Sunday, June 13, 2021

ARP205 Congress Enters 1779

Over the winter of 1778-79, the Continental Congress continued its difficult work of keeping the states united, and continuing the war.  Many of the leading delegates had left Congress for other duties.  Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were both in France as diplomats.  Caesar Rodney was now President of Delaware.  Thomas Jefferson had returned to Virginia, where he was revising the state’s statutes and would soon be elected governor.  John Hancock had returned to Congress in the summer of 1778, but after no one seemed interested in returning him to the president’s chair, he left again for Boston and focused more on his business affairs. 

Laurens Controversies

President Henry Laurens, however, had his own issues while presiding over Congress. When he first took the chair in November 1777, he had to deal with the Conway Cabal.  

Henry Laurens
Congress’ big accomplishment during Laurens’ presidency was the passage of the Articles of Confederation.  But a year later, those Articles were going nowhere with state ratification.  The other big issue on Laurens' "to do list was to manage the new alliance with France.

The departure of some of the most important delegates, along with Congress’ failure to meet the needs of the army, and its constant demands on the states, led many to lose respect for Congress.  

Furthering the problem was an increasingly apparent divide between southern delegates and New Englanders.  There had always been some level of distrust between the regions.  Early in the war though, New England was so focused on getting the southern states into the war, that it went out of its way to support southern interests, including the selection of many military leaders from the south in the new Continental Army.  Sectional interests had been growing, and having an impact on many other issues.

Thompson Affair

As all this was happening, another public attack on Congress came in December from General William Thompson.  You may recall Thompson had been one of the first officers from Pennsylvania to join the Continental Army.  His regiment of riflemen arrived only a short time after General Washington took command.  Washington was not a big fan of Thompson, but Congress promoted him anyway to brigadier in March 1776.  When Washington moved the army from Boston to New York, he sent General Thompson off to Quebec.  Thompson managed to get captured only a couple of months after his promotion.  

The British paroled the general and allowed him to return to Pennsylvania, on the condition that he not resume any military duties until exchanged for a British general.  For the next few years, Thompson sat around waiting for an exchange. 

Thomas McKean
Thompson grew increasingly frustrated and angry at the delays.  In September, there were negotiations to exchange Thompson for New Jersey Governor William Franklin, who had become an American prisoner in 1776. Instead of going through with that exchange, Congress opted to exchange Franklin for Delaware Governor John McKinly, whom the British captured during the Philadelphia Campaign.  General Thompson determined that Delaware delegate Thomas McKean was responsible for him losing the exchange.  Then, because the Americans were still holding onto British generals from the Saratoga Campaign, the British army revoked General Thompson’s parole and ordered him to return to New York City for imprisonment.

Just after Thompson received word in November that he would have to return to New York, he sought out McKean at a Philadelphia coffeehouse and got into a violent argument with him.  Thompson called McKean a rascal and a villain, with the apparent intent of getting McKean to challenge him to a duel.  It was also reported that Thompson called Congress a “parcel of damned rascals” although the exact wording is in dispute.

McKean refused to take the bait, and instead reported the incident to Congress.  McKean accused Thompson of insulting Congress.  A military general attacking the honor of the civilian leaders of the government was a serious offense.  Congress held hearings in December to determine exactly what was said.

Thompson denied criticizing Congress generally, and insisted his remarks were against McKean in his personal capacity.  In the end, Congress took no action against Thompson, but also allowed him to return to British custody and left him there for another nearly two years.  The whole incident was another example of how tenuous Congress thought its reputation was becoming with the public.

Resignation over Deane

Just as the Thompson hearings were winding down, Silas Deane decided it was a good time to publish his attack on Congress.  I went into detail about the Deane investigations back in Episode 193. The American diplomat to France had returned to Philadelphia in June, 1778 to face investigations about his activities in bringing covert French assistance to America.  Deane had been the target of secret accusations from fellow commissioner Arthur Lee, whose two brothers Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, sat in Congress.

The Lees did not have any solid evidence against Deane, mostly because the accusations were complete BS.  So instead, they chose to drag out the hearings for over a year, without resolving anything and preventing Deane from returning to France.  After about six months, Deane got sick of all this.  He published an article in December 1778 which called out Congress, and the Lees in particular, for his unjust recall from France and for the inability to resolve the complaints against him.  This set off a series of back and forth articles between Deane on the one side, and the Lees, supported by Thomas Paine, on the other.

Henry Laurens, had backed the Lees in this dispute.  He had grown to oppose Deane and believed all the accusations that the Lees had made against him.   Laurens was outraged at Deane’s public attack on Congress.  He moved that Congress form another committee to investigate Deane over the propriety of his publication and to suspend all investigations regarding Deane’s involvement in French assistance until the committee on the publications could issue a final report.  Laurens saw this as a way of dragging out the hearings further to punish Deane for taking this whole affair to the public. The majority in Congress, however, rejected Laurens’ plan and refused to respond as a body to Dean’s article.  

In what appears to have been a pique of frustration at Congress’ inaction, Laurens gave a speech saying that he could no longer be president of a body that refused to defend its dignity and offered his resignation.  It’s not clear if Laurens really meant to resign, or whether he thought the delegates would reject his officer and reconsider his motion to go after Deane.  If it was the latter, he would be disappointed.  Adding to Laurens’ troubles was an accusation against him, that he had leaked confidential information to Thomas Paine during Paine’s public disputes with Deane.

Congress called for a vote for a new president the following day.  Some of Laurens’ allies attempted to reelect Laurens.  But they were in the minority.  By a vote of eight states to four, Congress elected John Jay as its new President. 

President John Jay

John Jay had only arrived as a delegate to Congress a few days earlier. He was just shy of his 33rd birthday when he assumed the president’s chair.  

John Jay
The New York delegate had grown up in a wealthy and prominent family.  His father had been a wealthy merchant.  His mother descended from a prominent Dutch family that had lived in New York before it became British.

Jay had attended college and pursued a career as a lawyer.  He began supporting the patriot cause before the war, and served on the local Committee of Correspondence.  In 1774, he was a delegate to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  After that, he served in the local New York Provincial Congress and as a judge in New York State.  

He joined the Second Continental Congress just a few days before Laurens offered his resignation. I’m not clear on why the majority of delegates turned to the new guy to become president.  It may be that he was perceived as a moderate.  It may also have been that he was a supporter of Silas Deane and that the majority wanted to show support indirectly for Deane.  Whatever their reasons, Congress now had a new president.

Quebec Offensive

Another issue on Congress’ agenda was a new assault on Quebec.  Recall that a year earlier, Congress had approved an assault on Quebec to be led by General Lafayette, but that it could not come up with the men, money, ammunition, and other resources to get the offensive underway.

In the interceding year, France had joined the war.  With the availability of French soldiers, arms, and equipment, and with the reduction of British forces as London moved soldiers to other parts of the empire, they had a much better opportunity in 1779 to push Britain out of Canada.  Lafayette became an ardent advocate of leading an invasion of Quebec.  He pestered both Washington and Congress with proposals to lead just such an offensive. 

George Washington rejected the plan, telling Lafayette that his priorities were capturing New York and Newport.  Washington also wrote to Congress, giving a litany of military reasons why an invasion of Quebec would be a bad idea in 1779, just as he had thought in 1778.

Washington also expressed private concerns to President Henry Laurens in a November 14 letter as to why a French led invasion of Quebec was a bad idea.  Washington looked at the outcome if the offensive succeeded.  Washington noted that the local Quebecois might be very happy to be under French rule again.  France might use the opportunity to assert control there, not just hand over Quebec to become part of the United States.  While France was an American ally at the moment, everyone knew that was primarily the result of their joint opposition to Britain.

France was a larger and more powerful country than Britain.  It also had an absolute monarchy that was probably less disposed than Britain toward supporting the ideals of a republic. Washington had begun his military career opposing French claims to the Ohio Valley.  Returning France to control of Quebec might once again stoke those claims and lead to some future war between the US and France, one where the US would not have Britain as an ally.

Minister Gérard

While Washington valued the alliance with France.  At the same time, he also noted that “it is a maxim founded on the universal experience of Mankind, that no Nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interest.”  French and American interests would likely deviate if France began to build a new empire in America from its hold in Quebec.  Despite the current alliance, Washington saw a longer-term benefit to a British-controlled Quebec than a French-controlled Quebec.

Despite Washington’s letter, Congress tentatively gave support in December to retaking Quebec.  Washington found this of enough concern that he took the extreme step of leaving his army in New York and northern New Jersey to ride to Philadelphia and speak with members of Congress personally.  Washington arrived on December 22 and would remain in Philadelphia through January.  We don’t know exactly what Washington told the committee, but it was likely an elaboration both on his official military concerns as well as the concerns about a French Quebec that he had expressed to Laurens.  During the course of the talks, Congress agreed that an invasion of Quebec was not feasible at the time and withdrew its proposal.

All of this was happening under the watchful eye of French Minister Gérard, who had been in Philadelphia since the summer.  Gérard did not have access to secret Congressional sessions, but he was following events closely.  Gérard’s primary responsibility in America was to make sure that the US did not reach some resolution with Britain that would leave France hanging in the war.  He was still concerned by the fact that the Carlisle Commission still in New York trying to bring about just such a resolution.

Congress’ decision not to cooperate in an invasion of Quebec only added to French fears.  Gérard began pressing for an expression of support for the French alliance and a guarantee that there was no consideration of a peaceful resolution and return of British rule, even under highly advantageous terms to America.  On January 14, Congress complied, passing a resolution unanimously affirming that the US would not enter into any peace with Britain, without France’s agreement.

Lafayette Goes Home

With no Quebec invasion on the agenda, Lafayette requested to return home to France.  Even before Congress made the final decision not to take Quebec, Lafayette saw the writing on the wall.  He also knew that with the war between France and Britain, he should probably go home and return to duty in the French army.

By late October, 1778 Lafayette traveled to Philadelphia to request an indefinite leave from the Continental Army.  Congress granted the request and passed a resolution thanking the young general for his service.  Lafayette departed Philadelphia for New England, planning to catch a ship from Boston to take him home to France.

One the way to New England, the general visited many prominent American leaders and enjoyed a great many stops as he made his way to Boston, in part to lobby important leaders for an invasion of Quebec. By the time he reached New York, Lafayette fell ill and was bedridden for several weeks.   He would not reach Boston until some time in December, and would not get on a ship for France until early January, 1779.  I want to pick up Lafayette’s story in Europe in a couple of week, but before I leave this week, I want to note a few other important issues Congress was dealing with.

Money Problems

Congress’ concern about money was always behind any of its policies.  It never had enough, well maybe it had too much.  It was printing lots of paper money that continued to lose value.  It was always struggling to reduce its financial commitments or put off repayment of debts.  This often led to very real problems.

Representing America's largest creditor was French Minister Gérard.  On his agenda was the issue of payment for all the aid France had provided in the early years of the war.  This was, in part, tied to the whole Silas Deane Affair.  The core of the complaint that Arthur Lee had made against Deane was that Lee claimed France had provided covert assistance free of charge.  Deane had reported that France had fronted the supplies, but very much wanted to be repaid for them.  Lee accused Deane of lying about the demand for payment and wanted to pocket all that money for himself.

When Deane went public with his frustration in December, Paine had responded publicly with the accusation that the French aid was free.  This got the attention of Gérard, who wanted to make clear that yes, they actually did want to be paid.  He began reaching out to members of Congress about getting paid for what many cash-strapped delegates still thought had been free assistance.  It may have gone something like this.

Congress was not able to come up with money to repay France.  Congress was divided on the issue.  They did not want to cause a break in the alliance over a few boatloads of tobacco.  On the other hand, the Lee faction did not want to admit that the accusations made against Deane were completely false and without merit.  In the end, Congress passed a vague resolution disavowing Paine’s articles, and assuring France that America would comply with all agreements, once they had all the details.

At the same time Congress was assuring France that it would pay for the early assistance, it was also asking France, along with anyone else in Europe, to lend them even more money toward the war effort.  

Continental three dollar bill
So far, Congress had managed to keep the economy afloat by printing millions of paper continental dollars.  These were essentially promissory notes that permitted the bearer to receive a certain amount of gold or silver at some future point.  The value of the dollars depended on people believing, (1) that Congress would still exist in the future, after having won the war, and (2) that Congress would come up with some way to acquire enough gold and silver to pay off those notes.

By the end of 1777, a Congressional committee reported that it had put $28 million worth of Continental dollars into circulation over the course of three years.  In fact, by that time, they had actually put about $36 million into circulation. 

Congress also tried to make requests for money from the states, but those were not very forthcoming.  It skimped wherever it thought it could, for example, not paying the soldiers, and requiring the states to provide food, clothing, and other supplies for their soldiers in the Continental Army.  Congress also seemed happy to stiff people where they could, such as refusing to pay the debts incurred by Silas Deane or Benedict Arnold, to name just two examples of probably hundreds of men who believed that Congress would never pay what it owed.

The dollars that Congress had released in 1775 would start coming due for redemption in gold or silver beginning in 1779.  At the beginning of that year, delegates still had no way of repaying those. Future emissions of currency had no fixed redemption rate.  Even so, Congress knew that at some point, it needed to find a way to make good on its financial promises.  Congress directed its European agents to obtain loans so that it could repay some of its commitments, but the loans of course just kicked the problem down the road as they would have to be repaid with interest.  European lenders were highly dubious that Congress would ever be able to pay off any loans and were reluctant to offer credit at any terms.

Instead, Congress doubled down on printing money.  In 1778, it emitted about $68 million and in 1779 it would emit another $100 million.  I will get into the currency crisis of 1779 in a future episode, but the headline is that as more money was printed, the less value it retained. By the end of 1778, the Continental Dollar was worth about 12.5 cents.  By the end of 1779, that would fall to about 2.5 cents.

Congress came up with a creative way to push this economic burden onto the states without collecting taxes directly.  It ordered states to collect a certain amount of Continental currency each year in order to protect the value of the money.  The idea was that states would accept Continental dollars for payment of taxes or other debts, then turn over those bills for destruction and help to keep the remaining dollars in circulation to maintain their value.  It would take an estimated twenty years to redeem all the currency, but they at least had a plan in place.  We'll see how all that works.

Next Week, We will take a closer look at George Washington’s visit to Congress.

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Next Episode 206 George Washington in Philadelphia 

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Further Reading


Norton, Louis Arthur “The Connecticut Activity of William Franklin, Loyalist” Journal of the American Revolution, November 1, 2017:

Wilson, Megan "A Damned Set of Rascals" The Continental Army vs. The Continental Congress: Tensions Among revolutionaries, LSU Master’s Thesis, 2012:

The Affair of Silas Deane, Thomas Paine Historical Society:

Address of Silas Deane to the Free and Virtuous Citizens of America,

“From George Washington to Henry Laurens, 14 November 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Laurens, Henry. “The Resignation of Henry Laurens, President of Congress, 1778.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 13, no. 2, 1889, pp. 232–236. JSTOR,

Grubb, Farley The Continental Dollar: Initial Design, Ideal Performance, and the Credibility of Congressional Commitment, 2013:

Grubb, Farley. “The Continental Dollar: How Much Was Really Issued?” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 68, no. 1, 2008, pp. 283–291. JSTOR,

Farley Grubb. “State Redemption of the Continental Dollar, 1779–90.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 69, no. 1, 2012, pp. 147–180. JSTOR,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, vol. 12, US Govt. Printing Office, 1904. 

Deane, Silas The Deane Papers, Vol. 3, New York Historical Society, 1889. 

Ingraham, Edward D. Papers in Relation to the Case of Silas Deane, Philadelphia: Seventy-Six Society, 1855. 

Laurens, Henry “The Resignation of Henry Laurens, President of Congress, 1778The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1889. 

Lee, William Reply of William Lee to the charges of Silas Deane,1779, Brooklyn: Historical Printing Club, 1891. 

Pellew, George John Jay, New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. 1890. 

Wallace, David Duncan The Life Of Henry Laurens, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Burnett, Edmund Cody, The Continental Congress, Macmillan Co. 1941 

Montross, Lynn The Reluctant Rebels, Harper & Brothers, 1950. 

Stahr, Walter John Jay: Founding Father, Bloomsbury Academic, 2005. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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