Alexander Hamilton Papers

From Alexander Hamilton to Caleb Swan, 24 May 1800

To Caleb Swan1

Camp Scotch Plains [New Jersey]
May 24th. 1800


I send you the copy of a letter of the 14th. instant from Capt Ellery2 with the documents to which it refers.

If my recollection be right, there lies an appeal from the Accountant to the Comptroller of the Treasury.3 If so, I request that you will, without delay, on behalf of Capt Ellery make an appeal.

After much reflection, I do not perceive any sound distinction between special compensations to persons not of the army and similar compensations to officers of the army for services which do not appertain to the nature of their officers. Their established compensations cannot be presumed to embrace such services; as to those, they are mere strangers, with the sole difference that being already in the employ and pay of the Government, it is reasonable they should receive less allowances.

If, as the practice admits, it is within Executive Discretion to allow special compensations to strangers payable out of the fund for contingencies, it must be on the principle that such services being casually necessary and not provided for by law, it is requisite to the progress of the service and agreeable to an implied license in the appropriation of the funds, that they should be called forth and recompenced by Executive authority. And the same principle would extend to allowances to particular officers for services which the law did not contemplate that they were to perform and consequently did not provide for.

The interest of the service will manifestly be promoted by this extension. In numerous instances officers may be made use of for such purposes without interfering with the parts of the service for which they were destined, and in all such instances, as their allowances will be less than would be made to strangers, there will be œconomy in employing them; besides that in many cases they are best qualified and in some situations other qualified persons could not be found at all.

To say that special compensations for special services is in no case within Executive Discretion would be contrary to uniform usage and would arrest the wheels of every branch of the Government. In the military service especially innumerable casualties occur in which the exercise of that Discretion is indispensable.

What is to be done? A person is appointed Lieutenant of a Regiment; there is a certain routine of duties incident to the station. These are foreign to the clerical and peculiar duties attached to different branches of the staff. These, besides demanding particular qualifications frequently involved close application and constant drudgery.

Suppose an officer is called to exchange the one station for the other, without an equivalent for the additional labour and skill, may he not reasonably decline it & say, this service is not within the terms of my undertaking with the public?

Suppose even that the despotism of military subordination would not tolerate a refusal, could a service proceed with harmony and satisfaction and advantage in which such a despotism was exercised?

Will it be said that the future justice of the Legislature is to be relied upon? Will officers chearfully undertake or assiduously perform on such precarious ground? Is it right to compromit a commanding General by laying him under the necessity of giving expectations which may not be realised?

There can be no doubt in this question where justice and expediency point; and though first appearances may countenance the distinction which has been made, a more thorough view of the subject shews it to be too nice and subtil for practice.

I trust that the Comptroller on mature consideration will reject the distinction. You will please to communicate to him this letter that he may see the reasoning on which I gave my sanction to Capt Ellery for the expenditure which he has made. It may be depended upon that the business of the Department absolutely required it.

with great cons

The Pay Master General

ADf, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.

2On May 12, 1800, William Simmons, accountant of the War Department, wrote to Abraham Ellery, who was assistant adjutant general: “Your accounts & Vouchers for money disbursed by you for clerk Services rendered by Sundry persons in the Department of the Adjutant General, have been handed me by The secretary of War. On examination of them I find that the greater part of your payments have been made to Officers of the Army whose pay and allowances being fixed by Law—I am of opinion can be increased but by the same authority; under this impression I shall be under the necessity of deducting all such payments from your account, and only allowing those sums which were paid other than to officers of the Army …” (ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress; LC, RG 217, Records of the General Accounting Office, Letter Books, Accountant’s Office, Vol. G, February 28, 1800–June 11, 1801, National Archives).

On May 14, 1800, in a letter to H which is listed in the appendix to this volume, Ellery enclosed Simmons’s letter of May 12 and wrote: “I do myself the honor of enclosing you my accounts and vouchers for monies disbursed by me in this Office, and also the Accountants of War’s letter, finally rejecting and returning them: at the same time, I feel a sensible regret and mortification, in again intruding upon your time, and taking your patience; a regret & mortification, encreased, by my unavoidably feeling myself, in some measure, in the situation of a person, rather making exertions, and pushing interest, to obtain favors, than to validate & secure a claim.…”

3John Steele.

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