Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from George Hammond, 11 April 1792

From George Hammond

Philadelphia 11th. April 1792


I have received by a circular dispatch from my Court, directions to inform this government that, considerable inconvenience having arisen from the importation of Tobacco in foreign vessels into the Ports of his Majesty’s dominions, contrary to the Act of the 12th Charles 2d. Chap. 18. Sect. 3d. (commonly called the Navigation Act) it has been determined in future strictly to inforce this clause, of which I take the liberty of inclosing to you a copy; and I have the honor to be with perfect esteem and respect, Sir, Your most obedient humble servant,

Geo. Hammond.

RC (DNA: RG 59, NL); in a clerk’s hand except for signature; at foot of text: “Mr. Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ in pencil: “2 copies and press copies immediately”; also endorsed by him as received 12 Apr. 1792 and so recorded in SJL. Enclosure: copy of navigation act, 12 Car. 2 chap. 18, sect. 3. Tr (same). PrC of Tr (DLC); in Taylor’s hand.

Lord Grenville’s circular letter of 31 Jan. 1792 to the British minister and consuls in the United States threatened to provoke a crisis in Anglo-American relations that was only averted by some adroit diplomacy on the part of TJ and George Hammond. The declaration gave rise to conflicting interpretations among the British officials to whom it was addressed, leading some to conclude it was meant to end the tobacco trade between the U.S. and the British West Indies, while others like Hammond concluded that it was designed to prevent trade with the Channel Islands. Hammond had wanted to withhold the letter pending the arrival of a clarifying statement from Grenville, but Sir John Temple, the British consul general in New York, forced him to take action by publishing a notice that the relevant clause of the 1660 Navigation Act would be “strictly enforced.” Temple’s notice created consternation among American merchants and shippers because it was widely interpreted as meaning the nullification of the royal order in council of December 1783 that permitted American vessels to bring selected products to Great Britain on the same terms as vessels from British colonies (Grenville to Hammond, 31 Jan. 1792, Mayo, British Ministers description begins Bernard Mayo, ed., “Instructions to the British Ministers to the United States 1791-1812,” American Historical Association, Annual Report, 1936 description ends , p. 22–3; Sir John Temple, Notice, 9 Apr. 1792; Bond to Grenville, 12 Apr. 1792; Hammond to Grenville, 14 Apr. 1792; McDonough to Grenville, 20 Apr. 1792, all in PRO: FO 4/14, DLC photostats; Bemis, Jay’s Treaty description begins Samuel Flagg Bemis, Jay’s Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy, New Haven, 1962, rev. edn. description ends , p. 28–31).

In an effort to allay American fears and prevent the passage of retaliatory legislation by Congress, Hammond personally delivered the above letter to TJ and sought to convince him that Grenville’s declaration pertained only to trade with Guernsey and Jersey. After reading this letter, Hammond subsequently reported to Grenville, TJ “informed me that, although the frauds in the importation of tobacco, were the sole grounds assigned for this determination of the British Government, yet the terms of the Clause, intended to be inforced, were so general and comprehensive as to inspire the Merchants with doubts of the expediency of transporting any commodities whatsoever to Great Britain in American Vessels. He added, that, if I conceived it to be really the intention of my government to carry this clause into execution, to the rigorous extent implied, it might probably become the duty of this government immediately to adopt the most efficacious measures, as well for the purpose of protecting its own citizens, as of retaliation.” Hammond thereupon told TJ of his personal belief that the British government had no intention of enforcing the clause broadly because the declaration’s specific reference to tobacco implied a concern only with the numerous frauds committed by American vessels shipping into the islands of Jersey and Guernsey. Moreover, he believed that tobacco might continue to be imported as previously permitted by the December 1783 order in council, which order had the effect of suspending the Navigation Act (Hammond to Grenville, 14 Apr. 1792, PRO: FO 4/14, DLC photostat).

The British minister’s personal intervention with TJ achieved its intended goal. TJ, who had in fact known for months of British efforts to prohibit foreign trade with Guernsey and Jersey, readily accepted Hammond’s interpretation of Grenville’s letter. But to avoid any misunderstandings that might be disadvantageous to American commerce, TJ asked Hammond to provide him with a written statement explaining that the British foreign secretary’s announcement related only to the two Channel Islands and to authorize its release to the American public. Hammond immediately agreed on both counts, fearing that a refusal “would have occasioned an almost general failure of all the spring exportations from this country, and of the consequent summer importations from England, and would have probably impelled the legislature of the United States to establish such a system of restrictions, as would have proved essentially injurious to the commerce of Great Britain, and have thrown almost insuperable impediments in the way of any future commercial connexion between the two Countries” (same). Washington submitted the resulting exchange of letters to Congress on 13 Apr. 1792 and it was subsequently published in various American newspapers, thereby preventing a serious crisis in Anglo-American diplomacy. Grenville later congratulated Hammond for correctly interpreting the intent of his circular letter (TJ to Hammond, 12, 13 Apr. 1792; Hammond to TJ, 12, 13 Apr. 1792; TJ to Washington, 13 Apr. 1792; Grenville to Hammond, 8 June 1792, Mayo, British Ministers description begins Bernard Mayo, ed., “Instructions to the British Ministers to the United States 1791-1812,” American Historical Association, Annual Report, 1936 description ends , p. 30; see also Joshua Johnson to TJ, 10 Aug. 1791).

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