-1832), a naval officer since 1778, had ranked as a captain since 1782. Put on half-pay after the peace of 1783, he returned to active duty in 1790 and became a rear admiral in 1804 and a vice admiral in 1809. Cochrane served from 1810 to 1814 as governor of Guadeloupe and as the naval commander in chief for the North American station during the last campaigns of the War of 1812. George Murray (d. 1797), a British naval officer since 1762, was promoted to rear admiral in April 1794. Murray’s fleet sailed from England for Halifax, Nova Scotia, in May. While en route they encountered a convoy of American merchant ships bound for France and captured a number of them (Independent Gazetteer [Philadelphia], 12 July; Philadelphia Gazette and Universal Daily Advertiser, 15 and 31 July; Columbian Centinel [Boston], 23 and 30 July).

The enclosed documents are with this letter in DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters. In addition to his correspondence with Cochrane and with British Minister George Hammond, Clinton enclosed copies of his order of 12 June forbidding foreign vessels of war from "approaching the City nearer than one mile Southward of the Southermost point of Governor’s Island"; a letter of 15 July from army captain Cornelius R. Sedam informing Clinton that a British frigate and the French brig Cornelia had transgressed those limits; Clinton’s letter to Sedam on 16 July directing him to inform the commanders of both vessels that Clinton expected "perfect compliance" with his order; Sedam’s letters of 17 July to the commanders, directing their compliance; an undated letter from John Jacobs and others, "being Americans taken in the Vessels and on board the English Frigate Laying here," requesting that Clinton would "would condesscend as far as to let us have our liberty here"; Sedam’s letter to Clinton of 18 July reporting that neither commander had replied and "They still lay contrary to your Orders"; and Sedam’s letter to Clinton of 22 July describing the French commander’s apologies and stating that he finally "did comply with your orders but I think the Captain of the British Frigate has treated your orders with Contempt, as he never moved her until the day he sailed off."

In response to the Jacobs letter, Clinton wrote Cochrane on 17 July, stating that the "impropriety of holding Citizens of a neutral nation in their own Territory as Prisoners is so manifest that I flatter myself I have only to suggest it to you to ensure their immediate Liberation."

Cochrane replied on 18 July that "When the British Squadron was in pursuit of the Convoy on bringing any of the Vessels too we always (for our own safety) took out the same number of hands that we put on board intending to return them to their respective Vessels upon our arrival at Halifax in order to navigate them back to the Ports of the United states should the Hulls of the Vessels not be condemned by the Court of Admiralty," adding that he "never heard any of the men complain of their Situation on board the Thetis, nor have they ever applied to me to be landed from the Ship." He was, however, "perfectly willing if requested so to do to land such of them as are Citizens of America in the City of New York provided the requisition is made in such a manner as to relieve me from any demands that may be made by the owners of the different Vessels should they be cleared by the Court at Halifax but not enabled to proceed to sea for want of hands some few however it may be necessary to take to Halifax for the Condemnation of the Vessels or Cargoes." In addition Cochrane noted that upon his arrival he had offered to "salute the Flag of the United States provided an equal number of Guns were returned" but had received no reply.

On the same date, Cochrane wrote a second letter to Clinton to complain that "Immediately on my Barge coming to the Wharf, the Crew was called on to jump on shore and that each of them should receive protection besides One hundred dollars reward for quitting the British service." He requested the governor to order an inquiry and "if possible secure" three deserters to be returned to the fleet.

Clinton replied to Cochrane’s letters in two letters of 19 July. To the first, he noted that if it was necessary to take some of the American sailors "to Halifax for the condemnation of the Vessels or Cargoes, this should have been done without bringing them in the first instance within the Jurisdiction of the United States—They are now in our Territory entitled to the Rights of American Citizens and to the protection of our government and if under any pretext whatever any restraint is imposed upon their Liberty or Persons it must be such as the Laws recognize and warrant." Therefore, he was "bound in duty to demand their Liberation without stipulation or restriction." On the matter of the salute, Clinton pointed out that Cochrane’s ship had "exceeded the Limits prescribed, have been apprized of it, and as yet not changed your Stations Under these circumstances my delay in returning an Answer will be easily accounted for." In addition the stipulation that an equal number of guns be returned might conflict with "our established national salute which has never been departed from on such occasions."

To Cochrane’s second letter Clinton requested that Cochrane "will immediately specify as far as in your power the Offenders and the Witnesses to criminate them," promising that "Whenever the Materials essential to effect an inquiry are assigned I shall then immediately direct it" and, when the law would allow, punish the offenders. However, it would "require consideration how far our Laws will authorize my interference in the apprehension of the deserters from your ship."

Cochrane replied to Clinton on 20 July that he had had no previous "intimation" that "the Thetis is improperly situated and contrary to the regulations lately made." He would not "allow" that either the position of his ship or uncertainty about the number of guns in the salute provided "sufficient excuse for not returning an answer." Also, he could not "point out the persons who insulted my boats on their Landing at New York the number of persons assembled on that occasion on the Wharfs puts it out of my power."

Hammond then took up the issue of the salute in one of two letters to Clinton of 26 July, asking whether "you will direct an equal number of guns to be returned" to a British salute "in the same manner as was pursued in the instance of the Quebec Commodore Rogers." Hammond’s second letter of that date informed Clinton that a part of Murray’s fleet was off Sandy Hook and transmitted copies of Hammond’s correspondence with Secretary of State Edmund Randolph about the fleet’s arrival.

Clinton replied to Hammond on 27 July that British ships of war would receive "every Protection, and Mark of Curtesy which Ships of War of the United States would be entitled to under similar Circumstances in your Ports," and any salute would "be reciprocated by a Return of our National Salute; but I cannot enter into any Stipulation that may lead to the firing of a greater Number of Guns on our Part." He added that the case of the Quebec had none of the "difficulties" that were "occasioned" by Cochrane’s behavior.

Hammond responded on 29 July by requesting "more definite" information about the salute, adding, "I am prompted to urge this Request by a consideration of the Insults which Captain Cochrane of his Majesty’s Frigate Thetis experienced" at New York. He also asked Clinton to send him "either directly or through the Medium of the general Government" proof of the charges about Cochrane.

Clinton responded in a letter to Hammond of 30 July. He refused to give more-specific assurances about the salute. As to the insult given to Cochrane, Clinton presumed that Hammond was referring to the New York inhabitants who incited desertion from Cochrane’s ship, "as I have heard of no personal Insult being offered to Captain Cochrane." In that case, the correspondence "ought to have satisfied" Hammond "that a sincere Disposition was evinced on my Part to remove every just Cause of Complaint." Clinton was not inclined to become Cochrane’s "Accuser," but "if the Thetis had anchored agreably to the prescribed Regulations as Captain Cochran was requested to do in a Letter delivered to him from the Commanding Officer of the Fort, it is probable no difficulty would have occurred." Finally, Clinton promised to transmit to GW all the correspondence, as was his practice with matters that involved "a general or national Concern."

2Clinton’s private secretary was DeWitt Clinton. According to George Clinton’s letter to Randolph of this date, one of the items to be forwarded was "the Affidavit of two of the American Mariners who had been detained on board the British Frigate Thetis ascertaining this Fact, that they had made application to Captain Cochrane the Commander of the said Frigate personally to be liberated and sent on shore which he refused."

3No written request on this subject from Clinton to the New York City mayor, Richard Varick, has been identified. Clinton subsequently reported to Hammond that the result of the inquiry gave "reason to suspect that the injuries complained of . . . are without foundation" (Hammond to Edmund Randolph, 3 Sept., DNA: RG 59, Notes from the British Legation).

The attorney general of New York from December 1792 to November 1795 was Nathaniel Lawrence (1761-1797), who had interrupted his education at Princeton to serve as an officer in the North Carolina line during the Revolutionary War, being much of that time a prisoner on Long Island, where he now resided.

Index Entries