Alexander Hamilton Papers

To Alexander Hamilton from George Cabot, 18 December 1791

From George Cabot1

Dec. 18. 91

It is well stated by a Gentleman who has examined the subject2 that in 1784 the British Govt having taken measures for drawing over to their service the whalefishermen of the U S, the Govt of France at once saw the danger of suffering her great maritime Rival to acquire the advantage of 4 or 5000 excellent Seamen & with them an Act of immense value in marine consideration (as the Nursery of Sailors) which they possessed almost exclusively. France therefore did not hesitate to arrest these proceedings by giving informal but strong assurances that if the Whalefishermen wou’d, but for a moment, resist the temptations held out by the English, their friends in France wou’d soon procure for them advantages superior to those they were required to refuse. Accordingly liberal bounties in money accompanied with other allurements were offered to those Persons who wou’d remove from the U S to Dunkirk & from thence carry on the whale fishery.3

This measure at first did not have all the effects expected from it, & rather than hazard the emigration of the Fishermen to the dominions of Britain it was thought expedient to create in France a market for the produce of the whalefishery of the U S. This has been of much benefit to us, but partly from the fluctuating policy of France toward us & partly from the excessive premiums she gives to her own Vessels, it is to be feared that her whalefishery will be eventually established on the ruins of ours. Already this business has extended itself considerably at Dunkirk, & the enormous profits which have been made by the aid of public bounties cannot fail to draw from the U S many more Adventurers.

France is undoubtedly an important market for Tobacco Rice Lumber Oil & occasionally for some other articles but the Ordinance of the Natl Assembly requiring that after Octr 91 Tobacco in Amn~ Ships shoud pay 6¼ livres per quintal duty more than in french Ships (equal to near double freight)4 & determining also that after that period Amn~ built Vessels can not be sold to the Citizens of France,5 must render our trade to that Country in our own bottoms comparatively small.

In the course of the late war France opened the ports of her Colonies to foreign Ships. These very soon engrossed a large share of their trade, & soon after the peace an Arrêt of the Council of State was passed restricting the intercourse between those Colonies & Strangers.6 The precise intent or effect of this first public regulation after the peace is not within my present recollection & I have no authority to which I can recur, but soon after it (in 1784) another Arrêt was published which established in each of the Windward Islands one port & in Hispaniola three ports7 to which foreign vessels might have free access with Fish Lumber Live Stock Rice Indian Corn salted beef (but not Pork) vegetables of a certain kind, hides Peltry Pitch Tar & Turpentine, but no other commodities. The duty on fish to be 3 livres per quintal & on salted beef 3 livres per barrel, & on all these commodities such local duties as might be imposed in the Islands, besides an established one per cent on the value.

In return & as payment for these commodities Molasses & Rum of the Islands, & Goods previously imported from France are the only articles allowed to be brought away.

Several years after the 2d Arrêt a 3d passed which raised the duty on salted beef to a dollar per barrel & on fish to a dollar per quintal, & at all times a sum, equal to the duty per quintal imposed on foreign fish, was given as a bounty on each quintal of fish of the french fisheries.8

Altho some important products of the U S are excluded by the Arrêts or standing laws, yet the pressing wants of the Colonists have occasionally induced a suspension of those laws in relation to particular articles, but so versatile has been the conduct of the french Govt in this part of their administration that the People of the U S have sometimes suffered exceedingly, tho’ perhaps oftener profited, by these temporary indulgencies. Since the commencement of the Revolution in France & partly in consequence of scarcity there, the Colonists have been obliged to take from the U S large supplies of Flour & some other items not usually admitted.

The importance of the french west india market for the fish of the U S will appear from observing that nearly one half of the whole fish is consumed there. Shou’d this advantage be taken the fishery wou’d be almost if not quite ruined.

The Molasses received from the french Islands is an excellent payment for what they buy of us but it may be noted that this article has been raised to its value and consequence as an object of commerce chiefly if not altogether by the People of the U. S—it was not thought to be worth saving by the french Planters until the Anglo Americans became its Purchasers & created a demand for it. At the commencement of the Molasses trade with the french it was bought by the Tierce supposed to measure 60 gallons or by the Hogshead supposed to contain 100; the New England People at that time used to receive upwards of 90 galons for a tierce & 150 for a Hhd. So little was it valued by the Planters that they for a long time submitted to this imposition in the measure. It has been much complained of that at Cape Francois bonds are required before a Vessel is allowed to trade with such Sureties as cannot be had unless the Captain pays an extravagant commission on his whole cargo to some Merchant of the place whether he needs any other aid of such Merchant or not. What share of this abuse or whether any is chargeable to the Govt I am unable to say—or whether it extends to the other ports of Hispaniola I am uncertain but I think it does.

I am not able to discern any essential difference of principle between the French & English Colonial systems. Both aim at a monopoly of their trade but neither can effect it perfectly without ruining the Colony, each therefore relaxes occasionally in some points & constantly in others according to the necessity of the case. Both nations admit nearly the same commodities except that France takes fish & refuses Flour while England takes flour & refuses fish.

England being more solicitous as well as more able to carry the supplies of her colonies than she is to furnish them insists only on being the Carrier.

France being unable to carry the requisite supplies of her Colonies insists only on furnishing them so far as she can, & permits others to supply whatever of prime necessity she cannot supply herself.

The English reserve the exclusive right of carrying the commodities their Colonists need from the U S but they impose no duty on the importation of the Commodities themselves.

The french allow Foreigners to carry certain commodities which their Colonies need but they impose a duty on the most valuable of those commodities greater than the whole freight or price of carriage is worth.

The french Colonies are I believe more extensive than the English, but if the french had not from necessity taken some things which they legally prohibit, it may be doubted whether the exports of the U S to the British West Indies would not equal the exports to the French West Indies.

Some unavoidable business & some unavoidable dissapations have prevented me ’till this moment from obeying your commands. Upon a review of what I have written ’tis some consolation in seeing how unimportant the information is, that you have lost nothing by the delay.

AL, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.

1For background to this letter, see Cabot to H, December 8, 1791, note 1.

2See Thomas Jefferson’s “Observations on the Whale Fisheries,” Boyd, Papers of Thomas Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, 1950– ). description ends , XIV, 242–54, and Jefferson’s report on the fisheries transmitted to the House of Representatives on February 4, 1791, which 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 , Commerce and Navigation, I, 8–19.

3This is a reference to the migration of the New England whalemen, particularly those from Nantucket, to the English and French fisheries. Discouraged by the serious depression in the whaling industry in the United States after the American Revolution and attracted by British concessions, a number of the whalemen moved with their families first to the vicinity of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and later to Milford Haven in England. A number of others migrated to France. In 1785 William Rotch, of the leading Nantucket whaling firm of William Rotch and Sons, traveled to England to seek the support of the British Ministry for the transfer of a large part of the Nantucket whale fishery to England. Although the British government was interested in such a transfer, Lord Hawkesbury, in 1785 an influential member of the Board of Trade, delayed in meeting Rotch’s demands. Rotch thereupon left for France to open negotiations with the French government for a transfer of the Nantucket whalemen to France. The concessions offered by the French government were so attractive that a substantial number of whalemen emigrated to France and set up a whale fishery at Dunkirk. For a description of Rotch’s negotiations and the transfer of the Nantucket whalemen, see Alexander Starbuck, History of the American Whale Fishery from Its Earliest Inception to the Year 1876 (Reprinted: New York, 1964), I, 77–90; Boyd, Papers of Thomas Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, 1950– ). description ends , XIV, 217–25.

4See “Report on the Subject of Manufactures,” December 5, 1791, note 82.

5The decree “qui prohibe l’importation des navires et autres bâtimens de construction étrangère” was introduced on March 4, 1791, and sanctioned on May 13, 1791 (Duvergier, Lois description begins J. B. Duvergier, Collection Complète des Lois, Décrets, Ordonnances, Réglemens, et Avis du Conseil-d’Etat, Publiée sur les Editions Officielles du Louvre; de L’Imprimierie Nationale, Par Baudouin, et Du Bulletin des Lois (Paris, 1824). description ends , II, 287; see also Archives Parlementaires description begins Archives Parlementaires de 1787 à 1860 (Paris, 1868– ). description ends , XXIII, 658–59).

6The “Ordonnance des Administrateurs, concernant la cessation de l’introduction des Bâtimens Etrangers, appartenans à des Puissances neutres, dans les Ports d’Amirauté de la Colonie” of May 24, 1783, annulled many of the trading privileges in the French West Indies given to the United States during the American Revolution. It reads in part as follows: “Les circonstances de la guerre avoient déterminé nos Prédéceseurs à permettre, par leur Ordonnance du 20 Juillet 1778, l’introduction dans les Ports de cette Colonie, des Bâtimens étrangers appartenans à des Puissances noutres, et ce, jusqu’à ce qu’il en fût autrement ordonné: aujourd’hui que la paix, dont nous avons le bonheur de jouir, doit ramener l’exécution des Loix prohibitives, nous devons nous empresser, pour le bien du Commerce de la Métropole, à fixer le terme où cette introduction devra cesser. Nous, en vertu des pouvoirs à nous donnés par Sa Majesté, avons ordonné et ordonnons que ladite Ordonnance de 20 Juillet 1778 cessera d’avoir son exécution, à compter du ler Juillet prochain, passé lequel temps l’introduction des Bâtimens dans cette Colonie reprendra le cours qu’elle avoit avant ladite Ordonnance; n’entendons apporter à cet égard aucune innovation, jusqu’à ce qu’il en soit autrement ordonné par Sa Majesté” (Moreau de Saint-Méry, Loix et Constitutions des Colonies Françoises de l’Amérique sous le Vent, VI, 314–15).

7Article 1 of the French colonial arrêt of August 30, 1784, reads as follows: “L’entrepôt ci-devant assigné au carénage de Sainte-Lucie, sera maintenu pour ladite île seulement, et il en sera établi trois nouveaux aux îles du vent; savoir, un à Saint-Pierre pour la Martinique, un à la Pointe-à-Pitre pour la Guadeloupe et dépendances, un à Scarboroug pour Tabago. Il en sera pareillement ouvert trois pour Saint-Domingue, savoir, un au cap Français, un au Port-au-Prince, un aux cayes Saint-Louis: celui qui existe au mole Saint-Nicolas dans la même colonie, sera demeurera supprime.” According to Article 5, “Indépendamment du droit d’un pour cent, porté en l’article ci-dessus, les boêufs salés, la morue et le poissons salés, paieront 3 liv. par quintal; et sera le produit dudit droit de 3 liv., converti en primes d’encouragement pour l’introduction de la morue et du poisson salés, provenant de la pêche française” (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, 460).

8For the increases in the duties on foreign fish imported into the French West Indies, see Cabot to H, December 8, 1791, note 2.

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