Alexander Hamilton Papers

Certificate on Robert Lenox, [11 January 1796]

Certificate on Robert Lenox1

[New York, January 11, 1796]

I certify, that I have an impression on my memory as strong as a circumstance so remote, and of such a nature admits, of my having towards the close of our late war with Great Britain, understood from some of the officers charged on the part of the United States, with the affair of prisoners and from officers of our army, who had been prisoners with the British, that Robert Lenox, now of this city, merchant, then having some connections with some of the British commissaries’ of prisoners, had repeatedly manifested a kind and accommodating disposition towards our prisoners; an impression, which upon our regaining possession of New York, and my becoming acquainted with Mr. Lenox, induced me to shew him marks of cordiality and esteem.

Alexander Hamilton.

[New York] American Citizen and General Advertiser, March 5, 1802.

1Lenox, a native of Scotland, had migrated to New York City, where he became a prominent merchant and investor in real estate. He remained in New York City during part of the American Revolution and served the British as a clerk in the office of commissary of naval prisoners.

Lenox requested the above testimonial from H because his conduct during the American Revolution had recently been criticized. On December 25, 1795, in an article signed “One of the People,” the following charge was made against Lenox: “It is not so remarkable, that Lenox should sport with the liberty of an American citizen, whose employment in this city in the American Revolution, as I have been informed, was to embitter the miseries of the unfortunate American prisoners on board the memorable prison-ship, called the Old Jersey, that eternal disgrace to British humanity, and instrument of tory barbarities and murders. The way I came to know such a political paricide resided in this city (if I may be allowed the expression) as Robert Lenox, was a person’s mentioning in the country, to his great surprize, that he heard Robert Lenox was chosen an Alderman in the city of New-York. A person replied, he was sorry to hear of such an appointment, being impolitic and derogatory to the government, remarking that in consequence of refusing Lenox to inlist in the British army, he suffered three weeks longer confinement on board said prison-ship, suffering additional cruelties, and threatened with death if he would not comply; at which time, as he stated, there were from twenty to thirty dying daily with starvation, &c. to compel the prisoners to inlist, but with that firmness Americans possessed at that period, inspired with an enthusiastic zeal to establish the liberties of their country, the patriot informed Lenox, that he would not forsake his country, if he sacrificed his life; but happily for this virtuous freeman he was exchanged in three weeks after this base overture of the said Lenox, to force him to inlist. This tried patriot further observed, that he had once preferred death, rather than submit to this open enemy of his country under British tyranny, a diminution of which fortitude should never happen, by submitting to any exercise of power by Lenox over him in a free government, if it cost him his life, as a test of his unimpaired attachment to his country, base in gratitude to appoint such a character to an office in the government, to tyrannize over freemen of this description” (The [New York] Argus, or Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser, December 25, 1795). According to Alfred F. Young, The Democratic Republicans of New York: The Origins, 1763–1797 (Chapel Hill, 1967), 476, note 43, ‘William Keteltas was the author of the article signed “One of the People.” Lenox answered the charge in the same newspaper on December 28, 1795. See also The [New York] Argus, or Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser, December 23, 30, 1795.

The attack on Lenox by “One of the People” occurred at this time because Lenox, a New York City alderman and director of the New York branch of the Bank of the United States, had been recently involved in convicting two Brooklyn ferrymen, charged with insulting Gabriel Furman. a merchant and alderman in New York City, and threatening the life of high constable James Culbertson. Thomas Burk and Timothy Cradv. both Irish immigrants, had operated a ferry, which was owned by John Hicks, between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. In November, 1795, following their arrest on the order of Furman for insulting him in a quarrel over their refusal to operate the ferry for him outside the scheduled hours, they had been committed to jail. Their trial, without a jury and with Furman as the sole witness, was held before Federalist magistrates in the Court of General Sessions. The court consisted of Mayor Richard Varick and four aldermen, one of whom was Lenox. Convicted on two formal charges, Burk and Crady were each sentenced to two months’ hard labor, and Crady was also sentenced to twenty-five lashes. A month later both men escaped from jail and fled to Pennsylvania.

The case was then taken up by William Keteltas, a young Republican lawyer, who used it as a reason for attacking the “tyranny and partiality” of the court. In February, 1796, he criticized the New York Assembly, which had refused his petition that the magistrates be impeached, and he was charged by the Assembly with slander. By April, 1796, the case had become a major political issue. Keteltas, released from jail, where he had been committed for contempt of the Assembly, ran for that body. In the ensuing election Keteltas lost, but the Federalists won by the fairly narrow margin of 2,250 votes to 1,775. Later in the year H served as co-counsel with Keteltas in a damage suit which the latter had filed against the magistrates on behalf of Burk (Crady having died) in the New York Supreme Court. H achieved a compromise by arranging for the magistrates to settle with Burk out of court. In December, 1797, H served as chief counsel in the Circuit Court to William North, the former speaker of the Assembly, against whom Keteltas had brought a suit for arrest by improper procedures. The case was tried before a Federalist judge, John Sloss Hobart, without a jury and with Keteltas acting as his own advocate. Largely at H’s instigation, the suit was dismissed. See The [New York] Argus, or Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser, December 23, 25, 28, 30, 1795; The [New York] Time Piece, December 22, 1797. For a full account of these cases and their political repercussions, see Young, The Democratic Republicans of New York, 476–92; Sidney I. Pomerantz, New York, an American City, 1783–1803: A Study of Urban Life (Port Washington, New York, 1965 [2nd ed.]), 264–67.

Although H’s testimonial for Lenox was written in 1796, Lenox did not use it until six years later. On March 1, 1802, the [New York] American Citizen and General Advertiser, which was a continuation of The [New York] Argus, or Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser, revived the charge that Lenox had been guilty of cruelty to American prisoners during the Revolution. In answer to the charge, Lenox published a number of testimonials, among them the certificate by H printed above. Lenox’s letter, addressed “To the Editors of the American Citizen,” which enclosed the testimonials, reads: “In order to refute an attack made in some of your late papers on my name, and renewed in your paper of this morning with much violence, I request you to publish the inclosed papers.

“They were collected at the time they bear date, and some of them sent without application from me, for the purpose of being laid before the public on a similar occasion; but were then with-held.

“To them I will add my own declaration—that I never was in New York but a few weeks previous to the summer of 1779—that I never held a commission under his Britannic majesty—or any office or employment on board the prison ship Jersey—or any agency in victualling prisoners—or of any kind whatever, other than as a clerk in the commissary’s office, and occasionally going with flags of truce: But, that a great part of my time was taken up about my own concerns, having been nearly one half the period from the year 1779 to 1783 in the West Indies, at Charleston, and elsewhere.” ([New York] American Citizen and General Advertiser, March 5, 1802.)

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