Topic: Politics

Mutual Esteem Between George Washington and Fisher Ames (1758–1808)

By William M. Ferraro, Senior Associate Editor
August 13, 2018

Fisher Ames, from James Grant Wilson and John Fiske, eds., Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography, 7 vols. (New York, 1888–1900).

Massachusetts congressman Fisher Ames performed an important political service for President George Washington on April 28, 1796. On that date, Ames gave a speech that impelled a divided House of Representatives to enact, by a 51–48 vote on April 30, the provisions necessary to implement the contentious Jay Treaty.1 That treaty determined many aspects of the relationship between Great Britain and the United States, and upset numerous people who believed that it showed ingratitude, and even hostility, toward France and the assistance the French had given the nascent United States during the Revolutionary War.

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Washington and the Governors (Part IV)

By Benjamin Huggins, Associate Editor
August 3, 2018

“Washington’s Headquarters, Morristown,” engraving by Joseph Andrews. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

I continue my survey of Washington’s relations with the state governors, but in this post, I will focus on his relations with local civil authorities. One of the best examples of Washington’s diplomacy and the positive response of civil authorities is the army’s gathering of provisions in New Jersey during the winter of 1780. In a circular letter to the states, the general set out the nature of the crisis: “The situation of the Army with respect to supplies is beyond description alarming.” He asked for “extraordinary exertions” and requested “vigorous interposition of the State.”1

To gain immediate relief, he shifted his focus to New Jersey, where the army was camped. Declaring an emergency of a “pressing and peculiar nature,” he described the state of his army in a circular letter to the magistrates of each of the New Jersey counties: “The present situation of the Army with respect to provisions is the most distressing of any we have experienced since the beginning of the War.” Both officers and men were, he explained, “almost perishing for want”; the “uncommon vigour of the Winter” had obstructed the transportation of supplies, and the magazines near camp were exhausted. Unless an “extraordinary exertion” was made in the state, “fatal consequences” were sure to ensue.

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Did Martha Washington Really Hate Thomas Jefferson?

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Editor
May 18, 2018

Towards the end of her life, Martha Washington harbored no warm feelings for Thomas Jefferson. A guest at Mount Vernon in 1802 wrote that “she spoke of the election of Mr. Jefferson, whom she considered as one of the most detestable of mankind, as the greatest misfortune our country had ever experienced.”1 Connecticut governor John Cotton Smith wrote that “next to the loss of her husband,” Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 visit to Mount Vernon was “the most painful occurrence of her life.”2 Martha Washington’s granddaughter Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis did not care for Jefferson either. She joked after Jefferson’s election that perhaps now the world was ready for the apocalypse.3 Those familiar with the election of 1800 probably have a fair understanding of why Martha Washington felt this way; tensions between Jefferson and the Washington family had been building for some time. But it can still be somewhat shocking to see Martha Washington—who exists in much of the American imagination as a kind of benevolent, grandmotherly figure—be so sharp-tongued.

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George Washington and Parades in the Early American Republic

by Dana Stefanelli, Assistant Editor
May 14, 2018

Parades, feasts, and festivals were, in the words of historian Simon Newman, “essential components of early national popular political culture.” In the late eighteenth century, these activities allowed regular Americans to participate in politics to a greater extent than ever before. 1 In the nineteenth century, the public pageantry of parades became a more official and hierarchical (and more white and male) component of political party organization. However, in the 1780s and 1790s, participation in public political celebrations usually included a broad and diverse collection of citizens.

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Washington and the Governors (Part III)

By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
April 13, 2018

In this post, I continue my survey of George Washington’s relations with the state governors. A more complicated example of the contending interests involved in Washington’s relations with the governors than those I examined in my most recent post occurred when Washington sought increased militia support from Pennsylvania for the expedition against the Iroquois. The ensuing quarrel shows an important contrast in the different concerns of the general and the governors. The political context is crucial for understanding the controversy. The Pennsylvania government was operating under a contested constitution adopted in 1776 that gave the frontier counties increased representation in the unicameral assembly. Two political factions had developed around the constitutional question. The Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council and its president Joseph Reed were members of the more radical Whig Society. They were opposed by the Republican Society moderates led by Philadelphia merchants like Robert Morris. In May, riots led by militiamen supporting the radical cause would break out in Philadelphia.

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A Doomed Monument: Giuseppe Ceracchi in the U.S.A.

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Editor
March 23, 2018

In 1783, Congress passed an arguably frivolous resolution to construct a large copper equestrian statue of George Washington in the as-yet-unplanned federal city. Progress on the resolution was slow; more pressing issues (writing a constitution, for one) faced the young nation. But while a statue of Washington may not have been first priority, Congress largely agreed that symbolism and statuary serve an important role in nation-building. As founders such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton tenaciously fought for their separate visions of the United States to take shape, it became clear that the location, design, and artist designated for the George Washington sculpture required careful thought.

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Washington and the Governors (Part II)

By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
February 2, 2018

Washington faced some of his thorniest fights with state leaders over the deployment of Continental troops. He summed up his problem in a letter to his friend Gouverneur Morris:

When I endeavour to draw together the Continental troops for the most essential purposes I am embarrassed with complaints of the exhausted defenceless situation of particular states and find myself obliged either to resist solicitations made in such a manner and with such a degree of emphasis as scarcely to leave me a choice, or to sacrifice the most obvious principles of military propriety and risk the general safety.1

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Washington and the Governors (Part I)

By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
November 10, 2017

In this blog post I pause my series on Washington’s letters announcing pivotal moments in the Revolutionary War to look at a key facet of his generalship.

“You will, upon the whole, find many advantages by cultivating a good understanding with the Civil Authority”1

On Feb. 3, 1780, Gen. George Washington sent this advice to Col. Stephen Moylan, commander of a Continental dragoon regiment, after issues had arisen with the Connecticut state government regarding the winter encampments of the cavalry in that state. Two weeks later, as the disputes between Moylan and Gov. Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., continued, Washington told the colonel, “It is always my wish to accommodate, where no great injury can result to the service.”2

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When the Patriots Went to War at Sea

by Dana Stefanelli, Assistant Editor
October 11, 2017

The 18th-century British navy ruled the waves, and George Washington’s Continental forces could not have hoped to win the Revolutionary War against such a power without the help of the French navy. Overshadowed in this narrative are Continental efforts to develop a fleet.

In April 1778, Continental Navy sloop of war Ranger captured British HMS Drake off the coast of Ireland. Image painted by Arthur N. Disney. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command (NH 81541-KN).

A nominal Continental navy was formed in 1775, but privateers sympathetic to the Revolutionary cause proved more effective. Financed by private citizens and authorized by various states, these vessels preyed on vulnerable British ships and distracted imperial officials. The celebrated victory of John Paul Jones in the Bonhomme Richard over the Serapis on Sept. 23, 1779, boosted Continental navy credibility and public morale. Certainly with undue optimism, the Continental government set about building a 74-gun warship, America.  It was not completed, however, until 1782, when the war was winding down.

Early in the war, several states had tried to fill the vacuum by employing their own navies, apart from the privateers they authorized. Advocates for a true Continental navy–among them John Adams of Massachusetts, Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, Samuel Chase of Maryland, and William Gadsden of South Carolina–generally represented states with significant sea-trade communities. Delegates from other states saw warship building as a wasteful extravagance, and too risky based on America’s long odds of success at sea.

Adams described a heated congressional debate on Oct. 5, 1775, over whether to send vessels to harass British armed ships. Advocates cited “the great Advantages of distressing the Ennemy, supplying ourselves, and beginning a System of maritime and naval Opperations,” while opponents characterized plans for American warships as “the most wild, visionary mad project that had ever been imagined. . . . an Infant, taking a mad Bull by his horns.”  Ultimately, the delegates set into motion events that would culminate in the establishment of the Continental navy.2

When George Washington had assumed command of Continental forces in July 1775, he stood among those who believed that challenging British maritime supremacy would prove fruitless while draining resources and manpower from the land war. He modified his views after gaining a better sense of the threat the British posed by sea, as well as of the opportunities to disrupt the long British supply lines that ran between Great Britain and the states.  On Oct. 5, 1775, the same day as the congressional debate over sending Continental ships to harass the British, he wrote to John Hancock, then president of Congress, that he had “directed 3 Vessels to be equipped in order to cut off the supplies” and concluded that with “the Number of Vessels hourly arriving it may become an object of some importance” to capture as many British supply ships as possible.3

Just a week later, Washington wrote again to Hancock about his hopes for capturing British ships: “Nothing shall be omitted to secure Success: a fortunate Capture of an Ordnance Ship would give new Life to the Camp, & and an immediate Turn to the Issue of this Campaign.”4 And only 10 days after that optimistic letter, Washington relayed to Hancock the extreme danger of letting British ships go unchallenged, describing British naval actions at Falmouth, Mass., as “an Outrage exceeding in Barbarity & Cruelty every hostile Act practised among civilized Nations.” Washington wrote that this would happen again if not prevented by fortifications and armed vessels: “it appears the same Desolation is meditatd upon all the Towns on the Coast.”5

For these two immediate reasons, then–the promise of captured weapons and other supplies (and the consequent loss of them to the British), and the fears of British attack by sea–Congress and George Washington initiated aggressive naval operations. Challenges to Continental naval efforts remained complex, and I anticipate exploring these complications in later blog posts. Still, it is important to know that even before the French navy’s decisive entry into the war, Continental ships were crucial to the Revolutionary cause.

 

Notes

  1. L. H. Butterfield, et al., eds. The Adams Papers, The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), 3:342–44.
  2. Ibid., 3:343, n. 9. See also note 6 to “From George Washington to Joseph Reed, Jan. 4, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-03-02-0016. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 3:23–27.
  3. “From George Washington to John Hancock, Oct. 5, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0098-0001. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 2:98–103.
  4. “From George Washington to John Hancock, Oct. 12, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0140-0001. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 2:146–50.
  5. “From George Washington to John Hancock, Oct. 24, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0210-0001. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 2:227–28).

 

 

“More Dangerous to the United States than the Late Treachery at West-Point”: Ethan Allen, Vermont’s Benedict Arnold

By Jeff Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
August 11, 2017

An engraving of a statue of Ethan Allen. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Treason is a central theme in volume 28 of The Washington Papers’ Revolutionary War Series. In a letter dated Sept. 26, 1780, George Washington informed Lieutenant General Rochambeau, who led the French forces at Rhode Island that “General Arnold, who has sullied his former glory by the blackest treason, has escaped to the enemy. This is an event that occasions me equal regret and mortification; but traitors are the growth of every country, and . . . it is more to be wondered at, that the catalogue is so small, than that there have been found a few.”1 Washington expected to add the renowned Vermont militia commander Ethan Allen to that catalog, however, when he told Gov. George Clinton of New York in early November “that I have given discretionary powers to seize and secure a certain person, should it appear upon further investigation necessary.”2

Fort Ticonderoga had famously fallen in May 1775 to Allen and Benedict Arnold. By the late 1770s, Allen, like Arnold, had become dissatisfied with Congress due to New York’s continued claim to Vermont, which was still commonly called the New Hampshire Grants. In mid-October 1780, British forces stationed in Quebec invaded the northern frontiers of New York and Vermont. The Vermont Republic still had not been admitted to the United States despite having declared independence in 1777. Congressman Philip Schuyler, Col. William Malcom, and other prominent New Yorkers recalled how Allen’s Green Mountain Boys militia had forcibly resisted New York’s authority from 1770 to 1775. They now suspected a grand scheme on Britain’s part to sever New England from New York through the treachery of Allen and Arnold. As Clinton informed Washington in an Oct. 14 letter: “It is a little remarkable that we had not the least Intelligence from the Grants of the approach of the Enemy tho’ they passed their settlements in Boats on the way. . . . This Enterprize of the Enemy is probably the effects of arnolds Treason. . . .”3 And Washington concurred in his reply of Oct. 16 that “I do not think it at all improbable that the movements of the Enemy, at this advanced season of the year, may have been upon a plan concerted to take advantage of the success of arnolds treachery.”4

A commemorative plaque at Fort Ticonderoga.

Having reported in an Oct. 18 letter to GW that “There has [been] but very little assisstance derived from the Grants on this Occassion—which cannot at present be accounted for,” Malcom wrote Washington again on the 29th that “I am Suspicious that there will be bad news from the north-parts of the State—towards the Grants <ere> long—my information although pretty good are not sufficent to accuse.”5  Clinton soon wrote Washington a letter in which he cited “the very extraordinary Conduct of Colo. allen and the Jealousies it has occasioned” in accepting a ceasefire with the British on Vermont’s behalf in order to negotiate prisoner exchanges.6  Schuyler had also sent Washington a copy of a letter he had received from Col. Alexander Webster of the New York militia. In the letter, Webster questioned Allen’s motives in asking the British to extend a similar offer to New York.  Suspecting that Allen’s overture was a feint to help disguise his treason, Webster stated: “I make no doubt but at first sight It will appear that the Grants have left us to ourselves either to stand or fall.”7  And Washington instructed Brig. Gen. James Clinton, the governor’s brother, on Nov. 6 as follows: “From some circumstances there is reason to apprehend Treachery in the Northern Quarter. . . . upon a further investigation if it should appear necessary to secure a certain person, you are to concert measures for having him apprehended suddenly and sent down the Country under a proper guard. You need not be cautioned against lisping the most distant hint of this business.”8

Allen would not be arrested upon further investigation, even though his Vermont political foe Joseph Marsh had warned Washington that “a negociation is on foot for a separate peace for the new State, which we have heard has been threatned if Congress should not acknowledge the independence of Vermont and admit them to union.” Marsh had added that “the consequences of such negotiation may be speedily fatal to the settlements contiguous to Connecticut river and more dangerous to the united States than the late treachery at West-point.”9 Allen actually was engaged in secret negotiations with Frederick Haldimand, the British commander in Quebec, to make Vermont a British province if rebuffed by Congress.10 The negotiations, however, came to naught in 1783, and Allen did not live to see Vermont become the 14th state in 1791 under President Washington.

 

Notes

1. GW to Rochambeau, 26 Sept. 1780 (LS, CtY-BR: Rochambeau Papers and Rochambeau Family Cartographic Archive).

2. GW to George Clinton, 6 Nov. 1780 (LS, N-Ar: George Clinton Papers).

3. George Clinton to GW, 14 Oct. 1780 (LS, DLC:GW).

4. GW to George Clinton, 16 Oct. 1780 (LS, CSmH). See GW to Thomas Jefferson, 10 Oct. 1780 (Df, DLC:G); and GW to Samuel Huntington, 21 Oct. 1780 (Df, DLC:GW).

5. William Malcom to GW, 18 Oct. 1780 (ALS, DLC:GW); and William Malcom to GW, 29 Oct. 1780 (ALS, DLC:GW).

6. George Clinton to GW, 3 Nov. 1780 (LS, DLC:GW).

7. Alexander Webster to Philip Schuyler, c.31 Oct. 1780, enclosed in Schuyler to GW, 31 Oct. 1780.  See Webster to John Williams, c.31 Oct. 1780, also enclosed in Schuyler to GW, 31 Oct. 1780.

8. GW to James Clinton, 6 Nov. 1780 (LS, NHi: George and Martha Washington Papers).

9. Joseph Marsh to GW, 3 Nov. 1780 (ALS, DLC:GW).

10. See John J. Duffy and H. Nicholas Muller III, Inventing Ethan Allen (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2014), 167-68.