President George Washington Writes to the United States Senate, Requesting Confirmation of Nominees For the U.S.’s First Standing Army

He acts in his official capacity as Chief Executive under Article II of the U.S. Constitution, which provides that the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint…”.

The only letter of his to the Senate as a whole, fulfilling this Constitutional role, that we have ever seen; One of the nominees is Washington’s own nephew, son of his sister Betty; The officers served under Gen. Anthony Wayne on the western frontier

In the early 1790s, the western Pennsylvanian frontier...

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President George Washington Writes to the United States Senate, Requesting Confirmation of Nominees For the U.S.’s First Standing Army

He acts in his official capacity as Chief Executive under Article II of the U.S. Constitution, which provides that the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint…”.

The only letter of his to the Senate as a whole, fulfilling this Constitutional role, that we have ever seen; One of the nominees is Washington’s own nephew, son of his sister Betty; The officers served under Gen. Anthony Wayne on the western frontier

In the early 1790s, the western Pennsylvanian frontier was a dangerous place, with white settlers clashing with Native Americans with ever increasing frequency. U.S. military expeditions against these Indians were conducted in 1790 and 1791, culminating in two major defeats at the hands of Chief Little Turtle. General Josiah Harmar lost over 700 killed and wounded at the Battle of the Maumee, and General Arthur St. Clair, Commander of the U.S. Army in 1791, had his force almost entirely wiped out, losing over 900 of his 1400-man army at the Battle of Wabash. Many of these troops, who had performed poorly, were state militiamen. With perhaps about 1,000 effective and on duty soldiers in the national army left to protect the entire new nation, the United States was in a perilous military position.

The Founding Fathers had been suspicious of standing armies, believing that the militia would be suited to all the nation’s defensive needs. However, these defeats caused a shift in thinking. At the suggestion of Secretary of War Henry Knox, it was decided to recruit and train a “Legion” – i.e., a force that would combine all land combat arms of the day (cavalry, infantry, artillery) into one efficient unit that would be divisible into stand-alone combined arms teams. On March 5, 1792, Congress agreed with this proposal, and authorized the creation of the first American standing army; however, it would not do so permanently, but only until “the United States shall be at peace with the Indian tribes.” Congress authorized President Washington to organize or complete five regiments of infantry, and one each of cavalry and artillery, and gave him broad discretion in doing so. That executive discretion was itself unprecedented. Gen. Anthony Wayne was given control of the new force, and his aide was future President William Henry Harrison.

Washington proceeded to name officers for the new legion, and plans for its taking the field were set in motion. Most officer nominees accepted the new posts, but some, such as William Lewis, Hugh Caperton, Baker Davidson, William Lowther, and James Hawkins, declined. Washington nominated men to fill the posts they had declined, but since the U.S. Senate was not in session to confirm the selections, he did so on a temporary basis. Washington wrote Knox on September 15, 1792, saying “As soon as the Waters of the Ohio will permit, General Wayne will forward a respectable detachment from Pittsburgh including those rifle Companies raised on the South Western frontiers of Virginia, to Fort Washington [present day Cincinnati].” These rifle companies were commanded by Captains Alexander Gibson, Howell Lewis, Thomas Lewis, and William Preston, three of whom were recipients of these interim appointments.

When Congress returned to session, President Washington sent in the nominations for confirmation. Letter signed, Philadelphia, November 19, 1792, to “Gentlemen of the Senate. The following appointments have been made in the Army of the United States during the recess of the Senate; and I now nominate the following persons to fill the offices annexed to their names respectively.” He makes Peter L. Van Allen a lieutenant of artillery; Alexander Gibson, Howell Lewis and William Preston are all named captains in the infantry; and Jonathan Taylor and Andrew Shanklin are each made ensigns in the infantry. The document is notable, and unique in our experience, for Washington dating it not from Philadelphia, where the Federal Government sat at the time, but simply the “United States.” The letter is docketed “Message from the President nominating sundry persons to military appointments. November 19, 1792.” The Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States notes entering these nominations from Washington on November 20. The Senate confirmed the nominations, with the officers taking their given posts effective March 5, the date of the act expanding the army, rather than the date they were confirmed.

In sending this letter, Washington was acting in his official capacity as Chief Executive under Article II, Section 2, paragraph 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which provides that the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint…” This is the only letter of Washington we have ever seen reach the marketplace in his official Constitutional capacity vis a vis the Senate, and a search of public sale records going back forty years fails to turn up any either. Nor can we recall on the market a letter of any president in the antebellum era written to the U.S. Senate as a whole, for its action, on any topic.

At Knox’s suggestion, Peter Van Alen was filling a post vacated by Dirck Schuyler who “was accused of a long course of intoxication” that finally led to his arrest. Henry Knox told Washington in an August 28, 1792 letter that Schuyler “was ordered either to take his trial or resign.” Knox also related to the President, “The vacancy has long been expected and was eagerly desired by Colonel [Aaron] Burr for a Mr Peter Van Alen a young Gentleman of the State of New York of liberal education, bred to the Law and of good Character. Mr Burr has pledged himself for his fitness for the Office – his name was brought forward, on the augmentation of the troops, as a Captain – but the local arrangements rendered that grade unattainable. If it should meet your approbation, I request leave to notify Mr Van Allen of the vacancy and offer it to him.” Washington approved.

Capt. Howell Lewis, whose confirmation Washington sought here, was Washington’s own nephew, the eldest son of Washington’s sister Betty and her deceased husband Fielding Lewis. In late September 1792, just before the Lewis nomination was confirmed, Washington sent young Lewis to Fredericksburg to obtain his half of the money recently paid to Howell’s half brother John Lewis in partial settlement of a debt.

Of those others who were confirmed, some have interesting stories to tell. Capt. Alexander Gibson went with Wayne’s troops toward Fort Miami, a new British post on the present site of Toledo. The force built fortifications along the way. In the spring of 1794 a detachment of 150 men under Gibson’s command was sent to the site of St. Clair’s defeat where they built Fort Recovery. Gibson remained in the U.S. Army until 1800. Andrew Shanklin was “distinguished in the victorious defense of Fort Recovery” in 1794. Taylor went on to be regimental paymaster and quartermaster.

Capt. William Preston was the brother of Congressman Francis Preston. In 1794 William was charged with rather excessive enthusiasm for his brother: “…having command of a Company of Federal Soldiers at the Court House of Montgomery County, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, on the 18th day of March 1793, and an election being then and there held for a Representative, from the said Commonwealth of Virginia, to the Congress of the United States, did interfere in, and endeavour to influence the said election. That the said Captain Preston at the election aforesaid, insisted his Soldiers should be polled, and evinced a determination to enforce the receipt of their votes, and caused them to vote for Francis Preston, one of the Candidates at the said election…”

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