George Washington Papers

From “A true Friend to virtuous Liberty and Equality”, 4 September 1793

From “A true Friend to virtuous Liberty and Equality”

Wyoming, Sept. 4. 1793.


A Short time ago having a few leisure weeks, curiosity led me to take a tour on horse back from this place through the central parts of the eastern states to Portsmouth in New-Hampshire, from thence along the post road to Savanna in Georgia, and from there back to this place, passing through the central parts of the southern and middle states on my return. A report having prevailed previous to my commencing my journey, as scandalous to the United States as it was to humanity, induced me to pay a short visit to every gaol in all the cities and towns through which I passed, when, to my great surprise and astonishment, I found the report true; there were no less than 547 of the old continental army, who continued in the service during the whole war, confined in those dreary prisons; 327 of which had families while they were in service; 187 have married since the establishment of peace, and among the unhappy number, there were 63 commissioned officers, viz. 1 lieutenant-colonel, 3 majors, 11 captains, 21 lieutenants, 22 ensigns, 2 adjutants, 1 quarter-master and 2 surgeons. Upon a strict investigation of the causes of their detention, I found every one was for debt, having received no pay of any value during the war. When they returned from the victorious field of glory and honor, to the shade of private life, with nothing to shew for the laurels they had justly acquired but scars, infirmities and wounds, they expected to have shared at least an equal advantage with their fellow-citizens of those blessings which their gallantry had insured to their country—but what was their treatment? What did they receive in return for all their services? Final settlement notes, as substitutes for their real pay, which they kept until dire necessity, their calamities, sufferings and distressed families compelled them to part with them from 2s.9 down to 1s.3 on the pound, which was not half equal to the interest then due.1 Good heavens! is this the case? Will future posterity be made to believe that their ancestors received such usage as this, after sealing the independence of the United States with their blood. Many stupid ignorant people say, if the army had kept their final settlements till now, they might receive their full pay; or in other words, their nominal value. Such language is an insult to common understanding. As well might the ravisher of his mistress plead innocence, as for people to make use of such foolish sordid language. It is well known that most of these brave men, in returning triumphant from the field of glory, were but in indigent circumstances, their business of every kind having lain dead for seven years, those in particular who had families, being obliged to run more in debt for their maintenance, while in service, than their whole pay would sell for at the close of the war. Is there no way to extricate these brave men from cruel confinement, and worse than Babylonian captivity? Shall the very men who were covered with scars in securing the liberty of America, loose their own liberty through the cruel, the infamous, the scandalous and perfidious injustice of that very country their swords have rescued from worse than Algerine slavery? Does justice already wear so sickly a countenance in these infant republics, that the distemper has become mortal? Shall the miserly speculator, the dark designing infamous tory, and other paracides in America, whose councils, aid, and arms during the late war, assassinated the virtuous patriot and deluged their country with the blood of its inhabitants, reap all the advantages which is due to the brave indefatigable worn out soldier? It is unnecessary for me to point out a mode for their relief; the able pens and the eloquent speeches of a Madison, a Jackson and a Wadsworth, whose names and memory will shine with unfading lustre and brilliancy, many hundreds of years after which we shall be no more (while their opposers in this most just of all causes will lay buried in obscure silence) have pointed a mode of redress for those grievances complained of, as obvious as the sun in its meridian height.2 It is not only this part of the army, but eight tenths of all the rest are equal sufferers, except confinement. The old army are much surprised to find that never since your circular letter to the governors of the union, and your farewel orders to them (both wrote ten years ago) that not a single public speech, nor a single address to any public body has made its appearance from you, favorable towards mitigating their sufferings.3 Their dependence in the time of the war was not on any energy in congress, nor on any friendly disposition a great many of the community bore towards them. It was your repeated general orders to them, your positive promises, your solemn engagements to them for seven years together, and your having spontaneously assumed yourself their advocate; it was this that kept them in the field half naked, half starved, bare-foot in the middle of winter, and the cold frozen ground to lay on without a blanket, when a month’s pay would not purchase a gill of whiskey. It was the almost immortal light in which they viewed you, the incomparable love they had for you, the veneration, respect and adoration they paid you, that made them encounter more distress and difficulties than any other army ever did for the rights and liberties of the human race; therefore to you General Washington, while they are experiencing worse than Gothic barbarity, they now look for relief, they have a just right so to do; of you, sir, they surely have a right to claim your influence towards the accomplishment of that justice which you so often and so solemnly pledged your word and honor as commander in chief, that they should receive; and if the ensuing congress neglects or denies doing them justice, there will be something more to fear than a breach of neutrality or western savages. The wound too often irritated may at last become incurable; and how truly awful and melancholy does it appear, to see the legislature of a nation, with impunity, look on such injustice, and wantonly make sport of the most humble entreaties and tears for justice of the bewailing widow, the distressed orphan, and the ruined, heart broken patriot. It is not only the army, but every true republican’s breast in America, that pants for an end to these iniquitous, cruel and unjust sufferings. I am, sir, and hope ever shall have reason to be, with the most exalted sentiments of respect, your sincere well wisher, and obedient humble servant,

A true Friend to virtuous Liberty and Equality.

Printed, New-Jersey Journal (Elizabeth), 23 Oct. 1793. This letter was reprinted in newspapers such as the Boston Gazette, 4 Nov.; Norwich Packet, 14 Nov.; and State Gazette of South-Carolina (Charleston), 5 Dec. 1793.

1By an act of 4 July 1783, the Continental Congress authorized the paymaster general “to settle and finally adjust all accounts whatsoever, between the United States and the officers and soldiers of the American army. . . . And . . . give certificates of the sums which may appear due on such settlements” (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 , 24:426). The certificates issued in accordance with this law by Paymaster General John Pierce bore 6 percent interest annually until the principal was paid.

2The “mode of redress” may have been the proposal that, in the settlement of the national debt, discrimination should be made in favor of the original holders of certificates, as opposed to speculators who had acquired such certificates later. James Madison, in speeches to the House of Representatives in February 1790, appealed to “the sufferings of the military part of the creditors” to support the justice of such discrimination (Madison Papers description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds. The Papers of James Madison, Congressional Series. 17 vols. Chicago and Charlottesville, Va., 1962–91. description ends , 13:36–37, 57). Congressman James Jackson of Georgia, in a speech of 28 Jan. 1790, supported such discrimination specifically in the case of final settlement certificates (Annals of Congress description begins Joseph Gales, Sr., comp. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature. 42 vols. Washington, D.C., 1834–56. description ends , 1st Cong., 2d sess., 1137–38). Jeremiah Wadsworth, however, opposed discrimination and contended that “the American soldiery has been well paid” and had no right to special consideration (Annals of Congress description begins Joseph Gales, Sr., comp. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature. 42 vols. Washington, D.C., 1834–56. description ends , 1st Cong., 2d sess., 1281–83).

3GW’s circular letter to the state governors, sent at various dates in June 1783, had endorsed the necessity of paying the debts incurred during the war, and in particular “the half pay & commutation granted by Congress to the Officers of the Army” (Df, dated 8 June 1783, DLC:GW). In GW’s farewell orders to the army, delivered 2 Nov. 1783, he had written: “Nor is it possible to conceive that any one of the United States will prefer a National Bankrupcy and a dissolution of the Union, to a compliance with the requisitions of Congress and the payment of its just debts—so that the Officers and Soldiers may expect considerable assistance in recommencing their civil occupations from the sums due to them from the Public, which must and will most inevitably be paid" (Df, DLC:GW).

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