Sunday, April 14, 2024

ARP307 Congress After Yorktown

Over the last few episodes, we covered the ongoing war in the Carolinas, and war spreading around the world.  We last left the main Continental Army back in Episode 300 with the surrender at Yorktown.

Following the victory at Yorktown, the bulk of the Continental Army returned to the area around British-occupied New York City. 

Captured British flags from Yorktown
brought to Philadelphia
General Washington left the army for a time. He ordered General Benjamin Lincoln to take charge of the army’s movement back to New York.  Washington left Yorktown on November 5.  His first stop was to visit his stepson, who was recuperating from “camp fever” that had infected him while in volunteer service at Yorktown.  Following the British surrender, Washington sent Jack Custis to stay with a relative not too far from Yorktown, where he could receive better care.  

Washington arrived the day after leaving Yorktown, only to find that Custis had died moments before his arrival.  For the next few days, Washington escorted his grieving wife and daughter-in-law back to Mount Vernon.  It took more than a week to get home, as every town along the way wanted to celebrate the victory at Yorktown with the commander.  Washington remained at Mount Vernon for only a few days before heading to Philadelphia.

The Continental Congress was still celebrating the victory at Yorktown when Washington arrived on November 26.  Celebrations aside, Washington had some real concerns about the state of the Congress.

President John Hanson

John Hanson of Maryland had been unanimously elected president a few weeks earlier.  Hanson had only been in Congress for a little over a year.  It seems that no one really wanted to serve as president.  The office came with a great deal of responsibility and no power.  Hanson took over from Thomas McKean of Delaware, who had only taken the office for a few months after Congress elected Samuel Johnston.  Johnston refused to take the seat, stating that he was leaving Congress to run for Governor of North Carolina.  When McKean took up the chair, he informed Congress that he would only remain there until the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania returned to session in the fall, where he was Chief Justice.

John Hanson
Only a week after Hanson’s election, he wrote to his son-in-law that he wanted to resign.  He found his duties “irksome.” He did not feel well and thought he needed to go home.  The main reason he did not resign was that no one else wanted the job, and it was unclear that Congress could even seat a quorum to vote for a replacement.

Attendance at Congress was also a frustration.  When Washington addressed Congress on November 28, two days after his arrival, three states did not have the necessary two delegates to vote on behalf of their states.  Seven other states only had two delegates present, meaning that if they disagreed on a matter, the state could not vote.  Most of the better delegates had moved on to other positions in their home states, or as diplomats abroad.  So, Congress was a shell of its former self.

One reason Hanson disliked his new job was that the president was responsible for handling all correspondence of Congress.  This meant writing state officials, to beg for men, money, and supplies, as well as diplomatic and military correspondence.  Hanson determined almost immediately that this was not for him.  He assigned all the work of correspondence to Congress’ secretary, Charles Thomson.  And to be clear, Thomson was not just a secretary taking Hanson’s dictation.  Hanson was reading and replying to all official correspondence using his own judgment.

Robert Morris, Superintendent of Finance

In truth, most of Congress’ work had been outsourced by this time.  As I mentioned back in Episode 281, Congress had determined in early 1780 that it could not handle both legislative and executive duties.  It created several new departments to be headed by an appointee to run the government.  The only one they appointed at the time, and the most important was Robert Morris, serving  as Superintendent of Finance.  In Britain, the top financial position, the minister of treasury, was also usually the Prime Minister.  So it was little surprise that Morris was seen as the effective leader in the Confederation government.  Hanson held the title of president, but anyone who needed something done came to Morris.

Robert Morris

Like many capable men, Morris had grown tired of government work.  As a political moderate, he suffered near constant criticism from the radical Whigs who controlled Pennsylvania politics.  He had hoped to return to private practice. Instead he accepted this appointment, given the desperate circumstances of the country's financial system, and a belief that Morris was best suited to manage things.  Once taking the job, Morris acted aggressively.  

He did not limit his own authority to financial matters.  He took control of the marine committee, and abolished the board of admiralty.  Since the Continentals did not have much of any navy by this point, few objected.  Morris  was also deeply involved in foreign diplomacy, since the only hope of keeping the financial system running was with the help of foreign loans or gifts from US allies.

I’ve talked about the continually growing mess that Continental finances had suffered over the course of the war.  The Yorktown Campaign only made that worse.  Agents had scrambled everywhere to come up with money to pay for that campaign, meaning that any available dollar and any debt that could be incurred on behalf of its success was done.  The campaign had been successful, but the debt situation was even worse as a result.  

Morris had to take some radical steps.  First was a decision not to repay any debts incurred prior to January 1, 1782.  The idea was that no one would accept Continental credit if they had to get behind so many other creditors to collect their money.  Morris hoped that an assurance that new creditors would be at the front of the line, might make those loans possible.  Of course, simply telling old creditors that they would have to wait until some time after the war for payment of anything due was not exactly something that gave new creditors confidence that they might later be pushed into that same category.

Morris also made the hard choice that he would not pay the army.  Since most officers and enlisted men were already used to receiving none of their promised pay, this was not really a big change in practice.  But declaring that everyone was going to have to work for the foreseeable future without getting paid was a slap in the face to the military.  Again, Morris had to prioritize new creditors for payment.  

To help the army, Morris largely gave up on relying on states to provide food and supplies for the soldiers.  Instead, Morris used some of the savings from non-payment of debt to enter into agreements directly with government contractors to provide food and supplies to the army directly.  These contracts were put out for public bid so that the government could get the best deal possible.

Since the Continental Congress’ credit was shot, Morris pinned his hopes on his new Bank of North America, which was funded through assistance provided by the King of France.  Morris hoped to grow that money by getting people to invest in the bank and accept bank notes produced by the bank, which were based on specie held by the bank.  Morris also issued “Morris Notes” which were used as currency backed by his own personal credit.

Confederation Cabinet

Near the end of 1781, Congress finally got around to appointing two other department heads.  Robert Livingston received an appointment as Secretary of Foreign Affairs.  If you are not sure what the Secretary of Foreign Affairs did under the Articles of Confederation, don’t feel bad.  Livingston had no idea either.  He mostly learned what he could not do.  

Robert Livingston
He could not make any foreign policy decisions on behalf of the US.  Anything he wanted to do had to go before Congress for a decision.  Since Congress often did not have enough delegates for a quorum, Congress could not make the decision either. Livingston expressed frustration that when he brought a question to Congress, he could watch the debate but could not offer any advice and could not ask any questions of that body.  He was not allowed to correspond directly with diplomats from other countries, nor with the US diplomats in Europe if those letters involved anything related to foreign affairs.  Any such letters had to go before Congress for approval before being sent.

Livingston did get authority to hire a couple of clerks. One of them was a Frenchman who had been serving in the Continental Army under General von Steuben.  This appointment seemed to cause many in Congress to argue that Livingston was simply a shill for French policy.  The limitations and concerns about Livingston did not seem to have anything to do with him personally.  He was a widely respected patriot leader who had himself served in the Continental Congress for years.  He was also Chancellor of New York during this same time.  Congressional restrictions seemed to have more to do with the trouble of the delegates themselves letting go of any small amount of authority to a separate body.

All of this only frustrated Livingston, who hadn’t really wanted the job in the first place.  To give you some idea of his frustration, in September of 1782, about a year after his appointment, he wrote a letter to Benjamin Franklin, the US Ambassador to France, and a peace delegate to complain that he had not received a single letter for six months. This was during the time that Franklin and others were actively negotiating a peace treaty with Britain - something that was of interest to the Secretary for Foreign Affairs.  As a result, Livingston did little on his own but report things to Congress and meet with Robert Morris.

Congress’ choice for a Secretary of War was even more contentious.  Horatio Gates was still head of the Board of War, but since his embarrassing performance at Camden, no one really wanted him anymore.  Washington seemed to favor Philip Schuyler, since he was no longer an active general and was an able politician and administrator.  The New England delegates, however, really disliked Schuyler.  Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox were both considered, but since they still played vital roles in the army - Greene as the southern commander and Knox as head of artillery, Congress did not want to remove them from those roles.  

Benjamin Lincoln

In the end, they settled on Benjamin Lincoln.  The general was acting as Washington’s second in command, but ever since his surrender at Charleston, no one seemed inclined to trust him with an independent command.  The consensus was that he was a great administrator, but not so much a field officer.  So Lincoln got the job.

At the time of his appointment, Lincoln was moving the Continental Army from Yorktown back to around New York. He still managed to get word of his appointment and got to Philadelphia two days ahead of Washington.

Like Livingston, Lincoln had no authority to make policy on his own.  His main jobs were to keep track of military men and supplies on hand and to prepare estimates of needs for future campaigns.  He also spent most of his time conferring with Robert Morris.

One other new job created around this time was for Thomas Paine.  The famous writer had fallen on hard times and could not seem to find anyone to pay him anymore.  He had created quite a few enemies in Philadelphia through many of his past attacks in the press.  Washington and Morris agreed that Paine would be useful as public relations for the government.  He did not have a title, and his job was not publicly known.  His salary would come out of funds set aside for Livingston’s use in secret services.

Washington’s stay in Philadelphia was primarily for the purpose of getting more supplies for the army.  Many were convinced that Yorktown had effectively ended the war.  If they were reluctant to come up with money while the enemy was an active threat to the states, they were even more reluctant now that the immediate threat seemed to be on the wane.

Washington used Morris to push an agenda that would get the army what it needed.  Always cautious about being seen as infringing on civil affairs, General Washington did not want to push Congress directly, but used Morris as his attack dog.  Morris pushed hard for direct taxes that would fund the army.  Congress refused.  

Congress did place requirements on the states to provide funds to the Bank of North America.  In that case, the States refused.  When the first quarterly payment was due in April of 1782, the bank received nothing.  After a few weeks, New Jersey sent a fraction of what it owed.  Morris noted that the amount sent was enough to fund the government for about ¼ of a day.

British Spies

Meanwhile the British in New York remained active in their efforts to undermine the Congress in Philadelphia.  Earlier in 1781, the British had captured a clerk named Thomas Edison.  Under interrogation, Edison convinced his captors that he could give them access to Congress’ private records.  As an assistant to Charles Thomson, secretary of Congress, Edison had access to documents related to the recent Silas Deane debates, internal arguments over western territories, problems between Congress and the French Ambassador.  

Captain George Beckwith had become the head of British intelligence in America after the capture and execution of Major John AndrĂ©.  He agreed to release Edison on the promise that Edison would help to gain access to Congressional records in Philadelphia.

James Moody
Beckwith assigned the project to James Moody, a loyalist officer.  When the war began, Moody was a New Jersey farmer who attempted to remain neutral.  When he refused to take the patriot loyalty oath, he was branded a traitor and suffered harassment and threats.  In 1777, a group of patriots attempted to shoot him.  Shortly after that incident, he fled to New York and became a lieutenant in a loyalist regiment.  Over the next couple of years, he spent most of his time performing intelligence operations in New Jersey, recruiting soldiers for the loyalists, and even leading several raids against patriot outposts.  In 1780, he led a failed attempt to kidnap New Jersey Governor William Livingston.  A little later, he helped rescue another loyalist from prison who was facing execution.  He also took prisoner several patriot officials and militiamen during his raids into the state.

As his reputation became more prominent, patriot leaders focused on his capture.  In August of 1780, while returning from a raid, Moody made it to the British fort at Bull’s Ferry in New Jersey. While he was there, a troop under General Anthony Wayne captured the fort and took him prisoner.  Because he was in uniform when captured, he was initially treated as a prisoner of war.  But when Governor Livingston learned of his capture, he demanded Moody be tried for espionage and treason.  

This was about the same time that Benedict Arnold had fled to the British, so the Continental mood toward spies was particularly hostile at the time.  Moody was held in chains at West Point.  He learned that Governor Livingston planned to prosecute the case against him personally, and that he also stacked the court that would hear Moody’s case, pretty much ensuring a guilty verdict. 

Moody realized that the way this was playing out meant that he would probably be dangling from a gallows in the very near future.  Despite the fact that officials posted a guard inside his cell to watch him 24/7, Moody worked on an escape.  He found a post half buried in the ground.  After asking for a coat to stay warm, Moody used the post to break off his hand cuffs, using the coat as cover from the guard.  He waited for a moment when his guard was not paying attention, then dashed out the door, grabbing the musket from a second guard outside the door.

He found himself outside and in the middle of a Continental Army camp, with alarms raised about the escaped prisoner. Rather than run for it, he simply shouldered the musket that he had taken from the guard and marched through camp like any other soldier.  He managed to make it out of camp and spent the next few days carefully making his way back to British lines.

Despite this close call, Moody spent the next couple of years continuing to go back into New Jersey on intelligence missions.  Several times, he was able to take out couriers carrying messages between Washington and Congress.

When the British learned of the opportunity to obtain embarrassing papers from the Continental Congress, they called on Moody to carry out the plan.  The plan itself was brazen, but quite simple.  Edison would be released and allowed to return to Philadelphia.  At an agreed time, he would let the British agents into the State House (what we call today Independence Hall) providing them the agreed documents.  The men would bring them back to New Jersey and smuggle them back to the British in New York.

Moody did not go himself to Philadelphia.  He remained just across the river in New Jersey while his brother John and a third loyalist named Lawrence Marr picked up the documents.  Moody had rented a room where the men could stay for the night.  While there, he overheard a conversation in the tavern.  A man said that there had been a plot to break into the Continental Congress’ records but that one of the conspirators had betrayed the conspiracy.

It turns out that Edison blew the whistle on the action.  According to Moody, Edison lost his nerve at the last minute and informed authorities.  According to Edison, it was his plan all along to lure the agents in and then get them captured.  I think Moody’s story makes more sense since Edison did not reveal anything until the last minute.  But authorities believed Edison’s story and later rewarded him for his actions.

Moody’s brother John and Marr were both captured.  Both were sentenced to hang as spies, but only Moody’s brother went to the gallows.  James Moody managed to escape the tavern just before a large patriot patrol arrived in search of him.  According to Moody’s later account, he threw himself in a ditch then crawled into a hay rack to avoid deduction.  The next day, he stole a canoe on the Delaware River and paddled upriver more than 100 miles to northern New Jersey.  From there, he was able to make his way back to New York City.  This final close call was the end of Moody’s career as a spy.  Shortly afterward, he left America and sailed for London.

Next Week: General Washington returns to New York and approves an attempt to kidnap a future King of England.  Continental General Alexander McDougall faces a court martial.

- - -

Next Episode 308 McDougall Court Martial 

Previous Episode 306 War in India

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Further Reading


The John Hanson Story:

Nuxoll, Elizabeth M. “The Bank of North America and Robert Morris’s Management of the Nation’s First Fiscal Crisis.” Business and Economic History, vol. 13, 1984, pp. 159–70. JSTOR,

The Debt Problem: 1781 to 2014

The Wartime Adventures of Lt. James Moody

Lawrence Marr Jr. and John Moody

Conn, Kevin A. “Contingencies, Capture, and Spectacular Getaway: The Imprisonment and Escape of James Moody” Journal of the American Revolution, Nov. 24, 2020.

Continental Congress Amendment to Report on Thomas Edison:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Journals of the Continental Congress, Vol 21, Washington: Gov’t Printing Office, 1912. 

Moody, James Narrative of the Exertions and Sufferings of Lieut. James Moody, in Cause of Government Since the Year 1776, New York, Privately Printed, 1865 (original, London, 1782). 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Dangerfield, George Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, 1746-1813, Harcourt, Brace, and Co. 1960 (borrow on

Fleming, Thomas The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown, Harper Collins, 2007.  

Fowler, William H. Jr. American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years after Yorktown, 1781-1783, Walker & Co. 2011. 

Glickstein, Don After Yorktown: The Final Struggle for American Independence, Westholme Publishing, 2015. 

Mattern, David B. Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution, Univ. of S.C. Press, 1995 (borrow on 

Rappleye, Charles Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution, Simon & Schuster, 2010. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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