Volume 17: Oct. 1794 – Mar. 1795


Volume 17 of the Presidential Series covers the period from 1 Oct. 1794 through 31 March 1795. The volume opens with GW en route to Carlisle, Pa., to meet with troops being sent to suppress the insurrection that had arisen in western Pennsylvania from discontent with the excise tax on whiskey. Although concerned about the impending session of Congress, and already thinking about his speech for that occasion, he had concluded as commander in chief that if resistance seemed likely, “the lesser must yield to the greater duties of my office, & I shall cross the mountains with the Troops” (to Daniel Morgan, 8 Oct.). Fortunately, GW was soon able to report that the residents of the western counties were unlikely to resist and that he could return to Philadelphia in time for the assembling of Congress. Nonetheless, the Whiskey Insurrection continued to preoccupy GW throughout this period as he received reports of troop movements and the capture of rebels, considered how to address the issue in his annual message to Congress (more than two-thirds of the address eventually was devoted to the insurrection), and dealt with requests for pardons.

The only other domestic topic to which GW devoted more than a paragraph in his annual message was Indian relations, and that issue, too, appears with frequency in this volume. In the Northwest Territory, Gen. Anthony Wayne’s victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August offered hope of a permanent settlement with the hitherto hostile tribes. Slightly farther eastward, Timothy Pickering was negotiating with the Iroquois and Oneida at Canandaigua and signed treaties in November and December. From Georgia came news in October that the incursion onto Creek lands by Elijah Clarke and others had been stopped, but in early 1795 the first reports of the Yazoo land scheme renewed concern about the danger of Creek hostilities. Moreover, the agent reported that the Creeks would not return slaves and other property taken during the Revolutionary War, as required by the 1790 Treaty of New York. From the Southwest Territory came news that local militia had destroyed the Cherokee towns of Nickajack and Running Water, and although Gov. William Blount remained optimistic about maintaining peaceful relations with the Cherokees and Chickasaws, he suggested allying with those tribes for operations against the Creeks, whom he reported as hostile.

These months were a time of transition for GW’s cabinet as Secretary of War Henry Knox and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton resigned, leaving only former attorney general and now secretary of state Edmund Randolph from GW’s original cabinet. Also in transition was the commission for the District of Columbia. Two new commissioners appointed by GW in September took up their duties and, among other things, began preparing for GW “a general Statement of all matters respecting the City” (Daniel Carroll to GW, 13 Jan.), which they sent on 4 February. Not long after that, the remaining holdover commissioner, Daniel Carroll, offered his resignation, forcing GW to make yet another appointment.

In foreign affairs, negotiations with Spain about the Mississippi navigation and other matters remained stalled, so in hopes of reviving the talks GW decided to send Thomas Pinckney from London as a special envoy. Negotiations with the Barbary States over ransom for American hostages had also failed to progress (in part because an effort to obtain money from Holland for the negotiations was unsuccessful), and in November the American minister to Portugal, David Humphreys, decided to return to the United States to discuss the situation. Humphreys arrived in early February. In March, GW asked Congress to authorize consuls for Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis, and he appointed Humphreys a minister plenipotentiary to negotiate treaties of amity and commerce with the three states. The most important outstanding negotiations, however, were those with Great Britain. In the United States frustrations continued over the seizures of American ships by Bermudan privateers and over British influence on the western Indians, but John Jay in London was reporting progress, and he signed a treaty on 19 November. However, while news of the treaty reached Philadelphia, along with enough details to suggest that it might be controversial, no official copy was received before the Senate adjourned on 3 March. It would be necessary to call a special session to consider the treaty.

Even while en route to suppress the insurrection, GW (in the first document of this volume) penned a letter to his Mount Vernon farm manager to discuss the harvesting of buckwheat on the farms that he had passed in Pennsylvania, testifying to his constant interest in Mount Vernon and in the best and most innovative agricultural practices. Though in fact GW’s weekly correspondence with his manager was disrupted during his time with the troops, it resumed upon his return to Philadelphia. GW’s suggestions and instructions in response to the weekly reports show his interest in sustainable agriculture—crop rotation, land reclamation, seed retention, and the use of hedges for fencing to preserve timber—and close attention to the commercial character of Mount Vernon. Always attentive to price, he directed experiments to test the economics of milling his grain and alternative ways of feeding stock. The suggestions also show a constant interest in experimentation to find better ways of accomplishing his goals. GW also was much concerned about the productivity and honesty of his slave labor and very attentive to waste. He even directed that his wine be distributed less freely to visitors.

GW’s other properties were also on his mind. Negotiations for the sale of a western Pennsylvania farm to Israel Shreve, suspended during the insurrection, were resumed. GW asked a relative to examine his lands in Kentucky and a friend and political appointee to pay the taxes thereon, noting to the latter that he would sell those lands for the right price. He also entertained and rejected an offer to have one of his properties on the Ohio River used as a town site and considered two offers for his land on Difficult Run in Virginia.

While GW was no longer a director of the Potomac Company, he retained a keen interest in the development of a Potomac canal, both as a stockholder and because of his belief that it would promote development of the country. Though he evaded a request to lobby the Virginia legislature about extending the company’s charter, questioning the propriety of his doing so and claiming to “not know who the members are” (to Tobias Lear, 14 Dec.), he offered suggestions about the company’s finances, helped arrange for an engineer to report on current and prospective construction, and showed an interest in alternative methods for operating canals.

Documents in this volume also address GW’s interest in education. Through John Adams and Thomas Jefferson he received a proposal to transplant the University of Geneva to the United States, reviving his interest in a national university and prompting him to comment on immigration policy. Perhaps as a result, he took action about the canal company shares that had been left at his disposal by the Virginia legislature. To Virginia governor Robert Brooke, GW reported that he would contribute some of the shares to a university at the Federal City and the others to a Virginia seminary to be selected by the legislature.

Jacket Essay

The highlight events of the months from October 1794 through March 1795, the period documented by volume 17 of the Presidential Series, were the suppression of the Whiskey Insurrection in western Pennsylvania and the negotiation of the Jay Treaty with Great Britain.

The volume opens with Washington, believing that his constitutional duty as commander in chief required his presence, en route to rendezvous with the troops called out to suppress the insurrection. After meeting with representatives from the insurgent counties and reviewing the troops, he concluded that serious resistance was unlikely, and, after penning a letter to Henry Lee on 20 October commending the troops and reminding them to support the laws, he returned to the capital. Still, regular letters from Alexander Hamilton, who remained with the expedition, kept him apprised of troop movements and activities. Washington devoted more than half of his annual address to discussion of the rebellion. After the submission of the rebellious counties, he also had to consider requests for pardons for the few individuals not included in a general pardon issued in November.

Other domestic issues included a transition in Washington’s cabinet, as Hamilton and Henry Knox resigned the Treasury and War departments; supervision of the Federal City, where the commissioners sent a comprehensive statement of the affairs of the City to Washington in early 1795; and Indian affairs, which in the north involved the aftermath of the Battle of Fallen Timbers and treaty negotiations with the Iroquois and Oneida, and in the south involved news of the destruction of the Cherokee towns of Nickajack and Running Water as well as continuing concerns about Creek hostility in Georgia and the Southwest Territory. Washington also received an early report that the Yazoo land scheme threatened to increase tensions with the Creeks in Georgia.

In addition to writing the State Department, John Jay kept Washington apprised of the progress of negotiations. Of particular note are his letters of 19 November, announcing the signing of the treaty, and 25 February, justifying his efforts. However, although notice of the treaty was received, the official copy did not arrive at Philadelphia by the adjournment of Congress, so consideration of the treaty would await a special session of the Senate. Meanwhile, Samuel Bayard had been dispatched to London to prosecute American claims in the British admiralty courts.

Elsewhere, Thomas Pinckney was sent to Madrid as a special envoy to revive stalled negotiations with Spain. David Humphreys returned to the United States to discuss negotiations with the Barbary States, prompting Washington to ask Congress to authorize consuls for those states and to appoint Humphreys as minister plenipotentiary to negotiate with them. James Monroe sent one optimistic letter discussing his reception as minister to France.

As for private concerns, Washington’s weekly correspondence with his Mount Vernon farm manager, largely suspended during his time with the troops, resumed upon his return to Philadelphia. He entertained offers about his lands in western Pennsylvania, on the Ohio River, and on Difficult Run in Virginia, and he paid taxes on and sought information about his land in Kentucky. Washington also corresponded with Tobias Lear about the Potomac Company’s development of the Potomac River.

David R. Hoth and Carol S. Ebel, eds., The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series volume 16, 1 October 1794 – 31 March 1795. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2013.

Purchase from the University of Virginia Press.

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