Front Page Titles (by Subject) TO JOHN JAY. - The Writings of George Washington, vol. VII (1778-1779)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
TO JOHN JAY. - George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, vol. VII (1778-1779) 
The Writings of George Washington, collected and edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890). Vol. VII (1778-1779).
About Liberty Fund:
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
TO JOHN JAY.
I have received your several favours of the 2d, 3d, & 28th of March, & 6th of April. I thank you for them all, but especially for the last, which I consider as a distinguishing mark of your confidence & friendship.1 Conscious that it is the aim of my actions to promote the public good, and that no part of my conduct is influenced by personal enmity to individuals, I cannot be insensible to the artifices employed by some men to prejudice me in the public esteem. The circumstance, of which you have obliged me with the communication, is among a number of other instances of the unfriendly views, which have governed a certain gentleman from a very early period. Some of these have been too notorious not to have come to your knowledge. Others, from the manner in which they have been conveyed to me, will probably never be known, except to a very few. But you have perhaps heard enough, and observed enough yourself, to make any further explanation from me unnecessary.
The desire, however, which is natural I should feel to preserve the good opinion of men of sense and virtue, conspiring with my wish to cultivate your friendship in particular, induces me to trouble you with a state of some facts, which will serve to place the present attack in its proper light. In doing this, I shall recapitulate and bring into one view a series of transactions, many of which have been known to you, but some of which may possibly have escaped your memory.
An opinion prevailing that the enemy were like shortly to evacuate these States, I was naturally led to turn my thoughts to a plan of operation against Canada, in case that event should take place. A winter campaign, before the enemy could have an opportunity of reinforcing and putting themselves in a more perfect state of defence, appeared to promise the most certain and speedy success, the route by Coos offered itself as most direct and practicable. In this I fully agreed with General Gates and some other gentlemen, whom I consulted on the occasion; and, on ye 12th of September last, I wrote to Congress accordingly, submitting it to them, whether it would be advisable to be laying up magazines, opening a road, and making other preparations for the undertaking. They approved the project, and authorized me to carry it into execution. I the more readily entered into it, from a consideration, that, if circumstances should not permit us to carry on the enterprise, the preparations towards it could easily be converted into another channel, and made serviceable to our operations elsewhere, without any material addition of expense to the continent. Because provisions, which would compose the principal part of the expense, were, at all events, to be purchased on Connecticut River, the only doubt being whether it should be used in an Expedition against Canada or transported to Boston, circumstances to determine this. With truth it may be added, that, excepting the articles of provisions and forage, which, as before observed, would have been bot. if no Expedn. by the way of Coos had been in contemplation, the “incredible expense,” mentioned by Genl. Gates in his letter of Mar. 4th, amounted to the purchase of a few pairs of Snow-Shoes and some leather for moccasins only. If any other expense has been incurred, it is unknown to me, must have been by his order, and he alone answerable for it.
In October following, Congress entered into arrangements with the Marquis de Lafayette for cooperating with the court of France, in an expedition against that country. In this scheme, one body of troops was to proceed from Coos and penetrate by way of the River St. Francis; others, forming a junction at Niagara, were to enter Canada by that route; and, while these were operating in this manner, a French fleet and a body of french troops were to go up the river St. Lawrence and take possession of Quebec. You are well acquainted with the opposition I gave to this plan, and my reasons at large for it. From what has since happened, they seem to have met the full approbation of Congress. The ideas I held up were principally these; that we ought not to enter in any contract with a foreign power, unless we were sure we should be able to fulfill our engagements; that it was uncertain whether the enemy would quit the States or not; and in case they did not, it would be impracticable to furnish the aids which we had stipulated; that, even if they should leave us, it was very doubtful whether our resources would be equal to the supplies required; that, therefore, it would be impolitic to hazard a contract of the kind, and better to remain at liberty to act as future conjunctures should point out. I recommended, nevertheless, as there were powerful reasons to hope the enemy might go away, that eventual preparations should be made to take advantage of it, to possess ourselves of Niagara and other posts in that quarter for the security of our frontiers, and to carry our views still farther, with respect to a conquest of Canada, if we should find ourselves able to prosecute such an enterprise. This, Congress, in a subsequent resolve, approved and directed to be done. It was not the least motive with me for recommending it, that operations of this nature seemed to be a very favorite object with that honorable body. The preparations on Hudson’s River were undertaken in consequence.
Upon a nearer view of our finances and resources, and when it came to be decided, that the enemy would continue for some time longer to hold the posts they were in possession of; in the course of the conferences with which I was honored by the committee of Congress in Philadelphia, I suggested my doubts of the propriety of continuing our northern preparations upon so extensive a plan, as was at first determined. The committee were of opinion with me, that the state of our currency and supplies in general would oblige us to act on the defensive next campaign, except so far as related to an expedition into the Indian country for chastising the savages and preventing their depredations on our back settlements; and that, though it would be extremely desirable to be prepared for pushing our operations further, yet our necessities, exacting a system of economy, forbade our launching into much extra expense for objects, which were remote and contingent. This determination having taken place, all our northern preparations were discontinued, except such as were necessary towards the intended Indian expedition.
Things were in this situation, when I received a letter from General Bayley, (living at Coos,) expressing some fears for the safety of the magazine at Coos, in consequence of which I directed the stores to be removed lower down the country. This I did to prevent a possibility of accident, though I did not apprehend they were in much danger. Some time afterwards, I received the letter No. 1, from General Gates, expressing similar fears; to which I returned him the answer of the 14th of February transmitted by him to Congress, No. 2. Knowing that preparations had been making at Albany, and unacquainted with their true design, he very precipitately concluded from a vague expression in that letter, that the intention of attacking Canada was still adhered to, but that I had changed the plan and was going by way of Lake Champlain or Ontario. Either of these routes he pronounces impracticable, and represents that by Coos as the only practicable one. He goes still further, and declares, that “in the present state of our army, and the actual situation of our magazines, to attempt a serious invasion of Canada, by whatever route, would prove unsuccessful, unless the fleet of our allies should at the same time coöperate with us by sailing up the river St. Lawrence.” Though I differ with him as to the impracticability of both the other routes, I venture to go a step beyond him respecting our ability to invade Canada, & am convinced, that, in our present circumstances, and with the enemy in front, we cannot undertake a serious invasion of that country at all, even with the aid of an allied fleet. You will perceive, Sir, that I have uniformly made the departure of the enemy from these States an essential condition to the invasion of Canada; and that General Gates has entirely mistaken my intentions. Hoping that I had embarked in a scheme, which our situation would not justify, he eagerly seizes the opportunity of exposing my supposed errors to Congress; and, in the excess of his intemperate zeal to injure me, exhibits himself in a point of view, from which I imagine he will derive little credit. The decency of the terms in which he undertakes to arraign my conduct, both to myself and to Congress, and the propriety of the hasty appeal he has made, will, I believe, appear at least questionable to every man of sense and delicacy.
The last paragraph of the extract, with which you favor me, is a pretty remarkable one. I shall make no comments further, than as it implies a charge of neglect on my part, in not writing to him but once since December. From the beginning of last campaign to the middle of December, about seven months, I have copies of near fifty letters to him, and about forty originals from him. I think it will be acknowledged, that the correspondence was frequent enough during that period; and, if it has not continued in the same proportion since, the only reason was, that the season of the year, the troops being in Winter-quarters, and Genl. G’s situation unfruitful of events and unproductive of any military arrangements between us, afforded very little matter for epistolary intercourse; and I flatter myself it will be readily believed, that I am sufficiently occupied with the necessary business of my station, and have no need of increasing it by multiplying letters without an object. If you were to persue, my Dear Sir, the letters which have passed between General Gates and myself for a long time back, you would be sensible that I have no great temptation to court his correspondence, when the transacting of public business does not require it. An air of design, a want of candor in many instances, and even of politeness, give no very inviting complexion to the correspondence on his part. As a specimen of this, I send you a few letters and extracts, which, at your leisure, I should be glad that you would cast your eye upon.
Last fall, it was for some time strongly suspected that the enemy would transport the whole or the greater part of their force Eastward, and combine one great land and sea operation against the french fleet in Boston harbour. On this supposition, as I should go in person to Boston, the command next in importance was the posts on the North River. This properly would devolve on General Gates; but, from motives of peculiar scrupulousness, as there had been a difference between us, I thought it best to know whether it was agreeable to him, before I directed his continuance. By way of compliment, I wrote him a letter, containing No. 3, expecting a cordial answer and cheerful acceptance. I received the evasive and unsatisfactory reply,1 No. 4. A few days after this, upon another occasion, I wrote him the letter, No. 5, to which I received the extraordinary answer, No. 6, which was passed over in silence.
The plan of operations for the campaign being determined, a commanding officer was to be appointed for the Indian expedition. This command, according to all present appearances, will probably be of the second if not of the first importance for the campaign. The officer conducting it has a flattering prospect of acquiring more credit, than can be expected by any other this year; and he has the best reason to hope for success. General Lee, from his situation, was out of the question; General Schuyler (who, by the way, would have been most agreeable to me) was so uncertain of continuing in the army, that I could not appoint him; General Putnam I need not mention. I therefore made the offer of it, for the appointmt. could no longer be delayed, to General Gates, who was next in seniority, though, perhaps I might have avoided it, if I had been so disposed, from his being in a command by the special appointment of Congress. My letter to him on the occasion, you will find in No. 7, I believe you will think was conceived in very candid and polite terms, and that it merited a different answer from the one given to it,1 No. 8.
I discovered very early in the war symptoms of coldness & constraint in General Gates’ behavior to me. These increased as he rose into greater consequence; but we did not come to a direct breach, till the beginning of last year. This was occasioned by a correspondence, which I thought rather made free with me, between Generals Gates and Conway, which accidentally came to my knowledge. The particulars of this affair you will find delineated in the packet herewith, endorsed “Papers respecting General Conway.” Besides the evidence, contained in them, of the genuineness of the offensive correspondence, I have other proofs still more convincing, which, having been given me in a confidential way, I am not at liberty to impart.
After this affair subsided, I made a point of treating Gen. Gates with all the attention and cordiality in my power, as well from a sincere desire of harmony, as from an unwillingness to give any cause of triumph to our enemies, from an appearance of dissension among ourselves. I can appeal to the world, and to the whole army, whether I have not cautiously avoided every word or hint, that could tend to disparage Gen. Gates in any way. I am sorry his conduct to me has not been equally generous, and that he is continually giving me fresh proofs of malevolence and opposition. It will not be doing him injustice to say, that, besides the little, underhand intrigues which he is frequently practising, there has hardly been any great military question, in which his advice has been asked, that it has not been given in an equivocal and designing manner, apparently calculated to afford him an oppotunity of censuring me, on the failure of whatever measures might be adopted.
When I find that this gentleman does not scruple to take the most unfair advantages of me, I am under a necessity of explaining his conduct to justify my own. This, and the perfect confidence I have in you, have occasioned me to trouble you with so free a communication of the state of things between us. I shall still be as passive as a regard to my own character will permit. I am, however, uneasy, as General G. has endeavored to impress Congress with an unfavorable idea of me; and, as I only know this in a private, confidential way, that I cannot take any step to remove the impression, if it should be made.
I am aware, Sir, of the delicacy of your situation; and I mean this letter only for your own private information. You will, therefore, not allow yourself to be embarrassed by its contents, but with respect to me pass it over in silence. With the truest esteem and personal regard, I am, dear Sir, &c.1
P. S. General Gates in his letter of the 30th of Septr. disapproves the divided state of our army—what he says being in general terms might seem plausible enough, but by no means applies to the case in hand. The Army was then in four divisions—Three Brigades of the right wing & one from the second line under General Putnam had been stationed in the Highlands in conjunction with the garrison of West Point for the immediate defence of the passes there—The remaining two brigades of that wing, under Baron de Kalb was incamped on Fish Kill plains, 7 or 8 miles from the town within less than a days march of the fort.—At Fredericksburgh was three brigades of the second line under Lord Stirling about two days march from the fort—General Gates with the left wing of five brigades was at Danbury abt. 14 miles from Fredericksburgh. The manœuvring on our flanks of which General Gates speaks by way of the North River or the sound must have had for object either the Highland passes, or the army itself.—Had they attempted those passes, the force immediately on the spot & close in its vicinity was sufficient from the nature of the ground to withstand their whole force; and the rest of the army from the time necessarily exhausted in military operations would in all probability have been up in time to succour that part—Without gaining those passes they could not get at the army at all on the right; and in doing it, if they could have effected it, the army would have had abundant time to collect & defend itself.—To advance by land in our front would have been chimerical; they would have had a much greater distance to approach us, than the whole distance from one extremity of our force to the other; and we should have had all the leisure we could desire to assemble at any point we thought proper. Had they attempted our left flank at Danbury by way of the sound, we might either if we had judged it expedient have brought up the other corps to support the one there, or, if it found itself pressed for want of time, it had only to fall back upon Fredericksburgh, and there our whole force would have concentred with ease to oppose the enemy to the greatest advantage. The truth was, there was not at that time the least probability they should attempt an army which had been the whole summer inviting them out of their stronghold—nor did I think there was much, they would molest the forts;—yet it would certainly have been imprudent to have risked the security of either.—When the enemy was in the Jerseys the change then made in the disposition gave still greater security to the different objects for which we had to provide, by drawing a greater force to the point threatened. The intention of the disposition I have described was to push a part of our force as far Eastward as possible for the aid and protection of the French fleet, in case the enemy had directed their force against that, at the same time, I did not choose to lose sight of the North river, and therefore kept a sufficient force near enough to secure it. The conciliating these two objects produced that division of our army of which General Gates complains. No man however was more vehement in supposing the French fleet would be the object of the enemy’s operations than himself; and this he so emphatically inculcated in several of his letters, that I thought it necessary in answer to one of the 6th of October, to write him as contained in mine of the 7th, both which are also herewith No. 9 & 10.
[1 ]Philadelphia, April 6th.—“Mr. Jay presents his compliments to General Washington, and encloses an extract from a letter in a certain degree interesting.”
[1 ]The following extracts from the letters here referred to were copied, and sent to the President of Congress with the above letter.
[1 ]Dated March 6th and 16th. See above, pp. 354.
[1 ]In regard to Gates’ letter to Congress, Mr. Jay wrote: “The impression attempted to be made has not taken. It passed without a single remark. Your friends thought it merited nothing but silence and neglect. The same reason induced me to take notice of it in my answer. I have perused the several papers with which you favored me. The delicacy, candor, and temper diffused through your letters, form a strong contrast to the evasions and designs observable in some others. Gratitude ought to have attached a certain gentleman to the friend who raised him; a spurious ambition, however, has, it seems, made him your enemy.”—April 21st.