During his long career, Colonel David Humphreys served as a soldier, secretary, diplomat, writer, poet, orator, industrialist, and biographer. A close friend of George and Martha Washington, Humphreys was an eyewitness and active participant in the early years of the United States. His speeches, poems, literary works, and correspondence with George Washington and other members of the founding generation serve as a valuable source for historians of the Early Republic and highlight the country's evolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Born in 1752, Humphreys was the fourth child of a wealthy family in Derby, Connecticut. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Yale University, where he became a part of the “Hartford Wits,” a group that composed poems and essays on subjects including literature, university education, and politics. Humphreys would write poetry throughout his life, using verse to commemorate major events or advance his political and social views. After graduating, Humphreys worked as a tutor and a principal before returning to Yale to earn his Master's degree. He then returned to teaching. As tensions between the colonists and Great Britain increased, Humphreys enlisted in the Second Connecticut Regiment in the summer of 1776.
Service in the American Revolution
Evidence suggests that Humphreys’s first taste of combat occurred during the Continental Army’s defeat at Kip’s Bay in September 1776 during the British invasion of New York. His regiment was swept up in the American retreat. He participated in the fortification of Harlem Heights before returning to Connecticut when his regiment’s enlistments expired. Humphreys returned to action in 1777 as a captain in the Sixth Connecticut Regiment. General Samuel Holden Parsons then promoted Humphreys to his staff as a Brigade Major (assistant-Adjutant-General). That year, Humphreys saw action at the Battle of Danbury and the Battle of Sag Harbor and delivered the report of the latter battle to General Washington. Humphreys spent most of 1777 and 1778 with the American troops along the Hudson River guarding New York and Southern New England. In December 1778, he became Aide-de-Camp to Major General Israel Putnam, and would later write a book about Putnam’s service in the conflict.
During the war, Humphreys was accompanied by Jethro Martin, an African American, who later historians referred to as a “servant.” According to Humphreys's biographer Frank Landon Humphreys, Martin assisted Humphreys in recruiting African Americans to fight for the Patriot cause, but many details about Martin remain unknown. In the 1800s, the term “servant” could refer to an enslaved person, hired employee, or an indentured worker. Since slavery existed in Connecticut, albeit less extensively than in the South, scholars remain uncertain about whether or not Humphreys enslaved Martin or if Martin labored as a paid body servant. Humphreys’s family wealth would have enabled him to purchase an enslaved individual, but more documentation is needed to answer this question.
In the spring of 1780, Humphreys had established his reputation as an administrator, and Washington named him as his new aide-de-camp. In this capacity, Humphreys aided the general in his correspondence, communicated Washington’s orders to his commanders, and provided reports on military engagements. In late 1780, Washington tasked Humphreys with leading an expedition to kidnap British General Sir Henry Clinton. The nighttime raid ended without achieving its objective when poor weather made it impossible to reach the British position. During the Yorktown Campaign in 1781, Humphreys accompanied Washington on the journey from New York to Virginia and was then given the honor of taking the twenty-four captured British standards to Congress following General Lord Cornwallis’s surrender to American and French forces in mid-October. When the war ended, Humphreys traveled with Washington from New York to Annapolis, Maryland, where Congress was meeting and stood at the general’s side as he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.
Early Diplomatic Career and Time as Washington’s Biographer
After the war concluded, Humphreys briefly stayed at Mount Vernon before traveling to Europe as part of the Continental Congress’s Commission for Negotiating Treaties of Commerce with Foreign Powers. As an independent country, the United States pursued trade agreements with the major European powers to grow its economy and build political influence. Humphreys and Washington remained in communication during the former’s diplomatic assignment, with Washington providing letters of introduction for his former aide-de-camp, and Humphreys providing updates on international affairs.
While abroad Humphreys suggested that Washington write a memoir of his time in the Revolution, but also offered to write it himself if Washington was unable or unwilling. Declining to write the work himself, Washington agreed that Humphreys should write the book, noting “Your abilities as a writer…Your personal knowledge of many facts as they occurred, in the progress of the War—Your disposition to justice, candour & impartiality, and your diligence in investigating truth, combining, fits you, in the vigor of life, for this task.”1 Washington also promised to make all of his papers available for Humphreys’ project and wrote up a brief outline of his life for Humphreys’ reference.2
Despite Humphreys’s eagerness to work on the Washington biography, domestic events would delay his project. After arriving back in the United States in 1786, Humphreys was called back into service as part of Connecticut’s response to Shay’s Rebellion. He continued to keep Washington updated on the agrarian insurrection and the two also discussed the forthcoming Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Humphreys correctly predicted that Washington would be elected president of the convention, but expressed concern about how much influence he could hope to have over so many delegates with many different views.3 Humphreys worried that the effort would fail and advised Washington not to attend.
Following the death of his parents, Humphreys returned to Mount Vernon in the fall of 1787 where he remained for 18 months. During this time, he completed his biography of Washington’s life up to 1783 and, with Washington’s blessing, published it in the journal American Geography in 1789. Humphreys would later write a second biography that covered Washington’s life up to 1789. The combined two-volume biography mostly focuses on Washington’s military career and does not discuss controversial issues like slavery and land speculation. Despite its limitations, Humphreys’ work remains the only biography approved by Washington to be published in his lifetime.
Diplomatic Career in the Early Republic
After becoming president, Washington appointed Humphreys as one of the commissioners to the southeast Native American nations. Joining General Benjamin Lincoln, and politician Cyrus Griffin, Humphreys traveled to Georgia to negotiate with the powerful Muscogee Creek Confederacy, led by Alexander McGillivray (Hoboi-Hili-Miko). In their interactions, eyewitnesses noted that Humphreys offended McGillivray, and correspondence from both Humphreys and McGillivray indicate tension between the two men. Although Humphreys described the Creek leader as cunning, shrewd, and possessing good sense, he also judged him as “so much addicted to debauchery that he will not live four years.”4 McGillivray referred to Humphreys as a “puppy” and noted, “they pitted the Gentleman against me, being fluent of Speech, and a great boaster of his political knowledge.”5 For the powerful Creek leader, Humphreys’ diplomatic skills amounted to empty promises and posturing.
Despite his dislike of Humphreys, McGillivray and several other Creek leaders eventually agreed to attend a summit with Washington in New York City, the capital of the United States at the time. The resulting Treaty of New York of 1790 established peace between the two nations. However, the small size of the American army meant that the Washington administration was not able to fully enforce its provisions, and American speculators and settlers soon began to trespass on and seize Creek land, prompting McGillivray to abandon the treaty and resume his former alliance with Spain. Humphreys’s poetry reveals a prejudice against the indigenous inhabitants of North America, who he predicted would eventually be forced by necessity to adopt European agriculture and land-use practices.
Shortly after the signing of the Treaty of New York, Humphreys sailed to Europe for his next diplomatic assignment in 1790. The Washington administration sent Humphreys, who was to pose as a private citizen, to England, Portugal, and Spain to provide reports on significant events. Britain and Spain appeared to be on the verge of war, and France was in the early stages of the French Revolution, which had begun in 1789. Humphreys sent both Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson detailed updates on topics as wide-ranging as King George III’s first battle with mental illness to French agricultural production.
In 1791, Washington appointed Humphreys as Minister Resident to Portugal. In this capacity, Humphreys continued to provide updates about European politics and also warned Washington about the rising threat of the Barbary Corsairs on American shipping in the Mediterranean Sea and the plight of captured American sailors. As a new nation with a nearly nonexistent navy, American ships were easy prey for the pirates. In his capacity as Minister to Portugal, Humphreys worked to secure the release of captured sailors and was eventually appointed Sole Commissioner in Algerian Affairs. As attacks continued, Humphreys wrote to Washington recommending that the United States build a stronger navy to protect American shipping.
Humphreys also continued to follow the events in France. What had started as an internal revolution had become a continent-spanning war, as the European monarchies allied against the nascent French Republic. As rumors swirled of a Prussian invasion of France, Humphreys floated a plan to Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, Louis-Alexandre, duc de La Rochefoucauld, and the American Minister to France Gouverneur Morris, to entice Prussian soldiers to desert by offering them subsidized passage to the United States.6 No evidence exists that the plan was taken seriously, but it does suggest American interest in supporting the new French government in the early days of the French Revolution.
In 1796, Washington appointed Humphreys as Minister Plenipotentiary to Spain. The next year, Humphreys married Ann Frances Bulkeley, the daughter of an English merchant. He began his new appointment during a time of turmoil and great uncertainty in the Iberian nation. Initially hostile to Revolutionary France, battlefield defeats had compelled Spain to ally itself with its former foe. With French and Spanish vessels seizing American ships attempting to trade with Great Britain, Humphreys had to deftly negotiate for the release of the captured ships and crews. Humphreys remained in his role in the Spanish court during the Adams administration, and he kept in contact with George Washington. In the last letter Washington wrote to his former aide, he extended an invitation for Humphreys to return to Mount Vernon and stay as long as he wished. When Washington passed away in 1799, Humphreys sent a letter to Martha Washington to express his grief and condolences.
In 1802, Thomas Jefferson, newly elected president, decided to replace Humphreys as minister to Spain. Humphreys received no warning, only finding out when his replacement, Charles Pinckney, arrived in Europe and handed him the president’s instructions. Historians speculate that Humphreys's closeness to the Federalist Party motivated Jefferson’s decisions. After returning home to New England with his wife, Humphreys continued to follow politics and continued to be active in Connecticut politics. In speeches in the early nineteenth century, Humphreys opposed Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana territory from France, arguing that it would harm the country’s sense of unity and enrich land speculators and slaveholders at the expense of others.7 At the same time, he also expressed support for any plan to purchase Florida from Spain.
Impressed with the quality of wool produced by Merino sheep in Europe, Humphreys purchased a flock at the end of his time in Spain and brought them to Connecticut in 1802. This particular variety of sheep produced high-quality wool, which Humphreys saw as a key asset to the United States’ industrial development. Humphreys funded the construction of a factory in nearby Seymour, Connecticut, on land recently taken from the Paugussett Tribe, where workers could weave the wool from the sheep into high-quality, affordable fabrics. As with many early mills and factories, Humphrey’s employees were mainly women and children. He provided lodging, education for the children, and, advocated for legislation mandating factory inspections in the state. Humphreys deployed his poetry to promote his vision for New England, where he believed agriculture, industry, and markets together would create prosperity and rejuvenate the state’s economy.
Humphreys's success encouraged other farmers to purchase Merino Sheep, which thrived in the United States and were crossbred with other varieties of sheep to increase their stock. Word of Humphreys's success even reached President Jefferson, who requested that Humphreys procure him cloth to be used for a wool coat. Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807, which damaged the US economy by banning trade with Britain and France, aided domestic manufacturers like Humphreys, who no longer had to compete with imported fabrics and textiles.
While Humphreys's potential involvement in slavery early in life remains uncertain, by the early nineteenth century, he had begun to fiercely attack the institution. His poem “On the Industry of the United States” is noteworthy for both its soaring praise of the new nation and its system of government and its blistering condemnation of slavery. While Humphreys was friends with numerous slaveholders, including Washington, and stayed at plantations during his travels in the South, in the poem he describes slavery as a “Fell Scourge of mortals, reason’s foulest shame!” and pondering “Still must men, like beasts, be bought and sold, / the charities of life exchanged for gold! / Husbands from wives, from parents children torn, / In quivering fear, with grief exquisite, mourn!”8 Likewise, in an address to the Connecticut chapter of the Society of the Cincinnati, Humphreys expressed support for the gradual manumission of enslaved people, while comparing slaveholders in America to the kings and tyrants of Europe.9 He also accused slaveholder politicians of hypocrisy by proclaiming liberty while actively enslaving others.
Later Life and Legacy
When the War of 1812 broke out, Humphreys organized a unit of Connecticut militia, and the Governor of Connecticut later conferred on him the rank of Brigadier-General. During the war, Humphreys also served in the state legislature. New England was a center of anti-war activity and hosted the Hartford Convention, at which many Federalists debated seceding from the United States. While Humphreys remained loyal to the federal government, he privately criticized the Madison administration and expressed qualified support for the Hartford Convention, although he opposed secession. Despite his political disagreements, he continued to correspond with President James Madison’s administration and provided his views on the future expansion of the navy and the continued conflicts with the Barbary Corsairs.
The end of the War of 1812 brought peace to the United States, along with economic hardship to the wool and textile manufacturing industry as international trade resumed and cotton produced by the Southern states increasingly competed with New England wool. To protect the industry, Humphreys supported a tariff on foreign goods. However, by this point, Humphreys was in his sixties and left much of the advocacy work to others. Still, he continued to remain active in public life. His activities in the last few years of his life included helping to establish and serving as the first president of the Agricultural Society of Connecticut.
On February 21, 1818, David Humphreys suddenly passed away in New Haven, Connecticut. An eyewitness to many of the eighteenth century’s major events, his life had taken him from New England to the courts of Europe. The Humphreys family home in Derby is now the headquarters of the Derby Historical Society and is open for tours.
George Washington's Mount Vernon
1 George Washington to David Humphreys, 25 July 1785, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-03-02-0142.
2 George Washington Remarks. Founders Online. National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-05-02-0463-0002.
3 Colonel David Humphreys to George Washington, 9 April 1787, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-05-02-0128.
4 Colonel David Humphreys to George Washington. 26 September 1789, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0059.
6 David Humphreys to George Washington, 23 July 1792, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-10-02-0392.
7 David Humphreys, “A Valedictory discourse, delivered before the Cincinnati of Connecticut,” Internet Archives Open Library, 1804, https://openlibrary.org/works/OL71444W/A_valedictory_discourse_delivered_before_the_Cincinnati_of_Connecticut.
8 David Humphreys, The Miscellaneous Works of David Humphreys: Late Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Madrid (T. and J. Swords no. 160, 1804), 100. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Miscellaneous_Works_of_David_Humphre/cPw0AAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0
9 Humphreys, “A Valedictory discourse, delivered before the Cincinnati of Connecticut.”
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