Alexander Hamilton Papers

To Alexander Hamilton from James McHenry, 19 November 1800

From James McHenry

Baltimore 19 Novr. 1800

Dear Hamilton.

I received your letter of the 13 inst yesterday evening.

[Altho’ I am not pleased at the facts attached to my name,1 in your letter to the President, having been brought into public view, without my consent, I can conceive nevertheless what might have prevented you from not requesting it. This supposed reason has weight if the facts could be considered of consequence, still however, in a case where personal feelings are so much concerned I shall expect never to be again treated by a friend in the same manner. The truth is had you asked it, I should not have consented to their publication.]2 The Chief will destroy himself fast enough without such exposures. Can it happen otherwise to a man, (as I wrote the other day to Mr Wolcott),3 who, whether sportful, playful, witty, kind, cold, drunk, sober, angry, easy stiff, jealous, careless, cautious, confident, close, or open, is so, almost always, in the wrong place and to the wrong persons.

My great fear is, that while he is destroying himself, he will destroy the government also.

Those amongst the federalists in this State, I mean those within my observation, the most anxious for the election of Mr Adams, pretend to consider the publication of your letter rather calculated to distract than to do good. Mr. Charles Carroll of Carrollton writes me.

“I have read Mr Hamiltons pamphlet, the drift of its publication at this time, I conjecture, was not so much with a view of vindicating his character, as to prevent the electors in Massachusetts from scattering their votes in order to secure the election of Mr Adams in preference to Mr. Pinckney. All with whom I have conversed, blame however Mr Hamilton and consider his publication as ill timed; Altho’ I pay a deference to the opinions of others, whose motives I know to be good, yet I cannot help differing from them in this instance. The assertions of the pamphlet I take it for granted are true; and if true, surely it must be admitted, that Mr Adams is not fit to be President, and his unfitness should be made known to the electors and the public: I conceive it a species of treason to conceal from the public his incapacity.”

Let this console you from one of the wisest, most prudent and best men in the United States.

The statement of my last conversation with the President was made official, and entered in the letter book appropriated to record communications with him. I presume the book containing it has been burnt with the other records of the department.4 I wish the remembrance of it which harrasses my feelings could have been destroyed also.

upon the subject of your request I wrote to Mr Wolcott this morning.

“Hamilton it appears thinks it possible, by a letter I received from him last night, that he may be obliged to reply to some of the answers to his letter, in which case he expects to reinforce his position by new facts, and asks me, if I have myself seen the letter of the Chief, in which he says that a single visit of his to the opposition would shake the British ministry from their seats. As my recollection of the precise and definite meaning of expressions used in a letter read seventeen or eighteen years ago, and which thinking on the character of Mr Adams only revived, may not be correct, will you get Mr Griswold5 or Mr Dana,6 to read over the letters from this gentleman while minister at London, which are lodged in the office of State, and accessible, by a rule of that department, to every member of Congress to read but not to copy.7 Mr Griswold or Mr Dana, will find I expect the letter in question, and another respecting news papers, and how by reading them only a diplomatist may easily and quickly, and without any other aid discover the most hidden secrets of the British government.”8

“I shall refer Mr Hamilton to Mr Griswold or Dana, or either gentleman may give me the substance of these letters to communicate.”9

I think it would be proper to wait the result of this examination.

The folly, madness and insatiable vanity of this man is excited by and descends to things the most trifling.

A few days after my dialogue with the President Tousard10 came and told me—well, I have at last seen the President a very extraordinary conversation with which he has favoured me. You must not tell however that I have seen him. I replied I would not, as it belonged to valet de chambres only to see great men. Among other things the President complained in a violent passion that he was neglected by every officer, for that forts had been named Pickering11 Hamilton12 & McHenry,13 and that not one of them had been called Adams, except perhaps a diminutive work at Rhode Island.14 The supple Frenchman no doubt satisfied the angry chief, for Tousard informed me, that before his leaving him, he put his hand on his (Tousards) shoulder, and kindly assured him he should be appointed Col. of the 2 Regt of Art & Engineers in a few days.15

When I employed Tousard on the fortifications to the Eastward,16 the President wrote me a surly letter upon the subject,17 which made it necessary for me to reply that Tousard had been employed, because I could find no other person qualified or as well qualified to send on the business. This pacified the mad man, and Tousard was permitted to remain.

This anecdote or interview of the Majors would not do for publication, as it might injure his promotion.

Yours truely


Hnbl Alexr Hamilton Es

ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress; ADfS, James McHenry Papers, Library of Congress.

2The material within brackets was crossed out at a later date and in an ink of a different color than the ink used by McHenry. In addition, the wording of this material differs slightly in the draft. In JCHW description begins John C. Hamilton, ed., The Works of Alexander Hamilton (New York, 1851–1856). description ends , VI, 479, the material within brackets is omitted. In Bernard C. Steiner, The Life and Correspondence of James McHenry (Cleveland, 1907), 478–79, only a portion of the bracketed material is used, and that portion was taken from the draft.

3McHenry to Oliver Wolcott, Jr., November 9, 1800 (ALS, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford).

4On the evening of November 8, 1800, a fire destroyed the building in Washington in which the War Department was located ([Philadelphia] Aurora. General Advertiser, November 12, 13, 1800). On November 12, 1800, Wolcott, who, according to the Aurora, was the first person to arrive at the burning building, wrote to his wife Elizabeth: “A few days since the War Office caught fire. Every book and paper of the Secretary’s office was lost. The papers of the Accountant’s office were principally saved” (Gibbs, Wolcott description begins George Gibbs, Memoirs of the Administrations of Washington and John Adams: Edited from the Papers of Oliver Wolcott, Secretary of the Treasury (New York, 1846). description ends , II, 446). See also Wolcott to McHenry, November 15, 1800 (Gibbs, Wolcott description begins George Gibbs, Memoirs of the Administrations of Washington and John Adams: Edited from the Papers of Oliver Wolcott, Secretary of the Treasury (New York, 1846). description ends , II, 446); McHenry to Wolcott, November 19, 1800 (ALS, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford).

5Roger Griswold, a Connecticut Federalist and lawyer, was a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1795 to 1805.

6Samuel W. Dana, a Connecticut Federalist and lawyer, was a member of the Connecticut General Assembly from 1789 to 1796 and the United States House of Representatives from 1797 to 1801.

7The “rule” to which McHenry is referring and which was passed by the Continental Congress on February 3, 1784, reads: “Resolved, That an under Secretary be appointed to take the charge of the papers belonging to the office of the late Secretary for foreign affairs, until the further Order of Congress: that the members of Congress have liberty to peruse them in the Office, that no other persons have access to them, & that none of them be taken out of the Office, nor any Copies or extracts taken from them, without the Special permission of Congress, and that the Said under Secretary be directed to make and lay before Congress, a list of the Said papers” (Reel 32, Item 25, II, 329, Papers of the Continental Congress, National Archives; JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress 1774–1789 (Washington, 1904–1937). description ends , XXVI, 64–65).

On November 26, 1800, Wolcott wrote from Washington to McHenry: “The rule you mention was made under the Confederation, and has not, I believe, been considered in force since the establishment of the present government. Mr. Dana is not here, and I have not yet spoken to Mr. Griswold. I will find out the state of things, and if I can, will comply with your request” (Gibbs, Wolcott description begins George Gibbs, Memoirs of the Administrations of Washington and John Adams: Edited from the Papers of Oliver Wolcott, Secretary of the Treasury (New York, 1846). description ends , II, 447–48).

8On September 8, 1783, Adams wrote from Paris to Elias Boudinot, President of the Continental Congress: “The Views and Designs, the Intrigues and Projects of Courts, are let out, by insensible degrees, and with infinite Art and delicacy, in the gazettes. These Channels of Communication are very numerous, and they are artificially complicated in Such a manner, that very few Persons are able to trace the sources from whence Insinuations and Projects flow. The English Papers are an Engine by which every Thing is Scattered all over the world. They are open and free. The eyes of Mankind are fixed upon them. They are taken by all Courts and all Politicians and by almost all Gazetteers. Of these Papers, the French Emissaries in London, even in time of war, but especially in time of Peace, make a very great use; They insert in them things which they wish to have circulated far and wide” (LC, Adams Family Papers, deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston).

9McHenry to Wolcott, November 19, 1800 (ALS, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford).

10Lewis Tousard.

11Fort Pickering was on the Chickasaw Bluffs, Tennessee, and on the Mississippi River.

12Fort Hamilton was on the Great Miami River twenty-five miles above Cincinnati.

13Fort McHenry was at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor.

14Fort Adams was on Brentons Point, near Newport, Rhode Island. A second Fort Adams was built in 1798 and was at Loftus Heights in the southwest Mississippi Territory on the Mississippi River.

17On September 4, 1798, Adams wrote to McHenry. “… I perceive that Toussard is comeing here. I know not why nor wherefore. Gen Hamilton recommends him to be inspector of artillery. I have no reason to suspect Toussards honor or fidelity but an angel with the name & tongue of a Frenchman would not in a French war have the confidence of this nation” (LC, Adams Family Papers, deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston). For H’s recommendation of Tousard, see Tousard to H, August 7, 1798, and H to Adams, August 22, 1798 (both listed in the appendix to Volume XXII); H to McHenry, December 20, 1798. On September 15, 1798, McHenry wrote to Adams: “Tousard has been sent to Rhode Island to draw a plan &c for the defence of the harbour & City of New Port, because I could not find a native of the corps equally well qualified to execute so important a purpose. It grieves me, be assured, to be obliged to have recourse to other than natives, at this juncture; but, what am I to do? I find myself reduced to the alternative of spending large sums of money, upon the plans of men who know very little of the sciences of the Engineer, or trusting the foreigners, better informed, and of more experience …” (ALS, Adams Family Papers, deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston).

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