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To George Washington from Edmund Randolph, 18 July 1794

From Edmund Randolph

Philadelphia July 18. 1794

The Secretary of State has the honor of submitting to the President the draught of an answer to Mr Hammond on the affair at Rhode Island.1

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

1On 8 May the British sloop of war Nautilus arrived at Newport harbor, where the Rhode Island legislature, having received information that Americans were impressed on board the ship, resolved to detain the commanding officers ashore until the charge was investigated. The next day six seamen were released (for various reports, see Newport Mercury, 13 May, Salem Gazette, 13 May, and Greenleaf’s New York Journal, & Patriotic Register, 14 May).

British minister George Hammond initially had complained of the "unparalleled insult" offered by the detention of the officers in his letter to Randolph of 22 May (see Randolph’s second letter to GW of 22 May, n.1). To that, Randolph responded briefly in his letter to Hammond of 2 June (see GW to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, 4 June, n.1), but Hammond renewed his complaint in a letter to Randolph of 7 June, contending that the measures pursued by Rhode Island "were directly contrary to the principles, which in all other civilized states regulate cases of this nature." Such cases, Hammond contended, were given to the ship’s commanding officer to investigate, and "if he be not satisfied" that an improper impressment had occurred, "his declaration to that effect, on his word of honour, is universally credited." In holding the officers while they themselves investigated and liberated the seamen, the Rhode Island officials had "conducted themselves neither with moderation, with decency, nor with that respect, which was due to the Commander of a vessel belonging to a sovereign with whom their country was at peace" (DNA: RG 59, Notes from the British Legation).

The enclosed draft has not been identified, but GW approved it and returned it to Randolph on 19 July (JPP description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed. The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797. Charlottesville, Va., 1981. description ends , 315). In final form, Randolph’s answer, which takes up more than twenty letter-book pages, was made a part of his letter to Hammond of 23 July. He reviewed the previous correspondence and then quoted from a letter of the governor of Rhode Island describing the evidence supporting a belief that most, if not all, of the seamen had been impressed. Noting that under the U.S. system of government "the neglect of one State to rescue from unjust confinement the Citizens of another would be deemed an infringement of social obligation, and might kindle a serious dissention," Randolph continued, "In the present instance, the State of Rhode Island was urged by most weighty considerations. For without inquiring under what circumstances these sailors were first cast into the power of the British ships of war . . . it is enough, that they were impressed. They were thus liable to become instruments of war against any nation without distinction upon whom Great Britain might turn her arms. It was not the fault of our Government, that no rule existed for distinguishing an American from a British mariner, since our minister in London earnestly proposed to the British ministry more than eighteen months ago various expedients for its arrangement, but to this very day, none has been established. Had not this opportunity been embraced, the unfortunate Americans might have been transferred from Ship to Ship, from one climate to another, beyond the reach of relief. Again: so watchful has the Constitution of the United States been over the liberty of the Citizens, that it forbids even our own Legislature to suspend the privilege of the writ of habeus corpus, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it. Or in other words, the privilege of an American Citizen to have the cause of his detention examined, and himself to be liberated, if it shall be groundless, cannot be wrested from him, except on one of two great emergencies. It is not easy therefore to acknowledge upon principle that ’the commander of a vessel, belonging to a Sovereign, with whom our Country is at peace,’ can assume in effect this transcendant power of precluding all inquiry."

Randolph argued further that this position was supported by the law of nations, citing texts on extraterritoriality. The officers of the Nautilus having come ashore, they had "of their own free will . . . placed themselves within the jurisdiction of the State of Rhode Island, and become amenable to process civil or criminal."

Finally, after a point-by-point comparison of "what was actually done" in the case with what Hammond contended "ought to have been done," to discover whether "in any particular, a difference in substance, rather than in form, shall appear," Randolph concluded: "Under whatsoever aspect therefore this case is contemplated, but especially when it is now notorious, that several American Citizens were on board impressed; who were within the protection of their country, and might soon have been carried out of it, and compelled to fight against their sacred obligations, the unparallelled insult Sir, is so far from being proved, that the legislature and judges who have been selected for condemnation, have acted upon sound principle, the law of Rhode Island, and the law of nations" (DNA: RG 59, Domestic Letters).

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