Archive for September, 2013

Hamilton: Foreign Relations, Cabinet Paper to George Washington, September 15, 1790

September 30, 2013


Alexander Hamilton was a Founding Father, soldier, economist, political philosopher, one of America’s first constitutional lawyers and the first United States Secretary of the Treasury.

Alexander Hamilton was a Founding Father, soldier, economist, political philosopher, one of America’s first constitutional lawyers and the first United States Secretary of the Treasury.

Alexander Hamilton: The Works of Alexander Hamilton, Volume 4


Foreign Relations, Cabinet Paper: Hamilton to Washington, September 15, 1790


Treasury Department,
September 1, 1790.

Sir:—Two acts of the Legislature, of the fourth and twelfth of August, of which I inclose you copies, authenticated according to law, empower the President to cause to be borrowed on their behalf fourteen millions of dollars, subject to certain restrictions and qualifications, to be applied in payment of such part of our foreign debt as shall have become due, and to a new modification of the remainder, if it can be effected upon terms beneficial to the United States. The execution of this authority he has committed immediately to me, and ultimately through me to you; except as to three millions of florins, part of the above sum, of which, as you are informed, a loan has been anticipated by Messrs. Willinks, Van Staphorsts, and Hubbard, and of which a confirmation, with correspondent powers, has been sent directly to them. Among the documents which accompany this letter you will find a copy of the commission from the President to me, and a power founded on it from me to you.

It remains for me to give you some indications for your government, conformable to the general tenor of the instructions which I have received from the President, and of which I transmit a copy; premising that it is understood, between the Secretary of State and myself, that you are to proceed to Amsterdam without delay, and to continue there, in the first instance, for a term not less than three months.

A primary and principal object of your attention will be, to acquire as exact knowledge as may be of the footing upon which the different foreign powers who borrow in Holland have usually obtained their loans, since the commencement of our independence, and upon which they at present obtain them; the prices of foreign stock in the Dutch market, including our own; the state of our credit compared with that of other nations; the extent and the conditions to and upon which we shall be likely to borrow in case of war between England and Spain, and in the alternative of our being ourselves at peace or war; the principal houses and brokers concerned in the negotiations of foreign loans; their characters; comparative solidity and influence with the money-lenders; the terms upon which their agency is afforded to their employers; the manner in which those whom we have heretofore employed are understood to have conducted themselves in relation to our interest and credit; and particularly their solidity and influence with the money-lenders.

Most if not all these inquiries will be immediately serviceable to you. They will all be productive of information useful to my department; and I will therefore thank you for successive communications of the result.

One consequence of them to you will be, that they will enable you to judge whether our confidence in our former commissioners or agents ought to be continued, or withdrawn in order to the substitution of others; or, if continued, whether the terms of their agency may not be meliorated; or whether, with their consent, some other house or houses may not be combined with them, with an increase of credit and resource to us.

These, as you will be sensible, are delicate points. They are, however, left to your prudence and discretion, according as facts shall be ascertained to you.

I shall only remark, that changes of public servants ought never to be made but for cogent reasons. If lightly made, they are not only chargeable with injustice and are a symptom of fickleness in the public counsels, but they destroy the motives to good conduct, and, in money concerns especially, are apt to beget a disposition to make the most of possession while it lasts. Circumspection in the present case is also recommended by the consideration that those whom we have heretofore trusted risked themselves and their fortunes upon our affairs, when the doing it was not without serious hazard. This is a reason for permitting them to reap the benefits of our more prosperous days, if they have been faithful and are adequate to the trust. A further reason is, that they are now deeply interested in our funds, and consequently, it is presumable, in our credit. Competition and variance once existed between the house of Willinks and that of the Van Staphorsts; but these appear some time since to have been compromised. The latter have most merit for early exertions, the former are said to be most solid. This union is desirable for the greater security it affords.

Suggestions of this nature are not dictated by any distrust of the fidelity or good conduct of our former commissioners. As far as I know, they deserve well of us. My object is, in entering upon a new stage of our affairs, to have the ground over which we have passed well examined, that we may the better judge whether to continue or alter our course.

In the consideration of our foreign debt, it naturally divides itself into two parts; that which is now payable, and that which will be payable hereafter. The first we are bound to discharge as soon as may be, and upon the best terms we can. The last we are not bound to discharge but as the times of payment elapse, and therefore are not called upon to do it unless some positive advantage accrues from it to ourselves. This view of the matter governs the instructions of the President to me, which, of course, regulate mine to you.

You are accordingly to borrow, on the best terms which shall be found practicable, within the limitations prescribed by law, such sum or sums as shall be sufficient to discharge as well all instalments or parts of the principal of the foreign debt, which now are due or shall become payable to the end of the year one thousand seven hundred and ninety-one, as all interest and arrears of interest which now are or shall become due in respect to the said debt to the same end of the year one thousand seven hundred and ninety-one. But you shall not extend the amount of the loans which you shall make or cause to be made beyond the sum which shall be requisite for that purpose, unless it can be done upon terms more advantageous to the United States than those upon which the residue of the said debt shall stand or be.

And in order that you may judge what will be due to the end of the year one thousand seven hundred and ninety-one, I refer you to the papers marked A and B, which contain statements of principal and arrears of interest of our foreign loans to that period; and shall, by the next opportunity, send you a copy of the contracts respecting them, from which you will derive a more accurate knowledge of their terms.

You will perceive, by the act which authorizes the loan for paying off the foreign debt, that there is no other restriction as to the terms except that, in the contracts to be made, the United States shall be left at liberty to reimburse the sum borrowed, within a period not exceeding fifteen years. As this seems to be the usual period for the reimbursement of moneys borrowed in Holland, that restriction can constitute no embarrassment.

In the second act there is no restriction as to time of repayment, but there is one as to the rate of interest, which must not exceed five per cent. This, however, I consider as compatible with the allowance of those premiums, commissions, and other charges which are customary in ordinary times; and which, I am informed, are, in the aggregate, about four and a half per cent. But the allowance of unusual or extraordinary premiums to obtain loans upon a nominal interest of five per cent., as well because it is a pernicious mode of borrowing as because it would be an invasion of the law, is inadmissible.

If war should continue or become more general in Europe, it is to be apprehended that the demand for money will raise its price upon us, and that loans will not be practicable upon so good terms as in time of peace. The situation of this country, too, authorizes us to expect that as our resources become more unfolded and better understood, we shall be able to borrow upon easier terms than we have at any time heretofore done. On both these accounts it would be very desirable, while we did not oblige ourselves to reimburse the principal borrowed in less than fifteen years, commencing at the end of ten, that we could stipulate for a right of reimbursing it sooner,—that is to say, either upon giving notice of our intention to do it for a limited time beforehand, or at the end of a short period, say five years. I should consider a stipulation of this kind as a valuable ingredient in your contracts.

I have intimated above the inexpediency of extraordinary premiums to purchase a nominal low rate of interest. Against this error I would particularly guard you. It is sacrificing a real future interest to an appearance, at best, to temporary accommodation. A higher rate of interest upon a sum actually received, is preferable to a lower rate upon a nominal sum, with large deductions in the first instance, or considerable premiums afterwards; this will be more especially the case if we can reserve a right to repay when we please or after a short period; as we may reasonably contemplate, with the return of peace, a fall of interest.

But every thing of this kind is, after all, matter of calculation, and to be tested by the evidence of figures. I can only, therefore, mean to give you a caution, referring you to that test, and intimating to you this general principle, that the name of a low interest ought not to betray us into giving more for it in the shape of premium or discount than it is worth, and that, as we shall borrow at a time when circumstances will render interest high, we had better pay that interest on actual value received, than a lower one on a fictitious value, or for future and exaggerated compensations; reserving, as far as it can be done, the right of paying off at pleasure, or at an early period. The future fall of interest will, in the first case, turn to our advantage, in the last, to our disadvantage.

You will not pass unnoticed the circumstance that the laws contain actual appropriations of very adequate funds for the payment of interest upon the sums you shall borrow. The first act, indeed, after reserving six hundred thousand dollars for the support of government, gives a priority in payment to the foreign debt out of revenues which are calculated upon the estimate of a much larger product. You may confidently assert that the duties hitherto have produced at the rate of one million eight hundred thousand dollars; which alone would leave twelve hundred thousand dollars, as the fund out of which the interest on your loans would be payable. But the augmentations which have been made in the rates are computed to be capable of affording an addition of eight hundred thousand dollars; and I believe the computation to be well founded.

You will also, no doubt, make a proper use in your communications of the actual situation and future prospects of this country. The economical scale of our establishments, civil and military; the comparative smallness of our debt; the reliance which may be had on the stability of our pecuniary arrangements once made, from the nature of our government in respect to the mutual checks inherent in its organization; the rapid progression of population and resources to which we may look forward; the actual and probable emigrations occasioned by the troubled state of Europe; the hope that we shall continue in peace, while other Powers are accumulating their debts by new wars; the very favorable situation in which we shall find ourselves at the end of a general war in Europe, if we avoid participating in it, etc., etc. These are topics which ought to have weight in our favor, and, within due limits, may be urged with force and assurance.

With regard to that part of the debt which does not become payable till after the year one thousand seven hundred and ninety-one, you will have observed that nothing is to be done by you in respect to it, unless it can be done upon terms of advantage to the United States. However cordial our disposition to come to the pecuniary aid of FNew York,
September 15, 1790.
Answer to Questions Proposed by the President of the United States to the Secretary of the Treasury

Question The First.—“What should be the answer of the Executive of the United States to Lord Dorchester, in case he should apply for permission to march troops through the territory of said States, from Detroit to the Mississippi?”

Answer.—In order to a right judgment of what ought to be done in such case, it may be of use previously to consider the following points:

First.—Whether there be a right to refuse or consent, as shall be thought most for the interest of the United States.

Secondly.—The consequences to be expected from refusal or consent.

Thirdly.—The motives to the one or to the other.

As to the first point, if it were to be determined upon principle only, without regard to precedents or opinions, there would seem to be no room for hesitation about the right to refuse. The exclusive jurisdiction which every independent nation has over its own territory, appears to involve in it the right of prohibiting to all others the use of that territory in any way disagreeable to itself, and more especially for any purpose of war, which always implies a degree of danger and inconvenience, with the exception only of cases of necessity.

And if the United States were in a condition to do it without material hazard, there would be strong inducements to their adopting it as a general rule never to grant a passage for a voluntary expedition of one power against another, unless obliged to it by treaty.

But the present situation of the United States is too little favorable to encountering hazards, to authorize attempts to establish rules, however eligible in themselves, which are repugnant to the received maxims or usages of nations.

It is therefore necessary to inquire what those maxims or usages enjoin in the case suggested.

With regard to usage, it has been far from uniform. There are various instances in ancient and modern times of similar permissions being demanded; many, in which they have been granted; others in which they have been refused, and the refusal acquiesced in; but perhaps more in which, when refused, a passage has been forced, and the doing of it has often been deemed justifiable.

Opinions are not more harmonious. Among those who may be considered as authorities on such subjects, Puffendorf and Barbeyrac confine within narrow limits the right of passage through neutral territories; while Grotius and Vatel, particularly the former, allow to it greater latitude. Puffendorf treats it not as a natural right, but as derived from compact or concession; especially when the enemy of a neighboring state desires leave to march troops through a neutral country against its neighbor. For it seems (says he) to be a part of the duty which we owe to our neighbors, especially such as have been kind and friendly, not to suffer any hostile power to march through our country to their prejudice, provided we can hinder the design with no great inconvenience to ourselves. And as it may have a tendency to make our own country the theatre of the war (since the power intended to be attacked may justifiably march within our limits to meet the approaching enemy), he concludes that it is the safest way of acting in such case, if we can do it without any considerable prejudice to our own affairs, to deny the enemy passage, and actually to oppose him if he endeavors to force it without our consent. But if we are either too weak to hinder his progress, or must on this score engage in a dangerous war, he admits that the plea of necessity will fairly justify us to our neighbor.

Examples, he adds, have little force on the decision of the question. For, generally, as people have been stronger or weaker, they have required passage with modesty or with confidence, and have in like manner granted or refused it to others.1

Barbeyrac, in his Commentary on Grotius, is still stronger against the right of passage.2 He affirms that, even though we have nothing to apprehend from those who desire a passage, we are not therefore obliged in rigor to grant it. It necessarily follows, says he, from the right of property, that the proprietor may refuse another the use of his goods. Humanity, indeed, requires that he should grant that use to those who stand in need of it, when it can be done without any considerable inconvenience to himself; but if he even then refuses it, though he transgresses his duty, he does no wrong, properly so called, except they are in extreme necessity, which is superior to all ordinary rules. Thus far, and no farther, extends the reserve with which it is supposed the establishment of property is accompanied.

Grotius, on the other hand, expresses himself thus3 : A free passage ought to be granted to persons where just occasion shall require, over any lands, or rivers, or such parts of the sea as belong to any nation; and, after enumerating several examples in support of his position, he concludes that the middle opinion is best; to wit, that the liberty of passing ought first to be demanded, and if denied, may be claimed by force. Neither, says he, can it be reasonably objected that there may be suspicion of danger from the passing of a multitude; for one man’s right is not diminished by another man’s fear. Nor is the fear of provoking that prince against whom he that desires to pass is engaged in a just war, a sufficient reason for refusing him passage. Nor is it any more an excuse that he may pass another way, for this is what everybody may equally allege, and so this right by passing would be entirely destroyed. But it is enough that the passage be requested, without any fraud or ill design, by the nearest and most convenient way. If, indeed, he who desires to pass undertakes an unjust war, or if he brings people who are my enemies along with him, I may deny him a passage; for in this case I have a right to meet and oppose him, even in his own land, and to intercept his march. Thus it would seem to be the opinion of Grotius, that a party engaged in a just war has a right, of course, to a passage through a neutral territory, which can scarcely, if at all, be denied him, even on the score of danger or inconvenience to the party required to grant it.

But Vatel, perhaps the most accurate and approved of the writers on the laws of nations, preserves a mean between these1 different opinions. This is the sum of what he advances: That an innocent passage is due to all nations with whom a state is at peace, for troops equally with individuals, and to annoy as well as to avoid an enemy. That the party asking and the party asked are both, in different degrees, judges of the question when innocent? That where the party asked has good reasons for refusing, he is not under any obligation to grant, and in doubtful cases his judgment ought to be definitive; but in evident ones, or those in which the harmlessness of the passage is manifest, the party asking may, in the last resort, judge for himself, and after demand and refusal may force his way. That nevertheless, as it is very difficult for the passage of a powerful army to be absolutely innocent, and still more difficult for its innocence to be apparent, a refusal ought to be submitted to, except in those very rare cases when it can be shown in the most palpable manner that the passage required is absolutely without danger or inconvenience. And lastly, that this right of passage is only due in a war not materially unjust.

Perhaps the only inference to be drawn from all this is, that there exists in the practice of nations and the dogmas of political writers a certain vague pretension to a right of passage in particular cases and according to circumstances, which is sufficient to afford to the strong a pretext for claiming and exercising it when it suits their interests, and to render it always dangerous to the weak to refuse, and sometimes not less so to grant it.

It is, nevertheless, a proper inquiry, whether a refusal could be placed on such ground as would give a reasonable cause of umbrage to the party refused, and as in the eye of the world would justify it.

Against the propriety of a refusal are the following circumstances: that there is no connection between us and Spain, which obliges us to it; that the passage asked will be down rivers, and for the most part through an uninhabited wilderness, whence no injury to our citizens or settlements will be apprehended; and that the number of troops to be marched, especially considering the route, will probably not be such as, on their own account, to be a serious cause of alarm. These circumstances may give our refusal the complexion of partiality to Spain, and of indisposition towards Britain, which may be represented as a deviation from the spirit of exact neutrality.

In support of the propriety of a refusal, the following is the only assignable reason: that it is safer for us to have two powerful but rival nations bordering upon our two extremities, than to have one powerful nation pressing us on both sides, and in capacity, hereafter, by posts and settlements, to envelop our whole interior frontier.

The good offices of Spain in the late war; the danger of the seduction of our western inhabitants; the probable consequences to the trade of the Atlantic States, are considerations rather to be contemplated as motives, than alleged as reasons.

The first reason, however, is of a nature to satisfy the mind of the justice of a refusal; admitting the authority of the more moderate opinions, which have been cited. And the danger, too, upon the supposition of which it is founded, appears to be obvious enough to vindicate it, in the opinion of the disinterested part of mankind; little likely as it may be to engage the acquiescence of the party whose wishes would be thwarted by the refusal. It deserves, notwithstanding, to be noticed on this point, that the ground of dissent would not result from the thing itself—that is, the mere passage,—but from the nature of the acquisition, to which it would give facility. This circumstance may somewhat obscure the clearness of the conclusion, that there is a perfect right to refuse.

But, upon the whole, there does not appear to be room enough for a scruple about the right to deter from refusal if, upon examination, it shall be found expedient.

Does the right of consenting to the passage stand upon ground equally unexceptionable?

This question Vatel answers in the following manner:1 “When I have no reason to refuse the passage, the party against whom it is granted has no room for complaint, much less for making it a pretense for war; since I did no more than what the law of nations enjoins. Neither has he any right to require that I should deny the passage, because he is not to hinder me from doing what I think is agreeable to my duty, and even on occasion when I might with justice deny the passage, it is allowable in me not to make use of my right; especially when I should be obliged to support my refusal by my sword. Who will take upon him to complain of my having permitted the war to be carried into his own country, rather than draw it on myself? It cannot be expected that I should take up arms in his favor, unless obliged to by a treaty.” And Puffendorf admits, as has been before noted, that if we are either too weak to hinder his progress, or must on that score engage in a dangerous war, the plea of necessity will fairly justify us to our neighbor.

Nothing need be added to reasoning so perspicuous and convincing. It does not admit of a moment’s doubt, as a general rule, that a neutral state, unfettered by any stipulation, is not bound to expose itself to a war, merely to shelter a neighbor from the approaches of its enemy. It remains to examine, if there are any circumstances, in our particular case, capable of forming an exception to that rule.

It is not to be forgotten that we received from France, in our late revolution, essential succor, and from Spain valuable countenance and some direct aid. It is also to be remembered that France is the intimate ally of Spain, and there subsists a connection by treaty between the former power and the United States.

It might thence be alleged that obligations of gratitude towards those powers require that we should run some risk, rather than concur in a thing prejudicial to either of them, and particularly in favor of that very nation against which they assisted us. And the natural impulse of every good heart will second the proposition, till reason has taught it that refinements of this kind are to be indulged with caution in the affairs of nations.

Gratitude is a word, the very sound of which imposes something like respect. Where there is even an appearance upon which the claim to it can be founded, it can seldom be a pleasing task to dispute that claim. But where a word may become the basis of a political system, affecting the essential interests of the state, it is incumbent upon those who have any concern in the public administration, to appreciate its true import and application.

It is necessary, then, to reflect, however painful the reflection, that gratitude is a duty, a sentiment, which between nations can rarely have any solid foundation. Gratitude is only due to a kindness or service, the predominant object of which is the interest or benefit of the party to whom it is performed. Where the interest or benefit of the party performing is the predominant cause of it, however there may result a debt, in cases in which there is not an immediate adequate and reciprocal advantage, there can be no room for the sentiment of gratitude. Where there is such an advantage, there is then not even a debt. If the motive of the act, instead of being the benefit of the party to whom it was done, should be a compound of the interest of the party doing it and of detriment to some other, of whom he is the enemy and the rival, there is still less room for so noble and refined a sentiment. This analysis will serve as a test of our true situation in regard both to France and Spain.

It is not to be doubted, that the part which the courts of France and Spain took in our quarrel with Great Britain, is to be attributed, not to an attachment to our independence or liberty, but to a desire of diminishing the power of Great Britain by severing the British Empire. This they considered as an interest of very great magnitude to them. In this their calculations and their passions conspired. For this they united their arms with ours, and encountered the expenses and perils of war. This has been accomplished; the advantages of it are mutual; and so far the account is balanced.

In the progress of the war1 they lent us money, as necessary to its success, and during our inability to pay they have forborne to press us for it. The money we ought to exert ourselves to pay with interest, and as well for the loan of it, as for the forbearance to urge the repayment of the sums which have become due, we ought always to be ready to make proportionate acknowledgments, and when opportunities shall offer, returns answerable to the nature of the service.

Let it be added to this, that the conduct of France in the manner of affording her aid, bore the marks of a liberal policy. She did not endeavor to extort from us, as the price of it, any disadvantageous or humiliating concessions. In this respect, however, she may have been influenced by an enlightened view of her own interest. She entitled herself to our esteem and good-will. These dispositions towards her ought to be cherished and cultivated; but they are very distinct from a spirit of romantic gratitude, calling for sacrifices of our substantial interests, preferences inconsistent with sound policy, or complaisances incompatible with our safety.

The conduct of Spain towards us presents a picture far less favorable. The direct aid we received from her during the war was inconsiderable in itself, and still more inconsiderable compared with her faculty of aiding us. She refrained from acknowledging our independence; has never acceded to the treaty of commerce made with France,—though a right of doing it was reserved to her,—nor made any other treaty with us; she has maintained possessions within our acknowledged limits without our consent; she perseveringly obstructs our sharing in the navigation of the Mississippi, though it is a privilege essential to us, and to which we consider ourselves as having an indisputable title. And perhaps it might be added upon good ground, that she has not scrupled to intrigue with leading individuals in the western country, to seduce them from our interests, and to attach them to her own.

Spain therefore must be regarded, upon the whole, as having slender claims to peculiar good-will from us. There is certainly nothing that authorizes her to expect we should expose ourselves to any extraordinary jeopardy for her sake. And to conceive that any considerations relative to France ought to be extended to her, would be to set up a doctrine altogether new in politics. The ally of our ally has no claim, as such, to our friendship. We may have substantial grounds of dissatisfaction against him, and act in consequence of them, even to open hostility, without derogating in any degree from what we owe to our ally.

This is so true, that if a war should really ensue between Great Britain and Spain, and if the latter should persist in excluding us from the Mississippi (taking it for granted our claim to share in its navigation is well founded), there can be no reasonable ground of doubt that we should be at liberty, if we thought it our interest, consistently with our present engagements with France, to join Britain against Spain.

How far it might be expedient to place ourselves in a situation which, in case France should eventually become a party in the war, might entangle us in opposite duties on the score of the stipulated guaranty of her West India possessions, or might have a tendency to embroil us with her, would be a mere question of prudential and liberal calculation, which would have nothing to do with the right of taking side against Spain.

These are truths necessary to be contemplated with freedom, because it is impossible to foresee what events may spring up, or whither our interests may point; and it is very important to distinguish with accuracy how far we are bound, and where we are free.

However vague the obligations of gratitude may be between nations, those of good faith are precise and determinate. Within their true limits, they can hardly be held too sacred. But by exaggerating them, or giving them a fanciful extension, they would be in danger of losing their just force. This would be converting them into fetters, which a nation would erelong become impatient to break, as consistent neither with its prosperity nor its safety. Hence, while it is desirable to maintain with fidelity our engagements to France, it is advisable, on all occasions, to beware that they oblige us to nothing towards Spain.

From this view of the subject, there does not appear any circumstance in our case capable of forming an exception to the general rule; and, as it is certain that there can hardly be a situation less adapted to war than that in which we now find ourselves, we can, with the greatest sincerity, offer the most satisfactory excuse to Spain for not withholding our consent, if our own interests do not decide us to a contrary course.

The conclusion from what has been said is, that there is a right either to refuse or consent, as shall be judged for the interest of the United States; though the right to consent is less questionable than the right to refuse.

The consequences to be expected from refusal or consent present themselves next to consideration. Those of consent shall be first examined.

An increase of the means of annoying us in the same hands is a certain ill consequence of the acquisition of the Floridas and Louisiana by the British. This will result not only from contiguity to a greater part of our territory, but from the increased facility of acquiring an undivided influence over all the Indian tribes inhabiting within the borders of the United States.

Additional danger of the dismemberment of the western country is another ill consequence to be apprehended from that acquisition. This will arise as well from the greater power of annoying us, as from the different policy which it is likely would be pursued by that nation, if in possession of the key to the only outlet for the productions of that country. Instead of shutting, they would probably open, the door to its inhabitants, and by conciliating their good-will on the one hand, and making them sensible, on the other, of their dependence on them for the continuance of so essential an advantage, they might hold out to them the most powerful temptation to a desertion of their connection with the rest of the United States. The avarice and ambition of individuals may be made to co-operate in favor of those views.

A third ill consequence of that acquisition would be, material injury, in time to come, to the commerce of the Atlantic States. By rendering New Orleans the emporium of the products of the western country, Britain would, at a period not very distant, have little occasion for supplies of provisions for their islands from the Atlantic States; and for their European market they would derive from the same source copious supplies of tobacco and other articles now furnished by the Southern States: whence a great diminution of the motives to establish liberal terms of commercial intercourse with the United States collectively.

These consequences are all expressed or implied in the form of the question stated by the President. And as far as our consent can be supposed likely to have influence upon the event, they constitute powerful objections to giving it.

If even it should be taken for granted that our consent or refusal would have no influence either way, it would not even then cease to be disagreeable to concur in a thing apparently so inauspicious to our interests. And it deserves attention that our concurrency might expose us to the imputation either of want of foresight to discover a danger, or of vigor to withstand it.

But there is almost always in such cases a comparison of evils; and the point of prudence is, to make choice of that course which threatens the fewest or the least, or sometimes the least certain. The consequences of refusal are therefore to be weighed against those of consent.

It seems to be a matter taken for granted by the writers upon the subject, that a refusal ought to be accompanied with a resolution to support it, if necessary, by the sword; or, in other words, to oppose the passage, if attempted to be forced, or to resent the injury, if circumstances should not permit an effectual opposition. This, indeed, is implied in the nature of the thing; for to what purpose refuse, unless it be intended to make good the refusal? or how avoid disgrace, if our territories are suffered to be violated with impunity, after a formal and deliberate prohibition of passage?

There are cases in which a nation may, without ignominy, wink at an infraction of its rights; but this does not appear to be one of them. After having been asked its permission and having refused it, the presumption will be that it has estimated the consequences, calculated its means, and is prepared to assert and uphold its rights. If the contrary of this should turn out to be its conduct, it must bring itself into contempt for inviting insult which it was unable to repel, and manifesting ill-will towards a power which it durst not resist. As, on the one hand, there cannot be conceived to be a greater outrage than to pass through our country, in defiance of our declared disapprobation; so, on the other, there cannot be a greater humiliation than to submit to it.

The consequence therefore of refusal, if not effectual, must be absolute disgrace or immediate war. This appears, at least, to be the alternative.

Whether a refusal would have the desired effect, is, at best, problematical. The presumption, perhaps, is, that Great Britain will have adverted to the possibility of it; and if, under the uncertainty of what would be our conduct, she should still have resolved on prosecuting the enterprise through our territory, that she will at the same time have resolved either to ask no questions, or to disregard our dissent. It is not unlikely that the reasoning of the British cabinet will have been to this effect: If the United States have no predilection for Spain, or if their views of their own interest are not opposed to the acquisition we meditate, they will not withhold their consent; if either the one or the other be the case, it ought to be determined beforehand, whether their enmity be a greater evil, than the projected acquisition a good; and if we do not choose to renounce the one, we must be prepared to meet the other.

A further ill consequence of the refusal, if ineffectual, not wholly destitute of weight, is this, that Great Britain would then think herself under less obligation to keep measures with us, and would feel herself more at liberty to employ every engine in her power to make her acquisition as prejudicial to us as possible; whereas, if no impediment should be thrown in the way by us, more good humor may beget greater moderation, and, in the progress of things, concessions securing us may be made, as the price of our future neutrality. An explicit recognition of our right to navigate the Mississippi to and from the ocean, with the possession of New Orleans, would greatly mitigate the causes of apprehension from the conquest of the Floridas by the British.

The consequences of refusal or consent constitute leading motives to the one or to the other; which now claim a more particular discussion.

It has been seen that the ill effects to be apprehended from the conquest of the Spanish territories in our neighborhood are: an increase of the means whereby we may be hereafter annoyed, and of the danger of the separation of the western country from the rest of the Union; and a future interference with the trade of the Atlantic States, in a manner, too, not conducive to the general weal.

As far as there is a prospect that a refusal would be an impediment to the enterprise, the considerations which have been mentioned afford the strongest inducements to it. But if that effect of it be doubtful, the force of these inducements is proportionably diminished; if improbable, it nearly ceases. The prospect in this case would be, that a refusal would aggravate instead of preventing the evil it was intended to obviate. And it must be acknowledged that the success of it is, at least, very doubtful.

The consideration that our assent may be construed into want of foresight or want of vigor, though not to be disregarded, would not be sufficient to justify our risking a war in our present situation. The cogent reasons we have to avoid a war are too obvious and intelligible, not to furnish an explanation of and an apology for our conduct in this respect.

Whatever may be the calculations with regard to the probable effect of a refusal, it ought to be predicated upon the supposition that it may not be regarded, and accompanied with a determination to act as a proper attention to national dignity would in such an event dictate. This would be to make war.

For it is a sound maxim, that a state had better hazard any calamities than submit tamely to absolute disgrace.

Now, it is manifest, that a government scarcely ever had stronger motives to avoid war, than that of the United States at the present juncture. They have much to dread from war; much to expect from peace; something to hope from negotiation, in case of a rupture between Britain and Spain.

We are but just recovering from the effects of a long, arduous, and exhausting war. The people but just begin to realize the sweets of repose. We are vulnerable both by water and land; without either fleet or army. We have a considerable debt in proportion to the resources which the state of things permits the government to command. Measures have been recently entered upon for the restoration of credit, which a war could hardly fail to disconcert, and which, if disturbed, would be fatal to the means of prosecuting it. Our national government is in its infancy. The habits and dispositions of our people are ill-suited to those liberal contributions to the treasury which a war would necessarily exact. There are causes which render war in this country more expensive, and consequently more difficult to be carried on, than in any other. There is a general disinclination to it in all classes. The theories of the speculative, and the feelings of all, are opposed to it. The support of public opinion (perhaps more essential to our government than to any other) could only be looked for in a war evidently resulting from necessity.

These are general reasons against going into war. There are others, of a more particular kind. To the people at large the quarrel would be apt to have the appearance of having originated in a desire of shielding Spain from the arms of Britain. There are several classes of men to whom this idea would not be agreeable, especially if the Dutch were understood to be in conjunction with the British. All those who were not friendly to our late revolution would certainly dislike it. Most of the descendants of the Dutch would be unfriendly to it. And let it not be overlooked, that there is still a considerable proportion of those who were firm friends to the revolution, who retain prepossessions in favor of Englishmen, and prejudices against Spaniards.

In a popular government especially, however prejudices like these may be regretted, they are not to be excluded from political calculations.

It ought also to be taken into the account, that by placing ourselves at this time in a situation to go to war against Great Britain, we embark with the weakest party—with a total uncertainty what accession of strength may be gained—and without making any terms with regard either to succor, indemnity, or compensation.

France is the only weight which can be thrown into the scale, capable of producing an equilibrium. But her accession, however probable, ought not to be deemed absolutely certain. The predominant party there may choose to avoid war as dangerous to their own power. And if even obstacles should not arise from that quarter, it cannot be foreseen to what extent France will be in condition to make efforts. The great body of malcontents, comprehending a large proportion of the most wealthy and formerly the most influential class—the prodigious innovations which have been made—the general and excessive fermentation which has been excited in the minds of the people—the character of the prince, or the nature of the government likely to be instituted, as far as can be judged prior to an experiment—do not prognosticate much order or vigor in the affairs of that country for a considerable period to come.

It is possible, indeed, that the enthusiasm which the transition from slavery to liberty may inspire, may be a substitute for the energy of a good administration, and the spring of great exertions. But the ebullitions of enthusiasm must ever be a precarious reliance. And it is quite as possible that the greatness, and perhaps immaturity, of that transition, may prolong licentiousness and disorder. Calculations of what may happen in France must be unusually fallible, not merely from the yet unsettled state of things in that kingdom, but from the extreme violence of the change which has been wrought in the situation of the people.

These considerations are additional admonitions to avoid, as far as possible, any step that may embroil us with Great Britain. It seems evidently our true policy to cultivate neutrality. This, at least, is the ground on which we ought to stand, until we can see more of the scene, and can have secured the means of changing it with advantage.

We have objects which, in such a conjuncture, are not to be neglected. The western posts, on one side, and the navigation of the Mississippi, on the other, call for a vigilant attention to what is going on. They are both of importance. The securing of the latter may be regarded in its consequences as essential to the unity of the empire.

But it is not impossible, if war takes place, that by a judicious attention to favorable moments, we may accomplish both by negotiation. The moment, however, we became committed on either side, the advantages of our position for negotiation would be gone. They would even be gone in respect to the party with whom we were in co-operation; for, being once in the war, we could not make terms as the condition of entering into it.

Though it may be uncertain how long we shall be permitted to preserve our neutrality, that is not a sufficient reason for departing from it voluntarily. It is possible we may be permitted to persist in it throughout. And if we must renounce it, it is better it should be from necessity than choice; at least till we see a prospect of renouncing with safety and profit. If the government is forced into a war, the cheerful support of the people may be counted upon. If it brings it upon itself, it will have to struggle with their displeasure and reluctance. This difference alone is immense.

The desire of manifesting amity to Spain, from the supposition that our permanent interest is concerned in cementing an intimate connection with France and Spain, ought to have no influence in the case. Admitting the existence of such an interest, it ought not to hurry us into premature hazards. If it should finally induce us to become a party, it will be time enough when France has become such, and after we shall have adjusted the condition upon which we are to engage.

But the reality of such an interest is a thing about which the best and the ablest men of this country are far from being agreed. There are of this number, who, if the United States were at perfect liberty, would prefer an intimate connection between them and Great Britain as most conducive to their security and advantage; and who are of opinion that it will be well to cultivate friendship between that country and this, to the utmost extent which is reconcilable with the faith of existing engagements; while the most general opinion is, that it is our true policy to steer as clear as possible of all foreign connection, other than commercial and in this respect to cultivate intercourse with all the world on the broadest basis of reciprocal privilege.

An attentive consideration of the vicissitudes which have attended the friendships of nations, except in a very few instances, from very peculiar circumstances, gives little countenance to systems which proceed on the supposition of a permanent interest to prefer a particular connection. The position of the United States, detached as they are from Europe, admonishes them to unusual circumspection on that point. The same position, as far as it has relation to the possessions of European Powers in their vicinity, strengthens the admonition.

Let it be supposed that Spain retains her possessions on our right, and persists in the policy she has hitherto pursued, without the slightest symptom of relaxation, of barring the Mississippi against us; where must this end, and at a period not very distant? Infallibly in a war with Spain, or separation of the western country. This country must have an outlet for its commodities. This is essential to its prosperity, and if not procured to it by the United States, must be had at the expense of the connection with them. A war with Spain, when our affairs will have acquired greater consistency and order, will certainly be to be preferred to such an alternative. In an event of this sort, we should naturally seek aid from Great Britain. This would probably involve France on the opposite side, and effect a revolution in the state of our foreign politics.

In regard to the possessions of Great Britain on our left, it is at least problematical whether the acquisition of them will ever be desirable to the United States. It is certain that they are in no shape essential to our prosperity. Except, therefore, the detention of our western posts (an object, too, of far less consequence than the navigation of the Mississippi), there appears no necessary source of future collision with that power.

This view of the subject manifests that we may have a more urgent interest to differ with Spain than with Britain; and that conclusion will become the stronger if it be admitted that when we are able to make good our pretensions, we ought not to leave in the possession of any foreign power the territories at the mouth of the Mississippi, which are to be regarded as the key to it.

While considerations of this nature ought not to weaken the sense which our government ought to have of any obligations which good faith shall fairly impose, they ought to inspire caution in adopting a system which may approximate us too nearly to certain powers, and place us at too great a distance from others. Indeed every system of this kind is liable to the objection, that it has a tendency to give a wrong bias to the counsels of a nation, and sometimes to make its own interest subservient to that of another.

If the immediate cause of the impending war between Britain and Spain be considered, there cannot be drawn from thence any inducements for our favoring Spain. It is difficult to admit the reasonableness or justice of the pretensions on her part, which occasion the transactions complained of by Great Britain, and certainly the monopoly at which these pretensions aim is entitled to no partiality from any maritime or trading people. Hence, considerations, neither of justice nor policy, as they respect the immediate cause of the quarrel, incline us toward Spain.

Putting, therefore, all considerations of peculiar good-will to Spain or of predilection to any particular connection out of the question, the argument respecting refusal or consent in the case supposed seems to stand thus:

The acquisition of the Spanish territories bordering upon the United States, by Britain, would be dangerous to us. And if there were a good prospect that our refusal would prevent it, without exposing us to a greater evil, we ought to refuse; but if there be a considerable probability that our refusal would be ineffectual, and if being so it would involve us in war or disgrace, and if positive disgrace is worse than war, and war in our present situation worse than the chances of the evils which may befall us from that acquisition, then the conclusion would be that we ought not to refuse. And this appears to be the true conclusion to be drawn from a comprehensive and accurate view of the subject, though first impressions are on the other side.

These reflections also may be allowed to come in aid of it. Good or evil is seldom as great in the reality as in the prospect. The mischiefs we apprehend may not take place. The enterprise, notwithstanding our consent, may fail. The acquisition, if made, may, in the progress of things, be wrested from its possessors. These if pressed hereafter (and we are willing to accept it), may deem it expedient to purchase our neutrality by a cession to us of that part of the territory in question which borders on the Mississippi, accompanied with a guaranty of the navigation of that river. If nothing of this sort should happen, still the war will necessarily have added millions to the debt of Britain, while we shall be recruiting and increasing our resources and our strength. In such a situation she will have motives of no inconsiderable force for not provoking our resentment. And a reasonable confidence ought to be reposed in the fidelity of the inhabitants of the western country in their attachment to the Union, in their real interest to remain a part of it, and in their sense of danger from the attempt to separate, which, at every hazard, ought to be resisted by the United States.

It is also to be kept in view that the same danger, if not to the same extent, will exist, should the territories in question remain in the hands of Spain.

Besides all this, if a war should ever be deemed a less evil than the neighborhood of the British in the quarter meditated, good policy would still seem to require, as before intimated, that we should avoid putting ourselves in a situation to enter into it till we had stipulated adequate indemnities and considerations for doing so; that we should see a little further into the unravelment of the plot, and be able to estimate what prospect there would be by our interference of obviating the evil. It deserves a reflection, that if those territories have been once wrested from Spain she will be more tractable to our wishes, and more disposed to make the concessions which our interests require, than if they never passed into other hands.

A question occurs here whether there be not a middle course between refusal and consent; to wit, the waiving an answer, by referring the matter to further consideration. But to this there appear to be decisive objections. An evasive conduct in similar cases is never dignified—seldom politic. It would be likely to give satisfaction to neither party—to effect no good—to prevent no ill. By Great Britain it would probably be considered as equivalent to a refusal—as amounting to connivance by Spain—as an indication of timidity by all the world.

It happens that we have a post on the Wabash, down which river the expedition, it is presumable, must go. If the commanding officer at that post has no orders to the contrary, it will be his duty to interrupt the passage of the British troops; if he does, it would seem necessary for them, in order to the safe passage of their boats, with their artillery, stores, provisions, and baggage, to take that post. Here then would be a passage through our territory, not only without our permission, but with the capture of a post of ours, which would be in effect making war upon us. And thus silence, with less dignity, would produce the same ill consequence as refusal.

If, to avoid this, private orders were to be sent to the commanding officer of that post not to interrupt the passage, his not being punished for his delinquency would betray the fact and afford proof of connivance.

The true alternative seems to be to refuse or consent; and, if the first be preferred, to accompany it with an intimation, in terms as free from offence as possible, that dispositions will be made to oppose the passage, if attempted to be forced; and accordingly, as far as practicable, to make and execute such dispositions.

If, on the contrary, consent should be given, it may deserve consideration whether it would not be expedient to accompany it with a candid intimation that the expedition is not agreeable to us, but that thinking it expedient to avoid an occasion of controversy, it has been concluded not to withhold assent. There are, however, objections to this mode. In case of consent, an early and frank explanation should be given to Spain.

Question The Second.—“What notice ought to be taken of the measure, if it should be undertaken without leave, which is the more probable proceeding of the two?”

If leave should be asked and refused, and the enterprise should be prosecuted without it, the manner of treating it has been anticipated—that is, the passage, if practicable, should be opposed; and if not practicable, the outrage should be resented by recourse to arms.

But if the enterprise should be undertaken without asking leave, which is presumed to be the import of the question, then the proper conduct to be observed will depend upon the circumstances.

As the passage contemplated would be by water, and almost wholly through an uninhabited part of the country, over which we have no actual jurisdiction, if it were unaccompanied by any violence to our citizens or posts, it would seem sufficient to be content with remonstrating against it, but in a tone that would not commit us to the necessity of going to war; the objections to which apply with full force here.

But if, as it is to be feared will necessarily be the case, our post on the Wabash should be forced, to make good their passage, there seems to be no alternative but to go to war with them, unwelcome as it may be. It seems to be this, or absolute and unqualified humiliation; which, as has been already noticed, is in almost every situation a greater evil than war.

In every event, it would appear advisable immediately to convene the Legislature; to make the most vigorous measures for war; to make a formal demand for satisfaction; to commence negotiations for alliances; and if satisfaction should be refused, to endeavor to punish the aggressor by the sword.

Alexander Hamilton,

Secretary of the Treasury.

[1]Following close upon the Beckwith interview came indications that a very practical test might be put to our relations with England by the suggestion of Lord Dorchester that he might ask for permission to march troops across our territory as a preparation for the hostilities then impending between Spain and Great Britain. Washington took advice on the point thus raised from Jefferson, who advised that no answer should be made, the question, if put squarely, evaded, and should the British troops take silence for consent their march through our country could be then pressed as a grievance. The President then consulted John Adams and Hamilton. Both were agreed that the question, if put, should be answered at once, squarely and directly, and not evaded. Adams argued for a refusal of the permission (Adams’ Works, vol. ⅷ., p. 497), and his letters show the difficulties which encompassed the course he suggested. Hamilton advised consent, although with reluctance, because he felt that war, for which we were unprepared, was the only alternative. The paper discusses the international law of the question, and its political bearing as well, with great acuteness and ability, but it is chiefly interesting as the first exposition of Hamilton’s views as to the foreign policy proper for the United States. The actual request was never made, but the discussion which its probability drew forth is valuable and instructive to the student of our history and of the development of our national policy.

The same question arose in 1862 when Lord Lyons asked permission to land troops at Portland, and march them through the State of Maine to Quebec, as the St. Lawrence was then blockaded with ice. These troops had, no doubt, been intended to act against the United States if the Trent affair had not been settled, but Mr. Seward, despite the difficulties of the situation, adopted Hamilton’s view of the general question, and at once granted the permission, an act of courtesy which did much to allay the excited feeling then existing (Seward’s Works, vol. v., p. 11).

[1]Puffendorf’s Laws of Nature and Nations, pp. 239, 240.

[2]Note I on Book Ⅱ., chap. ⅱ., § 13.

[3]Rights of War and Peace, Book Ⅱ., chap. ⅱ., § 13, Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4.

[1]Book ⅲ., chap. ⅶ., §§ 119, 120, 121, 122, 123.

[1]Vatel, Book Ⅲ., chap. ⅶ., § 127.

[1]France has made us one loan since the peace.


Posting the entire Works of Alexander Hamilton is a project of Steven Montgomery. I’m posting these as a way to read and digest the works of Alexander Hamilton. The reader could profit by following along daily.

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