Timothy Pickering - Stories
US Revolutionary War · US Army
The Evening Post (New York, New York) 2 Feb 1829, Mon • Page 3
Timothy Pickering (1745-1829) spent his youth on his family's farm in Salem, Massachusetts. After graduating from Harvard in 1763, he returned to Salem, where he became a prominent figure in the town, holding a variety of local offices. As colonel of the local militia, he set out to improve troop discipline. He argued with a local doctor over his management of smallpox inoculation in the town, and the doctor challenged him to a duel. He also criticized the theological conservatism of the local minister and eventually withdrew from his church. In all these controversies, Pickering defended his position in the local newspaper.
When the Revolution broke out, Pickering was well prepared. Though his militia arrived too late to fight in the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, he took an active part in the defense of the New England coast and, late in 1776, led a contingent to join George Washington's army in New York. For the most part, however, Pickering's career during the war was in administration rather than on the field of combat. He attracted Washington's attention and was appointed adjutant general. He then served on the Board of War and, in 1780, became quartermaster general. Before he left the post in 1785, he had prepared comprehensive plans for a peacetime military establishment.
In 1783, Pickering had sided with the instigators of the "Newburgh Revolt" and resented the charges made against them. By the end of the Revolution, weary of public service and its insufficient pay, he left the quartermaster generalship and began a trading operation with his friend Samuel Hodgdon, a merchant in Philadelphia. By 1785, he had acquired a large speculative interest in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania. When that area was organized as Luzerne County, with its seat at Wilkes-Barre, Pickering secured a blanket appointment to the county offices. Charged by the state authorities with settling conflicting land claims and establishing order, he found himself in the middle of the dispute between the Connecticut and Pennsylvania claimants. On one occasion, he was kidnapped by the Connecticut faction and kept prisoner in the woods. Unable to convince Pickering to recognize their claim, they let him go after twenty days.
In 1790, with the removal of the capital to Philadelphia, Pickering, who was having some difficulty supporting his family as a farmer, applied to Washington for a position in the federal government. One of the most significant problems facing the new government was relations with the Indians, and the president asked Pickering to undertake negotiations with the Senecas in western Pennsylvania. Pickering, an able negotiator with a sincere interest in developing a more humane policy toward the Indians, successfully concluded the mission, as well as a later one to the Iroquois. These successes led Washington to name him postmaster general, then secretary of war, and finally secretary of state. As postmaster general, Pickering increased the efficiency of the postal system, and as secretary of war, he oversaw the build-up of the navy that would prove so important in the undeclared war with France a few years later.
Pickering's career as secretary of state, however, was less auspicious. Having played a leading role in the dismissal of Edmund Randolph, his predecessor, Pickering served as acting secretary of state, as well as secretary of war, while Washington searched for a permanent appointment. After an unsuccessful search, Washington asked Pickering to step down as secretary of war and accept the state position on a permanent basis. As secretary of state, Pickering supervised the implementation of Jay's Treaty, which he did so effectively that when John Adams succeeded Washington as president, Pickering was asked to remain at his post. He held the office until just before Adams left office.
The major diplomatic issue during Pickering's tenure as secretary of state was Franco-American relations. Pickering was strongly opposed to the French Revolution and the pro-French Jeffersonians. He quarreled with the French minister Pierre-Auguste Adet, helping to bring about the minister's recall and the rupture of diplomatic relations with France. He had a similar quarrel with the Spanish minister Carlos Martinez de Yrujo y Tacon. After the failure of the XYZ mission--a move he had opposed--Pickering was angry at Elbridge Gerry for remaining in Paris and quarreled with President Adams over the question of censuring Gerry. With the publication of the XYZ dispatches and the ensuing war fever, Pickering became one of the main architects of the Federalist policy that sought war with France, as well as a strong supporter of the Alien and Sedition Acts. More and more estranged from John Adams, he opposed the president's nominations of William S. Smith and Henry Knox as adjutant general and second-in-command of the army. When Adams proposed a new mission to France, Pickering tried to block the program. He secretly conferred with Alexander Hamilton and other leading Federalists, reporting to them what went on in cabinet meetings with the president. Because of Pickering's continued opposition, Adams dismissed him from office in May 1800.
For the rest of Pickering's public career, as senator and representative, he remained a fervent anti-Jeffersonian. He was dismayed by the election of Thomas Jefferson and by Republican control of Congress, and he strongly opposed the Louisiana Purchase, fearing that as western states multiplied in number, New England would lose significance on the national stage. Pickering even considered secession, borrowing the basic principle of Jefferson's own "compact theory" to justify the move. Though he could find little support for his separatist movement in 1804 and was forced to lay it aside, his opposition to Jefferson continued. In a famous letter to Governor James Sullivan in 1808, Pickering wrote a powerful attack on the Embargo Act.
When the War of 1812 broke out, Pickering urged the New England states to refuse to cooperate with the federal government or to supply any troops or money to the war effort. Once again, he weighed the possibility of secession, but his position was too extreme, even for his supporters, and the Treaty of Ghent and the battle of New Orleans put to rest any lingering hopes of a separate union.
Pickering's last years were spent in Salem as one of the town's leading citizens. He pursued his life-long interest in agriculture and encouraged scientific farming, agricultural fairs, animal husbandry, and the development of a new type of plow. In his spare time, he began to assemble documentary material from which he planned to write a history of the Revolution and the early days of the Republic, but he didn't live to complete the project. He still occasionally became involved in political controversy. When letters between John Adams and William Cunningham were published in 1824, Pickering wrote a rebuttal of many of the statements made in them. And in 1828, when John Quincy Adams was running for re-election, Pickering endorsed his opponent Andrew Jackson.