George Washington Papers

From George Washington to James Madison, 14 October 1793

To James Madison

Mount Vernon 14th Oct. 1793

⟨My⟩ dear Sir, (Private)

The calamitous situation of Philadelphia and the little prospect from present appearances of its eligibility to receive Congress by the first monday in Decembr involves a serious difficulty.

It has been intimated by some, that the President ought, by Proclamation, to convene Congress a few days before the above period, at some other place—and by others, (although in extraordinary cases he has power to convene, yet) that he has none to change the place. Mr Jefferson when here on his way home, was of the latter opinion; but the laws were not fully examined; nor was the case at that time so serious as it now is. From the Attorney General to whom I have since written on this subject, requesting an Official opinion,1 I have received no answer; nor is it probable I shall do it soon, as I believe he has no communication with the Post Office.

Time presses, and the malady at the usual place of meeting is becoming more & more alarming. What then, do you think is the most advisable cours⟨e⟩ for me to pursue in the present exig⟨ency?⟩ Summons Congress to meet at a ce⟨rt⟩ai⟨n⟩ time & place in their legislative capacity? Simply to state facts, & say I will meet the members at the time & place just mentioned, for ulterior arrangements? or leave matters as they are, if there is no power i⟨n⟩ the Executive to alter the place, legally?

In the first & second cases (especial⟨ly⟩ the first) the delicacy of my naming a place will readily occur to you. My wishes are, that Congress could have been assemble⟨d⟩ at German town (to shew I meant no part⟨i⟩ality) leaving it to themselves if there should appear no prospect of getting into Philadelphia soon, to decide on what shd be done thereafter; but accts say that some people have died in German town also, of the malignant fever. Every death, however, is now ascribed to that cause, be the disorder what it may.

Wilmington & Trenton are nearly equidistant from Philadelphia in opposite directions; but both are on the gre⟨at⟩ thoroughfare and equally exposed to danger from the multitude of Travellers & neither may have a Chamber suffic’t for the Ho. of Representatives—Annapolis and Lancaster are more secure and have good accomodations; but to name either, especially the first, would be thought to favour the Southern convenience most perhaps might be attributed to local views—especially as New York is talked of for this purpose. Reading if there are proper conveniences at it would favour neither the Southern nor Northern interest most, but would be alike to both.

I have written to Mr Jefferson on this subject 2—notwithstanding which I would thank you for your opinion, & that fully, as you see my embarrassment. I even ask more, I would thank you (not being acquainted with forms & having no one with me that is.) to sketch some instrument for publication proper for the case you think most expedient for me to pursue in the present state of things, if the members are to be called together as beforementioned. The difficulty of keeping Clerks in the public Offices had, in a manner, suspended business before I left Philada; and the heads of Departments having matters of private concernment which required them to be absent, has prevented my return thither longer than I had intended—but I have now called upon the several Secretaries to meet me there or in the vicinity the first of next month, for which I shall set out the 27th or 28th of the present.

The accounts from that City are really affecting. Two Gentlemen from New York now here (Colonels Platt & Sargent)3 say they were told at the Swedes ford of Schoolkil by a person who said he had it from Governor Mifflin that by the official report from the Mayor of the City upwards of 3500 had died and the disorder by all accounts was spreading, & raging more violently than ever. If cool weather accompanied with rain does not put a stop to the malady, distressing indeed must be the condition of that City—now almost depolulated by removals & deaths. I am always, and with very sincere regard & friendship Your Affectionate

Go: Washington

I would not have sent you such a scrawl, but really have no time to copy it. I came here to look a little into my own private concerns, but have no time allowed me for this purpose being followed by other matters.

ALS, ViU: George Washington Letters, 1777, 1793; ADf, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; LB, DLC:GW. Where the ALS has been mended, the missing characters are supplied in angle brackets from the draft. The postscript does not appear on the draft or the letter-book copy.

3Winthrop Sargent and Richard Platt arrived at Mount Vernon on 12 Oct. and departed on 14 Oct.; Sargent recorded impressions of the visit in his diary: “Saturday 12th. . . . about two and a half miles more the Presidents house at mount Vernon presents itself upon the Left full in view, of elegant and Courtly appearance and the Way to it leads through a Gate upon the Left: a Broad Road on the Right goes to Fredericksburg—Our Reception at mount Vernon was hospitable and polite—from Mrs W——: immediately upon our Arrival; the President having rode out upon one of his plantations: Before Dinner he came in and was pleased to shew us much Civility—we found the place without more Company than the Family, consisting of the President, Mrs Washington Mr Dandridge the presidents Secretary—three Miss Custus’ at present, and a Mrs Washington widow of the Presidents Nephew who was in the guards—Dinner was served up in a plain frugal Style and the glass circulated by the President in sufficient Freedom—He always takes his wine at and after Dinner it being his last meal for the Day: Suppers and even a Glass of wine in the Eveg afflicting him with the head ache.

“It was our Intention to have taken Leave after Dinner The President however telling us that if we would dispense with his attentions to us, his Time even here being devoted to the public Service almost altogether, he should be very happy in our passing with him a few Days, we have agreed to remain the morrow. . . .

“Sunday 13th. . . . Only a short Time to remain at Mount Vernon I arose early to obtain as much Knowledge as possible of this Seat of our illustrious General and President—The mount itself is very elevated, almost immediately upon the Bank of the Potomack (one mile and three quarters wide at this place) and commanding a most extensive view of the same and adjacent Country upon both Sides of the river—the natural Glacis from the Flanks and Laund in Front is easy and continued to a considerable Distance. The Front towards the waters of Potowmac is of greater Declivity—a small Deer park in that Quarter and a good road to the river with a small Quay or Landing place—about ten thousand Acres constitute the Farm, Seven hundred of which are in Plantations the present Season; cultivated by Slaves of which the President now has full two hundred, better clothed and fed than negroes generally are in this Country—I saw and conversed with many of them in my Walks of this morning who seem well contented in their Situation and much attached to their Master—A very advantageous Situation for a Fortress was pointed out to me by the President nearly opposite to mount Vernon—Commanding perfectly the Channel of the Potowmack both up and down the river to a very considerable Distance—The mansion house which is of wood has been considerably improved since it came into the possession of its present dignified owner—it is about 120 Feet in Length with a capacious open Piazza towards the water supported by a proper number of very lofty and majestic Columns—The Front towards the Country is open and Airy with the Laund before mentioned of neat shorn Grass continuing to the road: upon the Flanks—towards the mansion house are the different Offices, connected therewith by covered Colonnades and constituting handsome and regular Wings—the whole finished in Imitation of Bristol Free Stone; And from the Termination thereof down along the Laund on either Side are continued to the road the deep embowering shades of myrtle Cyprus Cedar and a variety of aromatic ‘ever greens’—Into one of those recesses I entered—the feathered Songsters & Turtle Dove had been invited by the Beauties of the Scene—the various Avenues are so artfully contrived as in a very limited Area to afford the most delightful promenades—impervious almost even to the Solar Ray but by small Interstices of Admission purposely disposed upon the Margins—Whilst admiring the hand of Art and Nature in this miniature Labyrinth the great Bell summoned me to Breakfast & I had only Time to observe that upon the Exterior of those Arbours were Kitchen and Flower Gardens abounding in Esculents and much gay and variegated Foliage—a capacious Green house upon the right wing stored with valuable exotics lay in my Passage, offering a high gratification for some Leisure hour of the Day—Around the Breakfast Table were collected the party of yesterday all in health and cheerful—Mrs Washington and the President seem as yet to have suffered but little since the Close of the late War by the ravaging hand of Time—He endures Exercise, unremitted, and even Fatigues of Body and mind very uncommonly for his Season of Life—after a very substantial Repast in which Indian hoe Cake with Butter & Honey seemed the principal Component Parts he withdrew till Dinner at which and till late in this Eveg we favoured with his Company—Our Conversation general and the Subject of Politics avoided—I was a little disappointed, coming from the western Country now the Theatre of war and having borne some considerable Part in the unfortunate Campaign of Genl St Clair which is still a Subject of public Discussion that the President did not avail himself of the Information I might have reasonably been supposed capable of imparting—His Silence however upon this head was a good Lesson to me and for once I suffered Prudence to assume the Government—his total Apathy to Friendship, all affectionate Attachments, or Encouragement to free confidential Communications should mark the Character of that public man who would appear immaculate to the jaundiced Eye of a diversified multifarious republican Government—upon the Topics of old Campaigns under the unfortunate General Braddock and his successor Forbes I obtained Information; by Queries however for the President certainly is never communicative—He bore a material part under those officers and I learn from him that the British were much indebted to Chance for the possession of Fort ‘duquesne’ (now Pittsburgh) in the Campaign of [ ] for the French Commandant had dismissed the Indians at a late period when his Enemy was about making winter Cantonment, not having Supplies of Provisions &ca to advance, but Convoys accidentally arriving Forbes pushed on and Acquired his Object without any Opposition—except some Skirmishings which had previously taken place between his advanced Guards and small Parties of Indians; at one of which the President having been sent forward with a Reinforcement, by being mistaken for an Enemy received several Fires from the Guards, that were returned by his own Command and in his Endeavours to correct the mistake between both parties was in extreme Hazard—no Censure however was implied upon him in Consequence as he had taken the proper measures to advise of his Approach.

“Between the President Mr Dandridge and the Ladies we have passed the afternoon and Evening very pleasantly—The Miss Custus’ are grand Daughters of Mrs Washington through a first Husband, all of them handsome and agreeable but Nelly who has of Late accompanied her grand mamma in public Life is acknowledged Excellence; with their vocal and instrumental music we have been much Charmed—Mrs the widow Washington is of most amiable person and manners—On the morrow after Breakfast we are necessitated to bid adieu to this honoured assemblage, deeply impressed with a Sense and Esteem for and of the private Virtues and Accomplishments of each and every one of them and with added veneration and respect for the august Chief our illustrious President.

“Monday 14th. This morning after Breakfast—perfectly well satisfied with our Gracious reception we bid Adieu to Mount Vernon” (Diary, 1 Oct. 1793 to 31 Dec. 1795, MHi: Winthrop Sargent Papers).

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