Washington and the Governors (Part I)

TOPICS: Founding Era Politics, George Washington, Revolutionary War, Washington and the Governors

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

These two statements crystallize Washington’s philosophy in dealing with the governors. Such an attitude, which I view as diplomacy, was a vital but often overlooked aspect of his generalship. He needed the states to man and supply his army. The American commander proved very adept at diplomatic relations: Washington usually—but not always—received strong support from the state executives. Yet, for more than a year, he had been deeply concerned about failing leadership in Congress and the states, as well as a decline in zeal for the American cause among the people. This anxiety underlaid his dealings with the states. In a gloomy and angry “picture of the times—& of Men,” as he called it, sent to a Virginia friend in December 1778,3 the general confessed to feeling “more real distress” on account of the “distressed, ruinous,—& deplorable” state of affairs than at any other time since the start of the Revolution. Five months later, his view had not changed. The country’s affairs, he confessed to New York congressman Gouverneur Morris, remained in a “very disagreeable train.”

The rapid decay of our currency, the extinction of the public spirit, the increasing rapacity of the times, the want of harmony in our councils, the declining zeal of the people, the discontents and distresses of the officers of the army; and … the prevailing security and insensibility to danger, are symptoms, in my eye of a most alarming nature.4

This unease informed the commander in chief’s approach to relations with state officials in 1779 and 1780.

Washington’s close professional and personal associations with some of the governors aided his dealings with the states. Joseph Reed, president of the Pennsylvania Council, had been on his staff. George Clinton, governor of New York, had been one of his generals. Washington’s special relationship with these two men is evident in his letters. New Jersey governor William Livingston and Delaware governor Caesar Rodney had served with him in Congress and had been brigadier generals of their state militias earlier in the war. As a militia brigadier, Rodney had done important work under Washington’s command in the winter of 1776–77 (the commander in chief commended him for his service in that campaign) and again in the fall of 1777. When such past associations were lacking, relationships were more tense, but continuous cooperation over the years bred confidence; this is especially evident in the general’s correspondence with Governor Trumbull of Connecticut.

One important aspect of Washington’s diplomacy was his care to always thank the governors for their support. This is an easily overlooked but important part of cultivating “good understanding.” These courteous and tactful thank you letters are numerous in his correspondence of this period. In one example, Washington thanked Trumbull for his ready compliance with a call for 4,000 militiamen to augment the army for a prospective attack on New York City: “I cannot best express my sense, to your Excellency of the ready compliance in every step which appeard necessary in the business, that for some time past has engaged our attention.  And I promise myself every thing to our cause from the good disposition of the militia when it may become proper to make use of their services.”5

In my next blog post, I will continue this survey of Washington’s relations with the state governors—perhaps one of his most important roles as commander of the Continental army.


  1. “George Washington to Stephen Moylan, Feb. 3, 1780,” The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:363–64.
  2. “George Washington to Stephen Moylan, Feb. 16, 1780,” The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:489.
  3. “George Washington to Benjamin Harrison, December 18–30, 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-18-02-0510. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 18:447–52.
  4. “George Washington to Gouverneur Morris, May 8, 1779,” in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 20:384–86.
  5. “George Washington to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., November 16, 1779,” in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 23:303–4.