Alexander Hamilton Papers

Conversation with George Hammond, [1–2 July 1792]

Conversation with George Hammond1

[Philadelphia, July 1–2, 1792]

In one of my recent conversations with Mr Hamilton, I took occasion from the accidental mention of some circumstances relative to the Mississippi, to enquire of him the actual state of the negociation with the Court of Spain on the subject of the navigation of that river.2 Mr. Hamilton informed me that the negociation was indeed pretty far advanced, but that the conditions, by which the object of it was to be attained, did not at present appear to be so extensively beneficial as might have been desired, since the Spanish government still pertinaciously resisted any cession to the United States of a Sea-port communicating with the Mississippi.3 He added that an acquisition of this nature was essential to the security and improvement of all the other advantages derivable from the internal navigation of the river, and he presumed that if it could not be effected by negociation, the necessity of obtaining it by any means must at some period ultimately lead to a rupture between this Country and Spain.

This language afforded me a fair opportunity of repeating to Mr Hamilton my expectation that, whatever might be the event of the negociation this Country would not enter into any engagements with Spain, which might be injurious to the rights secured by treaty to Great Britain.4 Mr Hamilton assured me that all the members of this government were unanimous in opinion that the participation of Great Britain in the free navigation of that river was to the United States an object of advantage and not of jealousy. To this I answered that, if such were the real dispositions of the Gentlemen composing this administration I trusted that, whenever the subject came into discussion, I should find these inclined to such a regulation of the boundaries as would afford to his Majesty’s subjects an effectual communication with the Mississippi.5 Mr Hamilton in reply said he conceived it would well deserve the attention of the United States to consent to as liberal a measure of accommodation in that respect as would not be detrimental to their own interests.6

As the information I have received from Mr Hamilton does not seem exactly to co-incide with the account communicated by Mr Carmichael to Lord St. Helens,7 I must own that I am disposed to ascribe the difference to an alteration of system in the Spanish Court rather than to any deception on the part of Mr Hamilton: As in my communications with him I have never yet at any time had reason to suspect him of artifice or imposition.

D, PRO: F.O. description begins Transcripts or photostats from the Public Record Office of Great Britain deposited in the Library of Congress. description ends , Series 4, Vol. 16, Part I.

1Hammond was appointed British Minister Plenipotentiary to the United States in 1791.

This conversation has been taken from Hammond to Lord Grenville, July 3, 1792, Dispatch No. 27.

3How H acquired this information is not known. Although William Short and William Carmichael had been appointed on January 24, 1793, commissioners to settle differences between the United States and Spain, Short did not arrive in Spain until February, 1793, and no letter from Carmichael containing such information has been found. The only known progress which had been made was the extension of the negotiation to include commerce. This was approved by the Senate on March 16, 1792.

4Article VIII of the treaty of peace between the United States and Great Britain guaranteed Britain free navigation of the Mississippi River (Miller, Treaties, II description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America (Washington, 1931), II. description ends , 155).

5The treaty of peace between Great Britain and the United States had run the northwestern boundary between the United States and British America west from the Lake of the Woods to the Mississippi (Miller, Treaties, II description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America (Washington, 1931), II. description ends , 153). Hammond, having learned that a line due west from the Lake of the Woods might not touch the Mississippi, argued that, conformable to the treaty, territory should be given Great Britain to make the Mississippi accessible.

6According to an entry by Jefferson in the “Anas,” Hamilton brought up the question of British entry to the Mississippi at a cabinet meeting on October 31, 1792. At that time H suggested that, in view of deteriorating relations between Spain and the United States, the opening of the Mississippi to the British might be used to entice Great Britain into an Anglo-American combination against Spain. Among other inducements to Britain, according to Jefferson, H favored “admission to some navigable part of the Mississippi, by some line drawn from the lake of the woods to such navigable part. He had not, he said, examined the map to see how such a line might be run so as not to make too great a sacrifice. The navign of the Missis being a joint possn we might then take measures in concert for the joint security of it. He was therefore for immediately sounding them on this subject thro’ our Minister at London.…” Although Henry Knox concurred in H’s views, Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Randolph, and George Washington displayed no enthusiasm for the proposal. The President observed that “the remedy would be worse than the disease” (Ford, Writings of Jefferson description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1892–1899). description ends , I, 207).

7Lord St. Helens was British Ambassador to Spain from 1790 to 1794. Carmichael’s communication to St. Helens was reported by the British ambassador to Lord Grenville in a letter of November 25, 1791. Grenville, in turn, sent a copy of St. Helens’s letter to Hammond on January 5, 1792. See “Conversation with George Hammond,” March 31, 1792, note 3.

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