President Washington’s Calculated Risk

PrintPrintEmailEmailWashington, upon taking office, was confronted by demands more complex and critical than were to be posed any incoming President until the day of Lincoln’s inauguration. Far from least among these problems was the contriving of a foreign policy that might offer some hope of retaining American title to the Ohio Valley without the maneuver involving us in a new war with recent enemy England or with recent ally Spain, or with both.

Washington’s cold war, like the wider one in which we are now embroiled, was brought on by a sudden and unforeseen broadening of our national responsibilities. The men who fought the Revolution were battling for the independence of the thirteen seaboard states. There was some thought that, if all went exceptionally well, victory might conceivably support a claim to eastern Canada as a means of insuring the future security of those states. But aside from a handful of visionary Virginians, no one dreamed of laying any claim to the far, Indian-infested wilderness beyond the mountains.

Two unexpected developments, however, disturbed this preoccupation with a purely Atlantic point of view. During the Revolution, almost unnoticed amid the many distractions of the struggle, some thousands of American settlers had crossed the mountains to seize upon homes in that western wilderness, and with the coming of peace, some scores of thousands more were crossing to join them. Next, England, at the peace table, astounded the American commissioners with a sudden offer to cede the West to the United States. Few influential Americans of the rank of congressman or governor could bring themselves to feel that the interests of the western settlers coincided in any way with national interests. But Washington, informed by his youthful experiences at Fort Necessity and Braddock’s Field and his lifelong interest in western lands, was one of those visionary Virginians who could see over the mountains. He resolved to hold the West at every risk short of another foreign war.


The task he had set himself must surely have baffled any temperament less calm, less patient, less resolute. First off, there were the hard facts of geography. The nation’s population was predominantly coastal; its center, according to the 1790 census, was east of Baltimore. Only one road—and that a bad one—ran as far west as Pittsburgh. The only other mountain crossing was the Wilderness Road, a mere pack trail. In the West itself there were only buffalo traces and rivers. The transAllegheny settlements, most numerous in southwestern Pennsylvania, eastern Tennessee, and north central Kentucky, with a fringe in north central Tennessee and on the north bank of the Ohio, were scattered across a vast area that was still largely wilderness.

In every respect the West was a strange, wild region far more distant than any Viet Nam, Korea, or Jordan of our cold war days. In the foreign offices of the world and in the minds of most people living in either the East or West, it was taken for granted that the western settlements must, if they survived at all, either become a separate nation or drift under the protection of Spain, England, or France.

Next among the physical facts was the existence of the powerful Indian nations, who had not been consulted during the peace negotiations, who did not recognize England’s cession of what they considered their own land to the United States, and who fiercely resented the settlers’ intrusion and were determined upon their expulsion or extermination. The Cherokee and the Creek in the South, supplied and encouraged by Spain, and the Shawnee-Delaware-Wyandot-Miami confederacy in the North, supplied and encouraged by England, waged an inconclusive but infinitely harrowing war upon the settlements during the seven years of the Revolution and for the next thirteen years thereafter.

So far the bellicose settlers had managed to defend themselves, though at a cost of many hundreds of casualties a year, in a type of warfare that subjected their women and children to as many perils as their men. President Washington was now disposed to come to their aid, but he dared not put federal troops in the field without first taking the most careful thought to the probable reactions of Spain, France, and England.

Spain had actual strategic control of two thirds of the West. She had been ceded the west bank ol the Mississippi by France in 1763, the two Floridas by England in 1783, and she maintained garrisons at St. Louis, Natchez, New Orleans, Mobile, and Pensacola. At the peace table, with the ardent support of France, Spain had claimed the entire Ohio Valley—and she claimed it still. She had refused to recognize England’s stunning cession of the region to the United States and as a mark ol her continuing displeasure was refusing even to recognize the independence ol the United States. She was lending powerful weight to her claim by encouraging the Indian war, by closing the Mississippi, the one outlet to the settlers’ commerce, and by embarking upon a campaign of bribery and seduction to induce the Americans in the West to secede from the United States.

France, though for the moment in the background, strongly supported every Spanish ambition because she regarded Spain as but the temporary caretaker of her own western interests and looked forward to the time when she would repossess her North American empire.