Alexander Hamilton Papers

To Alexander Hamilton from George Cabot, 8 December 1791

From George Cabot1

10ber. 8th. 91.

Dear Sir

I have understood that after the peace of 63 & ’till the late war France gave direct assistance to her Cod fishery beside the monopoly of her home & colonial markets—but notwithstanding these encouragements the supply from her own fishery was so scanty that her prohibotory laws were evaded & very large supplies of foreign fish were continually smuggled into her Colonies & consumed there at prices 40 per cent higher to the Planters than English & American fish was worth at the free ports in the neighbouring Islands.

Since the peace of 83 fish of the U S has not been wholly prohibited but its admission has been generally confined to a single port in an Island (sometimes very distant from the Consumers); the duty demandable on each quintal has been from 3 to 8 livres & the amount actually paid from 2½ to 3, while the french fish has enjoyed a free access to every place & upon landing has been entituled to a very liberal bounty.2 Yet under all these disadvantages the fishery of the U S has successfully rivalled that of France.

There facts at first view seem to indicate such a preponderance of natural advantages in the U S for carrying on the fishery as can hardly be balenced by France but it shou’d be noticed that about 5 years ago the french West India markets were surcharged to such a degree that the Exporters of fish from the U S suffered great losses upon all they shipped thither,3 & the fishery exhibited such symptoms of decline in consequence of it that it may be doubted whether it coud possibly have been supported if that of France had not been interrupted by the Commotions at home. It shou’d be observed too that the equipments of armed fleets & appearances of war occur so frequently to the European nations & especially to France that no fair experiment can be tried to determine the extent to which their fishery wou’d be carried in a long period of uninterrupted pursuit. These & similar events however have great influence upon the fishery of the U S but their frequency & effect in future can neither be foreseen nor accurately estimated, & hence it is the more difficult to say what is the greatest disparity of duties the fish of the U S cou’d bear & meet the fish of France in the french market—but on the whole shou’d the Govt of the U S restore to their Cod fisheries in some direct form the full amount which they pay to it’s treasury by the comsumption of dutied articles, & shou’d the fisheries of France be left without aid from their Govt, except like those of the U S a bare indemnity from contribution to the public revenue, & shou’d the markets of the french west Indies be open to the fish of both Countries, I think it may be safely relied on that the fish of the U S cou’d be afforded full 10 per Cent cheaper than that of France & consequently cou’d bear a duty of 10 per Cent on it’s value at the place & time of sale & yet sustain the competition with french fish selling in the same market duty free.

I have thus my dear Sir given you the best opinion I can form at present on the subject of your enquiry. This I have done not with the expectation of adding to your information but solely to shew my readiness to obey your command & to convince you of the esteem & respect with which

I am very sincerely your assured Friend  & mo. ob. Servt

George Cabot

ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.

1There are two possibilities concerning the reasons why H asked Cabot, who was Senator from Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Committee on Fisheries, for the information contained in this letter. The first is that H wished this information for the draft of a commercial treaty with France. The second is that H needed the material for a comparative study of the commercial systems of Britain and France.

As to the first of these possibilities, deteriorating commercial relation between France and the United States after 1789 had led to efforts to negotiate a new trade agreement. On June 2, 1791, the French National Assembly had instructed the king to negotiate a new commercial treaty with the United States (Archives Parlementaires description begins Archives Parlementaires de 1787 à 1860 (Paris, 1868– ). description ends , XXVI, 710), but the French Ministry failed to act on the proposal. On November 24, 1791, Thomas Jefferson, who believed that France wished to encourage the United States to make the first proposals for a treaty, wrote to William Short: “M. [Jean Baptiste] de Ternant tells me he has no instructions to propose to us the negotiation of a commercial treaty, and that he does not expect any” (ALS, letterpress copy, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress). H discussed the matter with the French Minister in October (see “Conversation with Jean Baptiste de Ternant,” October 7, 1791). A debate in Washington’s cabinet on the advisability of opening negotiations with France followed, and the President acceded to H’s suggestion that a draft of a new treaty should be drawn up, even though Jefferson maintained that the United States should not take the initiative in the commercial negotiations. In November, 1791 Jefferson reluctantly drew up the draft of a commercial treaty (see Ford, Writings of Jefferson description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1892–1899). description ends , V, 397–99). H opposed it on the ground that rates were too low, and the negotiations were finally dropped. For Ternant’s reports to his government on his commercial discussions with United States officials, see Ternant to Comte de Montmorin, October 9, 1791, and Ternant to Claude Antoine de Valdec de Lessart, April 8, 1792 (Frederick J. Turner, ed., “Correspondence of the French Ministers to the United States, 1791–1797,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1903 [Washington, 1904], II, 57–65, 108–14). Jefferson’s account of the negotiations for this abortive treaty is contained in an entry in the “Anas,” dated March 11, 1792. He stated that he “prepared a plan of treaty for exchanging the privileges of native subjects and fixing all duties forever as they now stood.… [H] did not like this way of fixing the duties because he said that many articles here would bear to be raised and therefore he would prepare a tariff. He did so raising duties for the French from 25. to 50 per cent” (Ford, Writings of Jefferson, I, 185). A copy of this tariff in Jefferson’s handwriting, labeled “The above contains Hamilton’s tariff of the duties which cannot be receded from in treaty with France, spoken of in my private note of March 11, 92,” may be found in the Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. It is printed in Ford, Writings of Jefferson description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1892–1899). description ends , V, 398.

The possibility also exists that H may have requested this information for a comparative study of the French and British commercial systems which he was compiling in late 1791 and early 1792. George Hammond reported to Lord Grenville on December 19, 1791, that “Mr. Hamilton informed me he was preparing a report upon the actual state of the navigation and commerce of this country, whence it would appear that the present system of France was more favorable to the former, and that of Great Britain to the latter” (see “Conversation with George Hammond,” December 15–16, 1791). On January 1, 1792, H stated in a letter to Jefferson that he was “engaged in making a comparative statement of the Trade between the U S & France & between the U S & G Britain” and asked Jefferson for information concerning French commercial regulations. Although no completed report has been found, there is a draft in H’s handwriting in the Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress, of a comparative study of the British and French commercial systems in relation to the United States. This document is printed in these volumes as “View of the Commercial Regulations of France and Great Britain in Reference to the United States,” 1792–1793.

2Although French administrative ordinances permitted American vessels into French colonial ports after the French alliance of 1778, most of these concessions were withdrawn by a ministerial letter of May 24, 1783 (Moreau de Saint-Méry, Loix et Constitutions des Colonies Françoises de l’Amérique sous le Vent, VI, 314–15). Restrictions were again relaxed by the “Arrêt du conseil concernant le commerce étranger dans les îles françaises de l’Amérique” of August 30, 1784. The number of entrepôts in the French West Indies was increased from two to seven, and the list of products permitted to be imported into the islands was considerably liberalized. Under the terms of Article 5 of the arrêt of August 30, 1784, salt fish appeared on the permitted list but was charged a duty of three livres per quintal, the money to be collected from this duty to be applied for the encouragement of the French fisheries (Isambert, Recueil Général des Anciennes Lois Françaises description begins Recueil Général des Anciennes Lois Françaises, Depuis L’An 420 Jusqu’à La Révolution de 1789, par MM. Jourdan, Docteur en droit, Avocat à la Cour royale de Paris; Isambert, Avocat aux Conseils du Roi et à la Cour de Cassation; Decrusy, ancien Avocat à la Cour royale de Paris (Paris, 1821–1833). description ends , XXVII, 459–64). Vigorous protests on the part of the French fishing industry to this relaxed policy led to the passage of two arrêts of September 18 and 25, 1785, which gave a premium of ten livres per quintal on French cod shipped to the West Indies and imposed a duty of five livres per quintal on foreign codfish imported into the French islands (Moreau de Saint-Méry, Loix et Constitutions des Colonies Françoises de l’Amérique sous le Vent, VI, 847–51, 863–65). Concerning these arrêts Jefferson observed: “The late Arrets of the 18th. and 25th. of September, which increasing to excess the duty on foreign importations of fish into the West Indies, giving the double in bounty on those of the natives, and thereby rendering it impossible for the former to sell in competition with the latter, have in effect prohibited the importation of that article by the citizens of the United States” (Jefferson to Comte de Vergennes, November 20, 1785, Boyd, Papers of Thomas Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, 1950– ). description ends , IX, 50).

3Cabot is referring to an “Arrêt du Conseil D’État Du Roi, Qui porte à Huit livres le droit de Cinq livres par quintal, établi par l’Arrêt du 25 septembre 1785, sur la Morue sèche de pêche étrangère importée aux Isles du Vent & sous le Vent; & à Douze livres la Prime de Dix livres accordée par l’Arrêt du 18 même mois, par quintal de Morue sèche de pêche françoise, importée aux mêmes Isles” of February 11, 1787. A copy of this arrêt may be found in the Papers of the Continental Congress, National Archives.

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