George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Laurens, 24–25 April 1778

From Henry Laurens

York Town [Pa.] 24[–25]th Ap: 1778


Since my last of the 18th Inst. by a Messenger returning to Govr Livingston I have had the honor of presenting to Congress Your Excellency’s Letter of the 20th.

Your Excellency will be pleased to receive under the present Cover.

  • 1. An Act of Congress of 21st Ap. approving the conduct of the Commissioners appointed by Your Excellency to treat with British Commissioners for Exchange of Prisoners &c.1
  • 2. for granting Pardons & recommending to the several States to enact Laws for that purpose—(dated 23d).2
  • 3. of the 23d renewing the powers formerly vested in Your Excellency & extending the term to 10th August next.3
  • 4. Copy of Instructions to Major General Gates appointed to Command the Forces in the Northern department.4
  • 5. of the 22d contained in a pennsylvania Gazette confirming the Report of a Committee on Your Excellency’s Letter of the 18th.5

In a seperate packet will be found about fifty Copies of the last mentioned Act which Your Excellency will be pleased to disperse in such manner as shall appear best for accomplishing the good purposes intended.

A Packet containing about 200. hundred Copies of the Act for pardons, these if I understand Congress for I have received no special direction, are to be dispersed at proper opportunities in the City of Philadelphia & wherever else good effects may be expected—Congress taking for granted that each State will enact a proper Law under the present recommendation. there will probably be a further quantity in the German Tongue sent from Lancaster. I have the honor to be With the highest Esteem & Regard Sir Your Excellency’s Most obedient & humble servant

Henry Laurens, President of Congress.

25th late last Night Your Excellency’s favor of the 23d together with the sundry Papers referred to reached me & shall be presented to Congress this Morning—Your Excellency’s Letter to General Lee shall be immediately dispatched to the General in Virginia6 General Gates intimates to me his determination to wait General Lee’s return to York & with him to proceed to Valley forge.

ALS, DLC:GW; LB, DNA:PCC, item 13. A faint notation below the dateline of the ALS reads, “Copd.” A notation on the letter-book copy indicates the letter was sent “by McClosky.”

1In addition to approving the conduct of GW’s commissioners for prisoner exchange, Congress also “Resolved, That Congress are sincerely desirous of settling a cartel for the exchange of prisoners on principles of justice, humanity and mutual advantage, & agreeable to the customary rules and practice of war among civilized nations; and that they lament the obstacles raised by genl Howe & his commissioners during the neg[o]tiations held for this desirable purpose” (DLC:GW; 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 , 10:369–71).

2In order to “reclaim” those who had been “induced” by “persuasion and influence, the example of the deluded or wicked, the fear of danger or the calamities of war” to join or aid the British forces and who were “desirous of returning to their duty” but “deterred by the fear of punishment,” Congress “recommended” that the state legislatures pass laws or the state executives issue proclamations offering pardons to those “who shall surrender themselves to any civil or military officer of any of these States & shall return to the State to which they may belong, before the 10th day of June next” and further recommended “to the good & faithful citizens of these States to receive such returning penitents with compassion and mercy, and to forgive and bury in oblivion their past failings and transgressions.” Congress also “desired” GW “to take such measures, as he shall deem most effectual, for circulating the foregoing recommendation amongst the American levies in the enemy’s army” (DLC:GW; see also ibid., 381–82). Laurens wrote on the enclosed copy, “please to see the printed Copies the language a little mended.” Although the text published in the Pennsylvania Gazette (York) of 2 May differs slightly from that sent to GW and printed in the congressional journal, the changes do not affect the substance.

3This resolution extended “the powers vested in general Washington by the resolutions of the 17th Septr 8th Octr & 10th December 1777” (DLC:GW; 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 , 384).

4The instructions to Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, dated 20 April, read: “In appointing you to the command of the several posts on Hudson’s river and in the northern department, Congress repose themselves with confidence in your abilities, and expect that you will prevent, if possible, the enemy from possessing themselves of that river, and protect the frontiers against incursions of the savages and others from Canada and the northern and western parts of the State of New York. As it is impossible to foresee what circumstances may arise, you are by our resolutions impowered to call for such numbers of militia as you may think proper. But you are to consider, that the militia are very expensive, that the country always suffers by taking off the husbandmen from their labor, and that calling out the militia will greatly impede the completion of the continental regiments, which is an object of the utmost importance. You will therefore use caution in the exercise of the power committed to you as aforesaid.

“There is reason to apprehend that the main army will not be subsisted during the ensuing campaign without great difficulty—And as the supplies of flesh must be brought chiefly from the eastern side of Hudson river, the possession of that river becomes on that account the more important. You are therefore not on any account to stop the supplies which may be from time to time sent forward for the main army, since by so doing the arrangements of the commissary general may be destroyed to the distress of the main army and the great detriment of the public service.

“As it may facilitate general Washington’s operations to make a diversion on the side of New York, so also the getting together a great number of men for that purpose may disable him from or impede his acting by consuming the necessary supplies of provisions, military stores and the like you are not therefore to undertake any expedition against New York without previously consulting the commander in chief.

“And as circumstances may call for considerable reinforcements to the main army, so you are from time to time to send forward such of the continental troops as may be ordered by general Washington, and on the other hand, should you want a reinforcement of continental troops you are to apply to the general who will send them if they can be spared with propriety from his army.

“Congress having required general Washington to call a council of war to consist of the major generals and chief engineer now in this State and with their advice to form a plan of operations for the ensuing campaign, you are at liberty to govern yourself according to such plan, notwithstanding any thing in the aforegoing instructions and are to conform to the same as far as your circumstances and situation may admit.

“You will during your command when convenient confer with governor Clinton from time to time and take his advice and assistance in the business recommended to you” (DLC:GW).

5Laurens enclosed the Pennsylvania Gazette (York) of 24 April, containing the unanimously approved report on the two bills offered in Parliament that GW had enclosed to Laurens in his letter of 18 April (see note 6 to that document). The committee reported “That the said paper being industriously circulated by the emissaries of the enemy, in a partial and secret manner, the same ought to be forthwith printed for the public information.

“The Committee cannot ascertain whether the contents of the said paper have been framed in Philadelphia or in Great-Britain, much less whether the same are really and truly intended to be brought into the Parliament of that kingdom, or whether the said Parliament will confer thereon the usual solemnities of their laws. But are inclined to believe this will happen, for the following reasons.

“1st. Because their General hath made divers feeble efforts to set on foot some kind of treaty during the last winter. . . .

“2dly. Because they suppose that the fallacious idea of a cessation of hostilities will render these States remiss in their preparations for war.

“3dly. Because believing the Americans wearied with war, they suppose we will accede to their terms for the sake of peace.

“4thly. Because they suppose that our negotiations may be subject to a like corrupt influence with their debates.

“5thly. Because they expect . . . that it will prevent foreign powers from giving aid to these States; that it will lead their own subjects to continue a little longer the present war; and that it will detach some weak men in America from the cause of freedom and virtue.

“6thly. Because their King . . . hath reason to apprehend that his fleets and armies . . . will be necessary for the defence of his own dominions. And,

“7thly. Because the impracticability of subjugating this country being every day more and more manifest, it is their interest to extricate themselves from the war upon any terms.”

The committee went on to observe that the British overtures showed their weakness because they receded from a demand “that the inhabitants of these States . . . should absolutely and unconditionally submit” to their authority, a submission that Britain had formerly “endeavoured to exact by the sword”; because the king, who “hath heretofore rejected the humblest petitions of the Representatives of America . . . and hath waged a most cruel war against them, and employed the savages to butcher innocent women and children” now “pretends to treat with those very Representatives”; because the British having previously rejected “every idea of accommodation proposed to them, from a confidence in their own strength. . . . it is evident, from the change in their mode of attack, that they have lost this confidence”; and because the offer contradicted “the constant language . . . that it is incompatible with their dignity to treat with the Americans while they have arms in their hands.”

The offer, the committee claimed, also showed the “wickedness and insincerity of the enemy.” The two bills either conceded American claims and thus “acknowledged that they have sacrificed many brave men in an unjust quarrel” or were “calculated to deceive America into terms, to which neither argument before the war, nor force since, could procure her assent.” The first bill offered nothing more than had been previously offered, a suspension of taxation, and because the bill was “a declaration of the intentions of the British Parliament concerning the exercise of the right of imposing taxes within these States. . . . should these States treat under the said bill, they would indirectly acknowledge that right.” If the right of taxation was thus acknowledged, it “might be exercised whenever the British Parliament should find themselves in a different temper and disposition.” The second bill purported to appoint commissioners to treat, but “such treaties and agreements are to be of no validity without the concurrence of the said Parliament. . . . Wherefore, the said Parliament have reserved to themselves, in express words, the power of setting aside any such treaty, and taking the advantage of any circumstances which may arise to subject this continent to their usurpations.” Moreover, the bill, “by holding forth a tender of pardon, implies a criminality in our justifiable resistance, and consequently, to treat under it would be an implied acknowledgment that the inhabitants of these States were, what Britain hath declared them to be, Rebels.” Since Britain held to her claim that the Americans were “subjects, they may infer . . . that the said inhabitants would of right be afterwards bound by such laws as they should make. Wherefore any agreement entered into on such negotiation might at any future time be repealed.” Finally, the bill allowed the commissioners to “treat with private individuals; a measure highly derogatory to the dignity of national character.

“From all which it appears evident to your Committee, that the said Bills are intended to operate upon the hopes and fears of the good people of these States, so as to create divisions among them, and a defection from the common cause, now, by the blessing of Divine Providence drawing near to a favourable issue. That they are the sequel of that insidious plan, which, from the days of the Stamp-act down to the present time, hath involved this country in contention and bloodshed.” Parliament will undoubtedly “upon the first favourable occasion, again display that lust of domination, which hath rent in twain the mighty empire of Britain.

“Upon the whole matter, the Committee beg leave to report it as their opinion, that as the Americans united in this arduous contest upon principles of common interest, for the defence of common rights and privileges, which union hath been cemented by common calamities and by mutual good offices and affection, so the great cause for which they contend, and in which all mankind are interested, must derive its success from the continuance of that union. Wherefore any men or body of men, who should presume to make any separate or partial convention or agreement with Commissioners under the crown of Great-Britain, or any of them, ought to be considered and treated as open and avowed enemies of these United States.

“And further your Committee beg leave to report it as their opinion, That these United States cannot, with propriety, hold any conference or treaty with any Commissioners on the part of Great-Britain, unless they shall, as a preliminary thereto, either withdraw their fleets and armies, or else, in positive and express terms, acknowledge the Independence of the said States.

“And inasmuch as it appears to be the design of the enemies of these States to lull them into a fatal security—to the end that they may act with a becoming weight and importance, it is the opinion of your Committee, That the several States be called upon to use the most strenuous exertions to have their respective quotas of continental troops in the field as soon as possible, and that all the militia of the said States be held in readiness to act as occasion may require” (DLC:GW; see also ibid., 374–80).

6Laurens probably is referring to GW’s letter to Charles Lee of 22 April.

Index Entries