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Letter from Samuel Gale to John McKesson complaining of his imprisonment



Fairfield, April 12, 1776.

SIR: On the 23d ultimo, I was informed by a private hand, that your body had resolved on my release, and on the illegality of my imprisonment. Whether their proceedings have or have not arrived here, is to me unknown. Though Mr˙ Burr used to call on me often at First, and though I cannot help mentioning his civility when Mrs˙ Gale was here, yet he seems much altered of late. He has not called on me since the 12th of March, notwithstanding he has been in the house almost every day. Whether this alteration be owing to false tale-bearers here, or to some ill-disposed person in New-York, or to what other cause, I know not. It has been hinted to me, that he may perhaps think me not sufficiently humble for a close prisoner. I must acknowledge that an illegal detention, even within the walls of a loathsome prison, though in a strange country, without friends, and with but very little money, has not, nor cannot, lead me to degrade the dignity of a freeman; neither can I (notwithstanding the hint) ever believe that Mr˙ Burr would expect it.

I had an opportunity of sending to you by another private hand, in a few hours after the departure of the former, by whom I informed you of my then remaining in this loathsome den, where I still continue; as also of my labouring under a fit of illness, which has since much increased, and still exists, though I have found myself much better these last three or four days than for some time before.

In this intolerable place, the wind, when cold, fairly chills every vein in my body. The smoke, when there is a fire, not only blinds, but nearly suffocates me; and the continued smell of the room has, I fear, tended to rot my very vitals. In the morning I have perpetually a sickness at the stomach; about noon comes on a fever, which, in about three hours, is succeeded by an ague, sometimes more, and sometimes less violent. Every of these intolerable tortures were so inexpressibly increased by the excessive weather of Saturday, the 30th ultimo, that they introduced thoughts and extorted expressions too wild to mention in cooler moments.

I have applied to two different attorneys for a habeas corpus, that the nature of my detention might be inquired into; but, to my entire astonishment, they informed me that that writ never issued in this Government, nor was there any law of the Colony that could administer relief. What, then, in the name of Heaven, is to be done?

I am strangely mistaken if it has not ever heretofore been looked upon as the essential right of a free people, that every individual should enjoy unmolested the liberty of doing and saying whatever was not prohibited by some law or rule prescribed. I also conceive that the greatest severity which reasonable creatures could, with any degree of colour, inflict on any offender, were the penalties which they had previously affixed to his crime. I recollect no rule, nor (though I have inquired as well of Mr˙ Burr, who detains me, as of others) can I find any published by any man, or body of men, that I have broken. Nay, the whole that is, or can be, laid to my charge, appears by one of the addresses of the Congress in 1774, to have been at that time


an undoubted right, inherent in every freeman; and it will doubtless be granted that there must be a law, before there can be any transgression.

Yet, behold a freeborn Briton, who has ever maintained a good reputation among all ranks and conditions of men within the circle of his knowledge, seized in his own house, without knowing by whom, or by whose authority; dragged away by a Militia force from the bosom of his family, and from the city of his abode, without ever seeing or knowing his accusers, and without being examined, or admitted to make any defence; carried, a stranger, to a strange land, from whose inhabitants he can expect no kind of friendship, and whose laws afford him neither hearing or relief, there (like a felon of the degree of a shoeblack) locked up in a loathsome prison of less than five yards square, afflicted with cold, with smoke, and with unwholesome smells, in addition to a sickness under which he labours; in this situation remaining, capable only to enumerate the days and months of his oppression, and so (in all appearance) likely to remain, till death shall thus complete its slow approaches, inch by inch.

Let Heaven and earth bear witness, while the generous man and the brave, of what nation or language, rank or condition, denomination or party soever, shall lay his hand upon his soul and answer, Are not these things intolerable? Especially let him answer, after finding them to be directly contrary to all publick laws, resolves, and orders, both ancient and modern, and still continued, notwithstanding his release, and the illegality of his being taken has been long since determined on by a resolve of that body which holds the supreme rule of the Province to which he belongs, and from whence he was forcibly taken!

What in the world can these persecutions mean? Or, what can they be intended to produce? An alteration of faith? I shall ever hold myself open to conviction, and when I am convinced of any error, I shall frankly acknowledge It. But if this be a specimen of modern freedom, you would doubtless consider me a hypocrite of the first magnitude, should I tell you that I preferred it before the ancient system. Is it meant to secure the safety or exchange of prisoners? Such notions must have been founded in error or mistake; nor could they ever be produced but by a roundabout application through the channel of the civil officers; for neither of his Majesty' s states, military or maritime, know anything of my ever being in existence; at least, if they do, it is totally without my knowledge or application. Or is it (as appears to me most likely) that some of my persecutors want to dip their hands in the blood of a martyr? If so, it would, in my opinion, be far less criminal, both in the sight of God and man, for them to let it flow in decent streams, than thus (with dastardly meanness) to drag it from me drop by drop.

Though I conceive it a duty incumbent on every man to use his endeavours for the preservation of his life, yet (I believe you knew it before these unhappy times came on; if not, Mr˙ Kelly, or Mr˙ Wells, can tell you) I never viewed death through so horrible a medium as some men do, and I have lately learned to consider it as a matter of relief, rather than as a punishment. To leave the wife of my bosom a disconsolate widow, and the babes of my loins without a helper, is doubtless an unhappy reflection; but I am of opinion that a single stroke, however violent, would, in the end, be less grief to those I leave behind me, than a continuation of that suspense and anxiety of mind with which they are now totally overwhelmed. However, as a duty which I owe to my Maker, I am led again to demand my life, liberty, and safety, at the hands of those who hold the governing reins of the Province of New-York, to which I belong; before whom I shall take it as a further favour in you, to lay this letter Immediately on its coming to your hands.

Should any imprudent or offensive expressions be contained in this, or either of my other letters, I doubt not but your knowledge of my former treatment will lead your candour to consider them, not as any Intentional offence, but as a matter flowing from that fountain of unmerited oppression, whose streams have continually washed over me, without intermission, for more than a twelve-month past. On this consideration, I would beg the liberty of going one step farther, and mentioning, that though I ever heartily wished for a more permanent and happy political arrangement between my native land and this, than has hitherto subsisted,


yet, early in the unhappy contest, I (as well as thousands besides) conceived an important clanger, that a new-raised. military would, in time, wrest the sceptre from the hands of those who were intended to control it, and rule the inhabitants of the land solely by the force of arms, without their approbation or direction in the least; thereby depriving the reputable citizen and the industrious husbandman, that had at any time fallen within the compass of any of their displeasure, of the benefit of every law from whence any relief might come. Methinks I now view that dreadful mom already dawned! Let it not be said that I see clearly.

The sensible and the generous, whose sentiments are uncontracted, of whatsoever party or denomination they may be, will cease to wonder that persons who were heavily laden with this conception should hold opinions something different from those, who (though they would all equally detest so direful a production) considered its pregnancy as a mere visionary fable that existed not.

Whether this was a natural or a false conception; whether it has or has not arrived beyond the state of embryo, and acquired the motions of a living foetus, every man must judge for himself. Let it never be said that it has arrived at a perfect birth!

Fatal experience has given me but too much reason to suppose its being already born; nor can anything short of an immediate release convince me to the contrary. If I am wrong, I should be heartily glad to be convinced of my error, and (as I said before) I shall then frankly acknowledge it. Should this be the case, I would beg the favour of you to despatch a person hither on purpose; for I cannot place much faith in receiving anything by the post, being fully of opinion that you have not been so long silent. I should also be glad he would bring a spare horse with him, as horses are not easily to be hired here.

I cannot conclude without saying that, however erroneous my opinions, or however imprudent my revealing them may have been, few, if any, have ever held more sincere wishes for the real welfare of this, and every other part of his Majesty' s dominions, than myself.

I must repeat my thanks to you for the trouble you have taken; and should a continuance of this unhappy season lead you, or any of your acquaintances, into a disagreeable situation, you and they may rely on receiving every relief that can flow through any channel, by means of the application of, sir, your most obedient servant,


To John McKesson, Esq˙, Attorney-at-Law, New-York.