The Washington-Barton Letters, 1788

William Barton to George Washington, 28 August 1788

Your Excellency may probably recollect that I had the honor of waiting on You, at the Winter-quarters of the Army, early in the year 1779, with letters from Mr Laurens and the late Genl Reed. Altho’ barely known, however, to You, I take the liberty of inclosing, for your own perusal, a short treatise on a subject little understood, or attended to, in this Country—namely, Heraldry or Blazon. This Essay, (the manuscript copy of which, subscribed with my name; I beg your acceptance of,) I have presumed to inscribe to Your Excellency.

When very young, I made myself acquainted with this science; and, notwithstanding it may be considered by some as a matter of amusement, rather than utility; I will venture to assert, that it is a study both pleasing & instructive, as well as innocent in its tendency. I am likewise persuaded, Sir, that Blazonry not only merits the notice of an inquisitive Mind, viewed merely as a speculative science; but, that Coat-Armour, the Object of it, may be rendered conducive to both public and private cases, of considerable importance, in this infant nation, now rising into greatness: and I trust that your Excellency, to whom every true American looks up, as the guardian of your Country and Patron of its increasing glory, will concur with me in the sentiment, that every institution which may assist in promoting the great ends of Government, is worthy of public Attention.

I should not have been so sanguine, perhaps, in my ideas of the usefulness that may be derived from certain regulations, respecting Coat-armour, which might be established in this country, were it not for the flattering circumstance of Mr. Secretary Thomson agreeing with me in opinion, on that head—When Congress were about to form an armorial Device for a Great Seal for the United States, that gentleman, with Dr. A: Lee and Mr. Boudinot, then delegates in Congress, did me the honor of consulting me on the occasion: and Mr. Thomson, in a letter to me, dated in June 1782, compliments me on the “skill in Heraldic science,” that he is pleased to say, I displayed in the device for the Great Seal; which (he adds) “meets with general approbation.” In the same Letter he says, he had dipped so far into the elements of Heraldry, as to be satisfied, “that it may be applied by a State to useful purposes.”

I have endeavoured, in my little tract, to obviate the prejudice which might arise in some minds, against Heraldry, as it may be supposed to favor the introduction of an improper distinction of ranks. The plan has, I am sure, no such tendency; but is founded on principles consonant to the purest spirit of Republicanism and our newly proposed Fœderal Constitution. I am conscious of no intention to facilitate the setting up of any thing like an order of Nobility, in this my native Land: far from my mind, is such a design.

If your Excellency should think proper to favor me with the sanction of your name, in approbation of the Essay, I shall not only rest assured, that the principles therein advanced are perfectly consistent with those which an American Citizen ought to maintain; but shall deem it a great honor done to me, personally.I am, with the highest sentiments of Respect, Sir, Your Excellency’s most Obedt And most humble Servt.  

George Washington to William Barton, 7 September 1788


At the same time I announce to you the receipt of your obliging letter of the 28th of last month, which covered an ingenious essay on Heraldry, I have to acknowledge my obligations for the sentiments your partiality has been indulgent enough to form of me, and my thanks for the terms in which your urbanity has been pleased to express them.

Imperfectly acquainted with the subject, as I profess myself to be, and persuaded of your skill as I am, it is far from my design to intimate an opinion, that heraldry, coat-armour, &c., might not be rendered conducive to public and private uses with us; or that they can have any tendency unfriendly to the purest spirit of republicanism. On the contrary, a different conclusion is deducible from the practice of Congress and the States; all of which have established some kind of Armorial Devices to authenticate their official instruments. But, Sir, you must be sensible, that political sentiments are very various among the people in the several States, and that a formidable opposition to what appears to be the prevailing sense of the Union is but just declining into peaceable acquiescence. While, therefore, the minds of a certain portion of the community (possibly from turbulent or sinister views) are, or affect to be, haunted with the very spectre of innovation; while they are indefatigably striving to make the credulity of the less-informed part of the citizens subservient to their schemes, in believing that the proposed general government is pregnant with the seeds of discrimination, oligarchy, and despotism; while they are clamorously endeavouring to propagate an idea, that those, whom they wish invidiously to designate by the name of the “well-born,” are meditating in the first instance to distinguish themselves from their compatriots, and to wrest the dearest privileges from the bulk of the people; and while the apprehensions of some, who have demonstrated themselves the sincere, but too jealous, friends of liberty, are feelingly alive to the effects of the actual revolution, and too much inclined to coincide with the prejudices above described; it might not, perhaps, be advisable to stir any question, that would tend to reanimate the dying embers of faction, or blow the dormant spark of jealousy into an inextinguishable flame. I need not say, that the deplorable consequences would be the same, allowing there should be no real foundation for jealousy, in the judgment of sober reason, as if there were demonstrable, even palpable, causes for it.

I make these observations with the greater freedom, because I have once been a witness to what I conceived to have been a most unreasonable prejudice against an innocent institution, I mean the Society of the Cincinnati. I was conscious, that my own proceedings on that subject were immaculate. I was also convinced, that the members, actuated by motives of sensibility, charity, and patriotism, were doing a laudable thing, in erecting that memorial of their common services, sufferings, and friendships; and I had not the most remote suspicion, that our conduct therein would have been unprofitable, or unpleasing, to our countrymen. Yet have we been virulently traduced, as to our designs; and I have not even escaped being represented as short-sighted in not foreseeing the consequences, or wanting in patriotism for not discouraging an establishment calculated to create distinctions in society, and subvert the principles of a republican government. Indeed, the phantom seems now to be pretty well laid; except on certain occasions, when it is conjured up by designing men, to work their own purposes upon terrified imaginations. You will recollect there have not been wanting, in the late political discussions, those, who were hardy enough to assert, that the proposed general government was the wicked and traitorous fabrication of the Cincinnati.

At this moment of general agitation and earnest solicitude, I should not be surprised to hear a violent outcry raised, by those who are hostile to the new constitution, that the proposition contained in your paper had verified their suspicions, and proved the design of establishing unjustifiable discriminations. Did I believe that to be the case, I should not hesitate to give it my hearty disapprobation. But I proceed on other grounds. Although I make not the clamor of credulous, disappointed, or unreasonable men the criterion of truth, yet I think their clamor might have an ungracious influence at the present critical juncture; and, in my judgment, some respect should not only be paid to prevalent opinions, but even some sacrifices might innocently be made to well-meant prejudices, in a popular government. Nor could we hope the evil impression would be sufficiently removed, should your account and illustrations be found adequate to produce conviction on candid and unprejudiced minds. For myself, I can readily acquit you of having any design of facilitating the setting up an “Order of Nobility.” I do not doubt the rectitude of your intentions. But, under the existing circumstances, I would willingly decline the honor you have intended me, by your polite inscription, if there should be any danger of giving serious pretext, however ill founded in reality, for producing or confirming jealousy and dissension in a single instance, where harmony and accommodation are most essentially requisite to our public prosperity, perhaps to our national existence.

My remarks, you will please to observe, go only to the expediency, not to the merits of the proposition. What may be necessary and proper hereafter, I hold myself incompetent to decide, as I am but a private citizen. You may, however, rest satisfied, that your composition is calculated to give favorable impressions of the science, candor, and ingenuity, with which you have handled the subject; and that, in all personal considerations, I remain with great esteem, Sir, your most obedient, &c.

William Barton to George Washington, 18 September 1788


I cannot forbear intruding upon your Excelly again, to return You my most sincere and thankful acknowledgments for the Candor and Politeness, with which You have been pleased to communicate to me Your sentiments on the subject of my Essay: And I should be wanting in that respect which is due to Your Character, as well as committing a Violation of my own feelings, were I now to publish it, had I before designed to do so; but my intention was to reserve it, for some future day. The force and justness of your Observations must, of themselves, have impressed Conviction on my mind: But, Sir, the truth is, that I am myself sensible of the political prejudices, which obtain among many People in this Country; and I well know how extremely jealous they are, at this time, of every thing that bears the most distant appearance of favoring a distinction of ranks. I am entirely of your Excellency’s Opinion, that, at the present truly important crisis, it is highly expedient to make some sacrifices to that Jealousy wch is entertained by many honest, well-meaning men. Every person in the least degree acquainted with human Nature must have observed, that the most unreasonable prejudices may be overcome, by prudence and moderation: and, in some stages of political ferment, a temporary suspension of public measures founded even in the most virtuous principles, may undoubtedly become advisable; lest, in their investigation, the views of the promoters of them may be purposely misrepresented, by ill-disposed intriguing Characters, to answer their own ends; by means whereof, upright tho’ weak men might be influenced to a wrong bias. Prejudices being, however, the result either of defective or erroneous information, it is evident that the most effective means of eradicating them, are Discussion and free Enquiry; provided that the public mind be not assailed, in matters of general and political concern, at an improper season: If this caution be observed, truth must, eventually, ever prevail over Error.

It has been under the impression of prejudices without doubt, that so much has been said and written, both against the Institution of the Cincinnati and our Fœderal Constitution; yet, Sir, I am persuaded that this very circumstance, instead of producing the effects intended by the violent and persevering opposers of both, has been a great mean of quieting the fears of many good Citizens, by giving others an opportunity of shewing how little foundation for jealousy really existed. With regard to the Cincinnati, though I have not the honor of being a member of that Society, I have always viewed it as an innocent, well-meant institution, formed on principles of humanity and benevolence: And, as to the new plan of our National Government, I frankly acknowlege that it is not, in my humble Opinion, wholly unexceptionable; but, notwithstanding this confession, my uniform sentiment has been, that it was the duty of every good citizen not only chearfully to acquiesce in, but to promote, its being carried into operation. Had I ever lent even my feeble support to such as opposed the attainment of this great and desirable Object, by writing or otherwise, the reflection would give me pain—For, I have long been convinced that a more efficient Government than the old Confederation, was necessary to our existence, as an independent people, a position which I have endeavoured to establish in two publications, in Carey’s Museum (for Jany 1787, page 13—and May 1788, page 442): And I had no doubt that the goodness of the American people would, in due time, introduce such alterations in the new Constitution, as experience and sound reason might suggest the propriety of, and in such mode as is directed by the Constitution itself. These, Sir, are my undisguised sentiments on this subject, and I have always avowed them. I anticipate, with pleasure, the happiness this Country will enjoy, under a virtuous administration of a good Government; and, tho’ an humble Citizen, I am as anxious as any man to see it carried into effect. It is, therefore, with the most heart-felt satisfaction that I congratulate you, Sir, who have been so eminently instrumental in raising up this great Empire; on the peaceable declension of that spirit of jealousy, which threatened to mar our national prosperity—We have been witnesses, in this Country, to an almost total extinction of the violent prejudices, which were formerly entertained against an American Episcopate; and it is highly probable, that a similar moderation and liberality to that, which has since taken place on that subject, supported by patriotism, will soon supersede the unreasonable discontents which have been harboured in the minds of many, against the Fœderal Constitution.

You will, I hope, Sir, pardon my presumption, in thus trespassing on your patience—I am gratified by the honor You have done me, by your excellent letter; and I have, undesignedly, been drawn into this lengthy acknowledgment of it, by the train of reflexions which have crouded upon my Mind, on the Occasion. I have the honor to be; With the most respectful Attachmt Sir, Your Excellency’s most obedt And most humble Servt.