The American War of Independence Begins I



Congress had met behind closed doors, and the congressmen had taken a vow of secrecy, but someone had been blabbing. The Earl of Dartmouth, the American secretary, had been kept abreast of what was occurring. The most likely suspect was Joseph Galloway, who may have tattled to his friend William Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s son and the royal governor of New Jersey. Young Franklin in turn probably passed along the information to Dartmouth, which included damaging revelations of the bitter divisions among the congressmen.

Dartmouth had despaired when he learned in early October that Congress had endorsed the Suffolk Resolves. “They have declared war on us,” he said immediately. However, once aware of the Galloway Plan and its narrow defeat, Dartmouth saw a glimmer of hope for Anglo-American reconciliation if the ministry could exploit the disparate viewpoints in the colonies. Dartmouth urged Lord North to send a commission to America to open negotiations. North had no interest in bargaining, though given his close ties to the American secretary, the prime minister agreed to take the matter to the monarch. Although George III had questioned neither Parliament’s authority over the colonies nor the wisdom of sending troops to Boston in 1768, for the most part he had come down on the side of leniency when responding to colonial provocations. The Boston Tea Party brought about a sea change in his attitude. Thereafter, the monarch was stern and unbending, regretted the earlier appeasement of the colonists, and saw no alternative to using force to bring his rebellious subjects in line. The colonists were in “a State of Rebellion,” he said before Congress met, adding even then that “blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this Country or independent.” On another occasion he had remarked that the “dye is cast,” the “Colonies must submit or triumph… . [W]e must not retreat.” Not surprisingly, the king rejected discussions with the colonists. “I do not want to drive them to despair but to Submission,” he told North.

Once formal word of the steps taken by the Continental Congress was received in December, the ministers took up the American crisis but deferred a decision on how to respond until after the holidays. They chose this course because the monarch insisted that “reason not passion” must be their guide. But opinion in England was hardly dispassionate. Throughout the Christmas season and into January, most of the press and numerous pamphleteers assailed the “wicked and treasonable” colonists. Samuel Adams came under fire, but no one was savaged like Franklin, who was limned as “Old Doubleface” and “Judas.”

Dartmouth aside, the ministers required no exhortations to be firm. They reached a decision on how to respond to the defiant colonists in the course of three meetings in January 1775. From the outset, all signs pointed toward the use of force. The ministers were influenced by numerous Crown officials in the colonies who painted a picture of a widespread and intractable insurgency that could be put down only by armed forces. The most influential was General Gage, who had been in Boston since June. The time for “Conciliating, Moderating, Reasoning is over,” he advised. “Nothing can be done but by forcible Means.” The “popular Fury was never greater,” he went on. He reported that the Yankees were preparing for war. They “threaten Resistance by Arms,” he warned, adding that backcountry inhabitants had vowed “to attack any Troops who dare to oppose them.” Although he acknowledged that the Yankees might field a capable army, Gage left no doubt that the rebellion could be crushed militarily. The Americans would “be lyons whilst we are lambs but if we take the resolute part they will be very meek,” he had long insisted, and now he predicted that a successful “first strike” would “be fatal” to the rebels. Even if the rebels persisted after the first engagement, the troops “would be able to overcome them, no doubt, in a year or two.” If the ministry took in what Gage said about the projected ease of crushing the rebellion, it ignored what he said about the need for a great many troops to do the job. “If Force is to be used … it must be a considerable one,” he counseled, adding that he would need 20,000 British troops—he had only 4,521 at the time—and those must be supplemented by several thousand troops obtained from somewhere in Europe. Sending a sufficient army, he said, would “save both Blood and Treasure in the End.” But if too few were sent, it would only “encourage Resistance.”

The ministers had contemplated war a year earlier, in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Tea Party. In its deliberations in January 1775, the ministry went back over the same ground and in greater depth. Overconfidence was rife. The colonists had militias, but there was no American army and no colonial soldier had ever commanded an army of the size that would have to be created. It was implausible that America’s untrained and undisciplined soldiers would be a match for Britain’s professional troops. Indeed, the consensus among Britain’s officers who served in the colonies during the Seven Years’ War had been that the Americans were a “poor species of fighting men.” Some in the cabinet may have agreed with many in the House of Commons who openly derided the colonists as lazy and cowardly, even that it was “romantic to think they would fight.” One British general publicly remarked that he could march from one end of America to the other with an army of five thousand; another was known to have observed that “the native American is an effeminate thing, very unfit for and very impatient of war.” An MP exclaimed that “a good bleeding” would “bring those Bible-faced Yankees to their senses.” In addition to their alleged shortcomings as soldiers, the colonists had no navy and no manufacturing sector that could arm and clothe those who served. It was doubtful that the colonists under the best of conditions could finance a war, but with the Royal Navy blockading the coast and shutting down American trade, it was inconceivable that the colonies could wage a war of any length. Furthermore, the thirteen colonies had long been so disunited that to many it seemed unimaginable that any degree of solidarity could be sustained in the face of adversity.

The cabinet mulled over two troubling questions, though both were ultimately brushed aside. Some ministers wondered whether the British army could campaign in the backcountry, where it would not only lack naval assistance but also have to maintain long supply lines in hostile territory. Those fears were laid to rest largely by the belief that simply taking control of the coastal cities would bring to heel the colonists in the hinterland. Some in the cabinet also found the possibility that France and Spain might aid the colonists, or even enter the war as America’s allies, to be unsettling. However, few thought Britain’s European rivals would act swiftly. They would watch and wait, and while they did so, Britain’s military would suppress the colonial rebellion. The American war would be over while Versailles and Madrid were still contemplating belligerency.

Foreseeing that the ministry would opt to use force and that the monarch would be cool toward opening negotiations, Dartmouth in November—prior to the first cabinet sessions—conceived a last-ditch effort to avert a war. He saw Benjamin Franklin as his only hope. Dartmouth knew enough about Franklin to realize that he remained ambitious and he wanted to live out his life in London. If Franklin could be persuaded—“baited,” might be a better word—to propose terms for reconciliation, the king might yet agree to pursue negotiations along those lines. Even if talks with the colonists never led to an accord, the slightest sign that London was willing to yield a bit might drive a wedge between the various factions in America, shattering colonial unity and sapping the will for armed resistance.

Dartmouth selected two English Quakers with ties to Pennsylvania to approach Franklin. After meeting with them, and at their behest, Franklin responded with what he called “Hints … of Terms” that might resolve the crisis. Franklin proposed that Massachusetts or the Continental Congress make restitution to the East India Company for the property lost in the Boston Tea Party; that the conditions of Britain’s regulation of imperial trade be decided through Anglo-American negotiation; that the restraint of colonial manufacturing be “reconsider’d”; that British troops could henceforth be deployed “in any colony [only] with the Consent of its Legislature”; that the Tea Act and Coercive Acts be repealed; and that in wartime, the king might requisition revenue from the colonial assemblies.

Straightaway, Dartmouth saw that Franklin’s terms would go nowhere with North’s ministry. But he did not give up. He had his intermediaries arrange for Lady Caroline Howe, the sister of General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe, to invite Franklin to her home to play chess. Franklin accepted the invitation and enjoyed himself so much that he returned for a second match and, on Christmas night, for a third game. During the last visit, Admiral Howe himself dropped in, “accidentally” bumping into Franklin. Howe apologized for the treatment that Franklin had endured in the Cockpit a year earlier and said that if the Pennsylvanian played along, he could “expect any reward in the power of government to bestow.” If Franklin had not previously known that he was being used, he surely did now. He would not sell out America, perhaps because it was his native land, perhaps as he sensed that he had a brighter future there than in England. Franklin held fast to the decision he had likely made at the time of his savage humiliation in the Cockpit: he would leave England and cast his lot with the colonies. Over the next few days, Franklin drafted another set of conditions for settling Anglo-American differences. Largely scrapping his original proposals, Franklin submitted to Howe a list of terms that essentially dovetailed with the demands of the Continental Congress.

Dartmouth now realized that peaceful reconciliation was hopeless. Nevertheless, he proposed one last time in the cabinet meetings that commissioners be sent to America to open negotiations. It was a futile gesture. The cabinet adhered to the hard line from which it had never budged throughout the month of discussions, its inclinations bolstered by the support of the monarch, who later declared that no nation had ever entered into more justifiable hostilities than did Great Britain in 1775. With the use of force agreed to, North’s ministry in January bolstered the Royal Navy and voted to bring Gage’s manpower strength up to 7,500. This was only about one-third the number of redcoats that the general had said he would need and a fraction of the manpower he had envisaged as necessary for putting down such a widespread rebellion, and it would take months to get these reinforcements to him. Its final decision was to order the arrest of the leaders of the rebel government in Massachusetts and to command General Gage to use force to suppress the rebellion.

In a cruel turn of fate it fell to the gloomy American secretary to dispatch the order to Gage. Thus Dartmouth, nearly the lone voice among the ministers in opposing war, wrote and sent the directive that would launch hostilities. On January 27, 1775, he ordered “a vigorous Exertion of … Force,” adding for good measure that Gage was to be “active & determined,” and not to hesitate to send his army into the interior of Massachusetts to smash the rebellion. What is more, Gage was to “arrest and imprison the principal actors & abettors in the [Massachusetts] Provincial Congress.”

From word of the first American protests against the Stamp Act in 1765 to the receipt of the promulgations and entreaties of the Continental Congress a decade later, Britain’s leaders had never sought to redress the colonists’ fundamental grievances. With a fatal intransigence, they had refused to reconsider the framework through which power and wealth flowed within the British Empire, and in 1775 they gambled that they could salvage everything by bludgeoning the colonists into submission in a war they were convinced would be short and easy. After all, as Dartmouth stated to Gage in a remark that summarized majority sentiment in the ministry, the colonists were “a rude Rabble without a plan, without concert.” Success should come from “a single Action.” It was even conceivable that American resistance would end “without bloodshed” once those Yankee farmer-militiamen glimpsed the unnerving sight of British regulars bearing down on them.

Given the lag time in communicating from one side of the Atlantic to the other, Lord North knew that Gage would not receive Dartmouth’s order for four weeks or more. (Bad weather that winter played such havoc with shipping that ten weeks elapsed before Gage received his orders.) That gave the prime minister ample time to unveil the administration’s response to events in America, though in all that he said to Parliament in January and February, North never divulged that Gage had been ordered to use force.

Parliament’s final peacetime debate on the American question was launched by a dramatic address by the Earl of Chatham, five days after Dartmouth penned his secret order. As he was old and ill, this was to be Chatham’s last great speech. He counseled against war. The Americans would not back down, he said. They were driven by a sense of honor and the belief that their rights as Englishmen had been violated. It had taken an army of forty thousand men to defeat the French in America, but an even larger army would be required for suppressing the colonial rebellion, if it could be put down. A better course than war was to “restore America to our bosom”

through dispelling its “fears and … resentments.” Chatham essentially urged Parliament to acquiesce in the wishes of the Continental Congress, for he asked his colleagues to remember that “taxation is theirs, commercial regulation is ours.” Specifically, he advocated for the removal of the army from Massachusetts and the repeal of the Tea Act and Coercive Acts.

North answered in two long addresses in February. In the first, he revealed that reinforcements were being sent to Gage and vowed to redress American grievances once order was restored. In his second speech, on February 20, he offered what soon was popularly called the North Peace Plan, although the prime minister never for a moment expected that his supposed concessions would assuage the colonists. In fact, he told the king that his actual strategy was to win public support in England for the war that was coming once the Americans had spurned his offer. North’s so-called conciliation would have permitted the colonial assemblies to decide what sort of tax to levy once Parliament had stipulated the amount of revenue to be raised by each colony. (One member of the House of Commons who saw through North’s chicanery said that the prime minister was really saying: “give us as much money as I wish, till I say enough, or I will take it from you.”) Desultory debate followed off and on for a month. In the early going, the highlight was an exchange between Baron Camden and the Earl of Sandwich, the first lord of the Admiralty. Camden warned that Great Britain could never subdue more than two million free people who lived behind a coastline that stretched over 1,800 miles and were united in quest of “liberty and justice.” Sandwich responded that the “American heroes” were “raw, undisciplined, cowardly men” who would take flight at the “very sound of a cannon.” Erroneously charging that Franklin had written Chatham’s recent speech, Sandwich went on to label the Pennsylvanian “one of the bitterest and most mischievous Enemies this country had ever known.” Franklin, the guest of Chatham, happened to be seated in the gallery that day and heard this latest blast directed his way by a high British official.

Edmund Burke’s remarks were the most thoughtful offered that month in the House of Commons. In the second of his three major speeches on America prior to independence, Burke, like Chatham had earlier, advised that the colonists would not back down. The “fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English Colonies probably than in any other people of the earth.” The time had come to rethink the relationship between colonies and the parent state. Though guarded and opaque, Burke hinted at something of a federal system in which the largely autonomous colonists were bound by loyalty to the king. Above all, however, he dreamed of a return to pre–1763 practices, a time before “little minds” had threatened the dissolution of “a great empire” through attempts to levy parliamentary taxes on the colonists.

In the end, by a nearly four-to-one margin, the House of Commons turned its back on those who opposed war and endorsed the purported concessions offered by the prime minister. Parliament had committed the nation to the war that the ministry had already covertly ordered.

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