Thomas Mifflin and the Congress of the United States

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College

Thomas Mifflin was closing in on his 40th birthday on the day Washington appeared before him in the Annapolis State House. It cannot have been a birthday Mifflin planned to celebrate with much mirth. Let us look at some events that preceded Washington’s meeting with Mifflin in 1783.

Postage stamp in commemoration of the Articles of Confederation bicentennial.
The Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation when the French threatened to withdraw their support to American Revolution. (Image: Smithsonian National Postal Museum/Public domain)

George Washington’s Resignation

The great Revolutionary War was over, the peace treaty had been signed, and Washington had finally had the ultimate satisfaction he would experience as general-in-chief of the Continental Army by supervising the evacuation of the British occupying forces from New York City.

The Congress of the United States was meeting in the Maryland State House in Annapolis rather than in Philadelphia, which had served as the de facto capital of the United States for much of the Revolution. Washington appeared at the doors of the State House and handed the commissioning document and the text of his resignation announcement to Congress’s president, Thomas Mifflin.

This fact underscores a very great deal of what was wrong with Congress, with the Articles of Confederation, and with the United States in 1783.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Early Life of Thomas Mifflin

Thomas Mifflin was born into a well-off family of Pennsylvania Quakers who were torn between the Quaker demand for simplicity, and a desire for Thomas to enjoy the fairly substantial collection of worldly baubles his industrious father had won for the family.

Young Mifflin was therefore given the dignity of a collegiate education at the College of Philadelphia. And as soon as he graduated at the tender age of 16, he was suitably positioned with a Philadelphia merchant. He married his well-connected cousin Sarah Morris, and went into business with his brother George in 1765 in a store at Front and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia.

Money flowed into his grasp and by 1770, various high-profile public service appointments were also falling into his lap. He was a city warden, a manager of the Pennsylvania Hospital, a director of the Library Company, and a trustee of his alma mater.

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Mifflin and the American Revolution

The American Revolution did nothing to disturb the arc of Mifflin’s rise. He was one of the supporters of the embargo on British imports that protested the Stamp Act, was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1772, and was named to represent Pennsylvania in the First Continental Congress in 1774.

He almost naturally assumed that leadership positions should fall to him, and people almost naturally assumed that it would be a good idea for a man as financially well off as Mifflin to get them. With the organization of the Continental Army, Washington tapped Mifflin as a staff member.

Mifflin quickly climbed the ladder of rank, with promotions to brigadier general and major general following in due course. However, something about this man with the silver Quaker spoon in his mouth seems to have acquired tarnish for Washington.

Mifflin’s Rift with Washington

In 1775, Washington shunted him from front line service to quartermaster general of the army. This affronted Mifflin, who conceived of himself as a military, as well as a mercantile, genius. And although Mifflin sullenly agreed to serve, he never ceased to agitate for restoration to field command. 

General George Washington at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1777.
Mifflin was bitterly critical of Washington’s (standing next to the canon) failed attempt to defend Philadelphia in 1777. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

When front line command failed to materialize on a permanent basis,  Mifflin turned his disappointment on Washington. Bitterly critical of Washington’s failed attempt to defend Philadelphia in 1777, Mifflin resigned his commission in a huff, and joined the agitators known as the Conway Cabal who were seeking to depose Washington as general-in-chief. The conspiracy failed.

However, as one of his subordinates grumbled, Mifflin’s “manners were better adapted to attract popularity than preserve it,” and so he was soon back in the political saddle as a member of the Continental Congress, and in November of 1783, he was elected the third president of Congress under the Articles of Confederation. And there began Thomas Mifflin’s career of woe.

The Continental Congress

The American colonies had always had closer ties, individually, to Great Britain than they had had to each other, and even getting them to send representatives, first to the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, and then to the Continental Congress in 1774 and 1775, had been no small achievement.

As it was, the Continental Congress was merely a deliberative body. It had no official powers, no revenue to pay the bills of the revolutionary conflict. It had no means of enforcing its decisions apart from the army, which it paid and equipped in such a penny-pinching manner that the army was twice on the edge of mutiny, first in 1781 and again in 1783.

The Personal Agendas of States

The states themselves sometimes seemed more intent on pursuing their own agendas than in a joint effort to fight off the British. Virginia sent militia beyond the Appalachians to stake claims to territory in the west. Connecticut and Pennsylvania fought over who had proper title to the  Wyoming Valley in northeastern Pennsylvania.

State militia officers tried to conscript members of the Continental Army and fined them for non-compliance. Vermont staked out its own claims to independence, not just from the British, but from New York and New Hampshire, both of whom insisted that they were the lawful rulers of the Green Mountains.

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The Articles of Confederation

America’s French allies made it clear that they would do nothing more for the Americans until they stopped quarrelling and submitted to a common government that the French could recognize and support.

Hence, the ill-humored delegations in Congress sank their disagreements and adopted a 3,300-word Articles of Confederation. Even then, the Articles were only a firm league of friendship with each other, in which each state retained its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right. It took four years, from 1777–1781, before the states finally ratified the Articles.

The Articles of Confederation were ratified on March 1, 1781. The Continental Congress simply continued to conduct business now as the Confederation Congress. No one knew what was in store for Congress and its leaders, particularly Thomas Mifflin.

Common Questions about Thomas Mifflin and the Congress of the United States

Q: When was Thomas Mifflin elected as the third president of Congress?

In November of 1783, Thomas Mifflin was elected the third president of Congress under the Articles of Confederation.

Q: When was Thomas Mifflin elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly?

Thomas Mifflin was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1772.

Q: When were the Articles of Confederation ratified?

The Articles of Confederation were ratified on March 1, 1781.

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