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Henry Knox to Thomas Mifflin, [21 June 1794]

Henry Knox to Thomas Mifflin1

[Philadelphia, June 21, 1794]2


Your Excellency’s letter to The President dated the 14th instant3 (which has been opened pursuant to general directions) was only delivered to Mr. Dandrige4 his Secy on the 17th at three oClock. The departure of The President for Mount Vernon on the morning of that day prevents my being able to reply to it at this time under his immediate direction.

But antecedent communications with the President on the transactions to which your letter relates, and my immediate agency in the matter put it [in] my power to offer some explanatory observations; which I shall do 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.

With regard to that sentence in my letter of the 14th, which has been particularly adverted to, and which is in these words “It will be happy indeed if the circumstances which have already occurred shall not be found to have matured the evil beyond the possibility of a Remedy”—it will I hope be sufficient to say, that it was a mere general reflection on the probable or possible tendency of the circumstances which had occurred, without intention to pass an opinion on the motives to or reasons for the measures which had been pursued by the Government of Pensylvania 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 noticed in my letter of the 24th of May.5 Suffer me to add, to avoid the inference of having acquiesced in the suggestion, that there is no evidence in possession of this Government, which establishes the fact of a previously hostile disposition of the six Nations.

Your Excellency appears to lay stress on the lateness of the communication of the President’s opinion as to the expediency of ⟨suspending the⟩6 proposed establishment. In proportion to the validity of the considerations, which support the right of the Commonwealth of Pensylvania to project and make that establishment, was the delicacy of an interference by the Executive of the UStates. 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, might it not have been deemed premature?

The rights of Pensylvania in this case and the obligations which are urged to exist on the part of the UStates 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 or urgency respecting the safety or welfare of the whole Nation. The propriety then of a temporary suspension in 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 UStates can justify such a suspension, under the circumstances of the laws of Pensylvania, is rendered the more absolutely useless by Your Excellys. determination that, whatever may be the result, the establishment of 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 the measure.

The President of the UStates cannot fail to do justice to the disposition which has produced the determination you have announced to comply with his opinion.7

With great respect   I have the honor to be   Your Excellency’s Most Obedient serv

Df, in the handwriting of H, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.

2This draft is undated. The letter which Henry Knox sent to Mifflin is dated June 21, 1794 (LS, Division of Public Records, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg).

3On June 13, 1794, Mifflin wrote to George Washington that he thought “it proper to communicate the letters which I received from the Western counties, representing the hostile proceedings of the Indians, in that quarter, and the dissatisfaction of the Citizens at the suspension of the Presqu’Isle establishment in compliance with your request. As I wish to answer the letters by tomorrow’s post, I have, for the sake of despatch, transmitted the originals …” (LC, Division of Public Records, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission).

On June 14 Knox replied to Mifflin: “It must be obvious to you sir, and seems even to result from some of the information which you have transmitted, that the proposed movement is an extremely delicate one, as it regards our peace with the Six Nations. To bring on hostilities with those nations, would be, at any time, a serious evil; considered in reference to the operations we are carrying on against the more western tribes, its possible mischiefs assume a still more important aspect. It is unnecessary to enlarge upon the inconveniences which might ensue to those operations, by throwing, unexpectedly, in the midst of a campaign, so considerable an additional weight into the adverse scale.

“When we take into the calculation, the precarious situation of our affairs with the Creek Indians, hostilities with the Six Nations might co-operate to place us too near the verge of a general Indian war, not to admonish us to particular caution in any step which might lead to those hostilities. It will be happy, indeed, if the circumstances which have already occurred, should be found not to have matured the evil beyond the possibility of a remedy.

“A comprehensive view of the subject cannot but include some considerations relative to the foreign nations in the neighborhood of the United States, in aid of the primary ones which respect the Indian nations. In the present delicate if not critical, posture of our affairs, viewed in connection with those of Europe, amidst negotiations which concern not only our peace, but other great interests of our country, where every moment may be expected to bring some new developments, very cogent and urgent reasons, indeed, ought to be found in support of any measure which may have even a remote tendency further to embarrass or embroil.…” (Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd ser., VI, 700–01.)

In Mifflin’s reply, which is dated June 14, 1794, and addressed to the President, he defended his actions by pointing out that the decisions to establish a town at Presque Isle and to employ state militia to defend it had been made by the legislature and not by him. In the same letter Mifflin wrote: “I may be indulged in observing, generally, that the maintenance of a system for the sale and settlement of the public lands (by which a sufficient revenue had been produced to exonerate the State from the pressure of her debts) and the obligation of Government to strengthen the means of protecting our distant frontiers, might fairly be considered by the Representatives of Pennsylvania, as very cogent inducements to the measure, which they contemplated.… Nor could a collision of the State and Federal jurisdictions have been anticipated, as naturally flowing from the measure, since it was rather to be expected by the Legislature, that, independently of the constitutional obligation of the Union, to protect all its members in the enjoyment of their respective territorial rights, the Federal Government was, in this instance, peculiarly bound to maintain the title and occupancy of the State, as Vendor, for a valuable consideration, of the property in question.…

“The machinating efforts of the Agents of a Foreign Nation, in the neighbourhood of the United States, and not the inimical disposition of the Indians, produced in my mind the apprehension of a design to oppose the settlement at Presqu’isle, soon after the detachment, for effecting that object, was formed at Pittsburgh; and the intelligence, which was brought by successive posts, and punctually communicated to you, Sir, rendered it, at last expedient, in my judgment, to resort to the general authority of the Militia-law, for calling into actual service a competent force.…” (LC, Division of Public Records, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.)

4Bartholomew Dandridge.

6Words in broken brackets have been taken from the letter which Knox sent to Mifflin. See note 2.

7In the letter sent to Mifflin the following concluding paragraph was added: “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 articles are put in a train of execution” (LS, Division of Public Records, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission).

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