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The American Revolution
Revolutionary War: The Turning Point, 1777-1778
Washington Opposes a Franco-American Attack on Canada, November 11, 1778

According to John Fitzpatrick, one of the editors of George Washington's papers, the following letter to the Continental Congress is one of the most important Washington ever wrote to that body. In the letter, dated November 11, 1778, what view does Washington express about the joint Franco-American campaign against Canada proposed by Congress? What are his major arguments? Do you agree with Washington's assessment?

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Sir: On Wednesday afternoon I received a Letter from the Honble. Mr. Lee and Mr. Lovell, of the Committee for foreign affairs, inclosing a plan and sundry Resolutions of Congress for attacking Canada the next Campaign, in conjunction with the forces of his most Christian Majesty; and requesting my observations upon the same to be transmitted to Congress, and a Copy to be delivered to the Marquis De la Fayette. These dispatches, thro' the indisposition of the Marquis, who unfortunately was seized with a fever in his journey from Philadelphia, which still detains him at Fish Kill, were prevented coming to hand till that time, and the great importance and extent of the subject they comprehend, would not permit me the honor of an earlier communication of my sentiments.

I hope Congress will excuse my not complying with that part of the Resolution, which requires me to deliver a Copy of my Observations to the Marquis, as the manner in which I am obliged to treat the subject, opens such a prospect of our wants and our weaknesses, as in point of policy ought only to be known to ourselves.

I am always happy to concur in sentiment with Congress, and I view the emancipation of Canada as an Object very interesting to the future prosperity and tranquility of these States; but I am sorry to say, the plan proposed for the purpose does not appear to me to be eligible, under our present circumstances. I consider it as my duty and what Congress expects from me, to give my reasons for this opinion, with that frankness and candour, which the importance of the subject demands; and in doing this, I am persuaded, I shall not fail to meet with their approbation.

It seems to me impolitic to enter into engagements with the Court of France for carrying on a combined operation of any kind, without a moral certainty of being able to fulfil our part, particularly if the first proposal came from us. If we should not be able to perform them, it would argue either a want of consideration, a defective knowledge of our resources, or something worse than either; which could not fail to produce a degree of distrust and discontent, that might be very injurious to the union. In the present instance should the Scheme proposed be adopted, a failure on our part would certainly occasion in them, a misapplication of a considerable land and naval force, which might be usefully employed elsewhere; and probably their total loss. It is true, if we were at this time to enter into the engagement, we shall be every day better able to judge, whether it will be in our power to accomplish what would be expected from us; and if we should find hereafter, that our Resources will be unequal to the undertaking, we may give notice to the Court of France in season to prevent the sailing of the Troops and the ill effects, which might attend it. But, besides that a project of this kind could not be embraced by France, without its having an influence on the whole system of operations for the next Campaign, which of course would receive some derangement from its being abandoned, a renunciation of this could not fail to give a very unfavourable impression of our foresight and providence and would serve to weaken the confidence of that Court in our public councils.

So far from their being a moral certainty of our complying with our engagements, it may, in my opinion, be very safely pronounced, that if the Enemy keep possession of their present posts at New York and Rhode Island, it will be impracticable either to furnish the men, or the other necessary supplies for prosecuting the plan. They will not attempt to keep those posts with less than ten Thousand men and a considerable Navy. If it should be thought best, for the advantage of carrying on the expeditions intended, to forego any offensive operations against these garrisons and to leave them in quiet possession of such important places; we shall at least be obliged to provide for the security of the Country against their incursions and depredations, by keeping up a force sufficient to confine them within their own limits. It is natural too to suppose, that the people's expectations of being protected will grow stronger, in proportion to the diminution of the Enemy's force, and the greater facility with which it can be afforded. They will hardly be content to continue in a state of alarm and insecurity from a force so inconsiderable, while the principal Strength of the States is drawn out in the prosecution of remote Objects. If this reasoning is just, we shall be obliged to have a larger force than the Enemy, posted in different places, to prevent sudden inroads, which they would otherwise be able to make at different points; and the number required cannot be estimated at less than 12 or 15000 men. This will be two thirds as large a force, as we have been able to raise and maintain during the progress of the War; as these calculations, both of the Enemy's strength and of our own, are meant to designate the number of effective rank and file.

If I rightly understood the plan in consideration, it requires for its execution 12,600 Men, rank and file. Besides these, to open a passage through a Wilderness for the march of the several bodies of Troops, to provide the means of long and difficult transportations by land and Water, to establish posts of communication for the security of our Convoys; to build and man Vessels of force, necessary for acquiring a superiority on the Lakes; these and many other purposes, peculiar to these Enterprises, which would be tedious in detail, will demand a much larger proportion of Artificers and persons to be employed in manual and laborious Offices, than are usual in the Ordinary course of military operations. When we add the whole together, the aggregate number of men requisite for the service of the ensuing Campaign, will be little less than double the number heretofore in the field; but to be more certain in the calculation it, may be placed at only one half more.

Experience is the only rule to judge by in the present case. Every expedient has been exhausted in the preceding Campaigns to raise men; and it was found impossible to get together a greater force than we had; though the safety and success of the cause seemed absolutely to require it. The natural and direct inference therefore is, that the resources of the Country were inadequate to a larger supply. I cannot then see that we can hope upon any principle, to be equal to so much greater exertions next year, when the people and the Army appear to grow daily more tired of the War and the depreciation of our money continually increasing and of consequence proving a smaller temptation to induce Men to engage.

The State of our supplies for transporting and subsisting the troops, will stand upon a footing equally bad. We have encountered extreme difficulties in these respects, and have found, that it was full as much as we were competent to, to feed the Army we have already had and enable to keep the field, and perform the movements required by the contingencies of the service. It is not likely that these difficulties will diminish, but on the contrary they will rather multiply, as the Value of our currency lessens; and the enormous prices to which provisions have risen and the artificial scarcity created by monopolies, with what we have to fear from the effect of the same spirit, give us no reason to flatter ourselves, that our future prospects can be much better. In this situation of things we are hardly warranted to expect, that we shall have it in our power to satisfy the demands of numbers so much greater, than we have yet had to supply; especially if we consider, that the scene of our operations has hitherto been in the Heart of the Country furnishing our resources, and which of course facilitated the drawing them out; and that we shall then be carrying on the War at an immense distance, in a Country wild and uncultivated, incapable of affording any aid, and great part of it hostile. . . .

On the other hand, if we were certain of doing our part, a co-operation by the French would in my opinion, be as delicate and precarious an enterprise, as can be imagined. All the reasons which induce France and the United States to wish to wrest Canada and Halifax from the dominion of England, operate with her, perhaps more forcibly, to use every possible effort for their defence. The loss of them would be a deadly blow to her trade and empire. To hope to find them in a defenceless state, must be founded in a supposition of the total incapacity of Britain, both by land and sea, to afford them protection. I should apprehend, we may run into a dangerous error by estimating her power so low. . . .

In whatever point of light the subject is placed, our ability to perform our part of the contract, appears to me infinitely too doubtful and precarious, to justify the undertaking. A failure, as I have already observed, would involve consequences too delicate and disagreeable to be hazarded. But at the same time that my judgment is against this, I am clearly of opinion, that we should attempt everything that our circumstances will permit; but as the extent of our power must be regulated by many possible events, I would wish to hold ourselves free, to act according to either possibility, and as a clearer view of our future resources shall authorise. If the Enemy intirely leave these States, it will produce a vast change in our affairs and new prospects may open, of which we can at present have but a very imperfect idea. It would be a great step towards raising the value of our money, which would give a new spring to our military operations. We may be able to undertake much more than we can now foresee.

If the Enemy attempt to keep posts in these States, a primary object will be to expel them, if in our power; if not, we must make proper provision to bar their depredations; and must turn our attention to the security of our frontiers, by pursuing such measures, as shall be within the reach of our abilities.
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