The Father of Our Country Speaks out on Torture

Lest anyone claim I am being anti-American or unpatriotic by speaking out against torture, it might be nice to hear what George Washington had to say (and more importantly what he did) about the subject.

From the beginning of the Revolution, both Washington and the Continental Congress were adamant that the war should be waged in a manner consistent with the humanitarian principles they were fighting for. The true test came during the darkest days of the war, when the British occupied major cities, Washington’s troops were barefoot, malnourished and on the run, and the enemy applied a scorched earth policy, burning farms, shooting civilians, and torturing and starving surrendering Continental soldiers.

“Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to Complain of our Copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren…. Provide everything necessary for them on the road,” the Commander in Chief wrote regarding the 1,000 Hessians (Germans mercenaries) captured at the battle of Trenton in Dec. 1776. Earlier, in his charge to the Northern Expeditionary Force in Sept. 1775, Washington had ordered “Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause… for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.” Through such humane treatment, even during retreat and defeat, Washington hoped to shame the enemy and display the superiority of the American cause by “the benignant sympathy of [our] example.”

In a 1777 letter to his wife Abigail, John Adams explained that the humane treatment of enemy combatants and respect for civilian populations are the only way to truly win a war. “Is there any policy this side of hell that is inconsistent with humanity? I have no idea of it. I know of no policy, God is my witness, but this — Piety, Humanity and Honesty are the best Policy. Blasphemy, Cruelty and Villainy have prevailed and may again. But they won’t prevail against America, in this Contest, because I find the more of them are employed, the less they succeed.”

Even many of the British were disgusted at their own behavior. Scandalized by the orders he was forced to carry out, one British officer wrote in a letter to his father: “Wherever our armies have marched, wherever they have encamped, every species of barbarity has been executed. We planted an irrevocable hatred wherever we went, which neither time nor measure will be able to eradicate.”

The humane example of the Americans especially had a deep effect on King George’s German Mercenaries, many of whom deserted to the Continental side and continued to live here after the war (their descendants remain to this day).

(Thanks to RFK, Jr. for the info in his article in Common Dreams)

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  1. After having written this blog in a fit of patriotic zeal, I realized it begs the question, “If Washington and the Founding Fathers were so committed to humanitarian ideals, why did they not extend the same mercy to their slaves?” This is certainly the great tragic hypocrisy that continues to fester in the foundation of this nation.

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