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Letter from Thomas Burke to Richard Caswell
Burke, Thomas, ca. 1747-1783
April 29, 1778
Volume 13, Pages 403-407


York April 29th 1778.

Dr. Sir:

You will receive from the President of Congress some Extracts from the Journals relative to me which will appear very odd to you if uninformed of several attending circumstances. The history of the matter is as follows: A letter was received from General Washington relative to some resolutions of Congress which stood in the way of an Exchange of Prisoners; the House in general determined not to recede from the resolutions he complained of, which I believe I mentioned to you in a former letter. A Committee was appointed to draught a letter in answer. The draught was reported, and it appeared to several of us exceptionable in many parts, particularly in some Eulogisms on the whole Tenor of the resolutions of Congress relative to the Exchange of prisoners which we thought neither consistent with Truth or Modesty, and also in several eharges against the General of suffering the

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Dignity and Honor of the United States to be Injured, charges which were I am persuaded void of all foundation. The whole indeed appeared to several Gentlemen as well as to me to indicate in the framers a disposition not friendly to the General, nor such as so good, so Important, so public spirited and Disinterested a Character deserves. One Paragraph had taken up the whole afternoon in debate. The members of the Committee had let themselves very largely into many foreign matters, declaimed very vehemently but to no other purpose than confirming us in our former opinions, and fatiguing every faculty. At length the exceptionable parts of the Paragraph were expunged and it received a very different dress. The members of the Committee strenuously urged that we should proceed and finish the letter that night, tho' it was then after ten o'clock. The principal opposition they met with through the day was from General Reid, of Pennsylvania, Mr. Drayton, of South Carolina and myself. I labored under a very Distressing fit of an intermitting fever, which heightened by the part I was obliged to take in the Debate, and the noise of loud, incessant Declamation, occasioned so violent pain in my head that I was totally unable to attend any longer. Mr. Harnett has been several days confined and there were only Nine States represented. In vain was all this and much more which was equally forcible, urged against Sitting any longer. The Question for adjournment was put, and before it came to me I was very apprehensive it would pass in the Negative and I determined to withdraw if no other way was left, to prevent our proceeding so improperly on business of such Importance. Those who know the Opinions that had long prevailed relative to a party against a certain great officer, will not deem this resolution an absurd one, tho' perhaps it was not the most prudent that could have been formed on the Occasion. The event took place nearly as stated in the Journal and I withdrew; the Messenger attended me soon after with a message which from his manner of Delivering it and from my knowing there could be no Congress without me I did not conceive to have come from the President, but from Mr. Duer, of New York, with whom I was on Terms of particular intimacy, and who I imagined, presuming on that Intimacy, had sent for me in order to his facilitating his carrying through the Letter, which seemed to be a favourite object with him. I
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returned an answer which I intended for him and in which I was not choice of expressions. Next morning the matter was opened by a member from Massachusetts, in a very illiberal manner, but with general observations, and general Inferences of Danger and Inconvenience if such practice was to be permitted. I rose immediately, observed that the application was doubtless intended for the Event of the preceding Evening, (I did not at this time know that my answer had been reported) and therefore said nothing relative to it to the particular Event. I said little more than I was indisposed, and my faculties had been so much fatigued by the whole day's attention that I found myself unable to discharge my duty, and I conceived very few other members were. To the general Observations and Inferences I answered that an unreasonable exercise of any Power was Tyrrany, and that to keep a member at such unreasonable Hours and under such circumstances was in my opinion Tyrannical, and that I would not submit to it but by force on my person; that I considered every freeman as having a right to judge for himself when the Exercise of any Power was unreasonable, and If I erred in my judgment the power of punishing lay with the State I represented. If Congress should determine to what hour the members should attend in the afternoon as it had in the forenoon I would punctually attend, but while it was undertermined I must use my own judgment, at the risk of Incurring whatever Penalties my Country should adjudge. The members of the Committee who had framed the letter, now united, and labored strenuously to make a Mountain of this Mole-hill, talked vehemently of the insolence of appealing to the States, declared their disposition to proceed to Commitment or to Expulsion and lamented that the circumstances of Congress made my presence Necessary and prevented them from moving to such purposes. They talked very much of the Contempt in calling any act of a Majority of Congressa Tyrany. I now perceived that I was on ground which it became my Duty to maintain with consequences to myself never so fatal. I addressed the President and declared I would sit patiently until every Gentleman in the House who chose to speak should exhaust the whole of his eloquence. I would only request them that if they chose to use any abusive language (for much had been used) they would reserve it for some other place, and when every one should have
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done I would reply. I accordingly sat very patient for Hours, and at length when every one who chose it had entirely done I delivered the following Sentiments: That my opinion of the power of Congress over its members had been often given in that Assembly and was well known to be that no member could refuse his attendance or even his Vote when called on, that the States furnish quotas of Council as well as Troops, that either would be furnished in vain if the Individuals assigned could refuse to perform the requisite Duty, that my name stood to this opinion on the Journals, but the Individual must of necessity Judge whether the particular Instance in which his performance is required be reasonable or not. If he judges wrong or disobeys without just reason he incurs the penalties provided for misbehavior in office, but the power of judging and punishing Delegates was never Committed to Congress by any Express act of the State I represented, that the opinion that each freeman had a right to judge of the reasonableness or unreasonableness of any act of power, and even to resist it if unreasonable at the risk only of the Judgment of his Country, I held to be the grand Principle of Whiggism and the best Security for public Liberty, a principle which I would never forego but with my Life, that the other opinion relative to the jurisdiction of the State over its delegates seemed to me to Involve the Sovereignty of the State and its Security in a representation since it would be impossible for its representatives to assert and maintain its rights with firmness and freedom if subject to arbitrary Imprisonments, and punishments by Congress & that I would never retract it but by the Express order of the State, who alone had power to give it up. That I would not justify the particular breach of order under Consideration, but hoped it might be excused because it was not unusual nor under its particular circumstances even improper. That as I discovered great favour in all the members except a few towards me on this occasion I was exceedingly sorry my Conduct or Language had given offense; that nothing was further from my intentions, that the words I used were the only names I knew for the things I wanted to express, that I held it an unworthy Business for a republican and a representative of a free and sovereign People to be looking out for courtly Expressions. That had the matter been opened with any regard to Liberality, a few words which I
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would have said would have Satisfied the House, and put an end to it, but as the matter was managed it became Inconsistent with my Duty and my honor to make any Concession without expressly insisting on my opinions. That with this reservation I would make any apology the House should require, but without it I could make none which would not involve a breach of Trust to my Country, and no punishment could be devised which I would not meet sooner than be guilty of such an offence. The members of the Committee still persisted nothing would do but an Explicit acknowledgement of what they pleased to call my Error. I rejoined only that I knew no power who could make a man change his opinion before he was Convinced of his Error, that I was not and therefore would not acknowledge it. They procceded now to enter on the Journals such a state of facts as they pleased. I desired only that they would enter a fair and full statement, that such as they offered were far from being so. After some time it was said by the Gentlemen that I should have an opportunity of answering and could set forth any that were omitted. In my answer I acquiesced, and so did the House. They then proceeded to take down some of my Expressions in debate. I required them to take down all that would speak my full Sense, and not detached Expressions; that I would give it to them as fully as they could wish, being firmly resolved not to retract one Iota of it. But I was answered, as before, that I could supply the deficiencies in my answer, and I acquiesced. The Entries were made and the president announced them in form. I thanked him for his politeness of manner, told him I hoped I could satisfy the House that no disrespect was Intended to them, but that I avowed my opinions as I delivered them in debate; that I persisted in them, and insisted on entire freedom of Debate. I was required to return an answer to the next adjournment, which was to be in the afternoon, and I desired no longer time; but afterwards the House changed it to Monday, which was the next day of Business.