James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Paul Hamilton, 17 September 1811

From Paul Hamilton

City of Washington Septemr. 17th. 1811

Dear Sir

I have the honor of now transmitting to you the proceedings of the Court of Enquiry in the case of Commodore Rodgers, the result of which abundantly justifies the confidence you have been pleased to repose in the correctness of the Commodore’s statement of facts.1 You will observe that amongst the many officers who gave testimony before the Court, the Surgeons and Purser were not included, for the substantial reason assigned by Commodore Decatur in his enclosed letter.2 The exclusion of these officers was not only judicious, but may be made useful in invalidating the testimony of Binghams officers of the same grades, whose depositions have been lately laid before you.3 In reviewing the attitude in which this affair is now placed I think it may safely be asserted that, the respectability of each Member of the Court, of the witnesses also, their number and concurrences of testimony, all combine in forming a Mass of Evidence not to be resisted, and which places the Commodore above the reach of censure or even of suspicion. I have given Mr. Gales a small intimation for his paper of today,4 and when you return me the proceedings, if you approve it, I will deliver them to him for publication in detail, which is rendered perhaps more necessary by the manner in which certain prints are now handling the subject.

Conformably to your wishes repeated consultations have [taken place]5 between the Secretary of War and myself, relative to the defence of our Ports and the result as relating to my Department is, that 20 Gunboats have been ordered to be immedeately equipped at New York, 10 at Norfolk and 3 at Wilmington N. C. These are, for the present, to be half manned (12 men each) and in case of emergency will, it is hoped, be able to procure volunteers enough to make up a complement without delay or difficulty. There having been no appropriation made for the purpose, you will perceive that this augmentation of our force is affected by the scantiness of our funds, but if you think it would be best to extend still more our armament, regardless of that circumstance, relying on any expence being provided for by Congress your directions shall promptly be complied with. Our Frigates and other cruising vessels that are at this time fit for service, are disposed of in such a manner as is best calculated to prevent insult in our ports and on our coast—cruising near home, and frequently putting into our Harbors. There having6 three british Cruisers on the coast of New York beseting for some time past, our commerce, Commodore Rodgers, conformably to orders, has put to sea before this with his and Com. Decaturs Ships and the Sloop of War Wasp; and as he will, no doubt, meet with the british squadron it will be ascertained, probably, whether their views are hostile or not. The Commodore writes me that he is “still on the right side and intends to continue so” I am therefore perfectly satisfied that he will be too discreet to commit, in any way, the neutrality of his Country.

Mr. Eustis of course will communicate with you on the affairs of his Departt. I have therefore only to add that with undiminished respect and attachment I am yrs.

Paul Hamilton

RC (DLC); letterbook copy (DNA: RG 45, LSP). RC docketed by JM. Enclosures not found, but see n. 1.

1The court of inquiry on the encounter between the Lille Belt and the President, established by Hamilton on 24 July 1811 and convened under the authority of Commodore Stephen Decatur on 30 Aug. 1811, completed its proceedings on 13 Sept. 1811. It issued its findings under eighteen heads and concluded that the letter sent by Commodore Rodgers to the secretary of the navy on 23 May 1811 was “a correct and true statement of the occurrences which took place between the United States’ frigate the President and His Majesty’s ship the Little Belt.” For the proceedings and the findings, see ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States … (38 vols.; Washington, 1832–61). description ends , Foreign Relations, 3:477–99.

2Decatur may have excluded the testimony of the surgeons and the purser on grounds that men of these ranks could not have been in a position to have observed which of the two vessels in the engagement had actually fired the first shot (see n. 3).

3Accounts from British witnesses of the Lille Belt–President episode had been enclosed in Foster’s 4 Sept. 1811 letter of protest to Monroe. Both the surgeon and the purser on the British vessel stated that Captain Bingham, on two occasions, twice hailed the President “very loudly,” that he received no response, that the President had opened fire first, and that the exchange of fire lasted from forty-five minutes to one hour (see ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States … (38 vols.; Washington, 1832–61). description ends , Foreign Relations, 3:474). The National Intelligencer, on 17 Sept., dismissed these accounts on the grounds that they were not made under oath, that witnesses such as a surgeon, a purser, and three others were “all the men on board” who could be got to testify to Bingham’s version of events, and that such witnesses not only had no command but were required by duty to remain below deck and “must have had less opportunity than almost any other of deciding on a fact which occurred above.”

4The 17 Sept. issue of the National Intelligencer announced the conclusion of the court of inquiry and observed that the testimony of all fifty-one witnesses summoned corroborated Commodore Rodgers’s version of events. The newspaper also discounted British accounts of the episode.

5Words in brackets were omitted in the RC and have been supplied from the letterbook copy.

6Hamilton appears to have omitted a word here.

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