George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, 15 January 1781

To Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens

New Windsor Jany 15th 1781.1

Dear Sir,

In compliance with your request I shall commit to writing the result of our conferences on the present state of American affairs; in which I have given you my ideas, with that freedom and explicitness, which the objects of your commission—my intire confidence in you—and the exigency demand.2 To me it appears evident:

1st—That, considering the diffused population of these states—the consequent difficulty of drawing together its resources—the composition and temper of a part of its inhabitants—the want of a sufficient stock of national wealth as a foundation for Revenue and the almost total extinction of commerce—the efforts we have been compelled to make, for carrying on the war, have exeeded the natural abilities of this country and by degrees brought it to a crisis, which renders immediate and efficacious succours from abroad indispensable to its safety.

2dly—That, notwithstanding from the confusion, always attendant on a revolution—from our having had governments to frame, and every species of civil and military institution to create—from that inexperience in affairs, necessarily incident to a nation in its commencement— some errors may have been committed in the administration of our finances, to which a part of our embarrassments are to be attributed—yet they are principally to be ascribed to an essential defect of means—to the want of a sufficient stock of wealth, as mentioned in the first article: which, continuing to operate, will make it impossible, by any merely interior exertions, to extricate ourselves from those embarrassments, restore public credit, and furnish the funds requisite for the support of the war.

3dly—That experience has demonstrated the impracticability, long to maintain a paper credit without funds for its redemption. The depreciation of our currency was, in the main, a necessary effect of the want of those funds; and its restoration is impossible for the same reason; to which the general diffidence, that has taken place among the people, is an additional, and in the present state of things, an insuperable obstacle.

4thly. That the mode, which for want of money has been substituted for supplying the army—by assessing a proportion of the productions of the earth, has hitherto been found ineffectual—has frequently exposed the army to the most calamitous distress, and from its novelty and incompatibility with ancient habits, is regarded by the people as burthensome and oppressive—has excited serious discontents, and, in some places, alarming symptoms of opposition. This mode has besides many particular inconveniences which contribute to make it inadequate to our wants, and ineligible, but as an auxiliary.

5thly—That from the best estimates of the annual expence of the war, and the annual revenues which these states are capable of affording, there is a large ballance to be supplied by public credit—The resource of domestic loans is inconsiderable because there are properly speaking few monied men, and the few there are can employ their money more profitably otherwise; added to which, the instability of the currency and the deficiency of funds have impaired the public credit.

6thly. That the patience of the army from an almost uninterrupted series of complicated distress is now nearly exhausted—their discontents matured to an extremity, which has recently had very disagreeable consequences, and which demonstrates the absolute necessity of speedy relief—a relief not within the compass of our means. You are too well acquainted with all their sufferings, for want of cloathing, for want of provisions, for want of pay.

7thly. That the people being dissatisfied with the mode of supporting the war—there is cause to apprehend, evils actually felt in the prosecution, may weaken those sentiments which begun it; founded not on immediate sufferings, but in a speculative apprehension of future sufferings from the loss of their liberties. There is danger that a commercial and free people, little accustomed to heavy burthens, pressed by impositions of a new and odious kind, may not make a proper allowance for the necessity of the conjuncture, and may imagine, they have only exchanged one tyranny for another.

8thly—That from all the foregoing considerations result:

1st—The absolute necessity of an immediate, ample and efficacious succour of money—large enough to be a foundation for substantial arrangements of finance, to revive public credit and give vigor to future operations.

2dly—The vast importance of a decided effort of the allied arms on this Continent, the ensuing campaign, to effectuate once for all the great objects of the alliance—the liberty and independence of these states.

Without the first, we may make a feeble and expiring effort the next campaign, in all probability the period to our opposition. With it, we should be in a condition to continue the war, as long as the obstinacy of the enemy might require—The first is essential to the last; both combined would bring the contest to a glorious issue—crown the obligations, which America already feels to the magnanimity and generosity of her ally, and perpetuate the union, by all the ties of gratitude and affection, as well as mutual advantage, which alone can render it solid and indissoluble.

9thly. That next to a loan of money a constant naval superiority on these coasts is the object most interesting—This would instantly reduce the enemy to a difficult defensive, and by removing all prospect of extending their acquisitions, would take away the motives for prosecut⟨ing⟩ the war. Indeed it is not to be conceived, how they could subsist a large force in this country, if we had the command of the seas, to interrupt the regul⟨ar⟩ transmission of supplies from Europe. This superior⟨ity⟩ (with an aid of money) would enable us to convert the war into a vigorous offensive. I say nothing of the advantages to the trade of both nations, nor how infinitely it would facilitate our supplies. With respect to us, it seems to be one of two deci⟨ding⟩ points; and it appears too, to be the interest of our allies, abstracted from the immediate benefits to this country, to transfer the naval war to America The number of ports friendly to them, hostile to the British—the materials for repairing their disabled ships—the extensive supplies toward⟨s⟩ the subsistence of their fleet, are circumstances which would give them a palpable advantage in the contest of these seas.

10th That an additional succour of troops would be extremely desireable—Besides a reinforcement of numbers—the excellence of the French troops—that perfect discipline and order in the corps already sent, which have so happily tended to improve the respect and confidence of the people for our allies—the conciliating disposition and the zeal for the service, which distinguish every rank, sure indications of lasting harmony—all these considerations evince the immense utility of an accession of force to the corps now here. Correspondent with these motives, the inclosed minutes of a conference between Their Excellencies the Count De Rochambeau the Chevalier De Ternay and myself—will inform you that an augmentation to fifteen thousand men was judged expedient for the next campaign;3 and it has been signified to me, that an application has been made to the Court of France to this effect.4 But if the sending so large a succour of troops should necessarily diminish the pecuniary aid, which our allies may be disposed to grant, it were preferable to diminish the aid in men; for the same sum of money, which would transport from France and maintain here a body of troops, with all the necessary apparatus, being put into our hands to be employed by us would serve to give activity to a larger force within our selves, and its influence would pervade the whole administration.

11thly. That no nation will have it more in its power to repay what it borrows than this—our debts are hitherto small. The vast and valuable tracts of unlocated lands—the variety and fertility of climates and soils—the advantages of every kind, which we possess for commerce, insure to this country a rapid advancement in population and prosperity, and a certainty, its independence being established, of redeeming in a short term of years, the comparitively inconsiderable debts it may have occasion to contract.

That notwithstanding the difficulties under which we labour and the inquietud⟨es⟩ prevailing among the people, there is still a fund of inclination and resource in the country equal to great and continued exertions, provided we have it in our power to stop the progress of disgust, by changing the present system and adopting another more consonant with the spirit of the nation, and more capable of activity and energy in public measures; of which a powerful succour of money must be the basis. The people are discontented but it is with the feeble and oppressive mode of conducting the war, not with the war itself. They are not unwilling to contribute to its support, but they are unwilling to do it in a way that renders private property precarious—a necessary consequence of the fluctuation of the national currency, and of the inability of government to perform its engagements, oftentimes coercively made. A large majority are still firmly attached to the independence of these states—abhor a reunion with great Britain, and are affectionate to the alliance with France. but this disposition cannot supply the place of means customary and essential in war, nor can we rely on its duration amidst the perplexities, oppressions and misfortunes, that attend the want of them.5

If the foregoing observations are of any use to you I shall be happy. I wish you a safe and pleasant voyage—the full accompl[i]shment of your mission and a speedy return; being with sentimen⟨ts⟩ of perfect friendship regard and affection Dr Sir Yr Obed. ser.

Df, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, DLC:GW; DfS, DLC: Alexander Hamilton Papers; copy, ScHi: Henry Laurens Papers; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. The draft appears to be subsequent to the DfS, where the final paragraph, including the complimentary closing, is in GW’s writing.

On this date, GW wrote Laurens from New Windsor: “Mem[orandu]m[.] Colonel Laurens will be so good as to have Mrs Washington’s pictur⟨e⟩ herewith given handsomely s⟨mutilated⟩ a button for the Shirt Collar—a ⟨mutilated⟩ the bosom—a ring for the finger (⟨mutilated⟩ size of his own)—a locket for a ⟨mutilated⟩—or any thing else his fancy m⟨ay⟩ think better. … A Pair of Epaulets. A pair of Shoe & knee Buckles” (ADS, docketed by GW, in private hands).

1GW wrote the salutation and dateline on the draft.

2Congress had commissioned Laurens as special minister to the French court (see Laurens to GW, 7 Jan., n.2). On 11 Feb., Laurens left Boston on board the Continental frigate Alliance, which, after waiting for a favorable wind, departed Nantasket Roads on 13 Feb. (see Benjamin Lincoln to GW, 15 Feb.; see also Laurens to GW, 4–7 Feb.). The ship docked in Lorient, France, on 9 March, and Laurens made his way to the Paris area, arriving there on 14 March (see Laurens to Benjamin Franklin, c.18 March, in Franklin Papers description begins William B. Willcox et al., eds. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. 42 vols. to date. New Haven, 1959–. description ends , 34:468–69). Franklin, U.S. minister plenipotentiary to France, had already met with Vergennes, the French foreign minister, on the subject of financial aid; and the king, rather than lending the United States 25 million livres as requested, had decided to make a gift of 6 million livres. The money was to be first used to purchase clothing and supplies. The king ordered that only GW was to draw on the remaining funds to meet the Continental army’s needs (see Franklin to Samuel Huntington, 12 March–12 April, in Franklin Papers description begins William B. Willcox et al., eds. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. 42 vols. to date. New Haven, 1959–. description ends , 34:443–48). Laurens asked the French court for a loan to augment these funds. The king agreed to guarantee the principal and interest on a loan of 10 million livres, much less than Laurens wished (see Laurens to GW, 11 April, DLC:GW). Vergennes, who considered the impatient and undiplomatic Laurens importunate, wrote Major General Lafayette on 19 April regarding this loan: “I dare say that General Washington will realize the extent and importance of this favor, especially if he considers, as he should, the support of a squadron and a corps of troops that the king has placed at his disposal, and the exorbitant expenditures of a war we support only for the sake of the Americans” (Lafayette Papers description begins Stanley J. Idzerda et al., eds. Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776–1790. 5 vols. Ithaca, N.Y., 1977-83. description ends , 4:47–48). Laurens eventually arranged that 1 million livres of the funds granted be sent to the United States in specie. He spent the remainder of his time in France procuring armaments, supplies, and transportation with the other funds. Laurens departed from Brest, France, on 1 June and arrived in Boston on 25 August. On 5 Sept., Congress commended Laurens on the conduct of his mission (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 , 21:935). For more on Laurens’s mission to France and the financial difficulties he left in his wake, see Massey, John Laurens description begins Gregory D. Massey. John Laurens and the American Revolution. Columbia, S.C., 2000. description ends , 173–94.

3The enclosure has not been identified, but for the minutes, see Document III, source note, in The Hartford Conference, 20–22 Sept. 1780, editorial note.

4See Rochambeau to GW, 5 Oct., and n.2 to that document.

5In a separate document, GW summarized several documents applicable to Laurens’s mission: his commission from Congress and his instructions, both dated 23 Dec.; Congress’s additional instructions to Laurens of 27 Dec.; Congress’s instructions of 28 Nov. to Franklin; Congress’s additional instructions to Franklin of 27 Dec.; Congress’s letter of 22 Nov. to the king of France; and Congress’s letters of credence of 23 Dec. introducing Laurens to the king. At the end of the document, GW wrote out a summary of an “Estimate & Invoice of Goods” that included 350 tons of cannon powder; 150 tons of musket powder; 500 tons of lead; 1 million flints; 40,000 stand of arms; 49,024 uniform coats; and unspecified numbers of pistols, swords, officer uniforms, uniform trimmings, goods for trade with Indians, and medicines. GW headed the document “Honble John Lauren’s Papers” and docketed it: “Extracts from, and Substance of, The Honble Jno Lauren’s Ministl Papers” (AD, DLC:GW). For the complete text of the summarized instructions and letters, 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 , 18:1080–85, 1101–4, 1183–88, and 1197–99.

On an undated document, GW also wrote out extracts “taken from Mr [James] Duane’s estimates &ca furnished Colo. Jno Laurens 2d & 3d Jany 1781” (see Duane to GW, 2 Jan.). The estimates included calculations of the amount of the national debt; the projected expenses of the war from January 1781 to January 1782, including the pay of the army; and the ways and means for defraying the expenses of the war for 1781. GW commented: “Upon the whole it is clear from these hasty hints that whatever may be the success of our own exertions the loan of 25,000,000 of Livres in Europe is indispensably necessary; for a brilliant Campaign” (ADS, DLC:GW).

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