George Washington: No Torture on My Watch

Scott Horton, December 24, 2007

“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.” - George Washington, charge to the Northern Expeditionary Force, Sept. 14, 1775

In my most recent interview of The Other Scott Horton (no relation), the heroic anti-torture human rights attorney, Columbia lecturer and author of the indispensable blog “No Comment” at Harper’s magazine, we discussed the prisoner of war policies of General George Washington, Commander of the Continental Army, and an incident after the Battle of Trenton, New Jersey on December 26, 1776.

It seems that after the battle, the Continentals were preparing to run some of the British Empire’s German mercenaries through what they called the “gauntlet.” General Washington discovered this and intervened. As Horton explained in the Huffington Post, Washington then issued an order to his troops regarding prisoners of war:

“‘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 who have fallen into their hands,’ he wrote. In all respects the prisoners were to be treated no worse than American soldiers; and in some respects, better. Through this approach, Washington sought to shame his British adversaries, and to demonstrate the moral superiority of the American cause.”

In the worst of times – when foreign troops literally occupied American soil, torturing and murdering American patriots – and few believed that the cause of the revolution could ultimately win against the might of the British Empire, the first Commander in Chief of the U.S.A. set the precedent that this society is to lead even our enemies by “benignant sympathy of [our] example.” To win the war against the occupying army of Redcoats, the American revolutionaries needed right on their side.

And it worked. Many of the German Hessians in fact joined the revolutionaries in their fight against the English and stayed here in America to be free when the war was won.

Must we abandon this legacy? Is it already too late to reclaim it?

Merry Christmas.




38 Responses to “George Washington: No Torture on My Watch”

  1. When the Republicans announced their repudiation of Charles Darwin they also threw hundreds of years of social evolution out the window. Just back a few years ago we were following the Geneva Convention and cosnsidered torture an abomination. We even talked about the constitution,its ban on cruel and unusual punishments, and also the prohibition of a person testifying against himself. Then came the strange doctrine that this is an extra special war and the rules do not apply. Devolution entered and became the Bush style. Back to the inquisition, fellas and let’s hear em scream. Well, the waterboarding number might not have screams but the other fun techniques give you that pleasure. Did I say inquisition? Back up the trees boys and we’ll chew the nuts off our apish foes.Listen to the scrape of knuckles as you march.

  2. Unfortunately George Washington's chivalry only extended to white prisoners of war. In the case of Seneca Indians who remained loyal to the British crown he ordered them massacred, and their villages and orchards destroyed. The officer who lead the operation, a John Sullivan, had leggings made from the skins of the victims. Apparently when two groups of white people were killing each other on the North American continent the Seneca were expected to understand the concepts of monarchy versus the principles of the declaration of independence, recognize which honkies were partisans of which, and join the correct side accordingly. George Washington was a war criminal, like so many other American presidents. We've got to get past the children's storybooks.

  3. Washington was a great gentleman. America’s current leaders are bounders.

  4. Yes, but don’t forget, 9/11 changed everything.

  5. It would be tempting to ascribe Washington’s vision of right treatment in war as being grounded in some larger vision of the human being that was once in full flower but had fallen into abuse at the hands of lesser men, but we can not. Washington was a slave owner and for years had been in the service of the very army whose moral conduct he now reproached. Far better to understand Washington’s squeemishness in terms of the requirements of personal honor or caste. Washington was nothing if not a gentleman, at least when it came to other gentlemen, and war was then a quintessentially gentlemanly affair. That notwithstanding, is one while engaged in making comparisons of Washington with the out-and-out war criminals of the present day to fall, like Minimer Cheevey, into a kind of nostagic despond? I would hope not. Far better to erect permanent and unassailable structures capable of bringing swift responses to the just claims of the abused and a discerning querilousness to the self-serving claims of the pompous.

  6. Why does everything have to be all or nothing? Can’t we see that in some ways George Washington was a great man and in other ways he fell short? Of course, it was morally repugnant that he owned slaves, but does that take away from the good he did? He is the “Father of Our Country” and we would probably not be a nation if it were not for him. There is no question that slavery was evil and what he did was wrong but I submit that it does not take away from the good he did. And by the way, in his will he ordered that all his slaves be freed after the passing of his wife, Martha.

  7. You make a good point Tim R. While Washington may have been a great man, he was still a flawed human being, as is demonstraited by his unwillingness to torture POW’s.

    Thank Gawd that in out Global War Against Terror© we have a Commander in Chief who is willing to torture &/or kill anyone and everyone who might possilbly be an islamic nazi terrorist (and anyone else who happens to be standing nearby a suspected islamonazi).

  8. There is no question that under the laws and legal customs of that time, George Washington was committing treason. He would have been hanged if he ever was caught. He would have been tried under the laws of that time and he would then have been hung for treason.

    In our own contemporary terminology, Washington was a terrorist or war criminal. He was committing high treason, the most heinous of crimes, and his rebels were killing government troops and rebel irregulars were killing “collaborators”, that is, loyal subjects, citizens who were not committing treason.

    Washington was leading a rebellion. He was a rebel and terrorist. The war he launched was one of the firt terrorist wars.

    Washington was a racist. He owned many slaves. We forget that today. But he was a racist and a slaveholder.

    With regard to the Native American population, he advocated the extermination and genocide of the Native population. He supported taking their land from them and expropriating them and killing them. We also tend to forget or we censor this fact.

    Also, Washington was a very incompetent and poor general. The only reason he “won” the war was because France declared war against Britain and intervened on the American side, neutralizing the British naval superiority. We forget this today but we owe our “freedom” and secession to France. The myth of Washington’s military genius, however, still endures.

    The great thing with Washington is that he or his successors got to write the history. Of course that history is falsified and manipulated and totally distorted. When we get to write our own history, we tell a pretty one-sided story, usually we create a myth.

    Glorifying and hyping up military leaders, however incompetent, is not very antiwar. As Benjamin Franklin noted, there never was any good war or any bad peace.

  9. The current claim that the US government never authorized and encouraged torture until the Bush administration went off the rails is a gross evasion of reality.

    The School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, was established by the US in Panama in 1946 and has been a torture academy ever since. Representatives of virtually every dictatorship in Latin America have learned torture and assassination techniques at the SOA.

    The CIA has also taught torture techniques in other countries, such as Portugal under Salazar as well as the phony Republic of South Vietnam, where the agency was also responsible for the assassination of about 25,000 Vietnamese under the so-called Phoenix program.

    For documented details of the US government-sanctioned involvement in torture since the end of WW2, see A Question of Torture, by Professor Alfred McCoy. See also his The Politics of Heroin for US involvement in the international narcotics trade.

  10. Great, you’ve now disillusioned yet another piece of my beliefs, that the Founding Fathers are actually “cool”. Next you’ll be saying that Benjamin Franklin is a monarchist.

    *sigh*

  11. People also look the other way when George Washington accepted the Kings grant of land to him(Mount Vernon)(but the King could ungrant it at any time). And when the King was defeated he kept what the King had granted him! Kinda of 2 faced eh!

  12. Let us never forget the genocide that was part and parcel of the founding of the United States of America.

  13. Blame Bush, Rummy, Cheney, etc, all you will, but the AMERICAN PEOPLE – every single one of them – knew damn well that Bush was running torture chambers and secret gulags BEFORE Bush was rewarded with a second term in power, back in 2004. Remember how these same people acted – jaw agape in horror – when the torture chambers in Iraq were run by Saddam? Yet now they claim to be ‘unsure’ whether even water torture actually constitutes torture at all.
    It stands to reason that responsibility for the existence of American torture chambers falls on those who support – and thereby enable – the torturers.
    Family values.

  14. This remark is about half nonsense. Half absurd, because lots of folks who are concerned about the moral climate in the USA – myself included – are also in no way sympathetic to the use of torture and who feel that its perpetrators should be held to account for it. Half truthful, because some on the ReichsChurch right that are associated with so-called “pro-family” attitudes are also virulent aggressors that have supported virtually any device employed by the Regime in its present war on the non-Israeli Middle-East, torture included.

    You need to be more precise, sir, unless its your intention to smear just about anyone holding to the importance of a morality based in natural law, in which case I think I’d prefer it if you were to look for company in a sewer somewhere.

  15. Yeah,

    George Washington had his flaws alright. He certainly wasn’t the great man like some of Tim R’s heroes…..

    Ariel Sharon
    Meir Kahane
    Menachen Begin
    Ben Netanyahu

    Hey wait a second. These guys are/were terrorists.

    Yeah, old George Washington was a bad boy. NOT!!!

  16. You are correct in your assessment of the majority of Americans, raised on TV shows like “Combat” and WWF Raw. Bush is not a leader and he is not the crux of the problem. Bush is merely a follower of American bloodlust. Whether you lead a nation or a family, you do not show leadership by following the people’s bloodlust. If two little children are arguing and one comes up to Daddy and whines about the way his brother is treating him, does Daddy show leadership by saying, “You are right little buddy, Let’s bomb the hell out of your little brother and just eliminate this threat once and for all.” When Bush heard the whining after 9/11 he followed the bloodlust and showed no true leadership. It is amazing how Americans sort of wink when they question Bush’s war spending because they know that nearly all the funds being “spent on the war on terror” are going to humans here in the US who in turn buy their cars and clothes from the merchants who claim to “have no interest” in a miltarized society. Just keep winking and rake in the money.

  17. Yeah James, and thankfully there are no such things as Islamic fanatics, they were just dreamed up and invented by Bush. And thankfully, even if there are Islamic fanatics, they are just practicing their peaceful religion and they never torture anyone. The Muslims never cut off the heads of innocent people or commit any kind of torture. Only the CIA does that. Thanks for your erudite points James.

  18. Say what you will about him but George Washington was a real man. A “man’s man.” He did not sit back and allow his soldiers to do the fighting. He was out there on the front lines. In fact during the French and Indian war he had a horse shot right out from under him. Say what you will about him but you can’t call him a coward.

    Also, how was he a “terrorist?” A terrorist is someone who purposefully attacks innocent, defenseless people, such as woman and children ,in the hopes of instilling fear in the general population, to a achieve a political end. Where did General Washington ever do such a thing?

    Yes, he was a racist and yes he was wicked in his treatment of Africans and Native Americans. But I again contend that the bad does not overshadow or take away from the good. And what a terrible shame that some people are so riddled with guilt and shame that they have nothing better to do than excoriate George Washington. With Americans like that, who needs enemies?

  19. No wonder we are The United States of Amnesia!!
    Let me remind you of a few “changed everything” scenarios in our history that allowed us to remove the gloves and kill, conquer and pillage:

    1. The Alamo changed everything!

    2. The Maine changed everything!

    3. The Lucitania changed everything!

    4. Pearl Harbor changed everything!

    5. The Gulf of Tonkin changed everything!

    2 & 5 were simply fabrications. 1, 3 & 5 were very intentionally provoked. It took in most of those cases 25 to 50 years for the truth to be declassified. What will time reveal about 9/11?

  20. I’d like to amplify the last point: he lived in an era inwhich slavery was an accepted fact around the world, yet he evolved over time to decide that slavery was morally indefensible. Washington was the ONLY founding father to free his slaves in his own lifetime.
    It pleases me to learn that he had the humanity to prevent torture of prisoners.

  21. Question:
    If you are going to actively promote the resurrection of a long discredited and despised practice, torture, why should we NOT believe you are capable of resurrecting SLAVERY also !? This question is not meant to be humorous by any means.

  22. Hello all: I agree with George Washington there. And Simon Bolivar the liberator of Venezuela said the same thing. Damend the soldier who uses his weapons against the people

  23. What will time reveal about 9-11?

    That’s the wrong question. The right question is: what has science already revealed about 9-11?

    Physics professor Steven Jones has shown that all three WTC towers were control demolished. But if Newton’s Laws are over your head, then just look at the several videos of WTC7’s alleged “collapse.”
    http://www.whatreallyhappened.com/wtc7.html

    It turns out that “WMD” was a small lie; 9-11 was the big lie. The War on Terror is a fraud, purposefully designed to replace the War Party’s former cash cow, the Cold War.

    Next question…

  24. My question was rhetorical. I was pointing to historical precedents. I am quite well versed in classical mechanics(Newtonian physics), relativistic mechanics and quantum mechanics, thank you! Leave your pedantic swipe for someone else.

    Here is a little quote from a letter to the editor I wrote almost 4 years ago:

    “And then, miraculously, the bearded scum, created and nurtured by the CIA-DI to destabilize the Soviet Union, who supposedly could not even converse on a cell phone without a Tomahawk missile zeroing in on him, masterminded this marvel of simultaneous precision attacks on multiple targets in the US, using hijacked jumbo jets, piloted by totally under-trained patsies. It would be extremely difficult indeed for an airline pilot to maneuver a giant 757, 20 feet off the ground, following the avenues of Washington D.C. without winging any obstacles, and accomplish the amazing feat of coming in horizontally through the first floor of the Pentagon. Yet, we must readily believe that this was done by a Muslim zealot who trained mostly on piper cubs and computer simulators.

    Even more incredulous is the non-existent remains of the crash in Pennsylvania where everything was vaporized by the tremendous impact and hellish heat, except, miraculously, the hijackers’ suitcases containing, for some inexplicable purpose, instructions and prayers on paper.The very evidence that was needed to implicate Arab terrorists. Some paper this paper with higher combustion point than metal, including titanium!”

    Since you insist for a next question, then I will pose one to you smarty pants. If whatever crashed into the pentagon was not a commercial airliner, then how was the real flight and its passengers disappeared in this conspiracy?

  25. Peter C

    It started even before the School of the Americas. Here is a little passage from “The Taking of Tigert Hall”:

    “President Wilson ordered official investigations and there were Senate hearings on reports of abuse, torture and summary executions of Haitians by Marines. Below are parts of an article in the Nation, by American journalist Herbert J. Seligman, that caused a sensation in the summer of 1920.

    “Five years of American Occupation, from 1915 to 1920, have served as a commentary upon the white civilization which still burns black men and women at the stake. For Haitian men, women and children, to a number estimated at 3000, innocent of any offense, have been shot down by American machine-gun and rifle bullets; black men have been put to the torture….theft, arson and murder have been committed almost with impunity…by white men wearing the uniforms of the United States.”

    Alarm also came from Haitian intellectuals who accused the occupation forces of “butchery of women and children, massacre of prisoners, use of man-eating dogs specially trained in the Phillipines in questioning resistance fighters…” in their counterinsurgency campaign. We have always taken such anecdotes from long ago with a grain of salt, knowing the Haitian propensity for exaggeration. But again, the revelations of Seymour Hersh on the horrors at Abu Ghraib, replete with pictures of terrorized, naked prisoners tied to iron cell bars with American soldiers sticking ferocious dogs upon them and inflicting terrible wounds, lend a lot of credence to the stories of old.”

  26. Thankyou for your thoughts. Your question is salient. What did happen to passengers on flights which seemingly are unaccounted for? #1, the second tower plane clearly had a radar dome (sic) on it’s underbelly. This is NOT a passenger jet. Pentagon jetliner? C’mon now. Pennsylvania jet? Big Hole? No plane. Upshot…no investigation. Bush/Israel/neocons did not investigate 911. Coverup is ‘proof’ of guilt. Where are the passengers, or were the flights authentic to begin with? In any case, it seems certain ‘Osama’ had nothing to do with it. More clues, Lucky Larry, Dov Zakheim, Alan Chertoff, Whatsitsname Zelnikov, and now Michelle Mukasey. So many Jews, so little time.

  27. There is a time and a place to criticize America’s early crimes. This is not the time. The US arsenal is able and willing to commit such a grand catastrophe as the world has never known. Washington was America’s founder, and a hero. He was the Saddam Hussein of his time,,,and he won. First principle,’I would cut off my arm before I would tell a lie.’ Paraphrase but true. Second principle, here on report, ‘torture is WRONG’. Paraphrase. God Bless George Washington. God Bless America. God Damn George W. Bush. Israel has no “Right” to exist. Reshape Palestine, free for ALL religions.

  28. By your logic, no colony had a right to rebel, as they all existed by grants of English kings. The idea of the whole pack of Yankeedom having to surrender their land via a mentally twisted hairsplitting of the concept of property rights, however, is most amusing to contemplate. Imagine all those Yankee slavers having to go out of business!

  29. Islamic terrorism = impotent boogeyman

    Fanatical muslims have ZERO ability to impose shiara law upon America. Mentally unbalanced Americans going on shooting sprees are a more realistic threat, but you don’t see me wetting my pants about it and offering my rights to big brother to protect me from the trenchcoat mafia.

    Grow a pair, and quit being frightened of shadows.

  30. Not only did Washington free his slaves, he left the bulk of his estate to provide pensions for them.

  31. Washington was a flawed man, as were all the Founding Fathers.

    Yet, despite their flaws, they established a form of government that is arguably the best the world has yet seen.

    They also executed their public responsibilities with about as much virtue as has ever been seen (with the possible exception of Caesar Augustus). Washington could have been King — many people asked him to do so — yet he refused. He could have been President for life, but he declined a third term. He had unfettered military power throughout most of the Revolutionary war, but he conspicuously deferred to the civilian Continental Congress.

    The Founders understood the paradox that slavery posed for country based on the statement that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,” but they realized that solving this paradox was beyond their capabilities. Many believed that slavery would wither and die — as it might have done if cotton had not supplanted tobacco as the South’s primary cash crop. Even Lincoln didn’t free all the slaves, but only those who remained in the unconquered Confederacy, and thus out of the reach of his Emancipation.

    The Founders were not perfect, but the nation they founded and the Constitution they crafted — flawed though they were — has provided the basis for civil rights we all deserve — and mostly enjoy — today.

  32. I had to read this blog knowing such outrageous statements are spawn in the fevered swamps of the leftist and the eye-popping leaps of logic of the moral relativist. Throughout history certain eras have had greater trends of evil as seen in all countries’ despicable behavior, yet our beloved America has continually been a leader and example of the better angels of human character. This absolutly includes President Bush today who wisely would allow water boarding in “ticking bomb situations” while our mortal enemies film beheadings and send copies to the families. This includes Abu Graib where the worst that happened to prisoners most leftists pay to have a similar type of fun while Saddam had rape rooms for family members to watch many thousands of murders. Many soldiers are in prison now and Saddam has been executed thanks to American justice and yes, Mr. Bush. From Haiti to Tuskegee the exagerated conspiracy theories always deny the eventual hand of American justice. America has given more financial aid to Haiti and Surinam than all others combined(both countries have killed more of their own people before lunch). Tuskegee patients’ families and black doctors eventually were paid over ten million dollars while a few years later Castro murdered all the native population of Cuba. Mao was in the process of murdering twenty-five million of his own people; Stalin too. Genocide in many African countries is common; tens of millions massacred. This is where leftists need to live since it’s all the same; Hitler is like Lincoln and Bush is another Hitler. George Washington made his own slaves freemen and met with respect native Americans who also respected him, though they practiced scalping, eating a fallen warriors heart, and many, many other like attrocities that most Americans of Washingtons day would have to be taught. Saudi Arabia was forced to make salvery illegal in 1964!, where human trafficing is still very common. And giving leave to our better angels also includes that Israel most definitaly has every right to exist though Israels’ “neighbors” (if some had nuclear weapons) would have already used them on this tiny nation. The Palestinians and the Ottoman Turks who both loved and supported Hitler said in the Turkish cencus of 1850 that even then, Jews were the majority. Muslims weren’t even second in population in Palestine, Christians were, with Muslims third. Christians do not suicide bomb innocents (or any one else) nor do they teach their children such. Jews have been the majority there for 3600 years mostly under terrible foreign domination. Today all religons are prominently seen in Israel unlike any of Israels’ “neighbors”. The Jordanians didn’t want the so called PLO so Jordon removed them forcibly(killing more than Israel ever has) and doesn’t want them back. Jordan is the true “Palistinian” homeland, but relativists and haters must inflict Israel as has been foretold in the Holy scriptures.

  33. wat the f r u taling about ppl u guys r bumdass

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  35. bullshit

  36. Torture, its just stupid

  37. Very nice article..I believe George Washington was a great gentlemen….
    THANK YOU

  38. In my us presidents class at school, my teacher gave each person in our class a president and I got George washington so now I have to do a project on him and the bad part is that I have to go first course I have the first president of the us
    LOVE,HANNAH