Letter from Thomas Burke to William Williams
Burke, Thomas, ca. 1747-1783
Volume 16, Pages 251-255
TO COL. WILLIAM WILLIAMS FROM GOV. THOS. BURKE.
[From Executive Letter Book.]
Halifax, March 28th, 1782:
It gives me great pain to expostulate with a Gentleman, for whom I had much esteem, on part of his conduct that seems to me to derogate from his candor and discretion, but the manner in which you have taken the liberty to speak in your passage through this State relatively to my escape from the Enemy makes it indispensable.
You have, I am told, thought proper to say that I had misrepresented the opinion of General Greene and his officers, that I had left Head Quarters precipitately, by which and taking upon me the administration of Government, I was considered by the army as having acted in a manner disgraceful to the State and the United States. How far the injuring or insulting an absent man and relatively to an affair so circumstanced as mine is allowable, will easily be decided by a man of true dignity of mind, which widely differs from an overweening arrogance. And whether you have thought proper to suppose me destitute of the qualities requisite of maintaining my rank in Society, or to defy them is an inquiry of no importance, as either would lead to the same consequences. But at present the matter as to the insult must rest. As to the injury, give
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me leave to say that you are mistaken in the conjectures which you have advanced for facts. I made no representation at all of the opinion of the Officers at Camp, except that they deemed the leaving a prisoner on parole, exposed to assassination would justify an escape, but that they did not know that it applied to me, because they perceived that I was equally influenced by another motive, the apprehensions of close confinement, but did not advert to its being as the subject of retaliation for criminals, and that upon the whole they thought the Enemy had a claim of exchange for me.
You, Sir, who were at the time Adjutant General, can scarcely be ignorant that this was not a misrepresentation. I will venture to assert it was only the opinion of the officers which was ever made known to me, and that it was contained in a report which General Greene showed me, but which he did not put into my possession. General Greene’s opinion, so far as he delivered it to me, was, that he considered me in a situation delicate, critical and distressing, involved in a dilemma which obliged me either to bring my honor into question or to sacrifice my life, that had he been in my place, he should rather have abided by fate than incurred the strictures of friends and Enemies and in order to put the matter on such footing as to prevent my Enemies, open and concealed, from having it in their power to tax me with a base or mean intention, he advised me to the measures which I have since pursued. This was the opinion I represented and pursuant to which I acted and he is too much a man of truth and honor to leave it in any man’s power to inflict so injurious a stigma as that of Misrepresentation on me, even if I had it not from under his own hand. If General Greene did not communicate this opinion to you, you might conjecture that he intended some other, but you are not justifiable on conjecture merely, to assert that it was a misrepresentation.
Upon what principles you could say or suppose that my departure from Camp was precipitate, I cannot discover. I think you can scarcely be uninformed that I remained as long as General Greene thought necessary, that he accompanied me as far as Jacksonborough and ordered escorts to attend me to Charlotte in this State. Your candor did not go so far as to suggest to you that it was necessary for me to hasten to the place, where the Legislature of the State, to whom alone I was accountable, were expected to be then
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convened, nor that I had a family peculiarly anxious and distressed in consequence of an imprisonment which threatened me with the worst of consequences, and in which I was neglected as well by the Armies as the Councils of America. These circumstances might have been expected to have occurred to a man of candor even had the fact been that I departed precipitately and had there been any reason for my loitering idly near a Camp merely to have waited the strictures of a few officers and very few I hope will be so indiscreet, who like Colonel Williams might take great liberties in pronouncing, concerning the mode of my escape, forgetting that while a prisoner, the Army, though triumphant, had utterly neglected me and who, I doubt, would have made themselves very easy if I had been privately murdered or publicly executed. I am free to declare, Sir, that I pay no regards to the opinions of such men, though I have the highest respect for men of candor, which I suppose and hope the generality of the Officers of the Army to be, and which I once thought Colonel Williams. Men of candor will scarcely expect me to have remained in a situation which was deemed too dangerous by some of the most intrepid officers of the Army, after I had given notice of my situation and apprehensions, nor will they expect, that neglected as I already was, and with the example of Colonel Haynes before me, with the evidence before me of the contempt and harshness with which the Militia were treated and the impunity which the Enemy experienced in all those cases, nor, I say, will they expect that I should remain in the power of an Enemy who had certainly marked me out as a subject for retaliation, should the civil Laws which would not be dispensed with, be executed. They will not expect me to have sacrificed myself to the opinion of an Army who paid no regard to my situation, when closely confined as a prisoner of State and neither knew nor inquired my fate; and I am also free to say, that an officer of that Army, when he speaks of my escape, ought to speak with some diffidence and modesty; he ought to remember that he can never be in so unprotected a State, he ought to remember that an individual who derives no protection from a Corps, is with an ill grace required to sacrifice himself for the advantage or convenience of that Corps.
Be assured, Sir, that I felt the neglect with which I was treated, and the more keenly, as I was persuaded that I had merited, even
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as an individual some regard, and as an Officer and Magistrate of high rank I was certainly intitled to it. Nevertheless, I could not prevail on myself to remove from a danger which was by every one considered as eminent until I had the clearest conviction that the Enemy never considered the Militia and Continental as reciprocal hostages but that the latter were treated with great politeness while the most contemptuous distinction was (wisely in them, however, it may be in us) made with respect to the former. Let me remind you too of a remark, obvious enough, though it seems to have escaped you. I knew that the case admitted by the officers to justify an escape applied to me though the officers did not. I felt it, they did not perceive it. Their opinion was asked, their judgment I was not amenable to nor did I submit to it. I knew that I was in the predicament they supposed, and, therefore, even in their opinion justifiable. I doubt not upon fuller information, their hypothetical opinion will be absolute.
As to my resuming the Government, I have no doubt that the candid and sensible part of mankind will approve it when they know the reasons which induced me thereto, even though it had not been agreeable to General Greene’s opinion.
Those reasons are immaterial to you. I shall give them to my Country, because they have a right to them, and to my friends whom I wish to satisfy. My Enemies, if I have any, must, I think, be destitute of candor if they will not confess that I was impelled by a sense of duty and regard to the public weal to take upon me a disagreeable, difficult and injurious service to prevent derangements whose consequences might be felt even by that Army, who you say, have censured me, a fact which you will allow me to doubt as well as from my information from thence, as from my opinion of their candor and rectitude, which cannot admit that they would censure rashly and without information, what was approved by their General.
I hope Sir, after considering this letter that I have a right not only to request, but to demand that when in future you speak of this matter you will be cautious to assert that I have misrepresented the opinion of General Greene and his officers, nor that my departure from Camp and resuming my Government were disapproved by General Greene. As to your own opinions, if you will rashly form
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them in affairs wherein you seem to be very illy informed and deliver them without the distinction of a man of sense or candor of a Gentleman, I am persuaded that they will soon be of no weight and will give very little pain to,
Yr. H’ble. Servt.,