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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.

Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

This political situation formed the background for Washington’s April 19 request to Reed for 600 militiamen to support an expedition against the British-allied Iroquois Indians; these militiamen would include the state’s five independent ranger companies (about 380 men) already being raised in the frontier counties.1 Reed replied that the council had ordered out 250 militiamen but intended for them to defend two frontier counties, not aid the expedition. The council’s decision, he reported, was borne out of the fear that if the counties did not get militia aid, they would give “great disgust.” He argued that as the state bore “so great a portion of the Continental burthen” it should be “entitled to a proportionate attention.” Reed also asserted that Washington had created “uneasiness” in Pennsylvania by drawing off the state’s Continental regiments to protect New York, leaving its frontier towns “exposed.” Though Reed told the general that the council relied on his “Justice and Judgment” to dispose the army to protect all threatened states, the councilmen were undoubtedly seeking to ease their political position by getting the general to keep more Continentals in the state.2 Washington’s answer reveals his awareness of their intentions. Responding two days later with what he termed a “particular consideration” of Reed’s letter, he insisted that the council could not expect him to provide Continentals to protect the state “at every point” when they were not willing to raise militia for the purpose. Washington carefully explained his decisions and concluded with a statement of his philosophy regarding the army’s dispositions: “I have been thus particular from a scrupulous desire to show, that no part of my conduct indicates a predilection to one state more than to another; but that, as far as the means in my hands will extend, I aim equally at the security and welfare of all.”3

The political pressures on the council become even clearer in their correspondence with Washington in May. Reed pointed out, in a private letter to Washington, the council’s concern for the “Anxiety” of the frontier people and the council’s wish that it be “counteracted & removed.” He re-emphasized that when the Continentals had been drawn out of the state for Continental expeditions, it had left “an Appearance of Hardship” and “an unfavourable Effect” among the frontier people. He pointed to a letter appearing in the Pennsylvania Packet on April 24, in which the writer asked if the people of the frontier had not been “grosly deceived” and whether preparations had been “neglected.” The money they had paid for their defense should be repaid, the writer insisted. Reed defended the council’s, and Washington’s, efforts to protect the frontiers in the Pennsylvania Packet of April 29. In his article, Reed asserted that the council had paid “every possible attention” to the frontier counties.4

In a formal letter to the general, the council sternly stated their case and made clear the political pressures they faced in trying to raise militia in the frontier counties. They reminded Washington of the state’s large contribution to the Continental army: 13 regiments. The people would thus feel “very sensibly” any hardships that might arise “from an unequal distribution of protection.” The council insisted that their people had been “by far the greatest sufferers on the frontiers”—a fact which “we presume cannot be doubted.” They enclosed letters from “men of the most note” in the frontier counties, stating why they needed their militia for home defense. Asking Washington to allow for their “anxieties,” the council succinctly set out their political situation: “We have a discontented party in the state seeking every occasion to disparage the government…To us the inhabitants look [for safety] and upon us the Odium and blame will fall, if…they should find themselves disappointed.” Despite their acknowledgement of the justness of Washington’s point that the states could not expect protection from the army when their own resources could not furnish a sufficient defense, the council insisted on the state’s right of “protection in proportion to the troops furnished by the state to the army.” The availability of militiamen, the council pointed out to the general, was affected by the political struggle in the state. The militia was “composed altogether of those who are attached to the present government” (the radical Whigs); yet they had seen all the profitable and influential Continental appointments bestowed “without exception on persons opposed to the government” (the moderate Republicans). Thus, they claimed, “the body of Whigs in the state have in great degree lost that ardour and zeal which gives life and spirit to service.” But the council offered the general a compromise: they would raise five additional state companies of “rangers,” totaling 265 men, in addition to the 380 in the five companies already forming. In total, the state would provide 740 rangers to serve no less than six months.5

Washington, who had told Reed that the “disagreeable inferences” of favoritism in his private letter of May 1 had given him “pain,”6 responded to the council’s formal letter of May 8 in a conciliatory tone: “It is my constant endeavour to cultivate the confidence of the governments of the several states by an equal and uniform attention to their respective interests,” he told them. The general assured the council that he would “do full justice” to the state’s exertions and hoped that the expedition would give “effectual relief” to the state’s frontiers. Then, he relented; he accepted the additional ranger companies as a substitute for the militia, telling the council that “they will answer my expectation of succour from the state.”7

This controversy exemplifies an important point: Unlike Washington, whose only concern was the Continental Army, the governors had to deal with the complaints and appeals of the people and the politics of their legislatures. But the dispute, it should be noted, had not affected Washington’s standing with the members of the council. That relationship remained unimpaired. Reed wrote to the general during the controversy: “I am authorized to say, that it is impossible for any human Being to possess more entirely the Confidence of a publick Body, than you do of ours, both Council & Assembly.”8

The “battles” that Washington lost with the state governments, such as this one, were far rarer, though, than the times the state leaders supported his requests. I will focus on these in my next post.

 


1. Washington to Joseph Reed, April 19, 1779, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0116. Also available in print: Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 20:136-37.

2. Reed to Washington, April 25, 1779, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0188. Also available in print: Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 20:209-11.

3. Washington to Reed, April 27, 1779, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0211. Also available in print: Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 20:237-43.

4. Reed to Washington, May 1, 1779, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0262. Also available in print: Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 20:288-92.

5. Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council to Washington, May 8, 1779, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0344. Also available in print: Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 20:388-98.

6. Washington to Reed, May 8, 1779, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0345. Also available in print: Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 20:398.

7. Washington to the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council, May 20, 1779, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0493. Also available in print: Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 20:548-49.

8. Reed to Washington, May 1, 1779.