George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Alexander Hamilton, 23 December 1790

From Alexander Hamilton

Treasury Department [Philadelphia] December 23d 1790.

The Secretary of the Treasury has the honor respectfully to submit to the President of the United States the propriety of appointing a Keeper for the Light-house at Portland in the District of Maine. The enclosed recommendations from that quarter were transmitted to the Superintendant of the Light-houses of Massachusetts under the idea that the appointment was to be made by him.1 An enquiry of the member of the house of representatives from that District he appears to be unacquainted with any objections to Mr Delano, but seems to be of opinion that Capt: Greenleaf possesses the qualifications requisite to the satisfactory discharge of the duties of the appointment.2

The Secretary begs leave humbly to observe that the latter (Capt. Greenleaf) is said to be a man conversant in nautical affaires, which may on some occasions render him useful to the navigation, as well as to the revenue of the United States.

The Collector of Boston observes in the letter which covered these testimonials, “that he does not know either of the persons in nomination; Mr Fox & Mr McLellen in very strong terms recommend Mr Delano. Many other gentlemen have been equally warm in their recommendations of Capt: Greenleaf.”3

Alexander Hamilton


1Under the terms of an act of Congress of 10 Aug. 1790, the lighthouse on Portland Head, a few miles south of Portland, District of Maine, begun by the state of Massachusetts, had been completed by the federal government at an expense of $1,500 (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 6:1649–50; Report on Estimates for the 1794, 21 Dec. 1793, Statement D, Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 15:573). Appointment of a lighthouse keeper had been deferred until the structure was completed. The Massachusetts lighthouses were under the supervision of Benjamin Lincoln, collector for Boston (see Alexander Hamilton to Benjamin Lincoln, 10 Mar. 1790, ibid., 6:297–99). The enclosed recommendations originally directed to Lincoln have not been found.

2George Thatcher represented the District of Maine in Congress from 1789 until 1801.

3Benjamin Lincoln wrote to Hamilton on 17 Nov. 1790 enclosing letters from citizens of Portland recommending both Delano and Greenleaf which had been sent to him under the misimpression that “the appointment of a keeper for the light house at Portland was with me. I think it my duty therefore to forward the papers for the information of the President. I do not know either of the persons in nomination” (Lincoln to Hamilton, 17 Nov. 1790, ibid., 7:156). Lincoln had written to Hamilton in July recommending Barzillas Delano for the post (Lincoln to Hamilton, 1 July 1790, ibid., 6:477). This was undoubtedly the Bezilla Delano of Cape Elizabeth enumerated in the census of 1790 (Heads of Families [Maine] description begins Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790: Maine. 1908. Reprint. Salt Lake City, 1978. description ends , 13). Joseph Greenleaf (d. 1814) was a former ship captain (Massachusetts Centinel [Boston], 23 Mar. 1814). Tobias Lear wrote to Hamilton on 7 Jan. 1791 transmitting a commission appointing Greenleaf keeper of the Portland lighthouse (DLC:GW). Hamilton forwarded the commission to Benjamin Lincoln on 17 Jan. 1791 (Hamilton to Lincoln, 17 Jan. 1791, Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 7:437).

Although the letter has not been found, Greenleaf apparently wrote to GW in the fall of 1791, complaining that eighty dollars a year was insufficient pay for keeping the lighthouse. On 24 Nov. 1791 Hamilton wrote to Benjamin Lincoln: “The President has received a petition from the keeper of the light house at Portland (Joseph Greenleaf) setting forth that his compensation is fixed below the rate at which he can afford to perform the service. It was understood that it was not a matter of contract, but that it was fixed at that rate after his appointment to the duty. Your opinion on the sufficiency of the allowance and on the degree to which it may be expedient, if at all, to increase it, are desired” (Hamilton to Lincoln, 24 Nov. 1791, ibid., 9:527–28). Lincoln responded on 1 Dec. 1791 that he wished his “opinion had not been asked relative to the present allowance made the keeper of the Light House at Portland as the sum given was named by me and thought to be as much as the public ought to give for keeping it in the best manner. I did not consider whether the sum was sufficient to support Mr. Greenleaf & family or not. I considered only the service to be performed and what sum would compensate a man for doing it.” Lincoln added that in fixing the pay he had considered the location of the lighthouse, the house attached to it, and the labor required of the keeper. He admitted that the pay was less than that allotted to other lighthouses in Maine, principally because most of the others were located on islands, remote from towns and inaccessible in periods of bad weather. He also wrote that he knew “a person of character” who had been prepared to assume the duty for less pay (Lincoln to Hamilton, 1 Dec. 1792, ibid., 9:551–52). Hamilton forwarded Lincoln’s response to GW on 17 Jan. 1792 (Hamilton to GW, 17 Jan. 1792, DLC:GW). The next day Lear returned Lincoln’s letter and informed Hamilton that “the President conceives from the statement made in Genl Lincoln’s letter, that the addition of twenty dollars, to the annual sum of eighty already established, would be a sufficient compensation for that service, and as much as it would be proper to allow” (Tobias Lear to Alexander Hamilton, 18 Jan. 1792, DLC:GW). Hamilton instructed Lincoln to inform Greenleaf of the increase (Hamilton to Lincoln, 23 Jan. 1792, Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 10:530–31).

Apparently Greenleaf did not consider this an adequate raise. In the fall of 1792 a group of Portland and Falmouth merchants wrote to GW petitioning for a further increase in Greenleaf’s pay, which they contended was “not more than one third part of what Others in the same employment receive” and was “far from a just compensation for his faithfull and laborious Services,” adding that “The lanthorn is so very Small and disproportionate to the hous that extraordinary care is required and frequent cleaning of the Glass by nights.” They wrote that Greenleaf was ideal for the post, having been a mariner himself, and that he “spars no pains to keep the hous clean and in good Order.” They argued that although the lighthouse was on the mainland, it was in a remote location inaccessible for much of the year (William Campbell et al. to GW, c. October-November 1792, MB). Tobias Lear forwarded this petition to Hamilton (Lear to Hamilton, 27 Nov. 1792, DNA: RG 26, Lighthouse Letters Received). On 24 Dec. 1792 the Portland Eastern Herald reported that Greenleaf, not expecting the president to increase his pay, had accepted money raised by subscription to supplement his salary, which earned him a stern rebuke from Tench Coxe, commissioner of the revenue, to whom Hamilton had delegated supervision of lighthouses. Regarding the subscription, Coxe wrote: “Reflexions upon the justice of Government and of the Chief Magistrate too naturally follow from the tenor of these papers, and they are rendered the more unpleasant by the circumstance of the subscription paper being handed round by a gentleman holding a commission under the United States.” Coxe added that he had conferred with Hamilton, and they had agreed that Greenleaf should refund the subscription money and “confide intirely in the equity and wisdom of the President in regard to the compensations for your services” (Coxe to Joseph Greenleaf, 17 Jan. 1793, DNA: RG 58, Letters of Commissioner of Revenue, 1792–93). As a consequence of an inquiry into the compensation of lighthouse keepers instituted in the fall of 1792, the annual pay of the Portland lighthouse keeper was raised to $160 a year beginning 1 July 1793. In approving the increase GW specified that Greenleaf should reside at the lighthouse; he apparently had delegated operation of the lighthouse to a deputy (see Alexander Hamilton to GW, 22 June 1793, DLC:GW; and Tobias Lear to Alexander Hamilton, 18 July 1793, DNA: RG 26, “Segregated” Lighthouse Records).

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