Saturday, July 10, 2010

English Reverend Helps American Prisoners

On Sept. 29, 1783, Congress passed a resolution thanking Englishman Rev. Thomas Wren "for his humane and benevolent attention" to American prisoners detained at Portsmouth.

In his response, the Reverend observed, "All possible assistance to men suffering so deeply, and in such a cause, appeared to me to be, in the strictest sense, my duty."

The Rev. Dr. Thomas Wren to Elias Boudinot, 12 Feb. 1784, in Varnum Lansing Collins, The Continental Congress at Princeton (Princeton, NJ: The University Library, 1908), page 271.

No Religious Qualifications for Office

James Madison, from Virginia, on the Constitution's prohibition of religious tests for public office:

"Who are to be the objects of popular choice? Every citizen whose merit may recommend him to the esteem and confidence of his country. No qualification of wealth, of birth, of religious faith, or of civil profession is permitted to fetter the judgement or disappoint the inclination of the people."

--From Number 57 of The Federalist Papers

Ralph Ketcham includes Federalist 57 in Selected Writings of James Madison (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2006), but Yale's The Avalon Project concedes that either Madison or Nevis-born Alexander Hamilton wrote #57.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Custom of All Civilized Nations

On May 11, 1776, George Washington wrote to John Hancock, the President of Congress, "Before I have done, with the utmost deference and respect I would beg leave to remind Congress of my former letters and applications respecting the appointment of proper persons to superintend and take direction of such prisoners as have already fallen and will fall into our hands in the course of the war, being fully convinced that if there were persons appointed for, and who would take the whole management of them under their care, that the Continent would save a considerable sum of money by it, and the prisoners be better treated and provided with real necessaries than what they now are...."

Washington considered the appointment of a commissary for prisoners a "matter of much importance," adding, "Such establishments are agreeable to the practice and usage of the English and other nations, and are founded on principles of necessity and publick utility."

George Washington hoped, among other concerns, to insure consistently good treatment of prisoners. "I shall only subjoin one more, and then have done on the subject; which is, that many of the towns where prisoners have been already sent, not having convenience for, or the means of keeping them, complain they are burdensome, and have become careless, inattentive, and altogether indifferent whether they escape or not; and those of them that are restricted to a closer confinement, (the limits of jail,) neglected, and not treated with that care and regard which Congress wish."

"Resolved, That it is the opinion of this Committee that it would be a great saving to the United have a Commissary for Prisoners appointed for each of three Departments to superintend and take the direction and supplying of such Prisoners as have already fallen, or may hereafter fall, into our hands during the course of the war, as nearly conformable as the circumstances of this country will admit of, to the custom of all other civilized nations."
--Report of the Congressional Committee on the Letter of Gen. Washington, of May 11

Monday, March 8, 2010

military trials

In Political Sermons of the Founding Era, 1730-1803: Volume 1: 1730-1788 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998 [1991]), Ellis Sandoz presents the 1773 pamphlet, "An Oration Upon the Beauties of Liberty." People once attributed the work to Isaac Skillman, but scholars later attributed the sermon to Baptist preacher John Allen.

Allen presented the sermon as an open message to Lord North: "Suppose your Lordship had broke the laws of his king, and country; would not your Lordship be willing to be try’d by a jury of your peers, according to the laws of the land? How would your Lordship like to be fetter’d with irons, and drag’d three thousand miles, in a hell upon earth? No! but in a hell upon water, to take your trial?"

Monday, February 15, 2010

John Fabian Witt Gets it Wrong in Slate

In a book review for, John Fabian Witt observed, "Conditions in the British camps and ships in and around New York were what one would expect in the era before modern medicine and modern military logistics." A professor of legal history at Columbia University, Witt reviewed the book by Edwin G. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008).

In February 1779, The New Hampshire Gazette (Exeter, NH) reported "greatly emaciated and infeebled" prisoners returning from the prison ships of New York City. The author wrote, "So the excuse made by the enemy, that the prisoners were emaciated, and died by a contagious sickness, which no one could prevent, is futile; it requires no great sagacity to know, that crowding people together without fresh air, and feeding, or rather starving them in such a manner...must unavoidably produce a contagion."

Witt's claim that murderous neglect of prisoners somehow met expectations for the era proves incorrect. Americans and Frenchmen of the Revolutionary Era rightly surmised that lethal conditions for prisoners resulted from a decision by British personnel, not from mere accident of circumstance.

John Fabian Witt, “Ye Olde Gitmo: When Americans were unlawful combatants,” Slate, 9 Dec. 2008, (accessed 15 Feb. 2010); The New Hampshire Gazette (Exeter, NH), 9 Feb. 1779

Thursday, February 11, 2010

coercive treatment

In May 1778, the Continental Congress published a message recommended for reading in every house of worship in the United States.

Congress remarked of British forces, "Their victories have been followed by the cool murder of men, no longer able to resist; and those who escaped from the first act of carnage, have been exposed, by cold, hunger, and the tedious hours of confinement, or to become the destroyers of their countrymen, of their friends, perhaps, dreadful idea! of their parents or children."

Congress observed, "Nor was this the outrageous barbarity of an individual, but a system of deliberate malice, stamped with the concurrence of the British legislature, and sanctioned with all the formalities of law."

Shortly after the war, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Jean Baptiste Meusnier, "This was the most afflicting to our prisoners of all the cruelties exercised on them. The others affected the body only, but this the mind; they were haunted by the horror of having, perhaps, themselves shot the ball by which a father or a brother fell."

Worthington Chauncey Ford, editor, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Volume 11: May 2-September 1, 1778 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1908), page 476. Albert Ellery Bergh, editor, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson 20 vols. (Washington, D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States, 1907), 17:101

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Implausible Denial: British Prisoner Abuse was Policy, Not Accident

In 2008, Basic Books (New York) published Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War by historian Edwin G. Burrows. Burrows, Distinguished Professor of History at Brooklyn College (City University of New York), won a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 with Mike Wallace, as coauthor of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

With Forgotten Patriots, Burrows offered a compelling contribution to several recent reexaminations of prisoner treatment by the British during the Revolution. Burrows, however, believed the British did not intend to let prisoners die of disease and starvation. The idea that Tory personnel and British commanders did not intend for squalid conditions to prevail, and for prisoners to suffer and die horribly, contradicts the story Burrows himself told of persistent neglect, uninterrupted by official intervention, and actively concealed by dubious denials from British personnel in British-occupied New York City.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

February 24, 1776

Pennsylvania Evening Post published news of the Society for Relieving the Distress of Prisoners.

The distress of imprisoned debtors moved "many of the inhabitants" of Pennsylvania to found the Society. The Society hoped to promote the debtors' release ("enlargement"). "To find many, whose labour might be useful to the public, languishing out their days in a prison, when the payment of their fees would have set them at liberty long ago, must strongly urge the feeling mind to solicit their enlargement."

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Tories pondering Prison Ships?

To counter the Labour Party policy that allows releasing inmates up to 18 days before their scheduled release, the Conservative Party (Tories) are considering prison ships as a possible option. The mere possibility of prison ships may not originate with the thoughtful deliberations of Britain's elected representatives in Parliament, but with Andy Coulson, the communications director for Member of Parliament David Cameron, the head of the Conservative Party and Leader of the Opposition. An anonymous Tory told British paper The Observe that prison ships do not figure in a draft of the party's policy on crime.

After housing inmates for eight years, Britain's last floating prison, HMP The Weare, was retired in 2005. The Observer reported of The Weare, "The ship's temporary stint as a jail was controversial, with the chief inspector of prisons denouncing it as unfit for purpose because of the lack of access to fresh air and exercise."

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Prison Ship Jersey

Extract of a letter dated on board the Jersey (vulgarly called HELL) PRISON-SHIP, New-York, August 10 1781.

"There is nothing but death or entering into the British service before me. Our ship company is reduced to a small number (by death and entering into the British service) of 19.... The com[m]issary told us, one and all to the number of 400 men, that the whole fault lays on Boston, and we might all be exchanged, but they never cared about us; and he said the commissaries were damned rougues and liars.

"I am not able to give you even the out-lines of my exile; but thus much I will inform you, that we bury 6, 7, 8, 9 10, and 11 men in a day; we have 200 more sick and falling sick every day; the sickness is the yellow fever, small-pox, and in short every thing else that can be mentioned.

"I had almost forgot to tell you, that our morning's salutation is, 'Rebels! turn out your dead![']"

The Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser, 4 September 1781

As Brooklyn College (City University of New York) historian Edwin G. Burrows remarked in his book Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners of War During the Revolution, privateers licensed by the various states captured most of the prisoners from the British Navy in American hands. Congress governed exchange of sailors or soldiers captured by the Continental Army or Navy, but the British negotiated with each state for the prisoners captured by privateers. Many privateers, unable to accommodate prisoners for long, released these captives on parole. Often, Burrows remarked, these privateer captains kept incomplete records (or no records) on these captives and their whereabouts.

See Edwin G. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008), pages 183-84.

Commissary David Sproat: A Scottish-born Pennsylvania Tory, David Sproat arrived in British-occupied New York City by January 1779. On October 13, 1779, Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, commander of the Royal Navy at New York, appointed Sproat commissary for naval prisoners. After Massachusetts Tory Joshua Loring left New York for Britain in November 1782, Sproat assumed Loring's duties as commissary of army prisoners in British hands in New York. See Philip Ranlet, "Tory David Sproat and the Death of American Prisoners of War," Pennsylvania History Volume 61 (April 1994), pages 187, 189, 198.

Burrows and Ranlet disagree on the character of David Sproat. Ranlet (page 199 especially) believed Sproat agonized over the prisoners dying in his care on the prison ships. Burrows suspected Sproat of gloating over prisoner deaths. Both Ranlet and Burrows, however, depict Sproat as a shrewd propagandist who tried to blame prisoner deaths on American responses to his exchange offers, especially Congress's reluctance to exchange British soldiers for captured sailors and privateer crewmen, a move that would have put more soldiers back into the British Army, while the British Navy continued to captured American privateers and naval ships. In this letter, a prisoner conveys Sproat's claim that blame for prisoner suffering lay with authorities in Massachusetts.

Robert Smirke, "Cruelty presiding over the prison ship," an engraving for Joel Barlow's 1807 epic poem, Columbiad, courtesy of the New York Public Library:
Cruelty presiding over the pri... Digital ID: 1253296. New York Public Library

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

January 13, 1777

On January 13, 1777, General George Washington wrote to General Sir William Howe, commander of British forces, "I am sorry, that I am again under the necessity of remonstrating to you upon the treatment, which our prisoners continue to receive in New York. Those, who have lately been sent out, give the most shocking account of their barbarous usage, which their miserable, emaciated countenances confirm."

Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., The Writings of George Washington: Vol. 5: 1776-1777 (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1890), pages 168-169.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Christiane Amanpour, Marc Thiessen, Philippe Sands

A portion of the blogosphere lights up in celebration of former George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen's contradiction of CNN correspondent and host Christiane Amanpour. In this interview, Thiessen insisted he knows of no proof that the CIA immersed a captive in a bucket of water.

The CIA is not accused of immersing captives in a bucket of water. Amanpour may have misidentified that form of mistreatment with "waterbaording," but Cambodian depictions of torture by the Khmer Rouge regime, presented at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, do include depictions of what people now call "waterboarding."

Also interviewed, author Philippe Sands rightly observed that Thiessen is "splitting hairs." All water torture, including waterboarding, disrupts breathing. The sensation of imminent death constitutes torture.

David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History

Sommes-nous tous américains ? Rencontre avec... by laviedesidees
In this conference, David Armitage observed that the United States of America was born not as an "assault law," but "born in conformity with...the prevailing laws of nations." Armitage observed that the Founders drew on the 1758 work of Emer de Vattel, The Laws of Nations. Vattel described nations as "free and independent," language Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders employed. Armitage in the author of The Declaration of Independence: A Global History. In contrast to those Americans who express disregard for international opinion, Armitage observed that the American Revolutionaries appealed directly to world opinion.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chaplain Tries to Avert Disaster

"General Carleton' s late conduct was only designed to deceive: his affected clemency is to be dreaded. Expect not mercy from an enemy who are fighting in support of tyranny: it cannot, it will not be shown any longer than it is for their interest."--Rev. William Mackay Tennant, chaplain to Connecticut troops serving near Lake Champlain, in a sermon Sunday, Oct. 20, 1776.

The decision by Sir Guy Carleton, British Governor of Canada, to switch from severity to leniency with American prisoners was dangerous to the American Cause. Capturing General David Waterbury and 110 other Americans, Burgoyne treated the wounded, dined with the General, served drink to the men, and released them the next day. Historian Max M. Mintz wrote, "The liberated prisoners were so loud in their praises of Carleton that Gates feared their effect on the garrison's morale. He isolated them and the same night hurried them their homes for discharge." Max M. Minzt, The Generals of Saratoga: John Burgoyne and Horatio Gates (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1990, page 106.

January 20, 1776

General George Washington's Instructions to Captain Charles Dyar, of the schooner Harrison, included the stipulation, "Whatever Prisoners you take, must be treated with Kindness and Humanity. Their private Stock of Money and Apparel to be given them, after being strictly searched, and when they arrive at any Port, they are to be delivered up to the Agent, if any there; if not, to the Committee of Safety of such Port."

Washington issued the same orders, the same day, to Captain William Burke, of the Warren, and Captain John Ayers, of the Lynch. For the captains and their respective vessels, see Peleg Dennis, The Stars and Stripes and Other American Flags: Including Their Origin and History... 5th Edition (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1914 [1906]), 38.

The Agents had similar orders to treat prisoners kindly. On January 1, 1776, for instance, General Washington instructed Winthrop Sargent, the Continental Agent for captured vessels at Cape Ann, Massachusetts, "All prisoners of whatever rank, or denomination, to be treated with the utmost humanity and tenderness."

Monday, January 18, 2010

January 19, 1777

The mistreatment of American prisoners, by British forces under General Sir William Howe, shocked the American public.

Extract of a letter from Peeks kill, dated January 19, 1777.

"General Howe has discharg'd all the privates, who were prisoners in New-York, one half he sent to the world of spirits for want of food--the other he hath sent to warn their countrymen of the danger of falling into their hands, and to convince them by occular demonstration, that it is infinitely better to be slain in battle, than to be taken prisoners by British brutes, whose tender mercies are cruelty."

Continental Journal [Boston, Massachusetts], 13 Feb. 1777, quoted with normalized spelling in Frank Moore, editor, Diary of the American Revolution: From Newspapers and Original Documents 2 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner, 1860), 1:374

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Boston 1775: Saratoga Not the Turning Point?

Boston 1775: Saratoga Not the Turning Point?

Reflecting upon John Ferling's article in the Smithsonian Magazine, J. L. Bell ponders whether Saratoga was a turning point of the American Revolution, noting that American needed another "turning point" after the British conquest of South Carolina.

Ferling rightly points to four American victories as major turning points in the Revolutionary War. Some British victories, however, provided turning points--in American favor. As Marty D. Matthews pointed out in Forgotten Founder: The Life and Times of Charles Pinckney, the British conquest of South Carolina introduced a British soldiery that plundered homes and farmsteads. Many South Carolinians were apathetic about the Revolution, until the British Army conquered their state.

Ferling himself describes the effect, without mentioning the cause: "In mid-1780, organized partisan bands, composed largely of guerrilla fighters, struck from within South Carolina’s swamps and tangled forests to ambush redcoat supply trains and patrols. By summer’s end, the British high command acknowledged that South Carolina, a colony they had recently declared pacified, was 'in an absolute state of rebellion.'"

Read more:

January 7, 1777

The Pennsylvania Evening Post published a poem "By a YOUNG LADY."

W itness, ye sons of tyranny's black womb,
A nd see his Excellence victorious come!
S erene, majestic, see he gains the field!
H is heart is tender, while his arms are steel'd.
I ntent on virtue, and her cause so fair,
N ow treats his captive with a parent's care!
G reatness of soul his ev'ry action shows,
T hus virtue from coelestial bounty flows.
O ur GEORGE, by heav'n, destin'd to command,
N ow strikes the British yoke with prosp'rous hand.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

January 12, 1776

The Connecticut Gazette (New London) published a letter from Major Alexander Spotswood of Col. William Woodford's regiment, describing the Battle of Great Bridge (Dec. 9, 1775) in Virginia. The letter mentioned British Capt. Charles Fordyce: "Col. Woodford is a brave officer, and a man I love. He had Capt. Fordyce buried with the military honour due his rank, and all the prisoners that fell into our hands, taken the greatest care of."

On Dec. 12, 1775, the records of the Virginia Convention reflect Edmund Pendleton, President of the Convention, "laid before the Convention a Letter received from Colonel Woodford, which being read, Resolved unanimously, That this Convention do highly approve of Colonel Woodford's conduct, manifested as well in the success of the Troops under his command, as in the humane treatment of, and kind attention to, the unfortunate, though brave Officers and Soldiers, who were made prisoners in the late action near the Great Bridge, that the President communicate to Colonel Woodford the sense of his country on this occasion."

After the Battle of Princeton (Jan. 3, 1777), in New Jersey, the Pennsylvania Evening Post (Jan. 7, 1777) published a letter from a gentleman in the Continental Army to a friend in Philadelphia: "I am just called on to command the infantry at the funeral of...a British officer, killed at Princeton. we bury him with military honors."

This concern and respect for the interment of British dead contrasts with British and Tory treatment of American dead in British-occupied New York City, from 1776 to the end of the war, in 1783. Ethan Allen, a captured American officer granted parole in New York City, visited the prisoners confined in confiscated non-Anglican churches in the winter of 1776-77.

In a 1779 narrative of his captivity, Allen recalled, "It was a common practice with the enemy, to convey the dead from these filthy places, in carts, to be slightly buried, and I have seen whole gangs of tories making derision, and exulting over the dead, saying, there goes another load of damned rebels."

In Canada, the British under Gov. Sir Guy Carleton respectfully interred American dead, like Major General Richard Montgomery, who died at Quebec City Dec. 31, 1775. French Canadians, sympathetic with American Revolutionaries, also interred American dead with great ceremony. See Thomas A. Desjardin, Through a Howling Wilderness: Benedict Arnold's March to Quebec, 1775 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006) and Michael P. Gabriel, Major General Richard Montgomery: The Making of an American Hero (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002)

The respectful burial of an American officer by Catholic Canadians prompted American John Henry to rethink his anti-Catholic prejudice. Henry wrote, "This real catholicism toward the remains of one we loved, made a deep and wide breach upon my early prejudices, which since that period...has induced a more extended and paternal view of mankind, unbounded by sect or opinion."

Please consult John Joseph Henry, Account of Arnold's Campaign Against Quebec, and the Hardships and Sufferings of that Band of Heroes Who Traversed the Wilderness of Maine... (Albany, NY: Joel Munsell, 1877), page 76; also quoted in Desjardin, Through a Howling Wilderness, page 144.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

January 3, 1777

The Battle of Princeton, New Jersey was an American victory. British soldiers, nonetheless, found opportunity to commit atrocities, like bayoneting wounded men who offered to surrender.

In a Feb. 5, 1777 letter to Congressman Samuel Chase, George Washington wrote, "One thing I must remark in favor of the Hessians, and that is, that our people who have been prisoners generally agree that they received much kinder treatment from them, than from the British Officers and Soldiers. The Barbarities at Princeton were all committed by the British, there being no Hessians there."