Thomas Jefferson Papers

Notes on Alexander Hamilton and the Enforcement of Neutrality, 6 May 1793

Notes on Alexander Hamilton and the Enforcement of Neutrality

1793. May 6. The President shews me a draught of a letter from Colo. H. to the Collectors of the customs, desiring them to superintend their neighborhood, watch for all acts of our citizens contrary to laws of neutrality or tending to infringe those laws, and inform him of it; and particularly to see if vessels should be building pierced for guns.—I told the Pr. that at a conference a few days before Colo. H. and E.R. had concurred in opinion against me that for us to build and sell vessels fit for war would be a breach of neutrality, but that I understood them as agreeing that no opinion should go from the public on that question as not being now necessary: that as to the 1st. part of the letter I did not of a sudden decide it to be improper.—He, on this, returned the letter to Ham. with a desire that he, E.R. and myself would confer on it.

MS (DLC); entirely in TJ’s hand; written on same sheet as “Anas” entries for 7 and 12 May 1793. Entry in SJPL: “[Notes] on Ham’s lre to collectors to watch over neutrality.” Included in the “Anas.”

These notes of a conference with the President represent an early example of the disputes between the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury over the conduct of American neutrality that were to be a recurring feature of Washington’s second administration until TJ retired from office at the end of 1793. Two days before this meeting, in a preemptive bid to assert control over the enforcement of American neutrality, Hamilton wrote a letter to the President enclosing for his approval a draft circular letter on this matter to federal customs collectors that has since disappeared. On the following day Washington instructed Hamilton to refrain from dispatching this circular to the collectors until they had discussed “a particular clause in it,” but if such a conversation ever took place there is no record of it. Although the President did not identify this clause, he seems to have been primarily concerned about the adverse impact on domestic shipbuilding of a provision in the draft circular that would have made the sale to belligerents of a vessel built in the United States and pierced for guns a violation of neutrality (Syrett, Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961–87, 27 vols. description ends , xiv, 412, 414, 422). TJ shared the President’s concern on this point, but for political and constitutional reasons he explained at length in an 8 May 1793 letter to Attorney General Edmund Randolph he was even more alarmed by another part of the circular that required collectors to report violations of American neutrality directly to the Secretary of the Treasury. The President also showed Hamilton’s draft to Randolph at about this time. After conferring with these two officials, Washington instructed Hamilton on 7 May 1793 to withhold his circular until the Cabinet had reconsidered that portion of it “respecting the building of Vessels in our Ports wch may be converted into armed ones” and asked (apparently on the basis of a suggestion by the Attorney General) whether it would not be expedient to write to the federal district attorneys “requiring their attention to the observance of the Injunctions” of the Proclamation of Neutrality (Syrett, Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961–87, 27 vols. description ends , xiv, 422–3; Edmund Randolph to TJ, 9 May 1793). No minutes of the ensuing Cabinet meeting have been found, but it is clear from other evidence that Hamilton yielded on both points. In deference to the President, he agreed to delete from the circular the provision relating to the ban on vessels pierced for guns, and in response to a proposal by the Attorney General, he amended the circular so that collectors would report violations of neutrality to the federal district attorneys instead of to the Secretary of the Treasury. Although the latter change sharply curtailed the role of the Secretary of the Treasury in enforcing American neutrality, TJ accepted it with reluctance because he preferred to entrust federal judges and grand juries with primary responsibility for monitoring American violations of neutrality. However, owing to the Washington administration’s delay in adopting a precise set of rules of neutral conduct for American citizens, Hamilton did not dispatch the revised circular to the collectors, who were also instructed to report violations to the state governors, until early in August 1793 (TJ to Randolph, 8 May 1793; Randolph to TJ, 9 May 1793; TJ to James Madison, [13 May 1793]; Syrett, Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961–87, 27 vols. description ends , xv, 168–9, 178–81). In the meantime, anxious to preserve the nation’s neutral stance in the epochal struggle between Great Britain and France, the President directed the Attorney General on 10 May 1793 to instruct the district attorneys “to require from the Collectors of the several Ports, within them, information of all infractions of neutrality that may come within their perview at the different ports, requiring the interposition of Government, particularly as to building & equipping Vessels for war.” Two days later Randolph dispatched a circular letter to the district attorneys ordering them to prosecute violators of American neutrality vigorously and particularly to rely on the collectors for information in ferreting out offenders (Washington, Journal description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed., The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797, Charlottesville, 1981 description ends , 135; Edmund Randolph to William Channing, 12 May 1793, NN: Emmet Collection).

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