Topics: , , ,

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.

The American commander stressed the “absolute necessity” of what he termed a “requisition.” He set a quota of grain and cattle for each of the counties and the number of days allowed for the collection. A field officer and a commissariat officer would receive the supplies and, in conjunction with the magistrates, give “certificates” for the provisions’ “market value.” Washington made sure to appeal to the magistrates’ patriotism: “I am persuaded your zeal for the common cause will induce you to exert your utmost influence to procure a cheerful and immediate compliance,” he told them. “I have intire confidence, that you will do every thing in your power to give efficacy to this requisition.” Additionally, he spoke of the people’s virtue, “patriotism,” and attachment to the army. He stated his desire for their “ease and accommodation.” But the general concluded with a warning: “should we be disappointed in our hopes, the extremity of the case will compel us to have recourse to a different mode” that would be “disagreeable” to him “on every account.”2

In his letter to the officers sent to take charge of the requisitions, Washington specified what this “different mode” would be: an “impress” by military force of the county’s quota. Yet the officers should conduct the impress, if necessary, with “as much tenderness as possible,” for he would “infinitely prefer” the requisition to impressment. Though he flattered the magistrates in his address, he was firm in his instructions to his officers; he specified that there must be no dalliance. The decision of the magistrates must be “immediate.” Specifically ordering his officers to “respect … the rights of Citizens,” the general included a caution regarding the people’s rights: “I am persuaded you will not forget, that as we are compelled by necessity to take the property of Citizens for the support of the Army on whom their safety depends, we should be careful to manifest that we have a reverence for their rights, and wish not to do anything which that necessity and even their own good do not absolutely require.” Such “reverence” for their rights inspired civilians’ trust—a key part of Washington’s success as commander in chief.

Washington’s appeal produced the desired result. In a typical account from the field officers, Maj. Henry Lee reported, “I found the countys to which I was sent very patriotic & the magistrates anxious to give every aid to the army.”3 From the officers’ dispatches, Washington found the magistrates and people “most willing” to contribute to the relief of the army; they had, he wrote, “universally shewn a good disposition to supply us with provision.”4

The general had pressed the magistrates hard, and they had responded. He did not fail to praise them. He promptly informed Congress of the state’s ready compliance with his “requisition.” Washington reported that the magistrates and people had “more than complied with the requisitions”; their efforts had made the army “comfortable and easy on the score of provision.” He praised their “zeal & attachment.” And their efforts, he declared, “did them the highest honor.” He concluded: “owing to their exertions—the Army in a great measure has been kept together.”5 As a result of Washington’s letter, Congress passed a special resolution commending the “attachment and Zeal” of the magistrates and people of the state “in the Common Cause” and transmitted a copy to New Jersey governor William Livingston.6 After the conclusion of the requisition, the general did not fail to address a “thank you” circular to the magistrates. Noting that the crisis had been “of a very delicate nature” and that “the worst consequences might have ensued” had it not been for their cheerful assistance, he offered this praise to the magistrates:

The patriotic exertions of the Magistrates and Inhabitants of this State … have a claim to my warmest acknowledgements and to the particular consideration of the Public … You have given a Striking proof of your attachment to the service, of your regard to the accommodation of the Army, & an earnest of what may be expected in every future exigence.7

A letter from the justices of Morris County shows the impact of Washington’s diplomacy. They thanked Washington for “the honor Conferred on us” by his “Ample Expressions” of regard for their “Patriotism and exertions.” If the army were again in such a situation, they avowed, “Your Excellency will not be Disappointed in Your Expectations so far as the Abillitys of the people, & the Majestrates Influance can Extend.”8

Washington got what he wanted—supplies for the army. Though he stated to one colonel that he “did not doubt” the willingness of the “good people” to help the army “to the extent of their abilities,”9 he would surely have taken what the army needed if the magistrates had refused to supply them. But his “thank you” letter shows that the commander in chief was always thinking diplomatically and “cultivating a good understanding with the Civil Authority,” as he told Col. Stephen Moylan (he wrote his letter to Moylan the day after writing this “thank you”).10

In conclusion, Washington had both triumphs and failures in his dealings with the states. But his successes far outweighed his failures—the survival of the Continental Army through eight years of war is evidence of that. Despite his apprehensions, the general found that the zeal for the Revolutionary cause was not dead in the states—for the most part, they supported his calls for militia and supplies. He did indeed cultivate “a good understanding”—one of the most important facets of his generalship, given the domestic nature of the war. This “good understanding” was one of the keys to Washington’s success as commander in chief during the Revolutionary War.

 


1. “Circular to the States, December 16, 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-23-02-0474. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 23:627–29.

2. “Circular to the New Jersey Magistrates, January 7, 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-24-02-0039. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24: 49–52.

3. “Maj. Henry Lee to Washington, January 17, 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-24-02-0138. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:167–68.

4. “Washington to Lee, January 16, 1780,” and “Washington to Lt. Col. Isaac Sherman, January 26, 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-24-02-0129 and https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-24-02-0218. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:154, 270.

5. “Washington to Samuel Huntington, January 27, 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-24-02-0227. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:290–91.

6. “Huntington to Washington, February 1, 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-24-02-0268. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:343–44.

7. “Circular to the New Jersey Magistrates, February 2, 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-24-02-0276. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:351–52.

8. “Justices of Morris County, N.J., to Washington, February 29, 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-24-02-0494. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:600–601.

9. “Washington to Col. Richard Butler, January 18, 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-24-02-0142. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:171.

10. “Washington to Col. Stephen Moylan, February 3, 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-24-02-0286. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:363–64.