Alexander Hamilton Papers

From Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, [28 February 1794]

To George Washington

[Philadelphia, February 28, 1794]

The Secretary of the Treasury presents his respects to the President, & has the honor to send him a Communication from the Commissioner of the Revenue, of this date,1 with its enclosures respecting the Survey comprehending Kentucke. Also a letter from the Collector of Charlestown of the 6th instant,2 with its enclosures respecting the case of the Spanish Vessel the St. Joseph.3 These dispatches appear to him important enough to be submitted to the particular attention of the President.

LC, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.

1Letter from Tench Coxe not found.

2Letter from Isaac Holmes not found.

3Although there were several Spanish ships named the St. Joseph (or San José) all of which had the misfortune to be captured by French privateers (see Melvin H. Jackson, Privateers in Charleston, 1793–1796 [Washington, 1969], 59, note 26), this is almost certainly a reference to the vessel which played so prominent a part in the case of Castello v Bouteille et al. in March, 1794 (Thomas Bee, Reports of Cases Adjudged in the District Court of South Carolina [Philadelphia, 1810], 29–34). The case arose when Captain Castello of the Spanish brigantine San José libeled fifty bales of cotton. In the words of Thomas Bee, United States judge for the District of South Carolina, “The libel states that Castello was owner and commander of the brigantine St. Joseph, which was loaded in the port of Carthagena by himself and other subjects of Spain, which is in amity with the United States. That on the 22d of September last, in his way to Cadiz, he was captured on the high seas by the sloop Fair Margaret, commanded by F. H. Hervieux, and carried into Cape Fear river in North Carolina. That two days after their arrival within the bar of Wilmington, the said sloop and brigantine suddenly weighed anchor and proceeded to sea. This is said to have been in consequence of directions from the president of the United States to the governor of North Carolina to take possession of the brigantine and deliver her up to the libellant.

“The libel further states that Hervieux then proceeded to Charleston, where, upon some agreement between him and the defendant [Jean] Bouteille, the latter went to sea in the Sans-pareille, and, at some distance from the bar of Charleston, took possession of the brigantine, landed the Spanish crew in Georgia, and brought the vessel into Charleston. Hervieux and his people had previously quitted her.

“The libel also states some proceedings respecting the brigantine and cargo in consequence of directions from the president of the United States to the governors of North and South Carolina, the latter of whom declined all interference. And the collector of Charleston, not thinking himself authorized to detain the vessel, she was finally left in the hands of Bouteille. Whereupon, by a decree of the consul of France, the said vessel and cargo were advertised and sold, except fifty bales of cotton, which were taken into the custody of the marshal of this court by a warrant issued therefrom. The libel concludes by praying restitution of vessel and cargo, and compensation for the detention of the same.” (Bee, Reports of Cases Adjudged in the District Court of South Carolina, 29–30.)

In commenting on this decision, a recent authority has written: “It is difficult to establish or fully to assess the influence that this case had in the rash of conspiracy and bald collusion between the French privateersmen and American officials that marked the year 1794, except to note the coincidence. The machinations, chicanery, and thimblerigging indulged in by the privateer operators, agents, and captains is attested to by the barebone records and correspondence which have survived from the court proceedings of the day.…

Castello v. Bouteille prepared the way for the entry of privateersmen whose operations steered the shadow line between legality and outright piracy, veering from one side to the other as circumstances demanded. The relatively simple deception practiced by Jean Bouteille and Henri Hervieux was elaborated with great ingenuity in subsequent days.” (Jackson, Privateers in Charleston, 1793–1796, 51–52.)

The case of the San José had further complications. At the time of her capture by the Fair Margaret, the San José carried gold amounting to forty thousand dollars, which belonged to the Spanish government. Hervieux took the gold in a pilot boat at night into Wilmington, North Carolina, where the Fair Margaret had been fitted out as a privateer in the spring of 1793 after her capture (as the Providence) by Hervieux, who at that time commanded the privateer le Vainqueur de la Bastille. Upon landing in Wilmington, Hervieux was charged with a breach of the revenue laws by William Cooke, captain of the North Carolina revenue cutter Diligence. Cooke confiscated the gold and turned it over to the United States deputy marshal, John Blakely, for safekeeping. Josef de Viar and Josef de Jaudenes, Spanish commissioners to the United States, subsequently brought suit to recover the gold and the San José as an illegal prize.

For the United States Government’s decision regarding the disposition of prizes taken by privateers armed in American ports, see “Cabinet Meeting. Proposed Rules Concerning Arming and Equipping of Vessels by Belligerents in the Ports of the United States,” July 29–30, 1793; “Cabinet Meeting. Opinion Respecting Certain French Vessels and Their Prizes,” August 5, 1793; “Cabinet Meetings. Opinion Concerning the Relations of the United States with Several European Countries,” November 1–22, 1793. Several depositions taken by Edward Jones, attorney for the Spanish commissioners, may be found in RG 59, Notes from the Spanish Legation in the United States to the Department of State, 1790–1906, February 26, 1790–August 16, 1794, National Archives. Additional details of the case may be found in letters that Richard Dobbs Spaight, governor of North Carolina, wrote to George Washington, Henry Knox, Jones, and Blakely from October, 1793, to April, 1794 (LC, North Carolina Department of History and Archives, Raleigh).

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