Alexander Hamilton Papers
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To Alexander Hamilton from Timothy Pickering, 25 March 1798

From Timothy Pickering

Philadelphia March 25. 1798.

Dear Sir,

I duly received your letter of the 17th. No apology will be necessary for a communication of your opinion at any time; and at the present crisis your opinion is peculiarly acceptable.

Prior to the receipt of your letter, the President had determined to recommend the observance of a general fast; and had desired one or both the chaplains of Congress to prepare the draught of a proclamation. This has since been issued.1

The idea of a solemn and firm communication from the President to the two Houses of Congress, on the state of our affairs with France, had occurred to me; with this addition, that it might be more impressive if delivered personally by the President himself from the Speaker’s chair, as at the opening of a session. That this speech should comprehend as brief a statement of our relations to France as would consist with an adequate representation of our good faith and of her perfidy and hostile acts, from the commencement of the French Revolution to the present moment.2 This paper should be prepared by me:3 I wish I were able to do full justice, to the subject. A proper time to deliver this communication would be when the letters from our envoys should be laid before Congress: for a motion has been made in the Senate for that purpose; & it is expected a like motion will be made in the House:4 but independently of these motions, it is really desirable that not Congress only but the people at large should know the conduct of the French Government towards our Envoys, and the abominable corruption of that Government; together with their enormous demands for money. These are so monstrous as to shock every reasonable man, when he shall know them. It pretended that the Directory was vastly exasperated against the American Government for some expressions in the President’s speech to Congress on the 16th of May last;5 that those expressions, or their application to the Government of France, must be disavowed. This however was a bold pretence only, as the means of extorting moneys; for after it had been said that the Directory for its own honor and the honor of the Republic would insist on this reparation, our Envoys were plainly told that there was a practicable substitute, more valuable than both. They asked what? Money! Money! was the answer. This reparation when it should be made, was only paving the way for new and I may say unlimited demands of more money—a sum equal to all the spoliations of the French on our commerce! to enable the Republic to pay our merchants? No! for the present use of the Republic. Then a mode might be agreed on for the liquidation of the merchants claims, to be compensated at some future period—and in the mean time, until the treaty should be concluded, (which that government might procrastinate indefinitely) their depredations were not to be restrained! Besides this, we must purchase promptly 32 millions of Dutch inscriptions (12,800,000 dollars) at par, and rely on the existence and ability of the Batavian Republic to redeem them. The sum of all was, in the words of the agent “Il faut de l’argent—il faut beaucoup d’argent;” and without this our envoys were explicitly told, by the secret but unofficial agents, that if they remained in Paris six months longer, they would not advance one step.6

You will be aware that I communicate these important facts to you in perfect confidence; for as you interest yourself so deeply in public affairs and are so obliging as to communicate your opinions, I thought you should be possessed of facts. I communicate them of myself, without the privity of any one.

Yet after all these inadmissible demands, and the peremptory declaration with which I closed the above detail, the envoys meant to make one more formal application by letter to Talleyrand, on the 10th of January;7 2 days after their last letter to me8 which you have seen was communicated to Congress, and in which they say “there existed no hope of their being officially recd. or in any way accomplishing the object of their mission.” These objects they meant to state and discuss, as if they had been formally received. There is but one solution of this measure of the envoys, & of their long suffering patience in their mortifying situation—To convince all their countrymen that it was not possible to adjust our differences with the present government of France. We do not know the result of this intended application; nor whether the envoys have left France: and it is these uncertainties which prevented the President’s displaying this scene of insults, extortion, ambition & iniquity, by communicating the envoys letters before Congress and the country.

I must assure you further that Portugal purchased her peace9that the very money paid by her in hand, enabled the triumvirs in the Directory to march troops and effect the revolution of September 4th:10 and yet the day after they received the intelligence of the peace finally concluded with the Emperor,11 these same villains declared the Portuguese treaty void. Doubtless they now demand more money to renew it than Portugal can conveniently muster; and probably nothing would satisfy the monsters, short of the riches of Lisbon, and the pillage of the Churches, and the subversion of the kingdom. Then will come the turn of Spain, of whom they have demanded the cession of Louisiana—and pressed their demand until the Prince of Peace knows not how any longer to resist it. And in order to plunder Spain and subvert the monarchy, unprincipled men will not want pretences—perhaps this will be sufficient—that Spain has not contributed as she ought to the common warfare, as an ally bound by a league offensive as well as defensive.12

What ought we to do, in respect to Louisiana? A Letter this day recd. from Colo. Humphreys dated at Madrid the 4th of January renders it probable that the information we have had from New Orleans is true—that Gayoso has recd. orders to evacuate the posts.13 His information (Colo. Humphreys’) was from a man employed in a public office conversant in American affairs; and Colo. H. considered it almost certain. Perhaps these orders may have resulted from Spain’s seeing or fearing the necessity of ceding Louisiana to France—and hence concluding that she might as well do a grateful thing to us before the surrender.14 Louisiana is easy to be defended by a force commanding the Mississipi at its mouth, another at the English Turn (half way between New Orleans and the mouth of the river) and at the entrance from the sea into the lake Pontchartrain. The Spanish force in all Louisiana is small—probably not rising to a thousand men, from the Bellize to the Missouri. The deepest channel of the three mouths of the Mississipi does not exceed fifteen feet of water; and it requires a pretty strong breeze to advance against the current.

I have one more important fact to mention—That since Lord Malmsbury’s negociation was broken off by the French,15 that Government has offered more advantageous terms to the British administration than Lord Malmsbury demanded—on the single condition of a douceur of one million sterling—to be divided among the Directory and the ministers: Talleyrands share was to be one hundred thousand pounds sterling, for his department! I might have mentioned, that these miscreants had the modesty to ask of our envoys a douceur of but fifty thousand pounds sterling. Merlin16 was to have no part of the 50,000. because the privateersmen had paid him liberally for his opinions against our vessels and those of other neutrals. This reminds me of another very important omission in my preceeding details—In regard to the adjustment of our claims for spoliations, all the vessels condemned for want of the rôle d’equipage were not to be brought into view: their condemnations were to be admitted as irrevocable—because Merlin had written a treatize17 to justify their condemnation!! Were there ever such devils out of pandemonium? There was afterwards some relaxation on this point—Claims might be made for such vessels—and if Citizen Merlin could be convinced they were just—why they might be considered.

Of the measures you recommend18

1. Permission to arm merchant vessels is given by the President’s withdrawing his restriction:19 but there should be a law to regulate them. The opposition are very angry with the president’s act on this point.

2. The frigates are to be completed:20 but the providing of a number of sloops of war will be vehemently opposed.

3. To authorize the President to provide ten ships of the line would be still more opposed. I have supposed they might easily be obtained of Great Britain: and that even for the bare act of victualling such a fleet by us, the British would keep one on our coast—and perhaps subject them to our orders, the British Minister concurring: but to command them fully, they must be our own.

4. There would be equal opposition to an increase of our military establishment.

5. There would perhaps be little opposition to a better, perhaps to a formidable fortifying of our principal ports. Where are the Engineers? The Frenchmen in general employed in 179421 only wasted our money: almost any artillery officer of our revolution army would probably do better. Colo. Vincent’s plans at NewYork are probably a fortunate exception.22

6. The revenue will not be extended but on the adoption of the defensive measures that will make additional revenues indispensible.

7. Instead of a suspension, I have for some time thought we should declare the annihilation of all our treaties with France. The repeated infractions of them on her part would justify us in making void the whole.

A disclosure of our actual situation with France, by communicating the Envoys letters, would, I presume, detach so many of the adherents to opposition leaders as to enable the real friends to their country to take promptly all the requisite measures. On these details, favour me with your opinions.

Truly & respectfully yours,

T. Pickering.23

Alexander Hamilton Esqr.

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

1John Adams’s proclamation, which was issued on March 23, 1798, reads in part: “… And as the United States of America are, at present, placed in a hazardous and afflictive situation, by the unfriendly disposition, conduct and demands of a foreign power, evinced by repeated refusals to receive our Messengers of Reconciliation and Peace, by depredations on our commerce, and the infliction of injuries on very many of our Fellow-Citizens, while engaged in their lawful business on the seas: Under these considerations it has appeared to me that the Duty of imploring the mercy and benedictions of Heaven on our Country demands, at this time, a special attention from its inhabitants.

“I have therefore thought fit to recommend, and I do hereby recommend that Wednesday the ninth day of May next be observed throughout the United States, as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting and prayer.…” ([Philadelphia] Aurora. General Advertiser, March 28, 1798.)

2For Adams’s messages to Congress on United States relations with France, see H to Pickering, March 23, 1798, note 1.

3No such “paper” was sent to Congress by Adams. Instead, on April 3, 1798, he sent to Congress a brief note enclosing the XYZ papers. See H to Pickering, March 23, 1798, note 1.

4For the Senate and House resolutions, see H to Pickering, March 23, 1798, note 1.

5The paragraphs of the President’s message of May 16, 1797, to which the Directory objected read: “I With this conduct of the French government it will be proper to take into view the public audience, given to the late minister of the United States, on his taking leave of the Executive Directory. The speech of the President discloses sentiments more alarming than the refusal of a minister, because more dangerous to our independence and union, and at the same time studiously marked with indignities towards the Government of the United States. It evinces a disposition to separate the people of the United States from the Government; to persuade them, that they have different affections, principles and interests from those of their fellow-citizens, whom they themselves have chosen to manage their common concerns; and thus to produce divisions fatal to our peace. Such attempts ought to be repelled with a decision, which shall convince France and the world, that we are not a degraded people, humiliated under a colonial spirit of fear, and sense of inferiority, fitted to be the miserable instruments of foreign influence, and regardless of national honour, character and interest.

“II The diplomatic intercourse between the United States and France being at present suspended; the Government has no means of obtaining official information from that country; nevertheless there is reason to believe that the Executive Directory passed a decree on the 2d of March last, contravening, in part, the treaty of amity and commerce of 1778, injurious to our lawful commerce and endangering the lives of our citizens. A copy of this decree will be laid before you.

“III While we are endeavouring to adjust all our differences with France, by amicable negotiation, the progress of the war in Europe, the depredations on our commerce, the personal injuries to our citizens, and the general complexion of affairs, render it my indispensable duty to recommend to your consideration effectual measures of defence.

“IV It is impossible to conceal from ourselves, or the world, what has been before observed, that endeavours have been employed to foster and establish a division between the Government and the people of the United States. To investigate the causes which have encouraged this attempt is not necessary. But to repel, by decided and united councils, insinuations so derogatory to the honour, and aggressions so dangerous to the constitution, union and even independence of the nation, is an indispensable duty.” (ASP description begins American State Papers, Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States (Washington, 1832–1861). description ends , Foreign Relations, II 160–61.)

For the speech in its entirety, see Annals of Congress description begins The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature (Washington, 1834–1849). description ends , VII, 54–59.

6Pickering’s information on the XYZ affair was taken from the dispatches which were sent by the three United States commissioners and submitted to Congress by President Adams on April 3, 1798 (ASP description begins American State Papers, Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States (Washington, 1832–1861). description ends , Foreign Relations, II, 150–68).

7This letter was not sent. Instead the American commissioners wrote to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Minister of Foreign Affairs, on January 27, 1798 (ASP description begins American State Papers, Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States (Washington, 1832–1861). description ends , Foreign Relations, II, 169–82).

8See Elbridge Gerry, John Marshall, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney to Pickering, January 8, 1798 (ASP description begins American State Papers, Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States (Washington, 1832–1861). description ends , Foreign Relations, II, 150–51).

9On August 10, 1797, a treaty of peace and amity between France and Portugal was signed at Paris guaranteeing the neutrality of Portugal on condition that France should be treated in Portuguese ports as the most favored nation. See Rufus King to H, June 27, 1797, note 5. For the text of the treaty, incorrectly dated August 20, see Martens, Recûeil description begins Georg Friedrich von Martens, Recûeil des principaux Traités d’Alliance, de Paix, de Trêve, de Neutralité, de Commerce, de Limites, d’Echange etc. conclus par les puissances de l’Europe tant entre elles qu’avec les puissances et etats dans d’autres parties du monde depuis 1761 jusqu’à présent, 2nd edition (Göttingen, 1817–1829), III, V, VI. description ends , VI, 413–19. The Council of Ancients ratified the treaty on September 12, 1797. On October 26, 1797, however, the Directory declared the treaty to be void on the ground that the Queen of Portugal had not ratified it within the stipulated two months (Duvergier, Lois description begins J. B. Duvergier, Collection Complète des Lois, Décrets, Ordonnances, Réglemens, et Avis du Conseil-d’Etat, Publiée sur les Editions Officielles du Louvre; de L’Imprimerie Nationale, Par Baudouin; et Du Bulletin des Lois (Paris, 1824–1825). description ends , X, 102). Although the Portuguese ambassador, Antonio D’Araujo D’Azevedo, produced the Portuguese ratification on December 1, 1797, he was imprisoned from January through March, 1798 (The [London] Times, January 6, 11, April 9, 1798).

In describing these events, The [London] Times, March 10, 1798, stated: “In the course of July last, the Portuguese Minister at Paris, Chevalier d’Araujo, purchased a Peace at the rate of 6 millions of Livres Tournois, which were paid down in hard cash. When afterwards, by the revolution of the 18th Fructidor (4th September) the Directory had got rid of the majority of the two Councils, which was in favour of Peace, it refused to ratify the treaty, on pretence that the Court of Portugal had industriously protracted the consumation of the treaty. On the Chevalier d’Araujo’s desiring the business to be definitely settled, a new ransom was demanded by the French Government. Surprised at this demand, the Portuguese Minister strongly reprobated this scandalous imposition, but instead of an answer, he was sent to the Temple prison.…”

10This is a reference to the coup d’état of 18 Fructidor an V (September 4, 1797).

11The Treaty of Campo Formio, October 17, 1797.

12By the Treaty of San Ildefonso, August 19, 1796, Spain joined France in the war against England. For the text of the treaty, see Réimpression de L’Ancien Moniteur description begins Réimpression de L’Ancien Moniteur, Seule Histoire Authentique et Inaltérée de la Révolution Française (Paris, 1847). description ends , XXVIII, 426–28.

13David Humphreys was United States Minister Plenipotentiary to Spain.

Manuel Gayoso de Lemos was the Spanish governor of Louisiana from 1797 until his death in 1799. In the Treaty of Friendship, Limits, and Navigation between the United States and Spain, October 27, 1795 (Pinckney’s Treaty), Article II provided for a boundary line between the United States and Spanish territories and that “if there should be any troops, Garrisons or settlements of either Party in the territory of the other according to the above mentioned boundaries, they shall be withdrawn from the said territory …” (Miller, Treaties, II description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America (Washington, 1931), II. description ends , 319–20).

Humphreys’s letter, which is dated January 5 (not January 4), reads in part: “… I hasten to advise you that a Spanish Gentleman, in public Office, who has been conversant with the Proceedings of this Government in relation to the U. S., has just informed me, that there is almost a certainty (after several contradictory proceedings) positive orders have been dispatched some months since, for the delivery of the Posts on the Mississipi to the U. S.” (ALS, RG 59, Despatches from United States Ministers to Spain, 1792–1906, Vol. 4, October 27, 1797-October 29, 1799, National Archives).

14On August 27, 1796, James Monroe wrote to Pickering: “I am told the treaty with Spain is probably concluded; and by which France is to have Louisiana and the Floridas” (Monroe, A View of the Conduct of the Executive description begins James Monroe, A View of the Conduct of the Executive, in the Foreign Affairs of the United States, Connected with the Mission to the French Republic, During the Years 1794, 5 & 6 (Philadelphia: Printed by and for Benjamin Franklin Bache, 1797). description ends , 363). In a subsequent letter, however, Monroe wrote: “I send you a copy of the treaty of alliance, offensive and defensive, between France and Spain; and which, as you will observe, contains no stipulation respecting Louisiana, and the Floridas. Nor have I any reason to conclude that there is any secret article on that subject. I rather think, from what I can collect, that it is a point still in negociation between those powers; and protracted by the indecision of France, whether to accept or reject it; and whose decision upon it may be essentially influenced by the relation which is to subsist, for the future between this country and ours. If this relation is established upon the close footing they wish it, then I think it probable (should the question be so long protracted) this government will decline accepting it; from the fear it might prove a cause of jealousy between us and weaken that connection. But should the contrary be the result, then I think, they will act otherwise, and endeavor not only in this respect, but by every other practicable means, to strengthen their own resources; and to make themselves as independent of us as possible …” (Monroe to Pickering, September 21, 1796 [Monroe, A View of the Conduct of the Executive description begins James Monroe, A View of the Conduct of the Executive, in the Foreign Affairs of the United States, Connected with the Mission to the French Republic, During the Years 1794, 5 & 6 (Philadelphia: Printed by and for Benjamin Franklin Bache, 1797). description ends , 378]).

On June 5, 1797, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Monroe’s successor, informed Pickering that “the negotiations respecting the exchange of Louisiana and Florida are at present suspended but will probably be resumed” (LC, RG 59, Despatches from United States Ministers to France, 1789–1869, Vol. 5, November 17, 1796-September 24, 1797, National Archives).

15In the autumn of 1796, James Harris, first earl of Malmesbury, unsuccessfully sought to negotiate a peace treaty with France at Lille. In July, 1797, he tried once more, but negotiations broke down completely after the events of September 4, 1797, and by September 19, 1797, Malmesbury had returned to England.

16Philippe Antoine Merlin of Douai was appointed Minister of Justice in 1795 and was made a member of the Directory following the coup d’état of September 4, 1797.

17See the “Report of the French Minister of Justice [Merlin], made to the Executive Directory the 12th Brumaire, an 5me. (3d November, 1797) of the French Republic” (Message from the President of the United States, Transmitting Copies of the Several Instructions to the Ministers of the U. States to the Government of France, and of the Correspondence with Said Government, Having Reference to The Spoliations by that Power, on the Commerce of the United States, Anterior to September 30, 1800, &c.… [Washington, 1826], 178–79).

19For Adams’s message to Congress of March 19, 1798, see H to Pickering, March 23, 1798, note 1.

20See “An Act for additional appropriation to provide and support a Naval Armament” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 547 [March 27, 1798]).

21On March 20, 1794, Congress passed “An Act to provide for the Defence of certain Ports and Harbors in the United States” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 345–46). Consistent with the provisions of this act, Henry Knox in the spring of 1794 appointed the following men as engineers to provide plans for the fortification of the stipulated ports and harbors: Etienne Nicholas Marie Bechet, chevalier de Rochefontaine; Charles Vincent; Pierre Charles L’Enfant; John Jacob Ulrich Rivardi; John Vermonnet; Nicholas Francis Martinon; and Paul Hyacinte Perrault (ASP description begins American State Papers, Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States (Washington, 1832–1861). description ends , Military Affairs, I, 72–102).

22Vincent’s “General observations on the defence of the Harbor and City of New York,” dated “New York, 1794,” 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 , Military Affairs, I, 78–80.

23In the margin Pickering wrote and crossed out the following incomplete postscript: “P S A vessel is in two or three days to be dispatched with letters to recall our envoys, if they should still be in France; unless the.”

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