"WHERE WERE YOU HAMILTON…?": EXTRAORDINARY SIGNED AUTOGRAPH LETTER, CIRCA 1783, WRITTEN IN FRENCH BY BARON VON STEUBEN, WHO TRAINED THE CONTINENTAL ARMY, TO ALEXANDER HAMILTON, CONCERNING CONGRESS' REJECTION OF WASHINGTON'S PLAN FOR A PEACETIME STANDING ARMY
STEUBEN, Baron von. Autograph letter signed. No place, circa spring/summer 1783. Single sheet of unlined paper, measuring 7-1/4 by 9 inches; p. 1. $9000.
Rare and exceptional 1783 autograph letter, written entirely in French and in Baron von Steuben's hand, to his close friend, Alexander Hamilton, then a member of the Continental Congress, reacting to Congress' rejection of General Washington's plan to demobilize the Continental Army and build a peacetime standing army.
This letter is written from Baron von Steuben to his close friend, Alexander Hamilton, concerning Congress' rejection of Washington's plan for a peacetime military.
The letter, addressed to "Hammilton" [sic] and written entirely in French in Baron von Steuben's hand, reads in full: "Where were you Hamilton when that sentence was pronounced which the Minister of War put into execution? It is finished. The blow is accomplished. I shall take care not to paint a picture of what I saw—of what I heard—and still less of what I felt since the arrival of the good man, whose portfolio was always Pandora's Box for this poor and respectable loved one. See how my garden is destroyed, my friend. The fate of our ancient colleagues is hard—hard beyond expectation. As the truth of the scene surpasses the appearance, I do not wish to attempt to trace it. Remember my friend, that I am in the service of the Continental Congress—of its representatives. Do not allow my fate to be determined by a County Man. When it is time, give me guidance with your advice. You have always honored me with your friendship, and I flatter myself that I am worthy of it. Will you leave to the good man the formation of your Peace Establishment? If that is so, take up the pen and cross out my name. I am not of his county, nor in any way of his sentiments. I am enclosing here the copy of an address from the officers of your line, from these same officers that I have never praised with low flattery and of whom is required as strict subordination as in the most generously paid army. This address pays tribute to their sentiments, and is the consolation of my old age. My heart is oppressed, Hamilton. A line from you will comfort the sorrows of your old friend. I flatter myself that you will write by the first post. Steuben."
At the outbreak of the American Revolution, Prussian soldier William von Steuben, who had served as an aide to Frederick the Great and was recommended to the American Congress by Benjamin Franklin, "came to America at his own expense and waived all pay unless the patriots triumphed. Washington appointed him a provisional inspector general, with a mandate to instill discipline in the army. Since Steuben's English was tentative at best," he relied on French and soon depended on the assistance of bilingual Alexander Hamilton, then serving as aide to Washington. Steuben and Hamilton "became fast friends, united by French and their fondness for military lore and service. Soon Steuben was strutting around Valley Forge, teaching the amateur troops to march in formation, load muskets, and fix bayonets and sprinkling his orders with colorful goddamns and plentiful polyglot expletives that endeared him to the troops" (Chernow, 109-10). Steuben's "introduction of European military concepts to the Continental army marks the beginning of a truly professional military tradition in the United States," particularly through his "Blue Book," a military drill manual that remained in use through the War of 1812 (ANB). Hamilton, who aided Steuben in editing and translating this work, later told John Jay, "The Baron is a gentleman for whom I have a particular esteem. Tis unquestionably [due] to his efforts [that] we are indebted for the introduction of discipline in the army" (Chernow, 110).
In 1783, when Baron von Steuben wrote this letter, he was serving as a military advisor to General George Washington. Von Steuben had served in the Revolutionary War from 1777 and only left on March 24, 1784, when he was discharged from the Continental Army. Interestly, von Steuben was not payed for this service; Congress waited until 1790 to grant him a pension of $2800. Von Steuben wrote this letter to Alexander Hamilton, who was then serving as a member of the Continental Congress. On April 7, 1783, Alexander Hamilton was appointed to be part of a committee, which also included James Madison, to plan for peacetime.
With the war nearly at an end and the Treaty of Paris on the verge of being signed, Washington set about preparing a plan to defend a free United States and to demobilize the Continental Army. Von Steuben, as Washington's military advisor, was crucial to these efforts. Ultimately, Washington presented a plan to Congress intended to speak to America's future. The plan, called "Sentiments on a Peace Establishment," proposed the establishment of a small permanent army and a national militia. He advocated for maintaining a small standing army to man frontier forts, protect borders from foreign agents including Indians, and safeguard its arsenals. He also lobbied for the raising of militias, the upkeep of arsenals, and the establishment of academies to train the nation's future sailors and soldiers. Congress swiftly rejected the plan. Congress had long-standing concerns about establishing a standing army in peacetime. Moreover, there was little money to pay for such a project, with the financial system not yet solvent and the massive expenses of the war.
This letter reflects Von Steuben's feelings of anger and betrayal at the rejection of the plan and at Congress' treatment of Washington. Von Steuben's suggestions—of a similar nature to Hamilton's—had been overturned by stronger counselors. Von Steuben had relied on Hamilton, Washington's former aide-de-camp and a brilliant statesman, for his support. Von Steuben had been instrumental to the creating and training of the Continental Army—an army that probably would not have been able to win the Revolutionary War without Von Steuben's military leadership. Congress' rejection was a clear slight. Much of his ire is directed at the so-called Minister of War, who he derides with the name "County Man." His likely target was Secretary of War Benjamin Lincoln, who served in various small town offices including as town constable of Hingham, Massachusetts. Lincoln resigned in December of 1783 and was replaced by Henry Knox, a close friend of Washington. Just a year later, in the spring of 1784, Von Steuben completed a more thoughtful plan. After reviewing it, Washington lauded the similarity of his and Von Steuben's ideas and noted the differences between their plans: "Mine however, was a hasty production, the consequence of a sudden call, and little time for arrangement. Yours of maturer thought and better digestion, I, at the same time that I hinted the propriety of a Continental Militia; glided almost insensibly into what I thought would, rather than what I conceived ought to be a proper peace Establishment for this Country." Shortly after the presentation of the plan, on June 2, 1784, Ranking Senior Military Officer Henry Knox, discharged all but a few dozen soldiers at the direction of Congress. The next day, Congress created America's first peacetime military force by recommending that several states provide 700 men from their militias to serve one year terms of service.
Residue along marginal edge from album removal and a couple of tiny spots. Very nearly fine condition.