George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Alexander Hamilton, 4 May 1793

From Alexander Hamilton

[Philadelphia] May 4th 1793.

The Secretary of the Treasury presents his respects to the President. It has appeared to him that a circular letter of the enclosed form to the several Collectors would be a measure of utility. If not disapproved by the President it will be forwarded.1

The enclosed paper is sent lest the President should not have received it otherwise. It contains intelligence critically important, tho’ requiring confirmation.2

LB, DLC:GW.

1This draft of Hamilton’s circular letter to the collectors of customs has not been identified, but it was an early version of a circular letter dated 4 Aug. 1793 (Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 15:178–81). Hamilton, in this draft, proposed that the collectors report to the Treasury Department all breaches of U.S. neutrality policy by Americans, including the building of ships with gunports. Thomas Jefferson opposed this measure (Jefferson’s Conversations, 6–12 May, and note 2). Jefferson told Attorney General Edmund Randolph that his main objection was that the collectors would become spies working for the secretary of the treasury against American citizens. He also argued that the power to prosecute such cases using secret evidence was too easily abused. Law was the purview of judges and U.S. district attorneys, not the Treasury Department (see Jefferson to Randolph, 8 May, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 25:691–92). Randolph agreed in principle with Jefferson but believed “that on these occasions, which do not evidently belong to one department rather than another, the President should specially instruct, whom he pleases; and that the letters should express that they are written by his direction” (Randolph to Jefferson, 9 May, ibid., 702). GW also found fault with Hamilton’s draft (GW to Hamilton, 5, 7 May). After a series of cabinet meetings, Randolph, at the prodding of the president, engineered a compromise on 10 May. The collectors would report neutrality infractions, “particularly as to building & equipping Vessels for war,” to district attorneys, who would then report them to Randolph (JPP, description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed. The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797. Charlottesville, Va., 1981. description ends 135). The cabinet decided to omit any mention of ships fitted with gunports for the time being. On 13 May, Jefferson confided to James Madison that “E.R. found out a hair to split, which, as always happens, became the decision. . . . If any thing prevents it’s being a mere English neutrality, it will be that the penchant of the P. is not that way, and above all, the ardent spirit of our constituents” (Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 26:26). Although the final version of the circular is dated 4 Aug., Hamilton did not send it out until 9 Aug. 1793 (JPP, description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed. The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797. Charlottesville, Va., 1981. description ends 216). On the policy of American neutrality in the war between France and Great Britain, see Neutrality Proclamation, 22 April 1793.

2This paragraph was added as a postscript. The enclosed paper has not been identified.

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