History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution/Chapter IX
The commissioners who had been announced as the messengers of peace were now hourly expected. But the dubious aspect of their mission and the equivocal character in which they were about to appear was far from lulling to inattention the guardians of the cause of America. Their errand was ostensibly to restore peace to the colonies; but many circumstances combined to evince that the design was in reality to furnish new pretexts for the prosecution of the war, with redoubled vigor. Thus was the Continental Congress fully convinced of the impropriety of longer holding themselves in suspense by desultory hopes, or the uncertain termination of their expectations or their fears. They were sensible the step they were about to take would either set their country on the pinnacle of human glory, or plunge it in the abject state into which turbulent and conquered colonies have been generally reduced. Yet they wisely judged that this was a proper period to break the shackles and renounce all political union with the parent state, by a free and bold declaration of the independence of the American States. This measure had been contemplated by some gentlemen in the several colonies some months before it took place. They had communicated their sentiments to the individual members of Congress, but that body had been apprehensive that the people at large were not prepared to unite in a step so replete with important consequences. But the moment of decision had now arrived when both the Congress and the inhabitants of the colonies advanced too far to recede.
Richard Henry Lee, Esquire, a delegate from the state of Virginia, a gentleman of distinguished ability, uniform patriotism, and unshaken firmness and integrity, was the first who dared explicitly to propose that this decided measure, on which hung such mighty consequences, should no longer be delayed. This public and unequivocal proposal, from a man of his virtue and shining qualities, appeared to spread a kind of sudden dismay. A silent astonishment for a few minutes seemed to pervade the whole assembly: this was soon succeeded by a long debate, and a considerable division of sentiment on the important question.
After the short silence just observed, the measure proposed by Mr. Lee was advocated with peculiar zeal by John Adams, Esquire, of the Massachusetts Bay. He rose with a face of intrepidity and the voice of energy, and invoked the god of eloquence to enable him to do justice to the cause of his country and to enforce this important step in such a manner as might silence all opposition and convince every one of the necessity of an immediate declaration of the independence of the United States of America.
Mr. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania took the lead in opposition to the boldness and danger of this decided measure. He had drawn the petition to the King forwarded by Mr. Penn, and though no man was more strenuous in support of the rights of the colonies, he had always been averse to a separation from Britain, and shuddered at the idea of an avowed revolt of the American colonies. He arose on this occasion with no less solemnity than Mr. Adams had recently done, and with equal pathos of expression, and more brilliance of epithet, he invoked the Great Governor of the Universe, to animate him with powers of language sufficient to exhibit a view of the dread consequences to both countries that such a hasty dismemberment of the Empire might produce. He descanted largely on the happy effects that might probably ensue from more patient and conciliatory dispositions, and urged at least a temporary suspension of a step that could never be revoked. He declared that it was his opinion that even policy forbade the precipitation of this measure and that humanity more strongly dictated that they ought to wait longer the success of petitions and negotiations, before they formally renounced their allegiance to the King of Great Britain, broke off all connection with England, plunged alone into an unequal war, and rushed without allies into the unforeseen and inevitable dangers that attended it.
The consequences of such a solemn act of separation were indeed of serious and extensive magnitude. The energy of brilliant talents, and great strength of argument were displayed by both parties on this weighty occasion. The reasons urging the necessity of decision, and the indubitable danger of delay were clear and cogent; the objections, plausible, humane, and important. But after a fair discussion of the question, an accurate statement of the reasons for adopting the measure and a candid scrutiny of the objections against it, grounded either on policy or humanity, a large majority of the members of Congress appeared in favor of an immediate renunciation of allegiance to the Crown, or any future subjugation to the King of Great Britain.
A declaration of the independence of America [See Note 17 at the end of this chapter], and the sovereignty of the United States was drawn by the ingenious and philosophic pen of Thomas Jefferson, Esquire, a delegate from the state of Virginia. [This wise and patriotic statesman was afterwards appointed ambassador to the court of France. On the adoption of the present constitution of government, he was appointed secretary for foreign affairs, was chosen vice president, and afterwards president of the United States of America.] The delegates from twelve [The members from Maryland seceded, but in a short time after joined the confederation.] of the American States agreed almost unanimously to this declaration, the language, the principles, and the spirit of which were equally honorable to themselves and their country. It was signed by John Hancock, then president of Congress, on July 4, 1776.
The allegiance of 13 states at once withdrawn by a solemn declaration from a government towards which they had looked with the highest veneration; whose authority they had acknowledged, whose laws they had obeyed, whose protection they had claimed for more than a century and a half — was a consideration of solemnity, a bold resolution, an experiment of hazard: especially when the infancy of the colonies as a nation, without wealth, resources, or allies, was contrasted with the strength, riches, and power of Great Britain. The timid trembled at the ideas of final separation; the disciples of passive obedience were shocked by a reflection of a breach of faith to their ancient sovereign; and the enemies to the general freedom of mankind were incensed to madness or involved in despair. But these classes bore a small proportion to those who resented the rejection of their petitions and coolly surveyed the impending dangers that threatened themselves and their children, which rendered it clear to their apprehension that this step was necessary to their political salvation. They considered themselves no longer bound by any moral tie, to render fealty to a sovereign thus disposed to encroach on their civil freedom, which they could now secure only by a social compact among themselves, and which they determined to maintain or perish in the attempt.
By the Declaration of Independence, dreaded by the foes an for a time doubtfully viewed by many of the friends of America, everything stood on a new and more respectable footing, both with regard to the operations of war or negotiations with foreign powers. Americans could now no more be considered as rebels in their proposals for treaties of peace and conciliation with Britain. They were a distinct people, who claimed the rights, the usage, the faith, and the respect of nations, uncontrolled by any foreign power. The colonies thus irretrievably lost to Great Britain, a new face appeared on all affairs both at home and abroad.
America had been little known among the kingdoms of Europe. She was considered only as an appendage to the power of Britain. The principles of her sons were in some respects dissimilar, and their manners not yet wrought up to the standard of refinement reigning in ancient courts. Her statesmen in general were unacquainted with the intrigues necessary for negotiations and the finesse usually hackneyed in and about the cabinets of princes. She now appeared in their eyes a new theater, pregnant with events that might be interesting to the civil and political institutions of nations, that had never before paid much attention to the growth, population, and importance of an immense territory beyond the Atlantic.
The United States had their ambassadors to create or to transplant from the bar or the counting house. Their generals were, many of them, the yeomanry or the tradesmen of the country. Their subordinate officers had been of equal rank and fortune, and the army to be governed was composed of many of the old associates of the principal officers and were equally tenacious of personal liberty. The regalia of power, orders of nobility, and the splendor of courts had been by them viewed only at a distance. The discipline of armies was entirely new. The difficulty of connecting many distinct states to act as it were by one will, the expenses of government in new exigencies, and the waste of war had not yet been accurately calculated by their politicians and statesmen. But their senators, their representatives, and their magistrates were generally sagacious and vigilant, upright and firm. There officers were brace., their troops in spirits, and with a full confidence in their command in chief. Hope was exhilarated by the retreat from Boston, and the repeated successes of their arms at the southward; while new dignity was added to office, and stronger motives for illustrious action by the rank America had now taken among the nations. Thus, by the Declaration of Independence, they had new ground to tread. The scene of action was changed. Genius was called forth from every quarter of the continent, and the public expectation enhanced by the general favorable appearance in all their military operations.
In this situation stood affairs, both in the cabinet and in the field, when Lord Howe arrived at Staten Island, with a formidable squadron under his command, on July 12, 1776. At the head of this hostile arrangement, his Lordship came in full confidence of success. Yet amid the splendor and parade of war, while he held out his potent arm, he still cherished the delusory hope of peace.
By a pompous declaration, he early announced his pacific powers to the principal magistrates of the several colonies, and promised pardon to all who, in late times, had deviated from their allegiance, on condition that they would speedily return to their duty, ad gave encouragement that they should, on compliance, hereafter reap the benefit of royal favor. Lord Howe observed in his declaration "that the commissioners were authorized in his Majesty's name to declare any province, colony, county, district, or town to be at peace of his Majesty, and that due consideration should be had to the meritorious services of any who should aid or assist in restoring the public tranquility; that their dutiful representations should be received, pardons granted, and suitable encouragement to such as would promote the measures of legal government and peace, in pursuance of His Majesty's most gracious purposes." [This declaration and the consequent resolves of Congress may be seen at large in the public journals of the sessions of 1776.]
Congress ordered the declaration to be immediately published in all the American gazettes, that the people of the Untied States might be fully informed of the terms of peace; that they might see for themselves that the business of the commissioners was to amuse, disunite, and deceive them; and that those who still continued in suspense from hopes founded either on the justice or moderation of the Court of Great Britain might now be fully convinced that their own valor, virtue, and firmness must rescue and preserve the freedom of their country. [The American Congress were not remiss at this time in exerting their efforts to detach foreigners from the service of Britain, and alluring them to become inhabitants of the United States, by promising them a quiet residence, an allotment of lands, and a security from all interruptions in the enjoyment of their religious opinions, and the investiture of all the privileges of native citizens.]
The next advance His Lordship made for the execution of his commission was by a flag sent on shore within a few days after his arrival, with a letter directed to George Washington, Esquire. By their principles and their professions, the Americans were taught at this period to look down on titles and distinguished ranks. Yet, in this instance, they did not think proper to pass over the implicit denial of either to their commander in chief. It was viewed as a designed affront from those who consider such adventitious circumstances of so much consequence, as carefully to avoid all honorary epithets in their addresses to the first officers of the United States. It was thought more becoming the dignity of his station, both as a soldier and a patriot, for the chief commander to refuse an address that tacitly denied the legality of his commission and the right now claimed of negotiating on terms of equality. This letter was, therefore, by the advice of the principal officers, returned unopened.
This drew out a second advance from the hands of the British commissioners, when Major Patterson, adjutant general of the army, was charged with a letter directed to George Washington, etc. He was receive din military state and treated with great politeness in the American camp. His Lordship in this second address expressed the highest respect for the private character of General Washington, but as he did not yet condescend to acknowledge the commander in chief of the American troops as anything more than a rebel in arms, this letter was also returned without breaking the seal.
Many civilities passed in this interview with Mr. Patterson, who did not forget to insinuate his own wishes for the restoration of friendship and harmony between the two countries. He, with due propriety, made several observations on the extensive powers vested in the commissioners of this salutary purpose. This introduced some general conversation relative to the treatment of prisoners on both sides. The conference was of some length, but as no circumstance indicated a happy result from the negotiation, General Washington, in the most explicit terms, informed the British adjutant general that the inhabitants of the American States were generally of opinion that a people armed in defense of their rights were in the way of their duty; that conscious of no criminality, they needed no pardon; and as his Lordship's commission extended no farther, nothing important could be expected from protracting the negotiation.
In the mean time, reinforcements were daily dropping in to the assistance of the British army. The scattered divisions of Hessians, Waldeckers, etc. designed for the summer campaign had been somewhat retarded by not knowing with certainty the spot destined for headquarters. They had some of them sailed directly for Halifax. This occasioned a delay of any energetic movement until the latter part of the month of August, when the British army began to act with vigor.
General Washington had rather incautiously encamped the bulk of his army on Long Island — a large and plentiful district about two miles from the city of New York. This island contained many settlements, through an extend of 120 miles in length. It was inhabited principally by loyalists and persons generally disaffected to the American cause. Many were at a loss for a reason, nor indeed could any conjecture why the commander of the American army should hazard his troops on an island liable at any moment to be surrounded by the British navy. However it was, several thousand Americans were there posted, under the command of Generals Putnam, Sullivan, and William Alexander, Lord Stirling.
Sir William Howe very wisely judged that it was a less arduous and a more promising undertaking to dislodge the Americans from their encampment on the island than a direct attempt to reduce New York. The royal army at that time consisted of about 30,000 men. These he found no difficulty in landing from Staten Island, and in detachments posted them from one end of Long Island to the other, separated from the Americans by a ridge of hills covered with woods. Very fortunately for the enterprise of the British, one of the American out-guards early fell into the hands of General Clinton. In consequence of some intelligence gained by this accident, he, before daylight on the morning of August 27, possessed himself of some very advantageous heights and made such a judicious arrangement of his troops as might have insured success even had the Americans been better prepared for the attack which at that time was rather unexpected. The assault was begun by the Hessian General de Heister. He opened the cannonade in front of the American lines early on the morning of August 28. A general engagement speedily ensured. Nearly the whole of the British forces were called into action, under the command of Sir Henry Clinton, Earl Percy, and Lord Cornwallis. By some fatal neglect, a very important post was left unguarded by the American, which was seized by the British troops, who fought on this occasion with a spirit and bravery becoming the experienced commander and the hardy veteran. The American troops were early deranged. Apprised of their danger, they with great resolution endeavored to recover their camp; but nearly surrounded by the British, and pushed in the center by the Hessians, they were so far from effecting their design that their retreat was nearly cut off. Yet many of them desperately fought their way through some of the British lines and again bravely stood on their defense. Others, entangled in the woods and marshes through which they endeavored to escape, were either captured or perished in the attempt.
In the midst of the general anxiety of the danger and distress of the little army on Long Island, General Washington, undoubtedly anxious to retrieve his mistake in thus exposing them, passed over from New York to endeavor to secure the retreat of the surviving troops. This was executed in the night of August 29, without noise or tumult. The remainder of the broken regiments that had outlived the fatal action, abandoned the island with a considerable part of their baggage, some artillery, and military stores, and without molestation reached the city of New York. They had made a bold and resolute stand, against far superior numbers and discipline; and it may be deemed fortunate that any of them escaped, as on a island they might easily have been hemmed in by a small number of British ships. Perhaps the commanders on both sides were afterwards sensible of their error, the one in hazarding his troops in such an exposed situation, the other in suffering a single American to escape either captivity or death.
The loss of men in this action was not inconsiderable on either side, but it fell most heavily on the Americans. Many brave men perished by the sword; others, as was observed, were lost in the morasses and swamps to which they had fled on the defeat. Three general officers and a large number of inferior rank were made prisoners. A regiment of valiant young men from Maryland, many of them of family and fortune, commanded by the gallant Colonel Smallwood, were almost to a man cut off. The misfortune of the day was severely felt by them, but without checking the ardor of the American army, the people or the Continental Congress. The same uniform dignity and unruffled superiority of mind appeared in the judicious determinations of the united delegates, in the conduct of the state departments, and in the subsequent firmness of most o the military officers as before this defeat. But the success of their arms and the acquisition of Long Island exhilarated the spirits of the British and gave hopes of more compliant dispositions and a more ready acquiescence in the requisitions of ministers or the veto of kings: and that the business of the commissioners might now be brought forward without farther impediment.
Not many days after the retreat from Long Island, Congress was called upon to exhibit a new proof of their firmness. General Sullivan, one of the captured officers, was dispatched on parole with a message to that assembly, in the joint names of Lord and General Howe. The purport of the message was that they had full powers and that they were disposed to treat on terms of accommodation and peace. At the same time they intimated that as Congress was not considered in the eye of Majesty as a legal assembly, they only desired a private conference with a few individuals belonging to that body in the character and capacity of private gentlemen. To this extraordinary request, which threw them into a very delicate situation, Congress replied that as delegates of a free and independent people, they could with no propriety send any of the members of Congress in a private capacity on an errand so replete with public consequences. But they would depute a committee from their body to inquire by what authority and on what terms His Lordship and brother were empowered to negotiate.
The insidious message received had no tendency to eradicate the previous opinion of Congress that this was but a ministerial pretext to palliate their injurious designs. They were convinced that the commission of the agents was derogatory to the great national councils and to that high authority which had vested the British commissioners with no powers, but to pardon those who deemed themselves guiltless and with no conciliatory proposals at which freemen would not spurn, unless driven to despair. Yet they condescended so far to this political trifling as to depute a very respectable committee to meet Lord Howe and confer on the subject. The celebration Doctor Franklin, the Honorable Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina, and John Adams, Esquire, of the Massachusetts were the persons chosen for this singular interview.
On a stipulated day, they met his Lordship on Staten Island, accompanied only by Mr. Strachey, his secretary. He received them with much civility, but conversed equivocally; and though careful not to be explicit, it did not require the penetration of men of far less superior abilities to discover that he was restricted to very narrow limits for a negotiator between contending nations. It was evident that he had no plan of accommodation, or any proposals for amity, on any terms but those of absolute and unconditional submission. Yet these gentlemen patiently attended to the circumvolutions of His Lordship, who observed neither precision or perspicuity in his modes of conversing; nor could he disguise an apparent embarrassment under the display of affability and good humor. It was even painful to see a British nobleman, endowed with talents for the most honorable employments, thus reduced to act under a veil of intrigue, inconsistent with the character of the gentleman or the man of business. [The above detail of the interview on Staten Island was soon after verbally related to the author of these annals by one of the committee of conference.]
This conference continued three or four hours, when a short and frugal repast concluded a negotiation that had fed many well-meaning people with delusory hopes and for several months had been the subject of political speculation both in Europe and America. This singular interview had indeed little other effect than, on the one side, to rivet that strong disgust which before existed, against the treacherous councils of the British ministry and Parliament, and, on the other, to convince more perfectly the agents of monarchy of the determined spirit of America, and the ability of men with whom she had entrusted the security of her rights. However, when the parties took leave of each other, it was not without some tender emotions. Dr. Franklin had been in long habits of friendship and intimacy with Lord Howe. They had in England frequently conversed, and afterwards corresponded on the parliamentary dispute with America. Their regard for each other was mutual, and as there was now every reason to suppose this would be the last personal interview between them, the idea was painful that this political storm might sweep away all remains of private friendship. [In a similar conversation between Lord Howe and Doctor Franklin, His Lordship expressed a regard for the Americans and the pain he felt for their approaching sufferings. Doctor Franklin, in his easy sententious manner, thanked him for his regards, and assured him that "the Americans would show their gratitude by endeavoring to lessen as much as possible all pain he might feel on their account by exerting their utmost abilities in taking good care of themselves."]
It was not long after all ideas of negotiation were relinquished before the commissioners and their Sovereign had the most positive proofs that though the villages might be stained with the crimson tide that threatened to deluge the land, yet freedom in her last asylum would resist the designs of all who had sighed for her annihilation, to the last moment of her existence.
The late defeat of the Americans and the entire possession of Long Island threw accumulated advantages into the hand of the British commander, who made immediate preparation to attack and take possession of the city of New York. In consequence of these movements, General Washington, advised by the most judicious of his officers [General Lee particularly, who had just arrived from Georgia. He, by urging this advice, may be said to share in the merit of saving the American army.], thought it prudent to evacuate the city without further delay. It would indeed have been madness to have attempted a longer defense with his diminished numbers, against a potent army flushed with recent success. The American army was drawn off from above Kingsbridge on October 21, but a day before the British took possession of the city. General Washington encamped his retreating troops on the heights of Harlem, about nine miles distance from Kingsbridge. When General Howe took possession of the evacuated post, he must from this event undoubtedly have felt some consolation for the mortification he had suffered on recollecting the circumstances of his flight from Boston. The alternate triumph or chagrin, from the uncertain chances and events of war, are generally of short duration: the Americans now in their turn experienced the pains of anxiety, disappointment, and want, through a rapid flight from post to post, before a victorious army, who despised their weakness and ridiculed their want of discipline.
General Howe placed a strong detachment in the garrison for the defense of the city of New York, and immediately marched with the main body of his army in pursuit of Washington. He crossed East River, seized a point of land near West Chester, and made himself master of the lower road to Connecticut, with design to impede the intercourse between the northern and southern states. By this movement, he also hoped to impel the American commander, at every hazard, to risk an engagement that might probably have been decisive. But General Washington was too well acquainted with human nature to suffer his troops, though ardent for action and impatient of delay, to trust to the impulse of constitutional courage and expose the reputation of the American arms and the decision of the great contest to the uncertain events of a day under the present disadvantages of number and discipline. A second defeat in so short a time would undoubtedly have spread dismay and perhaps a defection that might have been fatal to the independence of America. [This opinion as corroborated by the behavior of the Americans when the British landed from Kepp's Bay, September 15. They discovered a timidity that nothing can excuse, but their recent sufferings on Long Island, their inferior numbers, and their dread of the superior discipline of British troops.] He was sensible his troops, though naturally brave, were not sufficiently inured to danger, and hardened by experience, to raise the mind to that sublime pitch of enthusiasm and inflexibility necessary to stand their ground against superior strength, discipline, and numbers. He therefore determined, by cautious and guarded marches, to keep in flank with the British army, until circumstances might put it in his power to combat on more equal terms.
He place a strong party in Fort Washington, a fortress near Kingsbridge, which, though well provided, was at the time judged not tenable by some of his best officers. This opinion was over-ruled, and between three and four thousand men were left there. This was considered by many a second fatal mistake of the renowned Washington. [General Washington, however, was undoubtedly advised to this step by several of his best officers.] With the remainder of the army, the commander in chief decamped and moved towards the high grounds on the upper road to Boston. The possession of this part of the country was an important object; of consequence, the Americans were closely pursued by General Howe, who did not yet relinquish his hopes of a decisive action.
Frequent skirmishes had taken place on the route, without material advantages on either side; but on October 28, the British overtook the American army near the White Plains, thirty miles distant from New York City, when an action of moment ensued. The attack was begun by the Hessians, the forlorn hope of the British army. They were commanded by General de Hister and Colonel Rhal. Equal resolution animated both parties, and a considerable slaughter among the troops on both sides took place. [Among the slain was the valiant Colonel Smallwood, whose regiment was nearly cut to pieces in the action on Long Island.] The Americans, unable to bear these losses, fully apprised of the strength of the enemy, and that reinforcements had recently arrived under Lord Percy, both the American commander and the army were equally willing to take a more distant position.
The British army had gained several very important advantages, among which was the command of the River Bronx, which was passed by Colonel Rhal, who by this means acquired a very important post, which enable him essentially to annoy the American army.
The action on the White Plains was a well-fought battle on both sides; but the Americans had neither the numbers, the experience, nor the equipments for war, at that time, which rendered them equally able to cope with the strength, the numbers, the preparation, and the valor of the British army, under officers whose trade had long been that of war. And though the American commander made his escape with his small armament, and retreated with all the prudence and firmness of a general who had been longer tried in the field of action, the British had certainly a right in this affair to boast a complete victory. [The town of White Plains was set on fire after the action, and all the houses and forage near the lines burnt. This the British charge to the account of the American commander.]
After the engagement, General Washington found it necessary to quit the field. He drew back in the night to his entrenchments, and the next day took possession of some higher grounds, about the distance of two miles.
General Howe, after parading a few days near the late scene of action, and indiscriminately plundering the neighborhood, ordered his tents to be struck, and a movement of his whole army to be made towards New York. As his troops had long been kept in continual motion, were fatigued and harassed by sudden alarms, and the season far advanced, it was rationally concluded that his design was to repair immediately to winter quarters. But by a stroke of generalship, little expected where no remarkable superiority in military knowledge had yet been discovered, affairs took a most unfavorable turn for the Americans, and reduced the little, resolute continental army to dangers and distresses, to exertions and vigor, scarcely to be paralleled in history.
The numbers that had already fallen on both sides, by the rapid movements and frequent skirmishes of the space of three or four months cannot be ascertained with exactitude. It was computed that not less than 5000, principally Hessians, either perished or deserted from the ministerial army, after the action of Long Island to the middle of November, when General Howe laid the estimate before Lord George Germaine. [In General Howe's letter to the Secretary for American Affairs, he acknowledged he had lost upwards of 300 staff and other officers, and between 4000 and 5000 privates.] The Americans undoubtedly suffered in more than equal proportion, and from many causes were much less able to bear the reduction. The peculiar mode of raising troops hitherto adopted by the United States had a tendency to retard the operations of war, and in some measure to defeat the best concerted plans, either for enterprise or defense. The several colonies had furnished their quota of men for a limited term only; and the country unused to standing armies, and the control of military power, impatient at the subordination necessary in a camp, and actuated by a strong sense of the liberty of the individual, each one had usually returned to his habitation at the expiration of his term of service, in spite of every danger that threatened the whole. This had occasioned frequent calls on the militia of the country, in aid of the army thus weakened, and kept in continual fluctuation by raw recruits, raised and sent on for a few months at a time.
In addition to these embarrassments, animosities had sometimes arisen between the southern and eastern troops, occasioned by the revival of some old local prejudices. The aristocratic spirit that had been formerly characteristic of the south, frequently appeared in airs of assumed superiority, very disgusting to the feelings of their eastern brethren, the bold and hardy New Englanders. The full-blooded Yankees, as they sometimes boasted themselves, who, having few slaves at their command, had always been sued to more equality of condition, both in rank, fortune, and education. These trivial causes sometimes raised animosities to such a height that in the present circumstance of the army, the authority of the commander in chief was scarcely sufficient to restrain them.
General Washington was also obliged often in his retreat through the Jerseys to press for provisions, forage, and clothing, in a manner new to the inhabitants of America, who, as their misfortunes seemed to thicken, grew more remiss for a time in voluntary aids to the army. Their grain was seized and threshed out for use of the troops, their blankets, provisions, etc. forcibly taken from the houses, with a promise of payment in paper bills, when the exigencies of the country should permit. But it always appeared to the people the act of some subordinate officers, rather than the order of the commander in chief. Thus was his popularity kept up; and thus were the inhabitants of the Jerseys plundered by each party; while many of them disaffected to both, were uncertain on which side to declare.
General Howe, well acquainted with these embarrassing circumstances, and apprised that Congress were taking measures to remedy the evils in the future, wisely judged that as he could not force Washington to a general engagement, it would be more advantageous for the present to suspend his pursuit and dislodge the Americans from their strongholds in the environs of New York. He was too sensible from the causes above related that the continental army would diminish of itself as soon as the term of their enlistment expired. From these considerations, he drew back his army, with the determination to invest Fort Washington immediately. [Near Kingsbridge, 15 miles from New York City]. This fortress on the one side of the North River, and Fort Lee on the opposite shore, commanded the whole navigation of the river, at the same time that it impeded the communication with New York by land.
General Washington could not rationally suppose that a post of so much importance would remain long unmolested or that the garrison could be defended against the whole force of the British army. General Lee afterwards boasted in a letter to a friend that he had advised the evacuation of both Fort Washington and Fort Lee previous to the main body of the American army leaving the neighborhood of New York. However this might have been, it was indeed a great mistake that it was not done. General Washington might then have had the assistance of the brave men who fell there. [An officer of the army wrote to General Lee after the surrender of Fort Washington and expressed himself thus: "We have all additional reasons for most earnestly wishing to have you where the principal scene of action is laid. I have no doubt had you been here, the garrison of Mount Washington would now have composed a part of this army; every gentleman of the family, the officers and soldiers generally, have a confidence in you; the enemy constantly inquire where you are and seem to me to be less confident when you are present. We are informed by an officer lately liberated that the enemy have a southern expedition in view; that they hold us very cheap in consequence of the late affair at Mount Washington, where both the plan of defense and execution were contemptible. If a real defense of the lines was intended, the number was too few; if the fort only, the garrison was too numerous by half." Extract from General Reed to General Lee.]
General Knyphaufen with six battalions suddenly crossed the country from Rochelle to Kingsbridge, where, joined by light infantry and grenadiers, the one commanded by Lord Cornwallis, the other by Earl Percy, the fort was on all side attacked with vigor, and defended with bravery. On November 16, Colonel Magaw, the commanding officer, was summoned to surrender without farther delay. He requested that he might be allowed to consider till nine o'clock the next morning, before he gave a decisive answer. It was replied that two hours only were granted. At the expiration of this short parley, the adjutant general of the British army who waited the reply, was informed that the fort would be defended to the last moment. Accordingly, a resistance was made with astonishing valor for several hours; but to prevent the farther effusion of blood, the Americans yielded to necessity and surrendered themselves prisoners of war, at the moment when the Hessian and British troops were on the point of storming the garrison.
Near 3000 continental troops were lost by this disaster. These unhappy victims of war, notwithstanding the inclemency of the season, were stripped of their apparel and thrown naked into jails of New York; where, after suffering the extremes of misery from cold, hunger, and sickness, most of them perished. The remnant who escaped immediate death were after some months imprisonment, sent on parole to visit their friends, many of them infected with the small pox, and all of them in such a languishing, emaciated condition as proved a useful lesson to their countrymen; who, by this instance of severity towards the brave and unfortunate, were universally convinced that death in the field of battle was much to be preferred to the cruelties they had reason to expect if they fell into British hands, though a nation once famed for the virtues of justice, generosity, and clemency.
After the surrender of Fort Washington, no time was lost. The advantages gained by the British troops were pushed with spirit. With the utmost ease, they took possession of Fort Lee. The American garrison fled on the first apprehension of an attack, without offering the smallest resistance. General Howe embraced these favorable circumstances to prosecute his designs, stimulated by the hope of reaching and surprising Philadelphia before the American army could be reinforced. Thus, near the close of the campaign, when the continental troops were daily dropping off, and a severe winter setting in, he had every reason to cherish his most sanguine hopes. He for some time pushed his purposes with vigor and alacrity, and obliged General Washington, with a handful of men, to retreat from town to town, until hunted through the state of New Jersey, and even over the Delaware, which he had time to cross only six hours before the whole body of the British army, consisting of 10, 000 or 12,000 men, were on the opposite banks.
The reasons why General Howe did not sooner overtake the distressed fugitives, or why he cantoned his troops without crossing the river and taking possession of the city of Philadelphia, remain yet to be investigated. The retreat was conducted with ability, but the remnant that escaped was too small to intimidate the enemy or to encourage the friends of the American cause. A great part of the inhabitants of the city, either from fear, affection, or interest, were at that time disposed to receive with open arms the British commander; and the consternation of all parties operated in favor of erecting the King's standard in the capital of America.
Congress, by advice of some military characters, precipitately removed to Baltimore, in the state of Maryland. The public concern was also heightened at this critical period, by the recent capture of General Lee. He had been collecting a number of militia in the neighborhood of Morristown, with a design to fall on the rear of the British army, while in chase of Washington through the Jerseys. It is not known why he was thus unguarded, but he incautiously lodged at the little village of Baskenridge, four miles from the troops he had collected, and about 20 from the British army. Here he was betrayed, surprised, and taken prisoner. Colonel Harcourt of the light horse conducted the enterprise with so much address that with a very small party, he without noise passed all the American guards on his way, surrounded the house, and took possession of his prisoner without the smallest resistance. In the hurry of the business, Lee was not suffered to take either hat or cloak, and thus in a ruffian-like manner was conducted to the British headquarters.
A peculiar triumph was enjoyed by his enemies in the capture of this single officer. They considered his services at that period of the greatest consequence to the American army. In addition to this, he was viewed as a rebel to the Sovereign of Britain in a double sense, both as a deserter from the King's service, in which he had long held an honorable rank, and as an abettor of the American defection, and one of the first officers of their army. He was, of course, confined in the strictest manner, and threatened with military execution as a traitor to the King. The Americans at that time had no British prisoners of equal rank, yet they made the most strenuous efforts for his release. A Colonel Campbell with five Hessian field-officers were soon after offered for the exchange of General Lee. When this was refused, General Washington advertised Sir William Howe that heir blood must atone for his life if Lee fell a sacrifice to the resentment of his enemies.
Humanity recoils at the sufferings of individuals who by the laws of retaliation are deemed the legal victims of policy. But though the mind of the gentle may be wounded by the necessity, habit, in time, too often learns it to acquiesce in the cruel policy of nations. Public emergencies may require the hand of severity to fall heavily on those who are not personally guilty, but compassion prompts, and ever urges to milder methods. However, General Lee was not executed nor suddenly released. Colonel Campbell was closely imprisoned and treated with much severity, and a considerable time elapsed before either of them were relieved, except by some mitigation in the manner of Colonel Campbell's confinement, which was carried to an extreme not warranted even to a notorious felon. [General Lee was also treated very severely until the defeat of Burgoyne. After this, he was permitted to repair to New York on parole and soon after liberated by an exchange of prisoners.]
Perhaps at no period of the great struggle for independence were the affairs of the United States at so low an ebb as at the present. The foot steps of the British army in their route through the Jerseys were everywhere marked with the most wanton instances of rapine and bloodshed. Even the sacred repositories of the dead were not unmolested by the sacrilegious hands of the soldiery. [This usage of the dead is authenticated by the accounts of several gentlemen of respectability near the scene of action.] While the licentiousness of their officers spread rape, misery, and despair indiscriminately through every village.
Thus, while human nature was disgraced, and the feelings of benevolence shocked by the perpetration of every crime; when the army spared neither age nor sex, youth, beauty, nor innocence; it is observable that the distresses of war had fallen principally on that state which at that time contained a greater proportion of persons attached to the royal cause than could have been found in any other part of America. But so intermixed and blended were persons, families, and parties of different political opinions that it was not easy to distinguish in the wanton riot of victory their friends from their foes or the royalists from the Whigs, even had the royal army been disposed to discriminate. It was indeed impossible for their foreign auxiliaries to make any distinction among Americans, though some British officers would gladly have checked the insolence of triumph, unbalanced by any principle of religion, honor, or humanity. A neglect of strict discipline prevented the melioration of crime and misery, and filled up the measure of censure which afterwards fell on the commander in chief of the British forces, even from those who wished to give his military operations the most brilliant cast. [See Sir William Howe's defense of his conduct in his letters to administration, published in London.]
Had General Howe persevered in his pursuit and have crossed the Delaware, he would inevitably have destroyed even the vestige of an American army. The remnant of the old troops drawn into Philadelphia was too small for resistance. The citizens were divided and intimidated. Congress had retreated to Baltimore. The country was dispirited, and Washington himself. ready to despair, had actually consulted some of his officers on the expediency of flying to the back parts of Pennsylvania, or even beyond the Allegheny Mountains, to escape the usual fate of unsuccessful rebels, or as himself expressed it "to save his neck from a halter." [This was confidentially said to an officer who reported that the General put his hand to his neck and observed that it did not feel as if made for a halter. See Stedman's History. It is probably if ever General Washington really expressed himself in this manner, it was uttered more from the momentary ebullition of distress than from the serious contemplation of despair. It discovered more a determination to live free than any timidity from sudden dismay. Had General Howe overtaken the American troops and have secured their commander, he would doubtless have been made a victim of severe vengeance.]
Thus, without an army, without allies, and without resources, the gloom of disappointment overspread not only the brow of the commander in chief, but expanded wide, and ruin from every quarter lowered on the face of American freedom. Newport and the adjacent islands were taken possession of by a part of the British army and navy, under the command of Commodore Sir Peter Parker and Sir Henry Clinton. The whole colony of Rhode Island was not able to make the smallest resistance to the seizure of their capital. And to complete the climax of danger which this melancholy winter exhibited, the irruptions of the natives in various parts was not the least. Many tribes of those aborigines, stimulated by British influence and headed by some American desperadoes in the service of Britain, were making the most horrid depredations on the back settlements of some of the southern states. Nor did the affairs of America at the northward wear a more favorable aspect.
General Carleton had conducted the campaign of this year with the ability of the statesman and the courage of the soldier; and notwithstanding the severity of his general character, he, with a degree of humanity honorable to himself, and exemplary to his military associates, had been disposed to commiserate the unfortunate. It has been observed that all who fell into his hands after the death of General Montgomery were treated with lenity and tenderness. He was doubtless sensible that a war enkindled more to satiate a spirit of resentment and pride than to establish the principles of justice required every palliative to mitigate the odium of the disgraceful design of subduing America by the aid of savages, who had hutted for ages in the wilderness beyond the distant lakes. General Carleton, with the most extraordinary vigilance and vigor, had conducted the pursuit of the Americans, until Arnold and his party were chased out of the Province of Quebec. Nor did he ever lose sight of his object, which was to make himself master of the Hudson, and form a junction at Albany with General Howe, whose troops in detached parties were wasting the middle colonies and cooperating in the same design.
By uncommon exertions, Carleton obtained a fleet in the wilderness of such strength and superiority as to destroy the little American squadron on the Lake Champlain, one of the smaller navigable basins in the woods of that astonishing country. The lakes of America are among the wonders of the world. They are numerous and extensive, deep and navigable at many hundreds miles distance from the ocean. A view of this part of creation is sublime and astonishing. There are five of those lakes of principal magnitude. The smallest of them, Lake Ontario, is more than 200, and the largest, Lake Superior, is 500 leagues in circumference. [The principal of these inland seas are Lake Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario. The description of these and smaller sheets of water spread over the vast western territory may be found in every geographical work.] Happy might it have been for the Atlantic states had they been content within these boundaries of nature, and not at an after period have wasted the blood of their citizens in attempting to wrest from the natives a vast extent of territory which is very improbable they will be long able to govern, unless a remarkable coincidence of events should give them a commanding influence, superior to any European power.
The bravery of Arnold was on his retreat equally conspicuous with the outset of his extraordinary undertaking. But notwithstanding his vigilance and the valor of his soldiers, they were reduced to the utmost distress before he blew up the remainder of his fleet, which Carleton had not captured, and run his last ship on shore, without acknowledging the superiority of the British flag by servile signal of striking of his colors. Obliged to relinquish every post of advantage, Arnold and the remnant of his troops were driven naked, defenseless, and despondent from forest to forest and from lake to lake, until they reached Ticonderoga. The garrison there had been reinforced by some militia from the eastern states, but they were in no condition to meet General Carleton, whose advancement they had every reason to expect, with superior numbers, and the double advantage of discipline and success, and his exertions aided by tribes of copper-colored savages.
General Thomas had been seen from Cambridge in the spring, 1776, with a detachment of the continental army to endeavor in conjunction with the eastern militia, to retrieve the wretched state of affairs in Canada. He was a man of cool judgment, possessed of courage the result of principle, rather than bravery the impulse of passion. He was respected by the citizens, beloved by the soldiers, and well qualified by the firmness of his mind and the strength of his constitution to face the dangers of a campaign in the wilderness. But unfortunately for him, he was deputed to the northern command to oppose the enjoined forces of the native barbarians and their British allies, at a time when the remains of the American army were dismayed by defeat, worn out by fatigue, and in addition to their distresses, a pestilential disorder, then fatal to New Englanders, had spread through the camp. The small pox, by the ill policy of the country, had been so long kept from their doors that there was scarce a man among them who was not more afraid of an attack from this kind of pestilence than the fury of the sword. But no caution could prevent the rapidity of the contagion. It pervaded the whole army, and proved fatal to most of the new raised troops.
The character of the military officer who dies in his bed, however meritorious, is seldom crowned by the eclat of fame, which follows the hero who perishes in the field. Thus this good man, qualified to reap the fairest laurels in a day of battle, was immediately on his arrival at the scene of action cut down by the hand of sickness, and his memory almost extinguished by a succession of new characters and events that crowded for attention. By the death of General Thomas and the reduced state of the Americans, they were far from being in any preparation for the reception of General Carleton, whose arrival they momently expected. They had nothing to hope — an immediate surrender to mercy was their only resource. On this they had determined, when to their surprise and joy they were informed that all further pursuit was relinquished and that the Canadians and British troops had precipitately retreated.
Thus the remnant of the broken continental army was left at full liberty to escape in the best manner they could from other impending dangers. From the nature of the grounds, and from the neighborhood of the savages, from their weak, sickly, and reduced state, their retreat was extremely difficult. But in scattered parties they reached Crown Point in a very feeble condition. After this series of successful efforts, all farther thoughts of the reduction and conquest of Canada were for the present laid aside. General Carleton had repaired to Quebec. General Phillips with a considerable force made winter quarters at Montreal. And General Burgoyne took passage for England. Both these officers had been very active in aid of Carleton, through the campaign of 1776.
The defeat of the Americans in Canada and the advantages gained by the British arms in the Jerseys, and indeed for some months in every other quarter, gave to the royal cause an air of triumph. The brilliant hopes formed from these circumstances by the calculators of events for the ensuing spring, led the ministry and the army, the nation and their Sovereign to flatter themselves that only one more campaign would be necessary for the entire subjugation of America. The vicissitudes of fortune, that hourly could or brighten all human affairs, soon convinced them that this was but the triumph of a day. The new year opened in a reversive view. A spirited movement of General Washington at this important crisis had a most happy effect. A single incident gave a different face to the affairs of the colonies, in a shorter time than could have been imagined, after the ruinous appearance of everything at the close of the campaign.
On the evening of December 25, General Washington in a most severe season crossed the Delaware with a part of his army, then reduced to less than 2000 men in the whole. They very unexpectedly landed near Trenton. Colonel Rhal, an officer of decided bravery, commanded a detachment of 1200 Hessians stationed there, where they lay in perfect security. It was near morning before they were alarmed. The surprise was complete; the resistance small. Rhal was mortally wounded, and his whole corps surrendered prisoners of war. After the fatigue, the hazards, and the success of the night, General Washington with his party and his prisoners, consisting of the three regiments of Rhal, Lofbourg, and Knyphausen, recrossed the river before eight in the morning, with little or no loss.
This adventure gave an astonishing spring to the spirits of the American army and people, a short time before driven to the brink of despair. They had viewed the Hessians as a most terrific enemy, and in conjunction with the veterans of Britain, as an invulnerable foe. To see such a body of them surprised in their camp, and yielding themselves prisoners to the shreds of an American army inspired them with a boldness that an action of the greatest magnitude might not have awakened in different circumstances. General Washington did not sit down in Philadelphia satisfied with the eclat of this enterprise, but in a few days again passed the Delaware and took post at Trenton.
The British army elated by success had lain carelessly cantoned in small divisions, in a line extending through New Jersey to New York. General Howe was afterwards severely censured by his employers for his neglect in not crossing the Delaware while he had the promise of the most brilliant success from his own arms. The panic of the Pennsylvanians had inspired most of them with a disposition to succumb to any terms he should impose, which ought to have been an additional stimulus to have pursued his good fortune. Nor was he less censured for his unguarded cantonments, through such an extensive line as the whole length of the Jerseys. [See trial and defense of General Howe.]
General Washington moved on from Trenton to Princeton by a circuitous march, to avoid engaging the British or being hemmed in near Trenton. He suddenly attacked the British encampment at Princeton, while the main body of the British army had marched to Trenton, with design to dislodge the Americans from that post. From Princeton the American army moved to Elizabethtown. Animated by success, warmed by bravery, and supported by fortitude, they gathered strength as they moved, and gained some signal advantages in several places on the Jersey side of the river; and in their turn pursued the King's troops with as much rapidity as they had recently fled before them; while the British, as if seized with a general panic, made but a feeble resistance.
After many marches, counter-marches, and skirmishes, the strength of the British force was collected at Brunswick, a town of the Jerseys, about 60 miles from Philadelphia and 35 from New York. They continued their headquarters there the remainder of the winter; but they were not without apprehensions for the safety of their troops and their magazines, even at this distance from Philadelphia, notwithstanding the contempt with which they had but a short time before, viewed the broken, disheartened remains of a continental army, which they had pursued into the city.
The British were indeed very far superior to the Americans in every respect necessary to military operations, except the revivified courage and resolution, the result of sudden success after despair. In this, the Americans at the time yielded the palm to none; while the confidence of their antagonists apparently diminished, and victory began by them to be viewed at a distance.
The waste of human life from various causes, through the vicissitudes of this winder was not inconsiderable on either side. But the success of the American arms through the Jerseys was in some measure damped by the death of the brave General Mercer of Virginia, who fell at Princeton, in an action made memorable by the loss of so gallant an officer. His distinguished merit was gratefully acknowledged by Congress in the provision afterwards made for the education and support of the youngest son of his family.
The fortunate movements of the Americans at this critical era had the usual effect on public opinion. Such is human nature, that success ever brightens the talents of the fortunate commander, and applause generally outruns the expectations of the ambitious. General Washington, popular before, from this period became the idol of his country, and the admiration of his enemies. His humanity to the prisoners who fell into his hands was a contrast to the severities suffered by those captured at Fort Washington, and the victims in other places that fell under the power of either Hessians or Britons. In a book of general orders belonging to Colonel Rhal, found after the action at Trenton, it was recorded that "His Excellency the commander in chief orders that all Americans found in arms, not having an officer with them, shall be immediately hanged." [The intimation of Lord Cornwallis afterwards to the commander of a party sent out, much superior to the Americans they expected to meet, was not more humane. His Lordship observed that "he wanted no prisoners."
On the contrary, the lenity shown by General Washington towards the loyalists captured by his soldiers, disarmed the prejudices of many, and multitudes flocked to the American standard, who, in the beginning of the dispute, were favorers of the royal cause, and within a few months had been ready to throw themselves into the arms of Great Britain. But every favorable impression was erased and every idea of submission annihilated by the indiscriminate ravages of the Hessian and British soldiery in their route through the Jerseys. The elegant houses of some of their own most devoted partisans were bunt. Their wives and daughters pursued and ravished in the woods to which they had fled for shelter. Many unfortunate fathers, in the stupor of grief, beheld the misery of their female connections, without being able to relieve them, and heard the shrieks of infant innocence, subjected to the brutal lust of British grenadiers or Hessian Yaughers.
In short, it may be difficult for the most descriptive pen to portray the situation of the inhabitants of the Jerseys and the neighborhood of their state. The confusion of parties, the dismay of individuals, who were still serving in the remnant of the American army, whose dearest connections were scattered through the country, and exposed to the danger of plunder and misery, from the hostile inroads of a victorious army, can be imagined only by those whose souls are susceptible at once of the noblest and the tenderest feelings. Many of this description were among the brave officers who had led the fragments of a fugitive army across the Delaware, and sheltered in the city of Philadelphia, had by flight escaped a total excision.
But after escaping the perilous pursuit, there appeared little on which to ground any rational hope of effectually counteracting the designs of their enemies. They found Congress had retreated, and that the inhabitants of the city were agitated and divided. Several of the more wealthy citizens secured their property by renouncing the authority of Congress and acknowledging themselves the subjects of the Crown. Others availed themselves of a proclamation of pardon, published by the British commander, and took protection under the royal standard, for personal security.
Several officers of high character and consideration were on the point of pursuing the same steps, previous to the action at Trenton, from the anxiety they felt for their families, despair of the general cause, danger of the city, or the immediate military executions that might take place when the victorious army should cross the river, which they momently expected. Why this was not done remains involved among the fortuitous events which often decide the fate of armies or of nations, as it were by accident. The votaries of blind chance, or indeed the more sober calculators on human events, would have pronounced the fortune of the day was in the hands of the British commander. Why he did not embrace her tenders while it was in his power, no one can tell; nor why he stopped short on the borders of the river, as if afraid the waters of the Delaware, like another Red Sea, would overwhelm the pursuers of the injured Americans, who had in many instances as manifestly experienced the protecting hand of Providence, as the favored Israelites.
The neglect of so fair an opportunity, by a single effort, to have totally destroyed or dispersed the American army, or in the language of administration, to have cut off the hydra head of rebellion, by the subjugation of the capital city, was viewed in the most unpardonable light by his employers They were not yet fully apprised of the spirit of Americans. Their ideas did not quadrate with those of a distinguished military officer, well acquainted with the country, who observed in a letter to a friend, [See a letter from General Charles Lee to the Duke of Richmond, October 1774.] "it is no exaggeration to assert that there are 200,000 strong-bodied, active yeomanry ready to encounter all hazards and dangers, ready to sacrifice all considerations, rather than surrender a title of the rights which they have derived from God and their ancestors." Subsequent events will prove that he had not formed a mistaken opinion of the resolution and prowess of the Americans. It will be seen that they were far from relinquishing their claim to independence, by the ill success of a single campaign. The tardy conduct of Sir William Howe was reprehended with severity; now was he ever able to justify or vindicate himself, either to administration or to the world.
From these and other circumstances, the character of Sir William Howe depreciated in proportion to the rising fame of the American commander in chief, his rival in glory, and his competitor for the crown of victory, on a theater that soon excited the curiosity, and awakened the ambition of the heroes and princes of Europe.
Indeed it must be acknowledged that General Howe had innumerable difficulties to surmount, notwithstanding the number of his troops. He was at a distance from his employers, who were ignorant of his situation, and unable to support him as emergencies required. He was in an enemy's country, where every acquisition of forage or provisions, was procured at the expense or hazard of life or reputation. A considerable part of his army was composed of discontented foreigners, who, disappointed of the easy settlements they had been led to expect, from the conquest of rebels, and the forfeiture of their estates, — their former poverty not mitigated, or their yoke of slavery meliorated, in the service of their new masters — they were clamorous for pay, and too eager for plunder to be kept within the rules of disciplines. And their alien language and manners disgusting to their British comrades, a constant bickering was kept up between them.
Nor was the British commander less embarrassed by the Tories, who from every state had fled from the resentment of their countrymen and hung upon his hands for subsistence. On their fidelity or their information, he could make little dependence. Many of them had never possess property at all, others irritated by the loss of wealth; both were continually urging him to deeds of cruelty, to which he did not seem naturally inclined. AT the same time, he was sensible that the hopes of his nation would sink by the protraction of a war which they had flattered themselves might be concluded with the utmost facility and expedition.
There were many concurring circumstances to lead the world to conclude that Sir William Howe was not qualified, either by education or habits of life, for the execution of an object of such magnitude as the restoration of the revolted colonies to obedience, and dependence on the Crown of Britain. "He fought as a soldier and a servant to his king, without other principle than that of passive obedience. The immensity of the prospect before him embarrassed his mind, clouded his understanding; and, too much engrossed by his bottle and his mistress, he frequently left his orders and his letters to be fabricated by subordinate officers; and seemed at some times to sink into stupor or indolence, at others, brave and cool as Julius Caesar."
If these traits of the character of the British commander are just and impartial, as said to be by one of his former associates, [See letter of General Lee, Note 18 at the end of this chapter, which discovered the temper and character of the writer, as well as of Sir William Howe.] the world need be at no loss why such instances of shameful outrage and rapine appeared wherever his army entered; or why, when he had driven the Americans over the Delaware, he did not pursue and complete the business, by a triumphal entrance into Philadelphia, and the total destruction of General Washington and his remaining troops.
No military character ever had a fairer opportunity (as observed above) to place the martial laurel on his brow, than was presented to General Howe on the banks of the Delaware; but he suffered it to wave at a distance, without the resolution to seize it. And instead of a chaplet of glory, he reaped only the hatred of America, the loss of esteem and reputation in England, and disgrace and censure from his parliamentary masters.
The negligence of Sir William Howe gave an opportunity to the Americans to recover the energies of their former courage. The hopeless prospect that had beclouded their minds, vanished on the successful termination of a single enterprise projected by the commander in chief, and executed with resolution and magnanimity by officers who had been almost reduced to despondency.
The surprise of Trenton saved the army, the city, and in some degree, the reputation of the commander in chief, which frequently depends more on the fortunate exigencies of a moment than on superior talents. The world ever prone to neglect the unfortunate, however brave, amiable, or virtuous, generally pays its idolatrous homage to those elevated by the favors of the ideal deity to the pinnacle of honor. Yet real merit usually commands the plaudit of posterity, however it may be withheld by contemporaries, from rivalry or envy.
Perhaps there are no people on earth, in whom a spirit of enthusiastic zeal is so readily enkindled, and burns so remarkably conspicuous, as among the Americans. Any fortuitous circumstance that holds out the most distant promise of a completion of their wishes is pushed with an ardor and unanimity that seldom fails of success. This characteristic trait may in some measure account for the rapidity with which everything has been brought to maturity there, from the first settlement of the colonies.
The energetic operation of this sanguine temper was never more remarkably exhibited than in the change instantaneously wrought in the minds of men by the capture of Trenton at so unexpected a moment. From the state of mind bordering on despair, courage was invigorated, every countenance brightened, and the nervous arm was outstretched, as if by one general impulse, all were determined to drive the hostile invaders, that had plundered their villages, and dipped the remorseless sword in the bosom of the innocent victims of their fury, from off the American shores.
But we shall see in the subsequent pages of these memoirs that they had yet many years to struggle with the dangers, the chances, and miseries of war, before an extensive country, convulsed in every part, was restored to tranquility. Agonizing amid the complicated difficulties of raising, paying, and keeping an army in the field, it is easy to conceive it was not with much facility that money was drawn from the pockets of the rich for the support of the public cause, at the hazard of receiving a script of depreciated paper in lieu of silver and gold.
A nominal substitute for specie has often its temporary advantages, and when not extended too far, its permanent ones. But it is oftener attended with a great balance of evil. its deceptive value often plunges a great part of the community into ruin, and corrupts the morals of the people before they are apprehensive of the danger. Yet without the expedient of a paper currency, the Americans could never have supported an army, or have procured the necessaries of life from day to day. Experience had before taught them the pernicious effects of a paper medium, without funds sufficient for its redemption; but the peculiar exigencies of their situation left them no other resources.
The United States had engaged in a hazardous enterprise, in which all was at stake. Deficient as they were in the means necessary to support a war, against a wealthy and potent nation, they yet stood alone, uncertain whether any other power would aid their cause or view them wit that degree of consideration that might obtain a credit for foreign loans. It was an interesting spectacle to all such nations as had colonies of their own to view such an unexpected spirit of resistance and revolt in the Americans, as might be contagious and probably produce commotions as much to be dreaded by them as the alienation of the thirteen colonies was by England. The most judicious statesmen in America were sensible that much time must elapse and many event stake place before any foreign stipulations could be effected. They were therefore impelled by the peculiar circumstances of their situation to resort to this dangerous expedient, or relinquish the contest. No wise legislator, no experienced statesman, no man of principle would have recourse to a measure fraught with such uncertain consequences but from that necessity which in human affairs sometimes precludes all deliberation between present utility and distant events which may accrue.
In consequence of this dilemma, Congress had emitted sums to a vast amount in paper bills, with a promise on the face of the bill of payment in specie at some distant period. This circumstance was alarming to the avaricious and the wealthy, who immediately withdrew their gold and silver from circulation. This and other combining circumstances, among which the immense sums counterfeited in New York by the British and thrown into the colonies, produced an immediate and an astonishing depreciation. At the same time, the widow and the orphan were obliged to receive the interest of their property, deposited for security in the public treasuries, according to the nominal sum on the ace of the bills; by which they and other classes were reduced to extreme necessity. The operative effects of this paper medium, its uses, its depreciation, and total annihilation, will be seen hereafter, when the credit of the circulating paper had sunk so low that no one presumed to offer it in barter of any commodity. All public demands were consolidated by government at a very great discount, and public securities given to those who had demands for services or loans, and the faith of Congress pledge for their payment in full value, as soon as practicable. [ See Note 19 at the end of this chapter.]
The honor and the fate of the commander in chief had been daily hazarded by the unrestrained license of soldiers with whom it was optional to stay a few days longer, or to withdraw after the short term of their enlistment had expired, however imminent the dangers might be that threatened their country. Yet the establishment of a permanent army was not more ardently wished by General Washington than by every judicious man in America. But the work, though not insurmountable, was attended with complicated difficulties. The reluctance felt through the class of men from which an army was to be drawn to enlist for an indefinite term, as apparent to all. The precarious resources for the support of an army, which at that time depended only on a depreciating medium, could not be concealed, and were discouraging indeed. At the same time, it was a subject too delicate to expatiate on, as the more it was conversed upon, the greater was the danger of defeating the desired object. But, the firmness of Congress unshaken, and the legislatures of the individual states equally zealous, while the people at large were convinced of the utility of the measure, the object was in time obtained, though not so rapidly as the exigencies of the day required.
In Congress, July 4, 1776
A declaration by the representatives of the United States of America in general congress assembled.
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the Earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires, that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights: that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed: and whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence indeed will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed; but when a long trains of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present king of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations; all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states: to prove this, let facts to submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other laws, for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the rights of representation in the legislature; a right inestimable to them, and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing, with manly firmness, his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time after such dissolution, to cause others to be erected, whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise — the state remaining in the mean time, exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose, obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners, refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.
He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing to assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.
He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers, to harass our people, and eat out their subsistence.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies, without the consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the military independent of, and superior to, the civil power.
He has combined with others, to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws, giving his assent to their pretended acts of legislation:
For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these states:
For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing taxes on us without our consent:
For depriving us, in many cases, of the benefit of trial by jury:
For transporting us beyond seas, to be tried for pretended offenses:
For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring province, establishing therein an arbitrary government, and enlarging its boundaries, so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into their colonies.
For taking away our charters abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our governments:
For suspending our own legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated government here, by declaring us out of his protection, and waging war against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts bunt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries, to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow-citizens, taken captive on the high seas, to bear arms against their country, to become the executioners of their friends and brethren, or to fall themselves by their hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose Known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.
In every stage of these oppressions, we have petitioned for redress, in the most humble terms: our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A prince, who character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have we been wanting in attention to our British brethren. We have warned them, for time to time, of attempts, by their legislature, to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us; we have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here; we have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity. And we have conjured them, by the tie of common kindred, to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and consanguinity. We must therefore acquiesce in the necessity which denounces our separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.
We therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in general congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; and that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown; and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that, as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.
Signed by order and in behalf of the congress
John Hancock, president
Attest: Charles Thompson, secretary
Copy of a letter from General Lee to Doctor B. Rush. See life and memoirs of General Lee.
"Camp at Valley Forge, June 4, 1778.
"My dear Rush,
"Though I had no occasion for fresh assurances of your friendship, I cannot help being much pleased with the warmth which your letter, delivered to me by Mr. H__, breathes; and I hope, it is unnecessary to assure you that my sentiments, with respect to you, are correspondent.
"You will think it odd that I should seem to be an apologist for General Howe. I know not how it happens. But when I have taken prejudices in favor or against a man, I find it a difficulty in shaking them off. From my first acquaintance with Mr. Howe, I like him. I thought him friendly, candid, good natured, brave, and rather sensible than the reverse. I believe still that he is naturally so; but a corrupt or more properly, no education, the fashion of the times, and the reigning idolatry among the English (particularly the soldiery) for every sceptered calf, wolf, or ass, have so totally perverted his understanding and heart that private friendship has not force sufficient to keep a door open for the admittance of mercy towards political heretics. He was besides persuaded that I was doubly criminal, both as a traitor and deserter. In short, so totally was he inebriated with this idea that I am convinced he would have thought himself both politically and morally damned had he acted any other part than what he did. He is besides the most indolent of mortals; never took further pains to examine the merits or demerits of the cause in which he was engaged, than merely to recollect that Great Britain was said to be the mother country, George III king of Great Britain, that the Parliament was called the representatives of Great Britain, that the King and Parliament formed the supreme power, that a supreme power is absolute and uncontrollable, that all resistance must consequently be rebellion; but above all, that he was a soldier, and bound to obey all cases whatever.
"These are his notions, and this his logic. But through these absurdities, I could distinguish, when he was left to himself, rays of friendship and good nature breaking out. It is true, he was seldom left to himself; for never poor mortal, thrust into high station, was surrounded by such fools and scoundrels. McKenzie, Balfour, Galloway, were his counselors. They urged him to all his acts of harshness. They were his scribes. All the damned stuff which was issued to the astonished world was theirs. I believe he scarcely ever read the letters he signed. You will scarcely believe it, but I can assure you as a fact that he never read the curious proclamation issued at the Head of Elk until three days after it was published. You will say that I am drawing my friend Howe in more ridiculous colors that he has yet been represented in; but this is his real character. His is naturally good humored, complaisant, but illiterate and indolent to the last degree, unless as an executive soldier, in which capacity he is all fire and activity, brave and cool as Julius Caesar. His understanding is, as I observed before, rather good than otherwise, but was totally confounded and stupefied by the immensity of the talk imposed upon him. He shut his eyes, fought his battles, frank his bottle, had his little ___, advised with his counselors, received his orders from North and Germaine, (one more absurd than the other) took Galloway's opinion, shut his eyes, fought again, and is now, I suppose, to be called to account for acting according to instructions. But I believe his eyes are now opened. HE sees he has been an instrument of wickedness and folly. Indeed, when I observed it to him, he not only took patiently the observation, but indirectly assented to the truth of it. He made, at the same time, as far as his mauvais honte would permit, an apology for his treatment of me.
"Thus far with regard to Mr. Howe. You are struck with the great events, changes, and new characters which have appeared on the stage since I saw you last. But I am more struck with the admirable efficacy of blunders. It seemed to be a trial of skill which party should outdo the other; and it is hard to say which played the deepest strokes; but it was a capital one of ours, which certainly gave the happy turn which affairs have taken. Upon my soul, it was time for fortune to interpose, or we were inevitably lost; but this we will talk over another time. I suppose we shall see one another at Philadelphia very soon, in attendance. God bless you!
The iniquitous conduct of speculators and swindlers to secure to themselves the possession of most of the public securities will leave a stain on a large class of people who by every art endeavored to sink the faith of Congress. Indeed their attempts to injure the credit of all public bodies were attended with the most pernicious consequences to the honest and unsuspecting holders of public paper. By every insidious practice, they induced the ignorant and necessitous to part with their securities for the most trifling considerations, to supply their immediate wants. Thus afterwards, when a new constitution of government was formed and a funding system created, no discrimination was made in favor of the original holders, who had dispossessed themselves of the public securities. Those who had gained them by their artificial deception were enriched beyond call calculation by subsequent circumstances. They afterwards received the nominal value in specie, while many of the former holders were reduced to extreme poverty.
It was pathetically observed by one who felt these inconveniences that "the public securities, tied of their humble abodes, had soon fled to the splendid seats of wealth and greatness; and that while they remained with a class who had dearly earned them by their services, no interest was promised, no time, place, or person ascertained, to direct our application for payment. They fell into disgrace, which concurring with our necessities, as they could yield no present comfort or future hope, induced us to part with them for the most trifling considerations. But when they had chosen their elevated residence, their credit revived, and provision was made for the payment of interest on them. We, in event, literally sold them for nothing, and are obliged to pay their present holders an annual sum for keeping them in possession; for many of us have, or must soon pay for the interest of them, a sum nearly or quite equal to the money given to purchase them, and still be annually taxed to discharge the interest and principal of said securities."
This is an anticipation of what literally took place afterwards, though it is but justice to observe that Mr. Madison of Virginia, a distinguished member of Congress, and several others of that body, left no rational argument untried to procure a discrimination when the funding system was about to be introduced in 1788, that would have made some equitable compensation to the original holders of public securities, and prevented a sudden accumulation of wealth to a class of men who had, many of them, never earned by their own private industry, or their services to the public, sufficient for a competent support. They grew rich on the property of those who had suffered in the service of their country, who were left to complain, without a possibility of redress.