George Washington Papers

From George Washington to David Stuart, 21 October 1792

To David Stuart

Philadelphia Oct. 21st 1792.

Dear Sir,

You informed me when I was at George Town on my way to this City1 that Colo. Mercer, upon receiving, or being told of Colo. Hamiltons letter to him requesting to know if the words with which he was charged by Major Ross as having uttered in his public harangues against the conduct of the Secretary of the Treasury were true expressed, if I understood you rightly much surprize at the application; as he Colo. Hamilton must be conscious of his having attempted to bribe him Colo. Mercer to vote for a further assumption of the State debts—and that this surprize was expressed at a public Table before many Gentlemen.2

This is a charge of so serious a nature that it is incumbent on Colo. Hamilton to clear it up—or for the President of the U States to take notice of it.3 For this reason, before I communicate the matter to Colo. Hamilton, I beg to be informed whether I precisely understood the information you gave me—and, in that case, who were the persons that heard Colo. Mercer express himself to that effect.4

It was my intention to have asked this at the time you mentioned the matter—but I was diverted from it by something that occurred at the moment. and the variety of things which have been thrown in my way since I came to this place, have prevented it till now. With great esteem & regard I am Dr Sir Your Affectionate

G. W——n

ADfS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; LB, DLC:GW.

1During his journey from Mount Vernon to Philadelphia, GW stopped in Georgetown on 8 Oct. to attend the sale of lots for the Federal City (see GW to D.C. Commissioners, 29 Sept. 1792).

2A prolonged dispute between Hamilton and John Francis Mercer began with the publication in the Maryland Gazette (Annapolis) on 20 Sept. 1792 of a letter by David Ross (1755–1800), a Revolutionary War veteran and member of the Continental Congress from Maryland 1787–89, in which Ross accused Mercer of falsely charging Hamilton with gross improprieties as secretary of the treasury. Hamilton wrote Mercer on 26 Sept. to ask “how far Mr. Ross’s statement is accurate or otherwise—in other words what you did really say, upon the occasion alluded to.” Mercer replied to Hamilton on 16 Oct. “that I never impeach’d your integrity as an Individual or public Officer (farther than that in the pursuit of public objects) without any other private view than that of encreasing your own influence and attaching to your administration a Monied Interest as an Engine of Government, your political principles differed from my own, may be so construed, in either a public address or private conversation” (Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 12:489–90, 574–75). Hamilton’s attempted bribe allegedly occurred in the spring of 1792 during the congressional debate on “An Act supplementary to the act making provision for the Debt of the United States” (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 281–83).

3A much more serious charge of misconduct against Hamilton began to emerge later this year with the first uncovering of a political scandal known as the “Reynolds Affair,” in which Hamilton was accused of using his position as secretary of the treasury to buy the silence of James Reynolds, the husband of Hamilton’s former mistress Maria Reynolds, by providing Reynolds with privileged information for speculation in government securities. Hamilton’s involvement with James and Maria Reynolds threatened to become public knowledge when Oliver Wolcott, Jr., comptroller of the treasury, charged James Reynolds and Jacob Clingman, a former clerk for Representative Frederick A. C. Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania, with attempting to defraud the federal government. In return for information against other potential criminals, Wolcott released Reynolds and Clingman from prison in early December, but not before the two men had implicated Hamilton in statements made to Muhlenberg, Virginia senator James Monroe, and Virginia representative Abraham B. Venable.

The three men apparently decided to inform GW of the charges against Hamilton, and Monroe and Venable wrote GW on 13 Dec.: “We think proper to lay before you, some documents respecting the conduct of Colo. Hamilton, in the Office of Secretary of the Treasury. The inclosed will explain to you the particulars, and likewise, how they came to our knowledge. They appeared to us to be of such importance, as to merit our attention, and in further pursuit of the object, that the proper course was, to submit the whole to your inspection.

“What we have stated of our own knowledge, we are willing to depose on oath. We think proper, however, to observe, that we do not consider ourselves, as prosecutors, but as only communicating, for his information, to the Chief Majistrate, intelligence, it highly imports him to know. We were, however, unwilling to take this step without communicating it to the Gentleman, whom it concerns, that he might make the explanation, he has it in his power to give; we, therefore, informed Mr Hamilton of the step we now take.

“You will readily perceive, that light might have been thrown on this subject, by the several public officers, who have had any part in the transactions of the prosecution and enlargement of Reynolds. But as we apprehended, an application to these parties might contribute to make the subject public, which, in tenderness to the person interested, we wished to avoid, on that account we declined it” (ViU: John James Beckley Papers).

Before sending this letter, however, the three men visited Hamilton twice on 15 Dec., being joined on their second visit by Wolcott. They confronted Hamilton with the accusations against him, listened to his admission of adultery and denial of official impropriety, and left the final meeting apparently satisfied with Hamilton’s explanation and unwilling to expose his personal indiscretion to public scrutiny. There is no evidence that the letter was sent to GW. Neither Hamilton’s adulterous affair nor the accusations of illegal activity remained secret, however, and both became public knowledge through a series of pamphlets published by James Thomson Callender in June and July 1797. GW’s reaction to the published accusations are absent from his extant correspondence for that time. For background on the personal and political aspects of this scandal, see James Reynolds to Hamilton, 15 Dec. 1791, and note 1, 13–15 Nov. 1792, and note 1, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., to Hamilton, 3 July 1797, and introductory note, in Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 10:376–78, 13:115–17, 21:121–45. See also Hamilton’s “Reynolds Pamphlet” of 25 Aug. 1797, ibid., 21:238–85, which was printed in Philadelphia that year under the title Observations on Certain Documents Contained in No. V & VI of “The History of the United States for the Year 1796,” in Which the Charge of Speculation against Alexander Hamilton, Late Secretary of the Treasury, Is Fully Refuted. Written by Himself.

4For Stuart’s reply, see his letter to GW of 5 Nov. 1792.

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