George Washington Papers

Cabinet Opinion on the Little Sarah [Petite Démocrate], 8 July 1793

Cabinet Opinion on the Little Sarah [Petite Démocrate]

[Philadelphia, 8 July 1793]

At a meeting at the State house of the city of Philadelphia July 8. 1793.1

Present the Secretary of state, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary at War.

It appears that a brigantine called the Little Sarah has been fitted out at the port of Philadelphia, with fourteen cannon, & all other equipments indicating that she is intended as a Privateer2 to cruise under the authority of France, & that she is now lying in the river Delaware at some place between this city & Mud-island;3 that a conversation has been had between the Secretary of state & the Minister Plenipotentiary of France, in which conversation the Minister refused to give any explicit assurance that the brigantine would continue until the arrival of the President & his decision in the case, but made declarations respecting her not being ready to sail within the time of the expected return of the President from which the Secretary of state infers with confidence that she will not sail till the President will have an opportunity of considering & determining the case.4 that in the course of the conversation the Minister declared that the additional guns which had been taken in by the Little Sarah were French property, but the Governor of Pensylvania declared that he has good ground to believe that two of her cannon were purchased here of citizens of Philadelphia. The Governor of Pensylvania asks advice what steps, under the circumstances he shall pursue?5

The Secretary of the Treasury & the Secretary of war6 are of opinion that it is expedient that immediate measures should be taken provisionally for establishing a battery on Mud island, under cover of a party of militia, with direction that if the brig Sarah should attempt to depart before the pleasure of the President shall be known concerning her, military coercion be employed to arrest and prevent her progress.7

Alexandr Hamilton

H. Knox

The Secretary of state dissents from this opinion.8

Th: Jefferson9

DS, in Thomas Jefferson’s writing, DLC:GW; DS (letterpress copy), in Thomas Jefferson’s writing, DLC: Jefferson Papers; DfS, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, DLC: Hamilton Papers; copy, in Bartholomew Dandridge, Jr.’s writing, DLC: Jefferson Papers. Both the letterpress copy and the draft are signed by Jefferson but not by Hamilton and Knox. The draft is printed in Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 15:70–71.

1The Pennsylvania State House, which became known as Independence Hall, is located on Chestnut Street, between 5th and 6th Streets. On this date GW was en route from Mount Vernon and did not arrive at Philadelphia until 11 July (JPP description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed. The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797. Charlottesville, Va., 1981. description ends , 190).

2Jefferson drew a block around the preceding three words, and in a marginal note he wrote “omit these words.” He also boxed these same words on the draft and indicated in a footnote that they should be omitted. This phrase does not appear in the copy. When Hamilton enclosed the draft in his letter to Jefferson of 10 July, he wrote that he had left “the words as a privateer to consider jointly of some substitute the kind of vessel not being wholly indifferent & there being a doubt whether the general words would be descriptive enough” (Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 15:81).

3On the outfitting of the Little Sarah as a privateer, see Thomas Mifflin’s first and second letters to GW of 22 June 1793, and notes. During a cabinet meeting on 5 July, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Knox agreed that Knox should write a letter “to Govr. Mifflin to have a particular enquiry made whether the Little Sarah is arming” (Notes of Cabinet Meeting, 5 July 1793, Jefferson Papers, 26:437–39). For the letter from Knox to Mifflin of 5 July and the report of 6 July from Master Warden Nathaniel Falconer on the increased armaments aboard the Little Sarah, see Mifflin to GW, 8 July, and note 4.

4For Jefferson’s meeting with Edmond Genet on 7 July, see his Notes on a Conversation with Genet of 10 July 1793, which he enclosed in his first memorandum to GW of 11 July. According to these notes, the privateer sailed to Chester, Pa., just south of Philadelphia and Mud Island, before GW’s return to Philadelphia. On GW’s absence from Philadelphia from 24 June until 11 July, see JPP description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed. The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797. Charlottesville, Va., 1981. description ends , 189–90.

6Knox inserted the preceding four words in a blank space left on Hamilton’s draft.

7Mifflin had suggested the construction of a fort on Mud Island in his letter to GW of 8 July 1793. He also began preparations for fortification on Mud Island, even before receiving federal approval, when on 10 July he wrote militia captain Jeremiah Fisher, of the 4th Company of Artillery, to employ workmen and obtain materials to “establish at Mud Island, a platform for Six Cannon, 24 and 18 Pounders.” Mifflin enclosed a copy of this order for presentation to GW in a letter to Knox of 10 July, in which he justified this action as “expedient for the purpose of giving effect to the instructions of the President, communicated in your letter of the 23d and 24th of May last” (both, PHarH: Executive Correspondence, 1790–99). For Knox’s letters of 23 and 24 May, see Knox to GW, 24 May 1793, and note 2. GW apparently agreed with Hamilton and Knox’s opinion and Mifflin’s decision because on 13 July Mifflin wrote Adjutant General Josiah Harmar: “I have received instructions from the President of the United States, to take measures, with the aid of the militia, for preserving the peace and neutrality of the Port of Philadelphia; and, in order, to do this effectually, and, at the same time to prevent any injurious contest opposite the City, it has become necessary to prepare four twenty four pounders, and to station a Party of thirty five Men and proper Officers at Mud-Island.” Knox wrote Mifflin later on 13 July that he would give orders “to furnish the rations for the party at Mud Island and also fuel and straw—and that I will also direct Samuel Hodgdon Commissary of Military Stores to furnish one horseman and eight common tents, and the usual allowance of axes, canteens, camp kettles, bowls.… I have also given an order for four twenty four pounders and the necessary ammunition and implements” (both, PHarH: Executive Correspondence, 1790–99). For the administration’s continued consideration of issues raised by privateers, see Jefferson to GW, 11 July, and Cabinet Opinion, 12 July 1793.

8Jefferson’s signed dissenting opinion of this date reads: “I am against the preceding opinion of the Secretaries of the Treasury and War, for ordering a battery to be erected on Mud-island, & firing on the Little Sarah, an armed vessel of the Republic of France.

“Because I am satisfied from what passed between mister Genet & myself at our personal interview yesterday, that the vessel will not be ordered to sail till the return of the President, which, by a letter of this day’s post, we may certainly expect within eight & forty hours from this time.

“Because the erecting a battery & mounting guns to prevent her passage, might cause a departure not now intended, & produce the fact it is meant to prevent.

“Because were such battery & guns now in readiness & to fire on her, in the present ardent state of her crew just in the moment of leaving port, it is morally certain that bloody consequences would follow. no one could say how many lives would be lost on both sides, & all experience has shewn that, blood once seriously spilled, between nation & nation, the contest is continued by subordinate agents, & the door of peace is shut. at this moment too we expect in the river 20. of their ships of war, with a fleet of from 100. to 150. of their private vessels, which will arrive at the scene of blood in time to continue it, if not to partake in it.

“Because the actual commencement of hostilities, against a nation, for such this act may be, is an act of too serious consequence to our countrymen to be brought on their heads by subordinate officers, not chosen by them, nor cloathed, with their confidence; & too presumptuous on the part of those officers, when the chief magistrate, into whose hands the citizens have committed their safety, is within eight & forty hours of his arrival here, & may have an opportunity of judging for himself & them, whether the buying & carrying away two cannon, (for according to information, the rest are the nation’s own property) is sufficient cause of war between Americans & Frenchmen.

“Because should the vessel, contrary to expectation, depart before the President’s arrival, the adverse Powers may be told the truth of the case, that she went off contrary to what we had a right to expect, that we shall be justifiable in future cases to measure our confidence accordingly, that for the present we shall demand satisfaction from France, which, with the proofs of good faith we have already given, ought to satisfy them. above all, Great Britain ought not to complain: for, since the date of the order forbidding that any of the belligerent powers should equip themselves in our ports with our arms, these two cannon are all that have escaped the vigilance of our officers on the part of their enemies, while their vessels have carried off more than ten times the number, without any impediment: and if the suggestion be true (and as yet it is but suggestion) that there are 15. or 20. Americans on board the Little Sarah, who have gone with their own consent, it is equally true that more than ten times that number of Americans are at this moment on board English ships of war, who have been taken forcibly from our Merchant vessels, at sea or in port, whenever met with, & compelled to bear arms against the friends of their country. and is it less a breach of our neutrality towards France to suffer England to strengthen herself with our force, than towards England to suffer France to do so? and are we equally ready & disposed to sink the British vessels in our ports by way of reprisal for this notorious and avowed practice?

“Because it is inconsistent for a nation which has been patiently bearing for ten years the grossest insults & injuries from their late enemies, to rise at a feather against their friends & benefactors; & that too in a moment when circumstances have kindled the most ardent affections of the two people towards each other; when the little subjects of displeasure which have arisen are the acts of a particular individual, not yet important enough to have been carried to his government as causes of complaint; are such as nations of moderation & justice settle by negociation, not making war their first step; are such as that government would correct at a word, if we may judge from the late unequivocal demonstrations of their friendship towards us; and are very slight shades of the acts committed against us by England, which we have been endeavoring to rectify by negociation, and on which they have never condescended to give any answer to our Minister.

“Because I would not gratify the combination of kings with the spectacle of the two only republics on earth destroying each other for two cannon; nor would I, for infinitely greater cause, add this country to that combination, turn the scale of contest, & let it be from our hands that the hopes of man receive their last stab.

“It has been observed that a general order has been already given to stop by force vessels arming contrary to rule in our ports, in which I concurred. I did so; because it was highly presumable that the destination of such a vessel would be discovered in some early stage, when there would be few persons on board, these not yet disposed nor prepared to resist, & a small party of militia put aboard would stop the procedure, without a marked infraction of the peace. but it is a much more serious thing, when a vessel has her full complement of men, (here said to be 120.) with every preparation & probably with dispositions to go through with their enterprize. a serious engagement is then a certain consequence. Besides, an act of force, committed by an officer in a distant port, under general orders, given long ago, to take effect on all cases, & with less latitude of discretion in him, would be a much more negociable case, than a recent order, given by the general government itself (for that is the character we are to assume) on the spot, in the very moment, pointed at this special case, possessing full discretion, & not using it. this would be a stubborn transaction, not admitting those justifications & explanations which might avert a war, or admitting such only as would be entirely humiliating to the officers giving the order, & to the government itself.

“On the whole, respect to the chief magistrate, respect to our countrymen, their lives, interests & affections, respect to a most friendly nation who, if we give them the opportunity, will answer our wrongs by correcting & not be repeating them, respect to the most sacred cause that ever man was engaged in, poising maturely the evils which may flow from the commitment of an act which it would be in the power & probably in the temper of subordinate agents to make an act of continued war. and those which may flow from an eight & forty hours suspension of the act, are motives with me for suspending it eight & forty hours, even should we thereby lose the opportunity of committing it altogether” (DLC:GW). For Hamilton and Knox’s defense of their opinion, see their memorandum to GW of 8 July 1793.

9The draft contains two additional paragraphs that read: “Information having also been received that part of the Crew of the Sarah are citizens of the U. States; as can be testified by Charles Biddle of this City.

“The abovementioned heads of Departments agree that this information shall be communicated to the Atty of the District in order that pursuant to his former instructions he may take measures for apprehending and bringing them to Trial.” For earlier instructions to the U.S. attorney for Pennsylvania, see Jefferson to William Rawle, 15 May, Enclosure II of Tobias Lear to Jefferson, 15 May 1793.

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