Papers of John Adams, volume 20

From John Codman Jr.

To George Washington

409 To John Adams from George Washington, 27 August 1790 Washington, George Adams, John
From George Washington
Sir, New York, August 27th: 1790.

Being very desireous of obtaining such aids and information as will enable me to form a just opinion upon the subject of the enclosed paper, in case the events therein mentioned should take place; I have taken the liberty to submit it to you for your consideration, requesting that you will favor me with an opinion thereon.1

With very great esteem & regard / I am / Sir, / Your most Obedt: Hbe. Servt.

Go: Washington
(Secret) United States August 27th: 1790

Provided the dispute between Great Britain and Spain should come to the decision of Arms, from a variety of circumstances (individually unimportant and inconclusive, but very much the reverse when compared and combined) there is no doubt in my mind, that New Orleans and the Spanish Posts above it on the Mississippi will be among the first attempts of the former, and that the reduction of them will be undertaken by a combined operation from Detroit.2

The Consequences of having so formidable and enterprising a people as the British on both our flanks and rear, with their navy in front, as they respect our Western settlements which may be seduced thereby, as they regard the Security of the Union and its commerce with the West Indies, are too obvious to need enumeration.

What then should be the answer of the Executive of the United States to Lord Dorchester, in case he should apply for permission to march Troops through the Territory of the said States from Detroit to the Mississippi?3

What notice ought to be taken of the measure, if it should be undertaken without leave, which is the most probable proceeding of the two?

Mr. Adams will oblige the President of the United States by giving his opinion in writing on the above statement.

Go: Washington

RC and enclosure (Adams Papers); internal address: “Mr. Adams—” and “Mr. Adams.”; docketed by JA: “No. 1.” and “No. 2.”

410 1.

With minor alterations in wording, Washington sent the same query to his entire cabinet. Most of them replied immediately, anxious to resolve the first test of American neutrality. JA, John Jay, and Henry Knox all cited law of nations theory—especially the works of jurists Emmerich de Vattel, Hugo Grotius, and Samuel von Pufendorf—and strongly advised sitting out the Nootka Sound conflict until either Great Britain or Spain formally approached with a request to move troops through American territory. Thomas Jefferson outlined a more aggressive path of preemptive denial, to be underlined by force if necessary. Alexander Hamilton, replying a month later, upheld the majority view. Just as JA observed in his reply of 29 Aug., below, Hamilton emphasized that the United States lacked the military, the money, and the popular support needed to go to war. He wrote: “There are causes which render war in this country more expensive, and consequently more difficult to be carried on than in any other. There is a general disinclination to it in all classes” (Washington, Papers, Presidential Series , 6:353–361, 439–460). See also Descriptive List of Illustrations, No. 6, above.


Spain held regional posts in St. Louis and Natchez, Mississippi (Abernethy, The South in the New Nation , p. 208).


False rumors that Benedict Arnold was reviewing the Detroit, Mich., militia fueled concern that the British planned to invade Spanish Louisiana. Arnold, however, was mired in a series of lawsuits in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, during 1790 (vol. 19:48; Washington, Papers, Presidential Series , 6:344–345).