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In which Alexander Hamilton lectures Governor George Clinton on keeping one’s word, faces off against mutineers and John Dickinson, and, along with the entire Continental Congress, flees Philadelphia.
We last saw Alexander Hamilton corresponding with George Washington regarding the Newburgh Conspiracy. In mid-March 1783, Washington talked his troops away from the brink of mutiny and a possible coup. On April 19, he announced to them that hostilities with Great Britain were suspended, because a draft peace treaty had been approved by Congress.
And the music swells as the spotlight comes up on the American flag, unfurling in the breeze while the patriots celebrate their hard-won victory?
Finding pay for the army
Congress was still scrabbling to find even three months’ pay for the soldiers. In practice, that task fell mostly on Robert Morris, superintendent of Finances (the equivalent of secretary of the Treasury). He was so sick of it that he threatened to resign. On 5/1/1783, he noted in his diary:
The Honble. Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Fitzsimmons, Mr. Wilson Mr. Carrol Mr. Gorham and Mr. Osgood called to Confer with and Convince me of the Propriety of continuing in this Office untill the Army are disbanded and Peace Arrangements take place &c. To all their Arguments I opposed my Observations on the Conduct of Congress towards me; And I wish for nothing so much as to be relieved from this cursed Scene of Drudgery and Vexation. (More here, note 3)
Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress could do nothing but beg the states to send money. On 5/2/1783 they passed a motion proposed by Hamilton:
Whereas it is the desire of Congress when the reduction of the army shall take place to enable the officers and soldiers to return to their respective homes with convenience and satisfaction, for which purpose it will be indispensable to advance them a part of their pay before they leave the field … Therefore Resolved that the respective states be called upon in the most earnest manner, to make every effort in their power to forward the collection of taxes, that such a sum may without delay be paid into the common treasury as will be adequate to the public exigencies; and that Congress confidently rely, for an immediate and efficacious attention to the present requisition, upon the disposition of their constituents not only to do justice to those brave men, who have suffered and sacrificed so much in the cause of their country, and whose distresses must be extreme should they be sent from the field without the payment of a part of their well earned dues; but also to enable Congress to maintain the faith and reputation of the United States; both which are seriously concerned in relieving the necessities of a meritorious army and fulfulling the public stipulations. (More here)
Two weeks later (5/14/1783), Hamilton sent an update on Congress’s most recent actions to Governor of New York George Clinton. Hamilton sounds exactly like a patriot and an man of honor who’s trying to persuade a pragmatic politician to abide by his promises – in this case, to see that New York pays the money it owes to the federal government.
I hope our state will consent to the plan proposed; because it is her interest at all events to promote the payment of the public debt on Continental funds (independent of the general considerations of Union & propriety). … [T]here are superior motives that ought to operate in every state, the obligations of national faith honor and reputation.
Individuals have been already too long sacrificed to public convenience. It will be shocking and indeed an eternal reproach to this country, if we begin the peaceable enjoyment of our independence by a violation of all the principles of honesty & true policy. (More here)
In the first in a series of such requests to Governor Clinton, Hamilton asks: please send someone else to represent New York.
I wish two other Gentlemen of the delegation may appear as soon as possible for it would be very injurious to me to remain much longer here. Having no future view in public life, I owe it to myself without delay to enter upon the care of my private concerns in earnest. (More here)
Congressman Hamilton rebukes Governor Clinton
On 6/1/1783, Hamilton wrote to Clinton again: “I wish your Excellency would urge a couple of gentlemen to come on, as it becomes highly inconvenient to me to remain here and as I have staid the full time to be expected.” He also discusses at length an issue that will become important for his law practice within the next year.
Here’s what you need to know to appreciate this letter as much as I do.
- In early March 1783, the New York State legislature passed the “Trespass Act.” Under it, patriots who fled New York City were permitted to bring suit against loyalists who had occupied the deserted property. It didn’t matter if the loyalists had done so under the direct orders of the British army. There was no legal appeal of the verdict. (Entire text of the Trespass Act is here.)
- Hamilton is 26 years old. He’s a junior delegate to the weak federal legislature. He’s lecturing – almost giving orders to – Governor Clinton, who is 18 years his senior and holds the highest office in one of the most important states in the union. To make it even more interesting, the candidate whom Clinton defeated in 1777 for the governorship was Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler. Clinton remained governor until 1795, and from 1805-1812 was vice president under Jefferson and then Madison, which tells you where on the political spectrum his sympathies lie.
Hamilton writes to Clinton:
I observe with great regret the intemperate proceedings among the people in different parts of the state in violation of a treaty the faithful observance of which so deeply interests the United States. Surely the state of New York with its capital and its frontier posts (on which its important fur-trade depends) in the hands of the British troops ought to take care that nothing is done to furnish a pretext on the other side, even for delaying much less for refusing the execution of the treaty. We may imagine that the situation of Great Britain puts her under a necessity at all events of fulfilling her engagements and cultivating the good will of this country. This is no doubt her true policy; but when we feel that passion makes us depart from the dictates of reason, when we have seen that passion has had so much influence in the conduct of the British councils in the whole course of the war—when we recollect that those who govern them are men like ourselves and alike subject to passions & resentments—when we reflect also that all the great men in England are not United in the liberal scheme of policy with respect to this Country and that in the anarchy which prevails, there is no knowing to whom the reins of government may be committed when we recollect how little in a condition we are to enforce a compliance without claims—we ought certainly to be cautious in what manner we act, especially when we in particular have so much at stake, and should not openly provoke a breach of faith on the other side, by setting the example.
An important distinction is not sufficiently attended to—the 5th article is recommendatory [i.e., it suggests that the states return property confiscated from loyalists], the sixth positive. There is no option on the part of the particular states as to any future confiscations prosecutions or injuries of any kind to person liberty or property on account of any thing done in the war. … No part of the 6th [article] can be departed from by them without a direct breach of public faith and of the confederation. …
In the eye of a foreign nation, if our engagements are broken, it is of no moment whether it is for the want of good intention in the government or for want of power to restrain its subjects. … I am told that indictments continue to be brought under the former confiscation laws; a palpable infraction if true of the 6th article of the treaty to which an immediate stop ought no doubt to be put.
It has been said by some men that the operation of this treaty is suspended ’till the definitive treaty—a plain subterfuge. Whatever is clearly expressed in the provisional or preliminary treaty is as binding from the moment it is made as the definitive treaty …
I have omitted saying any thing of the impolicy of inducing by our severity a great number of useful [former loyalist] citizens, whose situations do not make them a proper object of resentment to abandon the country to form settlements that will hereafter become our rivals animated with a hatred to us which will descend to their posterity. (More here)
So while he’s still in Congress, in Philadelphia, Hamilton is already considering the implications for business of chasing former loyalists out of New York.
A week after that letter to Governor Clinton, Hamilton sent a letter to General Nathanael Green in which his exasperation with politics as usual is obvious (6/10/1783):
I expect to leave this shortly for that place [Albany] and to remain there ’till New York is evacuated; on which event I shall set down there seriously on the business of making my fortune. …
There is so little disposition either in or out of Congress to give solidity to our national system that there is no motive to a man to lose his time in the public service; who has no other view than to promote its welfare. Experience must convince us that our present establishments are Utopian before we shall be ready to part with them for better. (More here)
In the spring of 1783, Robert Morris told Congress that given the dearth of federal revenue, they could either give the soldiers several months’ back pay (as promised), or keep the troops under arms until the treaty was finally signed – but not both. Congress resolved on May 26 to send the soldiers on furlough, even though no money was available to pay them. When the soldiers stationed in Philadelphia learned of this resolution, they sent a message to Congress (6/12/1783) asserting that they refused to go on furlough or be discharged until they had received their payment.
More soldiers marched in from Lancaster. The mutineers were now several hundred strong, and controlled the city’s supply of arms and ammunition. On June 16, Alexander Hamilton and two other Congressmen were appointed to confer with John Dickinson and the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania regarding what actions to take against the mutineers.
On June 21, a group of soldiers marched, under arms, to the State House (now Independence Hall), where the Council was meeting on the second floor and the Continental Congress was in emergency session on the first. Outside their windows, the delegates to Congress could see citizens of Philadelphia cheering the mutineers as local tavern-keepers provided them with liquor.
John Dickinson and the Council refused to call out the local militia to protect Congress against the mutineers. Congress decamped to Princeton, New Jersey, on June 24. The mutineers backed down the following day. There was no bloodshed and no property damage during the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783. The mutineers who were convicted were given full pardons by Congress.
That’s the basic story, but there are a slew of unresolved questions about this mutiny. How far in advance was it planned? Was there a mastermind behind it? (General Horatio Gates’s close associate John Armstrong, Jr., who wrote the Newburgh Address, had recently been appointed secretary of the Supreme Executive Council … Hmmm. See this post by Michael Newton on Armstrong.) Did the mutineers mean to demand satisfaction of their grievances from Congress, or from the Supreme Executive Council and Dickinson? Did they intend to rob the Bank of the United States? Why did Dickinson and the Supreme Executive Council refuse protection to Congress?
Whatever the answers to those questions, and despite the fact that the mutiny turned out to be bloodless, in Hamilton’s eyes it was no trifling affair. He wrote a few months later to John Dickinson:
This was not to be considered as the disorderly riot of an unarmed mob but as the deliberate mutiny of an incensed soldiery carried to the utmost point of outrage short of assassination. The licentiousness of an army is to be dreaded in every government; but in a republic it is more particularly to be restrained, and when directed against the civil authority to be checked with energy and punished with severity. The merits and sufferings of the troops might be a proper motive for mitigating punishment when it was in the power of the government to inflict it—but it was no reason for relaxing in the measures necessary to arrive at that situation. Its authority was first to be vindicated and then its clemency to be displayed.
The rights of government are as essential to be defended as the rights of individuals. The security of the one is inseparable from that of the other. And indeed in every new government, especially of the popular kind the great danger is that public authority will not be sufficiently respected. (More here)
Back in 1775, Hamilton told John Jay his fear of what might happen if democracy turned into rule by the mob: “When the minds of [the unthinking populace] are loosened from their attachment to ancient establishments and interests, they seem to grow giddy and are apt more or less to run into anarchy.” In June 1783, with armed mutineers outside the State House and the citizens of Philadelphia cheering them on, he must have wondered if his nightmare was coming true.
On 6/29/1783, Hamilton once again updated Governor Clinton:
You will have heared of a mutiny among the soldiers stationed in the barracks of Philadelphia, and of their having surrounded the state house where Congress was sitting. Fortunately no mischief insued. There was an insolent message sent to the Council. It was at once determined that should any propositions be made to Congress they would not take them into consideration whatever extremities might ensue, while they were surrounded by an armed force. …
The conduct of the executive of this state was to the last degree weak & disgusting. In short they pretended it was out of their power to bring out the militia, without making the experiment.
This feebleness on their part determined the removal of Congress from a place where they could receive no support; and I believe they will not easily be induced to return. … (More here)
Hamilton was right about that. One of the long-term consequences of the Pennsylvania Mutiny was that Congress didn’t return to Philadelphia until 1787.
Alexander to Eliza: “In a very short time I hope we shall be happily settled in New York”
To Eliza, Hamilton wrote on 7/22/1783:
I wrote you my beloved Betsey by the last post, which I hope will not meet with the fate that many others of my letters must have met with. I count upon setting out to see you in four days; but I have been so frequently disappointed by unforeseen events, that I shall not be without apprehensions of being detained, ’till I have begun my journey. The members of Congress are very pressing with me not to go away at this time as the house is thin, and as the definitive treaty is momently expected.
Tell your father that Mr. Rivington in a letter to the South Carolina delegates has given information coming to him from Admiral Arbuthnot, that the Mercury-frigate is arrived at New York with the definitive treaty, and that the city was to be evacuated yesterday by the treaty. [NOTE: It wasn’t evacuated until November 25, 1783.]
I am strongly urged to stay a few days for the ratification of the treaty; at all events however I will not be long from My Betsey.
I give you joy my angel of the happy conclusion of the important work in which your country has been engaged. Now in a very short time I hope we shall be happily settled in New York.
My love to your father. Kiss my boy a thousand times. A thousand loves to yourself.
A Hamilton (More here)
In a letter to John Jay three days later (7/25/1783), Hamilton summed up the state of the country and of Congress, and his own future plans.
The peace which exceeds in the goodness of its terms, the expectations of the most sanguine does the highest honor to those who made it. It is the more agreeable, as the time was come, when thinking men began to be seriously alarmed at the internal embarrassments and exhausted state of this country. The New England people talk of making you an annual fish-offering as an acknowlegement of your exertions for the participation of the fisheries.
We have now happily concluded the great work of independence, but much remains to be done to reach the fruits of it. Our prospects are not flattering. Every day proves the inefficacy of the present confederation, yet the common danger being removed, we are receding instead of advancing in a disposition to amend its defects. The road to popularity in each state is to inspire jealousies of the power of Congress, though nothing can be more apparent than that they have no power; and that for the want of it, the resources of the country during the war could not be drawn out, and we at this moment experience all the mischiefs of a bankrupt and ruined credit. It is to be hoped that when prejudice and folly have run themselves out of breath we may return to reason and correct our errors.
After having served in the field during the war, I have been making a short apprenticeship in Congress; but the evacuation of New York approaching, I am preparing to take leave of public life to enter into the practice of the law. … (More here)
Angelica in London
In the same letter, Hamilton added a request that John Jay be hospitable to Angelica and her husband (John Barker Church, a.k.a. Carter):
The bearer of this is Mr. Carter, who with Mrs. Carter are making a jaunt to Europe. I presume you have heard of my connection in the family. Your acquaintance with Mr Carter makes it unnecessary I should request your civilities to him, which my friendship for him would otherwise do in the warmest manner. I anticipate the pleasure which Mrs. Jay and Mrs. Carter will enjoy in the society of each other, possessed as they both are of every quality to please and endear. … (More here)
Lessons of the Pennsylvania Mutiny
The Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783 never made it to my ninth-grade civics class back in Pennsylvania, but it had several important repercussions, aside from Congress’s change of residence. It was a face-to-face confrontation of the federal government with one of the strongest states. It was an object lesson in federal sovereignty: after Dickinson failed to call out the militia to protect Congress, Congress realized that it needed exclusive jurisdiction over the federal capital – hence (eventually) the creation of the District of Columbia. And of course the mutiny was yet another proof of the weakness of the federal government under the Articles of Confederation.
In July 1783, Hamilton drafted a resolution for Congress listing twelve defects of the Confederation of the United States. Among them:
- The federal government does not have enough “efficacious authority” to accomplish anything.
- The legislative and executive powers are held by the same body, “contrary to the most approved and well founded maxims of free government which require that the legislative, executive and judicial authorities should be deposited in distinct and separate hands.”
- There is no nationwide judiciary power, so states pass whatever laws they please: “the national treaties will be liable to be infringed [Note: Hamilton is probably thinking of the prosecution of loyalists in New York], the national faith to be violated and the public tranquillity to be disturbed.”
- Congress is responsible for defense but can’t impose taxes, “rendering that power, so essential to the existence of the union, nugatory.”
- Congress is authorized to borrow money or print it on the credit of the United States, but since it has no power to collect money, that means “a continuance of the injustice and mischiefs of an unfunded debt, and first or last the annihilation of public credit.”
- Congress cannot adequately protect the country because it must rely on independently run state militias, to the “great confusion of the military department.”
- Congress has no power to regulate trade, which means the states do as they please, including interfering with foreign trade.
- Nothing can be passed unless at least nine states concur, “a rule destructive of vigour, consistency or expedition in the administration of affairs.”
Hamilton’s draft concludes (blanks are in the original):
Hence, resolved: that it be earnestly recommended to the several states to appoint a convention to meet at ___ on the day of ___ with full powers to revise the confederation and to adopt and propose such alterations as to them shall appear necessary to be finally approved or rejected by the states respectively—and that a Committee of ___ be appointed to prepare an address upon the subject. (More here)
Hamilton’s note on the document states, “Resolution intended to be submitted to Congress at Princeton in 1783; but abandoned for want of support.”
I wonder how this compares to the Annapolis Resolution of 1786, which Hamilton drafted and which resulted in the Constitutional Convention? Presently I’ll find out. If you’re impatient, the Annapolis Resolution is here.
Hamilton finally set off for Albany on July 29, 1783.
- Two thoroughly researched articles on the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783, with extensive references to primary sources, are Kenneth R. Bowling, “New Light on the Philadelphia Mutiny of 1783: Federal-State Confrontation at the Close of the War for Independence,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, October 1977; and Mary A.Y. Gallagher, “Reinterpreting the ‘Very Trifling Mutiny’ at Philadelphia in June 1783,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, January/April 1995.
- Hamilton’s 5,000-word letter to Dickinson, which he apparently wrote in September 1783 but didn’t send, gives a detailed account of the Mutiny.
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