Presidential Series: Volume 14

DATE 1 September – 31 December 1793

Introduction

During the last four months of 1793, as in the summer preceding, GW and his administration were chiefly involved with maintaining the neutrality of the United States during the war that pitted France against Great Britain and her allied powers. The main problem for the administration was the operations of French privateers. Letters to GW from New York governor George Clinton, Maryland governor Thomas Sim Lee, and North Carolina governor Richard Dobbs Spaight reported their attempts to implement the government’s neutrality policy at the ports of New York City, Baltimore, and Wilmington, N.C., and asked for guidance. British minister George Hammond and various British consuls, in letters to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, continued to press for restoration of prizes seized by the privateers, which required an additional decision on that issue as well as a definition of U.S. territorial waters. French consuls were warned not to hold admiralty courts on the prizes seized by their privateers, and the exequatur of the consul at Boston was revoked for his interference with American officials attempting to take possession of a prize ship.

With Spain allied to Great Britain, reports of French-sponsored expeditions from Kentucky into Louisiana (Jefferson to GW, 6 and 16 Nov.), and from South Carolina and Georgia into Florida (William Moultrie to GW, 7 Dec.), raised another threat to American neutrality.

None of this was made easier by bad relations with French minister Edmond Genet. The cabinet agreed in early September to inform Genet of their request (made in August) for his recall, but his replacements would not arrive until February 1794. In the meantime, Genet continued to be involved in public controversy: denying that he had said that he would appeal GW’s decisions to the people, while publishing his instructions from France and some of his correspondence with the U.S. government in an apparent attempt to do just that.

Numerous resolutions of county meetings, mostly supportive of GW’s policies, registered something about public opinion on these issues. GW returned polite answers to those addressed specifically to him, and both the resolutions and his answers were generally published. A memorandum from Thomas Jefferson of 22 Sept. suggests that GW took particular care with his reply to the resolutions from Caroline County, Va., which incorporated a draft designed by James Madison and James Monroe to stress solidarity with France (GW to Edmund Pendleton, 23 Sept.).

The arrival in July of refugees from the civil conflict on the French island of Saint Domingue also created problems for GW. The British minister Hammond complained about the continued presence of the French fleet at New York Harbor, and the French minister Genet requested U.S. assistance in apprehending deserters from the fleet, and later in preventing certain refugees from returning to the island. Moreover, GW received numerous letters from refugees asking for various types of assistance.

Nonetheless, the signature event of these four months was the epidemic of yellow fever at Philadelphia. Diagnosed in mid- to late August, the growing epidemic soon depopulated the city, as those who were able fled. The deaths and departures greatly reduced the operations of government. Thomas Jefferson justified his return to Virginia by noting that the State Department had but one clerk left and business could not be carried on. Secretary of War Henry Knox moved his office to a house outside the city before he departed for New England. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton left for New York not long after recovering from a bout with the fever, and Comptroller of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Jr., moved with Knox outside the city.

GW himself left the city on 10 Sept., making a previously planned trip to Mount Vernon that was perhaps speeded by the progress of the disease (he wrote to Tobias Lear on 25 Sept., “It was my wish to have stayed there longer; but as Mrs Washington was unwilling to leave me amidst the malignant fever which prevailed, I could not think of hazarding her & the Children any longer by my remaining in the City”). Moreover, the epidemic delayed his return to Philadelphia well beyond his planned 15- to 18-day absence, leaving him without public papers necessary for decisions requested from him (GW to Lee, 13 Oct.). Letters sent to GW from correspondents such as Knox, Wolcott, and Timothy Pickering document the severity of the epidemic at Philadelphia and the fear that the disease aroused in the country.

In late September GW determined that, epidemic or not, it would be necessary that he and his cabinet meet at Philadelphia or in the vicinity on 1 Nov., the date offered by Knox as “the earliest period at which it would be safe for you to return” (Knox to GW, 18 Sept.). Lodgings were found in Germantown, where GW stayed on his return in November. Some, however, hearing reports of the devastation in Philadelphia, questioned whether Congress should meet there as scheduled. GW sought advice from the cabinet and others about his proper course of action, which involved both the constitutional question of whether he had the power to alter the location at which Congress would convene and the question, touching on sectional concerns, of where the government should move if forced temporarily from the capital. Ultimately, the waning strength of the disease made action unnecessary, and Congress convened without incident in December, but the correspondence reveals much about GW’s understanding of his responsibilities as president.

This volume also records the preparation of GW’s annual message, delivered 3 Dec., in which he discussed his neutrality policies, military preparedness, commerce with Indian tribes and frontier defense, financial accounts of the United States, and repeal of the charge for mailing newspapers. The numerous drafts and outlines show that preparation of the address was an extended process that involved input from each member of the cabinet.

While overshadowed by the issue of neutrality, the problem of frontier defense continued. On the northwest frontier, military preparations for an expedition against hostile Indians, slowed during unsuccessful treaty negotiations with the tribes, moved forward with more urgency. With Indian hostility blamed in part on British influence, the administration continued to press for a response to their request that Great Britain evacuate northwestern forts in accordance with the 1783 Treaty of Paris. The southwest frontier, too, saw conflicts between settlers and Indians.

America’s diplomats and others living abroad wrote to GW as well as to the secretary of state. Several letters warned that a truce between Portugal and Algiers would unleash the Barbary power as a threat to American commerce. Letters from Gouverneur Morris, the American minister to France, gave GW gloomy assessments of events and people in that country.

The ubiquitous applications for appointments to federal office also swelled GW’s correspondence—the contest for district attorney for Rhode Island revealing political differences in that state.

The proceedings of the commissioners for the District of Columbia added to GW’s responsibilities: during these months, he appointed auditors, issued authorizations for a sale of lots, and advised on various topics. GW’s interest in the District was personal as well as official: he purchased a number of lots at the September sale (Certificate for Lots Purchased, 18 Sept.).

Among other personal matters, the management of Mount Vernon claimed much attention from GW at this time. He signed a contract, dated 23 Sept., with a new farm manager, William Pearce, and between that time and Pearce’s arrival at the estate in January 1794, GW wrote several letters conveying information and advice to Pearce and to interim manager Howell Lewis. Moreover, in a letter of 12 Dec. to the English agriculturalist Arthur Young, GW broached a proposal to rent out four of the five farms at Mount Vernon to immigrant farmers, describing his estate in considerable detail.

Jacket Essay

During the last four months of 1793, the period documented by volume 14 of the Presidential Series, Washington and his administration remained chiefly involved with maintaining the neutrality of the United States. The activities of French privateers in American waters required the administration to respond to requests from state governors for guidance about implementing the neutrality policy and to complaints from British minister George Hammond about seizures of British ships. As a result the administration had to decide on the extent of America’s territorial waters. Another threat to neutrality arose from reports of French-sponsored expeditions into Spanish Florida and Louisiana. These problems were made more difficult by the administration’s increasingly public poor relations with French minister Edmond Genet.

Other topics of interest include frontier defense and concerns about British retention of northwestern forts; news from Europe, including reports that a truce with Portugal would free corsairs from Algiers to attack American commerce; problems associated with the arrival of refugees from Saint Domingue; and the ubiquitous applications for appointments to federal office. The volume also records the preparation of Washington’s annual message. This was an extended process that involved input from each member of the cabinet.

The signature event of these four months, however, was the yellow fever epidemic at Philadelphia. Diagnosed in August, the growing epidemic soon depopulated the city by departures and deaths. Washington himself left the city on 10 Sept., making a previously planned trip to Mount Vernon, perhaps speeded by the progress of the disease. Some questioned whether Congress could safely meet at the capital in December, and Washington sought advice about whether he had the constitutional power to alter the location at which Congress would convene and about where the government might move. Washington himself took lodgings at Germantown in November, and ultimately, waning of the disease made action unnecessary.

Among personal matters, the management of Mount Vernon claimed much attention from Washington. He signed a contract with a new farm manager, William Pearce, and his letters to Pearce and to interim manager Howell Lewis convey information and advice. Moreover, in a letter to the English agriculturalist Arthur Young, Washington broached a proposal to rent out four of the five farms at Mount Vernon to immigrant farmers, describing his estate in considerable detail.


David R. Hoth, ed., The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series volume 14, 1 September – 31 December 1793. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2008.

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