George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Alexander Hamilton, 10 September 1790

From Alexander Hamilton

Treasury Department [New York]
September 10th 1790

Sir

The public service appearing to require the early establishment of the boats or cutters for the protection of the revenue, agreeably to the provision made by the Legislature in their last Session,1 I do myself the honor respectfully to submit to you what has occured upon that subject.

Cutters from forty to fifty feet keel being deemed by experienced persons the most eligible, my enquiries have been directed to the terms on which a boat of that size may be built in the port of New York. From the information received, there is reason to expect that ten of those Vessels may be procured for the medium sum of One thousand Dollars each, provided due care and aconomy are used in their equipment. To avoid dissatisfaction it may appear best to build them in different parts of the Union. One may be procured in New Hampshire; and another in Massachusetts, for the coast eastward of Cape Cod: One in Connecticut for Long Island sound and the coast adjacent to Rhode Island: One in New York for the bays of New York and Amboy and the coast adjacent to Sandy-hook: One in Philadelphia for the bay of Delaware and the coast adjacent to Capes May & Henlopen: One in Norfolk and another in Baltimore for Chesapeak bay and the coasts adjacent to it: One in North Carolina for the sounds & coasts of that State: One at Charleston for the Bays and Coasts of South Carolina. And one at Savannah for the coasts of Georgia.

Should this arrangement meet your approbation, the utility of the establishment leads me to request your permission to carry it into immediate execution; or that you will be pleased to direct such other as may appear to you preferable.2

There not being sufficient light with regard to characters for officering the Cutters destined for the eastern coasts, particularly Massachusetts, I have written private letters to the Collectors of Boston and Portsmouth on the subject: when their answers arrive, the persons who appear to have most in their favor from New York inclusively eastward shall be noted for your determination.3

The latest arrivals from Europe bring intelligence of the continuance and encrease of warlike preparations by the Courts of Great Britain and Spain, tho’ no declaration of war was known in the Seaports of the latter on the 26th of July. I have the honor to be, with the most respectful consideration, sir, Your most Obedient and most hume servant

Alexander Hamilton

LB, DLC:GW.

For “An Act to provide more effectually for the collection of the duties imposed by law on goods, wares and merchandize imported into the United States, and on the tonnage of ships or vessels” and its legislative history, see 1 Stat., description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends 145–78 [4 Aug. 1790]; DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972—. description ends 1:431, 439, 441, 444, 445–47, 460, 463, 3:267, 491, 508–9, 510, 516, 537–38, 544, 547, 4:390–466. See also Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 6:373–97.

1The U.S. Coast Guard had its birth in the Revenue Cutter Service established by section 62 of the 4 Aug. 1790 Collection Act. Hamilton had earlier reported to the House of Representatives on 23 April 1790 that section 5 of the 31 July 1789 Collection Act “contemplates a provision of boats for securing the collection of the revenue; but no authority to provide them, is any where given. Information from several quarters, proves the necessity of having them; nor can they, in the opinion of the Secretary, fail to contribute, in a material degree, to the security of the revenue; much more than will compensate for the expence of the establishment; the utility of which will increase in proportion as the public exigencies may require an augmentation of the duties” (Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 6:380).

Hamilton recommended as a proper establishment two boats for the coasts of New England, one for Long Island Sound, one for New York, two each for Delaware and Chesapeake bays, one for each of the Carolinas, and one for the coasts of Georgia, for a total of ten 36– to 40–foot boats armed with swivels and each manned by a captain, lieutenant, and six mariners, at a total initial cost of $10,000 and a total annual expense of $18,560 (ibid., 381). Section 62 of the 4 Aug. 1790 act empowered the president “to cause to be built and equipped, so many boats or cutters, not exceeding ten, as may be necessary to be employed for the protection of the revenue, the expense whereof shall not exceed ten thousand dollars, which shall be paid out of the product of the duties on goods, wares and merchandise, imported into the United States, and on the tonnage of ships or vessels.” Section 63 authorized one master, up to three mates, four mariners, and two boys for each boat or cutter, at respective monthly salaries of thirty, twenty, sixteen, fourteen, eight, and four dollars, plus subsistences equal to those allowed to the equivalent army ranks (1 Stat., description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends 175).

Section 64 also authorized the president to appoint the officers of the cutters, who would “be deemed officers of the customs, and shall have the power and authority to go on board of every ship or vessel which shall arrive within the United States, or within four leagues of the coast thereof, if bound for the United States, and to search and examine the same and every part thereof, and to demand, receive and certify the manifests herein before required to be on board of certain ships or vessels, and to affix and put proper fastenings on the hatches and other communications with the holds of ships or vessels, and to remain on board the said ships or vessels until they arrive at their places of destination” (ibid.).

As Hamilton noted in his report to the House on the revenue laws, 22 April 1790, “the utility of an establishment of this nature must depend on the exertion, vigilance and fidelity of those, to whom the charge of the boats shall be confided,” much of his correspondence with the president over the next three months concerned finding men of character and ability to fill the appointments. The earliest recommendation in DLC:GW of a candidate for a cutter command was written two days after the passage of the Collection Act, and both GW and Hamilton continued to receive such letters of application and recommendation into 1791, although all but two of those appointments were made by early December 1790. The president involved himself even with the selection of subaltern officers, which began in earnest toward the end of January 1791, although both Hamilton and GW earlier had considered potential candidates (see GW to Hamilton, 4 Nov. 1790 in Hamilton to GW, 4 Nov. 1790, n.1; Tench Coxe to Tobias Lear, 6 Dec. 1790, and Lear to Hamilton, 28 Dec. 1790, both in DLC:GW; Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 6:381, 546, 7:162, 193, 383–84, 613).

2For GW’s response, see GW to Hamilton, 20 Sept. 1790.

3Boston port collector Benjamin Lincoln replied to Hamilton on 17 Sept. 1790 and continued to correspond with the secretary of the treasury on the subject of the construction of the cutters, which began in December 1790 or January 1791. Lincoln even visited Philadelphia to consult on the matter with Hamilton sometime in the winter of 1790–91. Portsmouth, N.H., collector Joseph Whipple replied to Hamilton’s 10 Sept. 1790 letter to him on 9 Oct. 1790 (see Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 7:33, 57–58, 104–5, 116–17, 161–62, 193, 342–43, 345, 346, 446, 447–48).

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