To John Jay
Middle brook April [23 1779]
In one of your former letters; you intimate, that a free communication of Sentiments will not be displeasing to you.1 If under this sanction, I should step beyond the line you would wish to draw—and suggest ideas or ask questions which are improper to be answered—you have only to pass them by, in silence. I wish you to be convinced, that I do not desire to pry into measures the knowledge of which is not necessary for my government as an executive officer, or the premature discovery of which, might be prejudicial to plans in contemplation.
After premising this—I beg leave to ask—what are the reasons for keeping the Continental frigates in port? If it is because hands can not be obtained to man them, on the present encouragement, some other plan ought to be adopted to make them useful. Had not Congress better lend them to Commanders of known bravery & capacity for a limited term, at the expiration of which, the Vessels, if not taken or lost to revert to the States—they & their crews in the mean time enjoying the exclusive benefit of all captures they make, but acting either singly or conjointly, under the direction of Congress? If this or a similar plan could be fallen upon—comprehending the whole number under some common head—a man of ability and authority, commissioned to act as Commodore or Admiral—I think great advantages would result from it. I am not sure but at this moment—by such a collection of the Naval force we have—all the British armed Vessels and transports at Georgia might be taken or destroyed and their Troops ruined. Upon the present system our ships are not only very expensive & totally useless in port; but sometimes require a land force to protect them, as happened lately at New london.2
The rumour of the Camp is that Monsieur Gerard is about to return to France: some speak confidently of its taking place—If this be a fact, the motives doubtless are powerful, as it will open a wide field for speculation, and give our enemies, whether with, or without real cause, at least a handle for misrepresentation & triumph.
Will Congress suffer the Bermudian vessels, which are said to have arrived in Delaware & Chesapeak bay to exchange their Salt for Flour, as is reported to be their intention? Will they not rather order them to depart immediately? Indulging them with a supply of provisions at this time will be injurious to us in two respects—it will deprive us of what we really stand in need of, for ourselves and will contribute to the support of that swarm of Privateers, which resort to Bermudas, whence they infest our Coast and in a manner annihilate our trade. Besides these considerations, by with-holding a supply, we throw many additional mouths upon the enemy’s Magazines, and increase proportionably their distress. They will not and cannot let their people starve.3
In the last place, though first in importance I shall ask—is there any thing doing, or that can be done to restore the credit of our currency? The depreciation of it is got to so alarming a point—that a waggon load of money will scarcely purchase a waggon load of provision.
I repeat what I before observed, that I do not wish for your reply to more of these matters than you can touch with strict propriety. Very truely I am Dr Sir Yr most Obedt & Affecte Servt
ALS, NNC; DfS, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.
2. A recent British plan to raid New London, Conn., in order to destroy the Continental ships anchored there, had been called off because of bad weather; see William Maxwell to GW, 25 March, n.2. On 17 April, Congress had passed a resolve directing the Marine Committee to form a naval squadron for an attack on British shipping off Georgia and South Carolina (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 13:466). The committee, which already had been considering such an attack, subsequently dispatched orders to the ships Confederacy, Deane, Queen of France, Ranger, and Warren to assemble for that purpose (Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 12:254, 356, 395–96, 429–30). The committee quickly cancelled this expedition, however, deciding instead to send a squadron to cruise the Atlantic in order to disrupt shipping between New York City and Great Britain; the ships put to sea in June (Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 12:497, 13:14).
3. Reports that the island of Bermuda, hit hard by the continuing trade embargo with the United States, was on the verge of famine had been widespread since February. These reports were spurred in part by the widespread publication in American newspapers of an address of 15 Jan. from the council and general assembly of Bermuda to the island’s governor. The address warned that “the inhabitants are on the eve of experiencing every distress that can arise from certain famine, unless some decisive steps be immediately taken to divert it” (The Independent Ledger, and the American Advertiser [Boston], 22 Feb. 1779). Among the measures that the Bermudans took to secure provisions was sending salt, one of their prime commodities, to the United States and exchanging it for food. GW was not the only one to look on this trade with a jaundiced eye. As a pro-British observer named “Brittanus” observed in a letter to the Earl of Sandwich that was published in the Massachusetts Spy (Boston) on 1 April: “Small schooners and sloops of ten, twenty, thirty, forty and fifty tons burthen are daily going to America, laden with salt and goods, clandestinely sent from England to that island, and in return bring tobacco, indigo, hams, and all sorts of provisions, greatly to the emolument and advantage of the importer. How much the supplying the rebellious Colonies with an article so very material as salt is to their advantage and to the detriment of his Majesty’s service, I humbly submit to your Lordships consideration.” American reports indicated, by contrast, that the trade was protected by the British government; on 21 April, the New-Jersey Gazette (Burlington) printed a report from Williamsburg, Va., that “the Governor of Bermuda has permitted seven vessels to load with salt for the continent, to procure provisions; these vessels are protected from being seized by any of the British cruizers.”
Congress did not take any specific measures to restrict this trade, which apparently continued unabated; but on 19 April it read a memorial of 28 March from some Bermudans requesting shipments of food to prevent famine. Though closely divided, Congress rejected the request on 7 May, arguing that so long as the British garrisoned Bermuda any relief shipments were likely to fall into enemy hands. The delegates reconsidered, however, after being assured by the Bermudans that the requested provisions would be “faithfully and entirely applied to their use,” and told by Conrad-Alexandre Gérard, the French minister to the United States, that his government would “cordially acquiesce in any measures which the policy of Congress may adopt in behalf of those suffering islanders.” On 18 May, Congress resolved to recommend to the executive authorities of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia to each permit the export of 1,000 bushels of Indian corn to Bermuda (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 13:471–72; 14:501–2, 553, 555–56, 608–9).
GW remained opposed to any aid, however, and apparently persuaded Joseph Reed, president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, to take his side (see Reed to GW, 25 April and 1 May; and GW to Reed, 27 April). On 19 May, the Council read Congress’s resolution of the previous day and resolved “That it is very clearly the opinion of this Council, that the said Resolve of Congress cannot be complied with, consistent with the Laws of this Commonwealth” (Pa. Col. Records description begins Colonial Records of Pennsylvania. 16 vols. Harrisburg, 1840–53. description ends , 11:782). Famine conditions in Bermuda and the other West Indian islands, exacerbated by the continuing trade embargo and a succession of devastating hurricanes, continued for the remainder of the war, resulting in particularly acute suffering for slaves (see Richard B. Sheridan, “The Crisis of Slave Subsistence in the British West Indies during and after the American Revolution,” WMQ description begins The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History. Williamsburg, Va. description ends , 3d ser., 33 : 615–41).