George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Laurens, 14 April 1778

From Henry Laurens

York Town [Pa.] 14th April 1778.


In obedience to the directions of Congress, I am to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 4th instant.

Congress with great concern perceive that your sensibility is wounded by their resolutions. Placing the firmest confidence in your prudence, abilities and integrity they wish to preserve that harmony with you, which is essential to the general weal. You may rest assured that far from any intention to give you pain, their regulations have no other motives or end but the public good. They therefore hope that you will not in future be distrest by apprehensions as injurious to their honor as they are to your own feelings.

However different the views of Congress may seem to you now from what you supposed them to be when you entered into your late engagements with general Howe,1 Congress certainly had nothing in view but a proper respect to the dignity, safety & independence of these States.

the duplicity of general Howe, and authentic information, that the gentlemen appointed by you to negotiate the cartel, held opinions repugnant to the sense of Congress, constrained them in a matter of such high moment, as forming a general cartel, to express their sentiments in an explicit manner; lest they might have only to lament, when it was out of their power to remedy a misapprehension on points deeply affecting in their judgment, the safety & honor of these states.

Congress expected that you would consider their resolutions of the 30 Ult.2 in the light of private instructions calculated to shew their sense with respect to the general outlines of the proposed cartel: a practice usual with the supreme power of every state in similar cases.

You observe that a strict adherence to all the resolutions of Congress must of necessity destroy all idea of a cartel; but as a distinction can easily be made betwixt such of the resolutions of Congress as flow from general principles of policy, and those which arise from circumstances which have rendered a variation from time to time necessary, it is conceived that an attention to this discrimination will rid you of those embarassments,3 which you may, at first view, think yourself entangled with.

The resolution of Congress of the 19 December respecting the mode of settlement for supplies to the enemy’s prisoners seems not to have been sufficiently attended to.4 It is left at the option of the enemy to pay either in coin dollar for dollar or in provisions &c. equal in quantity and kind to what is furnished. Whatever objections may be made against the first mode, there surely cannot be a more just and equal ratio than the latter. Genl Burgoyne lately made the same objections on this point, which occurred to you; but on being reminded of the alternative offered by the resolution;5 he acquiesced, and the victualling ships are now actually delivering provisions in payment for what they received. The Commissaries of prisoners on each side may pass receipts for the rations received expressing the quantum of each article received for the subsistance of the prisoners in the power of the contracting parties and the balance may be paid in provisions or in coin, at the option of either party.6 The mode suggested by you is liable to this strong objection, that it would lay us under the necessity of furnishing the enemy’s prisoners with us as well as ours with them with provisions; which certainly would be a capital advantage to them, if we consider the distance whence they must derive their supplies.7

The resolution of the 30 December was a measure naturally flowing from the treason acts, which the respective states have passed in consequence of the express recommendation of Congress.8 On a mature deliberation, they are convinced that a deviation from it would be subversive of our character as an independant people & inconsistent with sound policy. No act of Congress can suspend the operation of the laws of the different states, and therefore they cannot consent that any measure should be adopted in the proposed cartel which may contravene this resolution. It does not however appear to Congress that any embarrassment will arise in this matter unless the enemy should insist upon an article in the cartel That Americans taken in arms shall be intitled to the benefit of an exchange. Under the terms of “Officer for Officer, soldier for soldier” &c. which are generally used in cartels,9 traitors would no more be included by the laws of nations than deserters. The carrying this resolution into practice can depend only on the will of the several states who in this respect must be presumed to be governed by principles of policy, of which they must necessarily be competent judges.10

With respect to the resolution concerning genl Lee, at his request, Congress are willing that you should wave his exchange for major general Prescot as a preliminary article; it is however their intention that no cartel be acceded to unless it be expressly admitted therein, that general Lee be exchanged for general Prescot.11

Congress have taken measures for purchasing such Articles of capt. Cotteneau’s cargo as are necessary for the Army.12

By order of Congress

Henry Laurens, President

LS, DLC:GW; Df, in William Duer’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 19; LB, DNA:PCC, item 13. The draft for this letter was submitted by a committee to Congress on 10 April, and the letter was debated and amended before the final text was approved on the afternoon of 13 April (see 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 , 10:314, 329–34, 342–44). Significant changes from the draft are indicated in the notes below. A notation on the letter-book copy indicates that the letter was carried by Levellin Barry. The letter was covered by another letter of this date from Laurens that reads: “Since my last of the 8th by Ross I have had the honour of presenting Your Excellency’s dispatch of the 10th to Congress, this together with the several Extracts of Letters which accompanied it, are referred to a Committee & remain subjects for consideration.

“Under Cover with this Your Excellency will receive a Letter of the present date signed by special order, to which I beg leave to refer” (ALS, DLC:GW).

1At this point the draft continued, “yet by Strictly attending to their Resolutions you will find they are founded in Humanity as well as Policy and invariably regard the Dignity Safety, and Independance of these States,” but that text was struck out and the sentence following (itself much revised) was added in Joseph Reed’s writing (see also 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 , 10:330).

2For the resolutions of 30 Mar., see Laurens to GW, 30 Mar. and note 2.

3A marginal notation on the draft in William Ellery’s writing suggests an alteration to the preceding phrase, but it was not adopted. The notation reads, “remove the difficulties with which you seem to be embarrassed” (see also ibid.).

4For this resolution, see Laurens to GW, 20 Dec. 1777, and note 1 to that document.

5On the draft the first part of this sentence originally read, “In a late Controversy between Genls Burgoyne and Heath on this Point, the former made the same Objections which occur’d to you; but on being reminded by Major Genl Heath of the alternative offered by the resolution.” For Gen. John Burgoyne’s objections, see his letter to Maj. Gen. William Heath of 5 Jan. in DNA:PCC, item 57.

6The preceding sentence was added to the draft as an amendment by William Duer (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 , 10:330–31).

7At this point the following text was stricken from the draft: “Congress however do not wish that a general Cartel should break off for want of a Strict Compliance with this Res: provided a Mode is adopted for Subsisting Prisoners, upon a Principle of Equality to the Contracting Parties, and are therefore willing to confide in your Prudence to settle finally this Matter.” The divided vote on the excision was recorded in the margin. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Georgia were in favor; Connecticut, Maryland, and South Carolina were opposed; Pennsylvania was divided; and New York and Virginia were not recorded although Duer of New York voted for and Francis Lightfoot Lee of Virginia voted against the change (see also ibid., 331).

8For the resolution of 30 Dec. 1777, see GW to Laurens, 4 April, and note 3 to that document. Congress had recommended in a resolution of 24 June 1776 that the state legislatures pass laws to punish those guilty of treason (see John Hancock to GW, 25 June 1776, and note 4 to that document; see also 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 , 5:475–76). For examples of state treason acts (passed by Virginia and Pennsylvania), see Hening, description begins William Waller Hening, ed. The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619. 13 vols. 1819–23. Reprint. Charlottesville, Va., 1969. description ends 9:168 and Pennsylvania Gazette [Philadelphia], 11 Sept. 1776 and 5 Mar. 1777.

9The preceding phrase was added in the margin of the draft.

10At this point four paragraphs were deleted from the draft and the paragraph following was substituted. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and North Carolina supported the change while Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Georgia opposed it. South Carolina was divided (Laurens opposed the change), and New York and Virginia not were recorded although both Duer and Lee opposed the change. The deleted text reads: “Congress are Concerned to find that an Absolute Exchange is agreed on for Lt. Colo. Campbell and Lt. Colo. Allen, and that Genl Lee is only permitted to come out on Parole. They will however suspend their Judgment in this Matter, ’till they are informed whether your Commissioners were acquainted with the Resolution of Congress of the 30th Ulto previous to such Agreement.

“The Intention of Congress in that Resolution was, That no Exchange (general or partial, absolute or Parole) should take Place, without the Order of Congress, ’till the Exchange of Genl Lee for Genl Prescot had been first made—Since Genl Howes Propositions for a General Exchange, they deem this Preliminary not only due in Justice to that unfortunate and deserving Officer; but essential to the Honor of these States—I am therefore directed to inform you that it is the Unalterable Determination of Congress that unless this Point is acceded to; all further Negotiation whether for a general or Partial Exchange (except in Cases to be submitted to the Opinion of Congress) should cease, It being in their Opinion more Eligible that no Cartel should take Place, than that the Honor of these States Should be Sullied, and their Wisdom impeachd by releasing those Officers, whom it is well known, the Enemy have been long anxious to procure, and leaving Genl Lee and others, whom they wish to detain, and whose Services o⟨u⟩r Country requires, at the Disposal of a Merciless Enemy.

“Congress cannot but think that the Exchange of Genl Lee should precede (not follow) the Releasment of Colo. Campbell and the Hessian Field Officers; especially that of the latter, who were made Prisoners subsequent to Genl Lee’s Capture; and it is their Expectation, if the Exchange of Colo. Campbell is not so far concluded as to oblige you to comply with it, it may not take Place ’till General Lee is absolutely Exchanged for Genl Prescot.

“I am further directed, sir, by Congress to inform you, that in their Opinion, the late Conduct, and Correspondence of General Howe render a Strict Attention to the Support of the Dignity of these Free and Indep. States at this Time peculiarly necessary; and that they esteem that Dignity Injured by permitting the Enemy’s Officers Prisoners with us to go in on Parole, before ours are sent out: a Practice not only repugnant to the ⟨European⟩ Nations, but admitting an Imputation of a want of good Faith on our Part, and of a Perfect Confidence in an Enemy, whom we cannot trust; and on this Account Studiously to be avoided: they therefore ⟨do⟩ubt not from your Zeal f⟨or th⟩e Honor of these States, but you will pay a Strict Attention to this Matter in future, as nothing can tend to Sink us both in our own Estimation, and in that of all the World than a patient Submission to that Insolent Superiority, which our Enemies affect in carrying on this War” (see also 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 , 10:332–33).

11This paragraph, which was substituted for the four paragraphs deleted from the draft, was written on a separate sheet of paper where it was much revised. It refers to the resolution of 30 Mar. (see Laurens to GW, 30 Mar., n.2).

12For these measures, see 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 , 10:298, and GW to Denis-Nicolas Cottineau de Kerloguen, 4 April, n.2.

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