George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Alexander Hamilton, 15–22 July 1790

From Alexander Hamilton

[New York, c.15–22 July 1790]1

In my second interview with Major Beckwith which was on Thursday the 22d instant I spoke to him nearly as follows.2

I have made the proper use of what you said to me at our last interview.3

As to what regards the objects of a general nature mentioned by you, though your authority for the purpose from Lord Dorchester is out of question, and though I presume from his Lordship’s station & character, and the knowledge he appears to have of what is passing on the other side of the water with regard to Mr Morris, that the Step he has taken through you is conformable to the views of your Cabinet and not without its sanction; yet you are no doubt sensible that the business presents itself in a shape, which does not give the proper authenticity to that fact, and is wholly without formality. You must also be sensible that there is a material difference between your situation and that of Mr Morris. His Credentials though not formal proceed from the proper source. Your’s are neither formal nor authoritative.

This state of things will of course operate in what I am going to say on the subject.

As to what relates to friendship between Great Britain and the United States, I conceive myself warranted in declaring that there is in4 this country a sincere disposition to concur in obviating with candor and fairness all ground of misunderstanding which may now exist, in reference to the execution of the late Treaty of Peace and in laying the foundation of future good understanding by establishing liberal terms of commercial intercourse.

As to alliance; this opens a wide field. The thing is susceptible of a vast variety of forms. ’Tis not possible to judge what would be proper or what could be done unless points5 were brought into view. If you are in condition to mention particulars, it may afford better ground of conversation.

I stopped here for an answer.

Major Beckwith replied that he could say nothing more particular than he had already done.

That being the case—(continued I) I can only say that the thing is in too general a form to admit of a judgment of what may be eventually admissible or practicable. If the subject shall hereafter present itself to discussion in an authentic and proper shape, I have no doubt we shall be ready to converse freely upon it: And you will naturally conclude that we shall be disposed to pursue whatever shall appear under all circumstances to be our interest as far as may consist with our honor.6 At present I would not mean either to raise or repress expectation.

Major Beckwith seemed to admi⟨t⟩ that as things were circumstanced nothing explicit could be expected and went on to make some observations which I understood as having for object to sound whether there existed any connection between Spain and us and whether the questions with regard to the Mississippie were settled.

Perceiving this I thought it better in a matter which was no secret to avoid an appearance of Mystery and to declare without hesitation, as I did—7

“That there was no particular connection between Spain and the U. States within my knowlege, and that it was matter of public notoriety that the questions alluded to were still unadjusted.”

The rest of our conversation consisted chiefly of assurances on my part that the menaces which had been mentioned by him as having been thrown out by some individuals with regard to the Western posts were unauthorised, proceeding probably from a degree of irritation, which the detention of the posts had produced in the minds of many—and of a repetition on his part of the assurances which he had before given of Lord Dorchesters disposition to discourage Indian Outrages.

Something was said respecting the probable course of military operations in case of war between Britain & Spain which Major Beckwith supposed would be directed towards South America alleging however that this was mere conjecture on his part.8 I hinted cautiously our dislike of an enterprise on New Orleans.9

AD, DLC:GW; ADf, DLC: Alexander Hamilton Papers.

Hamilton’s draft, which he docketed “the 22d Instant Memorandum of Conversation with Major Beckwith by order of the President,” differs from GW’s copy in minor instances of punctuation and capitalization; more significant variations are noted below. The following, probably later, note in Hamilton’s hand appears on the back of the draft’s last sheet but not in the receiver’s copy: “Note. Mr Jefferson was privy to this transaction—The views of the Government were to discard suspision that any engagements with Spain or intentions hostile to Great Britain existed—to leave the ground in other respects vague & open, so as that in case of Rupture between G. B. & S.—the U. States might be in the best situation to turn it to account in reference to the Disputes between them & G. B. on the one hand & Spain on the other.”

1The conversation between Beckwith and Hamilton most likely occurred on 15 July 1790, the date assigned by Beckwith (see n.g below) and best supported by circumstantial evidence. GW’s diary entry for 14 July 1790, reads: “Had some further conversation to day with the Chief Justice and Secretary of the Treasury with respect to the business on which Majr. Beckwith was come on. The result—To treat his communications very civilly—to intimate, delicately, that they carried no marks, official or authentic; nor, in speaking of Alliance, did they convey any definite meaning by which the precise objects of the British Cabinet could be discovered. In a word, that the Secretary of the Treasury was to extract as much as he could from Major Beckwith & to report it to me, without committing, by any assurances whatever, the Government of the U. States, leaving it entirely free to pursue, unreproached, such a line of conduct in the dispute as her interest (& honour) shall dictate.” It is more believable that Hamilton erred in dating his meeting with Beckwith than that he waited a week to carry out such an assignment, unless, of course, Beckwith was unavailable until 22 July (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:94–95; Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 6:496; 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 50, n.101, 152, source note).

2In the draft this paragraph reads: “On Thursday the 22d instant I had a second interview with Major Beckwith in which I spoke to him nearly as follows.”

4“The government of” follows this word in the draft.

5This word is underlined in the draft.

6At this point in the draft Hamilton deleted: “If the subject should hereafter come forward in a more precise and authoritative form, it will I take it for granted undergo a full examination. In the mean time.”

7In the draft this paragraph reads: “Perceiving this I thought it best to avoid an appearance of Mystery and to declare without hesitation.”

8William Grenville may have informed Lord Dorchester of his and William Pitt’s secret meetings with the Venezuelan revolutionary Sebastián Francisco de Miranda (1750–1816) during key phases of the Nootka Sound crisis. Miranda, a brevet colonel in the Spanish army in Cuba, was accused of smuggling and fled to the United States in 1783, protesting his innocence and harboring designs against Spanish imperial power in South America. While in America he met GW and his military family and was befriended by many Revolutionary officers and other gentlemen, including Alexander Hamilton and Henry Knox, both of whom helped him formulate military and political plans for the liberation of Spanish South America and later remained interested in Miranda’s schemes. No evidence exists, however, that GW ever involved himself in Miranda’s plans, despite the Venezuelan’s later claim to the contrary (Robertson, Life of Miranda, description begins William Spence Robertson, The Life of Miranda. 2 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1929. description ends 1:27–30, 38–39, 42, 43–44, 45, 53–55, 57; see also Thomas Jefferson to GW, 22 July 1790, source note).

Miranda was in Britain when the Nootka Sound crisis provided a golden opportunity to obtain official British support of his revolutionary invasion of South America. On 14 Feb. 1790 he first met with the prime minister, who promised British assistance, but only in the eventuality of an Anglo-Spanish war. On 5 Mar. 1790 Miranda delivered the written account of his plans requested earlier by Pitt, as well as information on South American products, populations, and military and naval forces. On 6 May Miranda again met with Pitt and Grenville and received further assurances of the execution of his plans in the case of war. Gouverneur Morris encountered Miranda two days later at a private dinner but made no mention in his next letter to GW of the man or his negotiations with the ministry (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 370–71, 383, 412–13; 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 1:511; Morris to GW, 29 May 1790).

9Hamilton’s account of his conversation with Beckwith, which ends at this point, differs materially from Beckwith’s more complete reports forwarded by Dorchester to Grenville on 25 Sept. 1790. On 5 Aug. 1790 Beckwith also transmitted directly to Grenville an extract in which he dated his conversation with Hamilton as 15 July 1790. The first enclosure sent to Dorchester has Hamilton saying: “I have communicated to the President, the subjects, on which we have conversed; however authoritative they may be on your part, in so far as respects Lord Dorchester, and however evident it is to me that His Lordship is apprized by your Cabinet of Mr. Morris’s Agency, yet you must be sensible, that official formality is wanting, but it is conceived that His Lordship would not have gone the length he has, without being acquainted with the general views of your administration, as they respect this country.

“Having premised this, I feel warranted to assure you that there is the most sincere good disposition on the part of the Government here to go into the consideration of all matters unsettled between us and Great Britain, in order to effect a perfect understanding between the two countries, and to lay the foundation for future amity; this, particularly as it respects commercial objects, we view as conducive to our interest.

“In the present stage of this business it is difficult to say much on the subject of a Treaty of Alliance; Your rupture with Spain, if it shall take place opens a very wide political field; thus much I can say, we are perfectly unconnected with Spain, have even some points unadjusted with that Court, and are prepared to go into the consideration of the subject.

“The Speeches or declarations of any persons whatever in the Indian Country, or to the Westward, suggesting hostile ideas respecting the forts, are not authorized by this Government.

“Lord Dorchester’s conduct with respect to the Indians is held by us to be a strong proof of His Lordship’s dispositions to promote harmony and friendship.

“It appears to me that, from the nature of our Government, it would be mutually advantageous, if this negotiation could be carried on at our seat of Government, as it would produce dispatch and obviate misconception” (Dorchester to Grenville, 25 Sept. 1790, 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 no. 23, 145–46).

In Beckwith’s second enclosure to Dorchester, marked “Secret,” Hamilton continues: “There is one thing more which I wish to mention to You; I do it altogether as from one gentleman to an other, and I trust it will be so considered. I have decided on doing it at this time from the possibility of my not having it in my power to come to such an explanation hereafter.

“If it shall be judged proper to proceed in this business by the sending or appointing a proper person to come to this country to negotiate on the spot, whoever shall then be our Secretary of State, will be the person in whose department such negotiation must originate, and he will be the channel of communication with the President; in the turn of such affairs the most minute circumstances, mere trifles, give a favorable bias or otherwise to the whole.

“The President’s mind I can declare to be perfectly dispassionate on this subject. Mr. Jefferson our present Secretary of State is, I am persuaded a gentleman of honor, and zealously desirous of promoting those objects, which the nature of his duty calls for, and the interests of his country may require, but from some opinions which he has given respecting your Government, and possible predilections elsewhere, there may be difficulties which may possibly frustrate the whole, and which might be readily explained away, I shall certainly know the progress of the negotiation from the president from day to day, but what I come to the general explanation for is this, that in any case any such difficulties should occur, I should wish to know them, in order that I may be sure they are clearly understood, and candidly examined; if none takes place the business will of course go on in the regular official channel.

“I cannot form any opinion upon the manner in which our administration may proceed in the business you mention, I shall make the proper use you may depend on it of what You have said, nor shall it ever be brought by me in a way to convey an impression different from the causes which occasioned it.

“I am persuaded it will not, it is not necessary for me to say, that in this I am steadily following up, what I have long considered to be the essential interest of this country; on this point I have already so fully explained my ideas, that a repetition is needless” (Dorchester to Grenville, 25 Sept. 1790, ibid., 148–49).

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