Thomas Jefferson Papers
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To Thomas Jefferson from George Washington, [before 8 December 1790]

From George Washington

[Before 8 Dec. 1790]

The P———requests that Mr. J———would give the letter and statement herewith sent from the S. of War a perusal, and return it to him in the course of the day with his opinion as to the propriety of the manner of making the communication to Congress; and whether it ought not, at any rate, to be introduced in some such way as this (if it is to pass thro him to Congress) “Pursuant to directions I submit,” &ca.—or (if it is to go immediately from the War department to that body) “I lay before Congress by direction of the P. of the U. S. the following Statement” &ca.

Dft (DNA: RG 59, MLR); written on verso of address-leaf of one of TJ’s letters to the president, addressed by him: “The President of the United-[states]”; docketed by Washington: “To Mr. Jefferson & Colo. Hamilton”; not recorded in SJL or SJPL.

The enclosed letter and statement from the Secretary of War concerned the expedition against the Miami Indians and presented a far more serious problem than one of form. Long before he left Mount Vernon, Washington had become deeply concerned, both because Knox had not kept him informed and because he apprehended failure. In a private letter to Knox he said that, whatever the outcome, the motives for undertaking the expedition would have to be “laid fully before Congress” and that the report should be ready “at the opening of the Session” (Washington to Knox, 2 Sep. 1790), Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxxi, 143). Knox, detained in Boston, had just sent the latest news from the West. He reported that Harmar, in a letter of 2 Sep. 1790, had said that he needed about 2,500 to 3,000 men to succeed—a force about double the number of militia and regulars he commanded. Knox did not enclose this letter and he sought to soften its impact by saying that the contractors had informed him ample supplies of provisions had been furnished, together with horses and other necessities. He enclosed without comment copies of a letter from St. Clair, dated at Marietta, 19 Sep. 1790. St. Clair had arrived there on the 13th, only three weeks after leaving New York and after encountering great difficulty in mustering militia from Pennsylvania. He reported that the President of Pennsylvania had paid no attention whatever to the President’s intimations and that the county lieutenants were also apathetic, in consequence of which there was a deficiency of some 200 men from that state. The ammunition and quartermaster stores had not arrived and the Indian depredations were occurring daily, but he hoped the whole of the troops would arrive at the rendezvous at Fort Washington as scheduled. Meanwhile, in accordance with the President’s instructions, he was that day sending a message to the commanding officer at Detroit to notify him that the expedition was not aimed at the British posts (Knox to Washington, 25 Oct. 1790, enclosing copies of St. Clair to Knox, 19 Sep. 1790, and to Major Murray, same date; DLC: Washington Papers).

Washington was greatly disturbed by this premature disclosure, not knowing that Hamilton had already informed Beckwith of the purpose of the expedition (Washington to Knox, 4 Nov. 1790, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxxi, 143; Vol. 17: 131–4). It was almost six weeks after Harmar’s troops advanced from Fort Washington that Knox reported he had received no news of it (Knox to Washington, 10 Nov. 1790, DLC: Washington Papers). A few days later Washington revealed forebodings that had become certainty with him. Reports about Harmar’s drunken conduct, disputes over command, and failure to gain the confidence of westerners had caused him to give up “all hope of Success.” He was prepared for the worst—“for expence without honor or profit” (Washington to Knox, 19 Nov. 1790, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxxi, 156). Such a dire prospect made it all the more urgent that the reasons for authorizing the military operations be given to Congress as soon possible.

The question of the manner of transmitting this information to Congress was resolved before Washington delivered his annual message. In that document, after explaining that defensive measures against Indian aggressions had proved ineffective, he added: “The event of the measure is yet unknown to me. The Secretary of war is directed to lay before you a statement of the information on which it is founded, as well as an estimate of the expence with which it will be attended” (same, xxxi, 166). On the same day Knox, in “obedience to the orders of the President of the United States,” transmitted to both houses the statement alluded to in the above memorandum. It contained documents attesting to Indian depredations on the frontiers and letters, instructions, and reports concerning the military operations, together with an estimate of the cost of the expedition (ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Indian Affairs, i, 83–104; JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1826- description ends , i, 333; JS description begins Journal of the Senate of the United States, Washington, Gales, 1820–21, 5 vols. description ends , i, 220). The documents were carefully selected and judiciously edited. Nothing was included in Knox’ report about St. Clair’s letter about the President of Pennsylvania, the deficiency of militia from that state, or the absence of ammunition and stores. St. Clair’s premature disclosure was hidden by words attributed to him but not to be found in his letter: “I am directed to write to the commanding officer at Detroit. I have enclosed a copy of that letter” (ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Indian Affairs, i, 96). Harmar’s letter asserting the need for more troops was not included, though the contractors’ anticipatory statement that the “expedition cannot fail from any default of ours” was included. The whole of this document, whose contrived presentation cannot be fully tested because many of the originals have been lost by fire, sought to justify both the launching of the offensive campaign and its undeniably anticipated failure. The matter had not been “laid fully before Congress.” Privately TJ revealed that he thought Knox’ report “not very methodically related” (TJ to Randolph, 16 Dec. 1790).

In this instance the bad news of Harmar’s defeats on 18 and 22 Oct. 1790 travelled with inexplicable slowness, requiring almost two months to cover the distance that St. Clair had so recently travelled in only three weeks—as the governor assumed would be true in this instance (see St. Clair to Sargent, 27 Nov. 1790, Carter, Terr. Papers description begins Clarence E. Carter, ed., The Territorial Papers of the United States, 1934–62, 26 vols. description ends , ii, 312–13). The official accounts arrived in Philadelphia on the evening of the 13th. The next day Washington transmitted Knox’ letter and the dispatches to Congress without comment. One of the dispatches was from St. Clair to Knox of 6 Nov. 1790 in which he said that, in a letter of the 29th, he had informed him “generally of the success that attended General Harmar”—an official letter that Knox included neither in his communication of the 8th nor in this one. In St. Clair’s opinion the savages had “got a most terrible stroke” and Harmar, while admitting heavy losses, declared that “the head quarters of iniquity were broken up” (ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Indian Affairs, i, 104–6). The President and heads of departments were well aware of the humiliating end of the expedition, but the revelation to Congress was an implicit assumption of success that could not withstand investigation.

TJ and Hamilton must have concurred in advising Washington that Knox’ letter and statement should be sent directly to Congress by him under the President’s orders, though no written response from either has been found. But whatever TJ might have felt about this mere matter of form, there is no doubt of his views of offensive campaigns against forest enemies of the sort Hamilton, Knox, and St. Clair, with Washington’s approval, had launched late in August (Vol. 17: 131–4). “The federal council,” he soon wrote, “has yet to learn by experience, what experience has long ago taught us in Virginia, that rank and file fighting will not do against Indians” (TJ to Innes, 7 Mch. 1791). This was precisely the advice that Virginians and Kentuckians had been giving to the President and the Secretary of War for well over a year—advice disclosed in the documents accompanying the justifying statement that Washington had ordered him to prepare (see Editorial Note, group of documents on new approaches to Spain, under 10 Mch. 1791).

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