Peace Commission of Carlisle

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Peace Commission of Carlisle

PEACE COMMISSION OF CARLISLE. 1778. Stunned by Britain's defeat at Saratoga and fearing that its former colonies would enter into an alliance with France, Lord North reversed direction in early 1778 and proposed to Parliament that Britain send a peace commission with powers to negotiate with Congress and promise to suspend all acts affecting America passed since 1763. Parliament approved the "Royal Instructions to the Peace Commission" on 16 March 1778. To head the commission, North selected Frederick Howard, fifth Earl of Carlisle, a young man not yet thirty but very wealthy and a gambling friend of opposition leader Charles James Fox (which was expected to please the Americans). In addition to the Howe brothers, already in America, North also appointed William Eden, a close friend of Carlisle since Eton and member of the Board of Trade, Captain George Johnstone of the Royal Navy, a former governor of West Florida who had fought a duel with George Sackville Germain in December 1770. The commission's secretary was Adam Ferguson, renowned professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh, whose work had influenced many American leaders. Carlisle and his colleagues left Portsmouth on the sixty-four-gun Trident on 16 April. Also on board was Lord Cornwallis, on his way to become Henry Clinton's second in command. They reached Philadelphia on 6 June.

Carlisle immediately encountered almost insurmountable obstacles: Congress had resolved on 22 April that any man or group that came to terms with the commission was an enemy of the United States; furthermore, Clinton was preparing to evacuate Philadelphia. When Carlisle requested a conference, Congress replied on 17 June that the only negotiable points were British withdrawal and recognition of independence. Before leaving Philadelphia, Johnstone attempted to bribe Congressmen Joseph Reed, Robert Morris, and Francis Dana; this led to his resignation on 26 August. Funds for covert activities had been given to the commission, and Sir John Temple and John Berkenhout followed Carlisle from England to join him in New York City as secret agents early in August. The last week of August, Berkenhout left New York City with a pass from Clinton, managed to pick up a pass from U.S. General William Maxwell at Elizabeth, New Jersey, and proceeded to Philadelphia. Introducing himself to Richard Henry Lee as a friend of Arthur Lee—he had known the latter in London—the agent pretended interest in settling in America. But a suspicious Maxwell warned Richard Lee, and Berkenhout was questioned by the Council of Pennsylvania on 3 September, jailed, paroled on 14 September, and on 19 September was back in New York City, his mission having only further prejudiced Congress against dealing with the commission.

As early as 21 July, Carlisle admitted to his wife that his mission was a complete failure and indicated that the government had no idea what the situation was in America. Congress itself circulated Parliament's act of conciliation and the peace commission's proposals. At spontaneous demonstrations the public denounced and burned these documents, indicating to Carlisle that the "common people hate us in their hearts." In October Lafayette challenged Carlisle to a duel on the grounds that he was personally responsible for the commission's attacks on France in letters to Congress; on 11 October Carlisle informed the offended Frenchman that he was answerable only to his country for his "public conduct and language," and Lafayette ended in looking somewhat ridiculous. On 3 October Carlisle and Eden made a fruitless appeal directly to the people, offering a general pardon for past disloyalty and full pardons to all military or civil officers who asked for it within the next forty days. They met only mockery.

Conceding failure, the commissioners left on 20 December 1778, Carlisle issuing a parting proclamation warning the Americans that by the French treaty they would become tributaries of France, leaving Britain no choice but to "destroy" the colonies. This statement, like so many other actions of the British government, undermined the Loyalists while strengthening the conviction among common Americans that independence was the wisest course of action.

SEE ALSO Germain, George Sackville.


Berkenhout, John. "Dr. Berkenhout's Journal, 1778." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 65 (1941): 79-92.

Brown, Weldon A. Empire or Independence: A Study in the Failure of Reconciliation, 1774–1783. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1941.

Idzerda, Stanley J. Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776–1790. Vol. 2. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979.

Van Doren, Carl. Secret History of the American Revolution: An Account of the Conspiracies of Benedict Arnold and Numerous Others Drawn from the Secret Service Papers of the British Headquarters in North America. New York: Viking, 1941.

                      revised by Michael Bellesiles

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Peace Commission of Carlisle

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