Alexander Hamilton Papers

From Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, [4 May 1793]

To George Washington

[Philadelphia, May 4, 1793]

The Secretary of the Treasury presents his respects to the President. It has appeared to him that a circular letter of the enclosed form to the several Collectors would be a measure of utility.1 If not disapproved by the President it will be forwarded.

The enclosed paper is sent lest the president should not have received it otherwise. It contains intelligence critically important, tho’ requiring confirmation.

LC, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.

1This draft of a circular letter to the collectors of the customs has not been found. It apparently was a first draft of the circular letter sent to the collectors on August 4, 1793, telling them how to deal with violations of the neutrality proclamation. The correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Edmund Randolph, however, reveals at least one major difference between this draft and the version sent to the collectors in August. The August 4 circular directed the collectors to report violations of United States neutrality to the governor of the state and the United States attorney of the district involved. In the original draft submitted to Washington reports of infractions of neutrality were to be submitted by the collectors directly to the United States Treasury. This clause in the draft encountered serious opposition from the Secretary of State. Jefferson stated on May 6 that “The President shews me a draught of a lre from Colo. H. to the Collectors of the customs, desirg them to superintend their neighborhood, watch for all acts of our citizens contrary to laws of neutrality or tending to infringe those laws, & inform him of it; & particularly to see if vessels should be building pierced for guns. I told the Pr. that at a conference a few days before Colo. H. & E. R. had concurred in opn agt. me that for us to build and sell vessels fit for war would be a breach of neutrality, but that I understood them as agreeing that no opn should go from the public on that question as not being now necessary: that as the 1st part of the letter I did not of a sudden decide it to be improper.—he, on this, returned the (draught) to Ham. with a desire that he, E. R. & myself would confer on it” (Ford, Writings of Jefferson description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1892–1899). description ends , I, 227–28). Jefferson soon had second thoughts concerning his agreement, and on May 8, 1793, he wrote to Randolph as follows:

“I have been still reflecting on the draught of the letter from the Secretary of the Treasury to the Custom house officers, instructing them to be on the watch as to all infractions or tendencies to infraction of the laws of neutrality by our citizens & to communicate the same to him. When this paper was first communicated to me, tho’ the whole of it struck me disagreeably, I did not in the first moment see clearly the improprieties but of the last clause. The more I have reflected, the more objectionable the whole appears.

“By this proposal the Collectors of the customs are to be made an established corps of spies or informers against their fellow citizens, whose actions they are to watch in secret, inform against in secret to the Secretary of the Treasury, who is to communicate it to the President.… This will at least furnish the collector with a convenient weapon to keep down a rival, draw a cloud over an inconvenient censor, or satisfy mere malice & private enmity.

“The object of this new institution is to be to prevent infractions of the laws of neutrality, & preserve our peace with foreign nations. Acts involving war, or proceedings which respect foreign nations, seem to belong either to the department of war, or to that which is charged with the affairs of foreign nations. But I cannot possibly conceive how the superintendance of the laws of neutrality, or the preservation of our peace with foreign nations can be ascribed to the department of the treasury, which I suppose to comprehend merely matters of revenue. It would be to add a new & a large field to a department already amply provided with business, patronage, & influence.…” (AL, letterpress copy, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.)

On May 9, 1793, Randolph replied as follows:

“You recollect, that I was on the point of making your very objection, as deserving consideration, when you mentioned it. It was impossible not to have heard, that the revenue-officers have been suspected to be a corps, trained to the arts of spies, in the service of the Treasury. Awake as I was to this conjecture, I wished not only to guard against the practice, but to submit it to an accurate inquiry.

“I accordingly asked Colo. H. whether his correspondence has at any time been directed to the prying into the conduct of individuals, or even an inspection over the legislatures. He solemnly appealed to his letter-books for a proof of the negative.

“Viewing then his draught, as unconnected with past suspicions, I could discover nothing, opposed to my judgment.

“Was there ever a government, which hesitated to gather information from its executive officers? If their duties are defined; still it may reasonably be expected, that they will readily transmit general intelligence to the fountainhead. A refusal might not be the ground of an impeachment; but under the strictest constitution it would be deemed an indecorum.… the collectors are, from their position near the water, the scene of those violations, best qualified to assist congress.…

“Why too, may not the collectors be requested, to represent any unlawful actions, which fall more immediately under their notice, to the district attornies?.…

“It is true, that the original draught proposed, that a report should be made to the secretary of the treasury. But this was agreed to be erased upon my suggestion; so that the intercourse was confined to the attorney alone. This correction goes very far into your main objection.…” (AL, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.)

The dispute was settled in accordance with Randolph’s suggestion. Jefferson wrote to James Madison on May 13 that Randolph “found out a hair to split, which, as always happens, became the decision. H. is to write to the collectors of the customs, who are to convey their information to the Attornies of the districts, to whom E. R. is to write to receive their information & proceed by indictment. The clause respecting the building vessels pierced for guns was omitted. For tho’ 3. against 1. thought it would be a breach of neutrality, yet they thought we might defer giving a public opinion on it as yet” (AL, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress).

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