George Washington Papers

Enclosure: To John Adams, 27 August 1790


To John Adams

SecretUnited States [New York] August 27th 1790

Provided the dispute between Great Britain and Spain should come to the decision of Arms, from a variety of circumstances (individually unimportant and inconclusive, but very much the reverse when compared and combined) there is no doubt in my mind, that New Orleans and the Spanish Posts above it on the Mississippi will be among the first attempts of the former, and that the reduction of them will be undertaken by a combined operation from Detroit.1

The Consequences of having so formidable and enterprising a people as the British on both our flanks and rear, with their navy in front, as they respect our Western settlements which may be seduced thereby, as they regard the Security of the Union and its commerce with the West Indies, are too obvious to need enumeration.

What then should be the answer of the Executive of the United States to Lord Dorchester, in case he should apply for permission to march Troops through the Territory of the said States from Detroit to the Mississippi?

What notice ought to be taken of the measure if it should be undertaken without leave, which is the most probable proceeding of the two?

Mr Adams2 will oblige the President of the United States by giving his opinion in writing on the above statement.

Go: Washington

LS, MHi: Adams Papers; LB, DLC:GW.

Rumors were rampant during the Nootka Sound crisis that British attacks against the obvious targets of Spanish New Orleans, the Mississippi country, and the Floridas were imminent as British secret agents collected intelligence on those areas. John Brown wrote to Harry Innes on 10 July 1790, quoting reports of a British expedition about to be launched from Jamaica. The president, however, was certain that the offensive would originate in the northwest posts that the British had refused to evacuate according to the terms of the peace treaty (see n.1 below). In fact, however, the British ministry had informed Lord Dorchester in Quebec in May 1790 that no direct attacks would likely be mounted from British territory. Instead, the British administration made naval preparations while pursuing the possibility of supporting the operations of such dissident Spanish colonists as Francisco de Miranda and such renegades as William Bowles (see Turner, “English Policy toward America in 1790–91,” description begins Frederick J. Turner. “English Policy Toward America in 1790–1791.” American Historical Review 7 (1901–2): 706–35. description ends 716, n.1, 721–23; Manning, “Nootka Sound Controversy,” description begins William Ray Manning. The Nootka Sound Controversy. Washington, D.C., 1905. In Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1904, pages 279–478. description ends 413–14).

1GW apparently concluded in early July, when he heard rumors that Benedict Arnold was at one of the northwest posts, that the British were considering military operations against Spanish Louisiana. On 5 July 1790 Gen. William Irvine told the president that he had heard in Pittsburgh that Arnold was at Detroit mustering the Canadian militia. GW wrote, “This had occasioned much Speculation in those parts—and with many other circumstances—though trifling in themselves led strongly to a conjecture that the British had some design on the Spanish settlements on the Mississipi and of course to surround these United States” (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:86). Less than a week later Thomas Jefferson also mentioned the Arnold rumor and noted that other unstated “symptoms indicate a general design on all Louisiana and the two Floridas” (Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 17:25). Secretary of War Henry Knox discussed the origins of the Arnold rumor in a 20 July 1790 letter to Arthur St. Clair: “Reports have been circulated here that Arnold was at Detroit about the 1st of June, and that he had twice reviewed the militia. Whether this be true or false, it is said to have arisen from a Mr. Duncan, of Fort Pitt, who was here, and who is said to have received the intelligence from Detroit. Whatever designs the English may have on the Spanish possessions, it is hardly to be presumed that they would march or attempt a passage through the territories of the United States, without first asking leave. I have mentioned these circumstances in confidence, that you and Brigadier-General Harmar may, by comparing them with other things, endeavor to form a judgment of events” (Smith, St. Clair Papers, description begins William Henry Smith, ed. The St. Clair Papers. The Life and Public Services of Arthur St. Clair: Soldier of the Revolutionary War; President of the Continental Congress; and Governor of the North-Western Territory with his Correspondence and other Papers. 2 vols. Cincinnati, 1882. description ends 2:149–50). It was unlikely that Arnold was at Detroit in June 1790. He moved from England to St. John, New Brunswick, in 1785–86 and was involved in several court actions there in the spring of 1790.

2According to the letter-book copy, GW sent the same queries to the heads of the state, treasury, and war departments, as well as to John Jay, on the same day he wrote to Adams. No evidence exists that he wrote to Attorney Gen. Edmund Randolph on the matter. Only the receivers’ copies sent to Hamilton (GW to Hamilton, 27 Aug. 1790, LS, DLC: Hamilton Papers) and Jefferson (GW to Jefferson [second letter], 27 Aug. 1790, LS, DLC: Thomas Jefferson Papers) have been found, and only the closing paragraph of each differs from GW’s letter to the vice-president. Jefferson and John Jay replied the following day, Knox and Adams on 29 Aug. 1790, and Hamilton, two and a half weeks later, after GW had already left for Mount Vernon (see Jay to GW, 28 Aug. 1790, Jefferson to GW, 28 Aug. 1790, Adams to GW, 29 Aug. 1790, Knox to GW, 29 Aug. 1790, and Hamilton to GW, 15 Sept. 1790).

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