The Conway Cabal

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Washington’s disaffected former aide Thomas Mifflin, learning of the “weak general” bombshell, warned Gates that Washington had an extract of Conway’s letter. He added his own opinion that Conway’s evaluation expressed “just sentiments.” Chagrined, a now defensive Gates wrote Washington expressing mildly persuasive shock over finding his private letters being “stealingly copied; but which of them, when, and by whom is to me as yet an unfathomable secret.” Would Washington do him “a very important service, by detecting a wretch who may betray me?” Gates soon made the mistake of believing that wretch to be Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s twenty-two-year-old aide, sent on a previous errand to Gates. Washington, meanwhile, was further aroused by Gates’s reference to Conway’s “letters” to him, in the plural. The Virginian had assumed the two did not know each other. What else had been going on? With no hint of apology to his commander, Gates informed him he was writing Congress, since he had no idea from what source, civilian or military, Washington had received the extract.

Washington was far from mollified. He and Gates were not close, and the latter had the irritating habit of sending all his communiqués to Congress, bypassing his commander in chief. Two weeks after Gates’s victory at Saratoga, Washington still had not heard from him in an official capacity, as he had tweaked Gates in his letter of congratulation: “I cannot but regret, that a matter of such magnitude . . . should have reached me by report only .” Now Washington answered Gates in a series of letters that his biographer Henry Cabot Lodge hailed as “models of cold dignity, and calm indifference” but that in fact bristle with suppressed fury and convoluted sarcasm.

The Virginian first expressed “my great surprize” to learn that Gates had dragged Congress into the spat—“for what reason, I find myself unable to acct. . . . I am laid under the disagreeable necessity of returning my answer through the same channel.” Gates had asked Washington to help locate the wretch who betrayed him. Washington was happy to comply. It was Gates’s own aide, Wilkinson, who “fell in with Lord Stirling.” Washington repeated verbatim the “weak general” passage to Gates—twice. Washington wrote that he had kept the letter secret, not telling “a single Officer in this Army . . . excepting the Marquis de la Fayette . . . under injunctions of secrecy.” Having thus established his “openess and candour which I hope will ever characterize and mark my conduct,” Washington turned disingenuous. Knowing the opposite to be true, he stated that he had originally assumed Gates had told Wilkinson to make the letter known, “with a friendly view to forewarn, and consequently forearm me , against a secret enemy.” This enemy was that “dangerous incendiary; in which character, sooner or later, this Country will know Genl. Conway. But, in this, as in other matters of late, I have found myself mistaken . I am, etc.”

In his next letter to Gates, Washington was even more caustic. Gates had tried to explain that the brouhaha was surely over “a wicked forgery,” since Conway’s original was “harmless.” If a bit critical here and there, it did not contain the “weak general” phrase. Gates further praised Conway as “a firm and constant friend of America.” With something warmer than calm indifference, Washington repeatedly used Gates’s own words to facetiously slay each straw man. (The biographer Douglas Southall Freeman sees Hamilton’s legal touch in his drafting.) He began by assailing Gates’s frankness: “I am so unhappy as to find no small difficulty in reconciling the spirit and import of your different Letters, and sometimes of the different parts of the same Letter with each other.” Instead of whining over who leaked the damnable passage, Washington pressed, why not send the original letter and remove all doubt!

Washington finished with a salvo at his bête noire , Conway, that “constant friend to America": It was “greatly to be lamented that “the United States have lost much” from Conway’s “unseasonable diffidence , which prevented his embracing the numerous opportunities he had in Council, of displaying those rich treasures of knowledge and experience he has since so freely laid open to you .” It surely could not have been “to any other cause than an excess of Modesty.” Washington finished by describing the “qualifications of his heart; of which, at least, I beg leave to assume the privilege of being a tolerable judge.” In that department “he is capable of all the malignity of detraction, and all the meanesses of intrigue, to gratify the absurd resentment of disappointed vanity.”

Things began cooling down after another exchange of letters. Gates stated that he had no personal connection with Conway, “nor had I any correspondence, previous to his writing the letter which has given offence [a falsehood]. . . . He therefore must be responsible; as I heartily dislike controversy. . . . I solemnly declare that I am of no faction; and if any of my letters taken aggregately or by paragraphs convey any meaning, which in any construction is offensive to your Excellency, that was by no means the intention of the writer.” Gates implored Washington not to “spend another moment upon this subject.”