Monday, February 3, 2014

Sacrifice Versus Self-Interest

Despite his character flaws, benefiting from the advantages of wealthy parentage, Timothy Pickering became a prominent national figure during our nation’s first four presidential administrations. Egotistical, selfish, exceedingly narrow-minded, he epitomized the kind of public official that every democratic nation needs to thwart in its exercise of representative authority.

Here is a second foreshadowing incident of how wrong-headed and disruptive this man would be in public office.

Knowing it could advance his career, Pickering added his Essex Country regiment of volunteers to the Continental Army’s dwindling forces in New York and New Jersey during the winter months of 1776-1777. Soon afterward, General George Washington appointed Pickering his Attorney General. In 1780 Washington chose Pickering to be the Continental Army’s Quartermaster General, an extremely frustrating duty that Pickering loathed. Throughout the entire Revolutionary War the Continental Congress and the state governments were almost always broke. They could provide little of the Army’s needs: food, supplies, enlisted soldiers’ and officers’ pay. Promises were made but rarely kept. Understandably, resentment escalated.

A mutiny of sorts surfaced in 1783 prior to the official end of the War. The decisive victory against the British at Yorktown had been achieved; hostilities had ceased. Stationed in Newburgh, New York, the army had remained in tact. It would not be disbanded until enemy forces left the country. Knowing the Army would disband after a peace treaty had been signed, fearing that after both events occurred they would never be compensated for personal expenses incurred and back pay not received, a cabal of Washington’s officers, including Pickering, decided to pressure their commander to act autocratically.

On March 10 they circulated handbills that called for all officers to meet five days later to determine how the army’s grievances might be rectified. Washington knew nothing about this proposed meeting until the handbills were brought to his attention. The instigators were Washington’s second in command, General Horatio Gates; two other officers; and Pickering. Their intention was to persuade Washington at the March 15 meeting to intimidate selected state legislatures into paying at least a portion of the officers’ back pay. If he refused, Gates would lead the Army to Philadelphia to force the Continental Congress to provide what was wanted.

At the March 15 meeting Washington listened, and then spoke. He understood entirely their frustration. He sympathized with their plight. They and he had sacrificed so much. That admitted, he would not now or ever countenance overturning “the liberties of our country” and opening “the flood gates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.” Witnessing their aging leader, feeling strongly their attachment to him, a majority of the officers sided with him. After Washington had left the meeting, Pickering rose to get the meeting headed back in the direction he wanted. He was ignored. Instead, a paper was sent to Congress that disavowed the Newburgh meeting’s alleged purpose. As it had the day British troops had marched to Concord, Massachusetts, in 1775, Timothy Pickering’s judgment and behavior had been completely out-of-step with his peers.

I will tell you about Pickering’s disagreements with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison; his involvement in a plan to secede from the union; and his censure by the United States Senate in next month’s blog.