Newburgh letter

From Wikisource
 
Jump to: navigation, search
Newburgh letter  (1782) 
by Lewis Nicola
Addressed to George Washington, Newburgh, New York on May 22, 1782. The numbering of the pages follows the numbering of the scans in the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress online edition.
Section of the Newburgh letter, in: George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741–1799: Series 4. General Correspondence. 1697–1799

(Among Gen. Washingtons Letters there is a remarkable answer to the following memoir, dated May 22.d 1782)

––––––––––

The injuries the troops have received on their pecuniary right have been, & still continue to be too obvious to require particular detail, or to have escaped your Excellencies notice, tho your exalted station must have deprived you of opportunity of information relative to the severe distresses occasioned thereby. Tho doubtless the particular circumstances of the times have occasioned many of these injuries, yet we have great reason to believe they are not allowing to that cause, but often occasioned by schemes of economy in the legislatures of some States, & publick ministers, founded on unjust & iniquitous principles; and tho, as the prospect of publick affairs cleared up, the means of fulfilling engagements increased, yet the injuries, instead of being lessened, have kept pace with them. This gives us a dismal prospect for the time to come, & much reason to fear the future provision, promised to officers, and the setting & satisfying their & the men's just demands will be little attended to, when our services are no longer wanted, and that the recompense of all our toils, hardships, expence of private fortune &c during several of the best years of our lives will be, to those who cannot earn a livelyhood by manual labour, beggary, & that we who have born the heat & labour of the day will be forgot and neglected by such as reap the benefits without suffering any of the hardships.

It may be said that depreciations have been made up, but how has this been done? By depreciated paper money & certificates of such a nature as to be of little benefit to the original possessors, whose necessities have compelled them to part with those obligations to speculators for a small part of their value, never more, as far as I can learn, than one tenth, but often less. From several conversations I have had with officers, & some I have overheard among soldiers, I believe it is generally intended not to seperate after the peace 'till all grievances are redressed, engagements & promises fulfilled, but how this is to be done I am at a loss, as neither officers or soldiers can have any confidence in promises. We have no doubt of Congresses intention to act uprightly, but greatly fear that, by the interested views of others, their abilities will be equal to the task.

God forbid we should ever think of involving that country we have, render your conduct & auspices, rescued from oppression, into a new scene of blood & confusion; but it cannot be expected we should forego claims on which our future subsistance & that of our families depend.

Another difference there is between our fellow citizens and us is, that we must live under governments in the framing of which we had no hand, nor were consulted either personally or representatively, being engaged in presenting the enemy from disturbing those bodies which were entrusted with that business, the members of which would have found little mercy had they been captured.

Dangers foreseen may be removed, alleviated, or, in some cases, turned to benefits, possibly what I apprehend may be susceptible, of even the latter, by means I beg leave to propose, but must request your Excellencies patience if I digress a little before I open my project.

I own I am not that violent amdmirer of a republican form of government that numbers in this country are; this is not owing to caprice, but reason & experience. Let us consider the fate of all the modern republicks of any note, without running into antiquity, which I think would also serve to establish my system.

The republicks of later days, worth our notice, may be reduced to three, Venice, Genoa & Holland, tho the two former are rather aristocratical than republican governments, yet they resemble those more than monarchical.

These have, each in their turns, shone with great brightness, but their lustre has been of short duration, and as it were only a blaze. What figure has Holland, that in her infancy, successfully opposed the mort formidable power of Europe, made for more than half of the present century, or actually makes at present? Mistress of nearly half the commerce of the earth, has the occasioned any six or eight ships of the line have been able to oppose her, & enable to protect herself and her extensive commerce, has she not been obliged to apply for assistance to a neighbouring monarch? Does not the great similarity there is between her form of government & ours give us room to fear our fate will be like hers. Tis it not evidently appeared that during the course of this war, we have never been able to draw forth all the internal resources we are possessed of, and oppose or attack the enemy with our real vigour?

In contrast to this scene let us consider the principal monarchies of Europe, they have suffered great internal commotions, have worried each other, have had periods of vigour & weakness, yet they still subsist & shine with lustre. It must not be concluded from this that I am a partisan for absolute monarchy, very far from it, I am sensible of its defects, the only conclusion I would draw from the comparison is, that the energy of the latter is more beneficial to the existance of a nation than the wisdoms of the former. A monarch may often be governed by wise & moderate councels, but it is hardly possible for large bodies to plan or execute vigourous ones.

The inference I would deduce from what I have premised is, that each form of government has its defective & valuable parts, therefore that form which partakes of all, or most of the latter & is purged of the former, must be the most eligible.

In the brittish Government we have a sketch of this, far, it is true from perfect, but no despicable basis of a good one. The english constitution has been the result of repeated strugles between prince & people, but never received anything of a regular or stable form still the revolution, & yet is still short of perfection. The principal defects are pointed out by the experience of almost a century, & I believe may be reduced to two, one in the legislative the other in the executive authorities. Were elections annual, & confined to representatives for countries a & few large trading cities only, & all contributing to the support of government priviledged to elect, and had the king no command of money beyond what is requisite to the support of his family & court, suitable to the dignity of his station, I believe the constitution would approach much nearer to that degree of perfection to which sublunary things are limited. In a well regulated legislative body I conceive a third branch necessary. Montesquieu[1] observes that a hereditary nobility is requisite in a monarchy but incompatible with a republick, taking this for granted, some degree of nobility may be proper in a mixed government, but limited, suppose not hereditary.

I shall now proceed to my scheme.

Congress has promised all those that continue in the service certain traits of land, agreable to their grades, some states have done the same, others have not, probable owing to their not having lands to give, but as all the military have equalments so have they equal claims to such rewards, therefore, they ought all to be put on a footing by the united States.

Besides those who may be actually in the service at the peace, I conceive all those dismissed, or put on half pay, through schemes of economy, have equal rights, as they being out of the service was not volontary. These things premised, I think Congress should take on itself the discharging all such engagements, made, or that ought to be made, for lands & discharge them by procuring a sufficient tract in some of the best of those fruitful & extensive countries to the west of our frontiers, so that each individual should have his due, all unprofitable mountains & swamps, also lakes & rivers within the limits of this tract not to be reckoned as any part of the lots, but thrown in for the benefit of the whole community. This tract to be formed into a distinct State under such mode of government as those military who choose to remove to it may agree on.

Debts due to the army should be adjusted with dispatch & liquidated in the following manner. One third to be paid immediately, to enable the setlers to buy tools for trades & husbandry, & some stock, the other two thirds by four notes payable, with interest, in three months, & the others on the same terms at three months interval betwee each payment. In order to give such notes a due value, good funds should be appropriated for the discharge of principal & interest, but previous to such first payment & notes given, a sum should be deducted from each non commissioned & private mans debt, sufficient to victual him & family for one year from the first harvest succeeding the arrival of the colony to the granted lands; during the intermediate time those persons to be victualled at the expence of the continent, & also to receive pay & clothing to the time the accounts are all adjusted & the troops ready to march.

Officers being entitled to halfpay, such as choose to emigrate, should have provisions &c allowed them as above & quarterly notes with interest for three years full pay to commence & be computed from the time they begin their march, in full discharge of all such half pay. As I have already observed that it may be objected depreciations & other payments have been made good; but can a just debt be equitably discharged by certificates of very small comparative value, or depreciated paper money? Certainly no, consequently the States are still bound to make good the deficiency. To this it will probably be answered that those certificates have generally passed into other hands, who have paid a consideration for them; but what consideration? A tenth or a twentieth of the principal value expressed therein, independent of interest; and is it not generally understood in some States, if not in all, that when those certificates are to be paid off they will be estimated at no more than what was given for them? I therefore conceive the following rules should be observed in discharge of these obligations.

Every person in whose favour a certificate has been or shall be given, & who will keep it to the conclusion of the war, to be paid its full value.

To every person paid in depreciated money the depreciation thereof to be made good.

To the original possessors of certificates sold two thirds of the value expressed, the other third to be considered as received when the certificate was sold. This is certainly much beyond what, on an average, has been received for all certificates sold, but as it will be difficult, if at all possible, to ascertain in a reasonable time the money paid, it is requisite to fix some rule.

This war must have shewn to all, but to military men in particular the weakness of republicks, & the exertions the army has been able to make by being under a proper head, therefore I little doubt, when the benefits of a mixed government are pointed out & duly considered, but such will be readily adopted; in this case it will, I believe, be uncontroverted that the same abilities which have lead us, through difficulties apparently unsurmountable by human power, to victory & glory, those qualities that have merited & obtained the universal esteem & veneration of an army, would be most likely to conduct & direct us in the smoother paths of peace.

Some people have so connected the ideas of tyranny & monarchy as to find it very difficult to seperate them, it may therefore be requisite to give the head of such a constitution as I propose, some title apparently more moderate, but if all other things were once adjusted I believe strong arguments might be produced for admitting the title of king, which I conceive would be attended with some material advantages.

I have hinted that I believed the United States would be benefited by my scheme, this I conceive would be done, by having a savage & cruel enemy seperated from their borders, by a body of veterans, that would be as an advanced guard, securing the main body from danger. There is no doubt but Canada will some time or other be a seperate State, and from the genious & habits of the people, that its government will be monarchical. May not casualties produce enmity between this new State & our Union, & may not its force under the direction of an active prince prove too powerful for the efforts of republicks? It may be answered that in a few years we shall acquire such vigour as to baffle all inimicel at temps. I grant that our numbers & riches will increase, but will our governments have energy enough to draw them forth? Will those States remote from the danger be jealously anxious to assist those most exposed? Individuals in Holland abound in wealth, yet the government is poor & weak.

Republican bigots will certainly consider my opinions as heterodox, and the maintainer thereof as meriting fire & faggots, I have therefore hitherto kept them within my own breast. By freely communicating them to your Excellency I am persuaded I own no risk, & that, tho disapproved of, I need not apprehend their ever being disclosed to my prejudice.

(The above by Col. Nicola)

Notes[edit]

  1. MontesquieuCharles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), a french social commentator and political thinker who is famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers.