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Circular letter from Robert Morris to the state governors
Morris, Robert, 1734-1806
October 21, 1782
Volume 16, Pages 430-434

[From Executive Letter Book.]


Office of Finance, 21st October, 1782.


I have on many occasions warned the States of the consequences which must follow from delays in supplying the Public Treasury. The expence which attends such delays has frequently been mentioned, and instances daily occur to show how far the Public burthens are increased by the want of a time provision. To cite them all would be endless, but there is one of no inconsiderable magnitude which I think it proper to state for you consideration. I have contracted on the part of the United States for the supply of rations to the main Army at ten pence Pennsylvania Currency and to the Garrison at West Point for nine pence, half penny, and had agreed

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to pay at the commencement of each Month for the issues of the preceding Month.

These beneficial contracts have been dissolved by my inability to make punctual payments which rendered the Contractors incapable of performing their engagements; after many efforts on my part to supply the want of Cash and on their part to substitute private Credit and promises in the place of ready money they found it impracticable to proceed farther on the moderate Terms Stated in the Contract. Some of them told me and asked (what any person in their situation would have asked) the promise of indemnification for any damages they might sustain and a promise to pay at the end of each month one-half the amount of Issues for the preceeding month in Coin and three times the remaining half in Bills or Notes receivable in Taxes.

They offered, if I would agree to these propositions, to go on and supply the Army, but declared that if I would not they could no longer perform their engagements. From this moment I was obliged to consider the contract as dissolved, because the dissolution of it appeared to be inevitable. I had already, by entering into the contract, promised on the part of the Public a payment of the whole money due for the monthly issues. A new promise of the half would have given no additional security, and, therefore, I considered that stipulation as a request that I should on my private and personal honor assure them the Public Funds would enable me to make such payment. But of this I had no good prospects. The greater part of what little came in from Taxes was the same kind of Paper with that they asked for, being what I had long before issued for other services.

If, indeed, I could have trusted the assurances made to me, I might have given the assurances required by them. But experience has taught me caution, and the event has shown that if I had made the promise I should have now been chargeable with falsehood. I think the Contractors were prudent in requiring a Promise of indemnification—their situation made it necessary. But it was a promise which I could not make, for altho’ I had reason to confide in their integrity, and would have done it in my private capacity, yet as a public officer I could not, for there would have been no longer any certainty of the extent to which their expenditures might have

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been carried after it should have been a matter of indifference to their private Interest what prices should be given for supplies.

Thus, Sir, I found myself reduced to the alternative of making a new agreement for subsistence of the Army and Garrison, or of leaving them to subsist themselves by Military collection. The latter was to be avoided if possible, for it would have been the most expensive mode of obtaining supplies, not to mention other consequences. The former, therefore, was to be adopted, and I accordingly gave Instructions to Mr. Cornell, the inspector of the Contractors, to consult with the Commander-in-Chief and to take the necessary arrangements. It could not have been expected that a contract, dictated by necessity, could be made on economical terms, and the inability to perform old engagements would necessarily influence the rate of new ones. Besides this, it was indispensably necessary to obtain a longer credit, because otherwise the Burthen would have been shifted and not removed, and the evil must have returned with equal speed and greater magnitude. Under such unfavorable circumstances it is necessary to pay for credit in order to obtain it.

A new contract is made, and the rations issued now are to be paid for three months hence at the rate of thirteen pence Pennsylvania Currency per Ration, which is in advance of about one-third upon the former price. The people, therefore, will pay for this advance of Monies equal to feeding the Army at the rate of thirty-three and one-third per Cent. for three Months, or to make the matter more simple, they must pay for feeding them three months as much as could have fed them four months.

Besides this, the public credit sustains material injury, and damages will be expected by the former Contractors. If, Sir, it should be supposed that this is the only instance of loss sustained from the low State of the Treasury, it is a great mistake. The attempt to establish economical systems is vain unless we can support them with punctuality. Congress have placed me in a situation where I am exposed in the first instance to claims and demands, but these must come home to the several Legislatures, and eventually to their Constituents.

My situation, therefore, makes it a duty to expostualte freely on the Circumstances of my department. I am not to learn that free representatives will sometimes give offence, and I know that those

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will always be most offended who are most in fault, but I shall make no apologies for what I have to say. It is necessary that the Truth should be known to the Public. To our Enemies it is known already, and has been for a long time. They hold up to Contempt and derision the contrast between Resolutions to carry on the War at every expence, and the receipts of nothing in some States and little in all of them put together. Those who count Public favor at the expence of Public good are very apt to inveigh against Taxes, and to flatter the indolent and avaricious with the idea that War can be carried on without Labor or money. But it is time for the People to distinguish between their flatterers and their friends, sooner or later the current expence must be paid, and that payment must come from the Purses of Individuals. If it were made in season it would be lighter by one half than it is. Congress have called for a certain Sum, and that sum punctually paid would have answered the purpose, but they cannot be responsible for the consequences of delay. The expences will necessarily, in such cases, exceed their Calculations, and of course further sums must be required.

There are certain arguments, Sir, which ought not to be used if it is possible to avoid them, but which every one invested with Public Authority should suggest to his own mind for the Government of his own Conduct. How long is a Nation who will do nothing for itself to rely on the aid of others? In a War waged by one Country to obtain Revenue from another what is to be expected in case of conquest? How long will one part of the Community bear the Burthens of the whole? How long will any Army undergo want in the midst of plenty. How long will they endure misery without complaint, injustice without reproach and wrongs without redress? These are questions which cannot be solved by arithmetical Calculation. The moral causes which may procrastinate or precipitate events are hidden from Mortal view. But it is within the bounds of human knowledge to determine that all earthly things have some limits which it is imprudent to exceed, others which it is dangerous to exceed, and some which can never be exceeded. It is possible that we are near the close of this War, and perhaps we are only in the Middle of it. But if the War should continue we have to blame ourselves, for were those resources called

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forth into action, which we really possess, the Foreign Enemies would soon lose all hope and abandon their enterprise. The greatest injury, therefore, which we sustain is not from Foreign but domestic Enemies from those who impede the necessary exertions.

I have mentioned one, among many instances, to show the Consequences of withholding the Public Revenue, and I take the liberty to observe that it would be more manly to declare at once for unlimited submission to British Tyrany than to make specious Declarations against it, and yet take the direct road to bring it about by opposing the measures necessary for our defence, that open declaration will doubtless be restrained by the fear of General resentment, but the other Conduct is so much the more dangerous as it is calculated to close peoples’ Eyes, while they approach the precipice, that they may be thrown down with greater ease and more absolute certainty.

I trust that your Excellency and every other real friend to our Country will urge forward that speedy and effectual Collection of Taxes which can alone give vigor and stability to all our measures, and I risque nothing when I assert that the Public Service shall be performed (if the proper Revenues be obtained) at less than half of what would otherwise be expended.

I am, Sir,
With perfect respect,
Your Excy’s, &c.,