Thomas Jefferson Papers

Enclosure: Draft Message on Western Defense, 16 December 1791

Draft Message on Western Defense

Gentlemen of the Senate

The pacific measures which were adopted for establishing peace between the U.S. and the North Western Indians, having proved ineffectual, and the military operations which thereon became necessary, tho’ successful in the first instances, being otherwise in the last as was stated to you in my communication of instant, it behoves us to look forward in time to the further protection of our Western citizens.

I see no reason to doubt that operations of force must still be pursued. I have therefore instructed the Secretary at war to prepare, for your information, a statement of the transactions of his department material to this object. These are now laid before you. While they serve to shew that the plan which was adopted for employing the public force and wealth was such as promised reasonably a more effectual issue, they will enable you also to judge of the provision which it may be now be expedient to make for the ensuing year. An estimate of the Secretary at war on this subject is now laid before you.

PrC of Dft (DLC); entirely in TJ’s hand.

When news of Arthur St. Clair’s stunning defeat at the hands of the Miami and the Wabash on 4 Nov. 1791 reached Philadelphia on 8 Dec. 1791, it touched off a heated public debate over the Washington administration’s policy toward the Indians in the Northwest Territory. Washington officially notified Congress on 12 Dec. 1791 of this shocking debacle, in which 900 members of St. Clair’s 1,400-man force of regulars and militia were either killed or wounded; and he promised to make a “further communication … of all such matters as shall be necessary to enable the Legislature to judge of the future measures which it may be proper to pursue” (Fitzpatrick, Writings description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, Washington, 1931–1944, 39 vols. description ends , xxxi, 442). In accordance with this promise, Secretary of War Henry Knox drew up two statements for submission to Congress, both dated 26 Dec. 1791. The first described the preparations made by the administration for St. Clair’s expedition, and the second set forth a new plan of operations that called for increasing the size of the regular army from two to five regiments as well as negotiating with the disaffected tribes. After discussing these statements with TJ and other members of his cabinet, Washington submitted them to Congress on 11 Jan. 1792 with a covering letter that reflected the spirit, though not the exact substance, of the draft message by TJ printed above.

The administration’s proposal to increase the size of the army to five regiments gave rise to a spirited exchange of views in the House of Representatives that divided the members along sectional lines. New England representatives opposed the projected increase, denouncing the Indian war in the Northwest as unjust, pointing to encroachments by white settlers on tribal lands as the cause of hostilities, and calling for negotiations with the Indians. In response, congressmen from the middle and southern states attributed the war to unjustified Indian attacks on innocent white settlers, advocated the resumption of hostilities with the Miami and the Wabash, and thus favored the proposed increase. Opponents of the administration also argued that regular troops were far inferior to militia as Indian fighters, while supporters retorted that militia troops were too undisciplined to wage an effective campaign against the Indians. Despite opposition arguments, the House passed a bill on 1 Feb. 1792 authorizing the President to raise five regiments of regulars. The Senate followed suit later in the month only after Washington agreed to change the army high command and enter into peace negotiations with the Indians before embarking on another campaign (Washington to TJ, 18 and 27 Dec. 1791; ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1832–1861, 38 vols. description ends , Indian Affairs, I, 139–202; Annals description begins Annals of the Congress of the United States: The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … Compiled from Authentic Materials by Joseph Gales, Senior, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1834–1856, 42 vols. All editions are undependable and pagination varies from one printing to another. The edition cited here has this caption on both recto and verso pages: “History of Congress.” Another printing, with the same titlepage, has “Gales & Seatons History” on verso and “of Debates in Congress” on recto pages. Those using the latter printing will need to employ the date or, where it is lacking, to add approximately 52 to the page numbers of Annals as cited in this volume. description ends , iii, 337–54; Richard H. Kohn, Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 1783–1802 [New York, 1975], p. 111–26).

TJ was deeply disappointed by this turn of events. Upon first learning of St. Clair’s defeat, he expressed the wish that this setback would lead to a major change in the administration’s approach to the war with the western tribes (TJ to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., 11 Dec. 1791). TJ’s hope that henceforth Washington would rely less on the regular army and more on the militia in waging war against the Indians stemmed not only from his belief that militiamen were more skillful Indian fighters than regulars but also from his conviction that a large standing army was a potential threat to American liberties and his apprehension that such a force would swell the public debt and thus contribute to the perpetuation of the Hamiltonian fiscal policies to which he was now so ardently opposed (see TJ to Charles Carroll, 15 Apr. 1791; TJ to James Monroe, 17 Apr. 1791). Yet, perhaps out of deference to the far greater military experience of the President and the Secretary of War, TJ never openly opposed the military plans of Washington and Knox in the official councils of government. In private, however, he was less restrained. “You think that a regular, disciplined, military force is proper for the defence of this Country,” an anonymous Federalist who was apparently acquainted with TJ wrote to Washington shortly after the President had submitted Knox’s plan for an enlarged army to the House of Representatives. “Every man who understands the interest of this Country thinks so too. When you ask the S[ecretary] of S[tate], he affects great humility, and says he is not a judge of military matters. Behind your back he reviles wth. the greatest asperity your military measures and ridicules the idea of employing any regular Troops. Militia he says ought alone to be depended on” (Anonymous to Washington, ca. 20 Jan. 1792, DLC: Washington Papers). Thus, TJ’s dissatisfaction with the federal government’s military tactics in the Northwest Territory was but one more reflection of the deepening political fissures in the cabinet as Washington’s first administration entered its final year.

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