Thomas Jefferson Papers

Resolution on the Case of General Sullivan, [29 July 1776]

Resolution on the Case of General Sullivan

[29 July 1776]

Resolved that the former determinations of Congress to pass by rank and seniority on necessary occasions in order to avail their country of superior talents and experience were entered into on mature deliberation as being absolutely requisite for the salvation of these states, the armies of which, tho’ large, were embodied on sudden emergencies, and were of necessity in some instances entrusted to the command of persons who, having seen no military duty, could only be appointed from a hope of their fitness: that a scrupulous regard to seniority is condemned by the practice of the wisest republics, in their most virtuous ages; whose citizens, breathing the pure spirit of patriotism, untainted by pride of rank, or avarice of pay, took their post wherever placed, and changed it whenever required, contented to exert their endeavors in any station to save their country.

That the Congress however, tho’ they mean to reserve the right of their constituents to pass by seniority when their safety requires it, did not consider themselves as exercising that right in the instance of which General Sullivan complains. That Mr. Gates was appointed Adjutant General with the rank of Brigadier General on the 17th day of June 1774.1 That on the 22d. day of the same month eight others were appointed Brigadiers General; and being appointed by the same vote, it became necessary to settle their precedence among themselves, for which purpose their names were arranged and numbered in the vote of appointment, and among these Mr. Sullivan was named and numbered as the seventh Brigadier General. That it never was the idea of Congress, by this enumeration, to oust General Gates of that precedence which their previous appointment had meant to give him; and of this they had hoped Genl. Sullivan could not be ignorant, as he was then a member of Congress, was present during the transaction, and contributed by his own vote to place Genl. Gates in a senior station. That therefore, in the late appointment of Genl. Gates to be a Major General, the Congress proceeded and meant to proceed according to Seniority.

That the relinquishment of his command by General Sullivan in the face of an enemy, which2 he desires may not be imputed to fear, this house does not wish to derive from that motive. They believed him brave, and therefore appointed him.3

Resolved that General Sullivan’s resignation be accepted.

Dft (DLC). This MS, entirely in TJ’s hand, is really five documents or parts thereof, embracing a wide variety of subjects from the description of a horse stall to a fragment of the Declaration of Independence. It consists of three half sheets or six pages, on which are the following: (1) rough draft of the Report on the case of General Sullivan, p. 1 and top of p. 3; (2) fragment of resolutions of Congress on treatment of American prisoners by the British, 17 June 1776, p. 2 (see Report of the Committee on the Cedars Cartel under that date); (3) Fragment of the Composition Draft of the Declaration of Independence (q.v., above), bottom of p. 3; (4) pencilled dimensions and description of a stall in Governor Penn’s stable, p. 4 (see Kimball, Jefferson, Architect, plate 60-a drawing and notes made from these pencilled memoranda); (5) a fair copy of the Report on General Sullivan, p. 5–6; the last is the text followed here. The date of 29 July is assigned because that is the date on which Jefferson expected to present the Resolution; actually it was never presented, but it was written sometime between 26 and 29 July.

Sullivan, disgruntled because General Gates had been made a major general and had been given command of the Northern Army, presented his letter of resignation to Congress on 26 July 1776, but, on the advice of friends, he withdrew it and TJ therefore did not present this “proper rap of the knuckles” (TJ to R. H. Lee, 29 July 1776). Sullivan’s letter is not to be found in the Papers of the Continental Congress, but the Washington Papers contain a copy of his letter to Schuyler, 6 July 1776, outlining his reasons for resigning (see Washington, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, v, 296–7; Burnett, Letters of Members, II, No. 47; JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, ed. W. C. Ford and others, Washington, 1904–1937 description ends , v, 612–13, where references to Sullivan on 26 and 29 July are expunged).

1Both in the rough draft and in the fair copy TJ erred in the date; it should be 17 June 1775. The resolution of 22 June appointing Sullivan a brigadier general and naming him seventh on the list was, however, ambiguous: that is, it stipulated that “the number of Brigadier generals be augmented to eight” (italics supplied), though eight were named and Gates had already been named (JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, Washington, D.C., 1904–37, 34 vols. description ends , ii, 97, 103).

2The words “however unprecedented” are deleted in the fair copy though not in rough draft.

3The sentence “He now desires to resign, they therefore accept his resignation” deleted in fair copy, though not in rough draft.

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