Report on Cornwallis-Laurens Exchange
MS (NA: PCC, No. 25, II, 135–36). In JM’s hand. On the docket he wrote, “Report of the Committee to whom was referred the letter of Mr. Laurens & the Act of Dr. Franklin discharging Ld. Cornwallis from his parole.” Below this Charles Thomson added: “Mr Cornell [deleted by an ink line drawn across it] Mr. Madison Mr Rutledge Mr. Montgomery read Septr. 25 1782. 26 recommitted with a Motion of Mr Duane.” Thomson failed to delete a repeated “of” just before “Mr Duane.”
The origin of the issue of the Cornwallis-Laurens exchange and this committee’s antecedents have been presented in JM to Randolph, 3 September, n. 8. and in Comments and Motion in re Laurens, 19 September 1782, n. 1. On 18 September Congress appointed Ezekiel Cornell, chairman, JM, and John Rutledge a committee to make recommendations concerning the Cornwallis-Laurens exchange (NA: PCC, No. 186, fol. 56). Having temporarily left Philadelphia on or about 19 September in pursuance of his appointment as inspector of contracts for Washington’s army (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (5 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , IV, 210, n. 1), Cornell was replaced as chairman by JM, and Joseph Montgomery was added to the committee on 24 September (NA: PCC, No. 186, fols. 58, 59). Rutledge disagreed with the committee’s recommendation. See Notes on Debates, 22 November 1782.
[25 September 1782]
That it appears from the papers referred to the Committee that Mr. Laurens did at the time of his discharge from Captivity, authorize an expectation in the British Ministry that Earl Cornwallis should in exchange be absolved from his parole:
That the Minister Plenipo. at the Court of Versailles, in consequence of the representations & request of Mr. Laurens, did by an instrument bearing date the 9th. of June last absolve the said Earl Cornwallis from his parole; reserving however3 to Congress the confirmation or disapprobation of the measure:
That from a comparative view of the British Prisoners of war now in possession of the U. S. & of Americans Prisoners of war to the British King, there appears little probability that the discharge of Earl. Cornwallis will deprive the U. S. of the means of redeeming any of their Citizens from Captivity:4
That on a consideration of these circumstances the Committee are of opinion that, altho’ the exchange in question was not derived from due authority, and altho’ it might better accord with the peculiar barbarities which characterise the sd. Earl Cornwallis in his prosecution of a war5 in itself the most barbarous of modern ages, to make him the last instead of so early an object of indulgence, yet it is upon the whole expedient for Congress to confirm the Act by which he has been set at liberty: and the Committee accordingly recommend
That the Act or Instrument given at Passy6 the 9th. day of June last by Benj. Franklin Minister Plenipo. of the U. S. at the Court of Versailles, discharging Lt. General Earl Cornwallis from the parole given by him in Virginia, be confirmed & that the sd. Earl Cornwallis be no longer considered as a Prisoner of war to the U. S.7
1. Henry Laurens’ letter of 30–31 May. See Comments and Motion in re Laurens, 19 September 1782, n. 1.
3. After “however,” JM wrote “expressly” and then deleted it.
4. Thanks to Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga and Cornwallis’ at Yorktown, the Americans had many more prisoners of war than the British. Therefore, as JM here remarked, the advantage held by the United States in negotiating a general cartel would not be significantly lessened by exchanging Cornwallis for Laurens.
6. The office of the United States embassy was in “a fine House, situated in a neat Village [Passy], on high Ground, half a Mile from Paris, with a large Garden to walk in” (Albert Henry Smyth, ed., The Writings of Benjamin Franklin [10 vols.; New York, 1905–7], VII, 223).
7. On 26 September 1782 James Duane moved the adoption of several resolutions, declaring, in part, that the treatment of Laurens by the British “calls for public indignation”; that Cornwallis, because of his “tyrannical and inhuman conduct” during the campaign of 1780–1781 in the southern states, should be the last man “to expect favour or indulgence”; and that his conditional release from parole by Franklin was not necessarily binding upon Congress. After being amended, these resolutions, as mentioned in the headnote, accompanied the present report when it was recommitted on 26 September (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXIII, 608). See Motion on Exchange of Cornwallis, 22 November; Notes on Debates, 22 November 1782.