George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Knox, 18 June 1794

From Henry Knox

War department June 18. 1794


I have the honor of submitting to you an answer which was transmitted by the post on Monday the 16 to Captain Aylet Lee, and a copy of which was at the same time transmitted to Governor Henry Lee, who had written upon the subject.1

An answer shall be prepared for Mr Anderson and Mr Pollock by your return.2

An answer was yesterday received at 3. oClock P.M. by Mr Dandridge from Governor Mifflin dated the 14th instant—being a lengthy explanatory and justificatory letter respecting his Conduct in the Presque Isle business—a suitable reply will be made in order to avoid controversy.3 I have the honor to be with perfect respect Your obedient Servant.

H. Knox


1Cavalry captain William Aylett Lee had been cashiered by a court-martial in February and was seeking reinstatement. On 17 June, GW had sent to Knox "for consideration" a letter from Lee "on the subject of his dismissal from the army" (JPP description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed. The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797. Charlottesville, Va., 1981. description ends , 310). Knox wrote Lee that "Upon your first application a strong desire was excited in the breast of the President to restore you to your standing in the army," but action was delayed pending arrival of the court-martial proceedings, which were received on 13 June. As Lee was "by a legal sentence entirely divested of military rank or connexion with the Army," he could not be reinstated "without the consent of those Officers of the Cavalry whose rank would have been effected thereby." As those officers had not "joined in the petition to Major General Wayne," the attorney general was asked "whether the power vested in the President by the Constitution of pardoning Offences was applicable to this case. His opinion was in the negative—The case being thus circumstanced your reinstatement in the same corps appears to transcend the just powers of the President and therefore notwithstanding the favorable dispositions could not take place." However, Knox added, "In case of new corps being raised your application to the President would be received and candidly considered" (DLC:GW).

The correspondence with Virginia governor Henry Lee, a second cousin of William A. Lee, has not been identified.

2For discussion of this, see Knox to GW, 17 May, and notes 1 and 2 to that document.

3Knox replied to Thomas Mifflin on 21 June, noting that because the letter had arrived after GW’s departure for Mount Vernon, the reply could not be made "under his immediate direction." However, Knox offered "some explanatory observations . . . in a spirit, that will accord with what I know to be a primary rule of Conduct on his part—the steady cultivation of harmony and cordiality between the officers of the general and particular governments." He explained that the sentence in his letter of 14 June "which has been particularly adverted to" about circumstances having "already occurred" that might "have matured the evil beyond the possibility of a remedy" was "a mere general reflection on the probable or possible tendency of the circumstances which had occurred without intention of passing an opinion on the motives to, or reasons for, the measures which had been pursued by the Government of Pennsylvania either in a legislative or executive capacity. Among the circumstances alluded to was the unfortunate coincidence of the murder of one of the Indians of the Six Nations; an ingredient which was mentioned in my letter of the 24. of May."

Knox added that "there is no evidence in the possession of this Office which establishes the fact of a previously hostile disposition of the Six Nations," and then he addressed Mifflin’s complaint about the suspension of the Presque Isle settlement: "Your Excellency appears to lay stress on the lateness of the communication of the Presidents opinion as to the expediency of suspending the proposed establishment.

"In proportion to the validity of the considerations, which support the right of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to project and make the establishment was the delicacy of the interference of the Executive of the United States. Whatever may have been the anticipations entertained of the effect of the measure, the situation seemed to require that an opinion should be deferred, till the progress of the experiment, had produced some indication of probable consequences. When this happened the opinion was given. Had it been given sooner, it might perhaps have been deemed premature.

"The rights of Pennsylvania in this case and the obligations which are urged to exist on the part of the United States in relation to them would be improperly made a question. But the fundamental principles of Society and the practice of all political communities frequently concur in postponing the enjoyment of a particular right or interest of a part of a nation to considerations respecting the safety or welfare of the whole Nation. The propriety then of a temporary suspension on the present instance must depend on the weight of the reasons which dictate it.

"The discussion how far the requisition or advice of the Executive of the United States can justify such a suspension under the circumstances of the Laws of Pennsylvania is rendered more absolutely useless, by your Excellency’s determination that whatever may be the result, the establishment at Presque Isle will be suspended until the President shall have varied the opinion which has been delivered. No arguments I am persuaded can be necessary to satisfy you that when he saw or thought he saw, in a measure of a particular state, consequences endangering important interests of the Union he discharged a duty in declaring to the Executive of that State an opinion that it was adviseable to suspend the execution of that measure, leaving that opinion to be appreciated as it deserved.

"The President of the United States cannot fail to do justice to the disposition which has produced the determination you have announced to comply with his opinion.

"No time will be lost after the arrival of the President in submitting to him your letter and this reply, and in the mean time the attempts for obviating the temporary obstacles are put in a train of execution" (PHarH: Executive Correspondence, 1790-99).

Mifflin’s letter, a copy of the reply, and Mifflin’s response to Knox were enclosed with Knox’s letter to GW of 9 July.

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