Nathaniel Pendleton’s Memorandum on a
Conversation between Alexander Hamilton
and Ebenezer Purdy1
[Albany, February 25, 1804]
On Saturday the 25th of february 1804 I went with General Hamilton to the lodgings of Judge Purdy in Albany who was at home.
General H. said that he had called on Mr. Purdy, supposing he had had sufficient time for reflection, to know who was the person alluded to2 in the conversation he had had with him a day or two before when Mr. Kane3 was present.
Mr. Purdy said he had thought of it, but had not seen the gentleman alluded to, and as he had desired his name might not be mentioned he did not wish to do it without his consent, but that the same person had mentioned it to several others, and therefore he presumed he would have no objection.
Genl. H. asked if the Gentleman was in Albany. Mr. P. said No. He lived in Westchester.
Gen H said he did not wish to be thought too pressing. He was willing to allow a reasonable time, but wished to have an answer as soon as it could be obtained.
Gen H. asked Mr. Purdy to repeat what he had before told him, that there might [be] no misapprehension.
Purdy said that in conversation with several republican members of the Legislature several years ago it was mentioned that some of athe leading men among the federal party were in favor of a monarchal Gouvernment and the person to whom he alluded said that a letter had been written from the Eastward which was seen in General Hamilton’s Office and that several Copies had been given out from thence. That this letter proposed to Establish a monarchy in the United States, and that one of the Sons of George the third was to be King. He said he understood the proposal to have come from England; he did not know who wrote the letter nor to whom it was written, but it was from Some person to the Eastward.
Genl. H asked if he had understood that the Copies alluded to, were made by him or with his privity? He said no. Genl. H. told him he had understood him otherwise a day or two before. Mr. P—— said he had misunderstood him or he Purdy had not clearly expressed himself. He said he had not said so, but he supposed it would be understood he knew of it as they came from his Office. He also said Gouvernor Clinton had also mentioned to him the letter, and that he had one of the Copies. He said it was talked of Publickly about the time he heard it.
Genl H. told him it was a Slander he was determined to trace. That he should write to Gouvernor Clinton on the subject, and Should expect an answer from Mr Purdy, as soon as possible. We then came away.
There were three other persons present whom I did not know.
On the Monday following I asked Mr Purdy if he meant that the person he alluded to lived in Westchester and he said Westchester County.4
ADS, New-York Historical Society, New York City.
1. Pendleton, a native of Virginia and a veteran of the American Revolution, was a lawyer in Georgia from 1785 to 1789, when he became United States judge for the District of Georgia. He moved to New York in 1796 and during that year was admitted to practice in the New York Supreme Court and the United States District Court of New York. Pendleton, who was one of the executors of H’s estate, was also one of H’s seconds in the duel with Aaron Burr.
Purdy, who had served in the New York Assembly at various times between 1779 and 1795, was a member of the state Senate from 1800 to 1806. He was also judge of Westchester County from 1797 to 1798 and a member of the Council of Appointment from February, 1803, to February, 1804.
2. This is a reference to Pierre Van Cortlandt, Jr., a Westchester County lawyer and a member of the New York Assembly in 1792, 1794, and 1795. Van Cortlandt had been a law clerk in H’s office from 1784 to 1786. See the first entry in H’s “Cash Book,” March 1, 1782–1791.
3. James Kane was a prominent Albany merchant. H, Kane, and Purdy had met on February 23, 1804.
4. Purdy reported this conversation to George Clinton, who wrote to Van Cortlandt on February 24, 1804: “It seems you had mentioned to Purdy the Circumstance of these Letters having been copied in Hamiltons Office but Purdy as he tells me refused to give his Author to Hamilton but referred him to me and asked him why he did not call on me—he replied he intended to write me on the subject. He appeared to be very desirous to know whether it was said that the Letters were copied in his Office by his Order or coment to this Purdy answered in the Negative but said It was the natural presumption.
“I presume I shall be honored with a Letter from the General on this subject and I have thought proper to apprize you of it that you may be on your guard. It will be prudent not to utter a sylable on the subject to any person whatever till you hear further from me. Coud not Strong through the Medium of P Van Wyck or some of your Friends in New York be brought to acknowledge his Agency in the Business. For Reasons that will naturaly occur to you such Confession would be very desireable.” (ALS, MS Division, New York Public Library.) See also Purdy to Van Cortlandt, February 25, 1804 (ALS, Sleepy Hollow Restorations, Inc., Tarrytown, New York).
Joseph Strong, an Albany lawyer, had been a clerk in H’s law office from 1786 to 1789. See “Certificate of Clerkship for Joseph Strong,” January 20, 1789, printed in this volume. Pierre C. Van Wyck was a New York City merchant.
On February 27, 1804, Van Cortlandt wrote to an unnamed correspondent: “Sometime in the Spring or Summer of the year 1787 I accidently went into the Office of Alexander Hamilton, where I found Joseph Strong (his then Clerk) alone in the Office above stairs making Copies of a Letter, which upon my coming into the Office He endeavoured to keep from my Sight by covering them; This Design of Secrecy Strongly excited my Curiosity to see it and after expostulating with him he at length shewed me One of his Copies but without a Signature. The Letter was written by a gentleman then in London & Strong told me it was from our Embassador at that place [John Adams], to a gentleman at Boston. The Substance of the Letter was that Overtures had been made either by Some of the Ministry or Gentlemen high in Confidence Of Ministers (which I do not rightly recollect) to the Letter Writer that in Order to Strengthen the Bonds of friendship between G. Britain & the United States more firmly, G. Britain would cede over to the United States her Canadas Nova Scotia and all other of her Possessions & Territory in North America Upon the Express Condition that One of the Sons of the King of England (I think it mentioned the Bishop of Oznaburgh the present Duke of York) should be acknowledged the King; as it would then be of the whole of North America; The Letter Writer thought it an Eligible thing and wished the Leading men in the United States attached to the then prevaling Federal Politicks might be consulted. The Copies I understood from Strong were to be forwarded on to particular Gentlemen in the Southern States: as this Copy was shewn to me by Strong in confidence, and as I had myself studied with Mr Hamilton & had shortly before this taken license and from my personal friendship to Mr Hamilton at that time I forebore mentioning the Secret with which I had been entrusted, nor did I do this until long afterwards (except to One Person) when it became notorious that Mr Hamilton had proposed in the Convention in 1787 (a few weeks after I saw the Copy of the Letter in question) a Constitution for the United States, the features of which was to have a King &c. I then was convinced that I had done wrong in not making public the Copy of the Letter I had seen in his Office. I then mentioned it to some Gentlemen in Confidence, fearing as Strong was a warm federalist and under the Influence of Hamilton that he would deny it & Mr Hamilton certainly would, for the truth of that thing being generally known would ruin his popularity & damn his future prospects. And I not being able to substantiate it without stronger testimony would be viewed as the Calumniator of the Tool of the Federal Party—among those to whom I mentioned this thing to was the Govenor as Early as 1793. I have since it seems mentioned it to Judge Purdy who a few Days since in Company where James Kane was mentioned that Hamilton was in favor of monarchy & that the Govenor had seen a Letter which was copied in Hamilton’s Office to that Effect, Kane immediately detailed this Conversation with much exagerations to Hamilton who called upon Purdy for an Explanation who referred him to the Govenor, so the business now is …” (AL [incomplete], Sleepy Hollow Restorations Inc., Tarrytown, New York).
No such letter from John Adams has been found. On July 29, 1791, Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson: “… If you Suppose that I have or ever had a design or desire of attempting to introduce a Government of Kings, Lords and Commons or in other Words an hereditary Executive or an hereditary Senate, either into the Government of the United States, or that of any Individual State in this Country, you are wholly mistaken. There is not Such a Thought expressed or intimated in any public writing or private Letter of mine, and I may Safely challenge all Mankind to produce Such a passage and quote the Chapter and Verse” (ALS, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress).
For H’s plan of government in the Constitutional Convention, see “Constitutional Convention. Plan of Government,” June 18, 1787.