Sunday, September 18, 2016

People: Timothy Pickering

This First Patriot is another of the many who served their nation in diverse and remarkable ways - and yet today are unknown to virtually all Americans. The same Americans who can rattle off mindless details of sports or worse, reality TV trivia. So drive the mindless pop culture from your mind and focus for a few minutes on one of the unsung founders of the American republic.

Early Life & Militia Service

One of nine children, Timothy Pickering was born in Salem, Massachusetts on 17 July 1745. His father was a prosperous farmer. Pickering attended Harvard College where he read the law and became a member of the bar. Pickering decided not to practice law but instead became a local civil servant. In 1774, he became register of deeds in Essex. Soon after, he was elected to represent Salem in the Massachusetts General Court and served as a justice in the Essex County Court of Common Pleas. On April 8, 1776, he married Rebecca White of Salem. He became a prominent local Whig during the run-up to the American Revolution. Like many other New England men, he joined the local militia. By 1775 Pickering was a colonel in the Essex County Militia where in February of that year he his men held off a column of British regulars under Colonel Alexander Leslie (see the Yankee Doodle Spies post on Leslie). "Leslie's Retreat" became one of the iconic events leading to war with Britain. In April that year open war erupted between the colonists and their king. Pickering served with the army assembled around Boston. Pickering saw the need for better standards across the various colonial forces and published An Easy Plan for Discipline for a Militia. This served essentially as the American army's drill manual until General Friederich von Steuben's famous Blue Book.

Despite his "retreat" Alexander Leslie became
one of the better British generals of the
War for Independence

A Continental Adjutant General

Pickering eventually accepted a commission in the Continental Army - George Washington's answer to the British regulars. He served notably in the frenetic campaigns in New York and New Jersey during the year of 1776. In December 1776, he led a well-drilled regiment of the Essex County militia to New York, where General George Washington took notice and offered Pickering the position of adjutant general of the Continental Army in 1777. In this capacity he oversaw the building of the Great chain which was forged at the Stirling Iron Works. The chain blocked the Royal Navy from proceeding up the Hudson River past West Point and protected that important fort from attack for the duration of the conflict. He was widely praised for his work in supplying the troops during the remainder of the conflict. Pickering replaced  General Horatio Gates, a former British officer. He served well as Adjutant during the Battle of Germantown in October of that year.

The Stirling Iron works chain blocked the Hudson

A Continental Quartermaster General

Not long after, Congress appointed him to the newly created Board of War. He did dual duty, continuing to serve as Washington's Adjutant General while helping organize the overall management of the war. Over time Pickering distanced himself from Washington and focused more on the Board of War functions. Around this time he also became associated with the infamous Conway Cabal but the cabal dissolved and Pickering continued in service. In fact, his abilities soon had him appointed to the most difficult post in the entire war effort (excepting Washington's). In the summer of 1780 he replaced General Nathanael Greene as Quartermaster General, although he continued double-duty as a member of the Board of War. Without a doubt, supplying the needs of the ragged yet growing Continental Army was the greatest problem plaguing Washington and the burden of addressing the impossible task fell largely on the Quartermaster General. Nobody wanted this job. The intransigence of the states frustrated Congress' attempts to raise money for the purchase of food, clothing and equipment necessary to maintaining the army. Also, dishonest contractors and vendors abounded - selling sub-standard wares to reap ill gotten profits. But Pickering took it on. Due to the shortage of gold and silver, he pioneered the use of "specie certificates" to purchase food and supplies. One of his singular achievements was assembling the food and supplies for the Continental Army's epic 1781 march from New York to Yorktown, Virginia. In that sense, he was a pioneer in the field of logistics. The campaign proved decisive in bringing the British government to the negotiating table. Pickering remained Quartermaster through the remainder of the war.

Pickering's logistics enabled the long march to Yorktown

A Servant of the Republic

After a period of controversial land speculation in Pennsylvania, Pickering had a turbulent post-war career of public service holding successive appointments under George Washington. These included: Postmaster General, Secretary of War and Secretary of State. As with Washington, Pickering helped establish the new republic and set precedence in how the cabinet functioned. In 1791 Washington asked him to negotiate a key treaty with the New York Iroquois under the great chief Corn-Planter. Pickering successfully worked out negotiation of what became the Treaty of Canandaigua  in 1794.
Pickering allied with
Hamilton's Federalists
When John Adams succeeded Washington as president he asked Pickering to stay on. Pickering did, but he was strongly anti-France and pro-Britain. This got him cross-wise with Adams who was trying to avoid war with the contentious French Republic. Politically, Pickering drifted into the camp of fiery New York politician and former cabinet member Alexander Hamilton. He conspired with others against Adams and was eventually fired in May 1800. In 1802, the contentious Pickering and a band of Federalists, agitated at the lack of support for Federalists, attempted to gain support for the secession of New England from the Jeffersonian United States. It did not go well.

Pickering in the Cabinet

A Partisan in Congress

Despite, or likely because of his efforts, he was named to the United States Senate as a senator from Massachusetts in 1803 - as a member of the Federalist Party. Pickering  proved an arch-Federalist staunchly opposing Thomas Jefferson and later James Madison in their populist maneuvers. Pickering opposed the American seizure and annexation of Spanish West Florida in 1810 -  anything to counter the expansionist policies of the Democrats was fair game to him. He fought vehemently against the Embargo Act, promising its nullification and even colluding with the British. His extreme agitation caused him to read confidential documents on the senate floor - an act that got him censured. After his term as senator expired Pickering was elected to Congress in 1812. As with most New England Federalists, Pickering opposed the War of 1812 as war with England and became a leader in the New England separatist movement.

The Embargo Act engendered much polemic and satire

Post Public Life

Denied re-election in 1816, the  passionate, controversial and often quarrelsome Pickering retired to private life on a farm near Salem, where he pioneered improvements in agriculture. He died in Salem in January 1829 leaving a legacy of pugnacious and relentless public service as an effective military and civilian administrator who helped create and build a new nation. But he was also as one of the original proponents of factionalism as well as partisan and regional struggle within political arena.

Salem MA waterfront

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