Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Steuben, 10 March 1781

To Steuben

In Council March 10th. 1781.


Since writing my letter of this day’s date, yours of yesterday has come to hand. The orders to the Counties which were to reinforce General Muhlenberg were that their detachments should be with him ‘Capos;on the fifth or at farthest the sixth’. On receipt of the Letter of the 8th. informing us of the almost total deficiency of New-Kent, we ordered 164 men from Chesterfield and 187 from Dinwiddie to be immediately assembled and marched to General Muhlenberg’s head-quarters. We can only be answerable for the orders we give, and not for their execution. If they are disobeyed from obstinacy of spirit or want of coercion in the laws it is not our fault. We have done what alone remained for us to do in such case. We have ordered other Militia from other Counties.1

The Quarter-master applied to us on the subject of Horses required. He was furnished with impressing powers. He again applied for Militia to aid him in the execution of the powers. We did not think proper to resign ourselves and our Country implicitly to the demands of a Quarter-master, but thought we had some right of Judgment left to us. We knew that an armed force to impress horses was as unnecessary as it was new. The fact has been that our Citizens have been so far from requiring an armed force for this purpose, that they have parted with their Horses too easily by delivering them to every man who said he was riding on public business and assumed a right of impressing. When therefore the militia have on their hands a sufficiency of real Calls to duty, we did not think it proper to harrass them in Cases where we had reason to suspect they were not wished by the Quarter-master as Militia,1 but as servants. It was mentioned to the Quarter-master that in our opinion he could and should do but little in this neighbourhood and that of Petersburg, which had been drained by constant impresses; nevertheless we furnished him with blank powers to be exercised where he pleased. I have laid your letter before the Assembly according to your desire.

I have the honor to be with very great respect Sir your most obedt. humble servt.,

Th: Jefferson

RC (NHi); in a clerk’s hand with complimentary close and signature in TJ’s hand; endorsed: “Governor Jefferson 10 March Recvd 11th.” FC (Vi).

See TJ to R. H. Lee of this date and references there. It is clear from Steuben’s peremptory orders to Claiborne of 10 Mch. (enclosed in Claiborne’s to TJ of 11 Mch. q.v.) that TJ’s stand, which obviously was based on his concept of militia and on his fear of the dangers inherent in the system of impressment, could not prevent militia officers from giving aid to quartermasters when they so desired. Evidence of this is to be found in a letter dated at Petersburg 11 Mch. 1781 and addressed to a colonel of militia (unidentified), which reads in part as follows: “I received directions a few days ago to Have Imprest for the use of Baron Stuben Seventy Horses. I have usd my Every Effort but am Yet far Short of the Number wanted having No proper Men to assist Me. Mjr. Claiborne has directed me to apply to the Nearest Commanding Officer for assistance … therefore Be kind enough to send me a good Sergt: and Six active [Men?]. By the Inclosd youll see I have sadels as well as horses to git the same way. The people I am shore will fight for there Saddels as they must afterwards ride bare backt” (Vi; signed “Geo: Elliott ADQMG”).

1This passage was not underscored in FC. It is possible, therefore, that Steuben or an aide-de-camp may have done so.

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