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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Washington and His Colleagues

Henry Jones Ford

in the
Chronicles of America edition,
Yale University Press,
New Haven, 1918

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p80  Chapter IV
Alarums and Excursions

The Shakespearian stage direction which heads this chapter appropriately describes the course of administrative experience while Washington was trying to get from Congress the means of sustaining the responsibilities with which he was charged by his office. Events did not stand still because for a time anything like national government had ceased. Before Washington left Mount Vernon he had been disquieted by reports of Indian troubles in the West, and of intrigues by Great Britain — which still retained posts that according to the treaty of peace belonged to the United States, — and by Spain which held the lower Mississippi. Washington applied himself to these matters as soon as he was well in office, but he was much hindered in his arrangements by apathy or indifference in Congress. He noted in his diary for May 1, 1790, communications made to him of a  p81 disposition among members of Congress "to pay little attention to the Western country because they were of the opinion it would soon shake off its dependence on this, and, in the meantime would be burdensome to it." From a letter of Gen. Rufus Putnam, one of the organizers of the Ohio company, it appears that in July, 1789, Ames of Massachusetts put these queries to him: "Can we retain the western country with the government of the United States? And if we can, what use will it be to them?" Putnam wrote a labored article to the effect that it was both feasible and desirable to hold the West, but the character of his arguments shows that there was then a poor prospect of success. At that time no one could have anticipated the Napoleonic wars which ended all European competition for the possession of the Mississippi valley, and, as it were, tossed that region into the hands of the United States. There was strong opposition in Congress to pursuing any course that would require maintenance of an army or navy. Some held that it was a great mistake to have a war department, and that there would be time enough to create one in case war should actually arrive.

In a message to the Senate, August 7, 1789,  p82 Washington had urged the importance of "some uniform and effective system for the militia of the United States," saying that he was "particularly anxious" it should receive early attention. On January 18, 1790, General Knox submitted to Congress a plan to which there are frequent references in Washington's diary, showing the special interest he took in the subject. The report laid down principles which have long since been embraced by European nations, but which have just recently been recognized by the United States. It asserts: "That it is the indispensable duty of every nation to establish all necessary institutions for its protection and defense; that it is a capital security to a free state for the great body of the people to possess a competent knowledge of the military art; that every man of the proper age and ability of body is firmly bound by the social compact to perform, personally, his proportion of military duty for the defense of the State; that all men of the legal military age should be armed, enrolled, and held responsible for different degrees of military service." In furtherance of these principles a scheme was submitted providing for military service by the citizens of the United States beginning at eighteen years of age and terminating at sixty.  p83 The response of Congress was the Act of April 30, 1790, authorizing a military establishment "to the number of one thousand two hundred and sixteen non-commissioned officers, privates, and musicians," with permission to the President to call State Militia into service if need be, "in protecting the inhabitants of the frontiers." Washington, in noting in his diary his approval of the act, observed that it was not "adequate to the exigencies of the government and the protection it is intended to afford."

The Indian troubles in the Southwest were made particularly serious by the ability of the head-chief of the Creek nation, Alexander McGillivray, the authentic facts of whose career might seem too wildly improbable even for the uses of melodrama.​a His grandmother was a full-blooded Creek of high standing in the nation. She had a daughter by Captain Marchand, a French officer. This daughter, who is described as a bewitching beauty, was taken to wife by Lachland McGillivray, a Scotchman engaged in the Indian trade. A son was born who, at the age of ten, was sent by his father to Charleston to be educated, where he remained nearly seven years receiving instruction both in English and Latin. This son, Alexander,  p84 was intended by his father for civilized life, and when he was seventeen he was placed with a business house in Savannah. During the Revolutionary War the father took the Tory side and his property was confiscated. The son took refuge with his Indian kinsfolk, and acquired in their councils an ascendancy which also extended to the Seminole tribe. His position and influence made his favor an important object with all powers having American interests. During the war the British conferred upon him the rank and pay of a colonel. In 1784, as the representative of the Creek and Seminole nations, he formed a treaty of alliance with Spain, by the terms of which he became a Spanish commissary with the rank and pay of a colonel.

Against the State of Georgia, the Creek nation had grievances which McGillivray was able to voice with a vigor and an eloquence that compelled attention. It was the old story, so often repeated in American history, of encroachments upon Indian territory. Attempts at negotiation had been made by the old government, and these were now renewed by Washington with no better result. McGillivray met the commissioners, but left on finding that they had no intention of restoring the  p85 Indian lands that had been taken. A formidable Indian war seemed imminent, but Washington, whose own frontier experience made him well versed in Indian affairs, judged correctly that the way to handle the situation was to induce McGillivray to come to New York, though, as he noted in his diary, the matter must be so managed that the "government might not appear to be an agent in it, or suffer in its dignity if the attempt to get him here should not succeed." With his habitual caution, Washington considered the point whether he could send out an agent without consulting the Senate on the appointment, and he instructed General Knox "to take the opinion of the Chief Justice of the United States and the Secretary of the Treasury." The assurances obtained were such that Washington selected an experienced frontier commander, Colonel Marinus Willett of New York, and impressed upon him the importance of bringing the Indian chiefs to New York, pointing out "the arguments justifiable for him to use to effect this, with such lures as respected McGillivray personally, and might be held out to them."

Colonel Willett was altogether successful, though the inducements he offered were probably aided  p86 by McGillivray's desire to visit New York and meet General Washington. Other chiefs accompanied him, and on their way they received many official attentions. An incident which occurred at Guilford Court House, North Carolina, displays McGillivray's character in a kindly light. A woman whose husband had been killed by Creek Indians and who with her children had been made captive, visited McGillivray to thank him for effecting their release, and it was disclosed that he had since that time been contributing to the support of the family. At New York, the recently organized Tammany Society turned out in costumes supposed to represent Indian attire and escorted the visiting chiefs to Federal Hall. Eventually Washington himself went to Federal Hall in his coach of state and in all the trappings of official dignity, to sign the treaty concluded with the Indians. The treaty, which laid down the pattern subsequently followed by the government in its dealings with the Indians, recognized the claims of the Creek nation to part of the territory it claimed, and gave compensation for the part it relinquished by an annuity of fifteen hundred dollars for the tribe, and an annuity of one hundred dollars for each of the principal chiefs.

 p87  For his part in the transaction McGillivray was commissioned an agent of the United States with the rank of brigadier-general, a position which he sustained with dignity. He was six feet tall, spare in frame, erect in carriage. His eyes were large, dark, and piercing; his forehead, wider at the top than just above the eyes, was so high and broad as to be almost bulging. When he was a British colonel, he wore the uniform of that rank; when in the Spanish service, he wore the military dress of that country; and after Washington appointed him a brigadier-general he sometimes wore the uniform of the American army, but never in the presence of Spaniards. In different parts of his dominions he had good houses where he practised generous hospitality. His influence was shaken by his various political alliances, and before he died in 1793 he had lost much of his authority.

In the course of these negotiations Washington had an experience with the Senate which thereafter affected his official behavior. The debates of the constitutional convention indicated an expectation that the Senate would act as a privy council to the President; and Washington — intent above all things on doing his duty — tried to treat it as such. In company with General  p88 Knox he went to the Senate chamber, prepared to explain his negotiations with the Indian chiefs, but he forthwith experienced the truth of the proverb that although you may lead a horse to water you cannot make him drink. In his diary for August 22, 1789, Maclay gave a characteristic account of the scene. Washington presided, taking the Vice-President's chair. "He rose and told us bluntly that he had called on us for our advice and consent to some propositions respecting the treaty to be held with the Southern Indians. Said he had brought General Knox with him who was well acquainted with the business." A statement was read giving a schedule of the propositions on which the advice of the Senate was asked. Maclay relates that he called for the reading of the treaties and other documents referred to in the statement. "I cast an eye at the President of the United States. I saw he wore an aspect of stern displeasure." There was a manifest reluctance of the Senate to proceed with the matter in the President's presence, and finally a motion was made to refer the business to a committee of five. A sharp debate followed in which "the President of the United States started up in a violent fret. 'This defeats every purpose of my  p89 coming here' were the first words that he said. He then went on to say that he had brought his Secretary of War with him to give any necessary information; that the Secretary knew all about the business, and yet he was delayed and could not go on with the matter." The situation evidently became strained. Maclay relates: "A pause for some time ensued. We waited for him to withdraw. He did so with a discontented air."

The privy council function of the Senate was thus in effect abolished by its own action. Thereafter the President had practically no choice save to conclude matters subject to subsequent ratification by the Senate. It soon became the practice of the Senate to restrict the President's power of appointment by conditioning it upon the approval of the Senators from the State in which an appointment was made. The clause providing for the advice and consent of the Senate was among the changes made in the original draft to conciliate the small States, but it was not supposed that the practical effect would be to allow Senators to dictate appointments. It was observed in the Federalist that "there will be no exertion of choice on the part of Senators." Nevertheless there was some uneasiness on the point. In a letter of May  p90 31, 1789, Ames remarked that "the meddling of the Senate in appointments is one of the least defensible parts of the Constitution," and with prophetic insight he foretold that "the number of the Senators, the secrecy of their doings, would shelter them, and a corrupt connection between those who appoint to office and the officers themselves would be created."

Washington had to submit to senatorial dictation almost at the outset of his administration, the Senate refusing to confirm his nomination of Benjamin Fishbourn for the place of naval officer at Savannah. The only details to be had about this affair are those given in a special message of August 6, 1789, from which it appears that Washington was not notified of the grounds of the Senate's objection. He defended his selection on the ground that Fishbourn had a meritorious record as an army officer, had held distinguished positions in the state government of Georgia which testified public confidence, and moreover was actually holding, by virtue of state appointment, an office similar to that to which Washington desired to appoint him. The appointment was, in fact, no more than the transfer to the federal service of an official of approved administrative  p91 experience, and was of such manifest propriety that it seems most likely that the rejection was due to local political intrigue using the Georgia Senators as its tool. The office went to Lachlan McIntosh, who was a prominent Georgia politician. Over ten years before he had killed in a duel Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Gwinnett was the challenger and McIntosh was badly wounded in the duel, but the affair caused a feud that long disturbed Georgia politics, and through the agency of the Senate it was able to reach and annoy the President of the United States.

At the time when Washington was inaugurated both North Carolina and Rhode Island were outside the Union. The national government was a new and doubtful enterprise, remote from and unfamiliar to the mass of the people. To turn their thoughts toward the new Administration it seemed to be good policy for Washington to make tours. The notes made by Washington in his diary indicate that the project was his own notion, but both Hamilton and Knox cordially approved it and Madison "saw no impropriety" in it. Therefore, shortly after the recess of the first session of Congress, Washington started on a  p92 trip through the Northern States, pointedly avoiding Rhode Island, then a foreign country. It was during this tour that a question of etiquette occurred about which there was a great stir at the time. John Hancock, then Governor of Massachusetts, did not call upon Washington but wrote inviting Washington to stay at his house, and when this invitation was declined, he wrote again inviting the President to dinner en famille. Washington again declined, and this time the failure of the Governor to pay his respects to the President of the United States was the talk of the town. Some of Hancock's aides now called with excuses on the score of his illness. Washington noted in his diary, "I informed them in explicit terms that I should not see the Governor unless it was at my own lodgings." This incident occurred on Saturday evening, and the effect was such that Governor Hancock called in person on Sunday. The affair was the subject of much comment not to Governor Hancock's advantage. Washington's church-going habits on this trip afford no small evidence of the patient consideration which he paid to every point of duty. In New York, he attended Episcopal church service regularly once every Sunday. On his northern tour he went  p93 to the Episcopal church in the morning, and then showed his respect for the dominant religious system of New England by attending the Congregational church in the afternoon. His northern tour lasted from October 15 to November 13, 1789, and was attended by popular manifestations that must have promoted the spread of national sentiment. On November 21, 1789, North Carolina came into the Union, and Rhode Island followed on May 29, 1790. Washington started on a tour of the Southern States on March 21, 1791, in which he covered more than seventeen hundred miles in sixty-six days, and was received with grand demonstrations at all the towns he visited.

While he was making these tours, which in the days before the railroad and the telegraph were practically the only efficacious means of establishing the new government in the thoughts and feelings of the people, he was much concerned about frontier troubles, and with good reason, as he well knew the deficiency of the means that Congress had allowed. The tiny army of the United States was under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Josiah Harmar, with the brevet rank of general. In October, 1790, Harmar led his troops, nearly four-fifths of which were new levies of militia,  p94 against the Indians who had been disturbing the western frontier. The expedition was a succession of blunders and failures which were due more to the rude and undisciplined character of the material that Harmar had to work with than to his personal incapacity. Harmar did succeed in destroying five Indian villages with their stores of corn, but their inhabitants had warning enough to escape and were able to take prompt vengeance. A detachment of troops was ambushed and badly cut up. The design had been to push on to the upper course of the Wabash, but so many horses had been stolen by the Indians that the expedition was crippled. As a result, Harmar marched his troops back again, professing to believe that punishment had been inflicted upon the Indians that would be a severe lesson to them. What really happened was that the Indians were encouraged to think that they were more than a match for any army which the settlers could send against them, and before long news came of the destruction of settlements and the massacre of their inhabitants. "Unless," wrote Rufus Putnam to Washington, "Government speedily sends a body of troops for our protection, we are a ruined people."

 p95  Washington did what he could. He sent to Congress Putnam's letter and other frontier communications, but Congress, which was stubbornly opposed to creating a national army, replied, when the need was demonstrated, that the militia of the several States were available. The Government was without means of protecting the Indians against abuse and injustice or of protecting the settlers against the savage retaliations that naturally followed. The dilemma was stated with sharp distinctness in correspondence which passed between Washington and Hamilton in April, 1791. Washington wrote that it was a hopeless undertaking to keep peace on the frontier "whilst land-jobbing and the disorderly conduct of our borderers are suffered with impunity; and while the States individually are omitting no occasion to intermeddle in matters which belong to the general Government." Hamilton in reply went to the root of the matter. "Our system is such as still to leave the public peace of the Union at the mercy of each state government." He proceeded to give a concrete instance: "For example, a party comes from a county of Virginia into Pennsylvania, and wantonly murders some friendly Indians. The national Government, instead of having  p96 power to apprehend the murderers and bring them to justice, is obliged to make a representation to that of Pennsylvania; that of Pennsylvania, again, is to make a re­quisition of that of Virginia. And whether the murderers shall be brought to justice at all must depend upon the particular policy, and energy, and good disposition of two state governments, and the efficacy of the provisions of their respective laws. And security of other States and the money of all are at the discretion of one. These things require a remedy; but when that will come, God knows."

Toward the close of its last session, the First Congress was induced to pass an act "for raising and adding another regiment to the military establishment of the United States and for making further provision for the protection of the frontiers." The further provision authorized the President to employ "troops enlisted under the denomination of levies" for a term not exceeding six months and in number not exceeding two thousand. The law thus made it compulsory that the troops should move while still raw and untrained. Congress had fixed the pay of the privates at three dollars a month, from which ninety cents were deducted, and it had been  p97 necessary to scrape the streets and even the prisons of the seaboard cities for men willing to enlist upon such terms. Washington gave the command to General Arthur St. Clair, whose military experience should have made him a capable commander, but he was then in bad health and unable to handle the situation under the conditions imposed upon him. General Harmar, enlightened by his own experience, predicted that such an army would certainly be defeated.

The campaign was intended as an expedition to chastise the Indians so that they would be deterred from molesting the settlers, but it resulted in a disaster that greatly encouraged Indian depredations. As the army approached the Indian towns, a body of the militia deserted, and it was reported to St. Clair that they intended to plunder the supplies. He sent one of his regular regiments after them, thus reducing his available force to about fourteen hundred men. On November 3, 1791, this force camped on the eastern fork of Wabash. Before daybreak the next morning the Indians made a sudden attack, taking the troops by surprise and throwing them into disorder. It was the story of Braddock's defeat over again. The troops were surrounded  p98 by foes that they could not see and could not reach. Indian marksmen picked off the gunners until the artillery was silenced; then the Indians rushed in and seized the guns. In the combat there were both conspicuous exploits of valor and disgraceful scenes of cowardice. In that dark hour St. Clair showed undaunted courage. He was in the front of the fight, and several times he headed charges. He seemed to have a charmed life, for although eight bullets pierced his clothes, one cutting away a lock of the thick gray hair that flowed from under his three-cornered hat, he escaped without a wound. Finally defeat became a rout which St. Clair was powerless to check. Pushed aside in the rush of fugitives, he was left in a position of great peril. If the Indian pursuit had been persistent, few might have escaped, but the Indians stopped to plunder the camp. Nevertheless six hundred and thirty men were killed and over two hundred and eighty wounded, with small loss to the Indians.

Washington's reception of the news illustrates both his iron composure and the gusts of passion under which it sometimes gave way. The details are unquestionably authentic, as they were communicated by Washington's secretary who witnessed  p99 the scene. Washington was having a dinner party when an officer arrived at the door and sent word that he was the bearer of dispatches from the Western army. The secretary went out to him, but the officer said his instructions were to deliver the dispatches to the President in person. Washington then went to the officer and received the terrible news. He returned to the table as though nothing had happened, and everything went on as usual. After dinner there was a reception in Mrs. Washington's drawing-room and the President, as was his custom, spoke courteously to every lady in the room. By ten o'clock all the visitors had gone and Washington began to pace the floor at first without any change of manner, but soon he began to show emotional excitement and he broke out suddenly: "It's all over! St. Clair is defeated — routed, — the officers nearly all killed — the men by wholesale, — the rout complete, — too shocking to think of, — and a surprise into the bargain!"

When near the door in his agitated march about the room, he stopped and burst forth, "Yes, here on this very spot I took leave of him; I wished him success and honor; 'You have your instructions,' I said, 'from the Secretary of War; I had a strict  p100 eye to them, and will add one word — Beware of a surprise! You know how the Indians fight us!' He went off with that as my last solemn warning thrown into his ears. And yet, to suffer that army to be cut to pieces — hacked, butchered, tomahawked — by a surprise! O God, O God, he's worse than a murderer! How can he answer it to his country! The blood of the slain is upon him — the curse of the widows and orphans — the curse of Heaven!"

The secretary relates that this torrent of passion burst forth in appalling tones. The President's frame shook. "More than once he threw his hands up as he hurled imprecations upon St. Clair." But at length he got his feelings under control, and after a pause he remarked, "I will hear him without prejudice. He shall have full justice." St. Clair was, indeed, treated with marked leniency. A committee of the House reported that the failure of the expedition could not "be imputed to his conduct, either at any time before or during the action." St. Clair was continued in his position as Governor of the Northwest Territory and remained there until 1802.

Notwithstanding the dire results of relying on casual levies, Congress was still stubbornly opposed to  p101 creating an effective force under national control, and in this attitude to some extent reflected even frontier sentiment. Ames in a letter of January 13, 1792, wrote that "even the views of the western people, whose defense has been undertaken by government, have been unfriendly to the Secretary of War and to the popularity of the Government. They wish to be hired as volunteers, at two-thirds of a dollar a day to fight the Indians. They are averse to the regulars." By the Act of March 5, 1792, Congress authorized three additional regiments, with the proviso, however, that they "shall be discharged as soon as the United States shall be at peace with the Indian tribes." This legislation, nevertheless, was a great practical improvement on the previous act. General Wayne, who now took command, was fortunately circumstanced in that he was under no pressure to move against the Indians. Public opinion favored a return to negotiation, so that he had time to get his troops under good discipline. He did not move the main body of his troops until the summer of 1794, and on August 20, he inflicted a smashing defeat on the Indians, at a place known as the Fallen Timbers, followed up the victory by punitive expeditions to the  p102 Indian towns, and burned their houses and crops. The campaign was a complete success. The Indians were so humbled by their losses that they sued for peace, and negotiations began which were concluded in the summer of 1795 by the treaty of Greenville, under which the Northwestern tribes ceded an extensive territory to the United States.

It was notorious that the trouble which the American authorities had experienced with the Indians had been largely due to the activity of British agents. In his report Wayne noted that the destruction effected by his troops included "the houses, stores, and property of Colonel McKee, the British agent, and principal stimulator of the war now existing between the United States and the savages." A sharp correspondence took place between Wayne and Major William Campbell, commanding a British post on the Miami. Campbell protested against the approach of Wayne's army, "no war existing between Great Britain and America." Wayne assented to this statement, and then asked what he meant "by taking post far within the well known and acknowledged limits of the United States." Campbell rejoined that he had acted under orders and as to his right, that was a matter which were best left to "the ambassadors  p103 of our different nations." Campbell refused to obey Wayne's demand to withdraw, and Wayne ignored Campbell's threat to fire if he were approached too close. Wayne reported that the only notice he took of this threat was "by immediately setting fire to and destroying everything within view of the fort, and even under the muzzles of the guns." "Had Mr. Campbell carried his threats into execution," added Wayne, "it is more than probable he would have experienced a storm." No collision actually took place at that time but there was created a situation which, unless it were removed by diplomacy, must have eventually brought on war.

Thayer's Note:

a Alexander McGillivray figures prominently in several other parts of this site as well: links to them, including the portrait of him by Trumbull, are collected in my note to Gayarré's History of Louisiana.

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