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Report by Thomas Burke concerning the debates of the Continental Congress
Burke, Thomas, ca. 1747-1783
February 1777
Volume 11, Pages 380-386

ABSTRACT OF DEBATES IN CONGRESS.
[From Executive Letter Book.]


Feb. 12th to, 19th 1777.

Several days of this week were consumed in debates on the appointment of General Officers. The debates were perplexed, inconclusive and irksome. The Delegates of several States were

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desirous of fixing a rule of promotion, and several were offered and rejected. Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina desired that each State should recommend officers in proportion to the men they furnish: three Battalions, one Brigadier, nine, one Major General. This was rejected. It was then proposed, to promote General Officers as they stood in rank, and rejected. To all the rules a saving was added, that the Congress might deviate from any, in favour of merit eminently distinguished and generally acknowledged.

North Carolina argued that some rule should be observed, and entered on the Journals.—That the Congress would be an object of very jealous apprehension, unchecked and unlimited as it is, if the officers of the army held their honor at the precarious pleasure of a majority. Officers hold their honor the most dear of anything. Setting them aside when they were entitled to promotion would wound that honor very sorely. Their attention would therefore be entirely to that authority which had so much power to wound it, or to cherish it. This policy was always observed by monarchs, and the end was to keep the army dependent on them: but such policy was unbecoming in Congress, who ought to give no room for jealousy. The rule of succession is most familiar to officers, and therefore most agreeable to them: but the proportion would give greatest satisfaction to the States, and the satisfying them was of greatest importance and ought to be adopted.

At length it wes proposed to resolve, that regard be had to the rank, to the quota, and to merit. It was agreed to, but no notice was taken of it in the nomination or appointments. N. Carolina did not vote for Major Generals; because the delegate found, no rule was observed, and he knew nothing of the merit of any officers in nomination, and did not choose to give a vote in Congress, for which he could give no reason.


Feb'y. 20th.

A Committee on a letter from General Howe to, General Washington reported, that five Hessian Field Officers, and a Col. Campbell should be confined in order for retaliation, and that they should have copies of the resolutions and letters relative to this matter, in order to manifest the reluctance of Congress to this severity; which became necessary, being the only means whereby they could teach their enemies to regard the Law of Nations and the rights of humanity. Some severe epithets

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were prefixed to enemies in the report, and they were objected to as unbecoming the dignity of Congress. A debate ensued in which some Gentlemen pointed out the impropriety of a bold figurative style in public Instruments, and the beauty and propriety of simplicity. R. H. Lee, of Virginia (as usual) insisted strongly on retaining the epithets, because they expressed only what our enemies really are, and urged that the best writers always used such terms on the like occassions. The Delegate from North Carolina observed that simplicity of style was true beauty, and dignity, in the language of public bodies. Embellishments of splendid epithets and figures, if proper at all, were only for rhetoricians and such as write for amusement. He wished our energy might appear in our actions, and that our language might be simple and unadorned. He admired the peasants of Switzerland, who, in their struggles for freedom, were as remarkable for modesty in their language as for vigor in their exertions. He wished the Congress to imitate them in both. The exceptional passages were expunged. The debate now turned on the question whether the Law of Nations was proper to be mentioned. Some Gentlemen argued that it was improper to apply it to the proceedings against General Lee, because they proposed trying him by the laws of his country; but others insisted that they had no power to try him, more than any other prisoner, by those laws. Many distinctions were attempted, which I did not understand. At length the N. Carolina Delegate declared, he thought all laws ought to be laid aside, but what both parties were equally subject to: these were only the laws of Nature and Nations. The municipal laws of all countries at war were silent with respect to the mere transactions, that related to or were the consequence of war. It was the proper policy of Britain still to regard the Americans as subjects, and to insist on the execution of the municipal laws: but it was the proper policy of America to maintain that the American States stand in no other relation to Britain, than as an independent Empire at war with her; and therefore, that the Law of Nations alone ought to be observed between them. Retaliation is the only instrument whereby nations can compel the observance of that law, and America ought therefore firmly to retaliate when the Law of Nations was violated.—“The Law of Nations” was inserted.


Feb'y. 21st.

A Letter from General Lee, requesting a Committee of Congress to be sent to New York, to whom he might,

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with permission of Lord and General Howe, impart something of great consequence to himself, and of no less, in his opinion to the public. His letter was in very pressing terms. It was the general sense of Congress that no conference ought to be held with any but Embassadors properly authorized by the Court of Britain to treat of peace; that Lord and General Howe could have no powers on such a subject by virtue of their commission, which was particularly limited by Parliament to other purposes: that any conference with them would be impolitic and degrading: degrading, because their powers supposed Congress objects of their dominion, and even of their mercy: impolitic, because it would give opportunity for representing in the Courts of Europe that Congress were in Treaty with Britain for a reconciliation, and for some time suspend, by this means, their intentions of befriending us. But it was also agreed that the Congress ought to give every possible attention to General Lee's personal safety. The Resolution was passed of directing General Washington to inform General Lee of the measures they were taking for his safety, and to request him to inform them of any thing they could further do: but that they could not think it consistent with the dignity of Congress to send a committee to treat with him on public business.


24th.

A letter from General Washington informing that General Howe and Lord Percy were arrived at Brunswick with a reinforcement of troops and heavy artillery; that he apprehended the enemy intended to enlarge their quarters and procure forage in the Jerseys, or to march towards Philadelphia, neither of which was his force able to prevent. The Congress ordered General Washington to call to his aid the Continental Troops under General Heath, and in Providence, and letters were ordered to be written to the Colonels of the Battalions North of N: Carolina, ordering them to send their troops by companies, and parts of companies as fast as they could be got ready, to join the General,—except such as were destined for Ticonderoga. N. York was requested to send detachments of their militia to supply the place of General Heath. New Jersey & Pennsylvania were also requested to reinforce the General with militia. To this resolve was subjoined a declaration of Congress, “that it was their intention to reinforce the General so as to enable him not only to curb and confine the enemy within their present quarters, but, with the blessing of God,

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entirely to subdue them before they are reinforced. This pompous paragraph was much condemned by some Gentlemen, as an unworthy gasconade and it was warmly debated. No. Carolina observed that threats were unbecoming a private Gentleman, and much more unbecoming a public body: that this pompous boast, if not realized, would render the Congress exceedingly ridiculous, and there was great reason to fear it would not, that our vigour ought to appear by efforts not words; that at best it was a useless superfluity, and ought to be expunged. Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and South Carolina voted for expunging: the four Eastern States, Virginia, Georgia for retaining. There appeared, through this whole debate, a great desire in some of the Delegates of the Eastern States, and in one of New Jersey, to insult the General. Georgia always votes with Connecticut, and is of no further use in Congress.


Feb'y 25th.

This day there was a very interesting debate on some amendments proposed to a report of a Committee, appointed to consider of some means for preventing desertion; but the main question was concerning the jurisdiction of Congress and the States. The decision was postponed. The debate lay chiefly between Mr. Wilson, of Pennsylvania, and the Delegate from North Carolina. The opinion of a great majority was with the latter; but it was not deemed prudent to decide. N. B. This is all that I can now transmit: but as you know the opinion of your Delegate on such questions, you can judge the opinion of Congress; and for this reason it is that I mention that a majority was in his favour.


26th.

It was determined to give six per cent interest on money borrowed or to be borrowed on Loan Certificates. Connecticut went over to this measure and drew Georgia with it. An attempt was made to extend it to certificates to be given in payment for Lottery prizes, but rejected. The debates were long and troublesome, but unimportant. No. Carolina was always against increase of interest, because the Delegate considered it as incapable of producing any money, but in the way of an emission on interest, and therefore that it was resolving to carry on the war at an interest unnecessarily increased one half, and that no sum was accumulated or could be borrowed, the acquisition of which would compensate for carrying on the war at this increased interest.

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The question was put in the morning for an adjournment to Philadelphia. All the Southern Delegates were against it, except Georgia, who always votes with Connecticut. The reason given, that much business of consequence was before the Congress, and it was improper to suspend it by an adjournment; that the weather was so bad and several States so circumstanced, there was very little probability of the Congress meeting in Philadelphia in several weeks; that the General was of opinion the enemy intended an attack on Philadelphia, and if they attempted it they had no force to stop them; in fine, that it would be foregoing a certainty of doing business, for a very great uncertainty. For if the only reason of any weight came from the Board of War, which was that for want of mechanics and wagons the business of their department went on very heavily at Baltimore. This was answered by observing that an adjournment would cause an entire suspension of this and all business, and there was no probability of an early meeting at Philadelphia. There was a peevish altercation on the matter, and in order to put an end to it, the Delegate from North Carolina moved, in the right of the State, to put off the question. A fierce debate ensued, J. Adams, Dr. Weatherspoon, Mr. Wilson, Mr. Sherman & some others alleged that it must be referr'd to a majority, whether the rule could apply to this case, and, in short, whether the State should be allowed to exercise the right of postponing. R. H. Lee with great perspicuity and force of argument, urged the violent impropriety of putting such a question at a time when a State attempted to avail itself of a privilege referred to each by the fundamental rules of the Congress, which certainly framed its constitution; that no change should be attempted until the State had exercised its right, and the rule might afterwards be considered and amended if thought requisite. F. L. Lee observed that the rule was originally intended to prevent a majority from deciding too precipitately, and if it was submitted to the majority, then when it was proper to apply the rule, or when a State might avail itself thereof, the majority would always determine against applying it at all. Mr. Haywood from South Carolina urged that he thought it a very extraordinary proposition to submit to a majority, whether that majority should be checked by a power absolutely reserved for that purpose in the constitution of Congress.

The Delegate from North Carolina declared that he would enter

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into no debate on the subject, “whether he should avail himself of a right reserved to every State in the original constitution of the Congress”; that those rules must have been entered into by common consent, and nothing but common sense could dispense with them; that if a majority of Congress could vote away the rules which common consent had established, they were a body bound by no rule at all, and only governed by arbitrary discretion; if this was the case no State can be secure; a majority might vote that two, three, four, or five States should form a Congress, altho' the present rule required nine, that the votes should not be by States, but by voice individually,—in short, any the smallest number of Delegates might take upon them the whole authority of Congress: that putting the right of the State to a question was assuming to exercise an arbitrary, tyrannical discretion, and he would consider it as a violent invasion of the rights of his State, which he would endeavour to resent as became him: that if the question was at all put, he should be at no loss how to conduct himself: he would always to the best of his judgment, make a prudent use of any privilege with which he was invested, but he hoped he should always have firmness enough to maintain every the smallest privilege of the State he represented: that Gentlemen were exceedingly mistaken if they deemed him a man who would tamely suffer the smallest invasion or encroachment on her rights: that if that Assembly proceeded to so arbitrary and tyrannical an exertion of power, he would consider it as no longer that which ought to be trusted with the liberties of their fellow citizens, and he would shape his conduct accordingly. The Delegates of N. Hampshire, Maryland, Virginia, & South Carolina joined in this very strenuously, insisting that it was a most violent & arbitrary act of power to put any question at all on this matter; & the others (some individuals among them being of the same opinion) perceiving the determined resolution of the Delegate of North Carolina, to withdraw from Congress if any such question should be put,—they waived their opposition, and he exercised his right. The next day the adjournment was carried.

THOS. BURKE