Motion on Exchange of Prisoners of War
Printed text (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 893).
[22 August 1781]
On motion of Mr. [James] Madison, seconded by Mr. [Edmund] Randolph,
Resolved, That in case General Burgoyne shall have been exchanged for the honble Henry Laurens, credit shall be given for the officers which may be received for him in the general exchange, authorised by the resolution of the 21st.1
1. This motion was merely an episode in the long-extended effort of Congress to effect the release of Henry Laurens, agent of the United States to the Netherlands, from the Tower of London, in which he had been imprisoned on 6 October 1780, about a month after his capture at sea (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (2 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , II, 226, n. 5; Burnett, Letters description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (8 vols.; Washington, 1921–36). description ends , VI, 45, n. 2). On 14 June 1781, over the opposition of JM and like-minded delegates, Congress empowered Benjamin Franklin in Paris to offer to release General John Burgoyne, then a prisoner of war on parole in England, in exchange for Laurens. On the same day Congress selected Laurens to be one of the five ministers plenipotentiary to negotiate a treaty of peace with Great Britain (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XX, 647–48; Notes from Secret Journal, 9–15 June 1781, n. 5). On 21 August Congress authorized Washington “to go into a full exchange of Lieutenant General Burgoyne, and all the remaining officers of the Convention of Saratoga” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 889; Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, 1931–44). description ends , XXIII, 66–67).
By adopting JM’s present motion, Congress was providing against the contingency of Franklin’s exchanging Burgoyne for Laurens at the same time Burgoyne might be exchanged for American military personnel by provisions of a cartel effected by Washington and Clinton. In that event, the Americans would still “owe” the stipulated number of soldiers for which they then would have made no exchange. This would constitute a British “credit,” to be discharged by releasing other enemy captives, either on hand or to be taken in the future. Although Franklin failed to effect the exchange, Laurens was liberated on bail from the Tower on 31 December 1781 and completely freed about four months later (Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, 1889). description ends , V, 454–56). The “general exchange” mentioned in JM’s motion embraced merely the convention prisoners. Article VII of the Treaty of Paris of 1783 would provide that “all prisoners on both sides shall be set at liberty.” See Motion for Reprisal, 3 December 1781.