Review of The Papers of George Washington:
Revolutionary War Series, Volume 10 & Presidential Series, Volume 9
Reviewed by William Stinchcombe
The first volume’s documents show Washington making preparations for the 1777 campaign against the Howe brothers in the Philadelphia region. He is painstakingly cautious in asserting more control of the northern army, first under Philip Schuyler and then Horatio Gates in the battle with General John Burgoyne which ends at Saratoga. The presidential series volume covers the end of Washington’s third year of his first term. Neither volume is totally complete but the missing documents are mentioned in footnotes or at the back. The editors give clear guidance where the best available copy of the unpublished documents is located. The second volume is aided by the completion of the papers of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison for this period which are critical for understanding Washington’s first term. When a printed document contains information not previously covered, the editors have done an admirable job of excerpting the relevant passages in the footnotes which give the document’s context. The identifications for both volumes are clear and easy to follow, although it does seem that if a subject in question is from Virginia the reader is more likely to be informed of maiden names, or nephews and nieces, or cousins than is the case for someone from other parts of the country. Some identifications appear in the footnotes while others appear only in the index which is confusing. The indexes are perfunctory.
The George Washington in both volumes is a sound eighteenth-century political Whig. Government is limited in its duties and the people at large have rights that government must protect and not violate. In civilian-military relations in this period Washington is adamant about the limits of military authority. He reminds. one officer who tried a civilian that the officer’s actions were “irregular and illegal” and that the “temper of Americans and the principles on which the present contest turns will not countenance proceedings of this nature” (p. 495). Washington keeps the Continental Congress informed and closely follows their instructions. Reciprocal letters between Washington and John Hancock are cold and formal, but the power of civilian government over the military is undisputed. Believing that a crisis of the Revolution is at hand, Washington calls for greater efforts and sacrifices by all levels of government. For those who gave all their efforts in the states such as Jonathan Trumbull, Senior, and George Clinton, Washington is outspoken in his admiration for their contributions. He discusses freely with these governors the problems facing the United States Army in 1777. The later cordial relationship between Clinton and Washington in the first years of his presidency becomes understandable, since Washington remains politically grounded as a revolutionary Whig more than as a leader of the Federalists.
Washington is careful in building up the army. He complains over his lack of control of the officers for the northern theater, but does not protest when members of Congress spearhead the effort to have Gates named as commander. Of the other generals Philip Schuyler seems the most dubious. Washington maintains a discreet silence on Schuyler’s dismissal by Congress. John Sullivan appears to be mercurial and it is apparent that his military career will soon come to an end. Joseph Reed easily qualifies as the most fawning. William Heath’s reputation rises in Washington’s appraisal. Of his vast number of correspondents William Gordon, the Massachusetts clergyman, is well represented with his varied opinions of men and measures. Washington replies to Gordon in a noncommittal but serious way. Washington’s letters to and from his relatives still center on the progress of the Revolution more than family news.
The performance of the British commanders, Richard and William Howe, in the early stages of the campaign certainly baffles Washington. Although he believes their ultimate aim is Philadelphia, their policy of leaving Burgoyne unaided in the north amazes him. Washington complains repeatedly that the lack of a navy cripples his intelligence efforts. Because of the lingering uncertainty over the purpose of the Howe brothers’ intentions, Washington vacillates back and forth in positioning the army for either eventuality. By September 1777, the men in the United States forces start to become more optimistic about their chances of survival and a select few around Washington begin to believe there is an opportunity unfolding at Saratoga.
As president, Washington seems to be preoccupied in winning loyalty to the new government rather than excessively worried about the separation of powers. He seeks to mold a consensus to support the new Constitution, and the primary purpose of his efforts is aimed at consolidating the powers it designates to the government. Younger members from his staff during the Revolution who absorbed their commander’s interest in the political or ideological aspects of the conflict are frequently given appointments. He spends a great deal of time over Arthur St. Clair’s unsuccessful wars in the West. One other area that predominates in this volume is the struggle with Pierre L’Enfant and the planning of the city of Washington. After an almost infinite amount of patience, Washington and Jefferson finally conclude that L’Enfant is simply incapable of following any instructions from an appointed commission for the city. Washington accepts L’Enfant’s resignation.
In private correspondence with Gouverneur Morris in Paris, Morris, of all people, comments that Talleyrand is castigated but not for his adultery which “was common enough among the Clergy of high Rank, but for the Variety and Publicity of his Amours.” More seriously, Morris informs Washington that the aristocrats seek to bolster their position by supporting the use of foreign armies against the revolutionary government to “reestablish that Species of Despotism most suited to their own Cupidity” (pp. 535, 537). Morris gives Washington an informed running commentary on the French Revolution.
In other areas, Washington displays a deep and abiding interest in all aspects of agriculture and he collects information for Sir John Sinclair in Great Britain. Washington’s comments on agricultural practices in the United States reveal the accuracy of Jefferson’s observation that Washington was a good farmer. The more important event for the long term was the first news of the August 1791 slave revolt in St. Domingue. The response by Washington is immediate. Aid is given to the white government without question. Previous discussion about the French alliance is simply shunted aside. Washington perceived it as a question of returning aid to France in a form that would be doubly advantageous to the United States by consolidating friendship and quickly paying off United States Revolutionary War debts.
Washington interprets the power given to the president in foreign affairs by the new Constitution to be broad and vast. He tries to invoke the “advise and consent” clause to the Senate before the onset of negotiations and quickly decides that the sharing of power in this area is unworkable. He cites the new Constitution to support his argument that he does not have to give background information about his decisions or nominations to the Senate. He politely refuses to grant the Senate’s request for more information. Long before the Jay Treaty fight, Washington expects the Senate to render their judgment independent of the executive. In another case involving foreign policy, he agrees with Jefferson who sought to expand the power of the federal government beyond the specifics of the Constitution. Jefferson argues that the powers not enunciated in the Constitution belonged to the new government because, “I consider the source of authority with us to be the Nation” (p. 529). He further argues that there was a connection between the events of 1776 and 1789. Washington did not disagree. He saw his participation as his effort in building a nation based on his and the people’s expressed principles. These two volumes, fourteen years apart, show this with increasing clarity.