Alexander Hamilton Papers

To Alexander Hamilton from James McHenry, 20 July 1799

From James McHenry

Philadelphia, July 20, 1799. “Mr Jonathan Williams the gentleman I had intended for an assistant to Mr. Francis1 has suggested to me that he would be glad you should read certain papers explanatory of his conduct in a transaction relative to his Father in law Mr Alexander,2 which Mr Francis, on a representation by Mr Morris had viewed in a criminal light, and objected to the proposed association on that account. The inclosed papers3 are those alluded to with my letter which accompanied them. From the vague manner Mr. Francis expressed himself when he returned them, neither wholly acquitting nor blaming him I do not think the appointment can take place with his consent. Can I make it without his consent? Your regulations for supplying the army4 contemplates assistants to the Purveyor and as Mr Francis is also Purveyor for the Navy Department can I give him an assistant without the concurrence of the Secry. of the Navy? These questions require some attention. I proposed to the Secy. of the Navy a joint letter to Mr. Francis on the subject of his resigning absolutely the office.… So the matter rests at present. Nothing is suffering in the mean time.…”5

ADfS, James McHenry Papers, Library of Congress.

2William Alexander was the son of an Edinburgh, Scotland, banker. He lived in Saint-Germain, France, until 1783, when he moved to Virginia.

Throughout the seventeen-eighties, Alexander and Robert Morris were involved in several schemes to monopolize the tobacco trade between the United States and France. In September, 1783, Alexander and Williams contracted to supply the French Farmers-General with fifteen thousand hogsheads of tobacco from the United States annually for three years at thirty livres tournois per quintal. Williams, who at that time was living at Nantes, managed the business in France, while Alexander went to Virginia to purchase the tobacco. Because of a shortage of funds and in an effort to establish their credit, they secretly offered Morris a one-third interest in the contract.

Because Alexander had been unable to live up to the terms of the contract, Morris was able to secure a new agreement with the Farmers-General early in 1785. Under the terms of this new contract, Morris supplied twenty thousand hogsheads of United States tobacco annually for three years at thirty-six livres tournois per quintal. In July, 1786, Alexander, originally Morris’s silent partner, decided to accept a commission on each hogshead instead of a share of the business.

The tobacco monopoly met with so much opposition from French and American merchants that the Farmers-General and members of the French government met at Berni and on May 24, 1786, modified their plans. Although the terms of Morris’s contract would be fulfilled, the Farmers-General agreed to purchase an additional twelve thousand to fifteen thousand hogsheads of tobacco annually from other merchants in the United States.

Because of problems concerning the quality of tobacco Morris provided and the failure of London banking houses to honor his drafts, he faced financial difficulties when his tobacco contract ended late in 1787. Alexander, on the other hand, had profited from their partnership, for he had purchased public securities with the funds Morris had advanced for the purchase of tobacco. In July, 1787, he owed Morris more than fifty-four thousand pounds, Virginia currency, which Morris had provided for advances to subagents and individual merchants. After Morris and Alexander dissolved their business connections in 1787, both men brought suit in the Virginia Court of Chancery in an effort to settle their accounts. In 1800 the Court decided in Morris’s favor.

During the legal controversy Williams served as a mediator between Alexander and John T. Griffin, a Virginia merchant. Alexander had advanced money to Griffin on his tobacco contract, and Griffin pledged bonds and other certificates as security. When Griffin failed to meet his payments, he sold his title to these securities to Morris, who tried to collect from Alexander.

For information on the tobacco trade, see Jacob M. Price, France and the Chesapeake: A History of the French Tobacco Monopoly, 1674–1791, and of Its Relationship to the British and American Tobacco Trades, II (Ann Arbor, 1973). See also the undated opinion of the Court of Chancery; Morris’s undated answer to the bill of complaint filed against him and Griffin in Chancery by Alexander and his company; Morris’s answers in Chancery to Alexander’s bills of complaint, October 8, 1789, June 15, 1796, June 4, 1798; affidavits of Griffin, June 2, 1791, January 16, 1792 (Arents Tobacco Collection, New York Public Library).

3On July 3, 1799, McHenry wrote to Tench Francis, purveyor of public supplies: “I communicated to Mr Jonathan Williams, the Gentleman I informed you I contemplated with the approbation of the Secretary of the Navy [Benjamin Stoddert], as a suitable Character for the appointment of assistant purveyor, the unfavourable allegations you intimated to me against his Character, founded on certain conduct of Mr. Williams in the Course of a legal controversy, to which Mr Robt Morris was a party.

“Mr Williams in consequence lodged in my hands the enclosed papers. I have read and attentively considered them, and must suppose that after doing the same, you will agree with me in Opinion that they refute the allegations. You will please to return the papers to me after you have perused them.” (Copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.)

On August 6, 1799, McHenry wrote to Williams: “I inclose a copy of my letter dated July 3d. ulto. to Tench Francis, the Purveyor of public supplies, relative to certain allegations he had intimated to me, unfavourable to your character and communicating to him, certain papers, you had deposited in my hands, to prevent the allegations from making an undue impression on my mind.

“The opinion I therein expressed I have not for a moment doubted of. I still think that your letters, and the papers mentioned, completely refute the allegations made.

“If I should not for the present, have it in my power, to derive the facilities, in the business of my Department, I expected from your services, and abilities, in the station of an assistant Purveyor, you may be assured I shall take a sincere pleasure in recommending you, when proper, to an appointment, in which your industry, intelligence, and integrity will qualify you to render good service to your country.” (ALS, James McHenry Papers, Library of Congress; copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.)

On August 8, 1799, Williams wrote to McHenry: “I have been honored with your interesting Favour of the 6 Inst.

“Nothing is so valuable to my mind as the good Opinion of respectable Characters, and nothing so detestable as the calumnious whispers of interested & designing men.

“Your conduct towards me claims my sincere and gratefull acknowledgments; you have sir, three times endeavoured to attach me to your department without my having even a knowledge of the object at the time you were taking measures to obtain it, and when you found my reputation attacked, you immediately communicated the subject yourself, and gave me the Opportunity of making an effectual defence: This was as honorable as it was friendly.

“Let me beg of you sir, to act in the same manner on any future occasions resting assured that there can be no attack I am either ashamed or afraid to meet.” (Copy, in Williams’s handwriting, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.)

5In discussing his proposed appointment as assistant purveyor, Williams wrote to John Adams on May 18, 1800: “In the beginning of last summer he [McHenry] represented to me the advanced age of Mr Francis & the want of activity in his department, offering me (should you approve of it) the appointment of assistant purveyor & suggesting at the same time that, being once introduced as an assistant, I had a reasonable chance, in the natural course of things, to become a principal by survivorship. To this, I answered, that I was ready to perform any thing that could be acceptable to the Government. In the Secretarys mind this arrangement required only your approbation to make it conclusive; and of that I could not for a moment doubt.

“In this stage of the Business, a strange objection was raised by Mr Francis, which proceeded from a prejudice he had imbibed through the partial medium of Mr Morris, in consequence of the long legal warfare that has subsisted between him and my father in law, by which an act, to my conscience highly meritorious, was viewed with a jaundiced eye, & placed under false colours. The details of this matter would be tedious, but the Secretary of War has all the papers, and it would give me great satisfaction if this, and every wound, that has been, or may be, given to my reputation, could be probed to the bottom by your just & accurate investigation. The result of the Secretarys examination of the subject, is contained in the following extract of a Letter he wrote to me on the 6th of August last.…

“Thus satisfied on the score of Reputation I retired without a murmur, assuring the Secretary that I would hold myself ready to obey any orders he might give me.…” (ALS, Adams Family Papers, deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.)

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