To Rufus King
[New York, May 1, 1798]1
My Dear Sir
It is a great while since I received a line from you—nor indeed have I deserved one. The vortex of business, in which I have been, having kept me from writing to you. At this moment I presume you will not be sorry to know my opinion as to the course of our public affairs.
In Congress, a good spirit is gaining ground; and though measures march slowly, there is reason to expect that almost every thing which the exigency requires will be done. The plan is, present defence against depredations by sea and preparations for eventual danger by land. In the community, indignation against the French Government and a firm resolution to support our own discover themselves dayly by unequivocal symptoms. The appearances are thus far highly consoling.
But in this posture of things, how unfortunate is it, that the new instructions issued by Great Britain, which appear, according to the reports of the day, to be giving rise to many abusive captures of our vessels,2 are likely to produce a counter current—and to distract the public dissatisfaction between two powers, who it will be said are equally disposed to plunder and oppress. In vain will it be urged that the British Government cannot be so absurd as at such a juncture to intend us injury. The effects will be alone considered and they will make the worst possible impression. By what fatality has the British Cabinet been led to spring any new mine, by new regulations, at such a crisis of affairs? What can be gained to counterballance the mischievous tendency of abuses? Why are weapons to be furnished to our Jacobins?
It seems the captured vessels are carried to the Mole* where there is a virtuous Judge of the name of Comboult disposed to give sanction to plunder in every shape.3 Events are not yet sufficiently unfolded to enable us to judge of the extent of the mischief—but nothing can be more unlucky than that the door has been opened. The recency of the thing may prevent your hearing any thing about it from the Government by this opportunity.
* It is said Privateers are fitting out at Antigua & St Kitts.4
R King Esq.
ALS, New-York Historical Society, New York City.
1. Although this letter is undated, it is endorsed: “May Packet. 1798 recd June 8th.” In JCHW description begins John C. Hamilton, ed., The Works of Alexander Hamilton (New York, 1851–1856). description ends , VI, 287, and HCLW description begins Henry Cabot Lodge, ed., The Works of Alexander Hamilton (New York, 1904). description ends , X, 283, this letter is dated “May, 1798.”
2. On January 25, 1798, Great Britain revoked its order of January 8, 1794, and substituted the following order: “… And whereas in consideration of the present state of the Commerce of this Country, as well as that of neutral Countries, it is expedient to revoke the said Instructions, we are pleased hereby to revoke the same, and in lieu thereof, we have thought fit to issue these our Instructions to be observed from henceforth, by the Commanders of all our Ships of war and Privateers that have or may have Letters of marque against France Spain and the united Provinces.
“1. That they shall bring in, for lawful adjudication, all vessels, with their Cargoes, that are laden with Goods the Produce of any Island, or Settlement belonging to France, Spain, or the united Provinces, and coming directly from any Port of the said Islands, or Settlements to any Port in Europe not being a Port of this Kingdom, nor a port of that Country to which such Ships, being neutral Ships shall belong.
“2. That they shall bring in, for lawful adjudication all Ships with their Cargoes, that are laden with Goods the Produce of the said Islands or Settlements, the property of which Goods shall belong to subjects of France Spain or the united Provinces, to whatsoever Ports the same may be bound.
“3. That they shall seize all Ships that shall be found attempting to enter any Port of the said Islands or Settlements, that is or shall be, blockaded by the arms of His Majesty, and shall send them in with their Cargoes, for adjudication, according to the Terms of the second article of the former Instructions, bearing date the 8th. day of June 1793.
“4. That they shall seize all vessels laden wholly, or in part with Naval or Military Stores, bound to any Port of the said Islands or Settlements, and shall send them into some convenient Port belonging to His Majesty, in order that they, together with their Cargoes, may be proceeded against according to the Rules of the Law of Nations.” (Copy, RG 59, Despatches from United States Ministers to Great Britain, 1792–1870, Vol. 7, January 9–December 22, 1798, National Archives; copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.)
3. On December 5, 1797, Timothy Pickering wrote to King: “Another grievance, which has for some time past excited much complaint, is the proceeding of the Judge of the Court of vice-admiralty in St. Domingo. This Court was erected by governor [John Graves] Simcoe, who appointed a Mr. Richard Cambauld the judge.…
“It is not only the frequence of captures that are made, that complaints have been preferred; but the judge … has an extraordinary facility in condemning.…” (LC, RG 59, Diplomatic and Consular Instructions of the Department of State, 1791–1801, Vol. 4, February 1, 1797–November 30, 1798, National Archives.)
Again, in a letter to Samuel Sewall, dated December 27, 1797, Pickering wrote: “Few complaints have been made of American vessels being captured by the British; except such as have been conducted within the jurisdiction of a Court of Vice Admiralty lately organized at the Mole of St. Nickolas” (Naval Documents, Quasi-War, February, 1797–October, 1798 description begins Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War Between the United States and France: Naval Operations from February 1797 to October 1798 (Washington, D.C., 1935). description ends , 21).
On February 26, 1798, King wrote to Pickering: “Annexed you have Copies of three Notes which I have lately received from Lord Grenville—the first is an answer to my Note respecting the Proceedings of the vice admiralty Court at St. Domingo. As this Court was not legally constituted, its proceedings are void, and those who have suffered from its acts are referred … to the High Court of Admiralty for redress …” (LS, RG 59, Despatches from United States Ministers to Great Britain, 1792–1870, Vol. 7, January 9–December 22, 1798, National Archives).
On February 20, 1798, Grenville had written to King: “Lord Grenville presents his compliments to Mr. King and has the honor to inform him, in answer to his Note of the 3d. instant, that he does not find on Enquiry that any regular authority has been given for the Institution of the vice-Admiralty Court at St. Domingo mentioned in that note: It does not belong to Lord Grenville to anticipate the Decisions of the regular Courts here in any Individual cases. The proper resort of such Parties as may conceive themselves to be aggrieved by the proceedings had in St. Domingo, is to the high Court of admiralty in this Kingdom, where claims must be given, and the consequent legal steps taken thereupon; and there is no doubt that the Judgement of the Court will be guided by the same principles as have already been acted upon in cases of a similar nature” (copy, RG 59, Despatches from United States Ministers to Great Britain, 1792–1870, Vol. 7, January 9–December 22, 1798, National Archives).
In May, 1798, Robert Liston reported to Grenville that the Adams Administration was complaining of the unusually severe sentences handed out by the British Admiralty Court which recently had been established at Môle-Saint-Nicolas, Santo Domingo (Mayo, Instructions to British Ministers description begins Bernard Mayo, ed., “Instructions to the British Ministers to the United States,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1936 (Washington, 1941), III. description ends , 160, note 43).
Grenville, on June 8, 1798, replied: “Immediate Enquiry shall be made respecting the Court of Vice Admiralty at Cape Nicola Mole. I have no knowledge that any such Court exists there, under any competent Authority. If, as I apprehend will be found the Case, it has been irregularly established, Directions will without Delay be given for it’s being discontinued, and in that Case the Government of the United States will be aware that all it’s Proceedings will be considered here as Nullities” (Mayo, Instructions to British Ministers description begins Bernard Mayo, ed., “Instructions to the British Ministers to the United States,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1936 (Washington, 1941), III. description ends , 160).
For newspaper reports on the activities of the British Vice Admiralty Court at Môle-Saint Nicolas, see the [Philadelphia] Aurora. General Advertiser, June 7, 9, 11, 1798.
4. On April 30, 1798, the following item appeared in the Gazette of the United States, and Philadelphia Daily Advertiser: “Captain [William] H[ampton, of the brig Sally] further informs, that in consequence of the late instructions of the Court of London, respecting neutrals, several privateers were fitting out at St. Kitt’s, and 9 at Antigua.…”