From John Williams1
Philadelphia 7th June 1797
We shall be this day be engaged on the Subject of Regulating the Arming of Merchantmen.2 A dificualty ariseth with me respecting the Construction of our Treaty with France.3 Our Vessels will Claim a right as the Treaty with France expresseth. The French will exact the Decree of 2d March last4—hence both will be Authorized by their respective Nations and which will be diametrically Oposite each other.
Again: Victor Hughs has declared all American Vessels Taken Armed shall be treated as Pirates.5
Thus while on the One hand our Commerce Suffers—and on the other its Susceptible of commencing a misunderstanding which will probably lead to a War—which ought to be avoided. No talk of Embargo—only giving the Executive the Power in case of Emergency.
We shall direct the completion of Fortification but believe will only order the Frigates finished and probably Manned.
Do not believe we shall purchase Vessels for War or Order Convoys.
As it (in my Opinion) behoves us to Act with caution til we learn the Event of the Negociation, I am at present for pursuing the same measures as in the year 1794. Should the Negociation fail and France not be Satisfied with being put on an Equal footing with Other Nations—We shall be Unanimous in our Opposition.
Any remarks on these subjects or any other will be thankfully received By Your Humble Servt
I am told the Lt. Governor6 is in New York and Mrs. Van Rensselaer is very unwell if so please make my Complts. respectful to them.
ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.
1. Williams, a native of England, emigrated to America in 1773 and settled in what is now Washington County, New York. A veteran of the American Revolution, he served in the New York Assembly in 1781 and 1782 and in the state Senate in 1777 and 1778 and again from 1782 to 1785. He was a member of the New York Ratifying Convention in 1788 and of the Council of Appointment in 1789. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1795 and served until March 3, 1799.
2. On June 5, 1797, William Loughton Smith introduced in the House of Representatives ten resolutions designed to strengthen the defense of the United States. See H to Smith, April 10, 1797, note 12. The fifth of these resolutions, stating “that provision be made by law, for regulating the arming of the merchant vessels of the United States,” came up for debate in the House on June 7, 1797 (Annals of Congress description begins The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature (Washington, 1834–1849). description ends , VII, 239, 253).
3. This is a reference to Article 23 (originally 25) of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce of 1778 between the United States and France, which stipulated that “free Ships shall also give a freedom to Goods” (Miller, Treaties, II description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America (Washington, 1931), II. description ends , 21).
6. Stephen Van Rensselaer.