To Henry Laurens April 11, 1778
To Henry Laurens April 11, 1778
I take the liberty of mentioning an affair to you which I think deserves the attention of Congress. The persons who came from Philadelphia some time ago with, or in company with, a flag from the enemy, and were taken up and committed to Lancaster jail for attempting to put off counterfeit Continental money, were yesterday brought to trial and are likely to escape by means of an artful and partial construction of an Act of this State for punishing such offences. The Act makes it felony to counterfeit the money emitted by Congress, or to circulate such counterfeits knowing them to be so. The offenders' counsel explained the word "emitted" to have only a retrospect meaning by supplying the idea of "which have been" "emitted by Congress. Therefore say they the Act cannot be applied to any money emitted after the date of the Act. I believe the words "emitted by Congress" means only, and should be understood, to distinguish Continental money from other money, and not one time from another time. It has, as I conceive, no reference to any particular time, but only to the particular authority which distinguishes money so emitted from money emitted by the state. It is meant only as a description of the money, and not of the time of striking it, but includes the idea of all time as inseparable from the continuance of the authority of Congress. But be this as it may; the offense is Continental and the consequences of the same extent. I can have no idea of any particular State pardoning an offence against all, or even their letting an offender slip legally who is accountable to all and every State alike for his crime. The place where he commits it is the least circumstance of it. It is a mere accident and has nothing or very little to do with the crime itself. I write this hoping the information will point out the necessity of the Congress supporting their emissions by claiming every offender in this line where the present deficiency of the law or the partial interpretation of it operates to the injustice and injury of the whole continent.
I beg leave to trouble you with another hint. Congress I learn has something to propose through the Commissioners on the cartel respecting the admission and stability of the Continental currency. As forgery is a sin against all men alike, and reprobated by all civil nations, query, would it not be right to require of General Howe the persons of Smithers and others in Philadelphia suspected of this crime; and if he, or any other commander, continues to conceal or protect them in such practices, that, in such case, the Congress will consider the crime as the act of the commander-in-chief. Howe affects not to know the Congress-he ought to be made to know them; and the apprehension of personal consequences may have some effect on his conduct.
I am, dear sir, Your obedient and humble servant,
Since writing the foregoing the prisoners have had their trial; the one is acquitted and the other convicted only of a fraud; for as the law now stands, or rather as it is explained, the counterfeiting-or circulating counterfeits-is only a fraud. I do not believe it was the intention of the Act to make it so, and I think it misapplied lenity in the Court to suffer such an explanation, because it has a tendency to invite and encourage a species of treason, the most prejudicial to us of any or all the other kinds. I am aware how very difficult it is to make a law so very perfect at first as not to be subject to false or perplexed conclusions. There never was but one Act (said a Member of the House of Commons) which a man might not creep out of, i.e. the Act which obliges a man to be buried in woolen.