Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to the Commanding Officer of the British Force at Portsmouth, 24 March 1781

To the Commanding Officer of the British Force at Portsmouth

In Council March 24th. 1781


Some of the Citizens of this State taken prisoners when not in Arms and enlarged on parole have reported the Commanding Officer as affirming to them that they should be punished with death if found in Arms. This has given Occasion to the inclosed resolution of the General Assembly of this State. It suffices to observe at present that by the law of nations a breach of parole (even where the validity of the parole is unquestioned) can only be punished by stricter Confinement.

No Usage has permitted the putting to Death a prisoner for this Cause. I would willingly suppose that no British Officer had ever expressed a contrary Purpose. It has however become my Duty to declare that should such a Threat be carried into Execution it will be deemed as putting Prisoners to Death in cold Blood and shall be followed by the Execution of so many British Prisoners in our possession. I trust however that this horrid necessity will not be introduced by you and that you will on the contrary concur with us in endeavouring as far as possible to alleviate the inevitable miseries of war by treating Captives as Humanity and natural honour requires. The event of this Contest will hardly be affected by the fate of a few miserable Captives in war. I have the Honor to be, &c.,

T. J.

FC (Vi). Enclosure (missing): Resolution of Assembly of 21 Mch. 1781.

On 21 Mch. the House passed the following resolutions, which were agreed by the Senate on the same day: “Whereas the Enemy have lately introduced a Practice of paroling Citizens not taken in Arms, but found pursuing their domestic employments, which Practice is not warranted by the usage of Nations and is destructive of those Duties which every Citizen owes to his Country Resolved that such Paroles are hereby declared null and absolutely void. And that if the Enemy shall on pretence of such void Paroles treat any Citizen of this Commonwealth ill who shall be found in Arms, called into the Field by legal Authority, that prompt and just Retaliation shall be inflicted on such Persons of the Enemy as have fallen or may fall under the Power of this State. Resolved that the Governor be requested to cause this Resolve to be communicated by flag to the Commander of the Enemies Troops at Portsmouth” (JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , Mch. 1781, Va. State Libr., Bull., 1928, p. 45, 49). This letter and its enclosure were sent in TJ’s letter to Lafayette of the same day, q.v. TJ desired that this letter be received by the naval commander or by anyone in preference to Arnold (see TJ to Lafayette, 24 Mch.). In this he was gratified, for General William Phillips took command of the British forces on 26 Mch., and it was he who received it from Steuben, to whom Lafayette had given the duty of transmitting it (Lafayette to TJ, 27 Mch.; Phillips to Weedon, 6 Apr.). While Phillips indignantly repudiated the notion that a British officer would adopt such harsh measures, Arnold had in actual fact threatened reprisals for violation of his paroles. There is in NHi: Steuben Papers a copy of one of the proclamations issued by him and addressed to the inhabitants of the counties of Princess Anne and Norfolk, directing them to meet on 21 Feb. to concert proper measures with the king’s officers “in Order to restore Peace and Tranquillity, by freeing the Country of the Banditti, who threaten and oppress the peaceable Inhabitants.” All those who had been in arms or who had held office “under the usurp’d Authority of the Rebel Legislatures,” were directed to “come in and receive their Paroles from the Officer commanding at Kemps, or Headquarters in Portsmouth, or to apply for Passports to quit the country”; if after six days those who fell under this description had not accepted paroles and continued to “infest the County” in small bands they would be proceeded against “with the utmost Rigour, and Reprisals made upon them and their Families for any Damages the peaceable inhabitants may sustain from their unwarrantable Proceedings” (dated 17 Feb. 1781, NHi).

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