WASHINGTON, George. Autograph letter signed ("G:o Washington") as President, to Major John Clark of York, Pennsylvania; Carlisle, [Penn.], 6 October 1794. 1 full page, 4to (9 x 7 5/16 in.), integral address leaf with panel in Washington's hand, with Washington's red wax seal mostly intact, small blank piece missing from address leaf, very slight separation along one fold line, otherwise in excellent condition.
A PRESIDENT BOUND BY DUTY: "NOTHING SHORT OF IMPERIOUS NECESSITY CAN JUSTIFY MY BEING ABSENT FROM THE SEAT OF GOVERNMENT WHILE CONGRESS IS IN SESSION"
A fine letter, written as Washington prepares to undertake his last military command, a 15,000-man army assembling to march into the troubled counties of western Pennsylvania, center of the anti-government agitation known as the Whiskey Rebellion. The 1791 excise law, drawn up by Hamilton, had imposed a tax upon distilled spirits, a commodity which functioned on the frontier as a common medium of barter. Resistance to the tax and to its enforcement steadily increased in western Pennsylvania, culminating in mass defiance of the law, armed attacks on U.S. marshals and a threat to march on the city of Pittsburgh. Washington, like many Federalists, considered the disorder a potentially critical test of the new government's authority. On 25 September he issued a proclamation calling upon the insurrectionists to disperse, disarm and submit to Federal authority. His appeal was ignored. With Washington in command, militia from four states were summoned to put down the rebellion. Rallying to the call, five times as many men (including many veterans of the Revolution), volunteered to enlist as could be accepted. Here, the President declines the offer of an old comrade from the Revolution to serve as his aide (a role which Alexander Hamilton ultimately took):
"Your favor of the 27th. Ult.o was put in my hand the moment I was leaving the city of Philadelphia, and I have had neither leisure or opportunity of acknowledging the receipt of it since, til now. I thank you for your polite offer of attending me into the field, but my going thither, or returning to the Seat of Government in time for the meeting of Congress, depends upon circumstances not within my control, nor of which, have I such accurate information as to enable me to decide."
"Nothing short of of imperious necessity can justify my being absent from the Seat of government while Congress is in Session. Under this view of the matter, I decline making any establishment of a family, unless that necessity should occur when, in the choice of aid[e]s, I must have a regard to considerations of different kinds..."
In restrospect the Whiskey "rebellion" appears to have been a relatively inconsequential, if symbolic affray, and its suppression mainly served to strengthen Hamilton and the Federalists over the frontier Democratic Republican Societies. Jefferson shrewdly summed it up when he wrote "an insurrection was announced and proclaimed and armed against, but could never be found."
Published (from an imperfect Letter Book copy, omitting several words), in Fitzpatrick, 33:520.
Provenance: Major John Clark, the recipient, who had served as an aide-de-camp to General Nathanael Greene during the Revolution. -- Miss Lizzie Gardner of York, Pa., who is known to have shown the letter to Representative Thaddeus Stevens in 1850.