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A Frustrated Former Officer Pushes Hamilton Too Far
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CALEB GIBBS. Autograph Letter Signed, to Alexander Hamilton, September 30, 1799. 2½ pp.

Inventory #24645.16       Price: $1,500

This Letter also tells me That it ‘was not for the want of Friendship in General Washington nor yourself that I had not my appointment in the Army but from other causes[’] which you could not with propriety explain. This to me is a most extraordinary proceeding that a man who has professed such friendship for another as you have for me for so long a period, and after so recently seing each other face to face … (knowing my business to Philadelphia and telling me that my most sanguine wishes should be accomplished) should once lend an listing ear to any thing to check my expectation.... I have an undoubted right to call on you to know what those other causes are. I therefore do claim and request of you an explanation of them, upon every principle of honor, as a friend Soldier and Gentleman.

In December 1798, during the Quasi-War with France, Washington and Hamilton recommended Caleb Gibbs (1748-1818) to Secretary of War James McHenry to command a Massachusetts regiment. However, Senator Benjamin Goodhue and Congressmen Harrison Gray Otis, Samuel Sewall, Dwight Foster, and Isaac Parker, all objected, considering Gibbs “as a trifler.” In March, Washington angrily protested that the five weeks of work that he, Hamilton, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney had undertaken to identify proper officers could be “set at naught” by “any Member of Congress who had a friend to serve, or a prejudice to endulge.” Washington called attention to the “striking” instance of Gibbs, who “served through the whole Revolutionary war, from the Assembling of the first Troops at Cambridge, to the closing of the Military Drama at the conclusion of Peace without reproach; and in the last Act of it, If I mistake not, was a Major in the selected Corps of light Infantry. He was strongly recommended by Generals Lincoln, Knox, Brooks & Jackson; all on the same theatre with himself and who ought to be perfectly acquainted with his respectability & pretensions: yet the Veto of a Member of Congress (I presume) was more respected & sufficient to set him aside.” McHenry responded that Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott also opposed Gibbs’ commission, and Washington reluctantly refused to push the matter further.[1]

Between January and June 1799, Gibbs wrote to Hamilton three times. Hamilton responded to this fourth letter on October 24, “I have received your very improper letter…This is not the first instance of my life in which good offices on my part have met with an ill return.... Tis therefore as curious as it is unbecoming to interrogate me in a premptory and even censorious manner about the causes which may have induced the President to reject the nomination. It is true that collaterally and after the thing was determined upon, I heard what they were, but it was in a manner which did not leave me at liberty to explain to you. This I before hinted, and you must on reflection see the impropriety of your having addressed me on the subject as you have done…If any one has wickedly endeavoured to make you believe that there has been any thing uncandid or unfriendly in my conduct, you ought to dispise the author…If you have inferred it from the reserve in my mode of writing to you on the subject, you formed as false an estimate of what the delicacy of my situation required, as you did of my true character.”[2]

*This item is also being offered in part II of The Alexander Hamilton Collection


[1] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 22, July 1798–March 1799, 428-31, 466-68, 472-73; W. W. Abbot and Edward G. Lengel, eds., The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 3, 16 September 1798 – 19 April 1799 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999), 438-44, 453-58.

[2] Hamilton to Gibbs, October 24, 1799, Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 23, April 1799 – October 1799, 554-55.


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