To Rufus King
[Philadelphia, June 15, 1793]
The ideas expressed in your letter of the 14th1 correspond with my view of the subject, in general. I did not perceive that any process could be devised to detain the Privateer and concluded that the issue would be to leave her in military custody. Indeed I believe this was rather the expectation with all, though it was thought adviseable to make the experiment of a reference to the Civil Tribunal.
With regard to the Catharine2 I also entertain the doubt you appear to have. In the case of the Grange,3 the surrender was brought about by a demand of Mr. Genet and his interposition. But it was in contemplation of employing the Military in case of refusal.
Yet since that time a libel has been filed in the District Court in the case of another vessel4 alleged to have been captured within the limits of our Jurisdiction. And both Mr. Lewis5 and Mr. Rawle6 Atty of the District hold that the District or Admiralty Court will take cognizance of this question. They argue that it would be a great chasm in the law that there should not be some competent judicial authority to do justice between parties in the case of an illegal seizure within our jurisdiction. That the Court of Admiralty has naturally cognizance of tortious takings on the high seas & as she gives relief in rem, may cause a redelivery. That though as a general principle a Court of a Neutral Nation will not examine the question of prize or not prize, between belligerent Powers—yet this principle must except the case of the infraction of the Jurisdiction of the Neutral Power itself. Quoad this fact its Courts will interpose & give relief.
This is their reasoning and it has much force. The desire of the Executive is to have the point ascertained & if possible to put the affair in this train. There may arise nice disputes about the fact and nice points about the extent of jurisdiction at sea which the Courts had best settle.
The Contest in form must as you say be between the Owners and the Captors. For this purpose Mr. Hammond is to cause the proper instructions to be given.
R King Esq
ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.
1. Letter not found.
4. This is a reference either to the William, a British merchantman captured by the Citizen Genet on May 3, 1793, or to the Fanny, a British brigantine captured on May 8 by the Sans Culotte. British officials maintained that both ships were captured within United States territorial waters. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, dated June 5, 1793, George Hammond, the British Minister to the United States, described the complications arising out of the capture of these ships as follows:
“… The Ship William of Glasgow, Captain Leggett, was some time ago captured by a privateer Schooner named Le Citoyen Genêt fitted out at Charleston, and was sent as prize to this port, but some doubts having been entertained with respect to the validity of the commission of the Schooner which made the capture (and which is now also in this harbour) a suit was instituted by the agent for the Owners of the Ship William in the district federal Court of this state, for the purpose of obtaining its opinion on this subject. Another point will also I understand be submitted to the court viz. that the Ship William was captured within the jurisdiction of the United States. Of the truth of this last mentioned fact of which I had prior information, I have now obtained such corroborating testimony as I am persuaded will be satisfactory to the general government of the United States should the district Court deem itself incompetent either to the requisition or enforcement of the restitution of the vessel captured. In consequence of this suit the Ship William and the property on board are now under attachment by the Marshall of the district Court. The Court will give judgment on this question on Friday next. But if its decision be unfavorable to the restoration of the Ship, I am apprehensive lest attachment being taken off, the vessell may be sent to sea so speedily as to preclude the effect of any application relative to it which I may deem it expedient to make. I therefore venture to hope that the general government of the United States will either direct the attachment now subsisting to be continued or will adopt any other measures that may tend to prevent the vessel from departing until it shall have investigated and formed some determination on the evidence which I shall lay before it without delay, in order to substantiate the fact of the Ship William having been captured within the jurisdiction of the United States.
“As I expect at the same time to be enabled to offer testimony establishing a similar state of facts relative to the brig Fanny Captain Pyle now lying in this harbour, as a prize to another privateer fitted out at Charleston named the Sans Culottes, and also under an attachment from the Marshall of the district Court, I hope that the general government will prevent that vessel also from sailing until that point can be ascertained.” (LS, RG 59, Notes from the British Legation in the United States to the Department of State, Vol. 1, October 26, 1791–August 15, 1794, National Archives.)
5. William Lewis, former United States judge for the District of Pennsylvania, had resigned on April 11, 1792.
6. William Rawle was United States attorney for the District of Pennsylvania.
8. H and Robert Troup had been close friends since the time when both had been undergraduates at King’s College. In 1793 Troup was a New York City attorney and clerk of the New York District Court.