George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Alexander Hamilton, 8 July 1790

From Alexander Hamilton

[New York, 8 July 1790]

Memorandum of the substance of a Communication made on Thursday the Eighth of July 1790 to the Subscriber1 by Major Beckwith as by direction of Lord Dorchester.

Major Beckwith began by stating that Lord Dorchester had directed him to make his acknowlegements for the politeness which had been shewn in respect to the desire he had intimated to pass by New York on his way to England, adding that the prospect of a War between Great Britain and Spain would prevent or defer the execution of his intention in that particular.2 He next proceeded to observe that Lord Dorchester had been informed of a negotiation commenced on the other side of the water through the Agency of Mr Morris; mentioning as the Subscriber understood principally by way of proof of Ld Dorchesters knowlege of the transaction that Mr Morris had not produced any regular credentials but, merely a letter from the President directed to himself, that some delays had intervened partly on account of Mr Morris’s absence on a trip to Holland as was understood and that it was not improbable those delays and some other circumstances may have impressed Mr Morris with an idea of backwardness on the part of the British Ministry.3 That his Lordship however had directed him to say that an inference of this sort would not in his opinion be well-founded as he had reason to believe that the Cabinet of Great Britain entertained a disposition not only towards a friendly intercourse but towards an alliance with the United States. Major Beckwith then proceeded to speak of the particular cause of the expected rupture between Spain and Britain observing that it was one in which all Commercial nations must be supposed to favour the views of G. Britain. That is was therefore presumed should a war take place that the U. States would find it to be their interest to take part with Great Britain rather than with Spain.

Major Beckwith concluded with producing a letter signed Dorchester which letter contained ideas similar to those he had expressed, though in more guarded terms and without any allusion to instructions from the British Cabinet. This letter it is now recollected, hints at the non execution of the treaty of peace on our part.4

On the Subscriber remarking the circumstance that this letter seemed to speak only the sentiments of his Lordship, Major Beckwith replied that whatever reasons there might be for that course of proceeding in the present stage of the business, it was to be presumed that his Lordship knew too well the consequence of such a step to have taken it without a previous knowlege of the intentions of the Cabinet.5

Major Beckwith afterwards mentioned that Lord Dorchester had heared with great concern of some depredations committed by some Indians on our Western frontier.6 That he wished it to be believed that nothing of this kind had received the least countenance from him.7 That on the contrary he had taken every proper opportunity of inculcating upon the Indians a pacific disposition towards us; and that as soon as he had heared of the outrages lately committed he had sent a message to endeavour to prevent them. That his Lordship had understood that the Indians alluded to were a banditti composed chiefly or in great part of Creeks or Cherokees over whom he had no influence; intimating at the same time that these tribes were supposed to be in connection with the Spaniards.

He stated in the next place that his Lordship had been informed that a Captain Hart8 in our service and a Mr Wemble9 and indeed some persons in the Treaty at Fort Harmar had thrown out menaces with regard to the Posts on the Frontier and had otherwise held very intemperate language;10 which however his Lordship considered rather as effusions of individual feelings than as the effects of any instruction from authority.

ADf, DLC:GW, docketed by GW: “Communication of Majr Beckwith to the Secretary of the Treasury 8th of July 1790.” See also Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:87–88.

Spanish ensign Estevan José Martinez precipitated a major diplomatic crisis in July 1789 by seizing two English ships at Spanish-controlled Vancouver Island’s Nootka Sound and imprisoning their crews in Mexico. The British government received official notice of Martinez’s actions only on 11 Feb. 1790 although private accounts had reached London the previous month. Gouverneur Morris, GW’s diplomatic agent, arrived in that city on 27 Mar. 1790 amid the deterioration of Anglo-Spanish relations. The following month the British cabinet resolved to demand full satisfaction from Spain for its insults to the British flag and began to prepare for war. Although an American rapprochement would benefit Britain in a war against Spain and France, Morris’s 21 May meeting with the British ministers to explore the possibility of a commercial treaty proved unsuccessful, as did his attempts to use the Nootka Sound controversy to further American diplomacy. News of the Anglo-Spanish war crisis did not reach New York until mid-June 1790. America’s window of diplomatic opportunity was closed on 5 Aug. 1790, however, when London learned that British and Spanish diplomats had made a preliminary accommodation at Madrid on 24 July, even though news of it did not cross the Atlantic until much later (see Morris to GW, 24 Sept. 1790, source note; Alexander Hamilton to GW, 29 Sept., 17 Oct. 1790; David Humphreys to GW, 31 Oct. 1790 and note 3; Manning, “Nootka Sound Controversy,” description begins William Ray Manning. The Nootka Sound Controversy. Washington, D.C., 1905. In Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1904, pages 279–478. description ends 334–40, 364–65, 367, 370, 385–86, 405–6, 454–56; Morris, Diary of the French Revolution, description begins Beatrix Cary Davenport, ed. A Diary of the French Revolution by Gouverneur Morris. 2 vols. Boston, 1939. description ends 1:373–74 and note 1, 414, 458–59, 464–66, 495, 608; Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 16:413–15).

In preparing for a war with Spain, the British ministry alerted its colonial outposts. Home Secretary William Wyndham Grenville notified Sir Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester, the governor of Quebec, to ready his province for possible hostilities. Dorchester subsequently sent his aide-de-camp, Maj. George Beckwith (1753–1823) of the British army, on a special mission to the United States. Because Beckwith had been involved in secret service operations in New York City during the Revolutionary War, Dorchester depended on him in 1787 and 1788 to observe conditions in the United States. Beckwith returned to England in the autumn of 1788, and in August 1789 he was sent to New York to convey unofficial notice of British displeasure with commercial restrictions then before Congress. He arrived in New York in September 1789 and the next month met secretly with Sen. Philip Schuyler of New York and his son-in-law Alexander Hamilton, among others, before returning to Canada (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:89–90n.; Thomas Marshall to GW, 12 Feb. 1789, n.7; Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 17:39–45; Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 5:482–90).

Beckwith was soon to return to New York. In March 1790 Dorchester, believing that one objective of the new American military establishment was seizure of the northwestern posts retained by the British army in violation of the Paris peace treaty of 1783, sent him across the border to investigate. The agent met secretly with Hamilton again in New York at least twice in April 1790 and soon reported that the U.S. government did not plan on regaining the posts through force. In June 1790 Dorchester sent Beckwith on a final trip to the American capital. In instructions of 6 May 1790, Grenville had informed Dorchester of the “disposition on the part of the United States to cultivate a closer connection” with Britain and ordered him to “endeavour to find the means of sending proper persons who may, though not authorized by any public commission, forward” the object of establishing “a greater degree of interest than we have hitherto had in that country,” and who may “be able to give to your Lordship the earliest information of hostile designs, if any such should be meditated against the forts or against Canada itself” (Dorchester to Grenville, 8 Mar. 1790, Grenville to Dorchester, 6 May 1790, both in Brymner, Report on Canadian Archives, 1890, description begins Douglas Brymner. Report on Canadian Archives . . . 1890. (Being an Appendix to Report of the Minister of Agriculture.). Ottawa, 1891. description ends Q 44–1, 242, no. 18, 133).

Dorchester chose Beckwith for the mission and prepared two sets of instructions for him on 27 June 1790. The first, “of a less secret nature,” which Beckwith probably showed to Hamilton on 8 July, stated: “An appearance of a War with Spain rendering it improbable that I shall obtain leave of absence from my Government this season, I wish to take the earliest opportunity, after the receipt of this information, to return thanks for the polite and very obliging manner, in which the approbation of my passing through the United States in my way to Europe has been intimated.

“You will therefore proceed to New York for this purpose.

“You will at the same time express my hope, that neither the appearance of a war with Spain, nor its actually taking place, will make any alteration in the good disposition of the United States to establish a firm friendship and Alliance with Great Britain to the Mutual advantage of both Countries; I am persuaded it can make none on the part of Great Britain. . . . The rights asserted by Spain being to the exclusion of all the world, as well the United States, as all the European Powers, I think the interests of the United States, in case of a War, may be more effectually served by a junction with Great Britain, than otherwise.

“I have heard with concern of hostilities committed on the Ohio, by some Indians of that District, at the instigation of some Southern tribes, supposed to be under the influence of Spain.

“I have from my arrival in this Country endeavoured to preserve peace, and to extend it to friends and neighbours, though no stranger to the language held in the North Western Territory, nor that of Captain Hart on Lake Erie, and the schemes thrown out by Hendrick Wemple to the Six Nations, which, and all such discourses, I consider as the effusions of sanguine minds, ill digested and without authority.

“You may communicate these sentiments, as occasion may require, and your discretion direct” (ibid., no. 20, 143).

Dorchester’s second set of instructions to Beckwith, which were labeled “Secret” and of course not shown to Hamilton, stated: “Besides the objects of your Instructions of this day of a less secret nature, you will also, while in the States, take all opportunities of learning the disposition of their Government, and people, towards peace or war, separately, and unconnected with the affairs of Spain, what difference a war with Spain is likely to produce, whether the States are likely to join with that power, what may be the extent of their views, and whether they expect any assistance from France in her present situation.

“There being an appearance of cordiality between the Governor of the Northwestern Territory, and the Spaniards, who are supposed to have appointed a joint conference with the Indians on the Wabash . . . you will endeavour to find out the nature and object of these supposed negotiations, whether a Spanish Officer or Agent has actually been present at any conference of Mr. St. Clair with those Indians, of what nations and numbers it has been composed, and what has been the result. . . .

“You will pay particular attention to the character of military men, likely to be employed, to all military arrangements, to the increase of their troops, their position and movements, the number and magnitude of deposits of military stores, and provisions, and the arming of any ships for War, to act under Spanish Commissions or otherwise.

“Should you find them disposed to be more friendly, you will endeavour to discover what might induce them to unite with us in the event of a war with Spain.

“As there may be a difference of opinion concerning the Western Country, and the navigation of the Mississippi, you will be cautious in advancing anything specific on that head, but rather lead them to explain the different lines of policy, each party may have in view, endeavouring to ascertain the extent and importance of the adherents of each particular system. In general you may assert it as your own opinion, that in case of a War with Spain you see no reason why we should not assist in forwarding whatever their interests may require.

“You will give me as full and accurate a report as you can on these and all other points, which you may think interesting to the King’s American Dominions, or to His service in general.

“You will give direct information to His Majesty’s Secretary of State of all matters, in which the delay incident to the communication through this province may be prejudicial.

“You will remain at New York or in the States as long as you find your presence there may be of advantage to the King’s service.” Dorchester reported to Grenville on 7 July that he had sent Beckwith to New York (ibid., no. 21, 144, and no. 22, 145).

When Beckwith arrived in New York, he renewed his acquaintance with Hamilton, visiting him on the morning of 8 July 1790. Probably for the first time in his dealings with the British agent, Hamilton notified the administration of an interview with Beckwith. The secretary of the treasury sought out Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and the two called upon the president around noon. Hamilton recounted the subjects of that morning’s meeting and then, or more likely later that day, “reduced to writing,” probably from memory, the above “Memorandum,” which the president copied into his diary in its entirety before retiring for the evening. GW correctly interpreted Beckwith’s statements, or Hamilton’s slightly misrecollected version of them, as British disinclination to answer Morris satisfactorily on the northwestern posts issue until the ministry could discover by the “unauthenticated mode” of Beckwith’s visit whether the United States would “enter into an Alliance with” Britain “and make Common cause against Spain.” GW noted in his diary that Britain would “enter into a Commercial Treaty . . . & promise perhaps to fulfil what they already stand engaged to perform” only after America complied with Britain’s desire for an anti-Spanish alliance. Before they left, GW requested Hamilton and Jefferson to consider more fully America’s British and Spanish policies and report back within the week. He also mentioned in his diary on 8 July 1790 his intentions of asking Vice-President John Adams, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Chief Justice John Jay “to revolve this Matter in all its relations in their minds that they may be the better prepared to give me their opinions thereon in the course of 2 or three days.” The next day Hamilton wrote to Jay, whose father-in-law, Gov. William Livingston of New Jersey, was fatally ill: “Certain Circumstances of a delicate nature have occurred, concerning which The President would wish to consult you. They press. Can you consistently with the Governor’s situation afford us your presence here? I cannot say the President directly asks it, lest you should be embarrassed; but he has expressed a strong wish for it.” GW did request Adams, Knox, and Jay on 10 July “to turn their attention to the Communications of Majr. Beckwith; as I might in the course of a few days, call for their opinions on the important matter of it” (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:87–89; Boyd, Number 7 description begins Julian P. Boyd. Number 7: Alexander Hamilton’s Secret Attempts to Control American Foreign Policy. Princeton, N.J., 1964. description ends , 37–38; Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 6:488; Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:93).

Hamilton returned the administration’s response to Beckwith sometime in the next week or two, and the two repeated their meetings in early October 1790 and on 20 and 21 Jan., 16 and 18 Feb., and 15 June 1791. Hamilton kept GW apprised of each of these meetings, although his recorded recollections of the conversations did not always jibe fully with Beckwith’s reports to his superiors. Beckwith remained in the United States until after the arrival of George Hammond, Britain’s first minister plenipotentiary, in October 1791 (Boyd, Number 7, description begins Julian P. Boyd. Number 7: Alexander Hamilton’s Secret Attempts to Control American Foreign Policy. Princeton, N.J., 1964. description ends 49–54, 150–52, 153–58; see also Hamilton to GW, c.15–22 July, and 17 Oct. 1790).

1Hamilton neglected to sign this memorandum perhaps due to the haste of its preparation, as evidenced by the rearrangement of paragraphs and numerous deletions and insertions in the original.

2Dorchester first requested permission in the summer and fall of 1789 to return to England on official and private business, but he did not sail from Quebec until August 1791, despite rumors Beckwith passed on to Hamilton in October 1790 (see Hamilton to GW, 17 Oct. 1790; Dorchester to Grenville, 30 Sept. 1789, in Brymner, Report on Canadian Archives, 1890, description begins Douglas Brymner. Report on Canadian Archives . . . 1890. (Being an Appendix to Report of the Minister of Agriculture.). Ottawa, 1891. description ends Q 42, 231).

3Morris did not receive until 21 Jan. 1790 GW’s letter of 13 Oct. 1789 requesting that he undertake an unofficial diplomatic mission to Britain. He did not leave Paris until 17 Feb. 1790, arriving in London on 27 Mar. after spending time in Holland on private business. Two days later he had an interview with the duke of Leeds, who for the next month neglected Morris and his mission and failed to reply to two letters Morris had written to him, pleading sickness, the press of official business, and a claim that he heard Morris had been traveling in Holland. Morris, however, spent the month of April in London and in fact did not depart for the Continent until 24 Sept. 1790. He reported to GW on 1 May: “I have some Reason to beleive that the present Administration intend to keep the Posts, and withhold Payment for the Negroes. . . . I incline to think also that they consider a Treaty of Commerce with America as being absolutely unnecessary” (GW to Morris, 13 Oct. 1789 [second letter] and note 1; Morris to GW, 7 April, 1 May 1790; Morris, Diary of the French Revolution, description begins Beatrix Cary Davenport, ed. A Diary of the French Revolution by Gouverneur Morris. 2 vols. Boston, 1939. description ends 1:373, 374n., 414, 458–59, 464–66, 495, 608).

4Hamilton inserted this sentence above a line of deleted text.

5This paragraph and the preceding one were bracketed by Hamilton in the left-hand margin where he noted: “These paragraphs should be read after those which follow.”

6Dorchester could have been referring to any of the many attacks made in early 1790 by Shawnee and Miami raiders against American settlers and supply boats on the Ohio River and near the Scioto (David Jones to GW, 13 Jan. 1790; Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:91–92; ASP, Indian Affairs, description begins Walter Lowrie et al., eds. American State Papers. Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States. 38 vols. Washington, D.C., Gales and Seaton, 1832–61. description ends 1:85–94).

7There were numerous allegations that the British at Detroit were inciting the Indians under their influence against American settlers in the Ohio country. Antoine Gamelin of Vincennes, an emissary sent on 16 Mar. 1790 to the Indians on the Wabash and Miami rivers by Arthur St. Clair, governor of the Northwest Territory, reported that the head chiefs of the Wea and Kickapoos stated on 14 April that “You invite us to stop our young men” from raiding and killing Americans. “It is impossible to do it, being constantly encouraged by the British.” On 25 April Blue Jacket (Weyapiersenwah), a major Shawnee chief, told Gamelin that his people could not respond to his peace offers until they heard “from our father, at Detroit.” Three days later Le Gris, the head of the Miamis, also told Gamelin “we can not give a definitive answer without consulting the commandant of Detroit.” Maj. John Francis Hamtramck, commander of Fort Knox at Vincennes, predicted to his superior, Brig. Gen. Josiah Harmar, at Fort Washington on 20 April 1790 the outcome of Gamelin’s mission: “In my opinion the affair stands that if at the time the messenger arrives at the Miamie their should be any British traders of influance with them from Detroit that the Indians will refuse to come to terms with the United States. It is the traders who are every day inducing the Indians to go to war. They return to their village with plunder and horses which the traders get of them for rum or little or nothing, and so it must be until we get Detroit” (Smith, St. Clair Papers, description begins William Henry Smith, ed. The St. Clair Papers. The Life and Public Services of Arthur St. Clair: Soldier of the Revolutionary War; President of the Continental Congress; and Governor of the North-Western Territory with his Correspondence and other Papers. 2 vols. Cincinnati, 1882. description ends 1:155–58n.; Thornbrough, Outpost on the Wabash, description begins Gayle Thornbrough, ed. Outpost on the Wabash, 1787–1791: Letters of Brigadier General Josiah Harmar and Major John Francis Hamtramck and other letters and documents from the Harmar Papers in the William L. Clements Library. Indianapolis, 1957. In Indiana Historical Society Publications, vol.19. description ends 232).

8Jonathan Heart (1748–1791), a native of Farmington, Conn., and a 1768 graduate of Yale College, served with the 1st Connecticut Regiment during the Revolutionary War and was commissioned a captain in the 1st American Regiment in 1784. He was commander of Fort Harmar from April to August 1786. In the spring of 1787, he built Fort Franklin on French Creek near the mouth of the Allegheny River on the Pennsylvania frontier and served as its commander until the spring of 1788 when he left on a recruiting trip to Connecticut. After his return west the following year, he was engaged in the construction of Fort Washington and was commissioned a captain in the reorganized U.S. Army in September 1789. In 1788 and 1789 Heart explored and located a tract in the “New Connecticut” district at the mouth of the Cuyahoga where the city of Cleveland was later established. It was probably Heart, therefore, who led the expedition described in the journal of Alexander McKee, deputy agent for Indian affairs at Detroit, on 10 Mar. 1790: “An American officer with a party was opening a road across the country to Cayahaga, and had told the Indians they would be obliged at last to send the English out of the country by force.” Heart accompanied Harmar’s expedition against the Miami in the fall of 1790 and was killed at St. Clair’s defeat in 1791 (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:92n.; Consul Willshire Butterfield, ed., Journal of Capt. Jonathan Heart on the March with His Company from Connecticut to Fort Pitt [Albany, 1885], vii-x; American Historical Record, and Repertory of Notes and Queries, 3 [1874], 318–20; Brymner, Report on Canadian Archives, 1890, description begins Douglas Brymner. Report on Canadian Archives . . . 1890. (Being an Appendix to Report of the Minister of Agriculture.). Ottawa, 1891. description ends Q 45–2, 252).

9Indian trader Hendrick Wemple IV (Handrick Wample; Wamble; 1730–c.1790) of Mohawk Town, Montgomery County, N.Y., served in the Tryon County militia during the Revolution and was an interpreter for generals Nicholas Herkimer and John Sullivan. After the war he continued to serve the state superintendents of Indian affairs. Wemple’s great stature (he was over six feet tall) and athleticism contributed to his influence among the Oneida and Mohawk peoples. He was apparently poisoned to death by a Mohawk named Saucy Nick after witnessing that man commit a murder. Wemple’s “schemes thrown out . . . to the Six Nations” have not been identified (Heads of Families [New York], description begins Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790: New York. 1908. Reprint. Baltimore, 1966. description ends 109; Nelson Greene, ed., History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West, 1614–1925 [4 vols.; Chicago, 1925], 2:1132, 1134; Orasmus Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase, and Morris’ Reserve [Rochester, N.Y., 1852], 100–101, 130n., 265, 475–76; Boyd, Number 7, description begins Julian P. Boyd. Number 7: Alexander Hamilton’s Secret Attempts to Control American Foreign Policy. Princeton, N.J., 1964. description ends 144).

10The “menaces” thrown out at the Treaty at Fort Harmar may have related to an American officer’s report that “The Soldiers [got] drunk in the Indian Encampment and [were] very disorderly” at the peace talks (quoted in Guthman, March to Massacre, description begins William H. Guthman. March to Massacre: A History of the First Seven Years of the United States Army, 1784–1791. New York, 1975. description ends 161; for the negotiations of the two treaties of Fort Harmar signed on 9 Jan. 1789, see St. Clair to GW, 2 May 1789 and notes).

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