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Letter from Thomas Burke to Hugh Shiel
Burke, Thomas, ca. 1747-1783
1781
Volume 15, Pages 83-86

DR. THOMAS BURKE TO HIS SECOND (IN SULLIVAN MATTER).

Dr. Sir:

I have waited long with patience, but not without uneasiness, for the result of the Conference which General Sullivan proposed upon your Communicating to him the Message of which you were so obliging as to take charge. I consented to that proposition, not because I approved it, but because I would not be thought to have a disposition averse to the more amiable mode of deciding our affair. I felt, indeed, the indelicacy of permitting any person to Judge in an affair of honor; but as the proposition came from the party called on, and the reference was only to be to the Seconds, and as I have the highest Confidence in your Judgment and Sense of honor, I got over my reluctance. I expected that

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the discussion would be liberal, candid and ingenuous, and apprehended nothing like the refinements and Subtleties which you tell me are Insisted on. The Questions seem to me clear and Simple and the state of the matter short.

An Officer writes a letter to Congress, reflecting very Injuriously on a member of that Assembly who had represented his conduct in the action of Brandywine. Only one Member had made that representation, and that member must have been known to the whole assembly; but the Officer might not have known him, tho' it was highly probable that whoever informed him of the representation that was made informed him of the Member who made it. The Member, in order to put the matter out of doubt, wrote to the Officer, fully stating the representations he had given, the opinions he declared and still entertained, and the motives for both, which could only be a Sense of duty, and not personal ill will, the Officer being personally a Stranger to the Member. The member, having thus fully informed the Officer, requires him to make proper Satisfaction for the Insult offered in the letter to Congress, if it was intended for him who now wrote to the Officer, and assured him that if the Satisfaction was refused a personal Interview must be the Consequence. The Officer refused giving the satisfaction required, in a letter which refers this member to Certificates relative to the officer's general Conduct and personal courage, and Insinuating, very Indelicately, that the member was prejudiced. The member answered this letter, and having animadverted on the Certificates and other matters, finally considers the refusal of the satisfaction required as a declaration of the choice of the other alternative. The Officer replied in terms highly offensive, being no less than that the member was neither a man of Truth nor a Gentleman.

Accidents for a long time prevented their meeting, and when they came in reach of each other the member renewed his application, and required the matter to be closed by one alternative or the other. The Officer proposed that the Seconds should decide what was to be done, to which the member agreed. In short The Officer Insulted the member by a public address to the first assembly in America, and the Insult must remain on their records. The member gave no provocation except in discharging what he deemed his duty, and free from all personal ill will or regard.

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The member very explicitly declares his Conduct, his opinions and his motives, and requires satisfaction for the affront. The officer afterwards writes several very offensive and injurious letters to member, and it seems, it is Contended, that the member's having declared that he still held the opinions he gave in Congress is sufficient to Justify an affront that was given long before such declaration, and also all the Subsequent injurious language of the Officer. This appears to me very absurd; and, indeed, I plainly perceive from it that he who contends for it thinks that the member ought not to have felt at all for the affront given by the Officer, tho' in a letter addressed to the first assembly in America, and to be on their records, but ought, in the most mild and Supplicating language, to have requested an Explanation, and that afterwards the Officer was not bound to any such delicacy in expostulating with the member, but was at liberty to use the most reproachful Terms in the language, and it is highly unreasonable in the member to be offended. In a word it amounts to this: Officers are under No Necessity to observe any delicacy with Members of Congress or private Gentlemen, and yet members of Congress or private Gentlemen must be extremely delicate and Circumspect even when they demand satisfaction for injuries.

I assure you; Sir, I consider this kind of refinement and Subtlety as trifling with the feelings of a man of honor, and I feel it as little less than a Second Insult, and I am extremely unwilling to admit of any further Negotiation. However, as I do not wish to be thought desirous of coming to too serious a decision unnecessarily, I will agree that one Gentleman be consulted by the Seconds if they themselves cannot agree, and I have no objection to Mr. Wilson. But I must positively forbid the Communication of it to more than one, and even to that one it must be under the most Sacred injunctions of Secrecy.

To prevent, also, all pretence for refinements in future, I will here state the Questions which alone I will agree to submit. Was my Conduct as a member of Congress sufficient provocation for the affront given by General Sullivan in his letter to Congress?

As this affront was given previous to any letter of mine to General Sullivan, I must insist that nothing in my letter can or shall be admitted to extenuate it, except only the representations which it relates to have been made in Congress. This being the

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Testimony of that Conduct, given explicitly by myself, Were any Asperities in my letters sufficient to Justify the reproachful language in General Sullivan's answers?

To this surely should be referred what ever may be deemed offensive in my letters, and not to the Letter to Congress, which Contained an affront to A member who, tho' not named, was Necessarily known to the whole Assembly, and which existed long before I wrote any letter.

If the submission is refused on these Terms, I must entreat you to proceed in the business on the Original ground.

I am, Dr. Sir, yours,
THOS. BURKE.