George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Knox, 5 August 1793

From Henry Knox

War department August 5th 1793


It was on the 3d instant agreed between the heads of the departments and the Attorney General that each individual should submit his opinion to you in Writing upon the propriety of calling Congress together before the period at which they are to assemble.1

In the present state of things in this Country as well as in Europe an expectation of uncommon events has been generally excited. The prudent and sober part of the community regard, as in the case of storm, the mind and countenance of the Chief Pilot—while he remains confident and composed, happiness is diffused around—But when he doubts then anxiety and fear has its full effect.

Most of the cases which have yet occurred as relative to foreign powers have been the proper business of the Executive; and the Opinions of the Judiciary seem to indicate that all the measures hitherto adopted for the preservation of the peace have been proper and wise2—For any case of a similar nature which may probably arise prior to the session of Congress it is probable the powers of the President may be adequate.

The Southern Indian business may indeed require the early attention of Congress—But when it shall be considered that this attention could be anticipated but a little and that a Winters Campaign according to General Pickens opinion, would be an hazardous operation, much would not be gained by calling Congress together one Month sooner than they would otherwise assemble.3 For it may be doubted whether if a proclamation should be issued immediately that a full Congress would be assembled much before the first day of November.

If they to gain one Month only Congress should be called it is probable the public mind both at home and abroad would be filled with doubts and perplexities, public Credit might be affected and great domestic distress ensue.

After placing this question in several attitudes the balance of my mind is that it is probable the measure of calling Congress together at this time would produce greater evil than good. I have the honor to be with perfect respect Your most obedient humble Servant.

H. Knox


1For GW’s solicitation of an opinion from the cabinet, see GW to Cabinet, 3 Aug. 1793. For the opinions of the other cabinet members, see Jefferson to GW, 4 Aug. (second letter), Hamilton to GW, 5 Aug., and Randolph to GW, 5 Aug. 1793, and enclosure. In compliance with Article I, section 4, of the Constitution, Congress was scheduled to convene on Monday, 2 Dec. 1793.

2Knox may be referring to Supreme Court justice James Wilson’s charge of 22 July 1793 to the grand jury at a session of the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Pennsylvania. The jury had convened to hear the government’s case against Gideon Henfield, a mariner on trial for his service aboard a French privateer. In this charge, Wilson had written: “That a Citizen, who, in our State of Neutrality, and without the Authority of the Nation, takes an hostile Part with either of the belligerant Powers, violates thereby his Duty, and the Laws of his Country, is a Position so plain as to require no Proof, and to be scarcely susceptible of Denial” (Documentary History of the Supreme Court description begins Maeva Marcus et al., eds. The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789–1800. 8 vols. New York, 1985-2007. description ends , 2:414–24). Wilson’s charge was printed in two Philadelphia newspapers on 25 July 1793 (Dunlap’s Amerian Daily Advertiser and Federal Gazette and Philadelphia Daily Advertiser). On the jury’s failure to convict Henfield, see GW to Cabinet, 3 Aug., n.4.

3On the possibility of a military expedition against hostile Indians in the South, see Henry Knox to GW, 25 July, and the enclosed memorandum from Knox and Andrew Pickens of 24 July, and GW to Knox and Pickens, 26 July 1793; see also enclosures one and two in Knox’s second letter to GW of 5 Aug. 1793.

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