Thomas Jefferson Papers

XI. Second Opinion of the Secretary of State, 29 August 1790

XI. Second Opinion of the Secretary of State

On considering more fully the question Whether it will be expedien[t] to Notify to Ld. Dorchester the real object of the expedition preparing by Governor St. Clair, I still think it will not be expedient. For

If the Notification be early, he will get the Indians out of the way, and defeat our object.

If it be so late, as not to leave him time to withdraw them before our stroke be struck, it will then be so late also, as not to leave him time to withdraw any secret aids he may have sent them. And the Notification will betray to him that he may go on without fear in his expedition against the Spaniard[s] and for which he may yet have sufficient time after our expedition is over.

On the other hand, if he should suspect our preparations are to prevent his passing our territory, these suspicions may induce him to decline his expedition; as, even should he think he could either force or steal a passage, he would not divide his troops, leaving (as he would suppose) an enemy between them able to take those he should leave, and cut off the return of those he should carry.

These suspicions too would mislead both him and the Indians; and so enable us to take the latter more completely by surprise; and prevent him from sending secret aid to those whom he would not suppose the objects of the enterprise, thus effecting a double purpose of preventing his enterprize, and securing our own.

Might it not even be expedient, with a view to deter his enterprize, to instruct Gov. St. Clair either to continue his pursuit of the Indians till the season be too far advanced for Ld. Dorchester to move, or, on disbanding his militia, to give them general orders (which might reach the ears of Ld. Dorchester) to be ready to assemble at a moment’s warning, tho’ no such assembly be really intended? Always taking care neither to say nor do, against their passage, what might directly commit either our Peace, or Honour.

Th: Jefferson Aug. 29. 1790.

FC (DNA: RG 59, SDC). PrC (DLC); in TJ’s hand, and arranged in heads as in the case of the original opinion. Not recorded in SJL but entry in SJPL for this and preceding two documents reads: “[1790. Aug.] 27. GW. his Qu? if British wish to march thro’ our territory to attack Spain. 28. Th:J.’s answer to that Question. 29. P.S. to do.”

Although Washington had sought the opinions of Adams, Jay, and members of the administration on the stand to be taken if British troops moved across American territory against Spanish possessions, there is no evidence that he asked anyone except TJ whether the object of the expedition against the Shawnee and Miami Indians should be disclosed to Lord Dorchester. This may be significant, and the fact that Harmar’s stroke at harvest time was intended to be both punitive and a calculated surprise is certainly so. “While, on the one hand, your movements and execution should be so rapid and decisive as to astonish your enemy,” Secretary of War Knox wrote General Harmar, “so, on the other, every possible precaution in the power of human foresight should be used to prevent surprise” (Henry Knox to Josiah Harmar, 24 Aug. 1790, 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, 99). TJ’s emphasis on this point in the above opinion obviously coincided with Washington’s desire for an expeditious and hidden move. Yet, as historians have long known, the request for the opinion and TJ’s response had already been rendered needless by the fact that, in a secret interview with Beckwith, the Secretary of the Treasury gave the agent in confidence what TJ here strongly urged the President to withhold. Naturally neither Washington nor TJ knew that Hamilton had done this or that Dorchester would be in possession of the information less than a fortnight after the Secretary of State urged that he be kept in the dark. While the fact of Hamilton’s disclosure has been known, some of its most serious implications have been obscured because the date of the secret interview has not been established with precision. The chronology of the episode sheds some light on this but also raises disturbing questions. At Pittsburgh on 16 Aug. 1790, Governor Arthur St. Clair, on his way to New York for consultation and approval of his plans, urged the militia of Virginia and Pennsylvania to rendezvous early in September for a sixty-day tour of duty. The governor travelled in such urgency both going and returning that he was back in Marietta just thirty days from the date of these instructions. He must, in fact, have left Pittsburgh that day, for he arrived in New York on Friday, 20 Aug. 1790—an astonishing feat for a man of fifty-four, surpassing that of the much younger Beckwith on his journey from Quebec in July (New-York Journal, 24 Aug. 1790). When he arrived, both the President and the Secretary of State were in Rhode Island, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Treasury in New York. There can be no doubt that St. Clair saw both Knox and Hamilton immediately.

On Saturday the 21st, about sundown, the President and his party returned to the city. On the 23d St. Clair wrote the Secretary of War outlining his plans for the expedition, enclosing the journal of Antoine Gamelin who had carried his fruitless messages of peace to the Indians the preceding April. Two facts in Gamelin’s journal are significant. At the Miami village he saw five Potawatomi bring in two Negro prisoners whom they sold as indentured servants to Indian traders. On the 25th of April Blue Jacket of the Shawnee returned the two proffered pieces of wampum and said to him: “we can not give an answer without hearing from our father, at Detroit”; three days later Le Gris, chief of the Miami, told him: “we can not give a definitive answer without consulting the commandant of Detroit” (Arthur St. Clair to Henry Knox, 23 Aug. 1790, with Gamelin’s journal, 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, 92–4). Knox transmitted these documents to the President, Washington immediately gave his approval and his views concerning the expedition, and Knox furnished St. Clair with his instructions. All of this took place on Monday, the 23rd. Further, on that same day Knox gave Hamilton an estimate of the cost of maintaining 1700 militia and 400 troops in the field for three months ($100,000); procured an advance from the Treasury for the contractors in order to enable them to obtain provisions and quartermaster’s supplies; wrote to Samuel Hodgdon, commissary of military stores at Philadelphia, instructing him to send forward to the Northwest Territory, immediately, two tons of rifle and musket powder, four tons of lead bullets, and artillery shot; and gave orders for the transportation of these articles from Pittsburgh (Knox to St. Clair, 23 Aug. 1790, 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, 98–9). Thus two days after the President’s return the whole object of St. Clair’s urgent journey had been accomplished. There was no need for him to remain longer in the city save perhaps to receive for Harmar the instructions that Knox wrote on the 24th. Beckwith later reported that the governor’s stay in the city was “very short” (Dorchester to Grenville, 10 Nov. 1790, enclosing Beckwith’s undated report, received at Quebec 27 Oct. 1790, PRO: CO 42/72, f.59, 61). There can be little doubt that St. Clair left New York on the 24th.

It is this brief chronology between the 20th and the 24th that fixes the time of Hamilton’s interview with Beckwith, for it is clear that this took place while St. Clair was still in the city and before the expedition had been approved. Obviously, therefore, Beckwith sought out Hamilton on Saturday the 21st or on Sunday the 22d. The former seems more plausible. For Beckwith told Hamilton that he had heard “that very morning” an “officer attached to the person of the President” quote St. Clair in the presence of witnesses to the effect that traders under British protection at Detroit were encouraging Indian hostilities by purchasing prisoners as indentured servants. Beckwith admitted that he had heard instances of this, but stated that he had sought out Hamilton to give an explanation. Such transactions, he declared, were not only “done upon principles honourable to the parties, and to the general feeling of humanity,” but “a procedure of the nature suggested” by St. Clair’s information was contrary both to Dorchester’s dispositions and to the spirit of his instructions to officers at the upper posts. To this Hamilton replied that St. Clair had brought information of many “excesses committed by the Savages, to which the Government had previously been strangers” and that, while nothing hostile to the United States had been expressed in the talks with the Indians “they indeed had said when proposals were made to them, that they must consult their father at Detroit, but nothing further.” Then Hamilton added “that circumstances rendered it probable, measures would shortly be taken for an Expedition into the Indian Country in that quarter.” Beckwith concluded with this information to Dorchester: “he mentioned it to prevent any alarm at our posts, although he relied on my not speaking of it here; but he did not say against which of the nations beyond the Ohio this expedition was intended to be directed.” The dispatch was received in Quebec on 11 Sep. 1790 (Dorchester to Grenville, 25 Sep. 1790, PRO: CO 42/69, f. 28, 30–48; italics supplied; this conversation is the last recorded in a lengthy report covering interviews with various persons, beginning about 8 Aug. 1790; endorsed as received 4 Nov. 1790).

From this it is to be noted first of all that Hamilton anticipated action by the government just as he may have done when he discussed the appointment of an agent to London in the fall of 1789. Second, it is clear that he was privy to the information St. Clair brought in Gamelin’s journal. This was natural, for Hamilton, Knox, and St. Clair all had official responsibilities connected with the proposed expedition. Consultation among them in the President’s absence was essential. Third, it seems equally certain that from the moment Hamilton gave his voluntary assurance to Beckwith about the limited object of the campaign, he endeavored to have this assurance made official by the government. In this he succeeded with the Secretary of War but not, as the above opinion indicates, with the Secretary of State.

It is sometimes assumed that Washington learned of St. Clair’s letter to the commandant at Detroit notifying him of the object of the expedition only after it was written (Freeman, Washington description begins Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington, N.Y., 1948–1957, 6 vols.; 7th volume by J. A. Carroll and M. W. Ashworth, New York, 1957 description ends , vi, 284). This is in error. The fact is that Knox gave authority for this notification in his instructions to St. Clair: “There are existing jealousies in the minds of the British officers in Canada,” he wrote, “of the designs of the United States respecting the posts to have been relinquished by the last peace. It will be a point, therefore, of delicacy, that you should take measures, by sending some officer or messenger, at a proper time, to assure the commanding officer of the real object of the expedition. That the Shawanese, and some others joined with them, have committed such enormous offences against the citizens of the United States, as are any longer insupportable; but, to assure him of the entire pacific disposition of the United States towards Great Britain and its possessions” (Knox to St. Clair, 23 Aug. 1790, 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, 98). St. Clair wrote to the commandant on 19 Sep. 1790, stating that he was commanded to do so by the President. He sent a copy of this letter to Knox and Knox in turn forwarded the covering letter and presumably its enclosure to Washington (St. Clair to Knox, 19 Sep. 1790, enclosing his of the same date to the commandant at Detroit, same, i, 95–6). It is certain, therefore, that Washington gave the authorization to St. Clair to say to the commandant what Hamilton had already said to Beckwith. When he learned that the governor had done this with so little regard for the central element in the instructions, he was filled with apprehension. The instructions had stipulated that the notification be made “at a proper time,” and Washington thought that St. Clair’s revelation had been “unseasonable”—that it “was certainly premature to announce the operation intended until the troops were ready to move; since the Indians, through that channel, might receive such information as would frustrate the expedition” (Washington to Knox, 4 Nov. 1790, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxxi, 144). What Washington was concerned about was the timing of the notification to Major Murray at Detroit. This also was the basic reason for the above opinion by TJ. And it was this fundamental requirement of successful strategy that Hamilton blandly disregarded in his clandestine conference with Dorchester’s agent.

The news of the expedition, of course, was spread throughout the Northwest Territory. Major Murray replied to St. Clair’s letter on 14 Oct. 1790. Three days later a private letter from Detroit described the effects of the projected expedition on British merchants engaged in the Indian trade. And soon St. Clair’s letter of 8 Sep. to the Seneca and that of 19 Sep. 1790 to the Wyandots were in Dorchester’s hands along with other reports from the upper posts (Dorchester to Grenville, 10 Nov. 1790, PRO: CO 42/72, f. 73, 75–88, with seven enclosures; endorsed as received 18 Dec. 1790). The military preparations on such a scale could not have been concealed in any event, but what British officers in the upper posts now knew with certainty because of St. Clair’s premature disclosure and because of Hamilton’s voluntary assurance to Beckwith was precise. An expedition of considerable force was imminent and its objective was the group of Indians who had been troublesome, who had struck no major blow against the Americans, but who looked to Detroit for protection.

The ill-fated force under General Harmar produced a noteworthy series of coincidences on the 4th of November 1790. On that day Washington at Mount Vernon learned with apprehension of St. Clair’s premature disclosure, fearing the surprise which Harmar had been so solemnly warned to avoid. On that day at Whitehall the Secretary for Home Affairs learned that the Secretary of the Treasury had told a British agent in confidence that the expedition was about to be undertaken and that its object was only the Indian nations. And on that day at Fort Washington General Harmar tabulated the list of officers and men killed in the engagements against the Miami towns. The total was 183, far more than anyone expected and approximately twice what he had calculated on 22 Oct. 1790 at the camp on the night after the destruction of the Indian harvests and towns. This he lamented but added on that day of battle: “it is the fortune of war” (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, 106; Washington to Knox, 4 Nov. 1790, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxxi, 144; Dorchester to Grenville, 25 Sep. 1790, enclosing Beckwith’s dispatch containing the conversation with Hamilton of 21 or 22 Aug. 1790, endorsed as received 4 Nov. 1790; PRO: CO 42/69, f. 28, 30–48). There had been three ambushes. The chain of coincidence closed exactly a year later, 4 Nov. 1791, when St. Clair suffered his crushing defeat—caused by surprise.

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