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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

On the Condition of the Country

By Robert R. Livingston (1746–1813)

[Born in New York, N. Y., 1746. Died at Clermont, N. Y., 1813. Circular Letter from the Secretary of Foreign Affairs to the Governors of the Several States.—The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution. 1830.]

SIR: Where a Government is composed of independent States, united not by the power of a sovereign but by their common interest, the Executive Departments form a centre of communication between each State and their Chief Council, and are so far links of the chain, which should bind them together, as they render to each similar views of great national objects, and introduce uniformity in their measures for the establishment of general interests. A mistaken idea of our own importance to other nations, of their attachment to us, and of the weakness of our common enemy, having lulled us into a very imprudent security, I beg leave to state to your Excellency the information last received from Europe. Our success in this important war, under the favor of Heaven, must be built upon the weakness of our enemy, the strength and perseverance of her foes in Europe, and our own exertions.

It is an undeniable fact, that Britain has not, in the course of the last campaign, gained any advantage of her enemies, but, on the contrary, has seen their fleets ride triumphant in the seas she proudly called her own, and an army, in which she placed her fondest hopes, made captive. But, on the other hand, we are compelled to admit that she has met with no such reverse of fortune as materially to debilitate her, or weaken her resources for another campaign. Her trade has for the most part returned in safety. Her fleets have blocked up those of the Dutch, and, upon the separation of the combined fleets, recovered the superiority in the European seas. The army taken in America is only so far decidedly ruinous to her affairs here, as we know how to avail ourselves of the advantage it affords.

That her pride is not humbled, that she did not wish for peace prior to this advantage, is obvious,—1st From her refusing to make a separate treaty with the Dutch, who, under the mediation of the Empress of Russia, seemed anxiously to wish it; 2dly. From her neglect to notice the last proposals of the mediating powers, which yet remain unanswered; so that if any alteration is made in their sentiments on this subject, they must originate in their ill success in America, for in every other quarter their defensive war seems to have been supported with advantage. How far this will operate admits of a doubt, which prudence directs us not to rely upon. Money, the great support of modern wars, has been raised with more facility in England than in any country in the world; and we find the minority last year censuring Lord North for giving the advantage of lending to his friends. Their losses may indeed render subscriptions more expensive to the public; but there is no well grounded room to suppose they will not fill up; and still less reason to believe, if the means for carrying on the war are attainable, that the vindictive spirit of the King and his ministry, and the overweening pride of the nation, will soon yield to make a peace which involves their disgrace and humiliation. But as strength or weakness are mere comparative terms, we can form no judgment of the measures of Britain but by attending to the force and disposition of her enemies.

The United Provinces were evidently dragged into the war, and have prosecuted it as if they momentarily expected a peace. The Colonies in the West Indies have been taken, without being in a state to make the smallest resistance, and the active interposition of France alone saved those in the East from sharing the same fate. Our last letters from Holland place the distress of their commerce in a strong point of view. They are unhappily rent by parties, which clog the wheels of government; though it is said the party opposed to England are the most numerous and growing in strength, so that at some future day we may reasonably hope they will assume the entire ascendancy; yet we can build very little on this till the close of another year. This much is certain, they are not yet allied to us, nor have they given us reason to believe that they intend to be so. They wish for peace, and will take no measures that can obstruct it. They have lent us no money, nor are they likely to do it; from whence we may presume, either that they doubt our success, or do not much interest themselves in it.

Our expectations from Spain are scarcely more flattering. Some little aids of money have been received after long solicitation, hardly so much as paid the expense of soliciting. We have reason to suppose that no more will be granted. They are still cold with regard to our alliance; nothing but brilliant success can bring it to a conclusion. Nor have we the smallest reason to expect any pecuniary aid from her, even if she should confederate with us in time to be of use for the next campaign. She has at this moment very many and very expensive operations on hand; and, till she has allied herself to us, we have no certainty that she will choose to continue the war for the attainment of our independence, if Britain should be sufficiently humbled to sacrifice to her the objects which led her into the war.

To France, then, we turn, as the only enemy of Great Britain, who is at the same time our ally, who will persevere in the war for the attainment of our independence. She has already done so much for us, in order to afford us the means of doing something for ourselves, that she may reasonably hope to find the effects of her benevolence. Her fleets have protected our coasts, her armies have fought our battles; she has made various efforts to restore our finances, by paying the interest of our loans, by obtaining credit in Europe on our account for clothing, arms, and necessaries; by advancing money, and by opening and guaranteeing a loan for us, to a considerable amount, in Holland, when, by the abolition of paper, our finances were totally deranged. These sums are nearly expended, and another campaign is about to be opened. France assures that it is not in her power to make us any further grants of money; her ministers repeat this to us in every letter, in a tone that persuades us of their determination on that point.

What then is to be done? Are we to relinquish the hopes, which the present debility of the enemy affords us, of expelling them by one decided effort, and compensating all our losses by the enjoyment of an active commerce? Are we to return to the wretched, oppressive system we have quitted? Are we to carry on a weak defensive war with an unpaid army, whose precarious subsistence must depend upon what can be torn by violence from the industrious husbandman? Shall we vainly, and I think disgracefully, supplicate all the powers of Europe for those means, which we have in our own hands, if we dare call them forth, and which, after all, must be called forth, if we continue the war (and upon that subject there can be no doubt, till the end for which we took up arms is attained). The only question is, whether each State shall fairly and regularly contribute its quota, or whether that which happens to be the seat of war shall (as has too often been the case) bear the whole burden, and suffer more from the necessities of our own troops than the ravages of the enemy; whether we shall drive the enemy from their posts with a strong body of regular troops, or whether we shall permit them to extend their devastations, while, with our battalions and fluctuating corps of militia, we protract a weak defensive war, till our allies are discouraged, and some unfavorable change takes place in the system of Europe.

Your Excellency, I am persuaded, will pardon the freedom with which I write. You see the necessity which dictates my letter, and were it in my power to communicate all that our friends in Europe think of our inactivity, I am persuaded you would urge your State to exertion in much stronger terms than I dare venture to use….

It is true we are at present in such a situation as to have no apprehensions for the final establishment of our independence; but surely it is a matter of some moment to us, whether we shall obtain it, or at least be freed from the ravages of the enemy and the burden of the war, in the course of six months, at the expense of eight millions of dollars, or whether we shall wait for it till a general and perhaps a distant peace, and be subject in the meanwhile to infinitely more expense, and all the distress that attends a country which is the seat of war.

But, Sir, it is time to dismiss a subject which wants no arguments to illustrate it. I am confident that you will use every means to convince the State over which you preside of the danger which will result from relying more upon the weakness of the enemy than their own strength, more upon the aid of their allies than their own exertions, more upon unjust, partial, hazardous, and expensive expedients, than upon an equal and regular support of the measures which Congress, upon the most mature deliberation, have recommended to their attention.

I have the honor to be, etc.,
PHILADELPHIA, 19 February, 1782.