Pickering, Timothy

views updated Jun 08 2018

Pickering, Timothy

PICKERING, TIMOTHY. (1745–1829). Continental officer, adjutant general, quartermaster general. Massachusetts. Born on 17 July 1745 into a family that had been prominent in Salem since 1637, he graduated from Harvard College in 1763. He was employed in Salem in the office of the Essex County register of deeds until the eve of the war, as register from October 1774. Meanwhile, he studied law and in 1768 was admitted to the bar. He also studied military history and tactics beginning in 1766, when Governor Francis Bernard appointed him a lieutenant in the Essex County militia. His neighbors elected him to the town's committee of correspondence, and in February 1775 the Massachusetts Provincial Congress appointed him colonel of the First Regiment of the Essex County militia. His Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia, published in 1775, was adopted by Massachusetts the next year and was widely used in the American army until replaced by the famous manual of Steuben after 1778.

Not initially an advocate of armed resistance to British authority, he "delayed rather than lead his regiment" in the Lexington Alarm of 19 April 1775 (ANB). He took no part in the siege of Boston or the 1776 campaign. Recognizing that no reconciliation was possible, early in 1777 Pickering led a volunteer unit to reinforce Washington's army at Morristown. Because Horatio Gates wanted to resign as adjutant general, Washington prevailed upon Pickering to replace him. Despite his lack of military experience, Pickering performed his exacting and tedious duties with competence, and he even showed a good grasp of tactics. He saw the dangers of Washington's plan for the Battle of Germantown (4 October 1777) and even urged the commander in chief to bypass the strong point at the Chew House.

When Congress organized a new Board of War (made up of persons outside Congress) during the Conway Cabal episode, it pulled Pickering out of Washington's headquarters to be a member. He was elected to the board on 7 November 1777, but since nobody qualified to take over as adjutant general was immediately available, he did not leave this post until 13 January 1778. Washington named Pickering to succeed Nathanael Greene as quartermaster general on 5 August 1780. Pickering wrote back on the 11th that since the appointment was altogether unexpected, it would be some time before he could wind up his affairs in Philadelphia. When Pickering had not arrived by 15 September, Washington sent him orders to report. Holding this vital post until 25 July 1785, he showed "indefatigable industry and iron determination" (DAB). A splenetic conservative—a curmudgeon devoid of illusions—on 6 March 1778 he wrote: "If we should fail at last, the Americans can blame only their own negligence, avarice, and want of almost every public virtue."

After going into business in Philadelphia he moved to the Wyoming Valley in early 1787 and was involved in the dispute between Pennsylvania authorities and the Connecticut settlers. He became "land poor," and to improve his finances he decided to seek a post in the new federal government. In the fall of 1790 President Washington appointed him to negotiate with the Senecas to prevent them from going to war against the United States. In what his modern biographer calls the "high point" of his public career, Pickering "proved patient, understanding, and sympathetic in his several negotiations with the Seneca, Oneida and other tribes. He made every effort to protect Native American peoples from exploitation by greedy land speculators" (ANB). Washington rewarded him with the job of postmaster general on 12 August 1791 and promoted him to secretary of war on 2 January 1795, replacing Henry Knox. He was secretary of state from August 1795 until 10 May 1800 but was dismissed after intriguing with Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists against President John Adams. He went back to Wyoming, but his Federalist friends arranged for the purchase of his lands and his return to Massachusetts, where they hoped he might come to the aid of the party. He was a senator from Massachusetts from 1803 to 1811 and became a formidable debater. Pickering's years in the Senate were marred by his leadership of an abortive scheme in 1803–1804 to take New York, New Jersey, and the five New England states out of the union to form a northern confederacy. Denied reelection to the Senate, he was elected to the House and served from 1813 to 1817. He died at Salem on 29 January 1829.

SEE ALSO Conway Cabal.


Clarfield, Gerard H. Timothy Pickering and the American Republic. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980.

Pickering, Octavius. The Life of Timothy Pickering. 4 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1867–1873.

                                revised by Harold E. Selesky

Timothy Pickering

views updated May 29 2018

Timothy Pickering

Timothy Pickering (1745-1829) was an American Revolutionary soldier before becoming secretary of war and then secretary of state under President Washington.

Timothy Pickering was born in Salem, Mass., on July 17, 1745, the son of Timothy and Mary Wingate Pickering. He graduated from Harvard College in 1763, studied law in Salem while serving as a clerk in Essex County, and was admitted to the bar in 1768. He became register of deeds in 1774. In 1766 he was commissioned a lieutenant in the county militia. He was a colonel by 1775 and was appointed by George Washington as adjutant general of the U.S. Army in 1777, becoming quartermaster general in 1780.

After the Revolution, Pickering became a merchant in Philadelphia. He moved in 1787 to western Pennsylvania, where he was elected to represent Luzerne County in the state convention that ratified the Federal Constitution. Appointed as postmaster general by President Washington in 1791, he served for over 3 years before becoming secretary of war in January 1795. Washington made him secretary of state late in 1795, and he continued in that post when John Adams became president.

An ardent Federalist and a bitter critic of the French Revolution, Pickering became a leading advocate of the quasi-war with France that followed the "XYZ affair" in 1798. Fearful of "French influence" in American politics, he viewed the Jeffersonian Republicans as subversives, and he supervised the enforcement of the Sedition Law against Jeffersonian critics of the Adams administration. Always more loyal to Alexander Hamilton than to Adams, however, Pickering broke with the President when Adams insisted on negotiating a settlement with France. Adams finally dismissed him from the Cabinet on May 10, 1800.

After a brief return to western Pennsylvania, Pickering moved to Massachusetts, where he became U.S. senator in 1803. A virulent opponent of presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, he urged the establishment of a northern confederacy in 1804, arguing that peaceful secession was the only way to protect New England's commercial interests. Defeated for the Senate in 1811, he served on the Executive Council of Massachusetts in 1812-1813 before winning election to Congress, where he again became Madison's leading opponent from 1813 to 1817. A controversialist to the end, he wrote a polemical pamphlet criticizing John Adams in 1824. Pickering died in Salem on Jan. 29, 1829.

Further Reading

The biography of Pickering by Octavius Pickering and C. W. Upham, The Life of Timothy Pickering (4 vols., 1867-1873), is uncritical. Specialized studies include Hervey P. Prentiss, Timothy Pickering as the Leader of New England Federalism, 1800-1815 (1934), and Gerald H. Clarfield, Timothy Pickering and American Diplomacy, 1795-1800 (1969).

Additional Sources

Clarfield, Gerard H., Timothy Pickering and the American Republic, Pittsburgh, PA.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980. □