Alexander Hamilton Papers

From Alexander Hamilton to William Livingston, [29 August 1788]

To William Livingston1

[New York, August 29, 1788]

Dear Sir

The Baron De Steuben informs me that he expects to set out this day on a visit to your legislature to endeavour to procure some arrangement respecting the place at Hackensack some time since granted to him by your state upon certain conditions.2 My anxiety for the Baron’s situation induces me to take the liberty of asking your friendship to him as far as may consist with considerations of propriety. It is needless to say to you that he has been a most useful servant of the public. I imagine it is as little necessary to observe, that he is a man, th⟨e⟩ ⟨qua⟩lities of whose heart intitle him to the sympathy and good will of good men. I shall only add that he is in a condition, for a man of his temper and habits, deplorable. He is as nearly as much in debt as all the property he has would sell for; and he is at the same time moneyless. Congress are now discussing his last application on the footing of a contract;3 but there are some circumstances which involve the transaction in obscurity; and there are individuals not disposed to overcome difficulties. I fear little is to be looked for. The question however is—Shall we permit a man, who has essentially served the American cause, either to starve or to go abroad begging?

We are informed here that there is some probability, that your legislature will instruct your delegates to vote for Philadelphia as the place of the meeting of the first Congress under the new Government. I presume this information can hardly be well founded, as upon my calculations, there is not a state in the Union so much interested in having the temporary residence at New York, as New Jersey. As between Philadelphia and New York, I am mistaken if a greater proportion of your state will not be benefitted by having the seat of the government at the latter than at the former place. If at the latter too, its exposed and excentric position will necessitate the early establishment of a permanent seat; and in passing South it is highly probable the government would light upon the Delaware in New Jersey. The Northern states do not wish to increase Pensylvania by an accession of all the wealth and population of the Fœderal City. Pensylvania herself when not seduced by immediate possession will be glad to concur in a situation on the Jersey side of Delaware. Here are at once a Majority of the states. But place the government once down in Philadelphia, Pensylvania will of course hold fast—The State of Delaware will do the same. All the states South looking forward to the time when the ballance of Population will enable them to carry the government farther South; (say to the Potowmack) and being accommodated in the mean time as well as they wish will concur in no change. The Government from the delay will take root in Philadelphia & Jersey will lose all prospect of the Fœderal city within her limits. These appear to me calculations so obvious, that I cannot persuade myself, New Jersey will so much oversee her interest as to fall in the present instance in the snares of Pensylvania.

With the sincerest respect & regard   I remain Dr Sir   Yr. Obed serv

A Hamilton

Governor Livingston

ALS, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston; copy (incomplete), Columbia University Libraries.

1Livingston was governor of New Jersey.

2New Jersey had given Baron von Steuben a life estate in a country house and land near Hackensack. The Baron, wishing full title to the property, was dissatisfied and, according to his biographer, purchased the fee simple. By the summer of 1788, von Steuben, who as usual needed money, decided to sell the property. It probably was for this reason that he went to New Jersey at this time (John M. Palmer, General Von Steuben [New Haven, 1937], 320, 360).

3In 1788, the perennial question of Baron von Steuben’s claims on the United States was again debated in the Continental Congress. On August 25, a committee which had been appointed on February 1, 1788, reported on von Steuben’s request for “an adjustment of his claims on the principles of a contract, alledged to have been entered into between him and the United States, previous to his engaging in their service” (JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (Washington, 1904–1937). description ends , XXXIV, 448–49). The committee concluded that no contract had been entered into between the Baron and Congress and that Congress was under no legal obligation to compensate him. The committee nevertheless recommended that in consideration of von Steuben’s services in the Continental Army, he be given an unspecified sum each year for the rest of his life. On the motion of H, the report was committed; the committee named to consider it consisted of James Madison, Theodore Sedgwick, H, Edward Carrington, and Thomas Tudor Tucker (JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (Washington, 1904–1937). description ends , XXXIV, 452, note 2). On September 11, this committee reported as follows:

“As it also appears that the Baron relies on the intimations stated to have been given him by the Committee with whom he conferred at York Town as amounting to a Contract, and that taking them to have been as stated (whatever may be the true construction of the transaction) they were calculated to produce the expectations he entertains, your Committee upon the whole are of opinion that the Dignity and Justice of the United States require some further compensation and indemnity to the Baron for his services and Sacrifices; and to extricate him from the Embarrassments under which he now labours.

“Wherefore your Committee submit the following Resolutions,

“That the Baron de Steuben be allowed the sum of   for discharging the debts owing by him on account of monies borrowed by him for the purpose of Coming to America, and of making the Necessary preparations to enter into the Service of the United States. And that the Board of Treasury take order for the payment of the said Sum as soon as may be consistent with the state of the Finances.

“That the Baron de Steuben be further allowed during his life the yearly sum of   to commence from the   day of   Provided that the United States may whenever they think proper discharge the said Annuity by paying to the Baron the value thereof on a Calculation of Interest at   Per Cent.” (JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (Washington, 1904–1937). description ends , XXXIV, 512.)

No further action was taken on von Steuben’s claim during 1788.

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