George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Simeon DeWitt, 23 November 1780

From Simeon DeWitt

Ringwood [N.J.] Novr 23d 1780


I did not intend to have troubled your Excellency with any applications for an appointment in the Geographical Department, thinking that of what samples of my abilities, the few oppertunities I have had have enabled me to give, were thought satisfactory, I would naturally be considered as the first Candidate for the present Vacancy:1 but since other applications have been made, Justice to myself demands an unreserved declaration of my sentiments on the subject.

The qualifications necessary for executing with propriety the business of a Geographer are perhaps more than what every pretender to the profession conceives—Drawing and surveying tho’ absolutely necessary are the smallest requisites—In making Maps of any extent and laying down the surface of a Globe as if it were a plane very sensible errors will arise; in order to correct which a knowlege of Plain Trigonometry is by no means sufficient, but it requires a perfect Acquaintance with the Doctrine of Sphericks—The most accurate Mensuration that can possibly be made especially on an irregular surface will never be totally perfect, and when a thousand different surveys come to be Joined, the result of all the Errors will somewhere appear; In this case by the help of Astronomy only such correction can be made as will bring the work nearer to perfection—Other matters which at first appear to be meer Punctilio’s, Experience will teach a skillfull practitioner to consider as deserving of his notice. I would not have made these observations, were it probable they would on the first reflection occur to any but those who have been employed in a business where it is necessary they should be attended to.

Concerning those who have offered themselves as Candidates for the head of this Department I beg leave freely to speak my Opinion, as far as my acquaintance with them extends—Mr Watkins may, thro’ the Artifice of his relations, have some Gentleman so far influenced as to receive a Recommendation; but from what I have seen of his performances, I am fully convinced he is by no means adequate to the Business2—Scull I have been with as long as he acted under Mr Erskine, and consequently know the extent of his Abilities: He is an excellent surveyor as far as practice can make a man such, but in Theory so much deficient as not to know how to take the Lattitude of a place.3

Were I entirely disinterested it would perhaps be criminal in me to make these remarks, but since it is now to be determined Whether the honor of our works is to devolve to those who are entituled to it or not, and others are coveting the rewards of our labors, I Would feel guilty in keeping silent on the subject.

When the War first commenced in this State I had Just finished my College Education and intended to devote myself to the study of some one of the liberal Professions, but the Commotions of the times prevented it4—Governor Clinton, hearing that Mr Erskine was to be appointed Geographer to the Army, Without any previous solicitations on my part recommended me as a proper person for an assistant and as the business perfectly suited my taste, at the same time that there was A Prospect of receiving every improvement from Acting Under a person of the most approved Abilities I readily engaged and have not been disappointed—Having by these means my Views carried off from their Original Object and no channel at this time presenting itself thro’ which I may attain that established reputation necessary for conducting a person thro’ the world with honor as well as usefullness to society, my ambition must naturally direct me to aim at excelling in what is now become my profession and in which I flatter myself with a competent proficiency—These are the principle reasons why I would wish to continue in a line Where I can expect to be most serviceable should my Country think me a person proper to succeed to the Vacancy made by the Death of Mr Erskine.

To recommend one’s self carries with it a presumption that his Character is not established—I acknowlege it to be the case with me; for after considering the short history I have given of myself it will readily be granted, that there tis no possibility for any but my Tutors or the Person Under whose inspection I acted in this Department, to know how far my abilities extend, or which way my genius may point for the proper sphere of my actions.

If I was honourably disengaged from the Army I would not in the least be solicitious for a post which another might possess but circumstanced as I now am I cannot but conceive my Reputation at stake while there are persons who endeavour to get me dismiss’d from the service to make room for themselves: This subjects me to the disagreable necessity of speaking concerning myself with a freedom Which at any other time could not fail to excite a blush.

I hope the occasion of this Letter will apologize to your Excellency for any deviation from that Modesty I would always wish to observe in mentioning personal Concerns.5 I am with perfect esteem Your Excellency’s most Obedient Humble servt

Simeon DeWitt

ALS, DLC:GW. GW’s aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman wrote “recommended to Congress” on the docket.

1Robert Erskine, geographer and surveyor of the roads, had died of pneumonia in October.

2Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne had written GW from camp at Totowa on 22 Nov.: “At the particular request of Mr Watkins I took the liberty to mention him to your Excellency as a Gentleman who wished to succeed the late Mr Erskine in the Geographical Department: since which I put into your hands a specimen of his performance, he has again called at my Quarters, & believe he would wish to be employed in surveying the Roads &ca until your Excellency makes choice Of the principle—for which he is yet a Candidate” (ALS, DLC:GW; ADfS, PHi: Wayne Papers). The “specimen” is a map of New York and New Jersey west of the Hudson River, titled “Part of the Counties of Bergen & Orange From a Survey made by Jn Watkins,” as well as a map of a prospective earthwork, titled “Fortification on Saddle River, N.J.” (both DLC:GW).

GW replied to Wayne from headquarters at Passaic Falls on the same date: “The appointment to which you interest yourself in behalf of Mr Watkins does not lay ultimately with me, but as it is more than probable that Congress will consult me before they nominate a successor to Mr Erskine, I think it but a peice of candor to declare that I shall think myself obliged in justice to Mr De Witt, who has been long and constantly in the Office & of whose abilities I have heard Mr Irskine speak in very high terms—to recommend him to the vacancy occasioned by Mr Erskines death. I have been unreserved upon the occasion, because it would not be treating a Gentleman of Mr Watkins’s character with propriety, to amuse him with false expectations” (Df, in Tench Tilghman’s writing, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW; GW inserted the phrase beginning with “&” and ending with “terms,” except for the word “heard,” which Tilghman wrote above GW’s interlineation).

John W. Watkins (1757–1813), whose father, a wealthy merchant, returned to England soon after the outbreak of the war, served as lieutenant in the 1st New York Regiment in 1776. He became captain in Col. William Malcom’s Additional Continental Regiment in March 1777 but resigned that October to serve as aide-de-camp to Major General Stirling. Watkins joined Erskine’s team of cartographers in 1778. He married Judith Livingston, youngest daughter of New Jersey governor William Livingston, on 6 April 1780. Watkins later settled with his family in New York and unsuccessfully pursued a legal career. For a characterization of Watkins as “an extreme helpless Man” when it came to financial management, see Catharine W. Livingston to John Jay, 9 Nov. 1783, in Selected Papers of John Jay description begins Elizabeth M. Nuxoll et al., eds. The Selected Papers of John Jay. 6 vols. to date. Charlottesville, Va., 2010–. description ends , 3:511–13, quote on 512; see also William Livingston to Susannah French Livingston, 9 March 1780, and Livingston to Watkins, 13 March, in Prince, Livingston Papers description begins Carl E. Prince et al., eds. The Papers of William Livingston. 5 vols. Trenton and New Brunswick, N.J., 1979–88. description ends , 3:322–23, 329).

3William Scull had written GW from Reading, Pa., on 29 Oct.: “Since my obtaining your Excellency’s permission to leave the Geographical Department on account of the perplex’d situation of my private affairs, & also from the expectation of a speedy establishment in the Land Office of Pennsylvania, an alteration in my circumstances, & a probability that no arrangement in that office will take place for a considerable length of time, induces me to apply to your Excellency for the post of Geographer to the Army, vacant as I hear by the death of Mr Erskine, provided you should think my abilities competent to a station of that importance.

“An intermitting fever, from which I am not quite recovered, prevents my waiting personally on your Excellency, & oblidges me to have recourse to the way of Letter” (ALS, DLC:GW). Scull had joined the geography department in July 1778.

4DeWitt graduated from Queen’s College, now Rutgers University, in 1776.

5GW replied to DeWitt from headquarters at New Windsor on 16 Dec. 1780: “I have the pleasure to inform you, that you are appointed by the Honble The Congress to succeed the late Mr Erskine, as Surveyor to the Army; and have to request that you will attend at Head Quarters, as soon as may be. … P.S. You will be pleased to bring the Papers of the Office with you” (LS, in David Humphreys’s writing, in private hands; see also GW to Samuel Huntington, 26 Nov.; Huntington to GW, 6 Dec.; and General Orders, 15 Dec.).

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