George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Charles Pinckney, 20 September 1791

From Charles Pinckney

September 20: 179⟨1⟩ In Charleston [S.C.]

Dear Sir

I had the honour to write you lately by the Delaware since which an occasion makes it necessary for me to address you again, on the subject of the inclosed application to me from the general Assembly of St Domingo1—By these inclosures you will percieve the wretched & distressed situation in which these unhappy people are & I am afraid if not checked in time it is a flame which will extend to all the neighbouring islands, & may eventually prove not a very pleasing or agreeable example to the Southern States—I have considered it in some measure my duty to transmit this application with my answer, which was the only one my situation would permit2—I believe it has been in the power of M: Polony to procure some shipments of Grain here, & every assistance which can be afforded by individuals no doubt will chearfully be given—taking it for granted you have been particularly informed of their situation it is unnecessary for me to repeat it. The detail of the almost indiscriminate Slaughter of all the whites who had fallen into their hands—The conflagration of the largest & most valuable Sugar Estates on the Island—The general destruction of property, & a probable famine are particularly unpleasant to us who live in Countries where Slaves abound. No doubt some application has been made to you3—but unless it may be in the articles of arms & provisions I do not see what assistance can be given them by Congress—besides, there is a difficulty arises in my mind which I will take the liberty of stating & which even if we had the means & authority in this State would make me very cautious how I acted—it is this, that there is at present not an Union of Sentiment in the french Empire & although we all wish well to the efforts of the patriotic party & hope that their exertions will terminate in the establishment of a free & judicious system, yet it is impossible to say at present what may be the consequence, or whether they may be obliged before it is settled to proceed to hostilities—In any event, it must be the policy of this country to appear to favour no particular party or opinion—Our connection is with France, under whatever Government they may establish nor would we wish to risque offending them unnecessarily, for I have always been of opinion that our connection with her has never yet been throughly understood or improved to those useful purposes it might—in this situation I am therefor⟨e⟩ rather pleased than otherwise, that I have been officially obliged to give the kind of answer, which if I had possessed a competent authority to have interfered, I should certainly have been inclined to4—I shall ever be pleased to hear of Your welfare & to assure you that I am with the highest Esteem & Respect Dear Sir Yours Truly

Charles Pinckney

LS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; LS (duplicate), DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Dispatches.

For the slave uprising that broke out on 22–23 Aug. in northern Saint Domingue, see Samuel Wall to GW, 16 Sept., n.1.

1Charles Pinckney is probably referring to his letter to GW of 18 August. The enclosed undated application for assistance from the general assembly of Saint Domingue to the governor of South Carolina reads: “The miseries of St Domingue are at their highest pitch—this superb country will soon be nothing more than a heap of ashes—the planters have already bathed with their Blood the Ground that their hard Labour had rendered fertile—fire is in this moment consuming those productions which made the splendour of the french Empire—Principles destructive of our properties, have brought flames into our Cities and armed our very Slaves against us—Philosophy in general the comfort of men brings to us despair. In this hour of Desolation we have cast our thoughts around and have found some consolation in recollecting the intercourse which has long since subsisted between the State of South Carolina and ourselves—and then relying on your attachment the General Assembly of the french at St Domingo have thought it most proper to send a deputation to you to intreat you to give to this unfortunate Country some speedy help consisting of troops ammunition and provision—for famine will soon be over the Country and we should have only saved our inhabitants from the sword to see them fall by famine. The General Assembly has chosen to present you this request Mr Polony one of its members—He will deliver this Credential with the resolve in which he is named and the Proclamation made to solicit help from all our neighbouring powers—He will also deliver to you an Act of our Constitution which constitutes our Legal character as representative(s) of the french at St Domingue” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

The accompanying extract of the minutes of assembly held at Léogane on 9 Aug. reads: “The General Assembly simply and purely constituted after having in the Sessions of the 5th, 6th, & 8th, of this Month discussed its constitutional points—has resolved and doth resolve on the majority of Sixty seven votes against forty six that it acts legally in virtue of the powers of its superiors the General Assembly of the french of St Domingue. The Assembly thus constituted wishing to leave no doubt of the purity of its intentions and principles till it has been able more formally to make them manifest—being taken up with the constitution of St Domingo—Declares that St Domingo being a portion of the french Empire acknowledges that to the national Assembly alone belongs the power irrevocably to pronounce on the political and commercial concerns that unite St Domingo to france agreeably to the plans that shall be presented by the General Assembly. Declares besides that to its protection and the loyalty of the Citizens are intrusted the interests of the merchants of france and of this Island—that it will maintain the strict observation of the Laws—and to this effect it will dispose in its [favor] the whole influence of public strength and opinion. It invites all the Citizens in recollecting the Oath of Union they are to make to beware of all unfavorable impressions and not to beleive any thing but the acts which flow from the Assembly and are Officially certified by it. And this is directed to the Lieutt General Government—to all the provincial assembly’s parishes municipalities committee’s and all Bodies of Justice and Police” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters). The accompanying “Extract of the Register’s of Deliberations” of the 24 Aug. session of the General Assembly reads: “The french of St Domingo find themselves in the most imminent danger—the Slaves have risen, the houses are on fire—the whites who had the government of them are murdered—those who have escaped the sword of the assassins are obliged to retreat into their towns and abandon their properties. In this critical situation the General Assembly of the french of St Domingo in union with their Governor—Considering that the assembling together of the Negroes increases every day and that soon the inhabitants will find it imposible to defend themselves even within their towns and Considering that the scourge which is now laying waste the most valuable french possessions in America threatens all the neighbouring Colonies if they do not unite to destroy the source of it—Resolve that all the neighbouring powers shall be instantly invited in the name of humanity & their respective interests to give to the french of St Domingo now in imminent Danger a speedy and fraternal releif and to send with the greatest Celerity troops, ammunition and provisions, that they may be enabled to put a stop to the progress of an evil which would terminate in the final annihilation of the American Islands—Resolved besides that the Governor shall be requested to join to the present a particular request to the same neighbouring powers to solicit their services” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters). Also enclosed was a copy of the minutes for 26 Aug.: “The Assembly in the Session of the 24 of this month having resolved to send one of its members in quality of Commissary to his Excellency the Governor of South Carolina to request from him the speedy help that the french of St Domingo stand so much in want of—wishing to secure to themselves the success of this deputation which is rendered more and more important by succeeding circumstances. Resolve that there shall be chosen from among its members a Commissary to present the above mentioned petition and request the same help the first commissioned member did. In consequence whereof Choice has been made of Mr Polony who has accepted and given Oath faithfully to fulfill the commission delegated to him—and for this reason has received all the powers relative thereto. Mr Provost having offered himself as interpreter the Assembly has accepted his offer and he has given Oath faithfully to fulfil the duties of his charge” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

2The enclosed copy of Governor Pinckney’s answer reads: “I have received from Mr Polony the Letter which the Assembly of St Domingo have done me the honour to address to me, and have taken the earliest opportunity of transmitting the only answer which my situation and the circumstances of our Government will permit. By the constitution of the United States all national powers are transferred to the General Government who alone have the power to direct the national force or enter into agreements or compacts with foreign powers, their citizens or Subjects, or to afford them any assistance or support in seasons of danger and calamity—the individual States are expressly restrained from any interference without the consent of Congress. Thus situated the Assembly must at once perceive that as by our constitution the General Government are the only power competent to afford support—that to them all applications must be made for that purpose and as it appears that Mr Polony is furnished with dispatches to the supreme Executive I hope little or no inconvenience will arise from the delay that has been occasioned by the application to me. Permit me while I lament that for these reasons it is not in my power to afford the assistance you request to assure you that I feel sincerely for the deplorable & unexampled sufferings of the people of St Domingo—it is our duty gratefully to recollect that in the time of our most imm[in]ent distress the arms and treasure of france were generously devoted to our releif—not only in common therefore with the other citizens of the American Union must we lament the excesses which have laid waste one of the richest and most valuable possessions of the french empire—but when we recollect how nearly similar the situation of the southern States and St Domingo are in the possession of Slaves—that a day may arrive when they may be exposed to the same insurrections, we cannot but sensibly feel for your situation and have a particular interest in hoping that such support will be afforded by your friends as will enable you effectually to crush so daring and unprovoked a rebellion—that your decided success will prove the general detestation in which such attempts are held & will always be opposed & that your situation & the fate of the insurgents will have a happy effect in operating as an example to prevent similar commotions in other countries” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; this copy is dated 12 Sept.; a duplicate in DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Dispatches, is dated 20 September). After they convened Pinckney presented the application to both houses of the legislature of South Carolina on 5 and 6 Dec. and on 12 Dec. presented another letter of M. Polony, dated Charleston, 25 November. On 16 Dec. the legislature unanimously resolved to furnish up to £3,000 worth of provisions and stores to Polony (“Journal of the S.C. Senate,” description begins Manuscript “Journal of the Senate of South Carolina.” (Microfilm Collection of Early State Records.) description ends 15, 55, 83, 101; “Journal of the S.C. House of Representatives,” description begins Manuscript “Journal of the House of Representatives of South Carolina.” (Microfilm Collection of Early State Records.) description ends 13, 99, 121).

3For the request for assistance made to the national government, see Ternant to GW, 22 September.

4The following lines of the complimentary close are in Pinckney’s hand. GW received this letter in late October after he returned to Philadelphia and was preoccupied with preparing his annual address to Congress. He requested Thomas Jefferson to write a reply, which was drafted on 6 Nov., and GW acknowledged this letter two days later (see Jefferson to GW, 6 Nov., GW to Pinckney, 8 Nov. [first letter]).

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