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To George Washington from Alexander Hamilton, 28 March 1796

From Alexander Hamilton

N.Y. March 28. 1796


I am mortified at not being able to send you by this post a certain draft—But the opinion that reasons ought to be given & pretty fully has extended it to considerable length & a desire to make it accurate as to idea & expression keeps it still upon the anvil—But it is so far prepared that I can assure it by tomorrow’s Post—Delay is always unpleasant. But the case is delicate & important enough to justify it.1

I mentioned as my opinion that the instruction to Mr Jay if published would do harm2—The truth unfortunately is that it is in general a crude mass—which will do no credit to the administration. This was my impression of it at the time—but the delicacy of attempting too much reformation in the work of another head of Department, the hurry of the moment, & a great Confidence in the person to be sent prevented my attempting that reformation.

There are several particular points in it which would have a very ill effect to be published.

I There is a part which seems to admit the idea that an adjustment might be made respecting the spoliations which should leave that matter finally to the ordinary course of the British Courts—This is obscurely & ambiguously expressed but the least colour for such a construction would give occasion for infinite clamour.3

II The negotiator is expressly instructed to accede to the entire abolition of alienism as to inheritances of land—You have seen what clamour has been made about the moderate modification of this idea in the Treaty & can thence judge what a load would fall on this part of the instruction.4

III He is instructed to enter into an article against the employment of Privateers in War.5 This is manifestly against the policy of a Country which has no navy in a Treaty with a Country which has a large navy. For it is chiefly by privateers that we could annoy the trade of Great Britain—Some would consider this as a philosophic whim; others as an intentional sacrifice of the interests of this Country to G.B.

IV There are several parts which hold up the disreputable & disorganising idea of not being able to restrain our own citizens.6

V There are parts which though proper to our own Agent, the publication of which would be a violation of decorum towards G. Britain—after an amicable termination of the affair & offensive because contrary to the rules of friendly & respectful proceedure.

VI—The instructions have too little point (in the spirit of the framer who was in the habit of saying much & saying little) & would be censured as altogether deficient in firmness & spirit.

On the whole I have no doubt that the publication of these instructions would do harm to the Executive & to the character & interest of the Government.7

If the President concludes to send papers—they ought only to be the Commissions & Mr Jay’s correspondence; saying that these are all, that it appears to him for the public interest to send.

But he may be then prepared for as much clamour as if he sent none—It would be said that what was done shewed that the principle had not been the obstacle—& that the instructions were witheld because they would not bear the light. Or at most only that part of the instruction should go which begins at these words. “4 This enumeration presents generally the objects which it is desireable to comprise in a Commercial Treaty &c.” to the end of the instructions.

But after the fullest reflection I have been able to give the subject (though I perceive serious dangers & inconveniences in the course) I entertain a final opinion that it will be best, after the usurpation attempted by the house of Representatives, to send none & to resist in totality. Affecly & respecy Yr Obed. ser.

A. Hamilton

ALS, DLC:GW; copy, MHi: Bowdoin-Temple Papers.

1Hamilton was preparing a draft for GW’s response to the House of Representatives’ request for papers regarding the negotiation of the treaty with Great Britain.

2See Hamilton to GW, 24 March. For Edmund Randolph’s instructions to John Jay of 6 May 1794, see ASP, Foreign Relations, 1:472–74.

3Hamilton probably is referring to the part of an instruction that reads: “and if you should be compelled to leave the business in its legal course, you are at liberty to procure professional aid at the expense of the United States.”

4The tenth of nineteen objects suggested for a possible commercial treaty conceded that it would be “necessary that the disabilities, arising from alienage in cases of inheritance, should be put upon a liberal footing, or rather abolished.” Article IX of the Jay Treaty stipulated that British subjects and their heirs could continue to hold lands in the United States and should not, in that respect, “be regarded as Aliens” (Miller, Treaties, description begins Hunter Miller, ed. Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America. Vol. 2, 1776-1818. Washington, D.C., 1931. description ends 253–54). This was protested as a violation of states’ rights (see, for example, Portsmouth, N.H., Citizens to GW, 17 July 1795; New York Citizens to GW, 20 July 1795; Norfolk County, Va., Citizens to GW, 5 Aug. 1795; and Caroline County, Va., Citizens to GW, 11 Aug. 1795). Article II of the treaty allowed British subjects residing near the frontier posts tCaroline County, Va., hat were being returned to the United States to retain their property without becoming American citizens (Miller, Treaties, description begins Hunter Miller, ed. Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America. Vol. 2, 1776-1818. Washington, D.C., 1931. description ends 246). This was protested as a threat to security (for example, Charleston, S.C., Citizens to GW, 22 July 1795; Richmond, Va., Citizens to GW, 30 July 1795; and Kentucky Citizens to GW, 7 Sept. 1795).

5The fourteenth of the nineteen objects was: “No privateering commissions to be taken out by the subjects of one, or citizens of the other party, against each other.”

6Jay was instructed to stress the “general irritation of the United States” about spoliations and captures, and he was given leeway to judge “how far you may state the difficulty which may occur in restraining the violence of some of our exasperated citizens.”

7The following three paragraphs are marked with a large bracket pointing to Hamilton’s note in the left margin: “The draft will be so framed as to admit of this conclusion.”

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