President Washington’s Calculated Risk


None of these desperate pacific appeals had had any immediate effect, but now there came a faint gleam of light from the most unlikely of sources. At the forks of the Auglaize and Maumee rivers in Ohio the Indians were holding the greatest of all Indian congresses. Delegates from tribes as far away as the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Plains, and Canada had assembled to exchange views with their Ohio fellows. Animated by characteristic Indian loquacity, the sessions rolled on through weeks of sonorous oratory. The result was a more vigorous than ever affirmation of the Indian demand that the Ohio be recognized as the permanent boundary between the United States and Indian territory and that the scattering of American settlements north of the river be removed forthwith. However, a certain reasonable time was granted the United States to consider and digest the demand. The United States grasped eagerly at this hint of an armistice and the consequent respite which, it was hoped, might be stretched into the next year.


Wayne, meanwhile, had been organizing his Legion composed of some three thousand of the sorriest recruits with which any commander was ever burdened. Gradually, after months of drilling, they began to look like soldiers. Before he was through with them they were real soldiers. He moved down the Ohio to Fort Washington (Cincinnati), the ill-omened base from which Harmar and St. Glair had marched, patiently observing his instructions to proclaim and observe the armistice, to make no aggressive move, and to see to it that the settlers made none. The West, regarding the twin spectacle of Wayne’s supine inaction and the Administration’s desperate appeals to the Indians for peace, voiced new contempt for the central government.

To take advantage of the glimmer of hope offered by the armistice, Washington had appointed new peace commissioners, who were men of national note: Benjamin Lincoln, Timothy Pickering, and Beverly Randolph. When spring permitted travel they set out for Detroit to establish contact with the Indians. Their task was peculiarly irksome. The murder of Hardin and Trueman had proved it was unsafe to approach the Indians through the hundred miles of forest that comprised no man’s land. Instead, Lincoln, Pickering, and Randolph put themselves under the protection of the English. This they did at Fort Niagara, one of the posts that, though on American territory, was still in the possession of an English garrison. Delays, some calculated, some merely irritating, held them back for months. It was late July before they reached Detroit. The British commander refused them permission to make a nearer approach to the Indian congress, and after all their trying months of travel they were no closer to being in personal touch with the Indians than when they had left Philadelphia.

Their messages to the Indian delegates had to be entrusted to Indian agents of the British—and these, behind the scenes, were striving successfully to assure the mission’s failure. The nub of the offer the commissioners were authorized to make was “such a large sum in money or goods as was never given at one time for any quantity of Indian lands since the white people set their foot on this inland.” The Indian reply was a scornful rejection, which was made the more humiliating in that the noted interpreter was Simon Girty, the American renegade, who interspersed his reading with taunting asides.

Renewal of the Indian war now seemed inescapable, except at the price of complete surrender, but it was already too late in the season for Wayne to wage an effective campaign, and the cold war dragged on into another winter. The next year, 1794, when final decision could not conceivably be longer evaded, found the scene immeasurably darker.

Every tension that had for the past five years beset Washington’s western policy not only still existed but had in the meantime become more difficult, more explosive. With an outburst of revolutionary energy, France had picked a war with almost every major power in Europe, including England and Spain, and was taking tentative steps to regain her former empire in North America. In the United States sympathy with the new French republic divided Washington’s very cabinet as it did the rest of the East. The West was not divided; there, sympathy with France was universal.

On the Pennsylvania frontier the local Jacobin societies fired popular resentment of federal authority to a high pitch: federal mails were seized, federal troops fired upon, federal officials and sympathizers exiled. We have since belittled this insurrection by dubbing it the Whiskey Rebellion (revenue collectors were a class of federal officials whom the populace took the liveliest delight in chasing), but during the most of that excruciating summer of 1794, the federal writ did not run west of the Alleghenies, and some 5,000 armed frontiersmen were practicing the secession that many westerners so long had preached.