Volume 16: May – Sept. 1794


As this volume opens in May 1794, GW and his cabinet were very much focused on the ongoing issues raised by the country’s troubled relationships with the warring powers of Europe. The embargo passed by Congress in late March, and renewed in April, required issuance of passports for outgoing vessels, and the cabinet met to consider stiffening their regulations to prevent evasion. Instructions were being drafted for John Jay, appointed in April as an envoy extraordinary to Great Britain, and candidates were being considered for minister to France to replace Gouverneur Morris, whose recall was desired by the French government. The construction of new frigates and erection of coastal fortifications, authorized by a Congress concerned with the potential for war, required appointments and supervision. Renewed rumors of expeditions being organized in Georgia and Kentucky against the territories of Britain’s ally Spain also drew attention.

Although the embargo was allowed to lapse in late May, and GW settled on James Monroe as minister to France (and John Quincy Adams as minister to the Netherlands), related issues continued to attract GW’s attention. Foreign privateers in or near American waters raised problems. U.S. merchants complained about seizures of their ships by British privateers based in the West Indies. Meanwhile, French vessels, relying on rights granted by the 1778 Treaty of Amity and Commerce, used U.S. ports while preying on British shipping. In July a rule was implemented to require foreign vessels of war in U.S. ports to delay twenty-four hours before pursuing departing vessels of other powers, and GW’s advisors debated whether to add formally to Jay’s instructions the issue of U.S. payment of compensation for British vessels illegally seized by French privateers. The latter issue raised thorny constitutional questions, as the House of Representatives had failed to take up GW’s recommendation for the payment of compensation, while only the Senate would need to ratify any provision that Jay might bring back in a treaty.

Questions about the reception of (and assistance to) French emigrés touched on relations with France, as did merchant complaints about nonpayment for goods shipped to Saint Domingue. News of the formation of a league of armed neutrality by Denmark and Sweden required debate about the appropriate U.S. response. Jay sent regular, mostly optimistic, reports about the progress of his negotiations.

Another emphasis for GW and the cabinet was frontier defense and Indian relations, where both military preparedness and negotiations were emphasized. The governors of Georgia and the Southwest Territory were authorized to call up a limited number of additional militia and to erect blockhouses every twenty-five miles. Meanwhile, GW met with delegations from the Cherokees in June and the Chickasaws in July. Reports of offenses against Creek Indians by Georgians took an especially serious aspect in July when GW received news that a group of settlers led by Elijah Clarke had “associated for the purpose of setting up an independent government for themselves, on the territory belonging to the Creek Indians” (James Seagrove to Henry Knox, enclosed in Knox to GW, 9 July). Georgia governor George Mathews was immediately sent directions to put a stop to this activity.

In the Northwest Territory the government moved to strengthen Gen. Anthony Wayne’s army for his forthcoming Indian campaign, while monitoring Indian conferences at Buffalo Creek. To placate the Iroquois, GW requested that Pennsylvania governor Thomas Mifflin suspend the state’s efforts to establish a settlement at Presque Isle, and Timothy Pickering was dispatched to negotiate with the Six Nations in September. Frontier defense and European relations overlapped with the news that the British had established a fortification near the falls of the Miami (Maumee) River, adding to the suspicion that the British were encouraging Indian hostility to the United States. The failure of the British to withdraw from frontier forts as directed in the Treaty of Paris remained a major point of contention between the two countries. Nonetheless, as this volume closes on 30 Sept., the first reports of Wayne’s victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers reach Philadelphia.

Other issues of note in the period from May through September 1794 included GW’s continued supervision of the Federal City commissioners. In addition to approving their regulations, he needed to appoint replacements for two retiring members and wished to assure that the new commissioners would reside in or near the city. Federal appointments continued, as always, to require attention, most notably the appointment of a collector at Baltimore. The continued captivity of American seamen at Algiers led groups in Boston and Norfolk to raise funds for their relief and the government to a renewed diplomatic effort to obtain their release. Concerns about the loyalty of Kentucky citizens, restive about U.S. failure to obtain free navigation of the Mississippi River from Spain, led GW to dispatch a special emissary to that state.

However, after early August, when news arrived at Philadelphia that opponents of the whiskey excise tax had burned the house of Inspector of the Revenue John Nevill near Pittsburgh, all other issues were dwarfed by the need to respond to this western insurgency. GW and his cabinet decided to send commissioners to negotiate with the insurgents and to prepare to defeat them with overwhelming force. On 4 Augt. the government obtained a certification by Supreme Court Justice James Wilson that in western Pennsylvania the laws were obstructed “by Combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary Course of judicial Proceedings, or by the Powers vested in the Marshal of that District” (DLC: Pennsylvania Whiskey Rebellion Collection), and on 7 Aug., GW issued a proclamation ordering the insurgents to disperse, necessary preconditions to the call-up of militia. When the commissioners reported their “opinion that the people cannot be induced by conciliatory offers to relinquish their opposition to the excise laws” (William Bradford to GW, 17 Aug.), military preparations moved forward in full force. Militia from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia were ordered to assemble, and on 30 Sept., GW left Philadelphia to join the troops.

Apart from his official duties, GW remained focused, as always, on the management of Mount Vernon. He managed to visit there for two weeks in late June and early July, but a wrenched back suffered en route restricted him from some of the active supervision that he desired. The crisis in western Pennsylvania would prevent the visit that he wished to take in September or October before the convening of Congress, but his detailed correspondence with his farm manager William Pearce testifies to his management from afar.

At this time GW also was actively seeking to sell his western lands, offering them all to Robert Morris in a letter of 26 May and empowering James Ross to sell his Pennsylvania lands in a letter of 16 June. Ross’s efforts, and GW’s negotiations with Israel Shreve for sale of the land that Shreve was leasing from GW in Pennsylvania, were suspended by the western Pennsylvania insurgency.

Jacket Essay

During the spring and summer of 1794, Washington and his cabinet faced concerns that arose from the ongoing war in Europe. Embargo evasions, activities of French and British privateers, and the formation of a league of armed neutrality by Denmark and Sweden required appropriate administrative responses. Fears persisted about a potential war with Great Britain, even as John Jay began negotiations as envoy extraordinary to that nation.

Issues on the frontier included the attempt by Elijah Clarke of Georgia to establish an independent government on Creek Indian lands, unrest in Kentucky arising from the slow progress of negotiations with Spain about free navigation of the Mississippi River, concerns that the British were encouraging Indian hostility towards the United States, and the need to strengthen Gen. Anthony Wayne’s army for his forthcoming Indian campaign.

All other issues were dwarfed in early August when events in western Pennsylvania brought a long-simmering opposition against the excise tax on whiskey to (as Washington saw it) open rebellion. When conciliatory efforts failed, preparations to call up the militia from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia moved forward in full force. Washington left Philadelphia to join the troops on September 30, the same day that first reports of Wayne’s victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers reached the city. Despite these concerns, Washington remained attentive to the management of Mount Vernon, primarily through weekly correspondence with farm manager William Pearce. He also sought to sell his western lands, but the Whiskey Insurrection suspended much of his efforts.

David R. Hoth and Carol S. Ebel, eds., The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Seriesvolume 16, 1 May – 30 September 1794. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2011.

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