George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Alexander Hamilton, 15 August 1794

From Alexander Hamilton

[Philadelphia, 15 Aug. 1794]

The Secretary of the Treasury presents his respects to The President—incloses him a letter which Mister Coxe has just brought to him for his perusal.1

It is conceived that a reply may be given to this Letter, by Mister Coxe, which being published with the letter, may do good. If the President sees no objection, the idea will be pursued.2

Augt 15. 1794.

It is said that papers have been received from England down to the 26. of June, which announce that the duke of York & general Clairfait have received a new & total defeat, their army cut to peices & the duke of York missing. This was in an attempt to relieve Ypres. It is added that in consequence the Emperor has offered to purchase peace by a relinquishment of all the low Countries.3


1Hamilton enclosed Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s letter to Tench Coxe of 8 Aug. giving "a summary of the present state of this Country with respect to the opposition that exists to the Excise Law." Brackenridge assured Coxe that the opposition originated "not in any Antifederal Spirit" but "chiefly" in "the principles and operations of the Law itself." He reported briefly an attack on the inspector John Nevill, and more extensively on the meetings that followed and the expulsion of those whose letters, found in intercepted mail, were deemed obnoxious. Brackenridge contended that the expulsions were because of a dread "that from the rage of the people involving the town in the general odium of abetting the Excise Law it would be laid in ashes." He hoped a meeting scheduled for 14 Aug. would result in "nothing more than to send Commissioners to the President with an address proposing that he shall delay any attempt to suppress this insurrection, as it will be stiled, until the meeting of Congress," and he counseled delay until those commissioners come forward. Brackenridge argued that the insurrection could not be "easily suppressed," as it involved "the greater part" of four counties, and three Virginia counties would join them. They would organize "a new Government" as a "result of the necessity of self defence." Brackenridge even suggested that neighboring counties "will not even suffer the Militia of more distant parts of the Union to pass through them." He concluded, "the Excise Law is a branch of the funding System, detested and abhorred by all the Philosophic men, and the yeomanry of America, those who hold Certificates excepted. There is a growling, lurking discontent at this System that is ready to burst out and discover itself every where. . . . Should an attempt be made to suppress these people, I am affraid the question will not be whether you will March to Pittsburgh, but whether they will march to Philadelphia, accumulating in their course, and swelling over the Banks of the Susquehanna like a torrent, irresistable and devouring in its progress. . . . An application to the British is spoken of, which may God avert. But what will not despair produce" (PHi: Tench Coxe Papers; see also Brackenridge, Western Insurrection, 144-45).

2Brackenridge gave Coxe’s reply, dated 26 Aug., to the Pittsburgh Gazette, "conceiving that it will be of service in composing the minds of the people of this country" (Brackenridge to Coxe, 15 Sept., PHi: Tench Coxe Papers). As Brackenridge had suppressed Coxe’s name, it was printed on 20 Sept. as "a letter from a Citizen of Philadelphia to an Inhabitant of Pittsburgh, in answer to one giving some account of the late Transactions." Shortly after, "A.B." wrote the editor of the Philadelphia Gazette and Universal Daily Advertiser taking notice of the Pittsburgh publication and sending "correct copies of both" letters "for insertion in your Gazette," where they appeared in the issue of 27 September. A heavily revised draft of the letter is in PHi: Tench Coxe Papers, dated 20 Aug. but endorsed "My letter to Mr Brackenridge Augt 26 1794."

Carefully stating that he was responding as a private citizen, Coxe briefly expressed hope for "favorable consequences" from the commissioners, "all of whom are citizens of Pennsylvania," sent to Pittsburgh. He continued with "remarks upon the danger to our free governments, and to the peace and safety of the United States," created by the western insurgency, and "a statement of certain reasons, which appear to render it improbable, that the several objects which you say are meditated, will be attained by those means." Coxe’s first point was that "The public will, constitutionally expressed by representatives elected without fraud or violence, carries an obligation to obedience of the highest authority." Therefore, "an armed opposition to a law, thrice sanctioned by the representatives of the people after two new elections," was "repugnant to the vital principle of republicanism." Moreover, the sort of division exhibited by the insurgents might encourage foreign nations to "general depredations on our commerce, and the most vigorous attacks upon our territory itself." On the second topic, he pointed out that excise taxes had a long history in both England and America and that the current tax had been passed with great unanimity, and he questioned whether states such as Virginia and New Jersey, where the tax fell heavily, would support the western attempt to evade their share. The suggestion of an appeal to the British was also likely to alienate the rest of the United States while providing the insurgents with no benefits, as Britain’s reliance on excise taxes was greater than that of the United States. A British connection also would stiffen Spanish resistance to concessions on navigation of the Mississippi River (quotations from Philadelphia Gazette).

3François Sebastien Charles Joseph de Croix, Comte de Clerfayt (1733-1798), from the Austrian Netherlands, entered the Austrian army in 1753 and fought with distinction in the Seven Years War. In 1792 he was given command of the Austrian forces in the Duke of Brunswick’s army. In August 1794 he succeeded to command of the Austrian army near the Rhine River, but he was replaced in February 1796.

On this date the Gazette of the United States and Daily Evening Advertiser (Philadelphia) reported that the ship Active had brought papers from 26 June and that "There are rumors in circulation that Turin is taken by the French—that the Duke of York is missing, &c." The Gazette also reported "that the Archduke and the Emperor, are set off for Vienna, and that the Austrian forces are to be withdrawn, from the utter impossibility of making head against the French." Based on information from the Active and from arrivals at New York, the Philadelphia Gazette and Universal Daily Advertiser of this date reported, "it appears the republican armies of France have totally defeated the combined forces—that the Duke of York is taken prisoner—that the Chesepeake fleet had arrived safe in France—in a word, that the successes of the French, in the month of June, have been to the last degree, wonderful."

On 16 Aug. several Philadelphia newspapers printed numerous items carried by the Active. A report from the "Duke of York’s Army" stated that Clerfayt had twice attacked the French near Ypres, Belgium, without success, losing "more than 2000 men." Another report, from "Camp of Reserve between Gistell and Ostend," stated that in consequence of Clerfayt’s "three defeats in five days" and their own heavy losses, the Hanoverian troops were "unwilling to serve under his command." From Ostend and Brussels came reports of the fall of Ypres, and a stop press report of 26 June claimed that the British army "has been obliged to fall back" (Dunlap and Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser; see also Philadelphia Gazette and Universal Daily Advertiser; Gazette of the United States and Daily Evening Advertiser; General Advertiser).

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