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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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

On the Road with President Washington

As I announced yesterday, on 21 January Prof. T. H. Breen will speak at the Cambridge Forum about President George Washington’s visit to New England in the fall of 1789, and the political issues it raised.

As newly elected President of a new nation, Washington was trying to thank the American people and also to bind them together. On his trip through the northern states he avoided entering Rhode Island since it hadn’t yet ratified the Constitution or sent representatives to Congress.

In some ways I think the President’s visit was like a royal progress, full of pomp and celebration. But Washington was trying not to appear too kingly. Even though as President he was the commander-in-chief of the federal forces, and had also commanded the nation’s army during the war for independence, he didn’t want to be seen as claiming any power over state militia troops.

And yet, as his diary entry for 23 October shows, those state militia troops kept coming out to show off to him:
Here [in Worcester] we were received by a handsome Company of Militia Artillery in Uniform who saluted with 13 Guns on our Entry & departure. At this place also we met a Committee from the Town of Boston, and an Aid of Majr. Genl. [John] Brooke of the Middlesex Militia who had proceeded to this place in order to make some arrangements of Military & other Parade on my way to, and in the Town of, Boston; and to fix with me on the hours at which I should pass through Cambridge, and enter Boston.

Finding this ceremony was not to be avoided though I had made every effort to do it, I named the hour of ten to pass the Militia of the above County at Cambridge and the hour of 12 for my entrance into Boston desiring Major [Joseph] Hall, however, to inform Genl. Brookes that as I conceived there was an impropriety in my reviewing the Militia, or seeing them perform Manoeuvres otherwise than as a private Man I could do no more than pass along the line; which, if he thought proper might be under arms to receive me at that time.

These matters being settled the Committee and the Aid (Colo. Hall) set forward on their return and after breakfast I followed; The same Gentlemen who had escorted me into, conducting me out of Town.
At the border of Worcester and Middlesex Counties a militia troop of light horsemen awaited the President.

Then came Jonathan Jackson, the state’s first U.S. marshal (shown above), who insisted on accompanying the President throughout the state. Jackson was a federal employee, so Washington could have told him to get back to his job—but who’s to say that the U.S. marshal’s job was not to escort a visiting President?

Washington slept that night in Weston before pressing on. He had lived in Cambridge for nine months during the siege of Boston, so he was probably interested in seeing it again. In a letter dated 21 October, Brooks had promised “a body of about 800 men, will be under arms at Cambridge on the day of your entering into Boston. The troops will occupy the ground on which the continental army was formed for your reception in the year 1775.” (Memories of that “reception” in 1775 were probably the seed of the “Washington Elm” legend in the next century.)

Here’s how Washington described the next morning in his diary:
Dressed by Seven o’clock, and set out at eight—at ten we arrived in Cambridge, according to appointment; but most of the Militia having a distance to come, were not in line till after eleven; they made however an excellent appearance, with Genl. [John] Brooks at their Head. At this place the Lieut. Govr. Mr. Saml. Adams, with the Executive Council, met me and preceeded my entrance into town—which was in every degree flattering and honorable.
President Washington was probably not happy about the hour’s wait between his arrival in Cambridge and the militia parade he hadn’t wanted in the first place. But at least those troops made “an excellent appearance.”

TOMORROW: What the President didn’t see?


pbagger said...

Interesting that you make the comparison to a royal progress. That was exactly the image that Deborah Barker of Hingham chose when she described this visit (the "King of America . . . thought proper to visit the northern part of his territories") in a letter in our Hingham Historical Society archives. It had to have been a difficult line for Washington to walk. We describe the letter at http://outofthearchives.org/tag/george-washington/

J. L. Bell said...

Historians have paid a lot of attention to traditional ritual in recent decades, and there really wasn't a lot of tradition established around a President yet. So the rituals of kings were an obvious comparison. Thanks for sharing that observation from Hingham!

Anonymous said...

I appreciate why Washington wouldn't want to be seen as having any authority/power over the Militia - but what other troops were there? How large was the US army in 1789? And where were the units posted?

I'd guess that for most locations visited, if a town wanted troops to form up for Washington, the Militia would be, well, the only game in town...

R. Doctorow

J. L. Bell said...

In 1789 the U.S. federal army consisted of one regiment, as I discussed in this post. The country was united behind the ideal of not having a standing army. The troops that existed were probably stationed on the frontiers. In that situation, the local militia systems were vital.

But a series of defeats against Native American armies in the 1790s, followed by the Whiskey Rebellion and fears of war with European powers, prompted the Federalist government to expand the national military by the end of the century. Then the Presidents had more to command.