Fifty-four years after the occurrence, Richard Varick recalled his first glimpse of General George Washington in 1775, while “standing as a Sentinel at the Door of his Quarters at the City Tavern when on his way to Cambridge”. By the end of the War for American Independence, the two men would benefit from the other; Varick, by Washington’s validation of his crucial reputation as a gentleman, and Washington, by Varick’s stewardship of his documentary legacy.
Richard Varick was born on March 25, 1753, into a family of Dutch heritage in Hackensack, New Jersey. Having received a respectable education in his youth, he moved to New York City to clerk in the law office of John Morin Scott. Besides reading law, Varick was also introduced to tumult of revolutionary politics by Scott, a principal figure in the local Sons of Liberty. In the autumn of 1774, Richard Varick completed his traineeship and was licensed to practice law. With the threat of war looming on the horizon, he also enlisted in the ranks of the New York City militia. As the Continental Army formed, Varick was Commissioned a Captain to command the 6th Company of the 1st New York Regiment on June 28, 1775, but was swiftly detached for duty as the military secretary to Major General Philip Schuyler. General Schuyler was placed in command of the “New York Department” and Varick accompanied him to Fort Ticonderoga to begin preparations for a campaign in Canada. Captain Varick proved himself an especially adept assistant and was promoted to serve additionally as “deputy muster master general to the northern army” on September 25, 1776 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. By the beginning of 1777 however, the Continental Congress had lost confidence in General Schuyler and removed him as commander, with Varick to continue his duties solely in the mustery until that section was eliminated on January 12, 1780.
With New York City occupied by the enemy, Varick returned to his native New Jersey to resume his legal practice but conditions in the no-man’s-land around Hackensack proved insurmountable. Later in the year, Major General Benedict Arnold was placed in command of the garrison at West Point, New York, and approached Varick with an offer of employment. Richard Varick accepted and was named as General Arnold’s military secretary on August 14, 1780. On September 25, 1780, Arnold’s collusion with the enemy was discovered while Richard Varick lay sick in bed. In a letter to George Washington, Arnold dispelled his aides of any knowledge “of any transactions of mine;” however, Washington “with his usual affability and politeness” placed Varick under arrest as a safeguard. In early November, a Court of Inquiry convened and unanimously concluded, “That Lieutenant Colonel Varick’s conduct with respect to the base Peculations and Treasonable Practices of the late General Arnold is not only unimpeachable but think him entitled (throughout every part of his conduct) to a degree of Merit that does him great honor as an Officer and particularly distinguishes him as a sincere Friend to his Country…”
Service to his new country, however, was not over for Richard Varick. A by-product of the many years of war was a mountain of “valuable documents” and the headquarters staff had long struggled to maintain and protect the papers. In the spring of 1781, the Commander-in-Chief proposed engaging a “set of writers… for the sole purpose of recording” his papers under the supervision “of a Man of character in whom entire confidence can be placed” to the Continental Congress. Congress promptly assented and George Washington chose Richard Varick as his “recording secretary,” on May 25, 1781, providing detailed instructions for arranging his official letters, orders, and instructions. Varick accepted and selected Poughkeepsie, New York, “as a place of safety”. For the next two and a half years, he and a small team of clerks, classified, sorted and copied the papers of the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army neatly into forty-four volumes. After resigning his commission and returning to Mount Vernon, George Washington commended Varick for his industry: “I take this first opportunity of signifying my entire approbation of the manner in which you have executed the important duties of recording Secretary, and the satisfaction I feel in having my Papers so properly arranged, & so correctly recorded - and beg you will accept my thanks for the care and attention which you have given to this business.”
With his martial duties concluded, Richard Varick “bid a happy Adieu to public Service” and returned to New York City to resume his legal practice. Within a year, he was tapped for the position of “recorder” - or the chief legal officer - for the City of New York. He subsequently represented New York City in the lower house of the state assembly in 1787, and was chosen as speaker of the house the following year. However, the pinnacle of his political career came on October 12, 1789 when he was commissioned the Mayor of New York City. Remembered by a younger jurist as “an able but severe magistrate,” Richard Varick held the office for almost twelve years before the Jeffersonian Revolution turned him out on August 24, 1801. He continued his practice in law, but also engaged in banking and land speculation, before retiring and devoting himself to philanthropic causes. He died at his home in Jersey City, New Jersey, on July 30, 1831.
Samuel K. Fore
Harlan Crow Library
Hart, Albert Bushnell, ed. The Varick Court of Inquiry to Investigate the Implication of Colonel Varick (Arnold’s Private Secretary) in the Arnold Treason. Boston: Bibliophile Society, 1907.
Lefkowitz, Arthur S. George Washington’s Indispensable Men: The 32 Aides-de-Camp Who Helped Win American Independence. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2003.
Pomerantz, Sidney I. New York, An American City, 1783-1803; A Study of Urban Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 1938.