George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, 14 July 1798

To Alexander Hamilton

(Private & confidential)

My Dear Sir,Mount Vernon 14th July 1798

Your letter of the 8th instant was presented to me by the Secretary of War on the 11th, and I have consented to embark once more on a boundless field of responsibility & trouble, with two reservations. first, that the principal Officers in the line, and of the Staff, shall be such as I can place confidence in; and, that I shall not be called into the field until the Army is in a situation to require my presence, or it becomes indispensible by the urgency of circumstances. Contributing in the mean while, every thing in my power to its efficient organization, but nothing to the public expence until I am in a situation to incur expence myself.

It will be needless after giving you this information, and having indelibly engraved on my mind, the assurance contained in your letter of the 2d of June, to add, that I rely upon you as a Coadjutor, and assistant in the turmoils I have consented to encounter.

I have communicated very fully with the Secretary of War on the several matters contained in the Powers vested in him by the President; who, as far as it appears by them, is well disposed to accomodate1—But I must confess that, besides nominating me to the Command of the Armies with out any previous consultation or notice, the whole of that business seems to me to stand upon such ground, as may render the Secretarys journey, & our consultation, of no avail.

Congress, it is said, would rise this week. What then has been done, or can the President do, with respect to appointments under that Bill, if it has been enacted? Be his inclinations what they may, unless a Law could, and has Passed, enabling him, in the recess of the Senate, to make appointments, conformably thereto, the nominations must have been made; & the business done here, with the Secretary is rendered nugatory.

By the pending Bill, if it passes to a Law, two Major Generals, and an Inspector Genl with the Rank of Majr General and three Brigadiers are to be appointed.2 Presuming on its passing, I have given the following as my sentiments respecting the characters fit, & proper to be employed; in which the Secretary concurs.3

Majr Genls

Alexr Hamilton. Inspector

Chas C. Pinckney

Henry Knox—or if either of the last men[tione]d refuses,

Henry Lee of Virginia


Henry Lee (if not Majr Genl)

John Brooks—Massachusetts

Willm S. Smith—N: York—or

John E. Howard—Maryld

Adjt Genl

Either Edward Hand—Pennsa

Jonathan Dayton Jr N. Jer. or

Willm S. Smith

to be Qr Mr Genl

Edwd Carrington

Directr Hosl

James Craik4

And I have enumerated the most prominent characters that have occurred to my mind, from whom to select field Officers for the Regiments of Infantry, & that of Cavalry, which are proposed to be raised.

And now, my dear Sir, with that candour which you always have, and I trust ever will experience from me, I shall express to you a difficulty which has arisen in my mind, relative to seniority between you & Genl Pinckney; for with respect to my friend General Knox, whom I love & esteem, I have ranked him below you both. That you may know from whence this difficulty proceeds, it is proper I should observe, & give it as my decided opinion, that if the French should be so mad as to Invade this Country in expectation of making a serious impression, that their operations will commence in the States South of Maryland: 1. because they are the weakest; 2. because they will expect, from the tenor of the debates in Congress to find more friends there; 3. because there can be no doubt of their arming the Negros against us; and 4. because they would be more contiguous to their Islands, & to Louisiana & the Floridas, if they can obtain possession of them; & that this will be the case, if they are able to accomplish it, is, to my mind, a matter that admits of no doubt.

If these premises are just, the inference is obvious, that the services and influence of General Pinckney in the Southern States would be of the highest, and most interesting importance. Will he serve then, under one whom he will consider a Junr Officer? and what would be the consequence if he should refuse, and his numerous, & powerful connections & acquaintances in those parts, get disgusted? You have no doubt heard that his Military reputation stands high in the Southern States; that he is viewed as a brave, intelligent and enterprising Officer; and, if report be true, that no Officer in the late American Army made Tactics, & the Art of War so much his Study. To this account of him, may be added, that his character has received much celebrity by his conduct as Minister & Envoy at Paris.5

Under this view of the subject, my wish to put you first, and my fear of loosing him, is not a little embarrassing. But why? for after all it rests with the President to use his pleasure. I shall only add therefore, that as the welfare of the country is the object, I persuade myself, we all have in view, I shall sanguinely hope that smaller matters will yield to measures which have a tendency to promote it. I wish devoutly that either of you, or any other fit character had been nominated in my place; for no one can make a greater sacrifice—at least of inclination, than will Your ever Affectionate

Go: Washington

ALS, DLC: Hamilton Papers; ALS (letterpress copy), DLC:GW; copy, in Tobias Lear’s hand, NN: Washington Papers; copy, in McHenry’s hand, DLC: James McHenry Papers. McHenry wrote on his copy: “The General gave me the letter of which this is a copy open, at my instance, that I might take a copy of it. James McHenry.”

2“An Act to augment the Army of the United States . . .” (1 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 604–5), passed on 16 July 1798.

4On 18 July John Adams nominated all of these men to the rank of general either in the augmented regular army or in the provisional army, except John Eagar Howard and Edward Carrington. The act for augmenting the army did not provide for a quartermaster with the rank of general. The men not named here whom Adams nominated were Anthony Walton White and John Sevier, much to GW’s disapproval. See Annals of Congress description begins Joseph Gales, Sr., comp. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature. 42 vols. Washington, D.C., 1834–56. description ends , 5th Cong., 1st sess., 623; James McHenry to GW, 18 July, GW to McHenry, 22 July, and note 3 to that document.

5The act of 16 July authorizing the president to raise twelve new regiments of regulars and six troops of light dragoons for the new army provided for the appointment of three major generals, one of whom would be inspector general, and for the appointment of three brigadier generals, one adjutant general, and a physician general. On 18 July Adams sent his nominations for these positions to the Senate, with the names of the nominees for major general in the order they appear here. The Senate immediately approved the nominations of Alexander Hamilton, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Henry Knox in that order. Aware that Knox as senior to Hamilton and Pinckney in the old Continental army might take umbrage at now being made junior to them, GW wrote to Knox on 16 July to explain why he wished to have Hamilton as his second in command and why it was of crucial importance to secure the services of the South Carolinian Pinckney. Knox responded on 29 July in a long and bitter letter declaring that he did not see how he could accept the commission when offered “unless the relative rank of the late War, should govern.” On the same day Hamilton wrote GW that “a great majority of leading federal men” believed “the place of second in command ought to be mine.”

GW responded to Hamilton and to Knox on 9 August. He wrote Hamilton that he thought he (Hamilton) should become deeply involved in forming the new army, agreeing with him that Secretary of War James McHenry was not up to the task. He also enclosed for Hamilton’s perusal a copy of his letter to Knox and of Knox’s response. The next day GW wrote to McHenry to “entreat” him “to call on the Inspector [Hamilton] . . . for assistance” in recruiting officers for the new army. On that same day or the next, GW got from McHenry a copy of a letter dated 4 Aug. in which McHenry proposed to President Adams that he as secretary of war should call Hamilton and perhaps Knox as well into active service to aid him in managing the old army and creating a new one (see McHenry to GW, 8 Aug., n.2, and GW to McHenry, 13 August).

In his letter of 9 Aug. to Knox, GW tried to explain why the relative ranking of the officers in the Continental army could not be maintained in the new army, but in the latter part of August, while ill, GW learned from Hamilton that Knox had written to McHenry on 5 Aug. all but declining the commission (see Hamilton to GW, 20 Aug., n.1). At about the same time, however, GW was told by McHenry “that there is reason to apprehend embarrassment and delay from a disposition on his [Adams’s] part, to have the relative grade of three of the major generals so altered, as that Knox shall be first and Hamilton last” (McHenry to GW, 25 August). Before the end of July, Adams left Philadelphia for Quincy, where he remained until November. In early September GW received from Secretary of State Timothy Pickering a letter marked “Private” and dated 1 Sept., in which Pickering reported that it appeared to be the president’s clear intention to place Knox’s name first and Hamilton’s last among the major generals and expressed his own strong conviction that Hamilton should be GW’s second in command even at the loss of Knox to the service.

In response to the news that Adams was likely to reverse the order of the three major generals, GW only commented to McHenry on 3 Sept.: “If any change should take place in settling the relative Rank of the Majr Generals, I shall hope, & expect to be informed of it.” Six days late GW told Pickering how he himself had dealt with Knox’s claims to seniority and then wrote: “How the matter stands between him [Knox] and the President, and what may be the ultimate decision of the latter, I know not. But I know that the President ought to Ponder well before he consents to a change in the arrangement.” Even after receiving confirmation dated 7 Sept. from the secretary of war that Adams intended to go ahead with the change, GW wrote McHenry on 14 Sept. that he would “defer saying anything on the President’s new arrangement of the three Major Generals” until he had learned of Hamilton’s reaction to this.

Two days later, on 16 Sept., however, GW made it clear that he was at the point of resigning over the issue. He had just received McHenry’s letter of 10 Sept. enclosing among other things a letter from Adams to McHenry, dated 29 Aug., in which Adams wrote from Massachusetts: “I am willing to settle all decisively at present (and have no fear of the consequences) by dating the commissions Knox, on the first day, Pinckney on the 2nd. Hamilton on the third. . . . General Washington has through the whole, conducted with perfect honor and consistency. I said and I say now, if I could resign to him the office of President, I would do it immediately and with the highest pleasure, but I never said I would hold the office & be responsible for its exercise, while he should execute it” (quoted in Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 22:8–9; see also McHenry to GW, 19 September). After reading this letter from Adams, GW wrote McHenry: “... the matter is, or very soon will be brought, to the alternative of submitting to the Presidents forgetfulness of what I considered a compact, or condition of acceptance of the Appointment with which he was pleased to honor me, or, to return him my Commission.”

McHenry in his dispatch of 10 Sept. had also given GW the information that the members of the cabinet were drafting a joint letter, or address, to the president asking him to reconsider the matter of the major generals. GW’s reference to returning his commission may have been intended to strengthen the hand of Hamilton’s champions in the Adams cabinet at this juncture. Before receiving GW’s letter of 16 Sept., McHenry, Secretary of State Pickering, and their colleagues in the cabinet decided that Oliver Wolcott alone would sign the letter to Adams, which he dated 17 September. Upon receipt of GW’s letter, McHenry hastened to “acquaint the President with a part of its contents, in aid of the representation signed by Mr Wolcott” (McHenry to GW, 21 September). GW, for his part, decided that the time had come for him to deal directly with the president about the matter, and on 26 Sept. he sent to McHenry a draft of a letter to Adams, dated 25 Sept., in which he as commander in chief of the army made, at length and in measured tones, his case for the initial ranking of the major generals.

On 1 Oct. (second letter) GW asked McHenry to confer in confidence with Pickering and others and to advise him whether if Adams “perseveres in his Resolution to change the order of the Major Generals,” he (GW) could “with propriety, & due respect for my own character, retain the commission under such violation, of the terms, on which I accepted it.” After McHenry on 2 Oct. returned to GW the draft of the letter to Adams, which McHenry expected to have “a happy effect,” GW sent the letter on to Adams who received it on 8 October. Adams wrote his answer on 9 Oct., saying that he had “some time ago Signed the three Commissions and dated them on the Same day.” Adams in fact had sent to McHenry on 30 Sept. the three commissions “all dated on the same day,” and McHenry presumably informed GW of this in his missing letter of 5 October. This seems to have settled the matter in GW’s mind, but it was not until 15 Oct. that McHenry sent Hamilton his commission and indicated that he would rank first among the major generals (Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 22:15–17). For more detailed information about the role played in the affair of the major generals by McHenry, Pickering, and other members of the cabinet, see the editors’ introductory note to GW’s letter to Alexander Hamilton, 14 July 1798, ibid., 4–21; see also McHenry’s letter to GW of 19 Sept. in which McHenry gives a full account of his dealings with President Adams after McHenry’s return from Mount Vernon to Philadelphia on 17 July followed shortly by Adams’s departure for Massachusetts.

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