George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Knox, 21 February 1784

From Henry Knox

Boston February 21, 1784

Agreably to my promise my dear sir, I write you from this place, and flatter myself with the hope, that although my letter contains no important intelligence, yet it may not be unpleasing to you.

Your calm retreat, of mount Vernon, must be a source of ineffable delight to you. you can from thence, take a retrospective view, of the critical exigencies of the War, and see a thousand ways, by which, the issue might have been the reverse of what it is. And your happiness, must be in proportion, to the extreme difficulties, and dangers, of the contest, and the immense blessings secured to your country, by the glorious peace, contrasted with the miseries consequent upon an unfortunate termination.

We have little or no politicks—all commerce frozen up, by the uncommon severity of the season, but better prospects in the Spring—These are now upon the stocks in different parts of the state, for the fisheries and other branches of trade, upwards of 800 Vessels which will be at Sea, early in the summer.

New Hampshire and this State have come into the impost exactly as proposed by Congress—and it appears to be pretty certain that Rhode Island and Connecticut, will be induced to come into it. Many sensible men are for the powers of the union being Legislated but no measures are proposed to effect it.1

The Cincinnati appears (however groundless) to be an object of jealousy. The idea is, that it has been created by a foreign influence, in order to change our forms of Government and this opinion is strengthened by a letter from one of our Ministers abroad. Burkes pamphlet has had its full operation The cool dispassionately sensible men, seem to approve of the institution generally, but dislike the hereditary descent.2 The two branches of the Legislature of this State vizt the Assembly, and Senate, have chosen a committee, “To inquire into any associations, or combinations,3 to introduce undue distinctions into the community, and which may have a tendency to create a race of hereditary nobility, contrary to the confederation of the United States, and the spirit of the constitution of this commonwealth.” They have not yet reported, and perhaps they will not 4—The same sentiments, pervade New England—The society here have had a respectable meeting in Boston, on the 18th instant at which Genl Lincoln presided—Genl Heath was not present. A Committee was chosen to attend the General Meeting at Philadelphia next may. Genl R. Putnam—Colo. Cobb, Colonel Hull, Major Sargent and myself—probably only two will attend. It was thought prudent, not to make any honorary members at present—The officers and soldiers conduct themselves in an exemplary manner, and are generally as industrious as any part of the community.

I wrote your excellency from West point on the 3d ultimo enclosing the returns, and a particular account of matters there which I hope met your appprobation—and I also wrote You a line on the 9th of the same month the day I sat out from thence—We reside at Dorchester about five miles from Town & in a very agreable situation. I shall hope for the pleasure of hearing from you at your leisure. Mrs Knox presents her sincere and ardent affection to Mrs Washington, and proposes to write particularly to her soon, and I also beg my respectful compliments may be added—I am my dear sir Your truly respectful and affectionate humble Servant

H. Knox

ALS, DLC:GW; ADfS, NNGL: Knox Papers.

1In his circular letter of 8 June 1783, GW urged state approval of Congress’s impost request of April 1783. See JCC, description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends 24:257–61. The Massachusetts legislature accepted the proposed impost in the fall of 1783 as did New Hampshire in January and Connecticut in May 1784, but Rhode Island held out until February 1786. By “upon the stocks,” Knox meant the vessels were at anchor.

2Public opposition to the Society of the Cincinnati found expression in New England early in 1784 and continued unabated until after the first general meeting of the society in Philadelphia in May 1784. Aedanus Burke’s influential pamphlet attacking the Cincinnati, Considerations on the Society or Order of Cincinnati (1783), was reprinted in Connecticut and Rhode Island; and on 29 Jan. and 5 Feb. 1784 the editor of Boston’s Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser printed long excerpts from it in his paper. Both John Jay and John Adams disapproved of the Society of the Cincinnati; but Adams wrote Lafayette from The Hague on 28 Mar. 1784 that he had “written nothing to America upon the subject” (Adams, Works of John Adams, description begins Charles Francis Adams, ed. The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: With a Life of the Author, Notes, and Illustrations. 10 vols. 1850–56. Reprint. New York, 1971. description ends 8:92–93), and the earliest letter on the subject from Jay that has been found is one to Elbridge Gerry from Paris dated 19 Feb. 1784 (Morris, Jay Papers, description begins Richard B. Morris et al., eds. John Jay: The Making of a Revolutionary. Unpublished Papers, 1745–1780. New York, 1975. description ends 2:694–95). See note 4.

3In his draft of this letter, Knox wrote “which have or may be formed” after the word “combinations.”

4On 16 Feb. 1784 the Massachusetts senate joined the lower house in forming a committee “to consider what measures are necessary to be taken in order to prevent the Ill consequences of any Combinations that are or may hereafter be formed to promote undue Distinctions among the Citizens of this Free State, and tending to Establish an Hereditary Nobility, contrary to the Confederation of the United States and the Spirit of the Constitution of this Commonwealth” (Journal of Massachusetts Senate description begins “Journal of [Massachusetts] Senate, 1783–84.” (Microfilm Collection of Early State Records.) description ends ). In conformity to the committee’s report, on 26 Feb. 1784 a second joint committee was “appointed to enquire into the Existence, nature[,] object & probable tendency or effect of an Order or Society, called the Cincinnati” (Journal of Massachusetts Senate description begins “Journal of [Massachusetts] Senate, 1783–84.” (Microfilm Collection of Early State Records.) description ends , 22 Mar. 1784). The committee’s report of 22 Mar. condemned the Cincinnati as a threat both to “publick liberty” and to “the liberties of the State.” The society was seen as likely to lead to the establishment of an hereditary nobility, “which is contrary to the spirit of free government.” The Massachusetts legislature concluded “that the said Society, called the Cincinnati, is unjustifiable, and if not properly discountenanced, may be dangerous to the peace, liberty and safety of the United States in general, and this Commonwealth in particular” (quoted in Wallace Evan Davies, “The Society of the Cincinnati in New England, 1783–1800,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 5 [1948], 3–25).

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