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honourable body emboldens me to communicate, without reserve, the difficulties which occur in the execution of their present order; and the indulgence I have experienced on every former occasion induces me to imagine, that the liberty I now take will not meet with their disapprobation.
"I have attentively taken up the report of the committee, respecting the proposed expedition into Canada. I have considered it in several lights, and sincerely regret, that I should feel myself under any embarrassment in carrying it into execution. Still, I remain of opinion, from a general review of things, and the state of our resources, that no extensive system of co-operation with the French, for the complete emancipation of Canada, can be positively decided on for the ensuing year. To propose a plan of perfect co-operation with a foreign power, without a moral certainty of our supplies, and to have that plan actually ratified by the court of Versailles, might be attended, in case of failure in the conditions on our part, with very fatal effects.
"If I should seem unwilling to transmit the plan as prepared by Congress, with my observations, it is because I find myself under a necessity, in order to give our minister sufficient ground on which to found an application, to propose something more than a vague and undecisive plan, which, even in the event of a total evacuation of these states by the enemy, may be rendered impracticable in the execution, by a variety of insurmountable obstacles; or, if I retain my present sentiments and act consistently, I must point out the difficulties as they appear to me: which must embarrass his negotiations, and may disappoint the views of Congress.
"But, proceeding on the idea of the enemy's leaving these states, before the active part of the ensuing campaign, I should fear to hazard a mistake as to the precise aim and extent of the views of Congress. The line of conduct that I am to observe, in writing to our minister at the court of France, does not appear sufficiently marked. Were I to undertake it, I should be much afraid of erring, through misconception. In this dilemma, I should esteem it a particular favour to be excused from writing at all on the subject, especially as it is the part of candour in me to acknowledge, that I do not see my way clear enough to point out such a plan for co-operation as I conceive to be consistent with the ideas of Congress, and that will be sufficiently explanatory, with respect to time and circumstances, to give efficacy to the measure. But, if Congress still think it necessary for me to
proceed in the business, I must request their more definitive and explicit instructions, and that they will permit me, previous to transmitting the intended despatches, to submit them to their determination.
"I could wish to lay before Congress more minutely the state of the army, the condition of our supplies, and the requisites necessary for carrying into execution an undertaking that may involve the most serious events. If Congress think thiş can be done more satisfactorily in a personal conference, I hope to have the army in such a situation, before I can receive their answer, as to afford me an opportunity of giving my attendance."
The personal interview requested in the latter part of this letter was agreed to, and the commander-in-chief, leaving the head-quarters of this army on the 22d of December, presented himself before Congress on the 24th. A committee was appointed to confer with him on the operations of the coming campaign. Such was the strength and cogency of the arguments which he used to convince this committee of the impracticability of the Canada expedition, that in five days they decided, and their decision was approved by Congress, to lay aside all thoughts of such an undertaking.
In this, and all other instances throughout the life of General Washington, it is not easy to determine wherein he was most essential to the welfare of his country; whether in the skill and bravery with which he led her armies to victory, or in the passive, but not less inflexible aspect of his character; in the unconquerable firmness with which he stood up under the severest complication of misfortunes; in the singular uprightness and wisdom by which he was qualified to compose the dissensions of men and parties, and the commanding but unobtruded influence with which he could sway the collective mind of a legislature or an empire.
Washington remained in Philadelphia about five weeks, during which time he submitted to the committee of Congress three plans of operations for the next campaign, with remarks on the mode of executing them. The first, proposed an attempt to drive the enemy from the posts which they then occupied at New York and Rhode Island; the second, an expedition against Niagara, which would give security upon the northern frontier, and open a door into Canada, which might be afterwards used or not, as policy might dictate; and the third plan proposed to hold the army entirely on the defensive, except such smaller operations against the Indians, as would be absolutely necessary to chastise them for de
predations on the frontiers, and prevent them from a repetition of the same.
The advantages and disadvantages which were attendant upon each of these plans, were laid fully before the committee, and by them communicated to Congress.
"It is much to be regretted," he said, after discussing the two plans, "that our prospect of any capital offensive operations is so slender, that we seem in a manner to be driven to the necessity of adopting the third plan, that is, to remain entirely on the defensive, except such lesser operations against the Indians as are absolutely necessary to divert their ravages from us. The advantages of this plan are these: It will afford an opportunity of retrenching our expenses, and of adopting a general system of economy, which may give success to the plans of finance which Congress have in contemplation, and perhaps enable them to do something effectual for the relief of public credit, and for restoring the value of our currency. It will also give some repose to the country in general, and by leaving a greater number of hands to cultivate the lands, remove the apprehension of a scarcity of supplies.
"If this plan is determined upon, every measure of government ought to correspond. The most uniform principle of economy should pervade every department. We should not be frugal in one part, and prodigal in another. We should contract, but we should consolidate our system. The army, though small, should be of a firm and permanent texture. Every thing possible should be done to make the situation of the officers and soldiers comfortable, and every inducement offered to engage men during the war. The most effectual plan that can be devised for enlisting those already in the army, and recruiting in the country, ought to be carried into immediate execution.
"I shall not enter particularly into the measures that may be taken against the Indians, but content myself with the general idea thrown out, unless it should be the pleasure of the committee that I should be more explicit. The main body of the army must take a position so as to be most easily subsisted, and at the same time best situated to restrain the enemy from ravaging the country. If they should hereafter weaken themselves still more, so as to give a favourable opening, we should endeavour to improve it.
"This plan may perhaps have some serious disadvantages. Our inactivity will be an argument of our weakness, and may injure our credit and confidence with foreign powers. This may influence the negotiations of Europe to our disadvantage. I would not su
pose it could alienate our allies, or induce them to renounce our interests. Their own, if well understood, are too closely interwoven with them; their national faith and honour are pledged. At home, too, it may serve to dispirit the people, and give confidence to the disaffected. It will give leisure for factious and discontented spirits to excite divisions. How far these inconveniences ought to influence us in our operations, Congress can alone be a competent judge."
Congress resolved to adopt the third plan, and in the beginning of February Washington returned to the head-quarters of his army at Middlebrook. Some of the evils which had been dreaded, and in some degree guarded against, soon began to manifest themselves. The vigilance of the people was lulled and their energies were paralyzed by the thought that their independence was now secure ; that the powerful assistance of France, the second nation of Europe, would not fail to achieve at once a glorious victory for them over their ancient rival, England; and besides, there were whispers abroad that Spain was about to declare war against Great Britain, and that Russia refused or neglected to lend the latter nation aid, which she had promised her since the commencement of hostilities.
It is needless to show the fallacy of these hopes. Washington saw with great concern the origin and gradual spreading of this temper among his countrymen, and it is not too much to say that all hopes of American independence would, at this critical period, have ceased, but for the conduct of him who has well earned for himself the title of Father of his Country. He describes this period as the darkest and most critical that had occurred since the commencement of the contest. He knew enough of Britain to know that the war was not yet near its conclusion, and stimulated Congress and the states to exertion, by every consideration which he could suggest. Though the resolution empowering him to recruit the army was passed on the 23d of January, yet the requisition for the troops was not made upon the states until the 9th of March.
The apprehensions which these and other circumstances excited in the mind of General Washington, are thus fully stated in a letter to a friend, of great political influence. "I am particularly desirous of a free communication of sentiments with you at this time," he says, "because I view things very differently, I fear, from what people in general do, who seem to think the contest at an end, and that to make money and get places are the only things now remaining to be done. I have seen, without despondency even for a moment, the hours which America has styled her gloomy ones; but
I have beheld no day since the commencement of hostilities, when I have thought her liberties in such imminent danger as at present. Friends and foes seem now to combine to pull down the goodly fabric we have hitherto been raising at the expense of so much time, blood, and treasure."
After censuring with some freedom the prevailing opinions of the day, he added, "To me it appears no unjust simile to compare the affairs of this great continent to the mechanism of a clock, each state representing some one or other of the smaller parts of it, which they are endeavouring to put in fine order, without considering how useless and unavailing their labour is, unless the great wheel, or spring, which is to set the whole in motion, is also well attended to, and kept in good order. I allude to no particular state, nor do I mean to cast reflections on any one of them, nor ought I, it may be said, to do so on their representatives; but, as it is a fact too notorious to be concealed, that Congress is rent by party; that much business of a trifling nature and personal concernment withdraws their attention from matters of great national moment at this critical period; when it is also known that idleness and dissipation take place of close attention and application, no man who wishes well to the liberties of this country, and desires to see its rights established, can avoid crying out—where are our men of abilities? Why do they not come forth to save their country? Let this voice, my dear sir, call upon you, Jefferson, and some others. Do not, from a mistaken opinion that we are to sit down under our vine and our own fig-tree, let our hitherto noble struggle end in ignominy. Believe me when I tell you there is danger of it. I have pretty good reasons for thinking that administration, a little while ago, had resolved to give the matter up, and negotiate a peace with us upon almost any terms; but I shall be much mistaken if they do not now, from the present state of our currency, dissensions, and other circumstances, push matters to the utmost extremity. Nothing I am sure will prevent it but the intervention of Spain, and their disappointed hope from Russia."
Nor was this the only circumstance which called for the interposition of the general's influence. The depreciation of the paper currency had so affected the pay of the officers, that many were reduced to absolute indigence. Their sufferings led to desperate measures; and in the following May, when the New Jersey brigade was ordered to march, as a part of the western expedition against the Indians, the officers of the first regiment sent a memorial to the legislature of the state, demanding, in very strong language,