George Washington Papers

Circular to the States, 18 October 1780

Circular to the States

Head Quarters near passaic Falls 18th October 1780


In obedience to the orders of Congress, I have the honor to transmit you the present state of the troops of your line, by which you will percieve how few Men you will have left after the 1st of Jany next.1 When I inform you also that the Regiments of the other Lines will be in general as much reduced as yours, you will be able to judge how exceedingly weak the Army will be at that period, and how essential it is the states should make the most vigorous exertions to replace the discharged Men as early as possible.

Congress are now preparing a plan for a new establishment of their Army which when finished they will transmit to the several States with requisitions for their respective quotas. I have no doubt it will be a primary object with them to have the Levies for the War, and this appears to me a point so interesting to our Independence that I cannot forbear entering into the motives which ought to determine the States without hesitation or alternative to take their measures decisively for that object.

I am religiously persuaded that the duration of the War and the greatest part of the misfortunes and perplexities we have hitherto experienced, are chiefly to be attributed to the System of temporary inlistments. Had we in the commencement raised an Army for the War, such as was within the reach of ⟨the⟩ Abilities of these States to raise and maintain we should not have suffered those military Checks which have so frequently shaken our cause, nor should we have incurred such enormous expenditures as have destroyed our paper Currency and with it all public credit. A moderate compact force on a permanent establishment capable of acquiring the discipline essential to military operations would have been able to make head against the enemy without comparison better than the throngs of Militia which at certain periods have been, not in, the feild, but in their way to and from the Feild; for from that want of perseverance which characterises all Militia, and of that coercion which cannot be exercised upon them, it has always been found impracticable to detain the greatest part of them in service even for the term, for which they have been called out, and this has been commonly so short, that we have had a great proportion of the time two sets of Men to feed and pay, one coming to the Army and the other going from it. From this circumstance and from the extraordinary waste and consumption of provisions, stores—Camp equipage—Arms—Cloaths and every Article incident to irregular troops, it is easy to conceive what an immense increase of public expence has been produced from the source of which I am speaking. I might add the diminution of our Agriculture by calling off at critical Seasons the labourers employed in it, as has happened in instances without number.

In the enumeration of Articles wasted, I mention Cloathes. It may be objected that the terms of engagement of the Levies do not include this, but if we want service from the Men particularly in the cold Season we are obliged to supply them notwithstanding, and they leave us before the Cloaths are half worn out.

But there are evils still more striking that have befallen us. The intervals between the dismission of one Army, and the collection of another have more than once threatened us with ruin, which humanly speaking nothing but the supineness or folly of the enemy could have saved us from. How did our cause totter at the close of 76, when with a little more than two thousand Men we were driven before the enemy thro’ Jersey and obliged to take post on the other side of the Delaware to make a shew of covering Philadelphia while in reality nothing was more easy to them with a little enterprise and industry than to make their passage good to that City and dissipate the remaining force which still kept alive our expiring opposition! What hindered them from dispersing our little Army and giving a fatal Blow to our Affairs during all the subsequent winter, instead of remaining in a state of torpid inactivity and permitting us to hover about their Quarters when we had scarcely troops sufficient to mount the ordinary Guards? After having lost two Battles and Philadelphia in the following Campaign for want of those numbers and that degree of discipline which, we might have acquired by a permanent force in the first instance, in what a cruel and perilous situation did we again find ourselves in the Winter of 77 at Valley Forge, within a days march of the enemy, with little more than a third of their strength, unable to defend our position, or retreat from it, for want of the means of transportation? What but the fluctuation of our Army enabled the enemy to detach so boldly to the southward in 78 and 79 to take possession of two States Georgia and South Carolina, while we were obliged here to be idle Spectators of their weakness—set at defiance by a Garrison of six thousand regular troops, accessible every where by a Bridge which nature had formed, but of which we were unable to take advantage from still greater weakness, apprehensive even for our own safety?2 How did the same Garrison insult the main Army of these States the ensuing Spring and threaten the destruction of all our Baggage and Stores—saved by a good countenance more than by an ability to defend them? And what will be our situation this winter, our Army by the 1st of January diminished to a little more than a sufficient Garrison for West point, the enemy at full liberty to ravage the Country wherever they please, and, leaving a handful of Men at N. York, to undertake Expeditions for the reduction of other States, which for want of adequate means of defence will it is much to be dreaded add to the number of their conquests and to the examples of our want of energy and wisdom?

The loss of Canada to the Union and the fate of the brave Montgomery compelled to a rash attempt by the immediate prospect of being left without Troops might be enumerated in the catalogue of evils that have sprang from this fruitful source.3

We not only incur these dangers and suffer these losses for want of a constant force equal to our exigencies, but while we labor under this impediment it is impossible there can ever be any order or œconomy or system in our finances. If we meet with any severe blow the great exertions which the moment requires to stop the progress of the misfortune oblige us to depart from general principles to run into any expence or to adopt any expedient however injurious on a large scale to procure the force and means which the present emergency demands. Every thing is thrown into confusion and the measures taken to remedy immediate evils perpetuate others. The same is the case if particular conjunctures invite us to offensive operations—we find ourselves unprepared without troops—without Magazines, and with little time to provide them. We are obliged to force our resources by the most burthensome methods to answer the end, and after all it is but half answered: the design is announced by the occasional effort, and the enemy have it in their power to counteract and elude the blow. The prices of every thing Men provisons &ca are raised to a height to which the Revenues of no Government, much less ours, would suffice. It is impossible the people can endure the excessive burthen of bounties for annual drafts and substitutes increasing at every new experiment: whatever it might cost them once for all to procure Men for the War would be a cheap bargain.

I am convinced our System of temporary inlistments has prolonged the War and encouraged the enemy to persevere. Baffled while we had an Army in the feild, they have been constantly looki⟨ng⟩ forward to the period of its reduction, as the perio⟨d to⟩ our opposition and the season of their successes. They have flattered themselves with more than the event has justified; for they beleived when one Army expired, we should not be able to raise another: undeceived however in this expectation by experience, they still remain convinced, and to me evidently on good grounds, that we must ultimately sink under a system which increases our expence beyond calculation, enfeebles all our measures, affords the most inviting opportunities to the enemy, and wearies and disgusts the people: This has doubtless had great influence in preventing their coming to terms and will continue to operate in the same way. The debates on the ministerial side have frequently manifested the operation of this motive, and it must in the nature of things have had great weight.

The interposition of Neutral powers may lead to a negociation this winter: Nothing will tend so much to make the Court of London reasonable as the prospect of a permanent Army in this Country, and a spirit of exertion to support it.

’Tis time we should get rid of an error which the experience of all mankind has exploded, and which our own experience has dearly taught us to reject—the carrying on a War with Militia, or, (which is nearly the same thing) temporary levies against a regular, permanent and disciplined force. The Idea is chimerical, and that we have so long persisted in it is a reflection on the judgment of a Nation so enlightened as we are, as well as a strong proof of the empire of prejudice over reason. If we continue in the infatuation we shall deserve to lose the object we are contending for.

America has been almost amused out of her liberties—We have frequently heard the behavior of the Militia extolled upon one and another occasion by Men who judge only from the surface, by Men who had particular views in misrepresenting, by visionary Men whose credulity easily swallowed every vague story in support of a favorite Hypothesis. I solemnly declare I never was witness to a single instance that can countenance an opinion of Militia or raw troops being fit for the real business of fighting. I have found them useful as light parties to skirmish in the Woods, but incapable of making or sustaining a serious attack. This firmness is only acquired by habit of discipline and service. I mean not to detract from the merit of the Militia—their zeal and spirit upon a variety of occasions have intitled them to the highest applause; but it is of the greatest importance we should learn to estimate them rightly: We may expect every thing from ours that Militia is capable of, but we must not expect from any, services for which Regulars alone are fit. The late battle of Campden is a melancholy comment upon this doctrine—The Militia fled at the first fire, and left the Continental troops surrounded on every side and overpowered by numbers to combat for safety instead of Victory. The enemy themselves have witnessed to their Valor.

An ill effect of short inlistments which I have not yet taken notice of, is that the constant fluctuation of their Men is one of the sources of disgust to the Officers. Just when by great trouble fatigue and vexation (with which the training of Recruits is attended) they have brought their Men to some kind of order—they have the mortification to see them go home, and to know that the drudgery is to recommence the next Campaign. In Regiments so constituted, an Officer has neither satisfaction nor credit in his Command.

Every motive which can arise from a consideration of our circumstances, either in a domestic or foreign point of view calls upon us to abandon temporary expedients and substitute something durable systematic and substantial. This applies as well to our civil administration as to our military establishment. It is as necessary to give Congress, the common Head, sufficient powers to direct the common Forces as it is to raise an Army for the War; but I should go out of my province to expatiate on Civil Affairs—I cannot forbear adding a few more remarks.

Our finances are in an alarming state of derangement. Public credit is almost arrived at its last Stage. The people begin to be dissatisfied with the feeble mode of conducting the War, and with the ineffectual burthens imposed upon them—which tho’ light in comparison with what other nations feel are from their novelty heavy to them. They lose their confidence in Government apace—The Army is not only dwindling into nothing, but the discontents of the Officers as well as the Men have matured to a degree that threatens but too general a renunciation of the service, at the end of the Campaign. Since January last we have had registered at Head Quarters more than one hundred and sixty resignations, besides a number of others that never were regularly reported.4 I speak of the Army in this Quarter. We have frequently in the course of the Campaign experienced an extremity of want—Our Officers are in general indecently defective in Cloathing—Our Men are almost naked, totally unprepared for the inclemency of the approaching season. We have no magazines for the Winter—the mode of procuring our supplies is precarious, and all the reports of the Officers employed in collecting them are gloomy.

These circumstances conspire to shew the necessity of immediately adopting a plan that will give more energy to Government, more vigor and more satisfaction to the Army. Without it we have every thing to fear. I am persuaded of the sufficiency of our resources if properly directed.

Should the requisitions of Congress by any accident not arrive before the Legislature is about to rise, I beg leave to recommend that a plan be devised, which is likely to be effectual, for raising the Men that will be required for the War, leaving it to the Executive to apply it to the Quota which Congress will fix.5 I flatter myself however the requisition will arrive in time.

The present Crisis of our Affairs appears to me so serious as to call upon me as a good Citizen to offer my sentiments freely for the safety of the Republic. I hope the motive will excuse the liberty I have taken6—I have the honor to be with the highest Respect Sir Your most obt & humble Servt

Go: Washington

LS, in Tench Tilghman’s writing, addressed to New Hampshire governor Meshech Weare, Nh-Ar: Weare Papers; LS, in Richard Kidder Meade’s writing, addressed to Rhode Island governor William Greene, R-Ar; LS (photocopy), in David Humphreys’s writing, addressed to Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., DLC:GW, ser. 9; LS (partially burned), in Tilghman’s writing, addressed to New York governor George Clinton, N-Ar: Clinton Papers; LS, in Tilghman’s writing, apparently addressed to New Jersey governor William Livingston, NjP: William Barricklo Collection; LS (incomplete), in Tilghman’s writing, addressed to Delaware governor Caesar Rodney, NJMoHP; LS, in Caleb Gibbs’s writing, addressed to Maryland governor Thomas Sim Lee, MdAA; LS, in Humphreys’s writing, addressed to Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson, Vi; Df, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, addressed to Weare, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, addressed to New Jersey governor William Livingston and dated 20 Oct., DLC:GW. Mutiliated material on the LS for Weare is supplied in angle brackets from the draft, which GW’s aide-de-camp David Humphreys penned. GW’s aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton added two pages of postscripts to the draft meant for the executives of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

GW’s aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman wrote on a page filed with the draft: “transmitted by the post the 19th of October 1780 to the States of New Hampshire Massachusetts Rhode Island Connecticut New York Pennsylvania Delaware Maryland Virginia The 20th by Colo. Neilson to State of Jersey.” No versions of this letter for the executives of Massachusetts or Pennsylvania have been found, but the draft postscript for “Pensylvania” reads: “The foregoing is circular to the several states—The observation I make in the first paragraph respecting the comparative strength of the troops would mislead, if applied to your line; for you have a much larger proportion of troops for the war than most of the other states. The men belonging to Pensylvania in Hazen’s regiment is not included in the return I send you, because I believe it will be the intention of Congress to keep this regiment up upon a distinct establishment” (see n.1 below). The Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council considered GW’s circular letter and the enclosed return on 24 Oct. and sent it to “the General Assembly” (Pa. Col. Records description begins Colonial Records of Pennsylvania. 16 vols. Harrisburg, 1840–53. description ends , 12:517).

The LS apparently meant for Livingston includes an incomplete postscript that probably refers to Livingston’s letter to GW dated 7 October. Livingston wrote GW from Trenton on 23 Oct.: “I am just honoured with your Excellency’s Favour of the 18th Instant, which shall be laid before the Legislature without Loss of time. I hope your Excellencys reasonings upon the Subject of our Embarrassments may have the weight they justly deserve, & happily prevent our longer continuing under those Delusions which have hitherto made the Independence of America a contested Point. I have often been chagrin’d at the Propagation of the mischievous Doctrine that the Enemy had given over all Idea of Conquest. I am confident they never had more sanguine Expectations of it, than at present; and perhaps never entertained the Idea upon better grounds. I do not by this Observation mean to insinuate that I am in the least apprehensive of the Probability & scarcely of the Possibility of such an Event, in Case the States make such Exertions as the Situation of [o]ur affairs requires; but upon the Supposition that we continue to prosecute the War agreeably to the System hitherto pursued. For as such Conduct on our part will undoubtedly induce them to protract the Dispute, & as the War by that means will soon become the measuring of the length of our respective Purses, instead of that of our Swords, I am convinced from the State of our Commerce, & the number of our intestine Enemies, that the final Establishment of our Liberty principally depends upon such Exertions as will compel them to a speedy Peace” (ALS, DLC:GW).

The LS for Rodney includes a postscript: “The foregoing is Circular to the several States. Having received no Return of your Regiment since the affair of Campden I have it not in my power to transmit any. I can only observe that my accounts make it probable it is greatly reduced. There are in Lee’s Corps thirty eight men belonging to your State. I beg leave to suggest that the readiest way to obtain a perfect return, will be by application of your Excellency to the commanding Officer with the Regt.”

The LS for Lee includes a postscript: “The foregoing is Circular to the several States—I have it not in my power to transmit a very accurate return of the Troops of your State, but I send the best I have received since the late affair at Campden; in which however the remains of the Deleware Regiment are included without being distinguished. I beg leave to suggest that the readiest way to obtain a more perfect one, will be by application from your Excellency to Major General Smallwood.” Lee received a copy of a return dated 18 Oct. that showed “818 effective” rank and file from Delaware and Maryland at and near Hillsborough, N.C., on 5 Sept. without designating “what proportion of them are for the War” (DLC:GW).

The LS for Jefferson includes a postscript: “The foregoing is circular to the several States—The circumstances of Your Line put it out of my power to transmit a Return.” A note on the draft postscript indicates its inclusion with the letter for North Carolina; that letter has not been found.

1GW presumably enclosed information from “A Return of Men Ingaged for the War,” which he wrote on 18 Oct. (DLC:GW; see also General Orders, 10 Oct., n.3). The return showed the privates in the Continental infantry and cavalry serving for the war: New Hampshire (398), Massachusetts (1,618), Rhode Island (219), Connecticut (1,422), New York (965), New Jersey (896), and Pennsylvania (2,495); total, 8,013. The return also showed that 12,321 new enlistments were required “for the Establishmt proposed to Congress,” with this distribution: New Hampshire (826), Massachusetts (5,752), Rhode Island (393), Connecticut (2,022), New York (909), New Jersey (328), and Pennsylvania (2,691). For the levies leaving the army at the end of 1780, see Trumbull to GW, 31 Aug., n.3.

2The waters near New York City froze during the winters of 1779 and 1780 (see Stirling to GW, 28 Dec. 1778, and GW to William Irvine, 10 Jan. 1780).

3Maj. Gen. Richard Montgomery died during a failed attack on Quebec on 31 Dec. 1775 (see GW to Joseph Reed, 1 Feb. 1776, and to John Hancock, 9 Feb. 1776).

5Congress gave GW the responsibility for supplying “proper returns to ascertain the Deficiencies of Troops in the respective States” (Huntington to state governments, 26 Oct., in Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 16:263).

6For replies to this circular letter, see Clinton to GW, 31 Oct.; Greene to GW, 8 Dec.; and Abner Nash to GW, 14 Dec. (all DLC:GW); see also GW to Trumbull, 1 Nov., postscript, found at Trumbull to GW, 27 Oct., n.3.

Index Entries