James Madison Papers

To James Madison from George Washington, 22 April 1783

From George Washington

RC (Princeton University Library: Andre deCoppet Collection of American Historical Autographs). Cover missing. In the hand of Washington and addressed by him to “The Honble Mr. Maddison.” Docketed by JM, “G. Washington Newburg. April 22. 1783.” Variations between the draft of this letter (LC: Washington Papers) and the recipient’s copy are noted in nn. 2 and 3, below.

Editorial Note

Except for a brief note of referral written about three years earlier (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (6 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , II, 13), this letter and the reply by JM on 29 April (q.v.) mark the beginning of the correspondence between him and Washington. The next exchange also was initiated by Washington on 12 June 1784, addressing to JM a plea on behalf of Thomas Paine (Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, 1931–44). description ends , XXVII, 420–21). Thereafter until the close of 1796, Washington and JM communicated frequently with each other, both orally and in writing.

Newburgh 22d. April 1783


Major McHenry, formerly an Assistant Secretary to me, & afterwards Aid de Camp to the Marqs. de la Fayette, informs me, that, Congress are about to appoint official Secretaries for their Ministers abroad; & expresses a wish to go in that character to the Court of Versailles—or London.1

Justice, if I could divest myself of the inclination to serve this Gentleman, would compel me to represent him as a Man of Letters & abilities,—of great integrity, sobriety & prudence. In a word, a Man of strict honor; possessing all those good qualities (without a bad one that I am acquainted with) necessary to fit him for such an office. He would, I am persuaded, render the Minister with whom he might be connected, very happy in the appointment, as he is of an amiable & obliging temper. His property too lyes in this Country.2

I have now to entreat your excuse for the freedom of this recommendation; a desire to serve a man who has followed my fortunes, and shared in my perplexities, has prompted me to it; but these considerations alone, would not induce me to recommend a person for an office whom I did not believe was fully competent to discharge all the duties required of him.3

I have the honor to be Sir, Yr Most Obedt. & Hble Ser[vt.]

Go. Washington

1James McHenry (1753–1816), a native of Ireland educated in Dublin, emigrated to America in 1771. After studying medicine with Dr. Benjamin Rush, he joined the army as a surgeon in the autumn of 1775. Captured by the British in Fort Washington, near New York City, on 16 November 1776, he was exchanged on 5 March 1778 and briefly resumed his medical service. From 15 May 1778 until August 1780 he was assistant military secretary at the headquarters of the main army. There he gained Washington’s high esteem and Hamilton’s warm friendship. In the autumn he joined Lafayette as a volunteer aide-de-camp, an assignment which he skillfully fulfilled until, following his election to the Senate of Maryland, he resigned his commission in grade of major on 3 December 1781, about three weeks before Lafayette sailed for France.

In January 1782 McHenry began a five years’ tenure as a senator in the Maryland General Assembly. Writing to Washington from Philadelphia on 15 April 1783, he expressed a wish to be “official secretary to our mission or minister at Paris or London” and suggested that “Mr. Maddison from your State has weight in Congress and could promote such an appointment” (LC: Washington Papers; Bernard C. Steiner, The Life and Correspondence of James McHenry, Secretary of War under Washington and Adams [Cleveland, 1907], pp. 40, 48, 50–51; Syrett and Cooke, Papers of Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and Jacob E. Cooke, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (15 vols. to date; New York, 1961——). description ends , III, 127–30). In support of McHenry’s hope, Washington wrote the present letter to JM and also a similar one to Robert R. Livingston, secretary for foreign affairs (Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, 1931–44). description ends , XXVI, 349, n. 85, 357).

On 11 June 1783, before JM retired from Congress, McHenry joined that body as a delegate from Maryland and served until 12 Dec. 1785 (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXIV, 389; XXV, 812; Burnett, Letters description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (8 vols.; Washington, 1921–36). description ends , VIII, lxxxvi). He was also a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and of the Maryland convention which ratified the Constitution. He is principally remembered as the staunchly Federalist secretary of war from 29 January 1796 to 13 May 1800.

2In Washington’s retained copy, the last two sentences of this paragraph read: “He would, I am persuaded, render the Minister to whom he should be appointed Secretary, very happy in such a connection; as he is of an amiable temper, very obliging, & of polished manners. His Interest too lyes in this Country.”

3In Washington’s retained copy, the passage after “has prompted me to it” reads, “but I never have, nor never will, from these considerations alone recommend a person to an Office of trust who I am not morally certain is fully competent to the duties of it.” Washington docketed the retained copy “To The Honble. Mr. Maddison 22d. April 1783 A Similar Letter was written to Mr. Livingston Secretary of F: affairs.”

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