James Madison Papers

Petition of Hugh Lawson White, [30 December] 1796

Petition of Hugh Lawson White

[30 December 1796]

Hugh Lawson White had petitioned the House on 11 February 1795 seeking compensation for services as a private of mounted infantry during John Sevier’s campaign against the Cherokee Indians in September 1793. The petition was referred to the War Department until Secretary James McHenry reported against the claim on 24 December 1796. The House took up the matter again in a Committee of the Whole on 29 December, with Jackson (Tennessee) moving a resolution that Sevier’s expedition was “a just and necessary measure” and that Congress should provide for all its expenses. On 30 December, Smith (South Carolina) proposed that Jackson’s resolution be sent to a select committee (ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States … (38 vols.; Washington, 1832–61). description ends , Claims, p. 192; Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends , 4th Cong., 2d sess., 1696, 1737–39, 1741–44; JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States (9 vols.; Washington, 1826). description ends , 2:320, 627, 632–33).

Mr. Madison saw no necessity for referring this business to a Select Committee. If it was suggested that the official information which was before them was inaccurate, and that a more full explanation of the situation of things was necessary, there would be some ground for the reference; but he did not find that this was the case. The Secretary of War stated facts, and referred to documents to prove “that the Indians had greatly perplexed and harrassed by thefts and murders, the frontier inhabitants of Tennessee, had shewn themselves in considerable force, and killed at two stations fifteen persons.”1 If this was a state of facts, and it could not be doubted, the words of the Constitution on this subject were clear. “No State shall, without the consent of Congress, lay any duty on tonnage, keep troops, or ships of war, in time of peace, enter into any agreement or compact with another State, or with a foreign power, or engage in war, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent danger as will not admit of delay.” There could be no doubt, therefore, Mr. M. said, but this expedition came within the meaning of the Constitution. In many cases, he said, it was difficult to determine betwixt offensive and defensive operations, as it was sometimes necessary when acting on the defensive, to use an offensive measure. He had no doubt on the subject, and thought the expence of the expedition should by all means be paid.

Claypoole’s Am. Daily Advertiser, 2 Jan. 1797 (reprinted in Philadelphia Gazette, 3 Jan. 1797, and American Senator, 1:209–10; also reported in New World, 2 Jan. 1797).

1After the 1791 Treaty of Holston, relations had deteriorated rapidly between the Cherokee Indians and settlers in the territory southwest of the Ohio River. The Chickamauga, a breakaway group from the main body of the Cherokee and allies of the Creek Indians, resisted settler advances on their hunting grounds along the Cumberland River. Throughout 1792 territorial governor William Blount had mobilized militia for defense, but Secretary of War Henry Knox declined to sanction retaliatory measures, fearing the prospect of widespread frontier war in which Great Britain and Spain might intervene. The settlers eventually took matters into their own hands, most conspicuously by attacking on 12 June 1793 a party of friendly Cherokee about to visit the president, after which an Indian force, about one thousand strong under John Watts, made an advance on Knoxville in late September 1793.

In the absence of Governor Blount, territorial secretary Daniel Smith, on 30 Sept. 1793, authorized John Sevier to march against the Indians. With a force of about seven hundred men, Sevier pursued the Indians to the borders of the Creek country, where, at the battle of Etowah on 17 Oct. 1793, he destroyed several Cherokee and Creek townships. The Washington administration, while conceding that Indians had attacked settlers, regarded Sevier’s expedition as more aggressive than defensive in nature. The War Department paid for the rations but otherwise refused any further reimbursement for its costs. The reluctance of the administration to back the settlers influenced Blount’s decision to seek the admission of Tennessee to the Union in 1796 as a way of dealing with the issues raised by White’s petition. The petitioner, Hugh Lawson White (1773–1840), after having served as Blount’s personal secretary in 1793–94, had come to Philadelphia in 1795 to further his education as well as to present his petition on behalf of the Tennessee militiamen. For the background, see the documents in ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States … (38 vols.; Washington, 1832–61). description ends , Indian Affairs, 1:361–470, 585, 621–23; and Carter, Territorial Papers description begins Clarence Carter et al., eds., The Territorial Papers of the United States (28 vols.; Washington, 1934–75). description ends , Southwest Territory, 4:220–311; see also Randolph C. Downes, “Indian Affairs in the Southwest Territory, 1790–1796,” Tenn. Historical Quarterly, 2d ser., 3 (1937): 240–68; and Craig Symonds, “The Failure of America’s Indian Policy on the Southwest Frontier, 1785–1793,” ibid., 35 (1976): 29–45.

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