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Letter from Benjamin Hawkins and Hugh Williamson to Alexander Martin
Hawkins, Benjamin, 1754-1816; Williamson, Hugh, 1735-1819
October 19, 1783
Volume 16, Pages 900-906

HON’S. HUGH WILLIAMSON & BENJAMIN HAWKINS TO GOV. MARTIN.
[From Executive Letter Book.]

Princeton, October the 19th, 1783.

Sir:

In our last we informed your Excellency that the definitive Treaties between the late beligerent powers, tho’ the most important

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points had been adjusted, were none of them compleated on the 27th of July. We shall now endeavour to state some of the reasons respecting ours.

Our Ministers had endeavoured to insert some Commercial stipulations in our treaty and the British Ministers partly through negligence since they have heard our ports are open or through indecision occasioned by ignorance of the Subject have apparently studied to avoid it. They knew not how far the British Acts of navigation ought to be specified to commercial considerations drawn from peculiar circumstances of the present crisis. They say virtual and substantial reciprocity they are willing to give, that literal reciprocity is impossible as much from our engagements as from their system of navigation. We want the substance and not the shadow, which we take virtual and substantial reciprocity to be, and as there is not at present a disposition to give it to us, our ministers seem to be of opinion to drop all Commercial articles and leave every thing of that kind to a future special treaty to be made either in Europe or America as Congress may think fit to order.

That you may clearly understand the ideas the British Ministry entertain respecting our Commerce with their West India Islands, we send you the following extract of a letter from a confidential person to the President of Congress.

“On the 8th of August I waited on Lord North and desired his opinion of the proclamation respecting our Commerce with their West India Islands. He with great apparent candor told me that the proclamation and the principle on which it was formed, would undoubtedly be adhered to, during the continuance of the Act of Parliament under which it was issued; that Parliament must then determine respecting future measures; that he could not presume to know what that determination might be though it seemed to him probable, that the same system and principles would be accepted, and continued, that the Navigation Act had been the resource and support of the British naval power, and must not be infringed without urgent necessity; that he was desirous of supporting a good understanding with the United States by all means compatible with the interest of Great Britain, but that the Americans after making themselves independent were unreasonable in desiring privileges, which never had been granted to any independent people, especially as they appeared to have,

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neither the inclination nor the ability to give any adequate advantages to Great Britain in return. I intimated my opinion of a probability that the United States would retaliate & in consequence of their being deprived of the privilege of carrying their own produce to the British Islands would prevent its being by British vessels: to which his Lordship replied that the United States had doubtless the right to adopt such a measure, but in so doing they would necessarily deprive themselves of the best and indeed the only sufficient market for their produce, obstruct the growth, agriculture and commerce of their own Country, and injure themselves much more than they would injure Great Britain whose West India Colonies had been able to subsist during the late War, without supplies from the United States and might do it much better hereafter by those which they could be able to obtain from Ireland, Canada and Nova Scotia & St. Johns; that these supplies might indeed cost something more than those which the United States could furnish, and that the West Indian planters might perhaps complain as men usually do against what hurts their own particular interest, but that he could not think such complaints of any importance in a matter so essential to the existence to the British Navigation; that in War Great Britain was exposed to much expence and difficulty in defending her best West Indian Colonies and at all times gave them exclusively the benefits of her market depriving herself in their favour of the advantages of purchasing Sugar, &c., of other Countries & thereby enabling British West Indian planters to obtain higher prices for their produce than the planters of any other nation, and that unless Great Britain in return for these favors, could exclusively enjoy the benefits of their navigation, it would in his private opinion be much better to let them become independent like the United States. His Lordship further observed that he had no expectation of a commercial treaty with the United States at least for a considerable time; that indeed he saw no great reason to desire it Congress having so little power or influence that if a treaty was concluded, the several States probably would not ratify or observe it.”

Congress now have this matter before them and if the proclamation cannot be set aside but should be persisted in, it will become a matter worthy their attentive discussion whether it will be most

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prudent to retire with a similar regulation in order to force its repeal, or to let it pass without notice & leave it to its own inconvenience, or rather impracticality in the execution, and to the complaints of the West India planters, who must all pay much dearer for our produce under those restrictions. We are not master enough of this subject to give an opinion on this particular question, yet we have heard of so much embarrassment and so little advantage in all the restraining & compulsive systems that we feel ourselves strongly inclined to believe that a State which leaves all her ports open to all the world upon equal terms, will by that means have foreign commodities cheaper; sell its own productions dearer and be on the whole the most prosperous. Employing however of our own Ships and raising a breed of seamen among us, tho’ it should not be a matter of so much private profit as some suppose is nevertheless of political importance and must have weight in considering this subject.

France we expect will aid us in establishing our Commerce as she did our independence, the character of that Court & nation seems of late years to be considerably changed. Her ideas of agrandizement by conquest, are out of fashion, and those of Commerce are now more enlightened and are more generous than heretofore. We shall soon, we believe, feel something of this in our being admitted to a greater freedom of trade with their Islands. The wise there think France great enough, its ambition at present seems to be only that of Justice & magnanimity towards other nations, fidelity and utility to its Allies.

We observed formerly, that whenever the definitive Treaty may arrive there is not the least reason to believe that it will contain a single explanation or provision more than is contained in the preliminary articles. By this we meant a Verbatim Transcript of the provisional articles with the necessary alterations of preamble, &c. You no doubt will be surprised at this as in some things they are absolutely so ambiguous as not to be understood: The Secretary for foreign affairs pointed out some or all to our Ministers, and made some strictures on the manner of transacting the negotiation; to which they reply.

“We are happy to find that the provisional articles have been approved and ratified by Congress, and we regret that the manner

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in which that business was conducted does not coincide with your ideas of propriety. We are persuaded however that is principally owing to your being necessarily unacquainted with a number of circumstances known to us who were on the spot and which we will particularly explain to you hereafter, and we trust to your satisfaction and that of Congress.”

The 6th Article, viz, where it declares “that no future confiscations shall be made, &c., ought to have fixed that time with greater accuracy. We think the most fair and true construction is, that it relates to the date of the cessation of hostilities, that is the time when peace in fact took place in consequence of prior informal tho’ binding contracts to terminate the War. We consider the definitive Treaties as only giving the dress to those contracts and not as constituting the obligation of them. Had the cessation of hostilities been the effect of a truce and consequently nothing more than a temporary suspension of War, another construction would have been the true one.”

“We are officially assured by Mr. Hartley that positive orders for the evacuation of New York have been dispatched and that no avoidable delay will retard that event. Had we proposed to fix a time for it the British Court would have contended that it should have been a time posterior to the date of the definitive Treaty, and that would have probably been more disadvantageous to us than as that article now stands.”

“We are surprised to hear that any doubts have arisen in Amer“ica respecting the time when the cessation of Hostilities took place there. It most certainly took place at the expiration of one month after the date of that declaration in all parts of the world, whether the land or sea, that lay North of the Latitude of the Canaries; the Ships afterwards taken from us in the more Northwardly latitude ought to be reclaimed and given up: we shall apply to Mr. Hartley on this subject, and also on that of the transportation of Negroes from New York. contrary to the Words and intention of the provisional Articles.”

Doctor Franklin further observes there are, no doubt, certain ambiguities in our articles, but it is not to be wondered at when it is considered how exceedingly averse Britain was to expressions which explicitly wounded the Tories, and how disinclined we were

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to use any that should amount to absolute stipulations in their favour.

The words for restoring the property of Real British subjects were well understood and explained between us not to mean or comprehend American refugees. Mr. Oswald and Mr. Fitz Herbert know this to have been the case and will readily confess and admit it. This mode of expression was preferred by them as a more delicate mode of excluding those refugees and of making a proper distinction between them and the Subjects of Britain whose only particular interest in America consisted of holding lands or property there.

As soon as it is practicable further observations on this subject shall be forwarded; at present we are not sufficiently informed to give that satisfaction we wish and you have a right to expect. We expect that an attestation of the ratification of the Treaty by order of Congress, will be sent forward to the respective States with a Letter explanatory of the conduct of Congress respecting it; until then we shall not say any thing further.

The Commercial Treaty with Sweden will be sent forward by the next post. We hoped to be able to send it by this conveyance, but altho’ it was printed last week some accident hath prevented our receiving the Copies from Philadelphia.

Sir Guy Carlton has informed the Commander in Chief that he expects to be able to evacuate New York within the month of November.

Congress yesterday passed a proclamation for disbanding all our officers and Soldiers who were on furlough, our whole army now is sufficient to Garrison West Point.

Our situation begins to be very disagreeable: we are now and have been for some time without one Shilling of money, and the prospects formerly held out to us have vanished; our Colleagues are not yet arrived, and we know not when to expect them. The Treasurers of all the States in the Union except North Carolina, regularly send forward monthly the Salary of their Delegates; we depend on borrowing for our decent support, and fear very shortly that our credit will be like the remittances from our State. How far this will comport with the dignity of a Sovereign State we leave the Chief Magistrate to judge.

Be pleased to present our dutiful respects to the General Assembly,

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assure them of our most faithful services, and believe us to be with great & sincere esterm, Sir,

Your Excellency’s, &c.,
BENJAMIN HAWKINS,
HUGH WILLIAMSON.