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ALEXANDER HAMILTON. Free Frank, on Address Leaf to Otho H. Williams, postmarked September 28, 1789, with Draft Response to Hamilton by Otho H. Williams, October 8, 1789. 2 pp., 7¾ x 9⅛ in.

Inventory #26553       Price: $5,500

Complete Transcript

[Address:]                                                       Treasury Department

            Otho H. Williams Esqr
            Collector of the Customs for Baltimore / Maryland

[Free Frank:]
Alex Hamilton
Secy of the Treasury

22d September 1789 / Alexr Hamilton
Balto 3d October 1789
Acknowledged Rect & “will observe contents” / Answered


                                                                        Balte 8th October 1789


            I have recd your Letter (Circular) of the 22d Septr and am to inform you that from Cape Henry to the extreme branches of the Susquehanna all inclusive there is not, that I ever heard of, one single Light House, Buoy, Beacon or other artificial object for navigators to be governed by, consequently there is no Superintendant and no Expence  The pilots of the Chesapeake for this State are Licenced and regulated by certain port wardens who are Commission’d by an Act of the Legislature of Maryland, and reside in Baltimore. By Laws, called compact Laws, passed mutually by Virginia and Maryland, considerable sums have been Levied, by a tax upon tonnage of Vessels, for the purpose of building Light Houses &c &c and I expect the subject will be taken into serious consideration at the ensuing Sessions

                                                                        I am Sir / Your Obedt Hble Servant
                                                                        O. H. Williams

Alexr Hamilton Esqr
Secretary of the Treasury

Historical Background
On September 13, 1789, Hamilton wrote to Thomas Willing, the president of the Bank of North America, detailing the immediate need for $80,000 to meet the “present exigency.” Hamilton informed Willing that the Bank of New York had advanced the nation $20,000 “for another purpose” and had agreed to lend another $30,000. Hamilton therefore requested a loan of $50,000 from the Bank of North America.[1]

Based on these arrangements, Hamilton sent a circular letter on September 22 to the collectors of customs informing them to accept the notes of these two banks in payment of duties.[2] This leaf includes Hamilton’s free frank to send the September 22 circular to Otho H. Williams, the Collector of the Port of Baltimore.

On October 1, Hamilton sent a separate circular letter to Williams and the other collectors regarding expenses for navigational aids. Hamilton wrote, “The United States in Congress having by their Act of the 7th. of August last Ordained ‘That all expences for the necessary support and maintenance of Light-houses, Beacons, Buoys &ca. within any Port or Harbour of the United States, should after the 15th. of August last, be defrayed out of the Treasury of the United States’; You will be pleased to transmit forthwith to this Office, as particular an Account as will be consistent with dispatch, of the nature and annual expences which may attend any establishment as above described at the port where you Act; under whose superintendance it is at present; and whether this person, or any other, whom you would undertake to recommend, is well qualified for the Business.”[3]

Although Williams’s draft reply on the verso of this leaf references Hamilton’s September 22 circular letter, it actually responds to the October 1 circular letter.[4] He informed the secretary that there were no lighthouses or other aids to navigation from the “extreme branches” of the Susquehanna River, which entered the Chesapeake Bay at Havre De Grace, Maryland, to Cape Henry in Virginia on the southern shore of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, where it enters the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, there were no expenses for the United States to defray. Williams noted that the Maryland legislature had passed a law in December 1787 to establish pilots for the Chesapeake and regulate their fees. He also noted a set of laws passed by Virginia and Maryland in January and March 1786 with the intention of building lighthouses and that he expected the next sessions of each legislature to devote “serious consideration” to the subject.

Two months earlier, Congress had passed the Lighthouses Act, which provided for the transfer of control and expenses of the twelve existing lighthouses in the United States from the individual states to the federal government. In January 1790, Hamilton compiled a report to President Washington using the data he had obtained from the Collectors of the Customs. Regarding Maryland and Virginia, he wrote, “There are at present no Light houses, nor any Beacons, Buoys &ca. for the security of Vessels navigating the Bay of Chesapeak. I[n] consequence of certain Acts of the Legislatures of these States, stiled the compact Laws, considerable Sums have been collected heretofore, by a Tax upon Tonage, for raising a fund for the purpose of building Light-houses &c. at cape Henry. The commissioners appointed by the two States for superintending this work, expended on it previous to the War, in collecting materials &c, at between 7 and £8000 Virginia currency but it is presumed that no considerable Benefit can be now derived from this Expenditure. The present expence for erecting this Light-house &c. (as estimated by one of the commissioners appointed on the part of the State of Virginia) is computed at …Dollars 34.076.66. The annual Expence of maintaining it would probably not exceed …Dollars 2.000.”[5]

One section in the Lighthouses Act provided for the erection of a lighthouse near the entrance of Chesapeake Bay if Virginia ceded the necessary land to the federal government. In August 1790, Virginia ceded two acres at Cape Henry,[6] and the New York architect John McComb Jr. (1763-1853) built the Cape Henry Lighthouse of “hewn or hammer dressed Stone” and an associated two-story frame house for the keeper for $17,700 by October 1792.[7] It was the first federally funded public works project by the new government. Although functionally replaced in 1881 by a new lighthouse 350 feet away, the original lighthouse still stands.

Otho Holland Williams (1749-1794) was born in Maryland and when orphaned at age thirteen entered a clerk apprenticeship with his uncle in Frederick. He moved to Baltimore in 1767 but returned to Frederick in 1774. He joined the Continental Army in the spring of 1775 and marched to Boston. Captured at the Battle of Fort Washington, Williams was imprisoned by the British in New York. He was released in early 1778 and returned to the Continental Army as colonel of the 6th Maryland Regiment. He led the regiment in the Battles of Camden, Guilford Court House, and Eutaw Springs. General Nathanael Greene sent him to Congress with documents, and Williams was promoted to brigadier general in 1782. After the war he served as the first Commissioner of the Port of Baltimore (1789-1794) and an associate justice for Baltimore County (1792-1794).

Condition: Creasing and separations along original folds; toned and soiled; loss at center left and right edges from removed wax seal, affecting some words and letters of Williams draft; a few cellophane tape repairs on recto.

[1]Alexander Hamilton to Thomas Willing, September 13, 1789, Sparks Transcript, Harvard College Library, Cambridge, MA.

[2]Treasury Department Circular to the Collectors of the Customs, September 22, 1789, RG 56, Circulars of the Office of the Secretary, “Set T,” National Archives.

[3]Treasury Department Circular to the Collectors of the Customs, October 1, 1789, RG 56, Circulars of the Office of the Secretary, “Set T,” National Archives.

[4]Otho H. Williams to Alexander Hamilton, October 8, 1789, RG 26 Lighthouse Letters Received, Vol. A, Pennsylvania and Southern States, National Archives.

[5]Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, January 3, 1790, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.

[6]See Alexander Hamilton to Beverley Randolph, February 10, 1790, Archives Division Virginia State Library, Richmond; Beverley Randolph to Alexander Hamilton, August 9, 1790, RG 26, Lighthouse Letters Received, Vol. A, Pennsylvania and Southern States, National Archives.

[7]In 1801-1802, McComb built Alexander Hamilton’s home The Grange in New York City.

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