George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Knox, 19 March 1794

From Henry Knox


Sir,War Department March 19. 1794

As it is understood that the bill for fortifying the ports and harbours has passed into a law, I beg leave respectfully to lay before you the following thoughts upon the manner of executing this business.1

The operation of the federal Government upon the State Governors and State Officers it is well known has been in general rather irksome than otherwise as it has tended to lessen their patronage and influence, and perhaps in their opinion of course somewhat to impair their dignity, when compared with their situation under the confederation.

The Governors are commanders in chief of the Militia of their respective states and as such were the last year called upon in the name of the President of the United States to perform certain unpleasant duties relatively to the preservation of our neutrality.2

These observations are made with this view that it would most probably be a conciliatory and grateful measure to them as Commanders of the Militia to be the Agents of the United States in a certain degree of the proposed fortifications. For instance the Engineers might be directed to consult and take the opinions of the Governors upon the points most proper to be fortified and to report to them the reasons on which their opinions should be founded, which opinions the Governors might confirm or reject and transmit the result to the Secretary of War in order to be submitted to the President of the United States. The Governors might also be requested to appoint some suitable person to superintend the erection of the works, the keeping of the accounts &c. and also of the mounting of such of the Cannon as are to be mounted in or furnished by the respective States—By an arrangement of this sort it is conceived that the Governors would be kindly brought to act by system to support the general government and that unless something of this nature should be devised that they might be displeased and disgusted—Some Agents must be appointed The Governors are on the spot and well acquainted with characters and really possess higher responsibility than any other individuals—It may therefore perhaps be expedient in an oeconomical as well as a political view to request their assistance on this occasion.3

Whether these ideas be well founded or not is respectfully submitted. I have the honor to be with perfect respect Your obedient Servant

H. Knox


1The act just passed by both houses of Congress was “An Act to provide for the Defence of certain Ports and Harbors in the United States,” 20 March 1794 (Stat description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends . 1:345–46).

2For examples of the neutrality measures that the governors of the maritime states were expected to enforce, see Cabinet Opinion on the Rules of Neutrality, 3 Aug. 1793, and n.3 to that document; and Knox to Tobias Lear, 17 Aug. 1793, n.1.

3No written reply to Knox has been found, but GW apparently approved Knox’s suggestion, as seen in Knox’s letter to New Hampshire governor Josiah Bartlett of 24 March: “I am instructed to transmit to your Excellency the enclosed copy of a law relatively to the fortifications of the ports and harbours therein mentioned.

“And as a judicious choice of the places to be fortified and vigorous prosecution of the works may be of great importance to the State of New Hampshire the President of the United States requests that your Excellency as the Commander in chief of its Militia would please to take upon you the general direction of the business.

“An Engineer will as soon as possible be appointed. He will be directed to prepare and submit plans of the works to your consideration and upon your approving thereof to have them put into a train of immediate execution some suitable provision will also be soon made to obtain the necessary materials and workmen.

“The number of Men and Cannon designed for Portsmouth and also the amount of the expence to be incurred at that place will hereafter be transmitted.

“If the State of New Hampshire is in possession of any good Cannon of and above the Caliber of eighteen pounds and which could be appropriated to the fortifications within the said State a return of them is requested together with the condition of their carriages and apparatus in order that the necessary repairs be provided without delay” (NIC). See also the letters from Knox to Richard Dobbs Spaight, 24 March, in n.1 of Spaight to GW, 27 April, and from Knox to Thomas Mifflin, 27 March, in n.1 of Mifflin to GW, 28 March.

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