George Washington Papers

From George Washington to George Clinton, 14 September 1791

To George Clinton

[Philadelphia] Sepr 14th [1791]


Your letter of the 7th instant, with its inclosure, did not reach me ’till yesterday.

The intelligence, it communicates, is of a nature both serious and important. Indeed, the step it announces, as about to be taken by the British, would be one so extraordinary in every view, as to justify a question, whether the indications, which are alleged to have been given, have not rather proceeded from some indiscreet levity on the part of the officers alluded to, than from any real design of doing what appears to have been threatened. A little time however will explain the true state of the matter.

Your Excellency need not I am persuaded be assured that, in connection with the more general considerations which are involved in the circumstance, I feel a due concern for any injury, inconvenience or dissatisfaction which may have arisen or may arise, in respect to the state of New York, or any part of its Inhabitants, in consequence of the detention of the posts, or the interferences, which may have grown out of it. Nor has the matter failed to receive from me the degree of attention to which it is intitled. Yet in a point of such vast magnitude as that of the preservation of the peace of the Union—particularly in this still very early stage of our affairs, and at a period so little remote from a most exhausting and affecting, though successful war, the public welfare and safety evidently enjoin a conduct of circumspection, moderation and forbearance. And it is relied upon that the known good sense of the community ensures its approbation of such a conduct.

There are however bounds to the spirit of forbearance which ought not to be exceeded. Events may occur which may demand a departure from it. But if extremities are at any time to ensue, it is of the utmost consequence that they should be the result of a deliberate plan—not of an accidental or hasty collision; and that they should appear both at home and abroad to have flowed either from a necessity which left no alternative, or from a combination of advantageous circumstances which left no doubt of the expediency of hazarding them.

Under the impression of this opinion, and supposing that the event which is apprehended should be realised, it is my desire, that no hostile measure be in the first instance attempted.

With a view nevertheless to such ultimate proceedings as the nature of the case may require, and that upon the ground of well authenticated facts, I have concluded to send a Gentleman to the spot—who will be charged to ascertain and report to me whatever may take place; and with as much precision together with the general situation of the part of the Country immediately affected by the vicinity of the British Posts.1 An additional motive to this measure is the desire of obtaining information in reference to the establishment of the Custom House in the State of Vermont; which is also connected with the position of those posts &c.2 I have the honor to be with due consideration & respt Your Excellys most Obedt Sert


Df, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; LB, DLC:GW; copy, NHi: Henry O’Reilly Collection.

1Gov. George Clinton’s letter of 7 Sept. arrived at the capital as GW prepared to leave for a month’s vacation at Mount Vernon. As Thomas Jefferson had already left Philadelphia for Monticello eleven days earlier, GW immediately consulted with Henry Knox, and perhaps Alexander Hamilton, about measures to be taken in the face of the latest British encroachments on the Champlain frontier. On 13 or 14 Sept. Knox provided GW with a draft of instructions for a private gentleman secretly to make observations of the disputed area, and the two apparently decided, before GW left Philadelphia in the afternoon of 15 Sept., to send Maj. John Doughty on the mission. Tobias Lear drafted a letter to Knox that day, transmitting a copy of Clinton’s letter and its enclosures and returning “the draft of Instructions relative thereto, wh[ich] have been submitted to the Presidt & meet his approbation” (DLC:GW). The letter-book copy of those instructions reads: “You having been appointed by the President of the United States, to ascertain the existing circumstances relative to the Posts or places which are occupied by the troops of his Britanic Majesty on Lake Champlain within the limits of the United States, are immediately to proceed on that business. You will observe, by the Copy of the annexed letter from his Excellency Governor Clinton, dated the 7th day of the present month, and the copies of the papers transmitted to him by Colonel Woolsey, that it would appear, the british Officer commanding on Lake Champlain, or in its vicinity, has had it in contemplation to establish a new military Post, further advanced within the territory of the United States, than the Posts which have been occupied by british garrisons since the conclusion of the late war, namely at point Au fer, and at Dutchman’s Point. It is of high moment to ascertain whether the intentions of establishing such posts as expressed according to the above papers on the 11th day of the last Month to Pliny Moore Esquire, have been actually carried into execution. If you should find this to be the case, you will ascertain the relative distance and situation of such post, with the other posts hitherto occupied by the british troops since the late war. You will also ascertain the nature of such post, and the strength of its garrison, and, as far as possible, the reasons which have induced the measure. You will also inquire whether any of the Citizens of the United States have been injured in their persons or habitations by the establishment of such post. You will also endeavour to ascertain the times, causes and effects of the former insults stated by his Excellency Governor Clinton. In this part of your duty the prevailing tempers and dispositions of the british garrisons, and the neighbouring inhabitants or Citizens of the United States will be other objects of your inquiry, and also the distance of such Citizens or Inhabitants from the usual garrisons—and You will ascertain the distance of Point Au fer and Dutchman’s Point from the 45º of Latitude. It has been stated that the law of the United States has been obstructed in respect to the establishment of a Post at Allburgh, the Nothern part of the lake Champlain, it being alledged that the said place is within a district occupied by a british Garrison. You will investigate this matter, and finding it to be as stated, you will also ascertain upon full information such other place on the east side of the Lake, within the State of Vermont, as would be proper, all circumstances considered, to be substituted in lieu of said Allburgh, or until the United States shall come into possession thereof. Your business will be simply to ascertain facts with all possible precision. You will therefore conduct your inquiries with perfect temper and moderation, avoiding every appearance of menacing or threatening to the british troops. Having fully executed this trust, with which you are commissioned, you will return to this city and make in writing to me an ample and accurate report of your mission, in order that it may be submitted to the President of the United States” (DLC:GW). The matter apparently continued to press on GW’s mind, as he asked Bartholomew Dandridge, who accompanied him to Virginia, to write Lear from Chester, Pa., requesting immediate transmittal of the relevant papers to Knox (see Dandridge to Lear, 15 Sept., in Lear to GW, 18–19 Sept., n.1). Knox informed GW on 19 Sept. that Doughty arrived at the capital after having been sent for by express and would leave for Lake Champlain immediately.

John Doughty (1754–1826) of Morristown, N.J., declined his promotion from major of the Artillery Battalion to lieutenant colonel commandant of the 2d Regiment, raised in March 1791 for Arthur St. Clair’s campaign against the Indians of the Northwest (GW to the U.S. Senate, 3 Mar., enclosure; Knox to Doughty, 4 Mar., NNGL: Knox Papers; DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972–. description ends 2:518), and instead retired from the service to care for his aged parents and sister. After the expiration on 1 June of the furlough he had enjoyed since the conclusion in late 1790 of the Wabash expedition of Josiah Harmar, Doughty apparently visited Knox at the capital and settled his accounts with the federal government (Doughty to Knox, 8 Mar., Knox to Doughty, 27 Mar., both in NNGL: Knox Papers). Doughty was probably considered for the Champlain mission not just for his availability, however. GW and Knox were well aware that he had the eye of an engineer, as demonstrated by his construction of forts Harmar and Washington on the Ohio River in 1788 and 1790 (see Knox to GW, 27 Nov. 1789, n.1), and they trusted his judgment and discretion, as shown by their selecting him for the delicate peace mission to the Cherokee and Choctaw in March 1790. Only Doughty’s heroism saved the remnant of his command when renegade Indians ambushed that mission, and his coolness under fire on the Wabash expedition was also well noted (see GW to the Chiefs of the Choctaw Nation, 17 Dec. 1789, source note; Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:83–85). Doughty’s private letter to Knox upon the conclusion of the Champlain mission, dated Morristown, 26 Oct. 1791, reads: “I reached my distressed Cottage Yesterday & found it the seat of affliction, what with the Trouble of my family & the fateague of my Journey, (not a Day of which have I rested & the whole boisterous & disagreeable Weather). I find myself so unwell, as to make it impossible for me to leave Home immediately. My Mind disturbed & my Body scorched with a fever all last night, I have as well as I am able digested my notes upon my late Mission & have sent them to you, I hope they will be satisfactory—I have endeavoured to gain the best Information upon every Point that you wished—I beg you to dispense with my personal Attendance at Philada for the present, as soon as I am able I will wait upon you, if it is necessary immediately, every Consideration shall give Way to that of Duty—let me know by the first Post, direct to me at New Ark to the Care of Abrhm Ogden Esqr. You mentioned to me that you wished my Mission to be kept perfectly secret, this Injunction has been sacredly observed by me, but how could it be expected the Buisiness should be secret? Govr Clinton had written to Coll Woolsey that a Gentleman would be appointed to this Duty, & wrote by ⟨me⟩ that I was the person—Govr Chittenden gave Hints of the Buisiness to several Gentlemen after having read my Instructions—I did not see Coll Woolsey, nor did I forward his Letter till on my Return—my Informations of Course was obtained informal & without any Person on the spott knowing that I acted in a public Capacity. I have sent you a short Journal of my Tour, it will convince you that I have not been idle—I never saw such boisterous disagreeable Weather as the whole of the Time I was on the Lakes—it was impossible several Days to go out of Port—on the 13th it snowed hard & was good slaying at St John’s. The enclosed map is sent by Coll Keys to Coll Hamilton, you will observed I have marked the Places mentioned in my official letter—please to give the Map to Coll Hamilton. I beg you to make my best Respects to Mrs & Miss Knox & to beleive me your affecte friend & servt” (NNGL: Knox Papers). Neither the map nor his notes and journal has been found. Only fragments remain of the copy of Doughty’s report of 26 Oct. to Knox (N: George Clinton Papers) that burned in the New York Capitol fire of 1911. The editors wish to thank Theodore J. Crackel and Kathryn M. Willis of the Papers of the War Department, 1784–1800, East Stroudsburg University, East Stroudsburg, Pa., for their assistance in locating that report.

2For the disturbances over the new customhouse at Alburg, Vt., see Jefferson to GW, 5 June, n.2.

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