Alexander Hamilton Papers
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To Alexander Hamilton from James McHenry, 12 May 1798

From James McHenry

Philad. 12 May 1798.

My dear Hamilton.

I shall in a short time be able to get to sea, one or two of our frigates,1 and perhaps, in less than six or seven days, Cap Dale, in the Ganges, a lately purchased vessel.2 Can you spare an hour or two to help me to the instructions that it will be proper to give to their captains. Our ships of war, it is probable, will meet with French privateers, who may be in possession of our merchantmen, or with our merchant vessels having French prize masters on board; or with French privateers cruising upon our coast to capture american vessels. They may also when acting as convoys be obliged to employ force to protect their convoy, and may even be obliged to board a French ship of war to terminate a contest and insure its safety. What instructions ought to be given to meet such cases, or enable them to afford competent protection to our merchantmen and preserve the Executive from any future accusation, of having by its orders involved the country in war. I foresee these instructions will fall to my lot, there being no chance that we shall have a Secretary of the Navy3 in time to frame them or relieve me from the responsibility. Neither the President has mentioned the subject yet to me nor any other gentleman. You will easily conceive how necessary it is I should be assisted with your ideas and a sketch of such instructions as in your opinion will comport with the existing state of things, and the profound reserve of Congress.

Yours sincerely & Affectionately

James McHenry

ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress; ADfS, James McHenry Papers, Library of Congress.

1For the construction of the frigates, see H to McHenry, January 27–February 11, 1798, note 4.

2Richard Dale, a Loyalist in the early years of the American Revolution, joined the Navy as a midshipman and by the end of the war had attained the rank of captain. He then entered the merchant service. In 1794 George Washington appointed him one of the six captains of the newly organized navy (Executive Journal, I description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate (Washington, 1828), I. description ends , 160, 161; Henry Knox to Dale, June 5, 1794 [LC, RG 45, Bound Volumes, Letters Sent Concerning Naval Matters, National Archives]). In 1795 Dale obtained a furlough (Timothy Pickering to Dale, March 14, 1795 [LC, RG 45, Bound Volumes, Letters Sent Concerning Naval Matters, National Archives]). Dale re-entered the merchant service and sailed to China in command of the Ganges. On April 27, 1798, Congress enacted “An Act to provide an additional Armament for the further protection of the trade of the United States; and for other purposes” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 552). Section 1 of this act reads: “That the President of the United States shall be, and he is hereby authorized and empowered, to cause to be built, purchased or hired, a number of vessels, not exceeding twelve, nor carrying more than twenty-two guns each, to be armed, fitted out and manned under his direction.” In pursuance of this act, the United States purchased the Ganges from the firm of Thomas Willing, Thomas Mayne Willing, and Thomas Willing Francis for fifty-eight thousand dollars (Bill of Sale, May 3, 1798 [DS, RG 217, Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts, 1790–1894, Account No. 9749, National Archives]). On May 10, 1798, John Adams nominated Dale to be a captain in the Navy, and the Senate confirmed his appointment on the following day (Executive Journal, I description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate (Washington, 1828), I. description ends , 274–75). Dale accepted the command of the Ganges (McHenry to Willing and Francis, May 4, 1798 [LC, RG 45, Bound Volumes, Letters Sent Concerning Naval Matters, National Archives]), and on May 24, 1798, the Ganges sailed from Philadelphia (Gazette of the United States, and Philadelphia Daily Advertiser, May 24, 1798) and patrolled the coastal waters of the United States from Long Island to the Virginia Capes (Benjamin Stoddert to Dale, June 27, 1798 [Naval Documents, Quasi-War, February, 1797–October, 1798 description begins Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War Between the United States and France: Naval Operations from February 1797 to October 1798 (Washington, D.C., 1935). description ends , 145]).

3On April 30, 1798, Congress enacted “An Act to establish an Executive department, to be denominated the Department of the Navy” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 553–54). On May 2, 1798, Adams nominated George Cabot, who had been United States Senator from Massachusetts from 1791 to 1796, as the first Secretary of the Navy (Executive Journal, I description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate (Washington, 1828), I. description ends , 272). Cabot refused the appointment (Executive Journal, I description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate (Washington, 1828), I. description ends , 275). Adams then nominated Benjamin Stoddert of Maryland to the position, and the Senate agreed to the appointment on May 21, 1798 (Executive Journal, I description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate (Washington, 1828), I. description ends , 275–76). Stoddert did not assume office until June 18, 1798.

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