Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 31: The Path of Duty: Averting War, Maintaining Independence (December 1793 to June 1794) - The Life of George Washington
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CHAPTER 31: “The Path of Duty”: Averting War, Maintaining Independence (December 1793 to June 1794) - John Marshall, The Life of George Washington 
The Life of George Washington. Special Edition for Schools, ed. Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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“The Path of Duty”: Averting War, Maintaining Independence (December 1793 to June 1794)
Meeting of Congress.—President’s speech.—His message on foreign relations.—Report of the Secretary of State.—His resignation.—Is succeeded by Mr. Randolph.—Mr. Madison’s resolutions, founded on the report of the Secretary of State.—Debate thereon.—Mission of Mr. Jay to Great Britain.—Internal taxes.—Congress adjourns.
Aug.–Dec. 1793A malignant fever, believed to be infectious, had severely afflicted the city of Philadelphia, and dispersed the officers of government. Although the fear of contagion was not entirely dispelled, such was the expectation that important communications would be made by the executive, and that legislative measures, not less important, would be founded on them, that Congress was full on the first day.
On the 4th of December, at twelve, the President met both Houses in the Senate chamber. His speech commenced with his own re-election, his feelings at which were thus expressed:—
“Since the commencement of the term for which I have been again called into office, no fit occasion has arisen for expressing to my fellow-citizens at large the deep and respectful sense which I feel of the renewed testimony of public approbation. While, on the one hand, it awakened my gratitude for all those instances of affectionate partiality with which I have been honored by my country, on the other, it could not prevent an earnest wish for that retirement from which no private consideration could ever have torn me. But, influenced by the belief that my conduct would be estimated according to its real motives, and that the people, and the authorities derived from them, would support exertions having nothing personal for their object, I have obeyed the suffrage which commanded me to resume the executive power; and I humbly implore that Being on whose will the fate of nations depends, to crown with success our mutual endeavors for the general happiness.”
Passing to those measures which had been adopted by the executive for the regulation of its conduct towards the belligerent nations, he observed, “as soon as the war in Europe had embraced those powers with whom the United States have the most extensive relations, there was reason to apprehend that our intercourse with them might be interrupted, and our disposition to peace drawn into question by suspicions too often entertained by belligerent nations. It seemed, therefore, to be my duty to admonish our citizens of the consequence of a contraband trade, and of hostile acts to any of the parties; and to obtain, by a declaration of the existing state of things, an easier admission of our rights to the immunities belonging to our situation. Under these impressions, the proclamation, which will be laid before you, was issued.
“In this posture of affairs, both new and delicate, I resolved to adopt general rules, which should conform to the treaties, and assert the privileges of the United States. These were reduced to a system, which shall be communicated to you.”
After suggesting those legislative provisions on this subject, the necessity of which had been pointed out by experience, he pressed on Congress the propriety of placing the country in a state of complete defence; and earnestly recommended measures for the regular redemption and discharge of the public debt.
On the succeeding day, a message was sent to both Houses, containing some important communications relative to the connexion of the United States with foreign powers.
After stating the friendly disposition generally manifested by the French government, he added, “A decree, however, of the National Assembly, subjecting vessels laden with provisions to be carried into their ports, and making enemy-goods lawful prize in the vessel of a friend, contrary to our treaty, though revoked at one time as to the United States, has been since extended to their vessels also.”1
“It is with extreme concern I have to inform you, that the person whom they have unfortunately appointed minister plenipotentiary here, has breathed nothing of the friendly spirit of the nation which sent him. The tendency, on the contrary, has been to involve us in a war abroad, and in discord and anarchy at home.”
The order issued by the British government on the 8th of June, and the consequent measures taken by the United States, were noticed. The discussions which had taken place in relation to the non-execution of the treaty of peace were also mentioned; and the message was concluded with a reference to the negotiations with Spain.
This message was accompanied with copies of the correspondence between the Secretary of State and the French minister; and of the letter written by Mr. Jefferson to Mr. Morris.
The strength of parties had been tried in the late elections; and the opposition had derived so much aid from associating the cause of France with its own principles, as to furnish much reason to suspect that, in one branch of the legislature at least, it had become the majority. The first act of the House of Representatives served to strengthen this suspicion. Each party brought forward a candidate for the chair; and Mr. Muhlenberg, who was supported by the opposition, was elected by a majority of ten votes over Mr. Sedgwick, who was supported by the federalists.2
The answers, however, to the speech breathed a spirit indicating that the leaders, at least, still venerated their Chief Magistrate; and that no general intention, as yet, existed to involve him in the obloquy directed against his measures.
The neighborhood of the Spanish colonies to the United States, had given rise to various subjects of discussion in addition to those relating to boundary, and the navigation of the Mississippi. One of these had assumed a serious aspect.
Having strong reason to suppose that the hostility of the southern Indians was excited by the agents of Spain, the President had directed the American commissioners at Madrid to make the proper representations on the subject, and to propose that each nation should, with good faith, promote the peace of the other with their savage neighbors.
About the same time, the Spanish government entertained, or affected to entertain, suspicions of like hostile excitements by the agents of the United States, to disturb their peace with the same nations. These representations were accompanied with pretensions to which the American executive could not be inattentive. His Catholic Majesty claimed to be the protector of those Indians. He assumed a right to mediate between them and the United States, and to interfere in the settlement of their boundaries. At length, his representatives, complaining of the aggressions of American citizens on the Indians, declared “that the continuation of the peace, good harmony, and perfect friendship of the two nations was very problematical for the future, unless the United States should take more convenient measures, and of greater energy than those adopted for a long time past.”
Though the pretensions of the French republic, as asserted by their minister, were still supported with enthusiastic zeal out of doors, they found no open advocate in the House. An attack on the administration could be placed on no ground more disadvantageous than on its controversy with Mr. Genêt. The conduct and language of that minister were offensive to reflecting men of all parties. To the various considerations growing out of the discussions themselves, and of the parties engaged in them, one was added which could not be disregarded. The party in France, to which Mr. Genêt owed his appointment, had lost its power; and his fall was the inevitable consequence of the fall of his patrons. That he would probably be recalled was known in America; and that his conduct had been disapproved, was generally believed.3 The future course of the French republic towards the United States could not be foreseen; and it would be committing something to hazard, not to wait events.
These objections did not exist to an indulgence of the national feeling towards the belligerent powers, in measures suggested by its resentment against Great Britain.
In addition to the causes of dissatisfaction with Great Britain, which have already been suggested, others soon occurred. Under her auspices, a truce for one year had been lately negotiated between Portugal and Algiers, which, by withdrawing a small squadron stationed by the former power in the Streights, opened a passage into the Atlantic to the cruisers of the latter. The capture of American vessels, which was the immediate consequence of this measure, was believed in the United States to have been its motive.4
This transaction was afterwards ascribed by England to her desire to serve an ally, and to enable that ally to act more efficaciously in a common cause.
Early in the session, a report was made by the Secretary of State on the nature and extent of the privileges and restrictions of the commercial intercourse of the United States with foreign nations.
Its statements and arguments tended to enforce the policy of making discriminations which might favor the commerce of the United States with France, and discourage that with England; and which might promote the increase of American navigation as a branch of industry, and a resource of defence.
This was the last official act of the Secretary of State. He resigned his office on the last day of December, and was succeeded by Mr. Edmund Randolph. The office of Attorney-General was filled by Mr. William Bradford, a gentleman of considerable eminence in Pennsylvania.5
1794On the 4th of January, the House resolved itself into a committee of the whole on the report of the Secretary of State; when Mr. Madison laid on the table a series of resolutions, which imposed additional duties on the manufactures and on the tonnage of vessels of nations not having a commercial treaty with the United States, while they reduced the duties already imposed on the tonnage of vessels belonging to nations having such treaty.
The debate commenced on the 13th of January, and continued until the 3d of February. It was eloquent, animated, and interesting. Party feelings were mingled with commercial policy; and all the strong passions which agitated the country were manifested in the House. Arguments on the general interests of the United States were also advanced, which still merit the attention of every American statesman.
On the 3d of February, the first resolution was carried by a majority of five. The further consideration of the resolutions was then postponed until the first Monday in March.
This animated debate was succeeded by another, on a question which also brought into full view, the systems of the opposite parties, on some of those great national subjects which determine the character of government.
On the 2d of January, a resolution had been agreed to in the House of Representatives, declaring “that a naval force adequate to the protection of the commerce of the United States against the Algerine corsairs, ought to be provided.” The force proposed was to consist of six frigates.
This measure was founded on the communications of the President respecting the improbability of being able to negotiate a peace with the Dey of Algiers; and on undoubted information that the corsairs of that regency had, during their first short cruise in the Atlantic, captured eleven American merchantmen, and made upwards of one hundred prisoners; and were preparing to renew their attack on the unprotected vessels of the United States.
In every stage of its progress this bill was most strenuously opposed. On no question had the influence of party feeling been more strongly exhibited. Not even the argument that it would be cheaper to purchase the protection of foreign powers than to afford it by a small naval force, was too humiliating to be urged.
The original resolution was carried by a majority of two voices only; but as the bill advanced, several members who were accustomed to vote in the opposition gave it their support; and, on the final question, a majority of eleven appeared in its favor. The other branch of the legislature concurred, and it received the cordial assent of the President.
Pending these discussions, the irritations in which they commenced were greatly aggravated by accounts that captures of American vessels were made by British cruisers, to an extent altogether unprecedented; and, early in March, an authentic paper was received which proved that these captures were not unauthorized.
On the 6th of November 1793, additional instructions had been issued to the ships of war and privateers of Great Britain, requiring them to stop and detain all ships laden with goods, the produce of any colony belonging to France, or carrying provisions or other supplies to any such colony, and to bring the same, with their cargoes, to legal adjudication in the British courts of admiralty.
These instructions made a serious impression on the most reflecting men in the United States. It was believed that they originated in a spirit of hostility which must lead to war; and that it had become the part of prudence to prepare for that event.
1794On the 12th of March, Mr. Sedgwick laid on the table several resolutions, the objects of which were, to raise a military force, and to authorize the President to lay an embargo. Two days afterwards, a motion was made to take up that which related to an embargo; but this motion was negatived for the purpose of resuming the consideration of the commercial resolutions offered by Mr. Madison. On the motion of Mr. Nicholas,6 those resolutions were amended so as to subject the manufactures of Great Britain alone, instead of those of all nations having no commercial treaty with the United States, to the proposed augmentation of duties. They were again debated with great earnestness, but no decision was made on them.
On the 21st of March, the motion authorizing the President to lay an embargo was negatived by a majority of two voices; but in a few days, the consideration of that subject was resumed, and a resolution was passed, prohibiting all trade from the United States to any foreign port or place for thirty days, and empowering the President to carry the resolution into effect. This resolution was accompanied with vigorous provisional measures for defence.
While the measures of Congress indicated the expectation of war, a document made its appearance which seemed to show that Great Britain also was preparing for that event. This was the answer of Lord Dorchester, on the 20th of February, to a speech delivered by the deputies of a great number of Indian tribes assembled at Quebec.7 In this answer his lordship had openly avowed the opinion, that a war between Great Britain and the United States was probable, and that a new line between the two nations must then be drawn by the sword.
On the 27th of March, Mr. Dayton8 moved a resolution for sequestering all debts due to British subjects, and for taking means to secure their payment into the treasury, as a fund out of which to indemnify9 the citizens of the United States for depredations committed on their commerce by British cruisers.
The debate on this resolution was such as was to be expected from the irritable state of the public mind. Before any question was taken on it, Mr. Clark10 moved a resolution to prohibit all intercourse with Great Britain until her government should make full compensation for all injuries done to the citizens of the United States, by armed vessels, or by any person or persons acting under the authority of the British King; and until the western posts should be delivered up.
On the 4th of April, the President laid before Congress a letter just received from Mr. Pinckney, communicating additional instructions to the commanders of British armed ships dated the 8th of January, which revoked those of the 6th of November, and directed British cruisers to bring in those neutral vessels only which were laden with cargoes, the produce of the French islands, and were on a direct voyage from those islands to Europe.
This letter detailed a conversation with Lord Grenville in which his lordship explained the motives which led to the order of the 6th of November.11 It was intended to answer two purposes;—one, to prevent the abuses which might be the consequence of the whole St. Domingo fleet having gone to the United States; the other, on account of the attack designed upon the French West India islands by the armament under the command of Sir John Jarvis, and Sir Charles Grey; but it was no longer necessary to continue the regulations for those purposes. His lordship added, that the order of the 6th of November did not direct the confiscation of all vessels trading with the French islands, but only that they should be brought in for adjudication.
The influence of this communication on the federal party was considerable. Believing that the differences between the two nations still admitted of adjustment, they opposed all measures which tended to irritate, or which might be construed into a dereliction of the neutral character they were desirous of maintaining; but gave all their weight to those which might prepare the nation for war should negotiation fail.
No change of sentiment or of views was produced on the opposite party. Their system seems to have been matured, and not to have originated in the feelings of the moment. Their propositions were still discussed with great animation; but, notwithstanding an ascertained majority in their favor, were permitted to remain undecided, as if their fate depended on some extrinsic circumstance.
Meanwhile, great exertions were made to increase the public agitation, and to stimulate the resentments which were felt against Great Britain. The artillery of the press was played with unceasing fury, on the minority of the House of Representatives; and the democratic societies brought their whole force into operation. Language will scarcely afford terms of greater outrage than were employed against those who sought to moderate the rage of the moment.
The proceedings of the legislature continued to manifest a fixed purpose to pursue the system which had been commenced. That the nation was advancing rapidly to a state of war was firmly believed by many intelligent men who doubted its necessity, and denied its policy. In addition to the calamities which must in any state of things result from the measure, there were considerations belonging exclusively to the moment which were certainly entitled to great respect.
That war with Britain during the continuance of the passionate and almost idolatrous devotion of a great majority of the people to the French republic, would throw America so completely into the arms of France, as to leave her no longer mistress of her own conduct, was not the only fear which the temper of the day suggested. That the ferocious spirit which triumphed in that nation, and deluged it with the blood of its revolutionary champions, might cross the Atlantic, and desolate the hitherto safe and peaceful dwellings of the American people, was an apprehension not unsupported by appearances. Already had an imitative spirit, captivated with the splendor and copying the errors of a great nation, reared up self-created corresponding societies, who, claiming to be the people, assumed a control over the government, and were loosening its bonds. Already were the Mountain, and a revolutionary tribunal, favorite toasts;12 and already were principles familiarly proclaimed, which, in France, had been the precursors of that tremendous and savage despotism, which, in the name of the people, and by the instrumentality of affiliated societies, had spread its terrific sway over that fine country, and had threatened to extirpate all that was wise and virtuous.13 That a great majority of those statesmen who conducted the opposition14 would deprecate such a result, was no security against it. When the physical force of a nation usurps the place of its wisdom, those who have produced such a state of things no longer control it.
These apprehensions produced in those who felt them, an increased solicitude for the preservation of peace. Their aid was not requisite to confirm the judgment of the President. Fixed in his purpose of maintaining the neutrality of the United States until foreign aggression should clearly render neutrality incompatible with honor; and conceiving from the last advices received from England, that the differences between the two nations had not yet attained that point, he determined to make one decisive effort which should either remove the ostensible causes of quarrel, or demonstrate the indisposition of Great Britain to remove them. This determination was executed by the nomination of an Envoy Extraordinary to his Britannic Majesty, which was announced to the Senate on the 16th of April, in the following terms:
“The communications which I have made to you during your present session, from the despatches of our minister in London, contain a serious aspect of our affairs with Great Britain. But as peace ought to be pursued with unremitted zeal, before the last resource which has so often been the scourge of nations, and cannot fail to check the advanced prosperity of the United States, is contemplated, I have thought proper to nominate, and do hereby nominate John Jay, as Envoy Extraordinary of the United States to his Britannic Majesty.
“My confidence in our Minister Plenipotentiary in London, continues undiminished. But a mission like this, while it corresponds with the solemnity of the occasion, will announce to the world a solicitude for the friendly adjustment of our complaints, and a reluctance to hostility. Going immediately from the United States, such an Envoy will carry with him a full knowledge of the existing temper and sensibility of our country; and will thus be taught to vindicate our rights with firmness, and to cultivate peace with sincerity.”
No public act of the President has drawn on his administration a greater degree of censure than this. That such would be its effect could not be doubted by any person who had observed the ardor with which the opinions it thwarted had been embraced, or the extremity to which the contests and passions of the moment had carried all orders of men. But it is the province of real patriotism to consult the utility, more than the popularity of a measure; and to pursue the path of duty although it may be rugged.
In the Senate, the nomination was approved by a majority of ten voices; and, in the House of Representatives, it was urged as an argument against persevering in the system which had been commenced. On the 18th of April, however, the resolution for cutting off all commercial intercourse with Great Britain was carried in the affirmative; and a bill conforming to it passed by a considerable majority. It was lost in the Senate by the casting vote of the Vice-President. The system of the House of Representatives was pressed no further.
The altercations between the executive and the minister of the French republic had given birth to many questions on which a great diversity of sentiment prevailed.
The opinion that the relations produced by existing treaties, and indeed by a state of peace independent of treaty, imposed obligations on the United States, an observance of which it was the duty of the executive to enforce, had been reprobated15 with extreme bitterness. It was contended, certainly by the most active, perhaps by the most numerous part of the community, not only that the treaties had been grossly misconstrued, but also that, under any construction of them, the interference of the executive required the sanction of the legislature. The right of the President to call out the militia for the detention of privateers about to violate the rules he had established, was, in some instances, denied; attempts to punish those who had engaged, within the United States, to carry on expeditions against foreign nations, were unsuccessful; and a grand jury had refused to find a bill against Mr. Duplaine for having rescued a vessel which had been taken into custody by an officer of justice. The propriety of legislative provision was suggested by the President at the commencement of the session, and a bill was brought into the Senate “in addition to the act for punishing certain crimes against the United States.”
Necessary as this measure was, the whole strength of the opposition was exerted to defeat it. Motions to strike out the most essential clause were repeated, and each motion was negatived by the casting vote of the Vice-President. It was only by his voice that the bill finally passed. In the House of Representatives also the bill encountered serious opposition, and a section which prohibited the sale of prizes in the United States was struck out.
The preparations for an eventual war, and a heavy appropriation which, under the title of foreign intercourse, was made for the purpose of purchasing peace from Algiers, and liberating the Americans who were in captivity, created demands upon the treasury which the ordinary revenues were insufficient to satisfy.
The Committee of Ways and Means reported several resolutions for extending the internal duties to various objects, for an augmentation of the imposts, and for a direct tax.
Only thirteen members voted for the direct tax. The augmentation of the duty on imports met with no opposition. The internal duties were introduced in separate bills, that each might encounter those objections only which should be made to itself. A resolution in favor of stamps was rejected; the others were carried, after repeated and obstinate debates.
On the 9th of June, this active and stormy session was closed by an adjournment to the first Monday in November.
[1. ]The final “their” refers to the United States in the plural, thus to American vessels; it has been noted that not until after the American Civil War (1861–65) is “the United States” employed as a singular noun.
[2. ]Frederick A. C. Muhlenberg (1750–1801) of Pennsylvania, Lutheran clergyman, U.S. Representative (1789–97, initially as a Federalist), Speaker of the House in the First Congress (1789–91) but displaced by Sedgwick in the Second, regaining the Speaker’s chair in the Third Congress with the support of Democratic-Republican votes; Theodore Sedgwick (1746–1813) of Massachusetts, lawyer, U.S. Representative (1789–96; Speaker, 1791–93), Federalist. With 103 House seats at stake in the fall 1792 elections, the apparent party breakdown of the results was Democratic-Republicans, fifty-five, Federalists, forty-eight, but party affiliations were fluid or difficult to ascertain in the early years of the history of American political parties.
[3. ]Genêt was appointed in November 1792 when the Girondins dominated the National Convention, but by May 1793 the more radical Jacobins had taken control. In the summer of 1793 he was censured by his government, and eventually the Committee of Public Safety (the executive arm of the Convention) sent commissioners to America to arrest him, and appointed his successor.
[4. ]By arranging a treaty between Portugal and one of the Barbary Kingdoms (Algeria) such that Portugal would withdraw its squadron protecting merchant shipping through the Straits of Gibraltar (connecting the Mediterranean and the Atlantic), Britain—which had a treaty with the Barbary states to prevent piracy against its vessels—would expose states which did not have treaties to the corsairs (cruisers) of the Barbary pirates.
[5. ]William Bradford (1755–95) of Pennsylvania, Colonel in the Continental army, lawyer, attorney general of Pennsylvania (1780–91), Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice (1791–94), U.S. Attorney General from 1794 until his death in 1795.
[6. ]John Nicholas (1756?–1819) of Virginia, lawyer, U.S. Representative (1793–1801), Democratic-Republican; one of four politically active sons of a Revolutionary Virginia patriot. His brother George was a leading framer (with Thomas Jefferson) of the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 declaring that state’s right to interpose and nullify the Federalist-sponsored Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.
[7. ]Sir Guy Carleton, in 1786 named Lord Dorchester, Major General in the British army and from 1786 serving his second tour as Governor of Quebec.
[8. ]Jonathan Dayton (1760–1824) of New Jersey, U.S. Representative (1791–99), Federalist.
[9. ]Compensate for losses or injuries suffered.
[10. ]Abraham Clark (1726–94) of New Jersey, U.S. Representative (1791–94); he had opposed ratification of the 1787 Constitution until amended by a Bill of Rights.
[11. ]William Wyndham, Lord Grenville (1759–1834), from 1791 British Foreign Secretary in the Cabinet of Prime Minister William Pitt (the Younger).
[12. ]In the full Life, Marshall appends this footnote to “the Mountain”: “A well known term designating the most violent party in France” (II, p. 383, n. 1); he does not identify the tribunal. In the National Convention of 1792–95 the Montagnards (“mountaineers”) were the most radical of the deputies, in opposition to the more moderate Girondins; they were dominated by the Jacobins and supported the government of the Terror under Robespierre (see chapter 29, notes 17, 18 and chapter 30, note 10). Their name derived from the seats they occupied early in the Convention, the highest seats to the left of the speaker, but it developed symbolic meaning: The Mountain recalled Moses bringing the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai, or Christ preaching the Sermon on the Mount—thus establishing the radical Jacobins as the highest lawgivers of the new France. The tribunal Marshall refers to is probably the Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris, a special high court established in March 1793 to try crimes against the Republic. Initially some degree of due process for the accused was observed, but by the time of the September Massacres of that year it descended into terror, and it became a leading instrument of the Terror in 1794. By the time it was abolished in 1795 the Tribunal had condemned to death more than 2,700 people, including (toward the end) some of its own founders and members, among them Robespierre and its most severe public prosecutor, Fouquier-Tinville.
[13. ]Marshall is referring to the Terror of 1793–94, and the Jacobin Clubs; see chapter 30, note 10.
[14. ]The opposition party in the United States, namely the Democratic-Republican party.
[15. ]Strongly condemned.