George Washington Papers

[Diary entry: 8 July 1790]

Thursday 8th. Sat from 9 o’clock till after 10 for Mr. Jno. Trumbull, who was drawing a Portrait of me at full length which he intended to present to Mrs. Washington.

About Noon the Secretaries of State, and of the Treasury called upon me—the last of whom reported a communication made to him by Majr. Beckwith Aid de Camp to Lord Dorchester—Governor of Canada wch. he reduced to writing, and is as follow.

“Memorandum of the substance of a communication made on Thursday the eighth of July 1790 to the Subscriber by Major Beckwith as by direction of Lord Dorchester”

“Major Beckwith began by Stating that Lord Dorchester had directed him to make his acknowledgmts. for the politeness which had been shewn in respect to the desire he had intimated to pass by N York in his way to England; adding that the prospect of a War between Great Britain & Spain would prevent or defer the execution of his intention in that particular.”

“He next proceeded to observe that Lord Dorchester had been informed of a negotiation commenced on the other side of the Water through the Agency of Mr. Morris; mentioning as the subscriber understood principally by way of proof of Lord Dorchesters knowledge of the transaction that Mr. Morris had not produced any regular Credentials, but merely a letter from the President directed to himself, that some delays had intervened partly on account of Mr. Morris’s absence on a trip to Holland as was understood and that it was not improbable those delays & some other circumstances may have impressed Mr. Morris with an idea of backwardness on the part of the British Ministry.”

“That his Lordship however had directed him to say that an inference of this sort would not in his opinion be well founded as he had reason to believe that the Cabinet of Great Britain entertained a disposition not only towards a friendly intercourse but towards an alliance with the United States.

“Major Beckwith then proceeded to speak of the particular cause of the expected rupture between Spain & Britain observing it was one in which all Commercial Nations must be supposed to favor the views of G. Britain. That it was therefore presumed, should a War take place, that the United States would find it to be their interest to take part with G. Britain rather than with Spain.”

“Major Beckwith afterwards mentioned that Lord Dorchester had heard with great concern of some depredations committed by some Indians on our Western frontier. That he wished it to be believed that nothing of this kind had received the least countenance from him. That on the contrary he had taken every proper opportunity of inculcating upon the Indians a pacific disposition towards us; and that as soon as he had heard of the outrages lately committed he had sent a message to endeavor to prevent them. That his Lordship had understd. that the Indians alluded to were a banditti composed chiefly or in great part of Creeks or Cherokees, over whom he had no influence; intimating at the sametime that these tribes were supposed to be in connection with the Spaniards.”

“He stated in the next place that his Lordship had been informed that a Captain Hart in our Service and a Mr. Wemble and indeed some persons in the Treaty at Fort Harmer had thrown out menaces with regard to the Posts on the Frontier & had otherwise held very intemperate language; which however his Lordship considered rather as effusions of individual feelings than as effects of any instruction from authority.”

“Major Beckwith concluded with producing a letter signed Dorchester; which letter contained ideas similar to those he had expressed, though in more guarded terms and without any allusion to instructions from the British Cabinet. This letter it is recollected hints at the Non-execution of the treaty of peace on our part.”

“On the subscriber remarking the circumstances that this letter seemed to speak only the Sentiments of his Lordship Major Beckwith replied that whatever reasons there might be for that course of proceeding in the present Stage of the business, it was to be presumed that his Lordship knew too well the consequence of such a step to have taken it without a previous knowledge of the intentions of the Cabinet.”

The aspect of this business in the moment of its communication to me, appeared simply, and no other than this; We did not incline to give any satisfactory answer to Mr. Morris who was officially Commissioned to ascertain our intentions with respect to the evacuation of the Western Posts within the Territory of the United States and other matters into which he was empowered to enquire until by this unauthenticated mode we can discover whether you will enter into an Alliance with us and make Common cause against Spain. In that case we will enter into a Commercial Treaty with you & promise perhaps to fulfil what they already stand engaged to perform. However, I requested Mr. Jefferson & Colo. Hamilton, as I intend to do the Vice-President, Chief Justice & Secretary at War, to revolve this Matter in all its relations in their minds that they may be the better prepared to give me their opinions thereon in the course of 2 or three days.

The following Gentlemen dined here to day—viz—Messrs. Wingate Strong McClay, Lee, & Johnson (No. Carolina) of the Senate and Messrs. Gilman, Aimes Sturges, Schureman, Fitzsimmons, Wynkoop, Vining, Smith, Madison, Sevier, & Sumpter of the House of representatives.

portrait: See entry for 14 Jan. 1790.

George Beckwith (1753–1823), a member of a prominent Yorkshire, Eng., family, became an ensign in 1771 in the British army, achieving the rank of lieutenant in 1775, captain in 1777, and major in 1781. During the years of the American Revolution he saw extensive service in America and ended the war as aide-de-camp to Sir Guy Carleton (1724–1808). Carleton, who was raised to the peerage as the first Baron Dorchester in 1786, was made governor-in-chief of the Province of Quebec, also in 1786. When he went to Canada, Beckwith accompanied him. Between 1787 and 1790 Beckwith made four visits to the United States where he acted as an unofficial agent for Dorchester and the British ministry in acquiring information about the United States and where he carried on extensive conversations with such prominent Americans as Philip Schuyler, Alexander Hamilton, William Samuel Johnson, and John Trumbull (see JEFFERSON [1] description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends , 17:35–64).

The memorandum quoted by GW is in Hamilton’s handwriting and is in DLC:GW. Canadian officials had already learned of the impending crisis between Britain and Spain over the seizure of British ships in Nootka Sound through a letter from William Wyndham, Lord Grenville, secretary of state for home affairs, to Lord Dorchester, 6 May 1790, marked “Secret.” Grenville, who was concerned about the United States’ position, particularly in regard to the frontier posts still held by the British, wrote Dorchester that in case war should break out, “I conceive that it would by no means be impossible to turn the tide of opinion and wishes of America in our favor in case of a Contest with Spain on the business now in question. . . . The object which we might hold out to them, particularly to the Kentucke and other Settlers at the back of the old colonies, of opening the Navigation of the Mississippi to them, is one at least as important as the possession of the Forts, and perhaps it would not be difficult to shew, that the former is much more easily attainable with the assistance of Great Britain against Spain, than the latter is by their joining Spain in offensive operations against this Country” (P.R.O., C.O. 42/67, f. 93–97). Two additional letters from Grenville of the same date reiterated his concern in regard to the United States (BRYMNER description begins Douglas Brymner. Report on Canadian Archives . . . 1890. (Being an Appendix to Report of the Minister of Agriculture.). Ottawa, 1891. description ends , 1890, 131–33). Grenville also forwarded to Dorchester Gouverneur Morris’s correspondence with the duke of Leeds (see entry for 1 July 1790) with the comment that “this communication coming from Genl. Washington however vague and inexplicit it is, seems however to indicate some disposition on the part of the United States to cultivate a closer connection with this country than has hitherto subsisted since their separation from Great Britain.”

Beckwith was the logical choice as an agent to present Britain’s views unofficially and to sound out the administration on Grenville’s, and although he had only returned to Canada from the United States in May 1790, he again set out for New York. Beckwith carried with him two sets of instructions, both dated 27 June 1790. The first instructions, which Beckwith showed to Hamilton, expressed Dorchester’s hope that the difficulties between Spain and Britain would not “make any alteration in the good disposition of the United States to establish a firm friendship and Alliance with Great Britain to the Mutual advantage of both Countries; I am persuaded it can make none on the part of Great Britain, whose liberal treatment of the United States in point of Commerce sufficiently evinces her friendly disposition, notwithstanding the non execution of the Treaty on their part, which, and various misrepresentations I have always attributed to an unsettled state of their government, and of the minds of the multitude, influenced perhaps by a power not very cordial even to the United States” (P.R.O., C.O. 42/68, f. 225).

The second instructions, marked “Secret,” which the secretary of the treasury did not see, instructed Beckwith to learn as much as possible about the attitudes of both the government and people in case of war but to be cautious about carrying out Grenville’s suggestion regarding the navigation of the Mississippi as bait to westerners for a British connection: “You will be cautious in advancing anything specific on that head, but rather lead them to explain the different lines of policy, each party may have in view. . . . In general you may assert it as your own opinion, that in case of a War with Spain you see no reason why we should not assist in forwarding whatever their interests may require” (P.R.O., C.O. 42/68, f. 258–60).

The Indian depredations that Dorchester deplored may have been the attack on Maj. John Doughty’s party (see entry for 2 July 1790) or the attacks along the Scioto River (see entry for 9 July 1790). Indian raids on all the frontiers had been widespread during the spring of 1790. captain hart: Jonathan Heart (see entry for 9 July 1790). The Treaty of Fort Harmar had been negotiated 9 Jan. 1789 by Gov. Arthur St. Clair with the Wyandots (KAPPLER description begins Charles J. Kappler, ed. Indian Affairs. Laws and Treaties. 5 vols. Washington, D.C., 1903–41. description ends , 2:18–23).

William Maclay noted that this evening’s entertainment “was a great dinner, in the usual style, without any remarkable occurrences. Mrs. Washington was the only woman present” (MACLAY description begins Charles A. Beard, ed. The Journal of William Maclay: United States Senator from Pennsylvania, 1789–1791. 1927. Reprint. New York, 1965. description ends , 310).

John Sevier (1745–1815) was elected United States senator from North Carolina in 1789. Sevier in Dec. 1773 moved from his native Virginia to the North Carolina frontier and settled on the Nolichucky River in an area which in 1796 became a part of the state of Tennessee. During the Revolution he led a force of frontiersmen at King’s Mountain and in 1781 and 1782 led several expeditions against Indians who were raiding the frontier. In the 1780s he was governor of the short-lived State of Franklin and deeply involved in the Muscle Shoals speculation. From 1796 to 1801 and 1803 to 1809 he served as governor of Tennessee.

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