George Washington Papers

To George Washington from David Humphreys, 16 November 1786

From David Humphreys

New Haven [Conn.] Novr 16th 1786

My dear General

I have written you twice within these few days, and agreeably to the promise in my last, I have now the honor of enclosing papers containing the state of facts respecting Captn Asgill’s confinement—I have no fear but that the truth will become generally known, I hope it is digested & printed in a manner that will be acceptable to you.1 I would have sent you several of the late papers from the same press, which contained performances written by Mr Trumbull, Mr Barlow & myself, in a style & manner for wit & humour, I believe, somewhat superior to common News-paper publications: but the demand has been so uncommonly great for those papers that there is not a single one to be obtained. In some instances, the force of ridicule has been found of more efficacy than the force of argument, against the Antifederalists & Advocates for Mobs & Conventions. It was pleasant enough to observe how some leading Men, of erroneous politics, were stung to the soul, by shafts of satire.2

I perceive Sir Guy Carleton, who is made Lord Dorchester, has just arrived in Canada, with Billy Smith for Cheif Justice of that Province: this does not appear to forebode any great good to us.3 It continues to be suggested in conversation & print, that Emissaries are employed to scatter the seeds of discord among the citizens of the United States—tho’ I do not think the British too virtuous or liberal for such conduct, I cannot say that I have seen sufficient evidence to convince me that their Cabinet has adopted that system—it is not improbable, however, that officious Individuals, while they gratified their own private revenge, should have thought this work would not be disagreeable to their Government, even if unsanctioned by it.

The Assembly of Massachusetts seem disposed to redress all the real & even pretended greivances, under which their Constituents are supposed to labour; after which, it is hoped & expected they will adopt a line of conduct, pointedly vigorous & decided. On the strength of this expectation or something else, the Governor already talks very big.

I am informed that Genl Harry Jackson, is appointed Commandant of the Continental Regt to be raised in that State, & that Gibbs is appointed one of the Majors, I have not heard who are subjects of other appointments.4

The Rendezvous of my Regt is at Hartford, where I may probably be the greater part of the Winter.5 Tho. I shall not have the felicity of eating Christmas Pies at Mount Vernon, I hope & trust my former exploits in that way will not be forgotten—To the two Mrs Washingtons, to my friends the Major & Mr Lear be pleased to present me affectionately. At one time or another I hope to have the satisfaction of testifying personally how much & how ardently, I have the honor to be Your sincere friend & Humble Servant

D. Humphreys


1Humphreys’ letters are dated 1 and 9 November. For GW’s correspondence in 1786 regarding the Asgill affair, see James Tilghman to GW, 26 May 1786, n.3. Humphreys’ essay, “The Conduct of General Washington Respecting the Confinement of Captain Asgill placed in the True Point of Light,” was published on this day, 16 Nov., in the New-Haven Gazette and the Connecticut Magazine. Humphreys’ Asgill piece was reprinted in January and February 1787 in the Columbian Magazine: or Monthly Miscellany (1:205–9, 253–55). Humphreys’ letter to the printers, dated at New Haven on 6 Nov., which serves to introduce the excerpts from the letters and papers sent to him by GW, reads: “When I was in England, last winter, I heard suggestions that the treatment captain Asgill experienced, during his confinement, was unneccessarily rigorous, and as such reflected discredit on the Americans. Having myself belonged to the family of the commander in chief, at that period, and having been acquainted with the minutest circumstance relative to that unpleasant affair, I had no hesitation in utterly denying that there was a particle of veracity in those illiberal suggestions. On my return to Mount Vernon, this summer, I mentioned the subject to general Washington. He shewed me a communication from London, addressed to col. Tilghman, which, arriving just after the death of that most amiable character, had been forwarded by his father to the general—by the latter I was also indulged with a sight of his answer. I desired to be permitted to take copies of these papers, together with transcripts from all the original letters and orders respecting captain Asgill. Of these I am now possessed.

“Anxious that the circulation of truth should be co-extensive with the falshoods which have been assiduously propagated; and desirous that the facts may be placed in a true point of view before the eyes of the present age, and even of posterity, I have determined, without consulting any one, to charge myself with their publication. It is for this purpose, I request you to insert the inclosed documents, for the authenticity of which I hold myself responsible to the public.”

2Humphreys, Joel Barlow (1754–1812), and John Trumbull (1750–1831), known as the Connecticut Wits, were in 1786 and 1787 publishing their satiric prose and verse, The Anarchiad, in the New-Haven Gazette and the Connecticut Magazine.

3William Smith (1728–1793), the New York Loyalist who was a distinguished lawyer, legal scholar, and historian of provincial New York, left for England when the British evacuated New York in 1783. His appointment as chief justice of Canada is dated 1 Sept. 1785. Smith held the office until his death.

4Col. Henry Jackson, brevetted brigadier general in the Massachusetts forces in 1783, was left in command of the remnants of the Continental army at West Point when Maj. Gen. Henry Knox departed for Boston in January 1784. See Henry Knox to GW, 3 Jan. 1784, and notes. Caleb Gibbs (c.1750–1818) of Marblehead, Mass., was captain of GW’s guards from 1776 to 1780; he remained in the Continental army until June 1784 as major of the 1st American Regiment under Colonel Jackson. The only role Jackson and his force played during Shays’ Rebellion was to protect the federal arsenal at Springfield after any danger to it had dissipated.

Index Entries