10/12/12 - the british offer of peace

In today's selection -- the British made at least two notable offers of peace during the American Revolution. Though they are generally portrayed as intractable foes, there were many in England who were sympathetic to the colonies and opposed the war, not least for its expense at a time when British debt was already too high. So relatively early in the war, the British made overtures of peace agreeing to meet all the terms the colonists had originally requested, first under General William Howe in November of 1777, and then by a peace commission sent directly from Prime Minister Lord North in April of 1778. The colonists rejected both, showing that their motives for independence ran much deeper than mere "taxation without representation." The war would last another three years:

"After a year of fighting, [British General] William Howe was still hoping to end the war via his peace commission rather than his artillery. On the morning of No­vember 2 he sent a note from his quarters in Philadelphia to [merchant Thomas] Willing, asking for a conference. When Willing obliged, Howe posed a series of questions: Was his partner, Robert Morris, still in Congress? Was it true Morris was still open to reconciliation? And were there any terms under which Con­gress might yet rescind the Declaration of Independence? To the first two queries, Willing answered with a qualified yes -- he couldn't say for sure. As to the Declaration, Willing said he had never subscribed to the docu­ment, and rescinding it might yet be possible. But Willing was baffled by the thrust of Howe's inquiry; his understanding, as he put it to the general, was that 'conquest and confiscation was his sole object.'

"Howe professed to be aghast. 'How can that be?' he asked. This was not the rapacious commander of patriot propaganda. Howe was genial and ear­nest, as Willing recorded in a memoir of the meeting. 'The consequence of the campaign must be ruin & destruction of the country,' Willing quoted the general as saying. 'I wish to avoid it with all my heart. ... I had rather settle the matter in an amicable way than gain 10 victories.'

"Howe then laid out terms for a cease-fire: the rights of the colonists would be restored to the status of 1763—self-rule, no taxes, a general am­nesty. The rebels might even retain their arms. Just return to the imperial fold, and 'I should be glad to withdraw troops tomorrow and go home.' These terms were all that the rebels had ever asked for, the sort of deal that might have averted the war in the first place. Much had passed since then, of course, but Willing thought the Congress might yet entertain the appeal. He sent for [John] Brown, described to him Howe's offer, and dispatched him to deliver it to Morris. Willing then added his own endorsement. 'I told him to tell Morris this was the proper time for America to make her bargain. . . . No blame can be imputed on us for being instruments, however unworthy, of conveying terms of peace to our bleeding country.'

"This last was a serious miscalculation. Brown set out the next morning, spent a night on the road, and, arriving at Manheim, waited three days for Morris to return from Congress. When Morris got there, late on a rainy Sat­urday night, Brown related the whole improbable tale. Morris then sum­moned William Duer, who was apparently staying at [Morris's country estate] Manheim, and after a second interview with Brown, the two delegates returned to York to share the intelligence with Congress, where it was 'freely spoken of.'

"Agreeable as the offer from Howe may have appeared to those still hop­ing for reconciliation, the majority in Congress regarded it as tantamount to treason, and a warrant was issued for John Brown's arrest on 'suspicion that he is employed by the enemy for purposes inimical to these states.' He was located in Lancaster and jailed by the Council of Safety, the charge now expanded to encompass 'forming combinations with the enemy for betray­ing the United States into their hands.' ...

"While Congress wrestled with its internal divisions, two ships bearing con­tending diplomatic missions were making their way across the Atlantic. The Andromeda, dispatched from England, carried a new, five-member peace commission that would present new terms of conciliation authorized by the prime minister, Lord North. The second was the Sensible, a warship that put out from Brest bearing Silas Deane's brother Simeon, who carried copies of the new [alliance] treaty with France.

"It appeared, for a time, as if the outcome of the American rebellion hung on the race between these two vessels; that the British terms so fully an­swered the colonial grievances that, absent the surety of a foreign alliance, the Congress would actually accept accommodation. At least the British commissioners hoped so. And while the Sensible arrived first, her captain had to steer north to avoid the Royal Navy, depositing Simeon Deane at Casco Bay on April 13. The Andromeda reached New York a day later, and the terms of appeasement were immediately published in the loyalist press.

It soon became apparent, however, that three years of fighting had pushed American resentment beyond any terms of reunion. George Wash­ington set the tone, writing Congress on April 17 to denounce 'this insidi­ous proceeding,' and exhort the delegates to 'expose in the most striking manner the injustice, delusion, and fraud it contains.'

This reaction came as little surprise; the members of the peace commis­sion were aware that similar entreaties from Howe had been summarily dismissed. One of the commissioners decided on his own not to await the event, but to stage a private campaign to obtain a more charitable hearing. George Johnstone was a former royal governor of West Florida and a vocal defender of the colonists in Parliament; he had several longtime friends now sitting in Congress, and made personal appeals to them sweetened with the promise of a substantial reward for a successful intervention.

"Robert Morris was one of those friends, and was the first to receive one of Johnstone's letters. But even for Morris, the days of holding out for a re­prieve from the king were over. Whether chastened by the experience of John Brown, or hardened, like the rest of the Congress, by the ordeals of the war, Morris immediately notified [President of the American Congress] Henry Laurens of this backchannel entreaty, and forwarded Johnstone's letter to him. The missive 'unfolded to me what I suspected from the first,' Morris wrote; 'the government of Great Britain are alarmed at our forming Foreign alliances and from that ap­prehension have sprung Lord North's Conciliatory Measures.'"


Charles Rappleye


Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution


Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2010 by Charles Rappleye


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