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To George Washington from Edmund Randolph, 7 May 1795

From Edmund Randolph

Department of State May 7. 1795

The Secretary of State has the honor of laying before the President, two letters received yesterday from mr Hammond, together with the draft of an answer.1 The Secretary will wait on the President on his return from the Department of the Treasury, to receive his instructions.

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

1Along with his first letter to Randolph of 5 May, George Hammond had included a copy of a letter from British navy captain Alexander Forrester Inglis Cochrane, who commanded the Thetis, part of the squadron under Adm. George Murray. Cochrane had been arrested in response to a suit against him by a New York citizen who claimed the value of a sloop that the Thetis had captured, and which the admiralty court of Nova Scotia had condemned as a prize.

Hammond also demanded to know whether Willis Wilson, county lieutenant for Portsmouth, Va., was authorized “by the federal government to assert” that vessels in Murray’s squadron must leave Virginia waters because, according to Wilson, they “have used the waters of Virginia as a station from whence they have carried on hostile depredations.” Hammond hoped Randolph would provide an answer to his letter “at as early a period as may be convenient: For, having already communicated to his Majesty’s Ministers in England, the dereliction on your part, of the principles announced in your predecessor’s letter to me of the 9th of September 1793 and your refusal to designate the particular cases, under which ships of war entering the ports of the United States, would be regarded as using them as a station, in order to carry on hostile expeditions from them, it will be farther expedient for me to apprize my court, by the earliest occasion, if the proceedings of Wilson and his associates be sanctioned by this government, of the virtual retractation of the assurances, contained in your letter to me of the 7th July 1794: Under the faith of which the commanders of his Majesty’s ships of war have hitherto deemed themselves entitled to enter the ports of the United States without restriction, so often as … necessities or convenience should render it requisite for them to resort thither.”

Hammond’s second letter to Randolph of 5 May again concerned Wilson. The British minister had received information from John Hamilton, British consul at Norfolk, that Wilson had signed an order to prohibit the sailing of a vessel Hamilton had engaged to take him to the Thetis, then lying at Hampton Roads. Hammond demanded that Randolph inform him by what authority Wilson exercised “this act of sovereignty, that is not delegated to any branch whatsoever of this government—the power of imposing an Embargo on any vessel, employed in the prosecution of a lawful commerce” (both DNA: RG 59, Notes from the British Legation).

The draft of Randolph’s reply to Hammond has not been found. The letter-book copy of his letter dated 6 May agreed that Wilson’s conduct needed “a definitive answer” and that he would supply it. “But,” wrote the secretary, “it must occur to you, that the order, said to be signed by him, is so inapplicable to any precise case; bears so few marks of an official act; and stands so much in need of extrinsic explanation that we must take some time to ascertain the facts. In doing this, no delay shall unnecessarily intervene.”

As for Wilson’s assertion of his authority, Randolph referred Hammond to his letter of 16 April, which enclosed a circular letter to the governors of that same date “as being the only instructions from the federal Executive, on this head” (see Randolph to GW, 17 April, n.4). Moreover, “the Government of the United States is satisfied, that in its just interpretation, it does not infringe the letters from this Department” dated 9 Sept. 1793 and 7 July 1794 “and will take measures to prevent them from being infringed in its execution.”

Randolph then turned to Wilson’s demand for ships in Admiral Murray’s squadron to leave Virginia waters. “Our treaty of commerce with France says, that ‘no shelter or refuge shall be given in their ports to such as shall have made prize of the subjects people or property of either of the parties, but if such shall come in, being forced by stress of weather, or the danger of the sea, all proper means shall be vigorously used that they go out and retire from thence, as soon as possible.’” Randolph then quoted from a circular letter of 4 Aug. 1793 from the Treasury Department to customs collectors which explained that passage: “‘If any vessel of either of the powers at war with France should bring or send within your district a prize made of the subjects, people or property of France, it is immediately to be notified to the Governor of the State, in order that measures may be taken, pursuant to the 17th Article of our treaty with France, to oblige such vessel and her prize, or such prize, when sent in without the capturing vessel, to depart.’ If any other letter or instruction,” Randolph stipulated, “has been understood to require ships of war, not bringing in prizes, to depart from our waters, it is contrary to the sense of the Executive, and … our commercial treaty with France” (DNA: RG 59, Domestic Letters).

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