At the head of his militia unit, he answered the battle call to aid those under British fire on Lexington green. He served the entire Revolutionary War rising to general and leading the Board of War. At the end of the Revolution, he negotiated a seminal Indian Treaty. Under the new Constitution, he served the first two presidents as Postmaster General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State. Afterward, Massachusetts voters twice elected him Senator and twice elected him congressman. And throughout his life, he was a prolific political writer. With all these credentials, you would think Timothy Pickering’s name would be a household word. However, Pickering’s overly strident views and taking the wrong side of several political questions have doomed his character to the backwater of history texts. However, acerbic a tongue and quixotic in his political positions, Pickering’s life is well worth investigating for his observations on the politics and politicians in the Revolutionary Era and the Early Republic.
Pickering was the first observer to pierce the veil of the founders’ infallibility. For example, he characterized George Washington as intellectually “mediocre,” criticized John Adams for his “vanity,” and pointed out Thomas Jefferson’s “hypocrisy.” While more dispassionate observers regard these simple characterizations as overly harsh, there is a grain of truth in each one. Pickering’s Harvard education far surpassed Washington’s rudimentary formal education. But Pickering did not appreciate Washington’s ability to organize, motivate, and lead, traits that were lacking in Pickering’s character. Indeed, John Adams regularly exhibited his vanity, and sometimes this failing got in the way of effective leadership and decision making. Pickering also presented vanity, as he had a “thin skin” and loathed even the slightest criticism, similar to Adams. Regularly, historians today have pointed out Jefferson’s hypocrisy on slavery, family, and wealth. Exhibiting his hypocrisy, Pickering highly criticized others for being unbending, a trait that he often practiced.
Without a doubt, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson’s contributions outweigh their character deficiencies and limitations. So eagerly, Pickering sought to have his name remembered in the same league as the first three presidents. While this level of recognition never happened, learning more about this man will help us learn more about ourselves. So often, the traits we complain about in others are the very same traits in our characters.
To learn more about the captivating and illuminating life of Timothy Pickering, read Gerard Clarfield’s authoritative biography. For more information on Pickering, see a listing of primary sources and other biographies.
Clarfield, Gerard H. Timothy Pickering, and the American Republic. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980.