Human nature engenders us to sort Revolutionary War figures into two categories – heroes and villains. Pennsylvanian Thomas Mifflin defies this categorization. An early and ardent Patriot, Mifflin actively served in the Pennsylvania Assembly and when war broke out in 1775, he immediately volunteered for the state militia. In forming the Continental Army, George Washington named Mifflin as his aide-de-camp and they travelled together to join the Patriot forces surrounding Boston. By all accounts, Mifflin ably served Washington over the next several years.
However, this contentment and exemplary service did not continue. Congress, probably with Washington’s prodding, named Mifflin as Quartermaster General in August 1775 and commissioned him a colonel. Further recognizing his talents, Congress promoted Mifflin to major general in February 1777. It was during the next fall’s British assault on Philadelphia that things turned wrong for Mifflin.
With the loss of Philadelphia by Washington juxtaposed with Horatio Gates’ phenomenal victory at Saratoga, a chorus of voices sprang up that Gates should replace Washington as Commander-in-Chief. Unfortunately for Mifflin, he joined the insurgents in what historians have termed the Conway Cabal and advocated the replacement of Washington with Gates.
When Washington successfully defended his position, Mifflin decided to resign the quartermaster position. On one hand he ascribed an unknown illness as the reason for his decision but at the same time also sought an active combat command. Ominously, he resigned as quartermaster in November 1777, just before the trials and tribulations of a supply shortage winter at Valley Forge. Putting himself before the army, he left at an inopportune time – though Congress takes some of the blame as the deliberative body failed to name a successor until the worst of the winter was over.
After considerable political controversy over Mifflin’s conduct as the Quartermaster and his role in opposing Washington, he resigned his major general commision and separated entirely from the Continental Army. Turning to politics, Mifflin continued to serve as a Patriot leader. Pennsylvania elected him to the state legislature and eventually to the Continental Congress in 1782. His Congressional influence increased with that fickle body naming him as President. Ironically as a former adversary, it was President Mifflin who accepted Washington’s poignant resignation and return of his army commission at the war’s conclusion.
After the peace treaty of Paris and for the last 17 years of life, Mifflin was continually involved in Pennsylvania politics. When Pennsylvania implemented a new form of government, he became its first governor. Lastly, Mifflin ended his political career where it started as a Pennsylvania legislator.
In the end, Mifflin left an enigmatic legacy. He courageously served his country as an early Patriot and continually served as a committed and successful political leader. However, Mifflin declined to serve the Continental Army at a time during which it needed his administrative and political talents the most. And his decision to advocate replacement of Washington turned out to be a horribly poor judgment.
For an account of Mifflin’s life and a balanced view of his contributions, see the only full length biography on Mifflin.
Rossman, Kenneth R. Thomas Mifflin and the Politics of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1952.
For a comprehensive view of the disputes between Mifflin and Washington, see Thomas Fleming’s account of the Conway Cabal.