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hamilton to washington - Alexander Hamilton, The Works of Alexander Hamilton, (Federal Edition), vol. 4 
The Works of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge (Federal Edition) (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904). In 12 vols. Vol. 4.
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hamilton to washington
May 2, 1793.
Answers to remaining questions proposed by the President of the United States on the 18th of April last
Question 4.—Are the United States obliged by good faith to consider the treaties heretofore made with France as applying to the present situation of the parties? May they either renounce them or hold them suspended till the government of France shall be established?
Answer.—The war is plainly an offensive war on the part of France. Burlemaqui, an approved writer, Vol. Ⅱ., Part Ⅳ., Chapter Ⅲ., sec. 4 and 5, thus defines the different species of war: “Neither are we to believe (says he) that he who first injures another begins by that an offensive war, and that the other, who demands satisfaction for the injury received, is always upon the defensive. There are a great many unjust acts which may kindle a war, and which, however, are not the war, as the ill treatment of a prince’s ambassador, the plundering of his subjects, etc.
“If, therefore, we take up arms to revenge such an unjust act, we commence an offensive but a just war; and the prince who has done the injury, and will not give satisfaction, makes a defensive but an unjust war. An offensive war is, therefore, unjust only when it is undertaken without a lawful cause; and then the defensive war, which on other occasions might be unjust, becomes just.
“We must, therefore, affirm in general, that the first who takes up arms, whether justly or unjustly, commences an offensive war; and he who opposes him, whether with or without reason, begins a defensive war.”
This definition of offensive and defensive war is conformable to the ideas of writers on the laws of nations in general, and is adopted almost verbatim by Barbeyrac, in his notes on Ⅲ. and Ⅳ. of Book Ⅶ., Chap. Ⅵ., Puffendorf’s Law of Nature and Nations.
France, it is certain, was the first to declare war against every one of the Powers with which she is at war. Whether she had good cause or not, therefore, in each instance, the war is completely offensive on her part.
The forms which she has employed in some of her declarations (when, after reciting the aggressions she alleges to have been committed against her by a particular Power, she proceeds to pronounce that war exists between her and such Power) cannot alter the substance of the thing. The aggressions complained of, if ever so well founded, and however they may have been of a nature to kindle the war, were not the war itself. The war began, in each case, by the declaration and by the commencement of hostilities on the part of France. It was, therefore, clearly offensive on her part.
With regard to the causes that led to the war in each case, it requires more exact information than I have to pronounce upon them with confidence. As regards Austria and Prussia, the suggestion on one hand is, that a combination was formed to overthrow the new constitution of France, and that the declaration on the part of the latter country was only an anticipation of what would soon have proceeded from the confederated Powers. On the other hand, it is affirmed that the preparations and arrangements on their part were merely provisional and eventual, and that the republican party in France precipitated a war under the idea that it would furnish opportunities for accusing and criminating the king’s administration, and finally overthrow the royalty. Waiving all definitive opinion on this point, better guides will enable us to pronounce with more certainty in the other cases.
In respect to Holland, there seems to be no doubt that the aggression began with France.
France, in different treaties, had recognized a right in the Dutch to the exclusive navigation of the river Scheldt.
It appears that she had a leading agency in adjusting a controversy on this point, between the late Emperor Joseph and the Netherlands.
The 28th article of a treaty between those parties, concluded at Fontainebleau the 8th of November, 1785, is in these words:
“His most Christian Majesty contributed to the completion of the arrangement made between the high contracting parties (namely, the Emperor and the States General), by his friendly intervention and his effectual and just mediation. His said Majesty is requested by the high contracting parties to charge himself likewise with being the guaranty of the present treaty.”
Nevertheless, the provisionary Executive Council, by a decree of the 16th of November, 1792, break through all these formal and express engagements, on the pretext of their being contrary to natural right, and declare the navigation of the Scheldt and Meuse free.
Such an infraction of treaties, on such a ground, cannot be justified without subverting all the foundations of positive and pactitious right among nations. It is equally agreeable to the doctrine of theorists, and to the practice of nations, that rights to the common use of waters of the description in question, may be relinquished and qualified by treaty. To resume them, therefore, on the ground of the imprescriptibility, as it is called, of natural rights, is to set up a new rule of conduct, contrary to the common sense and common practice of mankind, amounting, in the party which attempts the resumption, to an unequivocal injury to the party against which it is attempted.
In respect to Great Britain the case is not equally clear; but there is sufficient ground to pronounce, that she had cause of complaint, prior to any given on her part.
It is known that in the early periods of the French Revolution she adopted the ground of neutrality, and nothing is alleged against her till after the 10th of August.
That event led her to withdraw her minister from the court of France; but before his departure, he left a note declarative of the intention of Great Britain to pursue still a pacific course, accompanied, indeed, with a cautious intimation that personal violence to the king would excite the general indignation of Europe.
But it will hardly be affirmed that this procedure amounted to an aggression. To recall a minister from, or not to keep one at, any court, is of itself an act of indifference. To recall, under such circumstances as took place on the 10th of August, was not an extraordinary step. Every government had a right to deliberate, and was bound for its own safety to consider well, when it would recognize a new order of things. The keeping of a minister at France, after the deposition of the king, might be deemed a sanction of the change, and, indeed, was useless, until it was intended to give that sanction.
It was not therefore incumbent upon any Power to pursue this course, especially one which was not in the condition of an ally.
The intimation with regard to the king, to characterize it in the most exceptionable light, was at most an act of officiousness. Relating to a thing not at the time in agitation, it could only be considered as a caution to avoid a measure which might beget misunderstanding.
The conduct of France shows that she did not at the time consider this step as an injury, for she continued a minister at the court of London, and continued to negotiate.
The next step of Great Britain in order of time, which is complained of by France, and the first of a really hostile complexion, is the restriction on the exportation of corn to France, by way of exception to a general permission to export that article.
This was an unfriendly measure. It happened, as far as I am able to trace it, in the latter part of December, 1792.
But prior to these causes of dissatisfaction, an alarm had been given by France to Great Britain
The Convention, on the 19th of November, passed a decree in these words:
“The National Convention declare, in the name of the French nation, that they will grant fraternity and assistance to every people who wish to recover their liberty; and they charge the executive power to send the necessary orders to the generals to give assistance to such people, and to defend those citizens who may have been or who may be vexed for the cause of liberty.” Which decree was ordered to be printed in all languages.
This decree ought justly to be regarded in an exceptionable light by the government of every country. For though it be lawful and meritorious to assist a people in a virtuous and rational struggle for liberty, when the particular case happens, yet it is not justifiable in any government or nation to hold out to the world a general invitation and encouragement to revolution and insurrection, under a promise of fraternity and assistance.
Such a step is of a nature to disturb the repose of mankind, to excite fermentation in every country, to endanger government everywhere. Nor can there be a doubt that wheresoever a spirit of this kind appears, it is lawful to repress and repel it.
But this generally exceptionable proceeding might be looked upon by Great Britain as having a more particular reference to her, from some collateral circumstances.
It is known that various societies were instituted in Great Britain with the avowed object of reforms in the government. These societies presented addresses to the Convention of France, and received answers, containing an interchange of sentiments justly alarming to the British Government.
It will suffice, by way of illustration, to cite passages from two of these answers, each given by the President of the Convention, at a sitting on the 28th of November: one, to a deputation from the Society for Constitutional Information in London; the other, to a deputation of English and Irish citizens at Paris.
“The shades of Penn, of Hampden, and of Sydney hover over your heads, and the moment without doubt approaches in which the French will bring congratulations to the National Convention of Great Britain.
“Nature and principles draw towards us England, Scotland, and Ireland. Let the cries of friendship resound through the two republics. Again principles are waging war against tyranny, which will fall under the blows of philosophy. Royalty in Europe is either destroyed or on the point of perishing on the ruins of feodalty; and the declaration of rights placed by the side of thrones is a devouring fire which will consume them. Worthy Republicans,” etc.
Such declarations to such societies are a comment upon the decree, are in every sense inconsistent with what was due to a just respect for a neutral nation, and amounted to so direct a patronage of a revolution, in the essential principles of its government, as authorized even a declaration of war.
It is true that Mr. Chauvelin, in a note to Lord Grenville, of the 27th of December, 1792, declares that the “National Convention never meant that the French Republic should favor insurrections, should espouse the quarrels of a few seditious persons, or should endeavor to excite disturbances in any neutral or friendly country; the decree being only applicable to a people who, after having acquired their liberty, should call for the fraternity, the assistance of the Republic, by the solemn and unequivocal expression of the general will.”
But this explanation could not change the real nature and tendency of the decree, which, holding out a general promise of fraternity and assistance to every people who wished to recover their liberty, did favor insurrections, and was calculated to excite disturbances in neutral and friendly countries.
Still less could it efface the exceptionable and offensive nature of the reception which was given, and the declarations which were made, to the revolutionary or reforming societies of Great Britain.
The answer of Lord Grenville very justly observes, that “Neither satisfaction nor security is found in the terms of an explanation which still declares to the promoters of sedition in every country, what are the cases in which they may count beforehand on the support and succor of France, and which reserves to that country the right of mixing herself in the internal affairs of another, whenever she shall judge it proper, and on principles incompatible with the political institutions of all the countries of Europe.”
Besides the declarations which have been mentioned to the different English societies, and which apply particularly to Great Britain, there are other acts of France which were just causes of umbrage and alarm to all the governments of Europe.
Her decree of the 15th of December is one of them. This decree, extraordinary in every respect, which contemplates the total subversion of all the ancient establishments of every country into which the arms of France should be carried, has the following article:
“The French nation declare—That it will treat as enemies the people who, refusing or renouncing liberty and equality, are desirous of preserving their prince and privileged casts, or of entering into an accommodation with them. The nation promises and engages not to lay down its arms until the sovereignty and liberty of the people, on whose territories the French armies shall have entered, shall be established, and not to consent to any arrangement or treaty with the prince and privileged persons so dispossessed, with whom the republic is at war.”
This decree cannot but be regarded as an outrage little short of a declaration of war against every government of Europe, and as a violent attack upon the freedom of opinion of all mankind.
The incorporation of the territories conquered by the arms of France with France herself, is another of the acts alluded to, as giving just cause of umbrage and alarm to neutral nations in general. It is a principle well established by the laws of nations, that the property and dominion of conquered places do not become absolute in the conquerors, until they have been ceded or relinquished by a treaty of peace or some equivalent termination of the war.
Till then it is understood to be in a state of suspense (the conqueror having only a possessory and qualified title), liable to such a disposition as may be made by the compact which terminates the war. Hence the citizen of the neutral nation can acquire no final or irrevocable title to land by purchase of the conqueror during the continuance of the war. This principle, it is evident, is of the greatest importance to the peace and security of nations—greatly facilitating an adjustment of the quarrels in which they happen at any time to be involved.
But the incorporation which has been mentioned, and which actually took place with respect to the territories of different Powers, Savoy, Antwerp, etc., was a direct violation of that very important and fundamental principle; and of those rights which the laws of war reserve to every Power at war; a violation tending to throw insuperable difficulties in the way of peace. After once having adopted those territories as part of herself, she became bound to maintain them to the last extremity by all those peremptory rules which forbid a nation to consent to its own dismemberment.
That incorporation, therefore, changed entirely the principle of the war on the part of France. It ceased to be a war for the defence of her rights, for the preservation of her liberty. It became a war of acquisition, of extension of territory and dominion, and in a manner altogether subversive of the laws and usages of nations, and tending to the aggrandizement of France, to a degree dangerous to the independence and safety of every country in the world.
There is no principle better supported by the doctrines of writers, the practice of nations, and the dictates of right reason, than this—that whenever a nation adopts maxims of conduct tending to the disturbance of the tranquillity and established order of its neighbors, or manifesting a spirit of self-aggrandizement, it is lawful for other nations to combine against it, and by force to control the effects of those maxims and that spirit. The conduct of France in the instances which have been stated, calmly and impartially viewed, was an offence against nations, which naturally made it a common cause among them to check her career.
The pretext of propagating liberty can make no difference. Every nation has a right to carve out its own happiness in its own way, and it is the height of presumption in another to attempt to fashion its political creed.
These acts and proceedings are all prior in time to the last aggressive step of Great Britain, the ordering out of the kingdom the person who was charged with a diplomatic mission to that court from the government of France.
The style and manner of that proceeding rendered it undoubtedly an insult, and if the conduct of France before that time had been unexceptionable, the war declared by France, though offensive in its nature, would have been justifiable in its motive.
With regard to Spain, the war was likewise declared by France, and is consequently offensive on her part. The conduct of the former towards the latter, previous to this event, appears not only to have been moderate, but even timid.
The war on the part of Portugal appears to have been offensive.
The result from what has been said is, that the war in which France is engaged is in fact an offensive war on her part against all the Powers with which she is engaged, except one; and in principle, to speak in the most favorable terms for her, is at least a mixed case—a case of mutual aggression.
The inference from this state of things is as plain as it is important. The casus fœderis of the guaranty in the treaty of alliance between the United States and France cannot take place, though her West India Islands should be attacked.
The express denomination of this treaty is “Traité d’ Alliance eventuelle et defensive”—Treaty of Alliance eventual and defensive.
The second article of the treaty also calls it a “defensive alliance.” This, then, constitutes the leading feature, the characteristic quality of the treaty. By this principle every stipulation in it is to be judged.