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Conversation with George Beckwith, [22 March–April 1790]

Conversation with George Beckwith1

[New York, March 22–April, 1790]2

7.3   [Beckwith] I am directed by Lord Dorchester to thank You for those expressions of civility, which You were pleased to use with respect to him, when I had the pleasure of seeing You in autumn,4 and for the confidence You reposed in His Lordship, in the communications made by me upon that occasion; they have been transmitted home, and although the delays incident to the season of the year have not hitherto enabled His Lordship to hear from Great Britain in reply he has judged it necessary to defer no longer the expressing his approbation of the principle, You then laid down “that it is expendient that a solid friendship should be established between the two countries.” I am desired to explain this to You, and to remain a short time here, in case any information from home, subsequent to my leaving Quebec, may enable His Lordship to throw further light on this subject.

[Hamilton] I am happy to find Lord Dorchester’s sentiments are in favor of that general principle, which I hold to be so evidently compatible with the welfare both of Great Britain and of this country.  5 My communications with You, You will of course always consider to be informal, but on this particular point I think I speak the sentiments of the majority of those, who are to conduct the affairs of this country; as to my own part my ideas naturally extend to objects, which I hold to be favorable for the general interests of the States, in which view I contemplate a connexion with You, and further than they may have that tendency, I certainly should not go, but with us different gentlemen may view this matter in different lights; the President of the United States I am inclined to think considers this subject in a favorable one.6 Mr. Jefferson, the Secretary of State, who lately returned from Paris7 on his private affairs, the condition of France not requiring his presence, and who did not know of his appointment until his arrival in America,8 is of opinion that the struggle for freedom in that country will be successful, and when completed, that it will be productive of great commercial benefits to the States, from the influence of the Marquis de la Fayette, who is greatly attached to this country, as well as from that general bias, which those, who guide that party, have always shewn towards us.9 From these considerations I am the more strongly disposed to view the present time as particularly favorable for the consideration of a commercial Treaty. As to Spain no doubt the navigation of the Mississippi does attract the attention of discerning men with us, and it is looked forward to as the probable source of coldness, possibly of differences with that court at a future period, but it does not appear to me, that it could come under immediate consideration. With regard to your Court having a Minister here I am clear, that would be a measure, which would give general satisfaction, the particular rank might depend on the pretensions of the gentleman in question for that station; high appointments in our situation woud not be thought eligible; I am not versed in diplomatic distinctions, but am led to think that a Minister Plenipotentiary is of a scale adequate for the purposes of both countries, concluding that a parity of rank would be proper for each.

I am authorized further to say, that it is for Your consideration whether in the present stage of this business You may judge it expedient to make any further communications to Lord Dorchester.

I cannot at this moment determine, whether it may be proper to communicate further with Lord Dorchester on this subject, or to carry it forward through a regular official channel. Mr. Jefferson arrived last night, and these matters are in his department. Pray how long do You intend to remain here?

[Beckwith] Until about the middle of April.

[Hamilton] It is probable that before that time I shall have it in my power to give You some information on this point.

We observe a paragraph from a London paper, that mentions Lord Hawkesbury and Mr. Grenville being engaged in the framing the outline of a commercial Treaty with us,10 pray in what official station is His Lordship?

[Beckwith] His Lordship has presided at a Committee of the Privy Council for commercial affairs.11

In continuation

[Hamilton] Nothing has happened since I had the pleasure of seeing You, to render it requisite for me to change my opinions on the different subjects touched upon in that conversation. A Treaty of Commerce with Great Britain is generally wished, and the full consideration of the subject is desirable. The reciprocal appointment of Ministers is also very agreeable, the particular grade is a secondary consideration, and may be readily accomodated to the mutual convenience of both countries.

Nb. Mr. —— added something with respect to the States having sent a Minister to Our Court, which we never acknowledged, and hinted, as if it was expected, that it was for Us to make the first offer; I replied that the condition of the States at that time had been such, as to have rendered it impracticable for a Minister from us to have remained at New York, and if otherwise, from the nature of their then government he could have been of no service.12

In continuation

[Beckwith] I have requested to see You as the time is drawing near when I intend returning to Quebec; I conceive it to be necessary and not improper for me to remark that I take it for granted, the different communications, You have been pleased to make to me, flow from that source, which under Your present government, is alone competent to make them.

[Hamilton] I am not authorized to say to You in so many words, that such is the language of the President of the United States, to a gentleman, who has no public character such a declaration cannot be made, but my honor and character stand implicated in the fulfilment of these assurances. The gentlemen at the head of the different departments may not have precisely the same way of thinking on all public concerns. I therefore speak with the greatest caution on all points in which they have a direct share, but where it respects the President to whom this must have reference, I can speak with more precision. I can say this, that his mind is perfectly free from any bias whatever on this subject and that he is ready to go into the discussion of every thing unsettled between the two countries.

[Beckwith] If I comprehended You the last time I had the honor of seeing You You suggested some difficulty in the appointment of a minister to us.

[Hamilton] Yes I did so, we have had a Minister at Your Court You did not send one in return, we should find a difficulty in taking the lead again in such a nomination.

[Beckwith] I am sorry to observe the disputes upon Your North east frontier relative to the boundary,13 and the publications in Your newspapers on the subject.

[Hamilton] Yes, that matter ought to be settled as soon as possible, as some accident may possibly happen.

[Beckwith] It is to be hoped, that Your government most interested in this matter (Massachusetts bay) will not become intemperate.

[Hamilton] I think it right to remark to You in this place, that a degree of moderation and good sense, has been conspicuous in the conduct of the Eastern Governments since the peace, which has not been equally so to the southward of Pensylvania, at the different periods, in which I have been a member of Congress under the late Constitution,14 I have had frequent occasions to observe this, and at first I acknowledge with some surprize, cool, plain good sense, determines their decisions without either animosity or partiality; it is not so much so, I am sorry to say to the southward, and I have been frequently led to consider the cause; I am inclined to think that the sentiments of one or two gentlemen in the southern States, whose characters give them influence, has led to this, they have been esteemed men of superior capacity, And certain causes have induced them to keep alive distinctions neither wise nor proper; but these persons are not at present in office, and possibly the private circumstances of too many of our southern planters, and their dread of the operation of the federal Courts, may also have an influence.15

[Beckwith] As Enthusiasm cannot suppose that with respect to us, there exists the smallest necessity to compel the consideration of commercial subjects with the States, and however embarrassed You may still continue in many respects, as candor must admit, that Your situation is better, than it was two years ago, I should hope if there shall be any discussions on this subject they will be entered upon with temper and candor.

[Hamilton] It is the duty of every man in Office to do so; we have still much to do, but the foundation is laid, and our difficulties are chiefly owing to ourselves; it will require time, but in the course of things we must become a very considerable people. I have ever thought it undesirable, that we should be courted by one power in Europe only; I do not mean this in the common acceptation of the word, but that our connexions should be more extended.

Copy, PRO: C.O. description begins Public Record Office of Great Britain. description ends , 42/67, ff 237–44; copy, MG 11, Q Series, Vol. Q-44, part 1, Public Archives of Canada, Ottawa.

1Beckwith served in the British army during the American Revolution and in 1782 became aide-de-camp to Sir Guy Carleton. After Carleton—elevated to the peerage as Lord Dorchester—was appointed governor of Quebec, a position he held from 1786 to 1791, he again called on the services of Beckwith. As Great Britain had no legation in the United States, Beckwith was designated the unofficial Minister of the British Government. Like that of an accredited minister, Beckwith’s job was to forward to officials in London information collected in the United States which might affect British-American relations. His communiqués were sent to Dorchester who forwarded them to William Wyndham Grenville (created Baron Grenville in November, 1790), Pitt’s Secretary of State for Home Affairs from June, 1789, to June, 1791, and after the latter date Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. In 1787 Beckwith spent six months observing events in the United States, and in 1788 he returned to study the effects which the adoption of the Constitution might have on relations between the United States and Great Britain. He returned to England late in 1788 and was still there when Grenville, in August, 1789, received news of the passage of tariff and tonnage acts by the recently assembled United States Congress. Beckwith was sent back to the United States with instructions to inform American officials that his government was disturbed by the restrictions which these acts proposed to put on English commerce, and that persistence in a policy of discrimination would lead to retaliation by the British. Beckwith arrived in New York City, temporary capital of the United States Government, in October, 1789.

The document printed above was enclosed in Dorchester to Grenville, May 27, 1790 (ALS, PRO: C.O. description begins Public Record Office of Great Britain. description ends , 42–67, f 235).

The topics discussed in this document were in large part a product of the American Revolution and the treaty of peace between the United States and Great Britain (Miller, Treaties, II description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America (Washington, 1931), II. description ends , 96–106). These topics are:

1. The refusal of the British to evacuate the Northwest posts (Article 2 [Miller, Treaties, II description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America (Washington, 1931), II. description ends , 97–98]).
2. The inability of southern planters to regain the slaves who had been carried off by the British in violation of the treaty (Article 7 [Miller, Treaties, II description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America (Washington, 1931), II. description ends , 99–100]).
3. The refusal of the British to permit Americans to enter the trade with the British West Indies.
4. The failure of Great Britain to send an envoy with the rank of minister to the United States.
5. The obstacles placed by the states (especially in the South) to the collection of debts owed by Americans to the British (Article 4 [Miller, Treaties, II description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America (Washington, 1931), II. description ends , 98]).
6. The inability of the two countries to reach a settlement on the boundary of northeastern United States (Article 2 [Miller, Treaties, II description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America (Washington, 1931), II. description ends , 97–98]).

2This inclusive date has been assigned to the document printed above for two reasons. The first date has been chosen because H states in his conversation: “Mr. Jefferson arrived last night.” Jefferson arrived in New York City on March 21, 1790 (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, March 28, 1790 [Boyd, Papers of Thomas Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, 1950– ). description ends , XVI, 277–78]). Secondly, Beckwith stated that he planned to remain in New York “Until about the middle of April,” and on the continuation of the conversation he stated: “… the time is drawing near when I intend returning to Quebec.”

3“7” was Beckwith’s code number for H.

4See “Conversation with George Beckwith,” October, 1789 (PAH description begins Harold C. Syrett, ed., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (New York and London, 1961– ). description ends , V, 482–90).

5At this point in the document Beckwith left a space of several lines and in the margin wrote: “expressions of personal civility omitted.”

6Despite H’s assertion, George Washington had been very guarded in his statements concerning relations between the United States and Great Britain. Perhaps his views on the matter are best expressed in the first two letters of three which he wrote to Gouverneur Morris on October 13, 1789. In the first letter, he wrote that it was “important to both Countries, that the Treaty of Peace between Great Britain and the United States, should be observed and performed with perfect and mutual good Faith; and that of a Treaty of Commerce should be concluded by them on Principles of reciprocal Advantage to both.” He then asked Morris to ascertain on an informal basis “the Sentiments and Intentions of the Court of London on these interesting Subjects” (GW description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington (Washington, 1931–1944). description ends , XXX, 439–40). The second letter, which covers some of the same points discussed in the conversation printed above, reads: “My letter to you, herewith enclosed, will give you the credence necessary to enable you to do the business, which it commits to your management, and which I am persuaded you will readily undertake.

“Your inquiries will commence by observing that, as the present constitution of government, and of the courts established in pursuance of it, removes the objections heretofore made to putting the United States in possession of their frontier posts, it is natural to expect from the assurances of his Majesty and the national good faith that no unnecessary delays will take place. Proceed then to press a speedy performance of the treaty respecting the object.

“Remind them of the article by which it was agreed, that negroes belonging to our citizens should not be carried away, and of the reasonableness of making compensation for them. Learn with precision, if possible, what they mean to do on this head.

“The commerce between the two countries you well understand. You are apprized of the sentiments and feelings of the United States on the present state of it; and you doubtless have heard that in the late session of Congress a very respectable number of both houses were inclined to a discrimination of duties unfavorable to Britain, and that it would have taken place but for conciliatory considerations, and the probability that the late change in our government and circumstances would lead to more satisfactory arrangements.

“Request to be informed therefore, whether they contemplate a treaty of commerce with the United States, and on what principles or terms in general. In treating this subject, let it be strongly impressed on your mind, that the privilege of carrying our productions in our vessels to their Islands, and of bringing in return the productions of those Islands to our own ports and markets, is regarded here as of the highest importance; and you will be careful not to countenance any idea of our dispensing with it in a treaty. Ascertain if possible, their views on this point; for it would not be expedient to commence negotiations without previously having good reasons to expect a satisfactory termination of them.

“It may also be well for you to take a proper occasion of remarking, that their omitting to send a minister here, when the United States sent one to London, did not make an agreeable impression on this country; and request to know what would be their future conduct on similar occasions.

“It is in my own opinion very important, that we avoid errors in our system of policy respecting Great Britain; and this can only be done by forming a right judgment of their disposition and views. Hence you will perceive how interesting it is that you obtain the information in question, and that the business be so managed as that it may receive every advantage which abilities, address and delicacy can promise and afford.” (GW description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington (Washington, 1931–1944). description ends , XXX, 440–42.)

As far as H’s conversations with Beckwith are concerned, there is no evidence that Washington knew anything about them until July 8, 1790, when H reported to the President on a conversation (subsequent to the one printed above) that he had had with Beckwith (PAH description begins Harold C. Syrett, ed., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (New York and London, 1961– ). description ends , VI, 484–86). See also H to Washington, July 15, 1790 (PAH description begins Harold C. Syrett, ed., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (New York and London, 1961– ). description ends , VI, 493–96).

7Jefferson had arrived in Norfolk, Virginia, on November 23, 1789 (Jefferson to John Jay, November 23, 1789 [Boyd, Papers of Thomas Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, 1950– ). description ends , XV, 553]).

8See Jefferson to Washington, December 15, 1789 (Boyd, Papers of Thomas Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, 1950– ). description ends , XVI, 34–35).

9It cannot be determined with certainty where H obtained the information in this sentence. On the other hand, most, but not all, the views which H attributed to Jefferson can be found in Jefferson to Jay, September 19, 1789 (Boyd, Papers of Thomas Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, 1950– ). description ends , XV, 454–60). When Jefferson wrote to Jay he was about to leave Paris and return to the United States, and Jay was serving as acting secretary of the State Department. In the last paragraph of his letter Jefferson wrote: “Expecting within a few days to leave Paris, and that this is my last letter on public subjects, I have indulged myself in giving you a general view of things.…”

10In the [Philadelphia] Gazette of the United States, March 20, 1790, the following “Extract of a letter from London, 1st January, 1790” appeared: “Lord Hawkesbury and Mr. Grenville are now actually employed in preparing the plan of a commercial treaty with your States, which I doubt not will shortly be fully matured and put into a train of negociation.”

Charles Jenkinson, first Earl of Liverpool and first Baron Hawkesbury, was Undersecretary of State in 1761, a member of the House of Commons from 1761 to 1786, created Baron Hawkesbury in 1786, a member of the Privy Council from 1773 to 1808, and appointed President of the Privy Council for Trade and Plantations in 1786.

11In December, 1790, Grenville referred “An Act for laying a Duty on Goods, Wares, and Merchandises imported into the United States” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, I (Boston, 1845). description ends 24–27 [July 4, 1789]) and “An Act imposing Duties on Tonnage” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, I (Boston, 1845). description ends 27–28 [July 20, 1789]) to the Privy Council for Trade and Plantations, of which Hawkesbury was chairman and Grenville a member. The council, however, did not report until January 28, 1791, when it stated that as of 1790 the United States trade regulations did not discriminate against England. See A Report of the Lords of the Committee of the Privy Council, appointed for all Matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations, on The Commerce and Navigation between His Majesty’s Dominions, and the Territories belonging to the United States of America. 28th January 1791 (London, 1791). This report was reprinted in Collection of Interesting and Important Reports and Papers on the Navigation and Trade of Great Britain (London, 1807).

12John Adams was United States Minister to Great Britain from 1785 to 1788. During this period Great Britain did not send to the United States an envoy with a rank equal to that of Adams.

13The northeastern boundary dispute between the United States and Great Britain grew out of the peace treaty of 1783 which stipulated in Article 2 that the boundary should be the St. Croix River (Miller, Treaties, II description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America (Washington, 1931), II. description ends , 97–98). Although the map used by the peace commissioners contained such a river, a dispute arose as to which of three rivers, the Magaguadavic, the Cobscook, or the Schoodic, was actually the St. Croix. On February 9, 1790, Washington requested the opinion of the Senate on the dispute, and on March 9, 1790, a Senate committee suggested that a consultation be held with the British government (ASP description begins American State Papers, Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States (Washington, 1832–1861). description ends , Foreign Relations, I, 20–100). For the nature of the dispute, see John Bassett Moore, ed., International Adjudications; Ancient and Modern, History and Documents, Together with Mediatorial Reports, Advisory Opinions, and the Decisions of Domestic Commissions, on International Claims (New York, 1929), I, 1–10.

14H was a member of the Continental Congress from 1782 to 1783 and in 1788.

15It would be difficult, if not impossible, to “prove” H’s assertions in this paragraph. At the same time, there is much to what he says, for many southerners felt very strongly about the slaves who had been carried away by the British and the provision in the treaty concerning the collection of debts owed by Americans to the British (notes 1 and 6). If, indeed, the South was more anti-British than the “Eastern Governments,” this attitude can hardly be explained, as H does, by the activities of “one or two gentlemen in the southern States.” A far more plausible explanation is the fury of the war in the South and the relative peace that prevailed throughout much of the Revolution in New England.

The final statement in this sentence concerning the “federal Courts” is a direct reference to Article 4 of the treaty, which in its entirety reads: “It is agreed that Creditors on either side, shall meet with no lawful Impediment to the Recovery of the full value in Sterling Money of all bonâ fide Debts heretofore contracted” (Miller, Treaties, II description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America (Washington, 1931), II. description ends , 98). The southern states had established “lawful impediments,” and the Confederation government, with neither an executive branch nor a national court system, could not enforce this provision of the treaty.

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