Conversation with Arthur Fenner1
[Newport, Rhode Island, June 25–26, 1800.] “Some time in the summer past, I believe in July,2 General Hamilton, an entire stranger to me further than the knowledge of him from his public character, came to my house in company with Colonels Christopher3 & Jeremiah Olney,4 General Barton,5 & Colonel Ogdon.6 General Hamilton was very familiar, open, & candid. He at once began the election of the President,7 supposing, as he said, that I should be one of the electors, to which no reply was made by me at that moment respecting my not being one. He observed that he had been to the eastward upon the business, & that it was concluded upon to run for Adams & C. C. Pinckney; that all New England would vote for them, and that the electors to the southward that voted for Adams would vote for Pinckney, & a number to the southward that voted for Jefferson would also vote for Pinckney, by which Mr. Pinckney would certainly succeed.
“I then asked him what Mr. Adams had done that he should be tipped out of the tail of the cart. He answered, that Mr. Adams could not succeed, & that it was better to lose the man than the measures. I replied that my attachment for Mr. Adams was much greater now than it was before when I gave him my vote;8 that he had sent envoys to France to endeavor to reconcile the two countries,9 & that there were great prospects of a happy issue; that he had disbanded an unnecessary army,10 & dismissed his secretaries who were opposed to his pacific measures,11 & that his eyes were now opened & he saw the danger he had run by being led by a set of men who were, in my opinion, under the influence of the British, & that it was my opinion Mr. Pinckney was too much attached to the British interest to be our chief magistrate, &c., &c., too much to write in a letter. He observed that as I had no acquaintance with Mr. Pinckney he would inform me that he was all before Mr. Jefferson for President. Mr. Jefferson was a man of no judgment; he could write a pretty book,12 it was true, & gave some hard words; that if I should hear the two converse together he was sure of my judgment coinciding with his. My reply was that I had said nothing respecting Jefferson; all that I had said was in favor of Adams. He replied, Adams is out of the question, it is Pinckney & Jefferson. I asked him if that was really the case; he answered in the affirmative; my reply was that if that was really the case, if I was an elector, if a hundred votes were my proportion to give, they would all be given for Jefferson in preference to Pinckney, for the British yoke I abhorred.
“I had considerable further conversation with (General Hamilton) respecting his knowledge of the votes in New England, and especially the votes in this State. He seemed very sanguine. I told him he could not tell who they would be, of course could not tell how they would vote. If the State was divided into districts, in my opinion the counties of Newport & Washington would give Jefferson their votes, but as it was a general ticket I had my doubts.
“This conversation was not divulged by me, as it took place in my house. I expected some of the gentlemen who heard it would first mention it; and so it was that Colonel Christopher Olney made it known at Hudson; through that channel it got into the Albany papers.”13
George Champlin Mason, Reminiscences of Newport (Newport, 1884), 112–13.
1. This conversation was reported in a letter written by Fenner and dated December 14, 1800. Although the addressee is not identified, it seems likely that the letter was sent to Christopher G. Champlin, a resident of Newport and a member of the House of Representatives from 1797 to 1801. See Mason, Reminiscences of Newport, 108–112.
For background to this document, see the to H to Benjamin Stoddert, June 6, 1800.
Fenner, who had been one of the leading opponents of the Federal Constitution in Rhode Island, was elected governor of that state in 1790 and held that office until his death in 1805.
3. Christopher Olney served as brigade major to Rhode Island troops during the American Revolution.
4. Jeremiah Olney, a prominent Rhode Island Federalist, was a lieutenant colonel in the First Rhode Island Regiment from May 14, 1781, until the end of the American Revolution. In 1789 he was appointed collector of customs at Providence.
5. William Barton was a lieutenant colonel of Stanton’s Regiment of Rhode Island troops from November, 1777, until the end of the war. In 1790 he became surveyor of the port of Providence and two years later was appointed inspector of the port.
6. Aaron Ogden.
8. As one of four presidential electors in Rhode Island in 1796, Fenner had cast his votes for John Adams and Oliver Ellsworth.
9. For the peace commission that Adams sent to France, see Timothy Pickering to H, February 25, 1799; H to George Washington, first letter of October 21, 1799, note 2.
10. “An Act supplementary to the act to suspend part of an act, intituled ‘An act to augment the Army of the United States, and for other purposes’” (2 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, I (Boston, 1845); II (Boston, 1850). description ends 85–86 [May 14, 1800]). For the text of this act, see H to Nathan Rice, May 13, 1800, note 1. See also “General Orders,” May 18, 1800; H to James Wilkinson, May 20, 1800.
12. See the to H to Stoddert, June 6, 1800, note 11.
13. On July 18, 1800, an article in the Albany Register stated: “The late tour of a certain great man to the eastern states, the ostensible object of which was, the disbandment of the useless army, it seems was not undertaken without another object, which it is of importance should be known to the people of these states in general. To make the necessary arrangements with certain friends of order in New-England, to secure the election to the Presidential chair—not of John Adams—for with some folks he is no longer ‘the rock on which the storm must beat’—but to place Charles Cotesworth Pinckney at the helm of our national affairs, engaged no small share of attention, and required the exertion of a very great share of finesse on the part of the Major-General. The eastern papers informed us how he was received in public by the anglo-federalists in Boston, etcetera, etcetera, and that in Massachusetts he held a close confab with several of the most distinguished members of what is there empathetically and justly termed the Essex or British Junto. But what degree of success his favourite design met with in that state, or in New-Hampshire or Connecticut, time alone must develope. But in the little state of Rhode-Island—there he was foiled. The man who is by far the most influential man in that state need not be named here. The General paid him a visit, and undertook to convince him that it had become absolutely necessary, if the ‘Jacobins’ were not too strong for them, to make a President out of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. The honest farmer listened attentively till the general had quite unbosomed himself—and then, in a manner which expressed his disapprobation of the scheme, replied laconically—What! is Mr. Adams to be tipp’d out of the cart? Why, rejoined the artful casuist, perceiving that he had ‘got the wrong sow by the ear,’ we had better lose the man, than the cause; and said the ‘cause’ would gain an accession of strength sufficient to ensure success if its friends would unite in supporting Pinckney. In short, he said a great deal, in his handsome way, to induce the Rhode-Island leader to desert Adams for Pinckney; and among other things, that in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where he had been, his observations had convinced him that Mr. Pinckney would be more powerfully supported than the gentleman was aware of—the latter, however, remained inflexible for Adams, but declared unequivocally that he should prefer Jefferson and would support him if Adams’s election could not be made sure! The general was fairly stump’d—and finding it useless to spend his breath, took his leave by saying that necessity obliged him to set out immediately on his journey; but that he would take the earliest opportunity to write to the gentleman fully on the subject, and would enforce the necessity of his supporting Pinckney by such arguments as he thought the gentleman would not be able to withstand! But we believe, the other, who is an old politician, understands trap too well to be caught in the toils of anglo-federalism; and we have the best reasons for thinking, that the friends of ‘Jefferson and Liberty may calculate with confidence upon four votes in Rhode-Island.”
See also The Providence Gazette, August 9, 1800.