Arthur St. Clair was born on March 23, 1737 in Thurso, Caithness, Scotland to merchant William Sinclair and Elizabeth Balfour. After completing his early education, Arthur attended the University of Edinburgh, then became an apprentice to Dr. William Hunter.
The opening days of the French and Indian War saw St. Clair purchase a commission in the Royal American Regiment of the British Army and sail with Admiral Edward Boscawen’s fleet to America. He witnessed the capture of Louisburg, Nova Scotia on July 26, 1758 under the command of General Jeffrey Amherst and received a promotion to lieutenant on April 17, 1759. He now served under General James Wolfe during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.
In 1760, St Clair married Phoebe Bayard, who belonged to one of Boston’s most prominent families and was the niece of Massachusetts’ colonial governor, James Bowdoin.
St. Clair resigned his commission on April 16, 1762 and moved to Ligonier Valley, Pennsylvania. Here he commenced purchasing land on which he erected mills. Before long, he held the title of the largest landowner in Western Pennsylvania.
Arthur was appointed justice of the court in 1770, overseeing quarter sessions of the common pleas, along with activity in the orphans’ court as a prothonotary and justice for Westmoreland and Bedford counties. When the colony of Virginia laid claim to an area of land near Pittsburgh, a number of Western Pennsylvania residents began to resist the invasion. St. Clair issued an order to have the officer in charge of the Virginia troops arrested for the invasion. Eventually, Lord Dunmore’s War decided the location of the disputed boundary.
Having lived in the colonies for a number of years now, by the mid-1770s, St. Clair thought of himself more as an American citizen rather than a British subject. Thus, in January 1776, he accepted a colonel’s commission in the 3rd Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Army. His first saw action in his new post during the Battle of Trois-Rivières in the latter days of the Quebec invasion. In August, St. Clair was promoted to brigadier general and went to New Jersey under orders of General George Washington to establish their militia. He also accompanied Washington during the crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776, then participated in the Battle of Trenton the following morning. St. Clair has been credited with developing the strategy which led to Washington’s victory at Princeton on January 3, 1777. The outcome resulted in a promotion for St. Clair to Major General.
St. Clair’s next duty post was Fort Ticonderoga. Though having served as a major deterrent to the British who sought to invade the former colonies from Canada, St. Clair’s small regiment was no match for General John Burgoyne’s force during the Saratoga Campaign. This resulted in St. Clair’s garrison being forced into retreat on July 5, 1777 and St. Clair facing a court-martial for the loss of Fort Ticonderoga. He was, however, exonerated and returned to duty. Though higher military authorities now refused St. Clair to be placed in command of strategic locations, Washington continued to hold a high opinion of him and appointed St. Clair an aide-de-camp. This allowed St Clair to be present during the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown.
As a member of Pennsylvania’s Council of Censors in 1783, St. Clair was chosen to be one of the delegates to the Confederation (Continental) Congress. He served in this post from November 2, 1785 until November 28, 1787. In early 1787, Shay’s Rebellion stirred up a hornet’s nest of chaos which resulted in states refusing to settle land disputes or contribute to the six-year-old federal government.
St. Clair was elected to a one-year term as President of the Continental Congress on February 2, 1787. During his tenure, the Congress enacted its most important legislative piece, the Northwest Ordinance. This ordinance created the Northwest Territory, which contained the area which would become the states of Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, in addition to a portion of Minnesota and Wisconsin. While this was taking place, the Philadelphia Convention was also in the process of drafting the Constitution of the United States, which when ratified, did away with the Continental Congress.
After making his home in the Ohio Territory, St Clair later named the town of Cincinnati for the Society of the Cincinnati. Beginning in 1800, St. Clair became Ohio’s first governor. He soon formulated Maxwell’s Code, named for William Maxwell, printer of the Code, Ohio’s first written laws. St. Clair had a goal of making Ohio accessible for European settlements, but had to first end the claim Native Americans had to the land. In 1789, Governor St. Clair brought together several Indian leaders who signed the Treaty of Fort Harmar; however, a large number of leaders either were not invited to the negotiations for the treaty, or they refused to participate.
The treaty’s outcome was not what St. Clair had hoped. Instead of providing a workable solution with the Indian situation, it instead provoked them to further resistance which later became the Northwest Indian War (Little Turtle’s War). St. Clair now ordered the construction of several forts in western Ohio and dispatched General Josiah Harmar to lead a campaign of militiamen in October 1790 following a number of mutual hostilities. In the end, the Indians defeated a militia of 1,500. Among the orders St. Clair gave Harmar was the destruction of the Miami Indians’ major village near present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana. General Harmar and his army of 1,500 troops were defeated by Shawnee Chief Blue Jacket and Miami Chief Little Turtle in October 1790 in the battle labeled, “Harmar’s Defeat.”
In 1791, St. Clair became senior general of the US Army, replacing General Harmar. After assuming command, he left Fort Washington near Cincinnati with two Army regiments and some militia forces numbering approximately 1,000. Two days later the troops had marched 20 miles and here they built Fort Hamilton. This was followed by a 45 mile trip northward and the construction of Fort Jefferson.
Due to the fact St. Clair had a number of untrained militiamen in his regiment; he faced a large number of desertions from the very beginning. Cold temperatures, coupled with snowfall and rain did little to help suppress the desertion rate, along with lack of food and low morale. Pressing on, by November 3rd, St. Clair and his troops advanced on several Indian settlements located near the headwaters of the Wabash River. A battle later ensued on November 4 against a tribal confederation led by Little Turtle which resulted in total disaster for St. Clair.
A renowned commander during the American Revolution, St. Clair experienced a disastrous loss against Little Turtle and Blue Jacket. Known by some as the “Battle of Wabash,” or “Battle of a Thousand Slain,” this conflict remains the greatest defeat of the US Army by a force of Native Americans in US history. Of the 1,000 officers and troops who went into battle under St. Clair’s command, only 48 managed to escape unharmed. 50 Indians also died in the conflict. During the battle, St. Clair had two horses shot out from under him and several bullets passed through his clothing while another removed a lock of his hair. The survivors reached Fort Jefferson late in the evening and due to only a small quantity of food being available, St. Clair later moved his forces back to Fort Washington.
President Washington was in Philadelphia when word reached him about the battle’s outcome. In January 1792, St. Clair appeared before him to offer his report, fully intent on blaming the War Department and the quartermaster for the defeat. St. Clair requested a court-martial in hopes of being exonerated, intending to resign after being found innocent. Washington demanded that St. Clair resign from the army, which he did on April 7, 1792. Soon after, Congress initiated the first executive branch investigation.
[Trivia note – When the House of Representatives began its investigation, the committee in charge requested various documents from the War Department. Secretary Knox took the request to President Washington. Due to the fact a separation of powers issue was now involved, Washington called together Secretary of War Knox, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. The gathering of these officials is considered by historians as the beginning of the United States Cabinet.]
St. Clair was later exonerated and continued to serve as Governor of the Northwest Territory. The final report from the assigned committee noted the efforts of Secretary Knox, Quartermaster General Samuel Hodgdon and various individuals in the War Department to equip St. Clair’s expedition were poorly handled. No final report was issued on the matter and St. Clair expressed his disappointment in the fact his reputation was not fully cleared.
Being a Federalist, it was St. Clair’s hope to see the Ohio Territory divided into two states, with the intent of increasing the Federalists’ power in Congress. When that failed, St. Clair began to actively oppose Ohio’s admission to the United States. His opponents, the Ohio Democratic-Republicans, resented what they considered to be the arrogance and high-handedness he demonstrated in office. As a result, in 1802 President Thomas Jefferson issued the Enabling Act. St. Clair denounced the Enabling Act. Jefferson responded by removing St. Clair as governor. On February 19, 1803, Ohio became the seventeenth state in the United States with St. Clair playing no part in organizing it. This was also the reason the Ohio Constitution was written to give stronger powers to the state’s legislature than the ones ascribed to the governor.
St. Clair retired to his home in western Pennsylvania and established a foundry where he began to make stoves and castings. Very liberal with his money, St. Clair provided loans to friends and family. He later fell into financial disarray due to the fact the United States Congress failed to reimburse him for expenditures he had made while serving as governor of the Northwest Territory. As a result, St. Clair lost most of his fortune and his vast land holdings. He eventually moved to a small log cabin where he died on August 31, 1818.
Arthur St. Clair died on August 31, 1818 in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. The vast wealth he had prior claim to was now gone, due to some business reverses, but more so because of the generous loans he made during the American Revolution and while governor of the Northwest Territory, which Congress never reimbursed. St. Clair and his wife spent their final years with their daughter, Louisa St. Clair Robb and her family and were later buried in St. Clair Park in Greensburg, Ohio. Parts of his home, the Hermitage, are preserved in the Fort Ligonier Museum.
A historian of early colonial America, Stanley L. Los stated, "He is one of the most important figures in American history and it really is amazing how he is forgotten." Los counts St. Clair among the 10 "lost" presidents, men who served as head of the U.S. government under the Articles of Confederation which governed the country prior to 1789 when the Constitution replaced it.