George Washington Papers

To George Washington from James Duane, 9 December 1780

From James Duane


Philadelphia 9th December 1780.

My dear General.

I shou’d not so long have restrained the Expressions of a Heart flowing with the most affectionate and respectful Attachment if Care had not been taken to communicate our Intelligence officially. In the mean time I have never found it so necessary to devote my Attention to the publick business. Amidst pressing distresses it will give your Excellency pleasure to be assured that Congress have deliberated with Unanimity, and decided with firmness; and that every thing within their power is nearly accomplished for vigorous Efforts in the Course of the next year. If the States will draw forth their Resourses: If our Ally will seriously cooperate by assuming a Naval Superiority in the American Seas:1 If we are seasonably furnished with the Cloathing Arms and Ammunition which we have reason to expect: and obtain the Aid of money which we have once more attempted to borrow: If then Circumstances in any tolerable degree Combine, your Excellency will at last see a prospect, under the divine blessing of finishing the War with Glory. But it is obvious that we have many difficulties to encounter!

Government instead of possessing the Confidence and the Dignity necessary to enforce it’s Councils, is surrounded by clamorous Creditors and insidious Speculaters, and what is worse—the Intemperance of our Friends conspires with the malice of our Enemies to render it odious. Congress may err: they are not exempt from State and personal prejudices; they are liable to be deceived; but nothing is more certain than that in the common Cause their Intentions are pure, their Zeal, their Cares, their pains, unbounded; and the Time will come, when if their Measures are not admired they will be approved. Indeed, Sir, an honest and disinterested Patriot requires uncommon Fortitude to render himself responsible in an hour of such intollerable Licenciousness: those who place their Happiness in Reputation retire from a Theatre where, while they are torturd by publick distresses, they are in danger of disgrace! The Intreagues of Speculators are more and more alarming. Our paper money lately suffered a Convulsion, without any apparent Cause, which threatned its total dissolution. Not contented with the infinite Evils which they have entailed on their Country; they have practiced their Arts on the Cabinet of France; and with such Success that one of our Ministers received a formal Intimation that the Chevalier de la Luzerne woud be instructed to remonstrate against the Act of the 18th of March as a violation of publick faith, and an Injury to the trading part of that Nation which ought to be repaired. Mr Adams has acquired Applause by a Memorial to Count de Vergennes on this Subject full of Good Sence and dignity. The Necessity and the Justice of that memorable System are vindicated by Reasons and Facts which force Conviction. The Capital Figure which the french factors made in drawing on the Depreciation and their Avarice in striving to exact Specie for the nominal Sums of the Bills: when it is notorious that they raised the price of their Commodities in proportion to the current Exchange are exposed; and it is demonstrated that instead of suffering they greatly profited by that national Calamity. Nor is the proper Inference neglected that a Government capable, in a free Country, of executing a Plan so disgusting to the self interested, must possess unlimited Confidence, and be established on the firmest Basis. I am perswaded that this Seasonable Representation will remove every prejudice, and prevent the Effects of an Attempt big with Ruin!2

Another great difficulty which embarrasses us is the absolute Dependance which we are compelled to place on the Exertions of the States individually. A failure in one may draw upon us insupportable distress. If the Supplies of provisions shoud be punctually Furnished the transportation alone is an Expence of such magnitude that I never think of it but with anxiety, especially when we consider how deeply pecuniary Taxes are anticipated by Certificates in the hands of the Farmers. There is a remedy but whether we have a sufficient degree of publick Spirit to apply it can only be known by Experiment. Why shoud not the opulent contribute, the whole or a large proportion of their plate? why shoud not the Farmer break in upon his Capital if his annual produce is incompetent? Nothing is clearer than that this woud be the truest Œconomy as a foundation woud be laid to terminate the War by a great and decisive Effort. These are Resourses in the power of every Legislature, and I shall think them inexcuseable if, seeing the necessity to be so urgent, they shrink from the Burthen. A Duty on Imports Exports and prizes will be strongly recommended by Congress, and if approved by the States, it must produce a considerable Revenue.3

We have made an Estimate of the national Expence for a year from next January. Except the Quarter master’s branch it is tolerably accurate.4 I shoud be happy if our means to defray it were certain and adequate: but this is not to be relied on, unless we are effectually roused by a Sense of our common danger, and the necessity of concluding with Glory and Expedition a War of devastation. Every liberal hand must be opened; every patriotic heart must be animated. every publick and private effort must be exerted to strengthen and support our Army, to give weight to our national Councils, and secure them obedience at home and reputation abroad. Without the first the Courage Perseverance and military Accomplishments of our General must be frustrated: without the last it woud be madness to hope for Credit Alliance or Respect from foreign Powers.

After a studied Contempt of the Power of our Enemy which has marked the progress of our Contest, too great a dependance on foreign Succour claims the Rank in our political Errors. I speak of the publick opinion, exempting Congress as I ought from a share in this Folly. Charmed with a Revolution so friendly to the Rights of human nature, and so humbling to the Insolence of Brittain, the People were too apt to imagine that the Coffers of Europe woud be emptied into our Lap without reserve. But to say nothing of the Dutch; experience has shewn that the Spaniards on whom we prinicipally relied, are not to be moved by disinterested Considerations. That Cabinet does not imitate the French in Liberality. They view the Contiguity of those States to the Sourse of their Treasures, and their rising greatness, with a sufficient degree of Jealousy. They are cautious of our Alliance unless they can acquire solid advantages. They are courted by England and tempted by offers which tho’ they cannot accept without sacrificing their Honour, their family compact, and the Esteem of the Northern powers; they yet seem to countenance as a mean to lead us to concessions of which we cannot think without Reluctance. On no other principle are Cumberland’s residence at Madrid, or the dilatoriness which has accompanied the Treaty to be reconciled.5 With respect to a Loan, if their Inclination was ever so prompt, it appears to me either that their Funds are not productive; or that their Œconomy is even worse than our own. They might however interpose their Responsibility as they have already done for the bills which we have drawn, and for the Cloathing which they have supplied, and it woud afford us essential Relief. Those Hints will open another Field of Embarrasment, the Extent of which your Excellency will fully perceive.

I shall only add to the Catalogue that we have advice that Sir Henry Clinton has written to his Court for a strong Reinforcement, or leave to retire from his command; that he has received an Approbation of his Conduct in flatering Terms, and a promise of Support, and that orders are accordingly issued for raising a Regiment of Cavelry and nine of Infantry.6

But while we are called upon to examine our own Circumstances with Candour least we shoud be deceived by a false Estimate, our Enemies, it is evident do not repose on a bed of Roses. They continue to be disturbed by the Spirit of Independance which pervades Ireland. The Commons of that Kingdom lately hesitated to agree to a duty, amounting to a prohibition, on raw Sugars from England. Yelverton their patriot declared that the Irish Trade shoud in all respects be upon a perfect equality with the British. He rejected the Idea of a disparity between the Sister Kingdoms with Contempt; and threatned the Courtiers that if they persisted in their opposition he woud put himself at the Head of the Associators and establish the Freedom of Commerce by Arms. This is an Argument which carries conviction.7 Strange that in Ireland it shoud be consistent with Loyalty and in America be branded with the Appellation of Rebellion, and under that absurd Idea serve to colour over every Species of Inhumanity and Vengeance!8

In the West Indies from the late destructive Hurricane,9 and on the Ocean by a train of capital losses, the Enemy have sufferd most severely and in the tenderest point, their Trade, the Sourse of their Wealth and Credit! Their internal dissentions, which instead of being extinguished are only smotherd by the Vigour which the temerity of Gordon threw into the scale of their Government, is a malady which hangs heavy upon their Administration.10 The Convention of the neutral maritime powers which has aimed a fatal blow at the Sovereignty of the british flag and the imminent danger of their being involved in a war with Russia Denmark Sweden and Holland if they persist in a Claim so odious, and of drawing down the Resentment of their own subjects and universal Contempt if they ectinguish it:11 The late Insult offered them by Portugal in shutting their ports against their Ships of War and Prizes:12 The Impracticability of their raising more Troops in Germany: The favourable Light in which our Independance is viewed throughout Europe; and the evident Satisfaction it gives even the princes on whom they most relied to see british Dominion Commerce and naval Strength circumscribed: Their disappointment in not being able by the most disgraceful Sacrifices to detatch Spain from the War:13 Their failure in Ways and means the present year: the immensity of their national debt and current Expenditures: All those Circumstances combined with the necessity of renewing their Preparations to oppose the belligerant powers at the very moment they looked for Submission from America are more than sufficient to form a Contrast between us and our Enemies by no means to our disadvantage: Nor does it seem presumptuous to think that if we endeavour to deserve the Blessing; Peace Liberty and Independance must before long crown our Wishes.14

I have drawn this Letter to an immoderate Length: ascribe it to a desire of possessing you of my own View of our publick Affairs as far as I am at Liberty.

I will only add that the Visit of the French Noblemen has given pleasure The Chevalier Chateliux particularly recommends himself by his agreeable manners and literary Accomplishments.15 Be pleased to pay my most respectful Compliments to Mrs Washington. I was greatly mortified at her passing thro’ this Town without my Knowledge as I wished to have done myself the Honour of attending her to Trenton.16 I have the honour to be with every Sentiment of Friendship Respect and personal Attachment My dear General Your most affectionate & most Obedient Servant

Jas Duane

P.S. Your Excellency has remarked that the Communications with which you honourd me on the Arrangement of the Army Hospitals &c. have had their Effect.17

1Duane refers to France.

2Congress had adopted a financial reform plan on 18 March (see 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 , 16:256, 259, and 261–67; see also Philip Schuyler to GW, 12 March, and notes 3 and 4 to that document). John Adams reported his defense of the congressional plan when he wrote Samuel Huntington, president of Congress, from Paris on 26 June (see Papers of John Adams description begins Robert J. Taylor et al., eds. Papers of John Adams. 17 vols. to date. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1977–. description ends , 9:477–79; see also James Lovell to Abigail Adams and to Elbridge Gerry, both 30 Nov., and Lovell to Samuel Holton, 5 Dec., in Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 16:404, 406–7, 413–14).

3Congress debated financial recommendations on 18 Dec. (see 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 , 18:1157–64). Considering an impost law long occupied Congress prior to that body adopting one in February 1781 (see 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 , 19:112–13; see also John Sullivan’s Committee Notes, 7–23 Nov. 1780, and Huntington to the States, 8 Feb. 1781, in Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 16:305–14, 687–88).

4Duane presumably refers to the work of a congressional financial committee appointed on 7 Nov. 1780 (see 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 , 18:1028; see also n.3 above).

5Spanish leaders never concluded a treaty of alliance with the United States during the Revolutionary War. For the unsuccessful British attempt to negotiate a separate peace with Spain, see Samuel F. Bemis, The Hussey-Cumberland Mission and American Independence: An Essay in the Diplomacy of the American Revolution (Princeton, N.J., 1931).

Richard Cumberland (1732–1811), better known as a playwright, held clerical positions with the British Board of Trade prior to his diplomatic mission to Spain.

6British general Henry Clinton later acknowledged his “satisfaction to receive from the American Minister the most liberal assurances that the King and all His Majesty’s confidential servants were strongly disposed to comply with all my requisitions, as far as the ability of Great Britain could enable them” (Willcox, American Rebellion description begins William B. Willcox, ed. The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents. New Haven, 1954. description ends , 237; see also Clinton to George Germain, 25 Aug., and Germain to Clinton, 13 Oct., in Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 18:152–54, 186–87).

7Barry Yelverton, Viscount Avonmore (1736–1805), graduated from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and practiced law at the Irish bar before becoming a member of Parliament in 1774. He received his peerage in 1795.

8GW had shown interest in the Irish independence movement (see General Orders, 16 March, and n.1 to that document).

9For contemporary newspaper accounts of this hurricane, see GW to Rochambeau, 10 Dec., n.5.

10Riots in London incited by George Gordon previously had come to GW’s notice (see James Bowdoin to GW, 17 Aug., and n.5 to that document).

11Duane means the League of Armed Neutrality (see GW to Huntington, 6 July, and n.6 to that document).

13See n.5 above.

14For a likely source of Duane’s foreign intelligence, see Huntington to GW, this date, and n.1 to that document.

15For Major General Chastellux’s visit to Philadelphia, see GW to John Sullivan, 25 Nov., and n.1 to that document; see also GW to Huntington, 27 Nov., and n.9 with the letter referenced at n.12 above.

16For Martha Washington’s stay in Philadelphia while traveling to GW’s winter headquarters, see Robert Hanson Harrison to GW, 28 Nov., n.15.

17GW had recommended appointments in the reorganized medical department (see his letter to John Mathews, 9 Sept., and the source note to that document; see also Duane to GW, 19 Sept., and GW to Huntington, 5 Nov.).

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