Edmund Randolph to Alexander Hamilton,
Henry Knox, and William Bradford
Philadelphia April 14. 1794.
The President wishes your opinion, as to the step, proper to be taken, upon the inclosed address.1 To send to congress, what the President thinks unfit for himself, will be unkindly received; being uncivil in itself. To acknowledge the body, as such, is in every view inadmissible. So that the question seems to turn upon this; whether it be better to treat the paper with unqualiffied and silent contempt; or to return it to James Marshal, as an individual, to this effect; “that the President receives no applications from a body, as such, whose constitution is not known in the laws; and that the paper is therefore returned to him, as the individual, from whom it came.” Silent contempt I prefer.2
I have the honor, gentlemen to be with great respect Yr. mo. ob. serv.
The Secretary of the Treasury,
The Secretary of War, and
The Attorney general of the U S.
DS, RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters, 1790–1799, National Archives; LC, RG 59, Domestic Letters of the Department of State, Vol. 6, January 2–June 26, 1794, National Archives.
1. The enclosure, dated March 24, 1794, is entitled “The Remonstrance of the Democratic Society of the County of Washington, in Pennsylvania.” Addressed “To the President and Congress of the United States of America” and signed by “James Marshel, President,” it reads in part as follows: “That your Remonstrants are entitled by nature and by stipulation, to the undisturbed Navigation of the river Mississippi, and consider it a right inseperable from their prosperity.…
“Long have your Remonstrants been anxiously in quest of the obstacles that have stood in your way to the establishment of this our right; and as long has their pursuit been fruitless.…
“Your Remonstrants yield not in patriotism to any of their fellow-citizens: but patriotism, like every other thing, has its bounds. We love those states from which we were all congregated, and no event (not even an attempt to barter away our best rights) shall alien our affections from the individual members who compose them. But attachment to governments cease to be natural, when they cease to be mutual. To be subjected to all the burthens, and enjoy none of the benefits arising from government is what we will never submit to. Our situation compels us to speak plainly. If wrechedness and poverty await us, it is of no concern to us how they are produced. We are gratified in the prosperity of the Atlantic states, but would not speak the language of truth and sincerity, were we not to declare our unwillingness to make any sacrifices to it, when their importance and those sacrifices result from our distresses. If the interest of Eastern America requires that we should be kept in poverty, it is unreasonable from such poverty to exact contributions. The first, if we cannot emerge from, we must learn to bear; but the latter, we never can be taught to submit to.
“From the General Government of America, therefore, your Remonstrants now ask protection, in the free enjoyment of the navigation of the river Mississippi, which is withheld from them by the Spaniards. We demand it as a right which you have the power to invest us with, and which not to exert, is as great a breach of our rights, as to withhold. We declare, that nothing can retribute us for the suspension or loss of this inestimable right. We declare it to be a right which must be obtained; and do also declare, that if the General Government will not procure it for us, we shall hold ourselves not answerable for any consequences that may result from our own procurement of it. The God of nature has given us both the right and means of acquiring and enjoying it; and to permit a sacrifice of it to any earthly consideration, would be a crime against ourselves and against our posterity.” (ADS, RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters, 1790–1799, National Archives.)
On April 11, 1794, Washington sent this remonstrance to Randolph with the following comments: “The fruit of the Democratic Society begins, more and more, to unfold itself. You will report what is necessary to be done with the specimen of it which I herewith send …” (AL, RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters, 1790–1799, National Archives).
2. At the bottom of this letter H, Knox, and Bradford wrote and signed their opinions, which read as follows:
“I am of opinion that no answer should be given but that the Paper should be referred to the Atty General to examine carefully if it does not contain criminal matter & that if it does it ought to be put in a train of prosecution.
“No prosecution—but no answer of any sort.
“The Language of the petition is exceedingly reprehensible and improper: but I doubt whether it would be considered per se, as a proper subject for a criminal prosecution, without some extrinsic proof of a seditious intention. The ‘right of petitioning for redress of grievances’ is so solemnly gauranteed by the Constitution and so jealously guarded, that Juries are apt to consider an attempt to correct it[s] abuses, unless very flagrant, as an attack upon the right itself; & they regard these improprieties merely as excressences which it is dangerous to touch. More exceptionable matter appears frequently in the public prints: but these abuses are endured from a fear of injuring the freedom of the press. An unsuccessful prosecution for seditious writings generally does harm: and independant of any legal doubt, this does not seem to be a case that will certainly ensure a conviction. I therefore think it best to treat the paper with the contempt it deserves.