Alexander Hamilton Papers

To Alexander Hamilton from James McHenry, 11 April 1799

From James McHenry

War Department
11th April 1799


Governor St Clair1 has made a representation to me in a letter dated the 18th of February of which I enclose you a copy,2 by which it appears that much discontent, and uneasiness has been occasioned by the proclamation of Martial law at Detroit.3 To give a full view of the subject, I have also enclosed extracts from a correspondence between the Secretary of War and Brigadier General Wilkinson relative to the same business.

By the first extract of a letter from the Secretary of War to Brigadier General Wilkinson dated 25 of July 17974 you will perceive that it has been recommended to the commanding officer to suspend, or modify the military law, when no external danger was to be apprehended, so as only to suppress those practices, or sales of liquor to soldiers which incapacitates them from doing their duty, and render the Indians less manageable, and more burdensome.

The second extract from the Secretary of War to General Wilkinson states,5 generally, the complaints made by the Inhabitants of Detroit, and the President’s wish that, if circumstances will admit, the rigor of military law should not be exercised.

The third extract is from a letter of Brigadier General Wilkinson’s to the Secretary of War dated Pittsburg March 8th 17986 contains his reasons for proclaming martial law and the necessity there is for its continuance. This letter contains extracts from the general orders issued by the commandant of Detroit while under the British government; by these extracts it appears that the Inhabitants of Detroit have always been subject to martial law since the year 1785.

As this is a subject which requires particular and immediate attention, I request that as soon as you have given it the necessary consideration, you will cause such orders to be issued as the circumstances of the case may require.

I have the honor to be, with great respect, Sir, your most Obt Hb St

James McHenry

ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress; ALS, letterpress copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.

1Arthur St. Clair was governor of the Territory Northwest of the River Ohio. A veteran of the American Revolution, he was a member of the Continental Congress from 1785 to 1787 and a major general and commander of the United States Army in 1791 and 1792.

2Copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.

3This proclamation, which James Wilkinson signed at Detroit on July 12, 1797, reads in part: “To guard the National Interests against the Machinations of its Enemies secret and overt, foreign or domestic, To baffle the arts of seduction which have led to numberless desertions from the public service and to restrain the licentiousness, and the infamous habits of drunkenness, encouraged among the Troops, by the disorderly conduct of the vendors of Ardent Spirits—The commander in chief considers it a duty … to declare martial Law, within the line of the Guards, and the limits of the Fortifications of the place and he hereby … declares that from and after the date of these presents, all persons resorting or residing within the limits aforesaid, shall be held and considered as followers of the Army, and will be treated accordingly without respect to persons or allegience. It is at the same time declared, that no hindrance will be opposed to the functions of the civil Magistrates, or to the due process of Laws of the Territory” (copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress).

4Copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.

5Copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.

6Copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.

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