George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Brockholst Livingston, 16 June 1782

Elizabeth Town 16th June 1782


Considering the various and important objects of your Excellency’s constant attention, it is with the greatest reluctance I prevail upon myself to engage it a single moment by any thing not of some immediate public consequence; yet such is my present Situation that I flatter myself your Excy will pardon my freedom in requesting your Attention to it.

On the 11th of March last I sailed from Cadiz, & was taken by an English frigate the 25th of the month following. At New York I was committed to the Provost, and continued in it until the arrival of Sir Guy Carleton who liberated me on parole—Having been absent from America on furlough, without exceeding the term thereof, and having a Lieut. Colonels Commission in pocket, I did not think there could be any impropriety in signing a parole as such, and in being exchanged accordingly. But on perusing the Journals of Congress, I find by Resolutions passed the 31st of Decr 81, and 21st Jany 82—that I am among those Officers who are considered as retiring from Service on half pay, the first day of the present year. Those Resolves your Excy will readily beleive I must have been a perfect Stranger to at the time of my capture, neither of them having had time to reach Madrid when I came away, which was on the seventh of february last—This circumstance will, I trust, exculpate me from any censure, and will induce your Excellency to permit me to be considered as a Lieut. Colonel in any future Exchange agreeable to the tenor of my parole.

I cannot conclude without taking notice of that part of Sir Guy Carleton’s first letter to your Excellency, in which he appears to make a merit of my enlargement, and to think himself entitled therefor to some return on the part of your Excellency—Lest this circumstance may induce a suspicion, that some part of my conduct, while in confinement, may have given the Enemy reason to beleive that I considered my liberation in the light of a favor, or took improper steps to obtain it, I think it incumbent on me to lay before your Excy a narrative of what passed on that Occasion.

Immediately on landing at New-York, Mr Sproat informed me, on the part of General Robertson, that I was to be confined in the Provost, and Mr Chief Justice Smith was sent thither to apologize for my being treated in that manner—I told Mr Smith that throwing a person into a common Jail merely on suspicion of his being the Bearer of important dispatches, appeared to me an unprecedented and a very extraordinary measure, but that as it could answer no purpose to enter into an altercation with him, I should write to General Robertson himself on the Subject; and on pen, ink & paper being brought me I wrote him a letter, of which the inclosed is a copy.

In answer thereto, the General sent me a polite message by Major Wymms, the purport of which was that "reasons of state rendered my confinement necessary, but that I might rest assured it would be of very short duration"—The Major concluded by apologizing for my not receiving a written answer, the General’s Time being wholly engrossed by very pressing business—Major Wymms had scarcely retired, when Captain Cunningham the Provost–Marshal, mentioned to me for the first time, Lippincott’s situation, and what had passed between your Excy and Sir Henry Clinton on that subject—He did not seem to speak from authority, but gave me to understand, as politely as he could, that it might be well for me to interest myself on the occasion, as it was impossible to say, to what lengths retaliation might be carried in case your Excy should execute the threat you had thrown out—I was not then apprized of all the circumstances relative to the murder of Captain Huddy, but had I been a total stranger to your Excellency’s character, Cunningham’s own state of the matter must have convinced me of the perfect propriety of your requisition—I told him so and (after laughing at the Idea of any Interest of mine or of my friends being sufficient to induce your Excellency to recede from so just a demand) promised to comply with his request, provided he would first engage to transmit to your Excellency whatever I might think proper to write on the matter—He replied Genl Robertson must first see it—This convinced me, it would be useless to write, from a certainty that my letter would not correspond with his wishes, & of course not be forwarded—I set down however & wrote what is enclosed to my Father.

I had now determined to make no further application to General Robertson, nor did I hear any thing more from Head-Quarters until the arrival of Sir Guy Carleton, who sent for me without my applying to him either verbally or by letter—On being introduced to his Excellency he informed me, in the presence of Mr Smith, of his being much surprized at hearing of my confinement, & very happy to have it in his power so soon to put a period to it—Without leaving time to reply, he acquainted me with his Intention to send his Secretary with a complimentary letter to Congress, and begged of me in order to facilitate Mr Morgan’s Journey to accept of a seat in his carriage—After thanking him for his Attention, I asked whether Mr Morgan had permission from Congress or your Excy to proceed to Philada & on being answered in the negative, told him that I recollected Mr Ferguson’s having been stopped on a like errand for want of such passport, and that Mr Morgan would probably be obliged to return should he undertake the Journey without one. He said the Idea was perfectly new to him; he did not conceive any necessity of a flags being furnished with a passport, and if so in Mr Ferguson’s case, my going with his secretary must supersede that necessity in the present one. I observed to him that his Excy must allow there was a wide difference between sending a military flag to an out-post of our army, & sending a person in Mr Morgan’s character thro’ so great a part of the Country to Philadelphia, and that without such a pass I must beg leave to decline the pleasure I should otherwise derive from travelling in that Gentleman’s company. Sir Guy then proposed that his Secretary & myself should go together, and in case of the former’s being stopped, I was to proceed with his dispatches to Congress. This also I refused, telling him, that as it was probable his letters contained some Overtures, I could not consent to charge myself with them, unless his Excellency would assure me they contained an acknowledgment of our Independence, or a promise to withdraw their fleets and armies—That these were the only terms on which Congress had agreed to open a treaty in 78, and that it was not probable they would listen to any thing short thereof now. He seemed somewhat surprized, & after a little hesitation assured me upon his honor that he was vested with no such Powers. that his intended letter to Congress was a matter of mere compliment but if there was any danger of Mr Morgans meeting with difficulties, he would postpone his journey until he could hear from your Excy on the subject. This closed our conversation for that day—The next morning agreeable to his desire, I waited on him again—He received me very politely—talked much of the King’s pacific dispositions, of his own earnest desire of an honorable peace—of his wishes to carry on the war, while it did prevail, more consonant to the dictates of humanity than heretofore he was persuaded of meeting with corresponding sentiments in your Excy that both Countries were interested in supporting the british character that if England & America must separate, it would be their mutual Interest to part like men of honor, & in good humour with each other—After a great deal more to the same purpose, he informed me a barge was ready to take me to Elizabeth-Town—He then put into my hands a letter for my father, some English prints, with a few copies of the Bill & the votes of the house of Commons which he said should be transmitted to your Excellency by another flag—After signing a parole I took my leave.

I hope your Excellency will forgive my having been so very prolix on this occasion, as nothing but an idea of it’s being my duty has led me to be circumstantial in every thing that passed between the Commander in chief and myself during my captivity in New York. I have the honor to be, with the highest Respect, Your Excellency’s Most Obedient and very Humble Servant

Henry Brockholst Livingston

DLC: Papers of George Washington.


Copy of a Letter from Lieut. Collo. Livingston to General Robertson dated from the Provost in New-York 2nd May 82.

2 May 1782


As your Excellency has thought proper to give an order for my being confined in the Provost, without honoring me with an Interview, I trust You will excuse the liberty I take of trespassing upon your time by committing to paper my sentiments on this proceeding—Confinement, however irksome after a tedious Sea-voyage of eight weeks, I should have borne without repining, or troubling you with a request for enlargement, had not the verbal Apology, accompanying the Warrant for my Commitment, been of such a nature, as to render silence on my part, as culpable, as I conceive the message to have been indelicate on yours. Mr Sproat, Chief-Justice Smith, & Captain Cunningham have informed me, that the reason, which weighed most with your Excellency on this Occasion, was a beleif of my being charged with dispatches for Congress from their Minister at the Court of Madrid, & that altho’ I may have been prudent enough to destroy those papers, yet being in the secret myself, I might, if admitted to Parole on Long-Island or elsewhere, find means of conveying to that honorable body very important information on the subject of their Negotiations at the spanish Court—There was a period in the American Contest, when I should not have been surprized at your sending an American Officer to this place without troubling him or yourself with an apology for such a Step: but at present, when all hopes of distressing America into submission are lain aside, and you have conceived an excuse necessary, I could wish some one had been thought of less grating to the feelings of a Soldier than the one you have adopted. Allowing myself to have been really entrusted with the dispatches you suppose, which is by no means certain, & that I am also knowing to their contents, which is likewise doubtful, I cannot refrain from expressing my surprize that a Gentleman of your Excellency’s standing in the Army, did not prevent by a more certain method the communication of such knowledge, than by confining the Bearer thereof to a Provost; for give me leave to remind your Excellency that, circumspect as you may wish to appear on this occasion, you have left open the only door possible for the Communication in question. It is true, a prison does not furnish many opportunities for the transmission of Intelligence, yet rare as those are, a Communication is more likely to take place than where an Officer pledges his honor for secrecy. This circumstance induces me to doubt of your having been candid enough to furnish me with all the reasons of my being treated in this manner, especially as the attention which the Officers of the United States have ever paid to their engagements with your army, allows of but very slender foundation for distrust in the present case. I must further observe that my confinement appears to me the more extraordinary at a time when many British Officers, Prisoners to the United States, are on parole in this City—I would not be thought to insinuate any thing like retaliation, nor will a regard for humanity permit me to wish, let my confinement be ever so long, that any Gentleman of your army, now at liberty, be a sufferer by it; but your Excellency well knows that the regard, which it is the duty of every State to pay to the Sufferings of those in allegiance to it, may sometimes induce such a measure however repugnant it be to the dictates of humanity.

I ought perhaps to ask pardon for taking up so much of your Excellency’s time at a moment when your succession to the Command in chief of the army must require all your attention. Permit me only to add that in asking to be admitted to parole, I do not conceive myself solliciting a favor, so much as insisting on a right founded on the uniform humanity & indulgence which has been so universally extended by the United States to the Officers of his Britannic Majesty whom the fortune of war has placed in their power. I have the honor to be Your Excys most obedt & Hble Servant

Henry Brockholst Livingston

Lt Collo. in the army of the U. States of No. America.


Copy of a Letter from Henry B. Livingston to Govr Livingston dated Provost in New York 3 May 82.

3 May 1782

My dear Sir,

If You have received my letter by the Commerce You already know of my leaving Cadiz on the 11th of March last. The 25th of the month following I was taken by the Quebec frigate, & yesterday by Genl Robertson’s order committed to the Provost of this City. I have taken the liberty to remonstrate with that Gentleman on this measure—Enclosed You have a Copy of my letter to him. I hope you will think it conceived in spirited & at the same time in decent terms. Whether it will work out my release I cannot tell—It has been hinted to me by the Provost-Marshal, and perhaps you will hear it, that I shall not be set at liberty, until Lippencott’s affair be settled, and that if Genl Washington puts his threat into Execution, I may be thought a proper subject for retaliation—I laugh at this Insinuation, and am so fully persuaded of the justice of our General’s Conduct on this occasion, that did I beleive any thing of the kind would be mentioned to him, I would Entreat him myself to pay no attention to it—On this I am determined, that let what will happen, I will never stoop so low as to ask the smallest favor at their hands, and could I beleive that my letter to General Robertson could be considered in that light, I would rather have burnt than sent it—Pray give yourself no uneasiness on my account—I must do Capt. Cunningham the Justice to say that he does every thing in his power to render my situation comfortable. Mr & Mrs Jay are well—Sally had another daughter in February. I am my dr Sir Your dutiful Son

Henry B. Livingston

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