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Alexander Hamilton and Henry Knox to George Washington, 5 August 1794

Alexander Hamilton and Henry Knox
to George Washington1

Philada. August 5, 1794.


The draft of a proclamation2 and that of an instruction to the Commissioners3 being both prepared,4 we take the liberty to suggest that we think a meeting tomorrow morning at such hour as may be convenient to the President, may be adviseable. The Secretary of State & Attorney General being out of town we cannot consult them, but we will engage the attendance of the Attorney General provisionally by Nine o’Clock & if the President concludes on the Meeting at that hour, he can have the Secy. of State apprised of it.

We have the honor to be &c.

A Hamilton

H Knox.

LC, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.

2In his proclamation of August 7, 1794, Washington recapitulated the events in western Pennsylvania which had culminated in the attack on the house of John Neville, inspector of the revenue, and warned the insurgents that measures necessary to call out the militia had been undertaken. The proclamation concluded with a warning to “all persons, being insurgents … and all others whom it may concern, on or before the 1st day of September next, to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes. And I do moreover warn all persons whomsoever, against aiding, abetting, or comforting the perpetrators of the aforesaid treasonable acts …” (GW description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington (Washington, 1931–1944) description ends , XXXIII, 457–61). The proclamation is also printed in Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd ser., IV description begins Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd ser., IV (n.p., 1876). description ends , 123–27, and ASP description begins American State Papers, Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States (Washington, 1832–1861). description ends , Miscellaneous, I, 85–86.

3In a final effort to secure the compliance of the residents of western Pennsylvania with the excise laws, Washington appointed James Ross, Jasper Yeates, and Attorney General William Bradford as Federal commissioners to confer with the representatives of the insurgents in western Pennyslvania. Ross was a lawyer in Washington County, Pennsylvania, and a Federalist member of the United States Senate. Yeates had been appointed associate justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1791 by Thomas Mifflin and held that position until his death in 1817.

The instructions to the commissioners, which are dated August 7, 1794, were written by Edmund Randolph and read as follows:

“The recent events in the neighborhood of Pittsburgh, have called the attention of the President to the formation of some plan by which the insurrection may be suppressed.

“The intelligence which has been transmitted, having been laid before Judge [James] Wilson, he has granted a certificate, declaring that the opposition to the laws of the United States in the Counties of Washington and Allegany, cannot be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or the power of the marshal. A copy of that certificate is enclosed (No. 1).

“You or any one or more of you are therefore authorized and appointed forthwith to proceed to the scene of the insurrection and to confer with any bodies of men or individuals with whom you shall think proper to confer, in order to quiet and extinguish it. There is reason to believe that a collection of discontented individuals, will be found at Mingo Creek on the fourteenth instant, and as the object of their assembling, is undoubtedly to concert measures relative to this very subject, it is indispensably necessary, that you should press thither with the utmost expedition. It is uncertain whether they will remain together for a long or short time—therefore the being on the ground on the day first named for their meeting is necessary to prevent a miscarriage.

“These are the outlines of your communication.

“1. To state the serious impressions which their conduct has created in the mind of the Executive, and to dilate upon the dangers attending every Government where laws are obstructed in their execution.

“2d. To inform them that the evidence of the late transactions has been submitted to a Judge of the Supreme Court, and that he has granted the abovementioned certificate whence a power has arisen to the President to call out the militia to suppress the insurrection (see the act of May 2. 1792 No. 2).

“3d. To represent to them, how painful an idea it is, to exercise such a power, and that it is the earnest wish of the President, to render it unnecessary by those endeavors which humanity, a love of peace and tranquility, and the happiness of his fellow citizens dictate.

“4th. You will then explain your appointment as Commissioners in a language and with sentiments most conciliatory, but reconcileable to the self respect which this Government ought to observe.

“5th. Whether you are to proceed further, and in what manner must depend upon your judgment and discretion at the moment, after an estimate of the characters with whom you are conversant, their views, their influence &c. &c.

“6th. Whensoever you shall come to the point at which it may be necessary to be explicit, you are to declare that with respect to the excise law, the President is bound to consider it as much among the laws which he is to see executed, as any other. That as to the repeal of it, he cannot undertake to make any stipulation; that being a subject consigned by the Constitution to the Legislature from whom alone a change of Legislative measures can be obtained. That he is willing to grant an amnesty and perpetual oblivion for every thing which has past—and cannot doubt, that any penalty to which the late transactions may have given birth, under the laws and within the jurisdiction of Pennsylvania may be also wiped away—but upon the following conditions.

“That satisfactory assurances be given that the laws be no longer obstructed in their execution by any combinations directly or indirectly, and that the offenders against whom process shall issue for a violation of, or an opposition to the laws shall not be protected from the free operation of the law. Nothing will be inforced concerning the duties of former years if they will fairly comply for the present year.

“7th. If they speak of the hardship of being drawn to the federal Courts at a distance, to that no other reply can be made than this—that the inconvenience whatsoever it may be, was the act of their own representatives, and is continued as being still their sense—that however on all occasions which will permit the State Courts to be used without inconvenience to the United States or danger of their being frustrated in the object of the suits and prosecutions the State Courts will be resorted to—but the choice of Jurisdictions must always depend upon the discretion of the United States and therefore nothing more specific can be said at present.

“8th. Whensoever you shall choose to speak of the ulterior measures of the Government, you will say that orders have already issued for the proper militia to hold themselves in readiness, and that every thing is prepared for their movements, as will be seen by the Proclamation (No. 3) and is known to yourselves from the communications of the Government, but that these movements will be suspended until your return.

“9th. These are said to be the outlines: you will fill them up and modify them so as most effectually to prevent if possible the last dreadful necessity which the President so much deprecates, and you may in particular assure any individuals of pardon who will expiate their offence by a compliance with the laws.

“10th. You will keep the Executive minutely and constantly informed of all your proceedings and will use expresses whensoever you think proper at the public expense.

“11th. You will be allowed eight dollars per day and your expenses, and may employ a proper person to act as your Clerk, who shall be paid whatsoever you may certify him to deserve. The sum of one thousand dollars is advanced to you on account.

“12th. William Bradford is empowered to add the name of Thomas Smith or any other proper person if either James Ross, or Jasper Yeates shall refuse or be unable to attend.” (LS, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Df, with insertions in Randolph’s handwriting, Pennsylvania Miscellany, Whiskey Rebellion, Vol. I, Library of Congress; copy, Pennsylvania Miscellany, Whiskey Rebellion, Vol. I, Library of Congress.)

At the bottom of the draft in the Library of Congress Henry Knox wrote “Approved” and H wrote the following: “It seems to be intended that the measure of calling out the Militia be kept back until the case of failure in compromise. This appears to me neither candid nor dignified. They should be apprised exactly of what has been done & left to act accordingly.

“Perhaps a question may arise about the duties of former years. I think they may be told on this point that the Executive will forbear to enforce any thing concerning the former years if they will fairly comply for the present year. This compliance ought to be an unequivocal condition of any promise on the part of the Govt.

“But on further & mature reflection any judgment is against the measure of commissioners till the force called out has rendezvoused. A Hamilton.”

Randolph inserted H’s suggestions in points 5 and 8 in the draft.

In ASP description begins American State Papers, Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States (Washington, 1832–1861). description ends , Miscellaneous, 86–87, these instructions are dated August 5, and in Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd ser., IV description begins Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd ser., IV (n.p., 1876). description ends , 137, they are dated August 8.

In addition to his instructions to Ross, Yeates, and Bradford, Randolph also wrote a letter to them on August 8, 1794, notifying them of their appointment and stating that “In Pursuance of instructions from the President of the United States, you, or any one or more of you, are hereby authorized and impowered forthwith to repair to the Counties on the Western Side of the Alleghany Mountain in the State of Pennsylvania, there to confer with such Bodies or Individuals as you may approve, concerning the Commotions …” (two copies, Pennsylvania Miscellany, Whiskey Rebellion, Vol. I, Library of Congress). At the conclusion of the second copy of Randolph’s letter to the commissioners H wrote “approved A. Hamilton.” Knox signed his name after H’s. Randolph’s letter is printed in ASP description begins American State Papers, Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States (Washington, 1832–1861). description ends , Miscellaneous, 87, and Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd ser., IV description begins Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd ser., IV (n.p., 1876). description ends , 136–37.

4Some historians have construed the first sentence of the letter printed above to mean that H and Knox drafted the proclamation and the instructions to the commissioners (see, for example, Freeman, Washington description begins Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington (New York, 1948–1957). Volume VII of this series was written by John Alexander Carroll and Mary Wells Ashworth. description ends , VII, 189). No draft, however, of either document in H’s or Knox’s handwriting has been found. On the contrary, Randolph apparently wrote the draft of the instructions and later incorporated H’s suggestions. See note 3. Moreover, a note signed with the initials of George Taylor, Jr., State Department chief clerk, states: “E Randolph says that these instructions enclosed were drawn by him, not as his own sentiments but as those of the President, there being some things in them which do not accord with his opinion. 5 Augt. 1794” (ADS, Pennsylvania Miscellany, Whiskey Rebellion, Vol. I, Library of Congress).

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