Peace Commission of the Howes

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Peace Commission of the Howes

PEACE COMMISSION OF THE HOWES. 1776–1778. Early suggestions by British politicians to send commissioners to settle the dispute with the American colonies had been rejected by George III as an indication of weakness. In March 1776 the government gave overall command for the war against the colonies to Admiral Lord Richard Howe, who favored a policy of conciliation and insisted that he and his brother, General William Howe, retain the right to negotiate a peace with the rebels. Though Admiral Howe's final instructions of 6 May 1776 authorized the two brothers, as special commissioners, to do little more than offer pardons, the Howes were assured that they could negotiate once they had crushed the rebellion. In reality, their mission was in many ways critically handicapped from the start as there was no way that either the King or Lord North was willing to weaken Parliamentary supremacy or British sovereignty by entering into some substantive compromise with the American rebels. Further complicating their task was the requirement that the Howes win approval from the government for any concessions they might grant the Americans, necessitating the usual long delay of trans-Atlantic communication. They also had little hope of persuading the rebels of entering into such hazy negotiations.

On 7 June 1776, soon after reaching Massachusetts with a large naval force and reinforcements for his brother, Lord Howe issued a declaration announcing his role as commissioner and stating his authority to grant pardons but not mentioning the rest of what Sir William later characterized as "our very limited commission and instructions." On 14 July, the Howes issued a joint declaration and sent a copy under a flag of truce addressed to "George Washington, Esq. etc. etc." Colonels Reed and Knox, on instructions from General Washington, informed the British emissary that they knew of no such person in the American army as the gentleman to whom the envelope was addressed. When Lieutenant Colonel James Paterson, General Howe's adjutant general, finally got to Washington with a lame explanation about the "etc. etc." and informed the rebel commander of the Howes' authority and desire for negotiations, Washington replied that he had no authority as the military commander to work out any accommodation, but commented that the Howes appeared to offer nothing but pardon, which the Americans did not need nor desire.

The next overture came after the British victories on Long Island, which led to the peace conference on Staten Island on 11 September 1776, which in turn led nowhere. When these meetings proved pointless, the Howes issued a proclamation appealing directly to the people on 19 September; there is no evidence that anyone paid attention to this offer of pardon.

On 30 November, when rebel military fortunes were at a particularly low ebb, the Howes offered absolute pardon to all those who would subscribe to a declaration of allegiance within sixty days. For a few days it appeared that this offer, in combination with the British advance, would bring all of New Jersey into submission, but several things combined to sour this effort. First, the misconduct of British troops alienated the people of New Jersey. Second, Washington issued a proclamation stating that anybody who received a pardon had the choice of surrendering it and swearing allegiance to the American cause or moving immediately within the British lines. Third, Washington's winter campaign of 1776–1777 gave new heart to those backing independence. Furthermore, Germain took exception to this wholesale offer of pardons, and although he gave his formal approval to the idea, he warned the Howes in a letter of 18 May 1777 not to be too softhearted. By this time, however, the Howes had about given up hope of a peaceful solution to the war. During the winter of 1776–1777 they attempted, through Charles Lee, who was their prisoner in New York City, to have Congress send two or three members to visit him, but Congress flatly refused. The Howes made no further significant efforts toward a political settlement, though they were both appointed to the peace commission of Carlisle, which reached America early in 1778. They played almost no part in this commission's activities. In summary, the Howes's hopes for a negotiated settlement to the war that kept the colonies within the empire went against both the actual policies of their government, which was intent on defeating the rebellion, and the realities of American independence.

SEE ALSO Lee, Charles (1731–1782); New Jersey Campaign; Peace Conference on Staten Island.


Brown, Gerald S. The American Secretary: The Colonial Policy of Lord George Germain. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1963.

Fisher, David Hackett. Washington's Crossing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Greene, Jack P. "The Plunge of Lemmings: A Consideration of Recent Writings on British Politics and the American Revolution." South Atlantic Quarterly 67 (1968): 141-175.

Gruber, Ira D. The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution. New York: Atheneum, 1972.

                           revised by Michael Bellesiles

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Peace Commission of the Howes

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