Alexander Hamilton Papers
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To Alexander Hamilton from Timothy Pickering, 17 November 1795

From Timothy Pickering


Philadelphia Nov. 17. 1795.

Dear Sir,

The interest you take in all public measures of importance, and the peculiar solicitude you must feel at this time of general agitation, when so many are busy apparently to undermine the government which you so effectually laboured to establish, and have so eminently contributed to maintain—induce me, with that sincerity which I trust has ever marked my character, and that frankness which an entire confidence in your judgement & candour inspires, to exhibit to your view the present situation of the great public offices.

Near three months have elapsed since the office of Secretary of State became vacant.1 At that moment matters of magnitude respecting the treaty with Great Britain demanded attention; & the general business of the office could not be suspended. With the President’s approbation I undertook the conduct of whatever required the uninterrupted agency of that officer: hoping however to have been relieved long ere this time from the burthen. The President, I know, took immediate measures to fill the office.2 He first tendered it to Judge Patterson, then to Governor Johnson of Maryland, to General Pinckney3 & to Mr. King,4 in succession: and by all it has been refused. The three former nominations the President early communicated to me: but the last he did not mention till about six days ago; nor indeed till then had he spoken of the subject since his last return from Mount Vernon. He recited these attempts to fill the office of Secretary of State; and that finally he had, thro’ Colo. Carrington, made a tender of it to Patrick Henry, who also declined it.5 In the event of this repulse, he proposed to Colo. Carrington’s acceptance the department of war, under the idea of removing me to the department of state. Colo. Carrington chose to remain where he is.6 The President having given this detail, made me the tender. I declined it, as not possessing the talents so much to be desired in a secretary of state, in the propriety and ability of whose conduct the dignity as well as the interests of the nation were so materially involved. On various grounds the President urged my acceptance: and after the many fruitless endeavours he had used to fill the office, I felt reluctant to give him a denial. I promised to consider of it.

The same day Mr. Wolcott called upon me: I found he had been consulted: I related what had passed: and he pressed me to accept the office: but I remained undecided. We repeatedly conversed about it afterwards: I still wished the office in abler hands. Last friday evening, going to see Mrs. Washington, I found the President & Mr. Wolcott in the antichamber: the President’s countenance manifestly uneasy. As soon as an opportunity offered, I spoke to Mr. Wolcott: the president was anxious for my determination; and again Mr. Wolcott urged me to take the office. I reflected a few minutes: the company retired: and I then made to the president the following declaration.

That I wished to keep him no longer in suspense; & that I would accept the office of secretary of state: but as I had no ambitious views; and fresh embarrassments might arise in his attempts to fill the department of war; I would propose, with submission to his opinion, that things should for the present remain as they were; I would continue my attention to both departments; if that of war could be filled to his satisfaction, I would go to the department of state; if a character well adapted to the latter should present, I would remain where I was: in one word, to free him from all embarrassment, I would serve in one office or the other as the public good should require. The president answered “That is very liberal;” and desired me to call the next morning to consider of a successor in the department of war.

The President had examined his list of offices in the late war; and selected the most prominent characters, whose names you will find in the inclosed list. Of these you will see but few to be recommended for the office, especially to the southward of Pennsylvania, where, of choice, the President would name one. With ample military talents, General Lee7 is conceived to want others essential to a secretary of war. Embracing some great objects, the department comprehends a multitude of details, and demands economy in its numerous expenditures. This appointment would doubtless be extremely unpopular: it would be disapproved by the enemies of the government, without acquiring the confidence of its friends. These ideas I have already suggested to the President. Expressing his earnest desire to find a gentleman southward of Pennsylvania, the President remarked, that it would be much less difficult to choose one from the other side of this state. But even there the object may perhaps be found not very easy to accomplish.

The state of New-York has not now one officer on the general staff of government. Colonel William North8 you will see is on the President’s list: I have thought favourably of his character & abilities: but am not sufficiently acquainted to form any decisive opinion: you must know him well. Will you have the goodness to express your mind? Will you consider the whole list? Will you indulge me with your sentiments on all the subjects of this letter? One other idea ought perhaps to be taken into view: the President, beyond all doubt, will, at the close of his present term, retire forever from public life: we do not know who will succeed him. Our internal politics and our exterior relations may be deeply affected by the character and principles of the President and the Secretary of State.

The tenor of this letter shows that it is perfectly confidential. The President has no knowledge of it. He will be impatient to decide to whom the department of war shall be tendered. I shall therefore be anxious to receive your answer. I earnestly hope your health & business will allow you to put it into the mail of friday, that it may reach me on saturday.

With the truest respect,   I am, dear sir,   your obedient servant,

Timothy Pickering.

P.S. Mr. Wolcott informed me of your wish to see Mr. Fauchet’s letter.9 I furnished him with a French copy of it, and with my translation to be copied and forwarded for your revision and correction.10 I was sorry to propose this labour for you: but the letter is of no small importance; it must soon be published; and you are implicated in every page: I therefore wish the translation may be exact.

Alexander Hamilton Esq.

Captain Dayton11 N Jersey
Genl. Hand12 Pennsylvania
Genl. Huntington13 Connecticut
Genl. Irvine14 Pennsylvania
Colo. Phil. B. Bradley15 Connecticut
Colo. David Forman16 N. Jersey
Colo. Howard17 Baltimore
Colo. Wm. Heth18 Virginia
Colo. Nathl. Ramsay19 Maryland
Genl. James Wood20 Virginia
Colo. John Brooks21 Masstts.
Colo. David Cobb22 do.
Colo. Henry Lee23 Virga.
Colo. Jereh. Olney24 Rhode Island
Colo. Wm. Davis25 Virginia
Colo. U. Forrest26 Maryland
Colo. Wm. Hull27 Masstts.
Colo. D. Humphreys28 Connecticut
Colo. Wm. North29 N. York
Colo. Robt. Troup30 do
Wm. Winder31 Maryland
Lt. Colo. John Armstrong32 N. York
added by T.P. Matthew Clarkson33 New-York

(Perhaps some suitable character not in the list, may occur. T.P.)

ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress; ALS, letterpress copy, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.

1Edmund Randolph had resigned as Secretary of State on August 19, 1795. See Oliver Wolcott, Jr., to H, July 30, 1795, note 1.

3For Washington’s offers to William Paterson, Thomas Johnson, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, see Washington to H, October 29, 1795, note 5.

4Senator Rufus King of New York. Washington had asked H to ascertain if King wished the position. See Washington to H, October 29, 1795; H to Washington, November 5, 1795.

5For Washington’s offer to Patrick Henry, see Washington to H, October 29, 1795, note 5. For Washington’s letter to Edward Carrington concerning Henry, see Washington to Carrington, October 9, 1795 (ALS, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress).

7Henry Lee, who had served with distinction during the American Revolution, had been governor of Virginia from 1791 to November 30, 1794.

8North, who had served during the American Revolution with both Henry Knox and Henry Lee as an aide-de-camp to Baron von Steuben, was inspector of the Army from 1784 to 1785.

9This is a reference to Fauchet’s Dispatch No. 10. See Wolcott to H, July 30, 1795, note 1.

10For information concerning the various translations of this document, see Wolcott to H, July 30, 1795, note 1. Wolcott had sent both a translation of this dispatch and a copy of the original to H on November 14, 1795. See Wolcott to H, November 16, 1795.

11Jonathan Dayton served throughout the American Revolution, and when the war ended he was a captain in the Third New Jersey Regiment. During the seventeen-eighties he was a member of the New Jersey Assembly, the Continental Congress, and the Constitutional Convention. He was a Federalist member of the House of Representatives from 1791 to 1799 and Speaker of the House during the Fourth and Fifth Congresses.

12Edward Hand, a native of Ireland, served throughout the American Revolution. He was adjutant general of the Army from 1781 to 1783, and at the end of the war he was brevetted a major general. He was a member of the Continental Congress in 1784 and 1785.

13This is a reference to either Ebenezer Huntington or Jedediah Huntington, both of whom were from Connecticut. Both men served throughout the American Revolution, and both were brevetted major general in 1783. Jedediah Huntington, in addition, served in the Washington Administration as collector of customs at New London, Connecticut.

14William Irvine, a native of Ireland, served throughout the American Revolution, and at the end of the war he was a brigadier general. He was a member of the Continental Congress from 1786 to 1788 and of the House of Representatives from 1793 to 1795.

15During the American Revolution Bradley was a colonel of the Connecticut State Regiment and then the Fifth Connecticut Regiment until he retired on January 1, 1781. During the Washington Administration he was the United States marshal for Connecticut.

16Forman served throughout the American Revolution, and at the end of the war he was a brigadier general of the New Jersey militia. After the war he was a judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Monmouth County, New Jersey.

17John Eager Howard served during the American Revolution, and at the end of the war he was a lieutenant colonel. He was a member of the Continental Congress from 1784 to 1788, governor of Maryland from 1789 to 1791, and a member of the Maryland Senate from 1791 to 1795.

18William Heth served during the American Revolution and was a colonel of the Third Virginia Regiment when he was taken prisoner at Charleston in 1780. During the Washington Administration he was collector of customs at Bermuda Hundred, Virginia.

19Nathaniel Ramsay, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He was a member of the Continental Congress from 1785 to 1787, United States marshal for Maryland from 1790 to 1794, and naval officer of the port of Baltimore from 1794 until his death in 1817.

20During the American Revolution Wood served as a colonel of the Eighth Virginia Regiment. In 1784 he was elected a member of the Executive Council of Virginia and through seniority in that body rose to the position of lieutenant governor, a post which he held when this letter was written. He subsequently (1796–1799) became governor of Virginia.

21Brooks served throughout the American Revolution and at the end of the war was a lieutenant colonel. From 1792 to 1796 he was a brigadier general in the United States Army. He was United States marshal for Massachusetts during most of Washington’s administration.

22Cobb served throughout the American Revolution, and from 1781 to 1783 he was an aide-de-camp to Washington. At the end of the war he was brevetted brigadier general. He was a member of the Massachusetts General Court from 1789 to 1793 and a Federalist member of the House of Representatives from 1793 to 1795.

23See note 7.

24Olney served throughout the American Revolution and at the end of the war was a lieutenant colonel. During Washington’s administration he was collector of customs at Providence, Rhode Island.

25This is a reference to William Davies, who served throughout the American Revolution and at the end of the war was a lieutenant colonel of the First Virginia Regiment. After the Revolution he was engaged in settling the accounts between the United States and Virginia.

26Uriah Forrest, who lost a leg at Germantown, served in the American Revolution until 1781, when he resigned as a lieutenant colonel. He was a member of the Continental Congress in 1786 and 1787, and he was a Federalist member of the House of Representatives from March 4, 1793, to November 8, 1794, when he resigned.

27Hull served throughout the American Revolution, and at the end of the war he was a lieutenant colonel. After the war he took a prominent part in suppressing Shays’s Rebellion, and he served as judge of the Massachusetts Court of Common Pleas and as a state senator. He is remembered today, in-so-far as he is remembered, as the commanding general in the War of 1812 who surrendered his forces and fortifications at Detroit to General Isaac Brock.

29See note 8.

30Troup and H had first become friends when both were students at King’s College. During the war Troup reached the rank of lieutenant colonel and served as aide-de-camp to General Horatio Gates and as secretary to the Board of Treasury. After the war he practiced law, speculated in land, and remained a close friend of H.

31During the American Revolution Winder was a member of the Continental Navy Board at Philadelphia. After the war he was appointed to settle the accounts between Delaware and the United States, and between Virginia and North Carolina and the United States. He was a resident of Somerset, Maryland, and a state senator from 1793 to 1795. In 1798 President John Adams named Winder to the position of Accountant of the Navy (Executive Journal, I description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate (Washington, 1828), I. description ends , 292–93).

32During the American Revolution Armstrong served as an aide-de-camp to General Hugh Mercer and General Horatio Gates. In March, 1783, he was (at the time the unknown) author of the famous—or infamous—“Newburgh Letters” proposing that the Army act on its own if Congress refused to meet its demands. He was secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from 1783 to 1787, and in 1784 he was in command of the Pennsylvania militia sent to restore order in the Wyoming Valley. In 1789, after marrying a sister of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, he moved to Dutchess County, New York, where he became a farmer.

33During the American Revolution Clarkson was an aide-de-camp to General Benedict Arnold and General Benjamin Lincoln. He was taken prisoner at Charleston in 1780 and brevetted a lieutenant colonel in 1783. After the war he served as a brigadier general and major general in the New York militia. He was a member of the New York Assembly in 1789 and 1790, United States marshal for New York from 1791 to 1792, and a member of the New York Senate in 1794 and 1795.

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