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Letter from Thomas Burke to Nathanael Greene
Burke, Thomas, ca. 1747-1783
May 05, 1782
Volume 16, Pages 312-319

[From Executive Letter Book]

Hillsboro, May 5th, 1782.

Dear Sir:

Your letter of the 27th ulto., in answer to mine of the 28th of March and that respecting the exchange of the prisoners condemned at Salisbury with its enclosures, were sent to me this morning for perusal by my successor.

Although I am now entirely detached from all public concerns, and resolved forever to keep myself so, at least while I remain a Citizen of this State, I think I owe to you, for whom both as a public and private character, I entertain a very high respect and esteem, that I leave no part of that business which we transacted in our official characters under any doubts or obscurities. This consideration induces me to trouble you with some observations which may tend to elucidate a subject of such vast importance as that of the Cartel, of which our correspondence has largely and freely treated.

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When your letter of the 24th of February made it my official duty to consider this subject, I foresaw from the resolution I had formed of retiring that I should not be able to finish what it might be necessary for me to begin.

I was, however, desirous of co-operating as far as was in my power to the great Federal object, and, therefore, was careful to develope principles and mark out distinctions which would give a rule of conduct easy to be pursued by my successor from the point where my execution must terminate.

I foresaw that every successor must be involved like me in difficulties between the particular interests of the State and the general interest of the confederacy.

I foresaw the probability of the vast prevalence of the former over the latter among men whose senses were immediately and incessantly impressed by the one, while they had but obscure and speculative ideas of the other, and I saw clearly that it would be impracticable to pursue a line leading to the utility of the latter unless the former appeared out of danger.

As few men in this State had given the same attention to those subjects and had equal opportunities of investigating them with myself, and as the first steps were necessarily to be taken by me, I conceived that investigating and marking out the line devolved upon me, and with these views and in this persuasion, I wrote my letter to you of the 28th of March, in which I am persuaded that you will find the only line on which the Chief Magistrate of this State can act relatively to the Cartel without sacrificing on the one hand the particular interest of the State to the Confederacy, or by too minute a regard to the particular interests or too blameable and weak a compliance to clamor and passionate prejudice on the other, to distract the measures of the Confederacy, which are often too powerful even over men of considerable firmness and resistible only by men of prudence and consummate fortitude.

Men, who like you and I, have been long attentive to the great objects of all America, and have examined them by the great principles of general utility, will not differ very widely in their judgments nor will anything more than a fair discussion be requisite for bringing them to an exact uniformity.

When I peruse your letter and review my own ideas, I can perceive

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no material difference in our opinions, and if there be any seeming difference, I am apprehensive it has arisen from my declining, studious perhaps of brevity too strict for an extensive subject, to express what I deemed already known and conceded.

To avoid troubling you with a detail of reasoning, I will give you my opinion of the subject of our correspondence, where we seem to differ, in one connected idea and leave you to compare it with your own. It is no otherwise material than as it may enable you clearly to understand what is the sense of this State relatively to that subject and what will probably be adopted as the rule of conduct, for the sense of my letter of the 28th of March is undoubtedly the sense of the whole community, though in some instances I am afraid that it will give way to weakness, passion or prejudice.

The Militia who are subjects of exchange are only such as are subjects of Military capture. Such are only those who at the time of capture are in Arms under public authority. All such as assume the character of soldiers for the public, ought by the public to be regarded and protected as Soldiers.

Any distinction afterwards tends to render the Militia Soldier inefficient in the field and deter the whole body of the Militia from the service.

The martial spirit dies in a degraded man, nor can he be made a Soldier except by the force of discipline to which it would be vain to expect Militia to submit, nor can it be expected that a man will willingly leave his home to go into a field where he expects to be exposed to equal danger with any other rank of men, but where he is considered as an object of far less regard, and from whence should he be carried into Captivity, he is not considered as an object of equal relief and protection.

This applies forcibly to all ranks of the Militia and particularly to the officers. If the men of highest temper and best fitted for the purpose be officers, the degradation will be intolerable to them. They will perceive that their danger of death, captivity or dishonor will be greater than regular officers, in the proportion that Regular Troops excel Militia in firmness, expertness and obedience, and they will also perceive that the preference in favor of regulars exposes them to languish, neglected in captivity and suffer the contempt and scorn of the Enemy. Hence it will inevitably follow, that no man

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will go into the field who can avoid it; officers and privates will be composed of men insensible to honor, and who, having neither property or reputation to value, take the first opportunity of flight.

When neither money nor menaces can force such men into the field, the Militia service will be at an end, and even the feeble force derived from them will be lost.

If the Enemy can be repulsed from the United States without Militia this will be no evil. If not, it is a very great one and must end in conquest, and it is a question well worth mature consideration, whether by the bulk of the people, submission be deemed a greater evil than the Militia service.

To trust our defence altogether to such a Militia as ours deserves a harsher name than folly, but it does not follow that the auxiliary aid of the Militia is unnecessary. If not necessary it ought to be rendered as efficient as possible, and everything tending to destroy it altogether ought to be avoided. Regular Armies are not so formidable to liberty in Republics as in Monarchies.

Militia is not so necessary for its perservation in the former as in the latter. When Republics degenerate into factions, the people, whether Regulars or Militia, Soldiers or Citizens, range themselves under separate heads and all soon become Soldiers. The leader of the greatest industry and abilities always prevails. The Republic ceases to exist when the factions appeal to the sword. The victor establishes a Monarchy of some kind, against him and his Soldiers it is that it is necessary for the people to always to be armed in order to make it terrible to him to risk a conflict wherein he may lose everything, but can give only a few usurpations which might be seized without risk from an unarmed people. But in Republics where the people and the Soldiers have no distinct rights or preeminences, and where the one is the object of envy nor the other of fear, liberty has nothing to apprehend from a Regular Army nor is Militia a better security for its preservation.

Shall I venture to say what I really think? That ambition will prevail more among the leaders of the Militia, who will also be more easily be made instruments of faction. Militia leaders will always have their eyes on Civil honor and emolument for which Military men seldom have any relish. Think on the subject, search History for examples. You will probably agree with me.

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It is not for the eternal preservation of liberty that Militia are so necessary for a free people. It is because industry is encouraged, obtains and enjoys property as its reward, and, therefore, few are found so indigent as to make the condition of a common regular Soldier eligible. In that species of force they must always be deficient and must fall a prey to invaders, were not the want supplied by the well regulated and well provided Militia.

In our Country where the obtaining of property even without industry, is so easy, this species of force becomes certainly the more necessary, and though our Militia is not, nor under our present maxims and arrangements, will it ever be an efficient force, yet it cannot be denied that Militia may be made every way equal to the defence of their Country.

Most Countries would find themselves safe under such Militia as that of Switzerland, and many Countries have raised Militia even to be formidable abroad. Firmness, expertness and obedience in the Soldiers and experience and genius in the officers constitute a formidable Army.

Actual service must give all the requisites except genius, and even that it must improve.

Is any order of men incapable of this, whether called Regulars or Militia? Had our Militia always been well regulated and commanded what a vast body of Veterans must a seven years’ War have produced!

What power could insult us with impunity? Is it prudent to make distinctions which persuade them that they are worthless cowards with no Military character to support and which deter the best and bravest either from serving or commanding?

Do not suppose, Sir, that I attribute those distinctions to you. Where they originated, I really know not, but suspect they stole in upon us from the Royal Army which we have been accustomed to observe.

The subject is copious and interesting, for should the War continue, or after a little time revive, the difficulties in obtaining Regular Troops will become insurmountable, and either the War must be given up or Militia must in a great measure be relied on.

But I have already pursued it farther than I intended, and I suppose have said enough to satisfy you as to what Militia I deem

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equally entitled to exchange with Regulars, to which, if we confine ourselves, you will perceive most of your objections answered and that both justice and policy forbid any distinctions.

I did not precisely explain myself on this head in my letter of the 28th of March because I deemed the principle long settled and admitted; that mere Citizens not taken in arms under public authority were neither subjects of Military capture or exchange.

This precision was also wanting in the expression of the Cartel, and, therefore, the Enemy immediately set themselves to making prisoners of all the Citizens of this State as Militia, which enabled them to hold out a security to those who joined them and was one great cause of the increase of their avowed adherents.

The principle, I was well acquainted with, because I was in Congress when it was settled, and corresponded officially thereon with General Washington.

I have lately learned that I have been considered as the founder of it in that Assembly, probably because the elucidation of it in debate fell principally to me. An attempt was even made to make the land service a subject of exchange and retaliation for the Sea service even Privateers and Merchantmen. I opposed it successfully on principles and with arguments which will readily occur to you.

Another attempt was made to order Military men into confinement for Mr. Laurens. I opposed that also on the principle which I am persuaded Mr. Laurens himself would have done. That as we were not then in a condition to retaliate with advantage, an attempt would only subject our army to similar or perhaps greater vigor from the Enemy without producing any advantage to the gentleman whom we were all anxious to protect and relieve. But, at the same time, we all agreed that General Burgoyne was a proper subject of exchange and retaliation for him, and that Lord Cornwallis would be, if in our hands, which we then vainly expected. Occasion has been taken from those occurrences in Congress. I am informed by one of the Delegates from this State they attribute to me the founding a distinction between the regular Military character and all others in the articles of exchange and Retaliation, and upon this ground is founded that interpretation which I hinted to you

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in a letter respecting my exchange and of which I had then but an imperfect account, with what justice I leave you to judge.

I will trouble you only with two observations more on this subject. Citizen for Citizen and Soldier for Soldier in my mind, differ materially from Regular for Regular and Militia for Militia. Militia and Regular in actual service are both Soldiers, but of differerent species. Citizens are such as are not employed by the community in any Military duty.

Such are all the Merchantile people taken at Sea, but Militia of the Enemy in our Country must imply their conquest of some part of the territory. The word in the English language meaning inhabitants of the land belonging in dominion to the Sovereign under whose standard they fight.

Though the Militia return home from captivity, yet new succors of Militia from the same body are always sent to reinforce the Army and were measures taken to make them better soldiers than they are, the Enemy would derive no advantage, because the weight of the battalions would compensate for the discipline.

I know this is reasoning from what ought to be rather than from what is, but I am of opinion that rendering what is what ought to be, is an important object.

Remember, Sir, that these are the opinions of a private man, and, therefore, they are more full and free than I deemed it prudent to express as those of the Magistrate. They are intended for your private ear and to be used only as you shall deem it expedient. If they produce any good, I am well satisfied. Your judgment will prevent their doing any harm to the public and your candor to the individual.

As to what respects the exchange of the prisoners in Salisbury I can only say that my proceedings in that business are far from popular and that my successor has expressed great fear of proceeding in the same line. I foresaw this, and, therefore, assumed a decisive and I hope unexceptionable style in order that nothing be left to any improper contingency. I am, however, of opinion that neither Assembly nor Governor can get over the matter as it stands, and as I acted on clear, sound principles, I shall never be afraid to face any inquiry. The gratifying the rage of a few zealots near Salisbury, was in my mind less than nothing compared to the general

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utility and the national honor, and could I ballance between them I should detest myself.

I stipulated for an exchange of officers of this State, but I intended not to be confined merely to them. The Enemy I find oblige themselves to exchange for any American officers of equal rank.

My wish is, and I can only now express my wish, that the exhange should be Colonel Clark of this State for Colonel Bryant, Lieutenant Colonel Washington for Lieutenant Colonel Hampton and Captain Read, my Aide, when I was taken, for Captain White. I will not urge any argument in favor of a preference to my wishes in this affair. With you they are unnecessary. But I am persuaded that very few better officers, if any, are in captivity than these I mention, and consequently the United States cannot derive greater advantage from the exchange of any other. I enquired whether this would be a degradation to those gentlemen before I formed my mind. I was answered in the negative. If I am mistaken, I am certain that they will excuse me.

I wish you, Sir, always to think me, what I really am,
With Sincere Regard, Gratitude and Esteem,
Your Obedt. Servant,