George Washington Papers

From George Washington to James McHenry, 13 December 1798

To James McHenry

Philada Decr 13 1798


You will observe that in the arrangement of the officers alloted to New York there is an alternative of Wm S. Smith or Abijah Hammond1 for Lt Colonel Commandant. Various considerations demand that the motive of this hesitation should be explained. Had military qualifications alone been consulted the name of Colonel Smith would have stood singly and he would have been deemed a valuable acquisition to the service. Had there ever been no other source of objection than the erroneous political opinions of late attributed to him, his honor and attachment to his country would have been relied upon. But as well myself as the two generals whose aid I have had in the nominations have been afflicted with the information well or ill founded that he stands charged in the opinion of his fellow citizens with very serious instances of private misconduct; instances which affect directly his integrity as a man. The instances alleged are various but there is one which has come forward in a shape which did not permit us to refuse it our attention. It respects an attempt knowingly to pledge property to Major Burrows by way of security, which was before conveyed or mortgaged for its full value to Mr William Constable; without giving notice of the circumstance, and with the aggravation, that Major Burrows had become the Creditor of Col. Smith through friendship to an amount which has proved entirely ruinous to him. While the impossibility of disregarding this information forbade the selection of Col. Smith absolutely, the possibility that it might admit of some fair explanation dissuaded from a conclusion against him.

As it will be in your power to obtain further lights on the subject it has appeared adviseable to leave the matter in the undetermined form in which it is presented and to assign the reason for it. You are at perfect liberty to communicate this letter to the President. Candour is particularly due to him in such a case. It is my wish to give him every proof of frankness, respect and esteem.2 Lest it should be suspected that Major Burrows has officiously interfered to the prejudice of Col. Smith, it is but justice to him to declare that such a suspicion would be entirely without foundation. With great consideration & regard I have the honor to be Sir Your obedt servt

Df, in the hand of Alexander Hamilton, DLC:GW. There are also two versions of this letter in Timothy Pickering’s letter book (MHi: Pickering Papers).

1In a letter to McHenry of 27 Aug. 1798, Alexander Hamilton had this to say: “Mr. Abijah Hammond who was in one of the N Eng Regiments during the War though not soliciting it would accept a Regiment. I do not know his character as an Officer. But from his present condition in Society, being a man of large fortune & fair character, from his being a man of good understanding & of exertion, I conclude that he would make a respectable Commander of a Regiment” (Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 22:165–66). As GW indicates here, Hammond, who at this time was a merchant in New York City, was not recommended for an appointment. By “the arrangement of the officers alloted to New York,” GW probably was referring to a document in DLC:GW filed at the end of 1798 and headed Company Arrangement New York, which lists thirty men by rank and residence.

2For the earlier rejection by the Senate of President Adams’s nomination of his son-in-law William S. Smith as adjutant general in the New Army, see McHenry to GW, 18 July 1798. Smith had borrowed money in 1796 from William Ward Burrows of Kenderton, Pa., for his land speculation in upstate New York, and he had pledged as security for the loan property that he had already conveyed to William Constable, a New York land speculator (Alexander Hamilton to Oliver Wolcott, Jr., 2 April 1797, and note 10, 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 21:54–55). For John Adams’s refutation of the charges of impropriety on the part of Smith in his dealings with Burrows and Constable, see McHenry to GW, 28 December. McHenry and President Adams decided that Smith’s name should be put forward as a lieutenant colonel to command a regiment in the New Army, and the Senate approved his nomination (see McHenry to GW, 5 Jan. 1799).

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