George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 3 February 1781

To Samuel Huntington

Head Quarters New Windsor Feby 3d 81


I have on different occasions done myself the honor to represent to Congress the inconveniences arising from the want of a proper gradation of punishments in our military code; but as no determination has been communicated to me, I conclude a multiplicity of business may have diverted their attention from the object.1 As I am convinced a great part of the vices of our discipline springs from this source, I take the liberty again to renew the subject. The highest corporal punishment we are allowed to give is an hundred lashes; between that and death there are no degrees. Instances dayly occurring of offences for which the former is intirely inadequate—Courts Martial to preserve some proportion between the crime and the punishment are obliged to pronounce sentence of death. Capital sentences on this account become more frequent in our service than in any other, so frequent as to render their execution in most cases inexpedient; and it happens from this, that greater offences often escape punishment while lesser are commonly punished, which cannot but operate as an encouragement to the commission of the former.

The inconveniences of this defect are obvious: Congress are sensible of the necessity of punishment in an army—of the justice and policy of a due proportion between the crime and the penalty, and of course, of the necessity of proper degrees in the latter—I shall therefore content myself with observing, that it appears to me indispensable, there should be an extension of the present corporal punishment; and also that it would be useful to authorise Courts Martial to sentence delinquents to labor at public works—perhaps even for some crimes, particularly desertion, to transfer them from the land to the sea service, where they have less opportunity to indulge their inconstancy. A variety in punishments is of utility as well as a proportion.

The number of lashes may either be indefinite left to the discretion of the Court to fix, or limited to a larger number; in this case, I would recommend five hundred.

There is one evil however, which I shall particularize, resulting from the imperfection of our regulations in this respect: It is the increase of arbitrary punishments. Officers finding discipline cannot be maintained by a regular course of proceeding are tempted to use their own discretion, which sometimes occasions excesses, to correct which the interests of discipline will not permit much rigor. Prompt, and therefore arbitrary, punishments are not to be avoided in an army; but the necessity for them will be more or less, in proportion as the military laws have more or less vigor.

There is another thing in our articles of war, which I beg leave to suggest to Congress the propriety of altering, it is the 2d article of the 4th section, allowing commanding officers of corps to furlough their soldiers.2 This privilege, if suffered to operate, would often deprive the army of more men than it could spare; it has been attended with abuses—it is disagreeable for a general order to restrain the exercise of a privilege granted by authority of Congress. To prevent uneasiness and discussion, it were to be wished Congress would think proper to repeal this article, and vest the power of designating the mode of granting furloughs in the Commander in Chief, or Commanding Officer of a separate army. It would perhaps be useful to prescribe a printed form, for which purpose I have taken the liberty to inclose one. This would hinder counterfiets and impositions.3 On the same principle I include the form of a discharge. It would in my opinion be a good regulation, that a soldier returning home, either on furlough or discharge, who did not in ten days after his return produce to the nearest Magistrate his printed certificate, should be apprehended by the Magistrate as a deserter, and through the Governor reported to the General officer commanding in the state or departmen⟨t.⟩4 This regulation published in the army and in the several states would have a tendency to discourage desertion. Somethi⟨ng⟩ of this kind has been lately adopted in Virg⟨i⟩nia, and I doubt not will have a good effect; it were to be wished its utility could become general.5 I have the honor ⟨to⟩ be With perfect respect & esteem Yr Excellcy⟨s⟩ Most Obedt servant

Go: Washington

If Congress approve I wish the Board of war may be directed to have a number of printed copies made of the furloughs & passes.

P.S. I have just received the agreeable account contained in a letter from the Count De Rochambeau of which the enclosed is a copy.6

LS, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 152; Df, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item, 169; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Congress read this letter on 9 Feb. and referred it to a committee of three members (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 , 19:132–33). On 16 June, Congress approved GW’s recommendations regarding furloughs and discharges but rejected those on punishments (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 , 20:656–58).

1For GW’s long-standing concern over this issue, see GW to Lewis Nicola, 5 Feb. 1780, n.3.

2Section 4, article 2, of the articles of war reads: “Every colonel or other field-officer commanding the regiment, troop, or company, and actually residing with it, may give furloughs to non-commissioned officers and soldiers, in such numbers, and for so long a time, as he shall judge to be most consistent with the good of the service; but, no non-commissioned officer or soldier shall, by leave of his captain, or inferior officer, commanding the troop or company (his field-officer not being present) be absent above twenty days in six months, nor shall more than two private men be absent at the same time from their troop or company, excepting some extraordinary occasion shall require it, of which occasion the field-officer, present with, and commanding the regiment, is to be the judge” (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 , 5:791).

3The enclosed undated draft of the form, in the writing of GW’s aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton, reads: “The Bearer hereof [ ] in the [ ] Regiment of [ ] is hereby permitted to be absent on furlough for [ ] days, from the date hereof; and all officers civil and military are requested to suffer him to pass to [ ] and return to his regiment without molestation, he behaving as becometh him. This permit to be valid no farther than to the above-mentioned place and no longer than for the above-mentioned time. Given at [ ] this [ ] day of [ ] 178[ ].” The form was to be “Registered in the books of the Regiment” and signed by the regiment’s commanding officer and adjutant, and signed as “Approved by” the brigadier general (DNA:PCC, item 152).

4The enclosed undated draft of the form, also in Hamilton’s writing, reads: “The bearer hereof [ ] in the [ ] regiment of [ ] and in Capt. [ ] company having served during [ ] being the term for which he was engaged, is hereby discharged from the said Regiment; in which We certify, that he hath behaved as a brave and faithful soldier. Given at [ ] this [ ] day of [ ] 178[ ].” The form was to be “Registered in the books of the Regiment” and signed by the regiment’s colonel, major, and adjutant, and the captain of the soldier’s company (DNA:PCC, item 152).

5For the proposed regulation in Virginia, see Steuben to GW, 28 Dec. 1780.

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