From the Archives - George Washington Writes to The Virginia Militia
Although most Americans welcomed the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, by the mid-1790s the increasing radicalization of the new regime had greatly dampened this sympathy. Then Revolutionary France began interfering with American shipping, which led to the Quasi-War with France.
This “war” was fought largely at sea but, considering that France held territories in the West Indies and was allied with Spain (which held Florida and Louisiana), in 1798 Congress authorized a considerable expansion of the Army, from little more than 3,300 officers and men to a projected strength of nearly 51,700.
To command this great force, on paper larger than Continental Army had ever been, on July 3, 1798 Congress appointed the nation’s greatest soldier and recent president, George Washington, as a lieutenant general.
Although Washington delegated most of the details of raising, equipping, organizing, and training this new army to Maj. Gen. Alexander Hamilton (who was effectively his chief-of-staff), the old soldier kept in constant communication with important political and military leaders. During the crisis he wrote more than 80 letters to President John Adams, Hamilton, or the Secretary of War, and scores more to other government officials, newly appointed senior officers, and so forth.
One letter he wrote was to thank the officers of Virginia’s 10th and 91st Militia Regiments on October 24, 1798, after they had they congratulated him on accepting his commission as lieutenant general.
Mount Vernon, October 24, 1798.
Gentlemen: While I thank you for your kind and very flattering Address, and the pleasure which I received from your approbation of my acceptance of the Commission which may once more bring me into public life, I am sure you will do justice to the motives which have operated to draw me from that peaceful retirement, which, I fondly hoped, would never again have been interrupted.
When injuries and Insults have been heaped upon us, and when the Sovereignty and Independence of our Country are threatened, it is, in my opinion, no longer in the option of a good Citizen to withhold his Services from the Public. Let his situation be what it may, he forfeits all claim to the rights of one, if, in such a critical moment, he should not use every means in his power to aid in repelling the unprovoked and indignant [ sic ] aggression.
Upon this ground I have accepted my Commission; and upon this ground I trust that every true American will be prepared to defend his Country against foreign encroachments; and to perpetuate the blessings which he enjoys under his own Government.
That there may be no occasion to gird on the Sword, none more ardently prays than I do; and no one, with more truth could add, that, if unfortunately, in defence of our rights we shall be compelled to unsheath I hope, after the object is attained, would return it to its Scabbard with more heart-felt satisfaction. But to avert the evil, or to meet it like men it is necessary under the present aspect of our Affairs to hold it in our hands, and be united in one band.
Your prayers, and kind wishes in my behalf, I reciprocate with great Cordiality
Washington died on December 14, 1799, still on active duty. By then, Napoleon Bonaparte had recently assumed power in France through a coup, and he entered into negotiations with the U.S. which soon settled the crisis. The great army that was to be raised had had only reached about 14,000 men before it was disbanded. By 1802 active duty strength had actually fallen below what it had been in 1797.
While this letter is of some interest in giving us a look at Washington’s thinking about military service, as well as his great courtesy and character, it’s of no great historical import. Nevertheless, if it were to become available on the rare documents market it could easily sell for $300,000.