George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Knox, 30 March 1792

From Henry Knox

War-department, March 30th 1792.


I have the honor to submit you, an order of a committee, to inquire into the failure of the late expedition.1 As I do not conceive myself authorized to deliver these papers of myself, I beg your permission, that they may be laid before the committee, if you should see no impropriety therein, together with major general St Clair’s letters; or such others, as the committee may request.2 I have the honor to be Sir, with the highest respect, Your most obedient servt

H. Knox
secy of War


1As early as 2 Feb., Congressman John Steele of North Carolina made a motion that the House of Representatives appoint a committee to inquire into and report on the number of Indians currently in arms against the United States, “the causes of the delay of the Federal Army on the Ohio; the scarcity of provisions and forage; the quality of the powder; and such other causes as may have been, in the judgment of the committee, conducive to the late unfortunate defeat.” This motion apparently was tabled, and on 27 Mar., William Branch Giles of Virginia introduced a resolution “That the President . . . be requested to institute an inquiry into the causes of the late defeat of the army under the command of Major General St. Clair; and also into the causes of the detentions or delays which are suggested to have attended the money, clothing, provisions, and military stores, for the use of the said army, and into such other causes as may, in any manner, have been productive of the said defeat.” After debating the resolution’s practicality and constitutionality and defeating a motion to commit it to a select committee, the House agreed to vote on it in two sections. The resolution that the president be requested to institute an inquiry was defeated by fourteen votes. The subsequent resolution that a House committee be appointed to investigate the cause of the expedition’s failure passed by a vote of 44 to 10. Thomas FitzSimons was appointed chairman, and Giles, Steele, John Francis Mercer, John Vining, Abraham Clark, and Theodore Sedgwick were named to the committee (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., 356, 490–94).

FitzSimons’s order to Knox of 30 Mar. reads: “The Committee appointed to enquire into the causes of the failure of the late expedition under Major General St Clair, have directed me to transmit to you a resolution entered into by them this day. ‘That the Secretary for the Department of War furnish this Committee with the official letters, received by him from the late General [Richard] Butler, while employed in the late expedition: And the official correspondence of the Quarter Master while employed in that service’” (DLC:GW). Revolutionary War veteran Samuel Hodgdon (1745–1824) served as quartermaster general of the U.S. Army from March 1791 until April 1792.

2Thomas Jefferson wrote in a memorandum that after receiving Knox’s letter of this day with its enclosed resolution, GW called a meeting of Knox, Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Edmund Randolph on 31 Mar. “to consult, merely because it was the first example, & he wished that so far as it shd become a precedent, it should be rightly conducted. he neither acknoleged nor denied, nor even doubted the propriety of what the house were doing, for he had not thought upon it, nor was acquainted with subjects of this kind. he could readily conceive there might be papers of so secret a nature as that they ought not to be given up. we were not prepared & wished time to think & enquire.” Randolph and the heads of the executive departments again met with the president on 2 April, when they “were of one mind 1. that the house was an inquest, & therefore might institute enquiries. 2. that they might call for papers generally. 3. that the Executive ought to communicate such papers as the public good would permit, & ought to refuse those the disclosure of which would injure the public. consequently were to exercise a discretion. 4. that neither the Committee nor House had a right to call on the head of a department, who & whose papers were under the Presidt alone, but that the Committee shd instruct their chairman to move the house to address the President.” Jefferson noted that Hamilton “agr[ee]d with us in all these points except as to the power of the house to call on heads of departments. he observed that as to his department the act constituting it had made it subject to Congress in some points; but he thought himself not so far subject as to be obliged to produce all papers they might call for. they might demand secrets of a very mischeivous nature.” He added in square brackets: “here I tho’t he began to fear they would go to examining how far their own members & other persons in the government had been dabbling in stocks, banks &c. and that he probably would chuse in this case to deny their power, & in short he endeavd to place himself subject to the house when the Executive should propose what he did not like, & subject to the Executive when the house shd propose any thing disagreeable.” Jefferson reported that the president and his department heads and the attorney general “finally agreed to speak separatim to the members of the committee & bring them by persuasion into the right channel it was agreed in this case that there was not a paper which might not be properly produced, that copies only should be sent, with an assurance—that if they should desire it, a clerk should attend with the originals to be verified by themselves” (Jefferson’s Memoranda of Consultations with the President, 11 Mar.–9, April 1792, DLC: Jefferson Papers).

GW returned the enclosed resolution to Knox on 4 April and requested him to provide the House committee with the requisite papers. See also GW to Hamilton, 6 April (second letter).

Index Entries