Front Page Titles (by Subject) TO THE PRESIDENT OF CONGRESS. - The Writings of George Washington, vol. IX (1780-1782)
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TO THE PRESIDENT OF CONGRESS. - George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, vol. IX (1780-1782) 
The Writings of George Washington, collected and edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890). Vol. IX (1780-1782).
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TO THE PRESIDENT OF CONGRESS.
Philada., 20 February, 1782.
Since my letter to your Excellency of the 18th Inst, I have been honored with the public and secret Resolves of Congress of the same date; the first empowering me to appoint commissioners for the purposes therein mentioned, the last prohibiting the exchange of Lieutt.-General Lord Cornwallis by composition, which is the only mode by which he ever can be exchanged, except for Civil characters, we having no military Grade answerable to his.1
I find myself so exceedingly embarrassed by the operation of the secret Resolve, that I hope Congress will excuse me for pointing out the difficulties in which it involves me personally, and the manner in which it affects, as I conceive, the public good. By the public resolve all former restrictions are taken off, and I am at liberty to go into a general exchange without limitation. When it therefore shall be found, that Lord Cornwallis is still detained, those officers of ours (particularly our full colonels, most of whom can only be exchanged on composition), who will be sufferers on that account, will naturally apply to me for the reasons. I must either submit to their opinions on a conduct so apparently strange, or, to justify myself, must be under the necessity of betraying a secret vote of Congress.
In order more clearly to point out the manner, in which the secret resolve, if adhered to, will operate against the public interest, I must beg leave to request the attention of Congress to a short recital of the reasons, which induced me, at this particular time, to propose a meeting of commissioners to the British Commander-in-chief.
On my return from Virginia, the superintendent of Finance informed me, that the subsistence of the prisoners of war had now become so serious a matter, that there was an absolute necessity of endeavoring to obtain payment of the money already due to us upon that account, and at all events to fix upon some certain and regular mode of payment for their maintenance in future. In order to effect these, he advised my making propositions to Sir Henry Clinton to appoint commissioners, not only to liquidate the accounts of prisoners, but to endeavor, by the establishment of a permanent Cartel (a matter, which we have never yet been able to obtain), to adjust a number of points relating to the exchanges and accommodation of Prisoners, and for want of which, individuals, as well subjects of the United States as those of Great Britain, are daily suffering.
Sir Henry Clinton, after several letters had passed upon the subject, acceded to the proposition in the most extensive sense. Commissioners were named, and I only waited for the authority of Congress to enable me to invest the Commissioners on our part with proper powers. This by the public resolve of the 18th is amply granted, but by the subsequent secret resolve in a manner done away. The powers of our commissioners can only have reference to the public resolve, and whatever stipulations are entered into will be upon a confidence, that no further obstructions will be thrown in the way. The exchange of Lord Cornwallis (as heretofore) would be one of the first things demanded; and, should that be rejected, as it must be, the enemy would not only have it in their power to tax us with breach of faith, but they might recede in turn from any part of their agreements; and it is to be feared, that they would pitch upon that respecting the payment for the maintenance of their Prisoners, as it will be a weighty matter to them, and one which they can evade with less inconvenience than almost any other, as we have a very great number of theirs to support, and they few of ours.
In addition to what I have said, I have only further to remark, that the Gentlemen, who have been named by me to execute the Commission, have objections to going upon it, except they can meet those from the British on fair and open terms. This can only be done either by withdrawing the secret vote entirely, or by adhering publicly to the resolution of detaining Lord Cornwallis, and trying what can be effected under such circumstances. The last would remove my personal scruples, (if it should not be deemed a violation of the capitulation); but I fear, as I before mentioned, that the general interest would suffer by the measure. We never can expect that such a cartel, as will be really beneficial to us, will be acceded to while an officer of Lord Cornwallis’s high rank and Family influence is excepted, nor indeed while a power is reserved or implied of being able to deprive of the right of exchange any other officer, who may hereafter as a Prisoner of war become entitled to the advantages of a stipulation of such a nature as a Cartel.1
I ever with diffidence enter into discussions of the above kind, and I am now more than commonly apprehensive, that my conduct may appear reprehensible, as Congress have been pleased, upon several late applications, to adhere to their former opinions respecting Lord Cornwallis. Had I not foreseen new difficulties arising from restricting his exchange, I should have deemed myself as inexcusable in further controverting the will of Congress, as I should have been, had I remained silent when I thought my voice might have conduced to the general good. That that has been my only motive for taking up so much of your time I beg you will believe, as sincerely as that I am, with the utmost respect, &c.2
[1 ]By the resolves here referred to, Congress invested General Washington with powers to negotiate an exchange of prisoners on the broadest scale, and to take measures for settling all accounts respecting prisoners; but these resolves were accompanied with a “secret instruction,” that nothing contained therein “should be construed to authorize the exchange of Lieutenant-General Cornwallis by composition.” It appears to have been the object of this reservation to secure the release of Mr. Laurens, who was yet retained a prisoner in England, and had been for more than a year shut up in the Tower of London. The southern members were particularly strenuous on this point, as well as indignant at the mode adopted by Lord Cornwallis in prosecuting the war at the south. For a remarkable expression of the feelings of the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia on this subject, see Journals, February 23d.
[1 ]On a consideration of this letter, it was resolved by Congress, “That the Commander-in-chief be authorized to agree to the exchange of Earl Cornwallis by composition; provided that the Honorable Henry Laurens be liberated and proper assurances be obtained, that all accounts for the support of the convention prisoners, and all other prisoners of war, shall be speedily settled and discharged.”—Journals, February 23d.
[2 ]Read in Congress, February 21st. Referred to Boudinot, Carroll, and Bee.