previous next

Peace commissioners.

Viscount General Howe and Admiral Lord Howe, who arrived at New York almost simultaneously (July, 1776), were authorized as joint commissioners to treat with the Americans for reconciliation, pursuant to a recent act of Parliament. They had very limited powers. They were not allowed to recognize the validity of any congress, or of the commission of any military officer among the colonies; they could only treat with persons as individuals; grant pardons to individuals or communities which should lay down their arms or dissolve their governments, but they might not be judges of any complaints, nor promise any redress. They began the business of their mission in the spirit of these instructions by addressing the American commander-in-chief as “Mr. Washington, Esq.,” in superscribing a note which they sent by a flag, accompanied with a copy of the declaration of the royal clemency. Washington refused to receive it. An officer who bore a second note (which also was not received) assured Washington that the commissioners were invested with large powers to effect reconciliation. “They seem to have power only to grant pardons,” said Washington— “having committed no fault, we need no pardon.”

The admiral addressed a letter to Dr. Franklin, whom he had known personally in England, and received a reply, courteous in tone, but in nowise soothing to his feelings as a statesman or a Briton. As they had equal power to negotiate peace or wage war, the commissioners now prosecuted the latter, and not long afterwards the battle on Long Island occurred, in which the Americans were defeated. General Sullivan was among the prisoners. Thinking it to be a favorable time to try their peace measures again, the commissioners sent Sullivan, on his parole, to Congress, to induce that body to designate

The Billop House.

some person with whom the admiral might hold a conference. They appointed Messrs. Franklin, Adams, and Rutledge a committee to meet him, informally, at a place on Staten Island (which he had indicated) opposite Amboy. They met there, Sept. 11, 1776, at the house of the loyalist Colonel Billop. Both parties were very courteous. Lord Howe told them he could not receive them as representatives of the Congress, but as private gentlemen, and that the independence of the colonists, lately declared, could not be considered for a moment. “You may call us what you please,” they said, “we are nevertheless the representatives of a free and independent people, and will entertain no proposition which does not recognize [98] our independence.” Further conference was unnecessary.

On June 4, 1778, the Earl of Carlisle, George Johnstone, and William Eden, commissioners appointed by the King under Lord North's conciliatory bills, arrived at Philadelphia. The brothers Howe, who were to be of the commission, could not join them, but Sir Henry Clinton took the place of Sir William. The commissioners sent their credentials and other papers by their secretary to the Congress at York, Pa., with a flag. That body and the American people, having already perused the bills and found in them no word about independence, had resolved to have nothing to do with commissioners that might be sent, and to meet no advance on the part of the government of Great Britain unless the fleets and armies should be withdrawn and the independence of the United States be declared. Their papers were returned to them with a letter from the president of the Congress saying they could not treat excepting on a basis of acknowledged independence. The commissioners tried by various arts to accomplish their purpose, but failed, and, after issuing an angry and threatening manifesto, sailed for England in October.

After the total destruction of the Southern army near Camden, in August, 1780, some of the Southern members of Congress, alarmed at the progress of the British, became so anxious for the aid of Spain that they proposed, in October, 1780, to abandon all claims to the navigation of the Mississippi as the price of a Spanish subsidy and alliance. Meanwhile (January, 1781) the Empress of Russia had been joined by the Emperor of Germany in an offer of mediation. Great Britain, getting wearied of the war, had accepted the offer. These facts being communicated to Congress by the French minister, a committee was appointed to confer with him. Their report, the opinions of the French ambassador, and the financial pressure made Congress greatly modify its terms of peace on which they had so strenuously insisted. They waived an express acknowledgment of independence. They were willing to accept anything which substantially amounted to it. The treaty with France was to be maintained in full force, but all else was intrusted to the discretion of the negotiators for peace who might be appointed, former instructions indicating the wishes of Congress. These concessions were opposed by the New England delegates, but were adopted by the votes of Southern members, who were anxious for peace. It was proposed to have five commissioners who should represent the different sections of the Union, and John Adams, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Laurens were appointed. The Russian and German mediation resulted in nothing, and Great Britain haughtily refused to acknowledge the independence of the United States in any form.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: