George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Benjamin Hawkins, 10 February 1792

From Benjamin Hawkins

Senate Chamber [Philadelphia] 10 Feby 1792


Prompted by the free and candid manner you expressed yourself on political affairs to me some days past, I shall without reserve, communicate to you the reasons which enduced me yesterday to vote for striking out the second section in the bill which I enclose to you.1 That I may be understood throughout I must take a retrospect on indian affairs for some years back. During the war we acknowledged the Indians as brothers, told them of our difficulties, and embarrassments arising from our contest with Great Britain, assured them of our disposition tho’ unable to furnish them such comforts as they had been accustomed to receive, urged them to be patient, and declared that when success crowned our efforts, they should be partakers of our good fortune: They were then acknowledged to be possessors of the soil on which they lived.

At the close of the war, being anxiously desirous of paying to our officers and soldiers, as much of their well earned dues, as was apparently within the view of the government we seem to have forgotten altogether the rights of the Indians. They were treated as tenants at will, we seized on their lands, and made a division of the same as possessing allodial right, alloted certain portions to the indians for hunting ground, and did not even think of offering them compensation for any claims they might pretend to have to those reserved for other purposes of the government. This doctrine it might be expected would be disliked by the independent Tribe⟨s⟩. It was so, and was complained of by them. (It is the source of their hostility.) However, we persevered in this doctrine, till the Treaty at Fort Harmar in 1788. At that period the government pursued different measures. The boundaries were recognised and established by a principle of purchase. Some of the now hostile Indians complained of the conduct of their brethern in ceding their lands these complaints reached the government, and Governor St Clair, was ordered to remedy the defects, in some future treaty. But they would not attend to his invitation and assigned as a reason that he only wanted a relinquishment of their claims to their lands, and that they were unwilling to part with them. It was natural to expect that as from our conduct they conceived themselves deprived of what they deemed most precious, that they would be in a state of hostility against us, and the more so, as the British in Canada were ready enough to misrepresent all our conduct, to furnish them with military stores, and for some purposes arising from State or commercial jealousy, to encourage them.

I read at the last session of Congress the painful detail of Harmars expedition, and the measures proposed by the Secretary at War, to retrieve the honor of our military reputation and to restore peace. I acquiesced in the measures proposed, not because I thought them right, but because I was told that you approved of them and that they would give efficacy to some pacific plans, you had in contemplation. General Knox told the committee of the Senate, that the President had it in view to bring about a peace by other means than coercive—General Schuyler and some others declared they would converse freely with you and could point out how peace could be obtained without the further effusion of blood. Since this, I know of no efforts made by the executive to enduce the indians to come to an accommodation previously to the last defeat, except that of Gamelin which was a feeble one, that of Proctors the Cornplanter and one other, which failed from unforeseen difficulties. I thought and still think the means of communicating with them are abundant, at Vincents at Kiskaskia and even in Canada, There are French, the favourites of these people, and friendly to us—while we contemplate the going into their country, we may bid adieu to peace, their attachment to their native soil is such that they will part with it but with their lives. The Miami may be convenient to us, but ruin to them, to part with it, they may be circumscribed for aught I know with the western Indians and Canada, as the six nations are by their neighbours, and have no place of their own to retreat to.

I shall make no remark on the defeat of the 4th of november. You are a military Judge. I will only offer as my opinion that the indians did not nor cannot exceed twelve hundred effective warriors. As soon as the military arrangements were before the Senate, I determined to examine more accurately than formerly what was proper for me to do. I applied to the Secretary at War for information on two points, first whether the plan sent in was the result of your opinion, or of that of the war office. and secondly whether if it was committed, and the committee applied for your opinion, it was likely you would give it. I understood his reply to the first to be that it was the result of his reflections submited to you and by you to Congress. And as to the second he thought you would not like to give an Opinion. I then determined to exercise my own. I have a great respect for the War officer, but he appears to me to be anxiously desirous of having a considerable standing military force, all his views in my estimation tend to that end. He is not alone in that opinion—we have some in the Senate, who say that such an establishment are necessary, nay more indespensable to the preservation of liberty. To a disposition of this sort, I attribute the feeble efforts made to purchase a peace, Those at the head of affairs to the Westward were for war, all who are dependent on the department are for war, this is their harvest and the indians are to this moment wholly unacquainted with the real disposition of our government.

From the best view of our situation to my understanding, I am for compleating the present establishment, adding the cavalry mentioned in the bill, and making adequate provision for such effective militia, as may be called out, and enabling the Executive to employ such indians as are friendly to us, and willing to aid us. The present establishment and cavalry, brought all of them for the occasion to a point aided by suitable militia, and the friendly indians under an officer of activity will accomplish every wish I have on the subject which I confess are not many, I am for peace, I am for the establishment of posts, not in their country but our own. As long as we attempt to go into their country or to remain thus, we shall be at war. Our Finances are unequal to the expensive establishments contemplated by some, we can with the force mentioned gain by Victory, or purchase a peace, We should be to blaim to run any further risk, of being insulted by the British, If they will not give up the posts They will not quietly suffer an establishment in the neighbourhood of them, We are unable to take them, and it is, thus circumstanced, better for us to be passive for the present.

I beg you to be persuaded sir, that altho I write thus freely to you, it is to you only, That I hold it unbecoming in myself to write or speak, any thing that may lessen the respect, due to the government and every officer of it.2 I have the honor to be, most respectfully, sir, your obedient humble servt

Benjamin Hawkins


1U.S. Senator Benjamin Hawkins apparently enclosed a copy of “An Act for making farther and more effectual Provision for the Protection of the Frontiers of the United States,” which the House of Representatives had passed on 1 Feb. 1792, and which the Senate read for a second time on 9 February. Hawkins and senators Stephen R. Bradley, Pierce Butler, William Few, Theodore Foster, James Gunn, Richard Henry Lee, James Monroe, Moses Robinson, Roger Sherman, Joseph Stanton, Jr., Caleb Strong, and Paine Wingate voted to expunge the second section of the bill, which provided for the administration’s desired addition of three regiments to the regular Army for three years or the duration of the Indian war, whichever proved shortest. This enlargement of the army was a prerequisite to the administration’s plan for a new expedition against the hostile tribes in the Northwest Territory. Twelve senators opposed the removal of that section: Richard Bassett, George Cabot, Charles Carroll, Philemon Dickinson, Oliver Ellsworth, John Henry, Ralph Izard, Samuel Johnston, John Langdon, Robert Morris, George Read, and John Rutherfurd. The bill then was referred to a committee consisting of Strong, Gunn, Monroe, Bradley, and Ellsworth. Of these committee members only Ellsworth supported the administration’s position on the second section when Hawkins wrote this letter (Annals of Congress description begins Joseph Gales, Sr., comp. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature. 42 vols. Washington, D.C., 1834–56. description ends , 2d Cong., 1st sess., 84).

2Hawkins’s views on the Indian conflict in the Northwest Territory were those of a well-informed observer, as he had negotiated treaties with the Creek and Cherokee for the Continental Congress in 1785. GW drafted notes apparently for a reply to Hawkins, but neither the receiver’s copy nor the letter-book copy of that letter has been found. GW’s undated notes, which he probably made before discussing the Indian war with Hawkins, read: “Errors of Governmt towards the Indians.

Have not these been repaired by the subsequent treaties, & purchases from those who claimed the Soil?

Some of the tribes it is said would not attend the Treaty at Fort Harmer, because they expected a relinquishment of their right to the land wd be demanded.

May it not rather be said, that while they could War with impunity, they were better pleased, and found it more profitable to plunder, than to hunt, especially as they were stimulated to the first by the B. Traders, & the withholding of the Western Posts from the U. States.

But, we are involved in actual war! Is it just? or it unjust?

Mr H——cannot believe fully in the latter because he is for providing, in part, the means for carrying it on.

Is this to be done by offensive, or defensive operations?

Defensive ones, I say & I speak it boldly from experience, & from the nature of things, is not only impracticable against such an enemy, but the expence attending it would be ruinous both to our finances & frontier settlements.

If offensive measures are to be carried on, must not troops advance into the the enemy’s Country? What possible objection then can there be to the establishing of Posts there, when these Posts answer the double purposes of annoyance & security?

Cannot these Posts, if Peace should be concluded, be either demolished? or retained merely for the protection of our trade with these people, & to restrain settlements on the Indian lands? without which it would be no easy matter. this, experience has proved. & Mr H——is not to be told that the Miami Village is a considerable distance from the B. Garrison at Detroit; what cause then for alarm.

True it is, pacific overtures, were to have preceeded hostile measures last Campaign, and as true it is they did so. Though all the avenues through which they were intended could not be opened, yet enough were opened to inform the Indians of the disposition of the government towards them & the obstacles in the others are strong evidences of the difficulties this government have to encounter.

The Kiskaskies is a circuitous, if not a dangerous rout by which to communicate with the Indians, with whom we are at War.

The Canadian French—subject to G. B. are not to be relied upon, unless particular character⟨s⟩ could be selected, & that is hardly to be done with certainty & precision.

The defeat of the 4th of November may be ascribed to several causes—perhaps to none, more justly than to the short enlistment of part of the force. Mr H——’s ideas & mine with respect to the force⟨,⟩ the composition of the Troops, and the time for which they are to be engaged, differ very widely indeed—for &ca reasons to be assigned.

The number of hostile Indians, according to Mr H——, is under rated. The estimate last year was 1200 when confined to the Miami and Wabash Tribes—now we have good reasons to believe that the Delawares, Wyendots & others were in the action with Genl St Clair.

Plan of the Secretary of War having passed thro’ the hands of the P——& remaining in them (as will appear by a recurrence to dates) ten or more days, is a strong presumption of its having been considered & approved by him.

Motives of delicacy have uniformly restrained the P——from introducing any topick which relates to Legislative matters, to members of either house of Congress, lest it should be suspected that he wished to influence the question before it.

A Committee from either house, would in his opinion (so far as the business related to legislative matters) have been new, and embarrassing. If it did not mean to be governed by the sentiments which were drawn from the P——why ask his opinion, as the official application for, and disregard of them, could not fail to wound his feelings.

A free communication to a friend, or any matter depending, when asked, he would have no scruple to make.

The Sentiments of members of Senate, or their views, are unknown to the P——& what may be the object of the Secretary of War, & others he knows not; his own are not concealed—nor can he see more danger in raising men for 3 years, than for 3 months, when withholding their pay & subsistence will discharge them at any time—but he can see an immense difference between the advantages of the one over the other. They are too numerous and self-evident to need detail—a few only will suffice—short enlistments will, nay must have an incontroulable influence upon all the operations—Long enlistments enable one to take advantage of time & circumstances. In the first case, before men become acquainted with their dutys, or the Service they are destined for, their term expires; and there is to be a second edition of them. In the other case they grow more valuable every month, and at half the expence of new men. In the first case too it is impossible [to] retain a man an hour beyond the term of his engagement. In the other he is bound for three years & may be discharg’d in three months or three days if the Service will admit of it.

No man wishes less than the P——to see a standg army established; but if Congress will not Enact a proper Militia law (not such a Milk & water think as I expect to see if I ever see any) Defence, and the Garrisons will always require some Troops. It has ever been my opinion that a select Militia properly trained might supercede the necessity for these but I despair on that head” (ADf, DLC:GW).

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