Front Page Titles (by Subject) TO JAMES McHENRY, SECRETARY OF WAR. - The Writings of George Washington, vol. XIV (1798-1799)
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TO JAMES McHENRY, SECRETARY OF WAR. - George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, vol. XIV (1798-1799) 
The Writings of George Washington, collected and edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890). Vol. XIV (1798-1799).
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TO JAMES McHENRY, SECRETARY OF WAR.
Mount Vernon, 4 July, 1798.
The sentiments, which I mean to express to you in this letter on the subject of yours, shall be frank, undisguised, and explicit; for I see, as you do, that clouds are gathering, and that a storm may ensue; and I find, too, from a variety of hints, that my quiet under these circumstances does not promise to be of long continuance.
It cannot be necessary for me to promise to you, or to others, who know my sentiments as well, that, to quit the tranquil walks of retirement, and enter the boundless field of responsibility and trouble, would be productive of sensations, which a better pen than I possess would find it difficult to describe. Nevertheless, the principle by which my conduct has been actuated through life would not suffer me, in any great emergency, to withhold any services I could render, required by my country; especially in a case, where its dearest rights are assailed by lawless ambition and intoxicated power, contrary to every principle of justice, and in violation of solemn compact and Laws, which govern all civilized nations; and this, too, with the obvious intent to sow thick the seeds of disunion, for the purpose of subjugating the Government, and destroying our Independence and happiness.
Under circumstances like these, accompanied by an actual Invasion of our territorial rights, it would be difficult at any time for me to remain an idle spectator under the plea of age or Retirement. With sorrow, it is true, I should quit the shades of my peaceful abode, and the ease and happiness I now enjoy, to encounter anew the turmoils of War, to which, possibly, my strength and powers might be found incompetent. These, however, should not be stumblingblocks in my own way; but there are other things highly important for me to ascertain and settle, before I could give a decided answer to your question.
First, the propriety in the opinion of the public, (so far as that opinion has been expressed in conversation,) of my appearing again on a Public theatre, after declaring the sentiments I did in my Valedictory Address, of September, 1796.
Second, a conviction in my own breast, from the best information that can be obtained, that it is the wish of my country, that the military force of it should be committed to my charge; and,
Third, that the army now to be formed should be so appointed, as to afford a well-grounded hope of its doing honor to the country, and credit to him who commands it in the field.
On each of these heads you must allow me to make observations.
With respect to the first, it will readily be admitted, under the circumstances I at present am, that nothing short of an imperious call would or ought to draw me from Retirement; and, unless this was apparent, the advantages, (if any are expected from the measure,) would not only be weakened, but might be defeated altogether. For the opposers of government, with a view to lessen its influence, would denounce it at once a restless act, evincive of my discontent in retirement, and that my love for it was all a sham. Knowing the purity of my own intentions, such observations would make no impression on my personal feelings, but the necessity thereof in the eyes of the Public ought to be unequivocal; for it would be uncandid in me not to confess, that, although I highly approve of all the defensive and precautionary measures that have been adopted, and wish they had been more energetic, yet that I cannot believe, since the People of this country, (on whose defection the calculation was made,) have come forward with such strong and unequivocal assurances to defend at all hazards their Government and Independence, maugre the attempts to divert them from it, that the Directory of France, intoxicated and abandoned as it is, will have the folly to invade our territorial rights, otherwise than by predatory attempts on the sea-board; unless their agents and Partisans among us, in defiance of the evidence of their senses, should still have the wickedness and address to make that Government believe, that nothing but a force to give countenance to its friends is wanting to effectuate all they wish. This, Sir, is my opinion, with respect to a formidable Invasion. Perhaps, with the information and lights in possession of the Executive, I might think differently.
On the second head I shall be more concise, because, as my whole life has been dedicated to the Service of my country in one shape or another, for the poor remains of it, it is not an object to contend for ease and quiet, when all that is valuable in it is at stake, further than to be satisfied that the sacrifice I should make of these is acceptable and desired by my Country. As neither ambition, Interest, nor personal gratification of any sort could induce me to quit the walks of private life, to be disappointed in the only object I should have in view would be mortifying beyond my powers of utterance. And what this public opinion and wish is, on this occasion, I know not; for I have studiously avoided touching on the subject, lest some inference contrary to my meaning should be drawn from it.
I express these ideas not from affectation, for I despise everything that carries the appearance of it, but from the belief, that, as it is the fashion of the present day, set or adopted by the French with whom we are to contend and with great and astonishing success too, to appoint Generals of Juvenile years to lead their armies, it might not be improbable, that similar ideas and wishes might pervade the minds of our citizens. And when to this a fear might be added, that age may have wrought too powerfully on my body and mind, to make it advisable to commit so important a trust to my direction.
On the third head you must permit me to dwell a little more at large. If an army was in existence, and an officer were invited to take command of it, his course would be plain, for he would have nothing more to do than to examine the constitution of it, and to inquire into the composition, to enable him to decide; but we have one to form, and much indeed depends upon the formation. If a judicious choice is not made of the principal officers, and above all, of the General Staff, in the first instance, it never can be rectified thereafter. The character, then, of the army would be lost in the Superstructure. The reputation of the Commander-in-Chief would sink with it, and the country be involved in inextricable expense.
It is impossible, I know, for the Executive to be intimately acquainted with the qualifications of the Battalion officers; and perhaps, from the manner in which the Volunteer Corps may offer themselves, little will be left to his choice. The presumption however is, that, as these corps will be composed of respectable citizens, the officers will be good, and worthy of as much confidence as can be placed in untried men. The great desiderata lyes in the appointment of the General Officers of the line, and of the Staff, particularly the latter; and the first consists in a great measure in determining whether they shall be taken from the old set of Generals, or formed anew from the most experienced, intelligent, and best proved officers of the late American army, without regard to Grade.
From the want of the list, which I left in the Presidential office, by which my memory could be refreshed as to names, it would be hazardous, and might be improper, to give a decided opinion on this head; but I have no great scruple in saying, that I incline strongly to the latter mode; for, if this country is seriously Invaded, our system of warfare must be the very reverse of the last.
To remark to a military man, how all-important the General Staff of an army is to its well-being, and how essential consequently to the Commander-in-Chief, seems to be unnecessary; and yet a good choice is of such immense consequence, that I must be allowed to explain myself.
The Inspector-General, Quartermaster-General, Adjutant-General, and officer commanding the corps of Artillerists and Engineers, ought to be men of the most respectable character, and of first-rate abilities; because, from the nature of their respective offices, and from their being always about the Commander-in-Chief, who is obliged to entrust many things to them confidentially, scarcely any movement can take place without their knowledge. It follows, then, that, besides possessing the qualifications just mentioned, they ought to have those of Integrity and prudence in an eminent degree, that entire confidence might be reposed in them. Without these, and their being on good terms with the Commanding General, his measures, if not designedly thwarted, may be so embarrassed as to make them move heavily on.
If the Inspector-General is not an officer of great respectability of character, firm and strict in discharging the duties of the trust reposed in him, or if he is too pliant in his disposition, he will most assuredly be imposed upon, and the efficient strength and condition of the army will not be known to the Commander-in-Chief. Of course he may form his Plans upon erroneous calculations, and commit fatal mistakes.
If the Quartermaster-General is not a man of great resource and activity, and worthy of the highest confidence, he would be unfit for the military Station he is to occupy; for, as it is not possible at all times to mask real designs and movements under false appearances, the better and safer way is, to place full confidence in him under the seal of responsibility. Then, knowing the plan, he participates in the concealment; on which, and the celerity of a movement, success oftentimes entirely depends. In addition to these requisites in a Quartermaster-General, œconomy in providing for the wants of an army, proper arrangements in the distribution of the supplies, and a careful eye to the use of them, is of great importance, and call for a circumspect choice.
The Adjutant-Gen. ought also to be a man of established character, of great activity and experience in the details of an army, and of proved integrity, or no alertness can be expected in the execution of the several duties consigned to him on the one hand, and every thing to be feared from treachery or neglect in his office on the other, by which the enemy might be as well informed of our strength as their own.
Though last mentioned, it is not least important, that so essential and scientific a part of the army, as the Corps of Artillerists and Engineers, should have an able and respectable officer at their head, without which it would soon sink into ignorance and disrepute.
Humanity and feeling for the sick and wounded of an army call loudly for skill, attention, and œconomy in the director of the hospitals; and, without the last qualification, profusion and misapplication of its Stores will inevitably take place.
Able, well-informed, active, and spirited General Officers are no doubt of high importance to the honor, reputation, and success of any army; but I have confined my observations in a more particular manner to those of the General Staff, who may be considered as so many parts of the Commander-in-Chief. Viewing them, then, in this light, it will readily be seen how essential it is, that they should be agreeable to him. Such characters are within my view, if they would accept.
I have run into great prolixity, in order to give you a comprehensive view of my ideas on the subject of your letter, and the principles by which I am governed. Without these explanations, the answer might have been conveyed in a few words as follows.
When I retired to the walks of private life, I had no idea, that any event would occur which could induce me to leave them. That the pain I should feel, if it be my fate to do so, cannot easily be expressed; Yet if this Country should be actually Invaded, or such manifestation of a design to do it as cannot be mistaken, I should be ready to render every Service in my power to repel it;—
Provided my declining years are not considered as an objection to the trust, but, on the contrary, (and in support of the partiality which may actuate the President in my favor,) it shall appear unequivocally to you, and to those with whom you act, being at the centre of information from all parts of the Union, and where a Commander for the Troops to be raised must often have been the subject of conversation, that the Public wish was directed to me, notwithstanding my avowed declaration when I retired from office to remain a private Citizen;—
And provided also, That I can have such characters associated with me, as will render the turmoils of War, and the burthen of the Command, as light as the nature of it will admit. For it is well known, that the vicissitudes of war are not within the reach of human controul; and the chances of adding to, are not greater than the hazard of taking from, that reputation which the partiality of the world has been pleased to confer for past services; And that not prompted, as I have observed in a former part of this letter, by motives of ambition or Interest to embark again on a theatre so arduous and responsible, I might in the course of events be left with the single consolation of knowing myself, though possibly deprived even of the credit of that by the malevolence of others; that a sense of duty was the only motive, which had induced me to run the risk, and to make the sacrifice of my ease and quiet at the same time.
In a very handsome, polite, and flattering letter with which I have lately been honored by the President, he has hinted in very delicate terms, not to be misunderstood, a wish that the Command of the Military force of this Country might be in me. I did not conceive myself at liberty, however, to go into such details and explanations with him, as, from the habits of intimacy I have always been in with you, I thought myself authorized to talk with you, who may be assured of the sincere esteem and affectionate regards of, dear Sir, &c.