New-York Historical Society

Death Warrant signed by George Washington

This post was written by N-YHS intern Catherine Newton

While working with the Oversize Manuscripts Collection this summer, my coworker and I uncovered a death warrant signed by George Washington and dated October 25, 1778.

Portrait File, PR52.

Best known for his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and later as the first president of the United States, George Washington is one of the most respected figures in American history. The image of the man, himself, that lingers in public imagination is largely defined by his celebrated role in the Revolution. One important part of his role as the commander of the Continental Army merits a closer look. Washington was a notorious disciplinarian and enforced the military code by insisting on harsh punishment for even minor violations. He wrote to Congress on several occasions suggesting that they adjust the code to allow for harsher punishments in order to keep the soldiers in line. Among other forms of punishment, he supported the liberal use of the death penalty and insisted that hangings be public examples.

The warrant held by N-YHS condemns a man, Elias Brown, to hang for the crimes of robbery and “plundering”. The warrant and the story of Elias Brown’s ordeal cast a new and interesting light on the character of one of America’s favorite heroes.

Oversize Manuscript Collection, Y-McDougall (detail)

Elias Brown was a fifer in the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard, an elite selection of soldiers charged with protecting George Washington and his possessions. The men of the Guard were chosen for their “sobriety, honesty and good behavior” and were all between five feet, eight inches and five feet, 10 inches tall. Above all, they were expected to be “clean and spruce”  (Godfrey, p. 20, fn).

Private Elijah Fisher, also in the Guard, writes about the arrest of Elias Brown and the other men involved in the robbery in his diary. The diary and other sources suggest that while being transported to New Milford, Connecticut, where he was to be hanged in front of General Alexander McDougall’s regiment, Brown escaped from his captors. According to Henry Ward’s book, George Washington’s Enforcers: Policing the Continental Army, Brown then reentered the army under a new name as a mechanic with a different regiment. During this time, his father was able to write to Washington, asking that his son be pardoned. Washington agreed and Brown returned to his regiment, and was subsequently promoted to major fifer.
While the warrant seems to highlight Washington’s strict adherence to military code, the ultimate fate of Elias Brown suggests that perhaps Washington’s character cannot be simplistically summarized. The story of Elias Brown reminds us that Washington, capable of enforcing brutal punishments on his soldier but also of showing great mercy, is a very human American hero.

Sources:

Godfrey, Carlos.  The Commander-in-Chief’s Guard.  Washington, DC: Stevenson-Smith, 1904.

Ward, Henry. George Washington’s Enforcers: Policing the Continental Army. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006.

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