By Park Ranger Joe Craig
Rangers love “kid mail”. School programs are quite a workout, but getting a bundle of thank you notes from students can make it all worthwhile.
Often, there is a formula to the notes, probably dictated by their assignment: “Thank you for teaching us about the Revolutionary War and Battles of Saratoga. It was very interesting and I learned alot [sic].” But one student added “Why did they have to fight? Couldn’t they just talk it over?” The writer obviously paid attention in Resolving Conflict Without Violence sessions, and probably would be met with a snort of derision by some observers, but her question does bear consideration. Could differences between the 13 North American Colonies and Great Britain have been negotiated?
It wasn’t as if no one tried to negotiate a settlement to the crisis before and during the conflict. A noted effort to mend things between Britain and America known as the “Olive Branch Petition” [5 July 1775] was an attempt by the Continental Congress to “kiss and make up” after the first fighting. It was rejected out of hand by George III, who flat out refused to even look at it.
Not every Briton was quite as bloody-minded as their monarch. When the Howe brothers were being selected for military command in North America, Admiral Lord Richard made it plain that he wanted their commission to be more than simply brute, armed force. Accordingly they were commissioned to give pardons to those subjects who were abjectly contrite and remove restrictions placed upon trade, but the price would be steep. The Rebels would have to dissolve their Congress, state assemblies and army, give back all military posts that they had seized and reinstate all Crown officials. Despite contemporary rumours, the Howes were not commissioned to negotiate a peace. Members of Congress met with them in September 1776, but American Independence had changed the situation beyond even the Howes’ limited commission.
As might be expected, the victory at Saratoga upset the apple cart for the British: the feared entry of France and alliance with the American Rebels was now a reality. Unofficial feelers at the behest of an undersecretary of state, William Eden, were conducted by American Loyalist Paul Wentworth to Benjamin Franklin in Paris. The meeting had the exact opposite effect that Eden and Wentworth desired: the news of it hastened the French into getting an alliance with the Americans.
In panicked desperation to halt the Franco-American Alliance an official British delegation was authorized to meet with the Continental Congress in 1778 and offer suspension of all acts passed after 1763. The members were individuals who were friendly with the opposition in Parliament, which was a calculated move to make the commission appealing to the Americans. With Saratoga to our credit and the British evacuation Philadelphia in the offing, Congress rebuffed the overture with a reassertion that Britain needed recognize the Independence of the United States and leave immediately.
Although these attempts failed, some Britons hoped for a rapprochement. They hung their dwindling hopes upon the assumption that the rebellion was the result of Americans’ veniality and envy. Give them some preferment and favours and the whole rebellion will dissolve faster than an election year promise.
Never ones to place all their eggs in one basket, the British also opined that someone on the American side to take action.
Sir John Dalrymple sent along his “Thoughts on instructions to the American commissioners” in 1778 to the Colonial Secretary, George, Lord Germain. His recipe to end the war was based upon giving economic concessions to bring the Rebel Americans back to the British fold.
Then Sir John’s white paper focused upon the one and only George Washington:
“I presume to suggest another thing. From all accounts of General Washington’s character there is a resemblance between his character and General Monk’s, for he is silent, keeps his mind to himself, has plain understanding, and is a man of principle….”
“General Monk” may not be a familiar name in present-day America, but he was recognizable to Dalrymple’s contemporaries. George Monck (sometimes spelled “Monk”) was a general in the English Civil Wars (1642-151). Monck served for both sides, King and the Parliament, and with the collapse of the Protectorate, he was instrumental in reinstituting English Monarchy, allowing Charles II to return from exile 1660. While there was certainly motivation for self-aggrandizement, Monck’s actions were perceived as saving England from anarchy.
Perhaps, reasoned Sir John, Washington might be some sort of military reincarnation of Monck. Washington had fought for the Crown in the Seven Years’ War before taking up with the rebel forces. So Washington might be convinced to follow Monck’s lead and reinstate Government among the Rebels. Sir John noted that Washington had no apparent dynastic ambitions:
“…he has no son, daughter, brother or sister, so his ambition must be limited to himself….”
Assuming this, Sir John saw Washington as no threat as a contender to the throne of England and that he might be imposed upon to bring the unnatural rebellion to an end:
“…Charles the II. owed his kingdom to his personal application to Monk, delivered by one of Monk’s own friends. Might not the Ministers treating by the King’s command or the King himslefwrite a private letter to Washington to remind him of the similarity between his situation and Monk’s, desiring him to ask terms for America fair and just, and they should be granted…
The deal would be sweetened considerably to Washington’s personal benefit:
“…and that the terms for himself should be the dukedom that was given to Monk, and a revenue to support it in order to give dignity to the man who generously gave up his power to save his country?”
That no one seems to have tried this deal on Washington does not seem to have dampened British enthusiasm to call upon the Ghost of General Monk. Indeed, when Benedict Arnold was first communicating with General Sir Henry Clinton, when he signed his correspondence “Monk”; the significance was certainly not lost on his new playmates.
In the wake of the Arnold Treason, the British hoped to “turn” another officer to their side, targeting Major General John Sullivan. Sullivan had resigned his commission in 1779 and entered Congress. Sullivan was in serious need of money, and the British were quite aware of the situation. They also believed that Sullivan was not enamored of the more radical (and often vicious) measures enacted against Loyalists. The British employed his brother as a courier. Captain Daniel Sullivan, whom they’d captured, was dispatched with a letter written by Loyalist Captain Stephen Holland.
One of the letters carried by Captain Sullivan, implored General Sullivan to strike some sort of a blow for Britain in the guise of reconciling the two sides:
“Let me, my dear Sir, conjure you, by the friendship that has subsisted between us, to set yourself seriously to work about so laudable a task. And recollect that in accomplishing it you will equal the great Monk.”
Sullivan did not choose to follow Monk’s example, despite his financial needs.
Throughout the War for American Independence the British seemed quite bewildered and uncertain about just what the heck was going on. The rebelling Americans weren’t looking to oust George III, nor intending to replace him by setting up another king in America: it didn’t fit anything they’d ever encountered. Their hopes for a reconciliation by economic means were unrealistic and “too little, too late”. Their best hope seemed to be a recapitulation of the successful past through the action of one individual.
And the only American who tried to emulate General Monk failed the British and was consigned to infamy by all.