J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Washington’s Whisper

In 1817, the Philadelphia Federalist magazine The Port Folio (possibly cribbing from an unnamed newspaper) published this anecdote about the Constitutional Convention:
Anecdote of [George] Washington.—In debate, in the house of delegates of Virginia, 1817, on the bill relative to a map of the state, in which something was said of military roads, Mr. Mercer, (L) related and applied an anecdote of general Washington, which he had received from a member of the convention that formed the constitution of the United States.

The subject of power to be given the new congress, relative to a standing army, was on the tapis. A member made a motion that congress should be restricted to a standing army not exceeding five thousand, at any one time. General Washington, who, being chairman, could not offer a motion, whispered to a member from Maryland, to amend the motion, by providing that no foreign enemy should invade the United States, at any one time, with more than three thousand troops.
This story struck me as odd for Washington. If we’d heard about that quip without knowing who said it, we’d ascribe it to Benjamin Franklin or Gouverneur Morris or someone else known for sarcastic wit. Washington was indeed a stickler for protocol as chairman—so much so that I was surprised that he might violate neutrality even in this whispered way. So I got curious about whether I could tease out any more information about this story’s provenance.

During the 1816-17 legislative session, the Virginia House of Delegates did indeed debate a bill about “a map of the state.” Formally it was “An act ‘to repeal in part an act entitled “an act to provide an accurate chart of each county, and a general map of the territory of this Commonwealth,”[’”] but some earlier law needed amending in order to get the work done.

The reference to “Mr. Mercer, (L)” confused me until I figured out there were two men named Mercer in the Virginia House of Delegates that term. John Mercer represented Spottsylvania County, and Charles Fenton Mercer represented Loudoun County. The “(L)” stood for Loudoun and was a way to designate the right man.

Charles Fenton Mercer was a nephew of John Francis Mercer (1759-1821), who spent a couple of weeks at the Constitutional Convention in August 1787 representing Maryland—and thus fits the description of the source for this story.

Washington was well acquainted with John F. Mercer, having employed his older half-brother George as an aide de camp during the Seven Years’ War. (George Mercer’s career in Virginia ended after he accepted the job of stamp master in 1765.) John F. Mercer himself served in the Revolutionary War as an officer under the general’s second cousin William Washington, as an aide to Gen. Charles Lee in 1778-79, and finally as a cavalry officer at Yorktown.

The Mercers owed Washington money, resulting in a long correspondence from 1783 on. In 1786, for instance, Washington wrote a letter to John F. Mercer with a notable remark on slave-trading. They also discussed the debt in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787.

TOMORROW: When could this exchange about a standing army have happened?


J. L. Bell said...

I came to the Boston Public Library to dig into the reporting of this anecdote (since the America's Historic Newspapers database is no longer available for remote access through the B.P.L. website, thanks to a change in the licensing).

The 11 Jan 1817 Boston Daily Advertiser and Albany Advertiser both print the anecdote, crediting the Virginia Patriot. The former gives a dateline of “Richmond, Jan. 2,” and that version of the story says Mercer spoke “yesterday.” The database doesn’t contain the Virginia Patriot, but it looks like the story first appeared in its 2 Jan 1817 issue, reporting an event on 1 January.

The American Beacon of Norfolk, Virginia, reported on 27 Dec 1816 that Mercer had asked for the House of Delegates’ vote on the "bill relative to Charts of Counties" to be delayed because he thought it was "absurd in its present form" but needed his papers to explain why. "Mr. Mercer spoke some time in favor of his motion," that newspaper said.

The 2 Jan 1817 Richmond Enquirer summarized Mercer's objections to the map bill on 31 December and added, "Mr. Mercer spoke a considerable time." Mercer is also recorded as speaking on other matters. He was a busy, and very talkative, legislator.

J. L. Bell said...

Another candidate for the Maryland delegate Washington whispered to is Dr. James MeHenry. His notes show he was present on the day the discussion most likely took place, but they don't contain anything about this story or the issue behind it.

McHenry had served as one of Washington's aides de camp during the war, so the general might have been even more frank with him than with Mercer. But there's still the question of how that story was transmitted to Mercer's nephew.