President Washington’s Calculated Risk


In the North the posture of England was the most ominous of all. She had” ceded the West to the United States in order to create friction between her former colonies and their wartime allies. But she had no idea of closing any of her own doors of opportunity in the West. She refused to give up her fortified posts at Niagara, Detroit, and Michilimackinac; by continuing to promote and supply the northern Indian war upon the settlements, she could make sure that the United States did not in the meantime get too firmly established in the central valley.


These were thorny difficulties. But the temper of the western settlers themselves presented one still more formidable. They had for so long been left by their eastern compatriots to shut for themselves, to tope unassisted with the miseries of their poverty and the unspeakable outrages of Indian war, that they had come to the conclusion that the Last wished them to fail. Since they were required in any event to fight their own battles, they were becoming increasingly resolved to fight them solely in their own interests. The impulse to secede became daily more violent and bitter. Their most lamous leaders advocated some form ol political union with Spain in order to secure the right to trade down the Mississippi. Others proposed securing England’s military aid in breaking the Spanish blockade. These were the men to whom the average settler must look for counsel and guidance, and all of them were engaging in earnest private correspondence with Spanish and English colonial governors and as earnestly conferring with Spanish and English agents circulating Treely through the West. The two most outstanding westerners had gone all the way: James Wilkinson had taken an oath of allegiance to the king of Spain and George Rogers Clark had offered to become a Spanish subject.

Washington had no need to look across the mountains to find fellow Americans bent on making his task more difficult, lie had been a unanimous choice for the presidency, but once in ofRce he found it no easier to win unanimous approval of many of his policies than did any of his successors. Most articulate easterners—congressmen, state governors, members ol his own Cabinet—took particular exception to his western views. They deplored federal meddling with the tangled international situation in the West as an unnecessary courting of dangers.


Opinion in the country was strongly set on a course we now would term isolationism. In 1781 the Continental Congress had voted unhesitatingly to instruct the peace commissioners to accede to the wishes of France and Spain by accepting; the crest of the Appalachians as the new nation’s western boundary. Sentiment had changed but little since. There was a general feeling that such energies as the weak new republic possessed should be concentrated upon the preservation of what had already been so painfully won.

In the face of these difficulties, Washington began to move, at first cautiously, even circumspectly, but without ever losing sight of his goal. First, he must somehow check the accelerating drift ol’ the western leaders toward secession. Since he possessed neither the means nor the resources to restrain or chasten them, lie made a virtue of necessity and rewarded them instead. All the prominent separatists, except Clark, were given military commands, governorships, judicial posts, or other federal preferment. There is no evidence that this halted their dealings with Spain, but it may have gained Washington a little time.

Next the President grasped the nettle of the West’s bitterest complaint: the unending Indian Avars which so far the settlers had waged without federal assistance. A war department was organized, and the single regiment of half-equipped, seldom-paid regular troops raised by the several states was sworn into the federal service. Josiah Harmar, the regiment’s commander, was instructed to prepare a punitive expedition against the northern Indian nations to compel them to recognize American sovereignty and to cease their attacks upon the settlements.

The territory to be invaded, in what is now Ohio and Indiana, nominally belonged to the United States under the terms of the peace treaty, but the Indians who occupied it were England’s allies and proteges. Washington had decided to risk the strong possibility that Harmar’s campaign would bring English troops from Detroit into the field to support their Indian confederates.