Alexander Hamilton Papers

To Alexander Hamilton from Timothy Pickering, 21[–22] August 1798

From Timothy Pickering1


Trenton August 21. [–22] 1798.

Dear Sir,

Not to miss the mail, I wrote you one line today,2 and inclosed a letter from I suppose General Miranda.3 If its contents give rise to any questions which it will be prudent for you to ask and for me to answer by the mail, it may be done, otherwise the information may be suspended till we meet.

Just before I left Philadelphia,4 I received a letter from General Knox, in answer to one I had written at the request of Captain Mitchel of the artillery, who wished to be one of his aids de camp.5 Mitchel, you will have observed is since dead.6 But my object in noticing this matter is to inform you, that General Knox manifests, pretty strongly, his dissatisfaction in your being appointed in a manner to precede him in the military line; I conclude he will not serve. Altho’ I should have been well pleased with his accepting his commission, I do not by any means deem his loss irreparable. Altho’ by the delay of the nominations one day, I received your letter7 expressing your willingness to serve under Knox, yet I concealed it, in order that the arrangement of nominations of Major Generals, which I had seen, as formed by General Washington, & which I saw would govern, might leave you, where you ought to be, in the first place. In Genl. Washington’s answer to my letter, of which I sent you some extracts,8 there is not, as I recollect, the most distant idea of General Knox’s making any difficulty in acting subordinately to you; his apprehensions arise wholly on General Pinckney’s account. I think it right to add, That from the first moment that a commander in Chief was thought of, no name was mentioned but yours: for until the nomination was actually made, I had no suspicion that Genl. Washington would ever again enter the field of war. I know also that not only all your friends, but your political enemies have the highest respect for your abilities: while the latter, the political enemies also of General Knox, estimate his talents by a very moderate scale: and some persons have in my hearing called him a weak man. I think him neither weak nor great: but with pretty good abilities, possessing an imposing manner that impresses an idea of mental faculties beyond what really exist. I am certain that if he had been second to Genl. W. and of course likely to command in chief, great dissatisfaction would have been excited. I much doubt even whether the nomination would have been confirmed by the Senate.

I write this letter in the confidence of friendship, for the public good, which I conceive to be involved in your holding your present superior station. I have always supposed you & Genl. Knox to be cordial friends. I wish you to continue such: I persuade myself he is too good a patriot to suffer the present disappointment to actuate him to any improper conduct; and that he will at least passively acquiesce. I think he will gain no honor, by declining to serve under you: I rather believe his refusal will detract from the reputation he now possesses.

Mr. Wolcot showed me (as you requested) your letter to him9 suggesting the expediency of calling you & General Knox into immediate service—to aid the arrangements and operations of the department of war. I was so well pleased with the idea, and thought it so important, or rather so essential, to the formation of an army in time to afford some security to our country, that I told Mr. Wolcot I would write to the President, and urge the measure.10 Mr. W. approved. I have yet no answer. The Secy. of War was at the time indisposed: but enquiring of his chief clerk, I found that he also had written for the same purpose.11 It is since this that I received Genl. Knox’s letter before mentioned; and that gave rise to a new thought—that as he manifestly intended to decline accepting his commission, and the President would be on the spot to converse with him, the taking charge of the War Department again, might be proposed to him: for the President, I have seen, has been informed of a very general dissatisfaction in its present direction.

After the appointments of General Officers were made, but before they were known beyond Philadelphia I recd. a letter from Mr. Jay,12 expressing the same opinion respecting you which I had done to General Washington, & the same reasons (the nature of the war in which we were to be engaged) why superior talents should be sought for, without regard to rank in a former war. I therefore made Mr. Jay acquainted with my conduct in the business.13

I am, dear sir, with great respect & esteem   yr. obt. servt.

T. Pickering.

General A. Hamilton.

Augt. 22. Since writing the inclosed I have turned to Mr. Jay’s letter. His words are—“I cannot conceal from you my solicitude that the late Secy. of the Treasury may be brought forward in a manner corresponding with his talents and services. It appears to me that his former military station & character, taken in connection with his late important place in the administration, would justify measuring his rank by his merit & value.” The reason of Mr. Jay’s solicitude is thus expressed—“We shall probably have very different Generals to contend with from those which Britain sent here last war; and we should have very different ones to oppose them from several of those who then led our troops.” This, you may recollect, is the same sentiment which I expressed in my letter to General Washington which I showed you.14 In a subsequent letter Mr. Jay joined me in regretting that the terms of the nomination and appointment left any room to question your right of preceedence.15 I mentioned the point to you: but you answered, that it had been settled in the case of Baron Steuben.16 No doubt you have seen some paragraphs in the Columbian Centinel (B. Russell’s fulsome paper)17 in which it is said that Genl. Knox is next in command to Genl. Washington. And a letter from the President to the Secy. of War (in answer, I suppose, to his calling you & Knox into service) expresses that to be his opinion, and consequently “that Pinckney must rank before Hamilton”:18 but that is not the only consequence. Lee & Hand were on the same day named and approved as Major Generals;19 and if Knox & Pinckney precede you, so will the other two; for I cannot see that their being named for the provisional army can make any difference, when that army shall be raised, and are you prepared for a station so much in the rear? God forbid that such an arrangement should be adopted. But the matter will rest on “General Washington’s opinion and consent:”20 and it is for this reason, principally, that I have added this postscript, that you may take such steps with the General as you may think proper to fix you in the station which the essential interests of our country require—the station in which I conceive the General meant to place you, according to the list which he sent by McHenry to the president, and in conformity with which, you, Pinckney & Knox were named.21 I have just read the Genl’s answer22 to my letter about you; he does not hint an idea of any competition save with Pinckney. I inclose it for your perusal—& to be returned. If North23 declines, the President is “prepared to appoint another and a better.”24 Is this Harry Jackson,25 or Cobb?26 Colo. Wm. Heth of Virginia would joyfully take that office. But the appointment of A. W. White27 has grievously offended him.

Sincerely adieu!


ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress; ALS, letterpress copy, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston; copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress. The letterpress copy does not include the postscript.

1For an explanation of the contents of this letter, see the introductory note to George Washington to H, July 14, 1798.

2Letter not found.

4The offices of the United States Government had been moved to Trenton because of the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. See Oliver Wolcott, Jr., to H, August 9, 1798, note 4.

5On August 1, 1798, Pickering wrote to Henry Knox: “About a week or ten days since, Captain Donald G. Mitchell of Connecticut (son of Mr. [Stephen Mix] Mitchell who was a senator from that state and now a judge of its superior court) of the corps of artillerists and engineers,… expressed to me his wishes to join some general officer, as his aide-de-camp, and particularly mentioned you …” (copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress). On August 8, 1798, Knox replied that if he were “… to be in a situation of requiring an aide de camp, I should certainly place at your request Capt. Mitchell on the list of other applicants.… But in the present aspect of the arrangement of Genl. Officers I am apprehensive that I shall be excluded from the service” (copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress).

6Mitchell died on August 6, 1798.

8Washington to Pickering, July 11, 1798; Pickering to Washington, July 6, 1798. For this correspondence, see Pickering to H, July 16, 1798, notes 2 and 3.

10On August 8, 1798, in a letter to John Adams, Pickering proposed that “the Inspector General, and major General Knox, be called into immediate service, to aid the Secretary of War in the essential arrangements for the army to be raised” (ALS, Adams Family Papers, deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston).

11John Caldwell. See James McHenry to H, August 10, 1798.

12A copy of John Jay’s letter, dated July 18, 1798, is in the Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.

13Pickering to Jay, July 28, 1798 (copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress).

14See note 7.

15On July 26, 1798, Jay wrote to Pickering: “Hamilton’s Rank is I fear still liable to question—your Remarks on that Head certainly have weight. Such Doubts should not be left to be brought forward or not, at some future Day, according to Circumstances. To me it appears important, that the relative Rank of officers, and especially of General officers, should be decidedly ascertained known and acknowledged” (ALS, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston).

16This is apparently a reference to the fact that although in 1778 Baron von Steuben was appointed an inspector general with the rank of major general in the Continental Army, his highest previous rank had been that of captain in the Prussian Army.

17Benjamin Russell was editor and publisher of the [Boston] Columbian Centinel, a Federalist paper and a strong supporter of John Adams.

The following item appeared in the Columbian Centinel on August 11, 1798, under the heading “Vermont Brattleboro’ July 31”: “The President, with the consent of the Senate, has appointed Generals Knox, Hamilton, Lee and Morgan, Major-Generals in the army of the United States.

“The appointment of these officers reflects high honor upon the President’s discernment. They were the spirit of the army, in the war which established our Independence—who then so proper to defend it? An army of the Americans, headed by Washington, and seconded by Knox and his gallant associates, must be irresistable.” On August 18, 1798, the Columbian Centinel wrote: “Major General Knox, as we before mentioned, is the first Major General, in the permanent army of the United States.”

18Adams to McHenry, August 14, 1798 (copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress). See the introductory note to Washington to H, July 14, 1798.

20On July 4, 1798, Washington wrote to McHenry: “… the General Staff … may be considered as so many parts of the Commander in Chief. Viewing them then in this light it will readily be seen how essential it is that they should be agreeable to him” (ALS, letterpress copy, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress). On July 5, 1798, Washington again wrote to McHenry: “… The appointment of these [general officers] are important; but those of the General Staff, are all important: insomuch that if I am looked to as Commander in Chief, I must be allowed to chuse such as will be agreeable to me” (ALS, letterpress copy, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress). On August 14, 1798, Adams wrote to McHenry: “In my opinion, as the matter now stands, General Knox is legally entitled to rank next to General Washington, and no other arrangement will give satisfaction. If General Washington is of this opinion, and will consent to it, you may call him [Knox] into actual service as soon as you please…” (copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress).

22Washington to Pickering, July 11, 1798. See Pickering to H, July 16, 1798, notes 2 and 3.

23William North. See McHenry to H, July 25, 1798.

24This quotation is from the last sentence of Adams to McHenry, August 14, 1798 (copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress).

25Henry Jackson, a native of Massachusetts, was a colonel during the American Revolution.

26David Cobb of Massachusetts served as aide-de-camp to Washington from June 15, 1781, to January 7, 1783.

27Anthony Walton White. See McHenry to H, July 25, 1798, note 9.

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