Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 2 March 1792

To George Washington

Mar. 2. 92.

Th: Jefferson presents his respects to the President and returns him the letter to Genl. St. Clair. The only passage about which he has any doubt is the following ‘it does not appear by any information in my possession, that your exertions were wanting to produce a different result either in the previous preparations, or in the time of action.’ Th: J. never heard a statement of the matter from Genl. St. Clair himself in conversation: but he has been told by those who have, that, from his own account it appears he was so confident of not meeting an enemy, that he had not taken the proper precautions to have advice of one previous to the action, and his manner of conducting the action has been pretty much condemned. If these criticisms be just, the only question is whether the above paragraph will not be so understood as to be exposed to them? Th: J. does not pretend to judge of the fact, and perhaps the expression may not bear the meaning he apprehends.

RC (DNA: RG 59, MLR); endorsed by Lear. Entry in SJPL reads: “[1792. Mar.] 2. G. W. to Genl. St. Clair. Th: J’s notes on do.” Tr (DNA: RG 59, SDC). Later the same day TJ prepared from memory a copy of this letter which differs only slightly in phraseology. He added this below the text: “The date is verbatim, as nearly as I can recollect, the diction of a note I wrote to the President this morning, and forgot to take a copy of before it went out of my hands. But I think there will be found scarcely a word of difference, except perhaps in the quotation, the substance of which alone can be answered for” (Dft in DLC; printed in Ford, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Letterpress Edition, N.Y., 1892-1899, 10 vols. description ends v, 440–1, with only minor transcription errors).

TJ’s letter relates to one aspect of the aftermath of the defeat of Major General Arthur St. Clair’s expedition against the Western Indians in November 1791. St. Clair, who also served as governor of the Northwest Territory, returned to Philadelphia in January 1792 eager to vindicate his conduct of the expedition. To this end he submitted to Washington at the end of the following month a draft letter, intended for publication, in which he defended his military leadership, requested a court of inquiry to investigate his responsibility for the debacle, and promised to resign his command as soon as this tribunal rendered a verdict. Washington submitted St. Clair’s draft to Secretary of War Knox and instructed him to draw up a reply in the President’s name, which was also intended for publication. Knox’s draft letter, to which TJ took exception in the document printed above, apparently exonerated St. Clair of negligence but refused his request for a court of inquiry. The exculpatory PASSAGE which TJ had questioned was deleted at a meeting of the President and the cabinet on 9 Mch. 1792 (St. Clair to Washington, 24 Feb. 1792; Washington to Knox, 29 Feb. 1792; Knox to Washington, 1 Mch. 1792, all in Carter, Terr. Papers description begins The Territorial Papers of the United States, ed. Clarence E. Carter, Washington, 1934-62, 26 vols. description ends , ii, 370–1; TJ, Memorandum of Consultation on Indian Policy, 9 Mch. 1792). An exchange of correspondence between St. Clair and Washington that followed was printed in the 14 Apr. 1792 edition of the Gazette of the United States and the 16 Apr. 1792 edition of the National Gazette, a fact that might have influenced the House’s subsequent exoneration of St. Clair (Carter, Terr. Papers description begins The Territorial Papers of the United States, ed. Clarence E. Carter, Washington, 1934-62, 26 vols. description ends , ii, 376–8, 383–4, 386–7; Richard H. Kohn, Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 1783–1802 [New York, 1975], p. 345n.101).

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