Alexander Hamilton Papers
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Conversation with George Hammond, [15–16 December 1791]

Conversation with George Hammond1

[Philadelphia, December 15–16, 1791]

Towards the end of last week, I had a very long and confidential conversation with Mr Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, in the course of which the opinion, I had entertained, of that Gentleman’s just and liberal way of thinking was fully confirmed. The late unfortunate expedition under General St Clair2 naturally engrossed a great portion of our conversation, whence I was induced to express his Majesty’s sincere desire to see tranquillity between the Indians and the United States permanently re-established. I took occasion distantly to intimate that if this government should think proper to solicit the King’s interference for this purpose through his government in Canada, I had reason to believe that the application would not be ineffectual.3 To this Mr Hamilton replied that the British Government might be assured that the United States, in the present war, were actuated by no motives of extending their territory, but simply by the desire of binding down the Indians to the stipulations of their last treaty,4 and that if this object could not be attained by negociation, it was determined to prosecute the war with vigour—that this government was however sincerely solicitous to effect a pacification, and if the voluntary interposition of the King’s government in Canada could tend to accomplish it, such a measure would be received with the greatest gratitude.

In another part of our conversation, Mr Hamilton hinted to me, with as much caution, as the danger of committing himself too far rendered necessary, that in the affairs of this country the present is an important crisis, upon which may depend the future complexion as well of its political connexions as of its commercial arrangements with the nations of Europe. I farther collected from other incidental observations that the government of France seems inclined to hold out to this country, in their projected treaty, some additional circumstances of advantage, which will have a tendency still farther to favor and promote the navigation of the United States.5

Upon this last head, I must not omit mentioning to your Lordship that Mr Hamilton informed me he was preparing a report upon the actual state of the navigation and commerce of this country, whence it would appear that the present system of France was more favorable to the former, and that of Great Britain to the latter.6 He however admitted, that upon balancing the general aggregate advantages resulting to the country from these respective systems, the scale had hitherto decidedly preponderated in favor of the commercial encouragements afforded by Great Britain.7

D, PRO: F.O. description begins Transcripts or photostats from the Public Record Office of Great Britain desposited in the Library of Congress. description ends , Series 4, Vol. 11 (Great Britain).

1This conversation has been taken from Hammond to Lord Grenville, December 19, 1791, Dispatch No. 13.

Hammond, the first British Minister to the United States, was sent his general instructions on September 2, 1791, by Lord Grenville, who had been made Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs on June 8, 1791. His private instructions, which had been given by Lord Hawkesbury, president of the Board of Trade, had been written on July 4, 1791 (Mayo, Instructions to British Ministers description begins Bernard Mayo, ed., “Instructions to the British Ministers to the United States, 1791–1812,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1936 (Washington, 1941), III. description ends , 1–13). Hammond, only twenty-eight years old at the time of his appointment, had already had extensive diplomatic experience. He had been secretary to David Hartley during the peace negotiations at Paris in 1783, chargé d’affaires at Vienna from 1788 to 1790, and for a short time Minister Plenipotentiary under Lord St. Helens, the British Ambassador to Spain.

Hammond arrived in the United States in October, 1791, but, wishing tangible proof that the United States intended to send an envoy to England, he waited several weeks before presenting his credentials. After assurances by Jefferson that negotiations were under way for the appointment of an American emissary, Hammond was presented to the President on November 11, 1791.

2In the fall of 1791, Major General Arthur St. Clair, governor of the Northwest Territory, attempted to atone for the disastrous defeat suffered by American troops under Brigadier General Josiah Harmar at the hands of the Indians the previous year. From his base at Fort Washington near Cincinnati he drew up plans for an invasion of the Indian country. The expedition had traveled no more than ninety miles before the Americans, on November 4, 1791, were surprised and decisively defeated by the Indians. Nine hundred of St. Clair’s men were killed, and the larger part of the remaining American troops discarded their arms and fled. St. Clair’s account of his defeat is printed in ASP description begins American State Papers, Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States (Washington, 1832–1861). description ends , Indian Affairs, I, 137–38.

3As early as the spring of 1791, George Beckwith, the unofficial British emissary to the United States, following instructions sent to him by Lord Dorchester, Governor General of Canada, had suggested to United States officials that Dorchester should intervene to bring peace between the Americans and the Indians (see “Conversation with George Beckwith,” May 15, 1791). Although H had informed Beckwith that British mediation was inadmissible, neither Dorchester nor the British Ministry was willing to drop the idea. On September 16, 1791, Henry Dundas, Secretary for Home Affairs, wrote to Dorchester that “it is His Majesty’s pleasure that every means which your prudence can suggest should be taken by you for healing the differences which at present exist, and for effecting, if possible, a speedy termination of the war” (Brymner, Canadian Archives, 1890 description begins Douglas Brymner, ed., Report on Canadian Archives, 1890 (Ottawa, 1891). description ends , 173). Lord Grenville had instructed Hammond that “nothing would be more satisfactory to His Majesty” than to mediate between the Indians and Americans (Mayo, Instructions to British Ministers description begins Bernard Mayo, ed., “Instructions to the British Ministers to the United States, 1791–1812,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1936 (Washington, 1941), III. description ends , 16).

4This is a reference to the treaties of Fort Harmar, which were signed on January 9, 1789. For the texts of these treaties, see ASP description begins American State Papers, Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States (Washington, 1832–1861). description ends , Indian Affairs, I, 5–7.

5For the proposed commercial treaty with France, see George Cabot to H, December 8, 1791, note 1.

6Although no evidence has been found that H completed such a report, the draft of a comparative study of the British and French commercial systems in relation to the United States may be found in the Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress. This may be a draft of the report referred to by Hammond or H may have compiled the information for the proposed commercial treaty with France. See Cabot to H, December 8, 1791, note 1. This document is printed in these volumes as “View of the Commercial Regulations of France and Great Britain in Reference to the United States,” 1792–1793.

7Another version of this conversation with Hammond reads as follows: “In some of my earliest conversations with Mr Hamilton, subsequently to the defeat of the 4th of November, that Gentleman resisted my insinuation of the good effect that would arise from requesting the Kings mediation, by stating that a part of the Indians, now engaged in war with the United States, lived within their territory and were considered in some measure as their subjects, and that upon that ground no external intervention could be allowed. But even admitting them not to be subjects, it was the opinion of himself and his colleagues, that the most advisable and feasible mode of procuring and preserving a lasting peace with the Indians would be—to inspire them with a confidence that the United States meditated no encroachment that would affect their right to inhabit the territory situated within the United States, and allotted to them by treaty—to redress any real grievances of which they may complain—and to conciliate their affections by acts of kindness and attention to their wants. But if these objects could not be accomplished by persuasion and gentle means it would be indispensably necessary to complete their subjection by the terror and success of the American arms. He added that the mediation or intervention of any foreign power would degrade the United States in the estimation of the Indians, and would sow the seeds of future dissension, as the latter would be tempted to aggression by the expectation of a similar interference on any other occasion” (Hammond to Grenville, June 8, 1792, PRO: F.O. description begins Transcripts or photostats from the Public Record Office of Great Britain desposited in the Library of Congress. description ends , Series 4, Vol. 15, Dispatch No. 23).

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