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To George Washington from Henry Laurens, 31 July 1778

From Henry Laurens

[Philadelphia] 31st July [1778]

I Am this minute favor’d with Your Excellency’s very obliging Letter of the 24th.

The British Commissioners, for, in the Act of one, there is good ground for charging the whole, having by various means attempted to bribe Congress1 and thereby offer’d the highest possible affront to the Representatives of a virtuous, Independent People, are in my humble opinion rendered wholly unworthy of the further regard of Congress in their Ambassadorial character.

Viewing them in this light I have been from the first reading of their last Address2 under that kind of anxiety which had possessed my Mind when there was some cause for apprehending that General Burgoyne and his Troops would have slipt thro’ our fingers into New York or Philadelphia, an anxiety to which I am a stranger, except in such momentous concerns.

I have for several days past urged my friends to move Congress for a Resolve that they will hold no conference with such Men, assigning reasons in ample, decent terms—to transmit the Act by a flag to the Commissioners, and make them the bearers of their own indictment; they will not dare to withhold the Resolve of Congress from their Court. Thence it will soon descend to the Public at large, and expose themselves and their Prompters to the just resentment of a deluded and much injured Nation, whose deplorable circumstances I must confess deeply affects my heart. These Commissioners will be also held up in scorn at every Court in Europe, and finally be transmitted to Posterity in Characters which will mark their Memory with Infamy.

An immediate display of the intended bargain and sale will discourage the impudent, polemic Writers on American Affairs in London, or, invalidate their bold assertions and give force to the declarations of Congress.

If we leave the story to be related after Governor Johnstone’s departure from this Continent, he will confidently deny the fact and how few in the World will be thenceforward well informed? Attack him Letters in hand upon the spot, his guilt will be fix’d from his own confession, for he cannot deny.3

I am not commonly tenacious of my own Ideas, but in the present, as in the former case, I feel as if I clearly perceived many good effects which will be produced by a proper Act on our part—justice is due to our own Characters, to the present age of America and future Generations will with much satisfaction dwell in history upon the transactions of Congress with these corrupt insidious Emissaries.

If a predilection to my fellow Citizens when standing in competition with strangers, of no more than equal merit, be criminal, I must own myself not free from guilt.

From habit I am disposed to give countenance to strangers, and I have besides, endeavoured, for obvious reasons, to be civil to such French Gentlemen as have called upon me, hence my conduct had been mistaken, and I discover’d at a certain time that my friends had expressed doubts whether my courtesy had not been carried to excess—I had the happiness soon to convince them that good manners and plain dealing were not incompatible—upon this occasion I intreat Your Excellency will excuse the freedom which I take of sending with this, extracts of Letters written by me in answer to applications from foreign Gentlemen for employment and promotion in the Army;4 the same sentiments have always governed my replies in private oral importunities, I have carefully avoided amusing or flattering any of them.

I have often regretted the hesitation and indecision of our Representatives; on some occasions, and perhaps as often, their precipitancy on others respecting foreign Officers—as a free Citizen I hold myself warranted to speak with decent freedom of the conduct of those whom I have appointed my Attornies, respectful animadversion tends to produce reformation.

From the fluctuations which I allude to, have sprung, to speak in the mildest terms, many inconveniencies, Your Excellency’s experience may call them Evils. The dilemma to which we are now reduced in the case of the elder Lanuville, is one instance; if encouragements, tantamount to promises are of any weight, this Gentleman must receive a Brevet to rank Brigadier General the middle of next Month—at his first arrival he presented a Memorial in which was set forth the vast expence which had attended his voyage and journey to York Town. He solicited the grade above mentioned or an immediate negative; intimating that in the latter case he would return to his own Country—a direct Answer was not return’d, he was amused from time to time: an increase of expence and the plea of flattering hopes strengthned his claim. At length he was put into a state of probation.5 Certificates which he produced of his abilities and assiduities in the character of “Inspector of the Northern Army” were expressed in terms somewhat higher than merely favorable—I eyed the paper signed by General Parsons with some degree of jealousy as I read it, but it did not become me to paraphrase, and it passed unnoticed by every body else. On this ground I have said, he must obtain the Brevet in a few days;6 you would smile Sir, if I were to repeat the principle upon which the delay is founded. This Gentleman is now gone with an intention to act as a Volunteer in the suite of Marquis de la Fayette, and if I understand him, he means soon to return to France.

The Younger de lanuville your Excellency is informed has obtained a Brevet to rank Major, what title had he to this promotion? Were I to draw the Gentleman into comparison with Major Gibbs and many other worthy Officers, I should answer, none. But he has only a Brevet. Your Excellency is appriz’d of the restrictions on that kind of Commission by an Act of Congress of the 30th of April and I trust the good sense of my Countrymen will lead them to reflect and distinguish properly, and to make some allowances.7

Your Excellency will discover in one or more of the extracts the strong desire of French Gentlemen for printed Commissions. I dont know what peculiar advantage they might have had in view, but in opposition to them and even to some attempts here, I have always confin’d myself to the mode of a simple Certificate in pursuance of the Resolve of Congress referr’d to in each case.

In the first conversation I had the honor of holding with Monsr Girard; with a view of learning what reception those French Gentlemen had met, who had return’d some 8 or 9 months ago, murmuring and dissatisfied to France; I took occasion to signify my concern for the disappointment which some of them had suffer’d, and in honor of Congress made brief recitals of Commissions granted to many French Officers now in the Army, observing that it had been impossible to gratify the wishes of every one for promotion. Mr Girard reply’d, His Court had seen with pain so many Frenchmen applying for permission to resort to the American Army, and that very few had receiv’d encouragements; the Court were sensible that crowds of foreigners pressing for Commissions would tend to embarrass Congress, that since his arrival at Philada he had been solicited in many instances for recommendations, every one of which, he had refused to listen to, and added, I might rest satisfied, Congress would never be troubled with Petitions under his auspices.8 In this sensible declaration methinks I discern sound Policy, be that as it may it will in some measure relieve Congress—I most earnestly wish our noble friend the Marquis could be persuaded to adopt the determinations of Monsr Girard.

Very soon after I shall have the pleasure of conversing with Baron Stüben, his pursuits in the journey to Court will be known to me. I shall be equally explicit on my part, and your Excellency shall be as candidly informed, if it shall appear to be necessary.

On Thursday the sixth of August Congress will receive Monsr Girard in his public character. Your Excellency will find within, copies of the intended Address of the Minister and Answer of the Representatives of the thirteen United States of America—speaking as a Citizen I cannot forbear disclosing to you, Sir, that there is a reluctance in my Mind to acknowledgments of obligation or of generosity where benefits have been, to say the least, reciprocal—this opinion has not been form’d since I read the Address and Answer, as I am warranted to say from the Extract of a Letter to Monsr Du Portail.9

After hours of disputation shall be exausted the point will remain moot.

Among other papers I take the liberty of inclosing copy of a curious performance of Mr Maduit which is believed to be genuine.10 If he is not delirious in the present time, his friends must conclude that he was raving from 1774 to the commencment of the present Year, time employed by him in dinning the Coffee houses with his cries against the Inhabitants of these States and against their Claims, down with America! I will not further presume on Your Excellency’s moments but to repeat that I continue with the most sincere and respectful attachment and the highest Esteem. Sir Your Excellency’s &c.

LB, ScHi: Henry Laurens Papers. A note on the letter-book copy indicates that this letter was carried “by Ross.”

1For the charge that British commissioner George Johnstone had attempted to bribe congressmen Joseph Reed and Robert Morris to support the British peace proposals, see Laurens to GW, 13 Aug, n.6.

2For the British commissioners’ letter to Laurens of 11 July, see Laurens to GW, 18 July, n.3.

3The preceding two paragraphs were written at the end of the letter-book copy and marked by Laurens for placement here.

4The enclosed extracts have not been identified.

5Louis-Pierre Penot Lombart, chevalier de La Neuville, had requested a commission from Congress in late January 1778, but Congress did not act until 14 May, when they resolved to employ him as inspector general for the northern army, with a promise “that Congress will be disposed, after an experience of his services … for the space of three months, to confer on him such rank as his merits may justly entitle him to” ( 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 , 11:498–500).

6A copy of the certificate of Brig. Gen. Samuel Holden Parsons, dated 21 June, is in DNA:PCC, item 41. The Board of War reported to Congress on 29 July that La Neuville should receive a brevet commission as brigadier general, but consideration was postponed. It was not until 14 Oct. that Congress voted to give him the commission, dated 14 Aug. (see ibid., 11:728, 12:1010).

7Congress voted on 29 July to give René-Hippolyte Penot Lombart de Noirmont de La Neuville a brevet commission as major (ibid., 11:728–29). Congress’s resolution of 30 April specified that a brevet commission gave rank “only upon detachments from the line, and in general courts martial,” conveying neither extra pay nor any higher rank in the unit to which the breveted officer belonged (ibid., 10:410).

8At about this time Gérard wrote to the French foreign minister that he saw a spirit of pretension and discontent in almost all the French officers that he had occasion to see. He added, “J’ai beaucoup à travailler pour persuader à quelques uns de ces M[essieu]rs que l’objet principal de ma mission n’est pas de solliciter des grades pour eux” (Gérard to Vergennes, 3 Aug., in Meng, Despatches of Gérard description begins John J. Meng, ed. Despatches and Instructions of Conrad Alexandre Gérard, 1778–1780: Correspondence of the First French Minister to the United States with the Comte de Vergennes. Baltimore, 1939. description ends , 197).

9The enclosed copies have not been identified. Gé rard sent a copy of his address to Congress on 16 July, and Congress approved a draft for the reply on 30 July ( 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 , 11:695, 730, 733). For the texts delivered on 6 Aug., see ibid., 11:754–57. Laurens had expressed in a letter to Duportail of 20 May his objection “to the stress which you seem to lay on the sense of obligation which ought to be acknowledged by these States” to France ( Laurens Papers description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends , 13:334–36).

10Israel Mauduit (1708–1787), a London businessman and political pamphleteer known in part for his support of parliamentary authority and rejection of colonial claims to charter rights, had published anonymously in March 1778 a handbill that argued that French support of the American cause meant “All hope of conquest is therefore over … We have no possible chance of making peace with her, but by an immediate act of parliament, giving her perfect independence.” Mauduit contended that “If we pretend to retain any authority over them, we immediately throw them into the arms of France,” while by granting American independence, England could prevent America’s “close alliance” with France and might avoid war with France altogether. Immediate independence would leave England with a “full share” of the American trade, while in a long war the Americans would “be totally Gallicized, and estranged from us.” A copy of the handbill sent by Arthur Lee, who stated that it was “written by Mr. Mauduit, under the direction of Lord North, and circulated through England by order of Administration,” was printed in the Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser (Philadelphia), 22 August.

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