George Washington Papers

To George Washington from William Heron, 26 July 1790

From William Heron

New York, Monday Morning 26th July 1790


Notwithstanding that I have not the Honour of being personally acquainted with you, and that a stranger attempting to introduce himself labours under peculiar embarrassments yet, having the most perfect reliance on your Candour, I venture to address the following Lines to you. I arriv’d here last night from Reading in the State of Connecticut (where I belong) on an Eriand which gives me pain to make the Subject of this Letter, knowing your precious time must be engross’d by business of the most Important and Momentous nature (which must be forever inseparable from your exalted station) to admit of much attention to the concerns of private individuals: But judging it impossible for me to avail myself of a season when you may be more at leisure or free from Publick cares, I have at length prevail’d with myself no longer to postpone what I have for some time past in anxious comtemplation, but to lay before you my humble Request for some appointment under Government which wou’d enable me to bring up, and educate a young family whose welfare, next to Serving my ⟨illegible⟩ must constitute the ultimate end of my views & pursuit at this side the Grave. I must be very sensible that an Application of this nature must appear singular when it comes from a stranger whose Character & merit you are unacquainted with. (and without the patronage of Influential Characters to introduce him to Notice[)]: As to the latter requisite it is what I have done without thus far through life; and as to the former, that of Character, I trust I can place that in somewhat a fair point of view by the testimony of some of the most respectable members in Congress belonging to Connecticut with whom I have had the honour of serving many years in the Legislature of that State, and have still the happiness of enjoying & retaining the publick Confidence as a member of that Body, which perhaps is the best Criterion to know one’s Moral and political Character. I think it premature at present to call upon those Gentlemen to Vouch for me before I know whether my present request will be attended to; and doubtless a thought will naturally Occur on this occasion as to the Ground of my Claim. I can only say that I presume to no extra ordinary share of meritorious services to found my claim upon, nor is it probable that every person employ’d in the Service of the public has a better title than I have. I had a friend, however, were he alive, wou’d have been able to say some things for me on the Score of merit too, but alas!, he is no more.

The late General Parsons1 had it in his power to make such representations in my behalf as delicacy will not allow myself to do; and at the time of your Excellency’s first coming to the Head of the Government, he repeatedly offer’d to do it, but for one or two Reasons I wou’d not allow him to interest himself in my behalf at that period. One reason was that my Circumstances were at that time (as I conceiv’d) in a situation to place me above it, and the other that I felt a Reluctance in adding to the Number of the numerous applicants who under various pretensions were Soliciting for places.

It gives me pain to be thus prolix, and therefore I shall only beg leave to call to your Remembrance the affair of intercepting or stopping Arnold’s Correspondce with the enemy at the time he had it contemplation to betray West Point into their Hands;2 that event perhaps, may have been attended with more salutary Consequences to the public than many Actions of greater Brilliancy. I am the person who (after perusing their Contents) put those secret dispatches of Arnold’s into the Hands of General Parsons to whom I disclos’d my fears and Apprehensions notwithstanding the Ambiguity & darkness of the terms in which they were disguis’d. Had those dispatches reach’d those for whom they were intended it is clear that no interview wou’d have taken place betwixt them & Arnold till he had his Measures concerted; and your Excellency alone must be the most & only competant Judge of the Consequences.

It was highly gratifying to me at that time to have been told by some of those respectable Officers in the Army that your Excellency paid a Compliment to the address & p⟨e⟩netration of the person who dare venture to entertain suspicions of (and communicate them too) so popular a Military Character as Arnold was. Mr Varick, the present Mayor of this City, had Occasion to make use of my testimony on his trial at that time, which I only mention as a Circumstance to Identify myself, being a stranger to you.

I am aware that even if your Excellency shou’d be dispos’d to attend to my request, I may perhaps, at this time, be improvident in my application on Account of no Vacancy existing at present: Shou’d I be so fortunate as to merit your notice, and to be assur’d that any thing can be done for me at any future period, it is as much as I can expect at present. This may be done by ordering a Billet to be left at my quarters at Mrs Hall’s No. 190 Waterstreet, where I shall remain till to-morrow afternoon. or directed in my absence to Mr Sturgis in Congress who will forward it to me, this will remove suspense from the mind of your Excellency’s most obedt & h’ble Servt3

William Heron


William Heron (1742–1819) was born in Cork, Ireland, and probably attended but did not graduate from Trinity College in Dublin. He emigrated to the American colonies and settled on Redding Ridge in Fairfield County, Conn., where he was a schoolteacher and surveyor. During the Revolutionary War he openly sided with the Americans and served in the state legislature from 1778 to 1782. On 6 April 1782 Gen. Samuel Holden Parsons recommended Heron’s intelligence-gathering abilities to GW: “He has frequently brought me the most accurate Descriptions of the Posts occupied by the Enemy & more rational Accounts of their Numbers, Strength & Designs than I have been able to obtain in any other Way.” Parsons characterized Heron as “a consistant rational, Whig,” and noted: “his Enemies suggest he carries on an illicit Trade with the Enemy; but I have livd Two Years the next Door to him and am fully convinc’d he never had a single Article of any Kind for Sale during that Time nor do I beleive he was in the most distant Manner connected with Commerce at that Time or any subsequent Period” (DLC:GW).

Heron’s cruises of Long Island Sound and requests for flags of truces alerted the suspicions of some of his countrymen, and evidence later discovered in Sir Henry Clinton’s “Secret Service Record of Private Daily Intelligence” has led some historians to believe Heron was a double agent. A close examination of the copies of Heron’s single dispatch, three letters, and minutes of three conversations found in that source, however, shows that the information he passed on to the British, unlike the intelligence he gave to Parsons, was dated, misleading, and of little value to military planners. His unsuccessful plot to obtain money from the British commander by convincing him that Parson’s loyalty could be bought was no doubt motivated more by self-interest than patriotism and had the unfortunate and unforeseen result of impugning Parson’s honor among later historians (see Hall, Life and Letters of Parsons, description begins Charles S. Hall. Life and Letters of Samuel Holden Parsons: Major General in the Continental Army and Chief Judge of the Northwestern Territory, 1737-1789. Binghamton, N.Y., 1905. description ends 418–60).

Heron’s secret dealings with the enemy during the war never became known during his lifetime, and he continued to be elected to the Connecticut Assembly between 1784 and 1796. His family in 1790 consisted of his wife and himself, their two sons and six daughters, and one slave. GW never gave Heron a federal appointment, but President John Adams did nominate him on 16 July 1798 to be commissioner of the 4th Division of Valuation of the state of Connecticut (Heads of Families [Connecticut], description begins Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790: Connecticut. 1908. Reprint. Spartanburg, S.C., 1964. description ends 27; Executive Journal, description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America: From the commencement of the First, to the termination of the Nineteenth Congress. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C., 1828. description ends 1:287, 289).

1For the death of Samuel Holden Parsons in the Northwest Territory, see Winthrop Sargent to GW, 27 Nov. 1789.

2When Heron approached Parsons at the end of August 1780 for permission to travel behind British lines ostensibly to collect a debt, that officer sent him to Gen. Benedict Arnold, the commander of American forces at West Point, for the necessary pass. In addition to the pass, Arnold privately gave Heron on the morning of 30 Aug. a letter addressed to “Mr. John Anderson, merchant, to the care of James Osborne to be left at the Rev. Mr. Odell’s, New York.” Heron later testified, “As soon as I received the letter and viewed the superscription, which was written in a feigned hand, I must confess that I felt a jealousy or a suspicion that I never before experienced concerning any person of his rank. . . . I deemed it my duty to deliver the letter in question to General Parsons, instead of carrying it where it was directed, which I accordingly did on my return from the lines.” The coded letter of 30 Aug. 1780 (signed “Gustavus”) was Arnold’s acknowledgment and acceptance of the offers the British had made in return for the surrender of West Point. On 10 Sept. 1780 Heron gave the letter to Parsons who supposed it referred only to Arnold’s private business ventures and did not forward it to GW. It therefore played no role in the capture on 23 Sept. 1780 of its intended recipient, Maj. John André of the British army, or in bringing Arnold’s treason to light (Carl Van Doren, Secret History of the American Revolution [New York, 1951], 296–99, 470).

3Tobias Lear acknowledged receipt of Heron’s application the same day it was sent and stated that the president “has directed me to inform you, that there is at present no vacant Office to which you can be appointed, and to confine himself by any engagement to fill an Office before the time arrives in which he is to make the nomination or appointment, would be a departure from that Line which he has invariably pursued during his administration of the present Government” (Lear to Heron, 26 July 1790, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

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