From William Bingham1
Philada Feby. 26th 1793
Whilst resident in Martinico, as agent of the United States, I had committed to my Trust, in my official character, by the Government of that Island, the 1st Proceeds of one thousand Barrels of Flour, being the Cargo of the Danish Brig Hope, loaded at Cork on Account & Risk of Portuguese Merchants at Lisbon, which Vessel was captured by an american Privateer & carried into Martinico.2
The Vessel & Cargo being Neutral Property, Restitution was formally demanded of the Government, by the Captain of the Danish Vessel. There were no Courts at that Time instituted in Martinico, which could take Consignment of American Captures and no Powers ever were much wanted in the Island. The General ordered the Cargo to be disposed of, the Freight &c to be paid to the Captain & the Nt Proceeds to remain in my Hands, subject to the orders of Congress.
I immediately presented to Congress a particular account of the Transaction & transmitted at the Same time all the Papers that were found on board, in order that Congress might be enabled to determine the future destination of the Property.3
When the Business was thus placed in a Train of Settlement that had the appearance of being Satisfactory to all Parties, I was Surprized to find by Advices from my Correspondents that my Property in their Hands had been attached & a Suit commenced against me, for the Recovery of the Proceeds of the Cargo.4
In Consequence thereof I exhibited to Congress, various Documents concerning this Transaction, which included therein as evidence the Several Resolves, under Date of Nov 30 17795 & June 20th 1780,6 expressive of their entire Satisfaction with ⟨my⟩ Conduct in relation to the affair & ordering the Navy Board at Boston to Sanction the Suit, & direct the Counsel employed in its defense.
Being thus exonerated from all Claims, I paid no further Attention to the Business. On Enquiry I now find that the Cause was brought to Trial in the inferior Court of Massachusetts in January 1781, where Verdict was found for the Defendant. Notwithstanding these adverse Decisions, the Plaintiffs instead of appealing to the Justice of Congress, who alone have the disposal of the Property, have again commenced a suit in the federal Court for its Recovery.
I shall be obliged to you to inform me, whether thro the Interference of the Executive, this Suit, that is now commenced against me, will be Sust⟨ain⟩ed by the United states, in Compliance with the Engagements of Congress, or whether it is necessary to make a fresh Application to Congress.
I have the honor to enclose you Copies of my Letters wrote to Congress on the subject & of the Resolutions entered into in Consequence thereof & of being with Respect & Esteem
sir, Your obedt hble ser
Honble Alexr Hamilton Esqr
ALS, letterpress copy, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
1. Bingham, a prominent Philadelphia merchant and banker, was a member of the Pennsylvania legislature. From 1776 to 1780 he had served as agent of the Continental Congress at Martinique and as consul at St. Pierre in the West Indies.
2. This case concerned an American ship, the Pilgrim, which in January, 1779, brought into Martinique as a prize the brig Hope, which she had captured in November, 1778. Upon examination the brig proved to be of Danish ownership carrying a cargo belonging to Portuguese merchants. Because no court of admiralty in Martinique was capable of deciding prize cases concerning American vessels, Bingham, acting on the direction of the governor of the island, the Marquis de Bouille, sold the disputed cargo, paid the expenses of the vessel, and placed the remainder of the sum to the credit of the Commercial Committee of Congress to be used in discharging advances which he had made at Martinique on the account of Congress. The American owners of the Pilgrim, who objected to this disposition of the cargo of the Hope, in October, 1779, brought action against Bingham in the Common Pleas Court of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, attaching Bingham’s property, which was in charge of his agent, Thomas Russell of Boston. In a letter dated October 6, 1779, to the Commercial Committee of Congress, Bingham requested the intervention of Congress on his behalf in the suit (copy, RG 267, Appellate Case Files of the Supreme Court, 1792–1831, Case No. 5, National Archives). Congress agreed to assume the responsibility, and both in this action and in an appeal brought to the Supreme Court of Massachusetts in February, 1784, judgment was found in favor of Bingham (3 Dallas, U.S. Reports description begins A. J. Dallas, Reports of Cases Ruled and Adjudged in the Several Courts of the United States, and of Pennsylvania, Held at the Seat of the Federal Government (Philadelphia, 1793–1801). description ends , 19–21). In early 1793, however, Bingham learned that the case was being reopened by the owners of the Pilgrim.
3. Bingham to the Committee of Commerce of the Continental Congress, February 2, 1779 (extract, Papers of the Continental Congress, National Archives).
4. Suit was brought against Bingham by the owners of the Pilgrim, “John Cabot, of Beverly, in the district of Massachusetts, merchant, and surviving copartner of Andrew Cabot, late of the same place, merchant, deceased, Moses Brown, Israel Thorndike, and Joseph Lee, all of the same place, merchants, Jonathan Jackson, Esq., of NewburyPort, Samuel Cabot, of Boston, merchant, George Cabot of Brooklyn, Esq. Joshua Wood, of Salem, merchant, all in our said district of Massachusetts, and Francis Cabot, of Boston, aforesaid, now resident at Philadelphia aforesaid, merchant” (3 Dallas, U.S. Reports description begins A. J. Dallas, Reports of Cases Ruled and Adjudged in the Several Courts of the United States, and of Pennsylvania, Held at the Seat of the Federal Government (Philadelphia, 1793–1801). description ends , 382–83).
5. On November 24, 1779, a committee of the Continental Congress was appointed to consider and report on a letter from Bingham to the Commercial Committee of Congress, dated October 6, 1779, containing an “account of his proceedings relative to a vessel said to be Danish property, captured by the sloop Pilgrim, and carried into Martinique,” and a statement that a suit was being brought against him in the Massachusetts courts. On November 30, 1779, the committee reported, and Congress resolved that a letter should be written to the legislature of Massachusetts suggesting that as “courts are now instituted at Martinique for the trial of such causes, Congress submit it to you whether it would not be advisable to stop the suit already commenced till judgment is obtained upon the principal question; after which it will be in Mr. Bingham’s power to discharge himself by delivering to the true owners the property placed in his hands for their use” (JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (Washington, 1904–1937). description ends , XV, 1302, 1332).
6. On June 20, 1780, the Continental Congress considered Bingham’s memorial concerning the Hope and the Pilgrim and “Resolved, That the general of Martinique, in ordering the cargo of the brig Hope to be sold, and the money to be deposited in the hands of Mr. W. Bingham, till the legality of the capture could be proved, (no courts being at that time instituted for the determining of such controversies … in that island) shewed the strictest attention to the rights of the claimants, and the highest respect for the opinion of Congress:
“That Mr. W. Bingham, in receiving the same, only acted in obedience to the commands of the general of Martinique, and in conformity with his duty as agent for the United States.
“Resolved, That Congress defray all the expences that Mr. W. Bingham may be put to by reason of the suits now depending, or which may hereafter be brought against him in the State of Massachusetts Bay, on account of the brig Hope or her cargo, claimed as prize by the owners, master and mariners of the private ship of war called the Pilgrim.
“And whereas the goods of the said William Bingham, to a very considerable amount, are attached in the said suits now depending in the hands of the factors of the said W. Bingham, to his great injury:
“Resolved, That the general court of the State of Massachusetts Bay, be requested to discharge the property of the said William Bingham from the said attachment; Congress hereby pledged themselves to pay all such sums of money, with costs of suit, as may be recovered against the said William Bingham in either or both the above actions.
“Resolved, That the navy council at Boston be directed to give such security, in the name of the United States, as the court may require, and to direct the counsel now employed by Mr. Bingham in the defence of the said actions.” (JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (Washington, 1904–1937). description ends , XVII, 533–34.)