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Washington Cryptically Dreams of Resigning, Feigns Insult and Teases McHenry for Delayed Answer to Queries on Funding the Army
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I was in pain … resolving (like a man in the last agony) not to follow the trade & occupation of a G---- [General] any more.… Do not my dear Doctor tease your Mistress in this manner – much less your Wife, when you get one.”

In this highly personal letter, Washington offers a glimpse of the man behind the otherwise stolid image. After victory at Yorktown, Americans were awaiting news of a final peace treaty from Paris. Washington remained head of the Continental Army, and warily watched British General Sir Henry Clinton’s army in New York City. For all its friendly tone and nebulous phrases, Washington and McHenry are actually discussing the very serious business of funding and maintaining troop levels to discourage future British actions.

GEORGE WASHINGTON. Autograph Letter Signed, to James McHenry. August 15, 1782. Newburgh, N.Y. 2 pp., including integral address leaf. 7½ x 11½ in.

Inventory #20987.99       ON HOLD

Complete Transcript

Newburgh 15th Augt 1782

My dear McHenry,

Let me congratulate you, and I do it very sincerely, on your restoration to health. I was in pain for you. I was in some for myself - and wished for my PS of M--- ; and both my P----e L----s. in J----; resolving (like a man in the last agony) not to follow the trade & occupation of a G----. any more.

I attribute all the delays, & my disappointments in this business, to your sickness; for otherwise, I should denominate you an unfeeling – teasing – mortal. In proof of it, I would assert that in March last, I committed a matter to your care of which you took no notice till July following; – and then in such a way, as to set afloat a thousand ideas; which resolved themselves into almost as many anxious questions. These again, you acknowledge the rect of on the 26th of July, – and on the 3d of August promise an answer. When? When? three or four Weeks from that date; during this time my imagination is left on the Rack. I remain in the field of conjecture. – unable to acct for the causes of somethings, or to judge of their effect; In a word, I cannot develop some misteries, the appearance of which gave rise to those quæries, which were made the contents of a letter.

Do not my dear Doctor tease your Mistress in this manner – much less your Wife, when you get one. The first will pout, – & the other may scold – a friend will bear with it, especially one who assures you, with as much truth as I do, that he is sincere.

Adieu / G:oWashington

[To] James McHenry Esq.r

[autograph address leaf]: “(Private) / James McHenry Esq.r / Baltimore.”

[Docketing in McHenry’s hand]: “Aug 15th 1782 / Washington”

Historical Background

While still in the Continental Army, James McHenry was elected to the Maryland Senate in September 1781. After the American victory at Yorktown in October, he resigned his commission in December and took his post in Maryland government. Washington and McHenry continued their correspondence, with Washington advising McHenry to stress to his colleagues that in order “to make a good peace, you ought to be well prepared to carry on the war.”

The Maryland Senate met in January 1782, and McHenry reported that they had named an overseer to address supply and recruitment problems that resulted from either the lack of money, or the lack of strong money. Washington wrote McHenry that the British were successful at both recruiting and financing their fighting forces, and despite Cornwallis’ surrender, were preparing for a new campaign. To compete, the Americans needed men and money, but the government under the Articles of Confederation could only request money from the states.

Washington’s letter of “March last” (March 12, 1782) reported that the Pennsylvania Assembly had “passed their supply bill without a dissenting voice” but that the Continental Army would still fall short of its quota. Moreover, Washington warned that the British were considering a renewed offensive and stressed the desirability of maintaining a viable fighting force. In April 1782, McHenry wrote to Washington in agreement that the British were attempting to fight on, but his state was unenthusiastic about recruiting more troops. In July, he finally responded to Washington’s queries about fundraising efforts. Unfortunately, McHenry’s conclusion was that his state was largely broke and unwilling to send scarce funds out of the state.

The American situation was further complicated by the French Navy’s loss at the Battle of Dominica in April, at the hands of the British Navy. “How we are to provide & carry on the war next year,” McHenry wrote Washington on July 14, “if we receive no foreign money, is to me a great political mystery.” This is perhaps one of the same “misteries” to which Washington refers in the letter.

On July 18, 1782, Washington wrote to McHenry “At present, we are inveloped in darkness; and no Man, I believe, can foretell all the consequences which will result from the Naval action in the West Indies. to say no worse of it, it is an unfortunate affair. and if the States cannot, or will not rouse to more vigorous exertions, they must submit to the consequences. Providence has done much for us in this contest, but we must do something for ourselves, if we expect to go triumphantly through with it.” Clearly, finding ways to fund the army was paramount on Washington’s mind, yet he still allows himself the latitude to joke, “Do not my dear Doctor tease your Mistress in this manner – much less your Wife, when you get one.”

McHenry had a good excuse; he had been ill with fever most of the summer and had barely recovered by his August 11, 1782, letter to Hamilton. In it, McHenry expressed frustration that most official positions had already been given out and urged Hamilton to return to the private sector. He was not the only Revolutionary who longed to retire from public service, as an educated guess at Washington’s cryptic second line is: “I ... wished for my [Peace of Mind] ... resolving (like a man in the last agony) not to follow the trade & occupation of a G[eneral] any more.” Washington was eagerly awaiting the final peace treaty and the opportunity to return to Mount Vernon.

James McHenry (1753-1816) was born in Ballymena, County Antrim, Ireland, and educated in Dublin. He immigrated to America in 1771 and studied medicine with Dr. Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia. McHenry volunteered for military service when hostilities with England broke out in 1775. He was assigned to a hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was soon thereafter named surgeon to the 5th Pennsylvania Battalion. He was captured, along with 2,000 other American troops, at Fort Washington on Manhattan in November 1776. Though paroled two months later, he was effectively under house arrest in Philadelphia and Baltimore until he was formally exchanged for British prisoners in March 1778. Named senior surgeon of the “Flying Hospital” at Valley Forge, McHenry then served as Washington’s secretary from 1778 to 1780 as a volunteer without rank or pay. Their friendship remained strong even after McHenry left to become the Marquis de Lafayette’s aide-de-camp in August 1780. He was made a Major and served at Yorktown in October 1781, before leaving the army that December of that.

After the war, McHenry was a founding member of the Society of the Cincinnati. He represented Maryland in the Confederation Congress, 1783-86, and also at the Constitutional Convention where he kept extensive notes that are a valuable record of the debates over the creation of the Constitution. A staunch Federalist, McHenry was intimately involved in helping George Washington fill political patronage positions, and in 1796 was selected by Washington as the nation’s third Secretary of War. He worked to reorganize the army in the late 1790s. Fort McHenry in Baltimore is named for him. Disputes with John Adams led him to resign his post as Secretary of War in 1800, and he retired to his estate, Fayetteville, outside Baltimore.

Bernard Steiner, The Life and Correspondence of James McHenry (Cleveland, 1907), pp. 46-47; ANB 15, pp. 80-82; DAB XII, pp. 62-63.

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