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To George Washington from Edmund Randolph, 17 July 1795

From Edmund Randolph

Department of State July 17. 1795.

Sir

Since writing a quarter of an hour ago, I find, that by not understanding the French Calendar, I am totally mistaken in my account of the French decree. The French Minister sent me two decrees, one of which is to the effect, mentioned in my other letter. But it is prior to the other, which is of a contrary import, and which until this moment I supposed to be repealed. So that the favorable de[c]ree being subsequent in date annuls the harsh one.1

Brackenridge’s speech in the Pittsburg-paper, now inclosed, probably requires some attention;2 and the proceedings at Boston in Adams and Larkin’s paper are too important not to be forwarded to you.3 I have the honor to be Sir with the highest respect and attachment yr mo. ob. serv.

Edm: Randolph.

ALS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; LB, DNA: RG 59, GW’s Correspondence with His Secretaries of State; LB, DNA: RG 59, Domestic Letters.

1On 14 July, French minister Pierre-Auguste Adet transmitted a decree of the Committee of Public Safety dated 14 Nivose, year 3 of the French Republic (3 Jan.), which, Adet wrote, Randolph had seen in the newspapers.

The decree revoked Article V of the French government’s earlier decree of 25 Brumaire (15 Nov. 1794), a copy of which the minister also transmitted to Randolph. Both documents, stated Adet, demonstrated “the undisguised disposition and sincere desire of the French Government religiously to observe the engagements it has contracted with its allies, and its readiness to redress infractions which have never taken place but from the impulse of circumstances.”

The new decree, wrote Adet, “was not produced by representations from the neutral Governments or their subjects, but the result of a rigid examination of the extent of our contracts with our allies.

“By this article, the merchandises belonging to Powers at enmity with the French republic, laden on board of neutral vessels, are declared free.”

Four of the articles listed in the extract of the new decree are as follows:

“ART. 1. The colonial and marine commissioners shall notify, without delay, all the commandants of the naval armies, divisions, squadrons, fleets, or vessels, of the article of the law of the 13th of this month, cited above; and inform them, in consequence, that they must regard as null, and of no effect, the disposition of the fifth article of the decree of the committee of public safety, of finances, and of commerce and supplies, of the 25th Brumaire last, (15th November) which authorized the seizure of merchandises belonging to enemy Powers, until they should have declared free and not seizable, the French merchandises laden on board of neutral vessels.

“ART. 2. Merchandises, even of neutral nations, denominated contraband, or prohibited, shall continue to be liable to seizure.

“ART. 3. The articles comprised under the name of prohibited or contraband merchandises, are arms, instruments, and warlike stores, of whatsoever kind they may be; horses, and their harness, and all kinds of effects, produce, or merchandises, destined for an enemy’s port, actually besieged, blockaded, or invested.

“ART. 4. The commissioners for exterior relations shall transmit the present decree to the agents of the republic near the allied or neutral Governments, with orders to communicate it to them” (ASP description begins Walter Lowrie et al., eds. American State Papers. Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States. 38 vols. Washington, D.C., Gales and Seaton, 1832–61. description ends , Foreign Relations, 1:642–43).

For the fifth article of the decree of 25 Brumaire, see Randolph to GW, 17 July (first letter), n.2.

2Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s Fourth of July oration was also printed in the Gazette of the United States (Philadelphia), 18 July. In that speech he highlighted the consequences of the insurrection in western Pennsylvania: “The citizens have rushed to arms; they have assailed the house of one who holds an office, because he holds it. … In legal construction treason is committed, and yet they do not mean it, They distinguish not between what leads to a subversion of the government, & that which directly contemplates it. O madmen; do you know what evils you are about to bring upon us? you are [a]bout to sully our independence.” Brackenridge then posed and answered other rhetorical questions: “Was it for this you fought and vanquished in a contest with Great Britain? Was it for this you laboured to establish laws & constitutions? … You mean an opposition only to an odious and oppressive law. But the mode you chuse, is death to all laws. … Do all threaten? No. There are amongst them those, who to save themselves have seemed for the present to be with them in their object, and by Messengers secretly dispatched, have counselled us to act the same part, until the fury can be dissipated.”

Brackenridge continued with the efforts of GW’s administration to quell the insurrection, and the insurgents’ response: “Under these circumstances, who but must have wished, and who could have doubted, but that on the arrangements made, order would have been restored, the spring of desperation being taken away by the amnesty offered by the Government. It was prevented by want of information in the people. Those became the subjects of their obloquy, who had exerted skill to save them; had humoured their temper while a mob; had managed their passions by a half way acquiescence while in a promiscuous committee, and this with view to lead to moderate councils; to repress the violence and at the same time negociate with the government for an amnesty on their behalf.—Assuasion was ineffectual, and force became necessary … O Heavens! force in a republican government … citizens are in arms to suppress citizens … restore the laws and arrest offenders.”

Brackenridge then recounted the military suppression of the rebellion: “They can have no enmity against particular persons. They can be moved by no motives but those of truth, and justice. But such may obtain their ear who may be moved by other motives. Ah there’s the rub. What men are those I see, dragged at the Midnight hour from their beds in the Town of Pittsburgh … impounded like brute cattle; and made to stand or lay for days and nights on the muddy earth without a covering … they are unoffending individuals. Guilty of no violence, who have outraged no law. … Citizens in arms advancing to the country, why your rage against me. Have I been an infractor of the laws? Have I inflamed or supported opposition? … in due time you will understand the truth and I shall be considered as a good republican.”

3Thomas Adams (c.1758–1799) and Isaac Larkin (c.1771–1797) were at this time printers of The Independent Chronicle: and the Universal Advertiser of Boston. The 13 July edition of that newspaper printed what it called an “imperfect sketch” of a meeting held in Boston on 10 July. According to the report, the citizens of Boston believed “the Commerce of this country and almost every privilege as a free, sovereign and independent nation had been surrendered to the British” and “could not refrain from expressing their disapprobation of the instrument.” The town selectmen had received a petition “signed by a number of respectable and independent citizens, requesting them to call a meeting to know the sentiments of the inhabitants on this important question.”

On Friday, 10 July, some 1,500 citizens assembled. “Dr. [Charles] Jarvis opened the meeting, by observing that the crisis was important—that the happiness and future tranquility of this country were in a great measure hazarded on the principles involved in the Treaty—If it was ratified the commerce of the United States must eventually fall a sacrifice to the embarrassments of the British—That no reciprocity was contemplated in any article, and that it was an insiduous plan on the part of the British to injure our allies the French and might involve this country in a WAR with that powerful Republic.”

During the meeting a question arose about the “constitutionality of the town acting on the subject” since the country currently enjoyed constitutionally created departments of government which most certainly “acted from the best evidence before them, for the interest of the United States.” Jarvis and another man advocated “the right of the people … to assemble to express their sentiments on all matters in which their interest was concerned.” The two men claimed that “by the Constitution this privilege was allowed them and that it was an inherent principle in a free government, for the people to exercise this right. . . . more especially as a Treaty was an instrument of that nature, that when it was ratified, it could not be set aside by the Legislature, which was the only security the people had in case of legislative acts being disapproved of by them.” They also conceived that “the opinion of the people on this subject would be agreeable to the President; for as he acted for the general interest, he could not be displeased at their expressing their sentiments on so interesting a question.” An opposing view argued that “if that meeting was not altogether unconstitutional, it would at least look like an attempt to control the doings of the Executive—it would (if he might be allowed the expression) be ‘unsenatorizing the Senate.’”

Upon a motion to read the treaty, an objection arose that most citizens had already done so. Therefore, the gathering considered the treaty “at large, and most of the articles were observed on, and proved to the satisfaction of the audience, that it was ruinous and destructive to the commerce, rights, and interest of this country.” At the question “whether the Citizens of the town approved of the Treaty? Not a single hand appeared in favor of it! But when the negative was called for, a cloud of near fifteen hundred hands were dis[p]layed in the Hall.” Attendees then selected a fifteen-member committee to submit a written report on 13 July summarizing objections to the treaty. For the address adopted at the subsequent meeting, see Boston Citizens to GW, 13 July.

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