Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Old Documents - With Current Relevance

Inspired by reading a News Journal article this morning, about the oldest documents in the State Archives (letters and such of a Swedish settler, also bearing signatures of Governor Printz), I dug into the back of the vault to pull out some of my most favorite reading materials.

I have several old books from the colonial period, bearing owner signatures of historical significance. Last year I tried to donate them the the University of Delaware Library because I saw what a nice facility they have for maintaining fragile old documents. But alas, the UD was so awash with its own cumbersome bureaucratic self-important inefficiency, that I could never get a call back from the right department.

My favorite read is not my oldest book. It is Principles of Revolution (that's the short title for the actual Title... Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America: or, an attempt to Collect and Preserve Some of the Speeches, Orations, & Proceedings, With Sketches and Remarks on Men and Things, and other Fugitive or Neglected Pieces, Belonging to the Revolutionary Period in the United States; Which Happily, Terminated in the Establishment of their Liberties: With a view to represent the feelings that prevailed in the "Times that Tried Men's Souls," to Excite a Love of Freedom, and Lead the People to Vigilance, as the Condition on Which it is Granted, By H. Niles).

Just the long version of the title to the book alone inspires me. They sure had a way with words. This is an 1822 book with inscriptions by such familiar people as Commegys; Polk, and the like.

Today I will attempt to transcribe a letter from His Excellency George Washington to General Gage, from Caimbridge, August 11, 1775:

Sir - I understand that the officers, engaged in the cause of liberty and their country, who by the fortune of war, have fallen into your hands, have been thrown indiscriminately into a common jail appropriated for felons - that no consideration has been had for those of the most respectable rank, when languishing with wounds and sickness- that some of them have been even amputated in this unworthy situation.

Let your opinion, sir, of the principle which actuates them, be what it may, they suppose they act from the noblest of all principles, a love of freedom and their country. But political opinions, I conceive, are foreign to this point. The obligations arising from the rights of humanity, and claims of rank, are universally binding and extensive, except in the case of retaliation. These, I should have hoped, would have dictated a more tender treatment of those individuals, whom chance or war had put in your power. Nor can I forbear suggesting its fatal tendency to widen that unhappy breach, which you, and those ministers under who you act, have repeatedly declared you wish to see forever closed.

My duty now makes it necessary to apprise you, that, for the future, I shall regulate my conduct towards those gentlemen of your army, who are, or may be in our possessioin, exactly by the rule you shall observe towards those of ours who may be in your custody.

If severity and hardship mark the line of your conduct (painful as it may be to me) your prisoners will feel its effect; but if kindness and humanity are shown to ours, I shall, with pleasure, consider those in our hands only as unfortunate, and they shall receive from me that treatment to which the unfortunate are ever entitled.

I beg to be favored with an answer as soon as possible, and am, sir, your very humble servant.
G. Washington

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