Alexander Hamilton Papers

To Alexander Hamilton from Richard Harison, 4 February 1791

From Richard Harison1

New York 4 Febry 1791


It is a Misfortune in our Legislation that particular Regulations of other Countries have been adopted without considering their Dependence upon the System to which they belong. Hence our Laws in many instances become unprovisional & Questions important in their Consequences & difficult to be resolved must necessarily arise. The fifth Section of the Registring Act2 is nearly copied from the eighth Section of an Act passed in Great Britain since the late War,3 the Operation of which I conclude is directed by a Clause of the Navigation Act, subjecting foreign Ships to Seizure in certain Cases.4 I take it too that in Great Britain the Certificate of Registry is only prima Facie Evidence of Conformity to the Laws of Trade, but may be contradicted by Proof that it is applied to improper Purposes.

I should think that a similar Principle must be implied in our present System with Respect to registring Vessels, and granting Certificates. Supposing a Certificate to have been obtained by Perjury, and the Person to abscond upon whose Oath it was granted, surely it could not avail to exempt the Vessel from Payment of the foreign Duty.

By applying this Principle to the fifth Section of the Act, I think that the Question contained in your Letter of the 29th. Ultimo may be resolved. It is clearly the Intention of the Legislature that Citizens residing in foreign Countries should be upon the Footing of Foreigners in Respect to the Ships which they possess. If the Register obtained before their Removal is to be considered as conclusive, the Intention of the Legislature must be defeated; & the same Inconvenience would arise in Case of Transfers to Foreigners, the Remedy upon the Bond being inadequate in many supposeable Instances.

I think that the Register must be considered as a Caution against Frauds, but cannot with Propriety serve as a Cover to any; and the Acts of Trade must be explained liberally so as to render them most effectual.

Upon the whole, therefore, I am of Opinion that in the Case expressed in your Letter, the Vessel would lose the Benefit of her Register during the Residence of the Owner in a foreign Country. But it would be adviseable to procure an explicit Act of the Legislature to prevent any Question upon this & similar Subjects.

I am with the utmost Respect   Sir   Your most obedt. humb Servt.

Hon. Alexr. Hamilton Esqr.

ADf, New-York Historical Society, New York City; LC, New-York Historical Society.

1This letter was written in reply to H to Harison, January 29, 1791. Harison, a prominent New York lawyer, had served as a delegate to the New York Ratifying Convention. In 1789 he was appointed United States attorney for the District of New York.

2“An Act for Registering and Clearing Vessels, Regulating the Coasting Trade, and for other purposes” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 55–65 [September 1, 1789]). Section 5 of this act reads as follows: “And be it further enacted, That no ship or vessel owned in whole or in part by any citizen of the United States, usually residing in any foreign country, shall, during the time he shall continue so to reside, be deemed a vessel of the United States, entitled to be registered by virtue of this act, unless he be an agent for, and partner in, some house or co-partnership, consisting of citizens of the United States, actually carrying on trade in the said States.”

326 Geo. III, C. 60 (1786). Section 8 of this act reads as follows: “And be it enacted by the authority aforesaid, That no subject of his Majesty, his heirs and successors, whose usual residence is in any country not under the dominion of his Majesty, his heirs and successors, shall be deemed or intitled, during the time he shall continue so to reside, to be the owner in whole or in part of any British ship, or vessel, required and authorised to be registered by virtue of this act, unless he be a member of some British factory, or agent for, or partner in, any house or copartnership, actually carrying on trade in Great Britain or Ireland.”

4Section 6 of the Navigation Act of 1660 reads as follows: “And be it further enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That from henceforth it shall not be lawful to any Person or Persons whatsoever, to load or cause to be loaden and carried in any Bottom or Bottoms, Ship or Ships, Vessel or Vessels whatsoever, whereof any Stranger or Strangers-born (unless such as shall be Denizens or Naturalized) be Owners, Part-Owners or Master, and whereof three forths of the Mariners at least shall not be English, any Fish, Victual, Wares, Goods, Commodities or Things, of what Kind or Nature soever the same shall be, from one Port or Creek of England, Ireland, Wales, Islands of Guernsey or Jersey, or Town of Berwick upon Tweed, to another Port or Creek of the same, or of any of them; under Penalty for every one that shall offend contrary to the true Meaning of this Branch of this present Act, to forfeit all such Goods as shall be loaden and carried in any such Ship or Vessel, together with the Ship or Vessel, and all her Guns, Ammunition, Tackle, Furniture and Apparel; one Moiety to his Majesty, his Heirs and Successors, and the other Moiety to him or them that shall inform, seize or sue for the same in any Court of Record, to be recovered in Manner aforesaid” (12 Car. II, C. 18 [1660]).

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