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Cabinet Opinions on the Little Sarah, 8 July 1793

Cabinet Opinions on the Little Sarah

At a meeting at the State house of the city of Philadelphia July 8. 1793.

Present the Secretary of state, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary at War.

It appears that a brigantine called the Little Sarah1 has been fitted out at the port of Philadelphia, with fourteen cannon, and all other equipments indicating that she is intended as a Privateer2 to cruise under the authority of France, and that she is now lying in the river Delaware at some place between this city and Mud-island; that a conversation has been had between the Secretary of state and the Minister Plenipotentiary of France, in which conversation the Minister refused to give any explicit assurance that the brigantine3 would continue until the arrival of the President and his decision in the case, but made declarations respecting her4 not being ready to sail within the time of the expected return of the President from which the Secretary of state infers with confidence that she will not sail till the President5 will have an opportunity of considering and determining the case.—That in the course of the conversation the Minister declared that the additional guns which had been taken in by the Little Sarah were French property, but the Governor of Pensylvania declared that he has good ground to believe that two6 of her cannon were purchased here of citizens of Philadelphia.7 The Governor of Pensylvania asks advice what steps, under the circumstances he shall pursue?

The Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of war8 are of opinion that it is expedient that immediate measures should be taken provisionally for establishing a battery on Mud island, under cover of a party of militia, with direction that if the brig Sarah should attempt to depart before the pleasure of the President shall be known concerning her,9 military coercion be employed to arrest and prevent her progress.

Alexander Hamilton

H Knox

The Secretary of state dissents from this opinion.

Th: Jefferson10

MS (DLC: Washington Papers); in TJ’s hand, being copied from Hamilton’s Dft, and signed by Hamilton, Knox, and TJ; with marginal note by TJ (see note 2 below); endorsed by Tobias Lear. PrC (DLC); lacks signatures of Hamilton and Knox. Dft (DLC: Hamilton Papers); variant text in Hamilton’s hand with addition by Knox and note by TJ (see notes 2 and 8 below), signed by TJ only; includes additional paragraphs (see note 10 below). Tr (DLC); variant text in the hand of Bartholomew Dandridge, Jr.; conjoined to Tr of Dissenting Opinion on the Little Sarah, 8 July 1793. Entry in SJPL: “Ons of heads of deptmts. on Little Sarah.” Included in the “Anas.” Enclosed in Hamilton to TJ, 10 July 1793, and TJ to George Washington, [11 July 1793].

The case of the Little Sarah, a British merchant ship captured by the French frigate Embuscade and taken as a prize to Philadelphia, brought to a head the growing tensions between Edmond Charles Genet and the Washington administration and led the President and the Cabinet to seek his recall by the French government. At stake in this dispute was Genet’s open defiance of the federal government’s clearly enunciated ban on the arming of belligerent privateers in American ports. Convinced from the first that France’s treaty of commerce with the United States gave it the right to fit out privateers in American ports, in this case Genet also defied the ban because he planned to dispatch the Little Sarah (renamed the Petite Démocrate) and the Embuscade to New Orleans in order to provide naval support for an expeditionary force that he hoped to raise in Kentucky and Louisiana as part of a Girondin plan to liberate Louisiana from Spanish rule (TJ to Jean Baptiste Ternant, 15 May 1793; TJ to Genet, 5 June 1793; Genet to TJ, 22 June 1793; note to TJ to Isaac Shelby, 28 June 1793; Turner, CFM description begins Frederick Jackson Turner, “Correspondence of French Ministers, 1791–1797,” American Historical Association, Annual Report, 1903, II description ends , 223).

The Little Sarah affair first came to the Washington administration’s attention on 22 June 1793, when Governor Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania transmitted to the President a report by Master Warden Nathaniel Falconer suggesting that the Little Sarah was being fitted out as a French privateer in the nation’s capital. Washington submitted this report to the Cabinet on the same day, in consequence of which Secretary of War Henry Knox requested Mifflin to inform the President promptly of changes made to the ship since its arrival. Two days later Mifflin sent Washington another report by Falconer mentioning a number of minor alterations made to the Little Sarah thus far and indicating that the ship’s armament had actually been reduced since its arrival because of the transfer of two of its four iron cannon to the Citoyen Genet. These documents did not reach Washington before he left Philadelphia on 24 June 1793 for a visit to Mount Vernon, and the Cabinet neither forwarded them to him nor returned a reply to Mifflin. Uncertain now whether the case of the Little Sarah was covered by Knox’s 24 May 1793 circular to the state governors ordering them to prevent belligerent privateers from fitting out in American ports, Mifflin took no further action (Falconer to Mifflin, 22, 24 June 1793, PHarH: Executive Correspondence; Mifflin to Washington, 22 June, 8 July 1793, same; Pa. Archs. description begins Samuel Hazard and others, eds., Pennsylvania Archives. Selected and Arranged from Original Documents in the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1935, 119 vols. description ends , 9th ser., i, 598, 599; Washington, Journal description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed., The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797, Charlottesville, 1981 description ends , 187).

This period of American inaction came to an end on 5 July when Alexander Hamilton met with TJ and Knox and notified them that preparations for fitting out the Little Sarah as a privateer were already well advanced. In response to a new request by Knox for further information that grew out of this meeting, Mifflin submitted to the Secretary of War on the following day a report by Falconer on the arming of the Little Sarah and asked for an opinion from the federal government on “the propriety of detaining her” (for the report, see enclosure to Mifflin to TJ, 7 July 1793). Before the Cabinet could respond, however, the crisis worsened on the evening of 6 July when Alexander J. Dallas, the strongly Republican secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, received word that the Little Sarah would sail from port the next morning. Informed of this news by Dallas, Mifflin resolved to call out a detachment of militia to prevent the ship from leaving Philadelphia. In an effort to avert hostilities, Mifflin agreed to a suggestion by Dallas that the secretary first meet with Genet in order to persuade him to keep the Little Sarah in port until the President had an opportunity to decide whether arming the vessel violated American neutrality. But Dallas’s dramatic meeting with Genet about an hour before midnight on the 6th only aggravated the situation. In addition to defending his right to fit out the Little Sarah as a privateer and criticizing the federal government for being hostile to the French Republic, Genet refused to delay the ship’s sailing until Washington returned to Philadelphia, promised to repel force with force if Mifflin employed the militia, and threatened to appeal from the President to the American people in order to vindicate his actions. In the face of Genet’s defiance, Mifflin called into service a unit of militia without specifying their mission and sought guidance from TJ and Knox on what the federal government wanted him to do about the Little Sarah. At this point TJ prevented a possibly violent confrontation by meeting with Genet on 7 July and extracting from him a highly equivocal statement about the readiness of the Little Sarah that the Secretary of State chose to regard as an assurance that the ship would not sail until after the President had returned to Philadelphia and examined the case. As a result, Mifflin the same day disbanded the militiamen who had gathered in response to his call (Notes of Cabinet Meeting and Conversations with Edmond Charles Genet, 5 July 1793; Memorandum of a Conversation with Edmond Charles Genet, 10 July 1793; Mifflin to Washington, 8 July 1793, PHarH: Executive Correspondence; Pa. Archs. description begins Samuel Hazard and others, eds., Pennsylvania Archives. Selected and Arranged from Original Documents in the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1935, 119 vols. description ends , 9th ser., i, 614; Dallas to the Public, 7 Dec. 1793, General Advertiser, 10 Dec. 1793).

It was against this background that the three Cabinet members then in Philadelphia met this day and expressed the discordant views on the Little Sarah case recorded in the document printed above. But, even as Mifflin began preparations immediately after this meeting to carry out the deterrent strategy advocated by Hamilton and Knox, Genet himself rendered moot the divergence of opinion in the Cabinet by having the Little Sarah moved to Chester, Pennsylvania, just south of Philadelphia and below the proposed fortifications on Mud Island. The ship was still there on 11 July when Washington arrived in Philadelphia and ordered the Cabinet to confer with him the next day about Genet’s latest challenge to American neutrality (Genet to TJ, 9 July 1793; Washington to TJ, 11 July 1793; Pa. Archs. description begins Samuel Hazard and others, eds., Pennsylvania Archives. Selected and Arranged from Original Documents in the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1935, 119 vols. description ends , 9th ser., i, 617–22; Washington, Journal description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed., The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797, Charlottesville, 1981 description ends , 191).

The summoning of the Cabinet to reconsider the Little Sarah affair gave TJ a final opportunity to mitigate the severity of Genet’s defiance. In advance of the Cabinet meeting of 12 July 1793, TJ obtained an assurance from Genet that the Little Sarah would not go to sea until the President had reached a decision on the case (TJ to Washington, [11 July 1793]). At the meeting itself the Cabinet decided to request Genet to keep the Little Sarah and some other French prizes from sailing until the executive had obtained counsel from the justices of the Supreme Court on a number of questions relating to American neutrality. Among other things, these questions involved the permissibility of arming French privateers with French cannon and manning them with French nationals, two of the circumstances Genet had adduced to justify his actions with respect to the Little Sarah. At the same time Hamilton and Knox also urged that the United States ask France to recall Genet, but as TJ disagreed and Washington expressed no view the Cabinet came to no decison on this matter (Cabinet Opinion on Consulting the Supreme Court, 12 July 1793; TJ to Edmond Charles Genet and George Hammond, 12 July 1793; Notes on Neutrality Questions, 13 July 1793).

Genet himself dashed whatever hope TJ may have had of lessening the French minister’s offense in the eyes of the President and the Cabinet. About two days after TJ communicated to him the substance of the Cabinet’s deliberations, Genet dispatched the Little Sarah to prey on enemy shipping in the Atlantic in violation of his pledge to TJ that the ship would remain in place until the President had decided the case. Genet thus abandoned his original plan to send the Little Sarah to New Orleans because he now hoped to enlist the more formidable support of a French fleet recently arrived off the American coast from Saint-Domingue for his projected invasion of Louisiana (Turner, CFM description begins Frederick Jackson Turner, “Correspondence of French Ministers, 1791–1797,” American Historical Association, Annual Report, 1903, II description ends , 223; Woodfin, “Citizen Genet,” 614–15). But in taking this action Genet tipped the balance of opinion among the President and his closest advisors in favor of seeking the increasingly obstreperous French minister’s recall (see Editorial Note on the recall of Edmond Charles Genet, at 16 Aug. 1793).

1In Dft Hamilton first wrote “It appeared, that an armed Brigantine called the Sarah” and then altered it to read as above.

2TJ drew a box around the preceding three words and in another box in the margin wrote “omit these words.” When copying Hamilton’s Dft, he boxed the same words in that text and keyed them with a cross to a note he wrote at the foot of the first page: “omit the words ‘as a privateer.’ “The words are omitted in the Tr.

3Word interlined in Dft by Hamilton in place of “Sarah.”

4In Dft Hamilton here canceled “state of preparation.”

5In Dft Hamilton here canceled “returns.”

6In Dft Hamilton here wrote “that <at least three> <three> at least two.”

7Preceding sentence written in the margin of Dft by Hamilton.

8Preceding four words inserted in Dft by Knox in a space left blank by Hamilton.

9Preceding eleven words interlined in Dft by Hamilton in place of “she be fired upon the […].”

10The Dft contains these additional paragraphs by Hamilton:

“<It being first>

Information having also been received that <there were> part of the Crew of the Sarah are citizens of the UStates <on board the Sarah as part of her crew>; as can be testified by Charles Biddle of this City.

<It is the opinion>

The abovementioned heads of Departments agree that this information shall be communicated to the Atty. of the District in order that pursuant to his former instruction he may take measures for apprehending and bringing them to Trial.”

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