History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution/Chapter XXVI
While new alliances were negotiating between the Americans and several European powers, and the importance of the United States was appreciating in the scale of nations, the councils of Britain were confused, and the Parliament and the nation split into parties.
The American war was become very unpopular in England, and discontents prevailed in all parts of the Empire. Many of the favorites of the present reign had been taken from beyond the wall of Hadrian, [No national reflection is here designed. It is very immaterial, as observed by the great Lord Chatham, whether a man was rocked in his cradle on one side of the Tweed or the other. The writer of these pages has the highest respect for the distinguished literary characters that adorn the Scotch nation. Their strength of genius, and profound investigations in philosophic, political, theological, and historic compositions are at least on an equal scale of ability with any of the learned luminaries of the law or any other science nearer the splendid beams of monarchy; and when called to distinguished office, they have, perhaps, with some few exceptions, discharged their public functions with equal honor, capacity, and integrity.] yet there was a growing dissatisfaction with all the measures of administration, and a prevailing discontent and uneasiness through the Scotch nation; but this was owing more to some religious dissensions, than from any liberal or enlarged views of political liberty, among the class of people loudest in complaint.
Yet much less as to be apprehended from the discontents in Scotland than from those of the oppressed Irish, driven nearly to the point of revolt. They had long and justly murmured at the high-handed measures of the Parliament of England, and the degraded and inferior rank in which they were viewed at the Court of St. James. The late restrictions on their commerce, a recent embargo for three years on their staple export, the inhibitions, the disqualifications, and frequent severe penalties load on the great body of the Roman Catholic inhabitants, with a long list of other grievances that might be enumerated, they considered as marks of national contempt, and a sacrifice of the interest of Ireland to favor the avarice of British contractors, speculators, and pensioners. They were sensible that no means were neglected to rivet the chains in which they were held by the prejudices of Englishmen, with regard to their commerce, their police, and their religious opinions.
Their resentment did not evaporate in unmeaning and inactive complaint. They entered into combinations against the use and purchase of British manufactures, and prohibited their importation into Ireland, under very heavy penalties. Measures for defense, and military associations were everywhere adopted. This they justified from the apprehension of foreign invasion, and the extraordinary weakness of the state, in consequence of drawing off the troops for active service in America, which had usually been stationed in Ireland for the defense of that kingdom.
The Irish volunteers who assembled in arms on this occasion soon amounted to near 60,000 men, and daily increased in number and strength. These were not composed merely of the middling or lower classes of people. Men of fortune and character were seen in the ranks, and even many of the nobility appeared to encourage these associations.
This armament was very alarming to Great Britain, but it could not be suppressed. The inhabitants of Ireland were bold and undaunted; and, encouraged by the example of America, they strenuously supported their rights, and made use of the same arguments against a standing army in time of peace, which had been urged in the assemblies and congresses of the colonies. They resolutely refused to submit longer to such unconstitutional and dangerous measures, resisted the Mutiny Act, denied its validity, and opposed and prevented the magistrates in making provision for the remnant of the King's troops still left in the country.
One of their patriots [Mr. Gattan] of mane and ability, asserted that the act was dangerous and unconstitutional; that "the Mutiny Bill or martial law methodized, was not only different from, but directly opposite to the common law of the land. It set aside trial by jury, departed from her principles of evidence, declined her ordinary tribunals of justice, and in their place established a summary proceeding, arbitrary crimes, arbitrary punishments, a secret sentence, and a sudden execution."
The determinations of the Irish to recover their freedom, and maintain their native rights, were represented in the most eloquent strains of rhetoric. The strong and pointed language was dictated by the heart, approved by the judgment and expressed in the periods of the best orators. The names of many well-informed Irish gentlemen were distinguished, and will be handed down on the conspicuous list, both for the brilliancy of their epithets and their strength of reasoning. Among these, the celebrated Mr. Grattan was marked for his superior eloquence, learning, patriotism, an other virtues. The talents of Mr. Flood and others were called forth; an by the energies an exertions of those patriotic leaders, they obtained some amelioration of the burdens complained of. Thus by the decided spirit of many eminent characters in the nation, the British Parliament was induced to take some steps that produced a temporary quiet in Ireland. More lenity was shown toward the Roman Catholics, and some other small indulgences granted, but nothing sufficient to restore lasting tranquility to the country.
While the sister kingdoms were thus restless and dissatisfied, a general uneasiness discovered itself throughout England, on the disappointment of their naval operations. After the affair on the Dogger Bank, Sir Hyde Parker thought he had been so far unsupported that his honor impelled him to resign. The neglect of proper support to the worthy Kempenfelt and other brave naval commanders was highly censured throughout the kingdom.
Mr. Fox brought a number of direct and explicit charges against the Board of Admiralty; first, in suffering the Count de Grasse to sail to the West Indies without an effort to intercept him; secondly, the loss of the St. Eustatia convoy, when nearly 60 sail of British ships, with much property and many prisoners, were sent into Cadiz by don Lewis de Cordova, who commanded the combined fleet of France and Spain at the time.
The engagement with Admiral Zeutman, the failure of Admiral Kempenfelt to cut off the Count de Guichen, and several other disappointments in the naval line were all attributed to the same cause: negligence and incapacity in the First Lord of the Admiralty. An address to the King was proposed that the Earl of Sandwich should be removed from His Majesty's councils forever. His character was universally vilified in England. A writer of that country may have delineated it more exactly than can be expected from anyone at a distance.
He observes "that future historians may do justice to his moral character, but that in so barren a wilderness, it would be happy if one solitary virtue could enliven the prospect. But, as destitute of felling as of principle, amid the copious crop of vices which overwhelmed his whole character, not even that of cowardice was wanting, to move contempt as well as detestation; and strange it is that though his sentiments with regard to both natural and revealed religion were well known, yet so timid was his nature that he never dared to be alone.
"After these general traits, we cannot wonder that he was in his political life the decided enemy of his country, and the devoted instrument of a corrupt cabinet. His name, indeed, was never mentioned without exciting sentiments of contempt. If nature had endowed him with talents, the course of dissipation in which he was engaged must have disqualified him for their exercise. He professed an active, but not a strong mind. Practiced in the intrigues of a Court and habits of Parliament, he could speak with facility, but his ideas never took an extensive range. The paltry maxims of court intrigue finished the outlines of his character." [See History of the Reign of George the Third by Wenderburne.]
Mr. Fox's address for the removal of the Earl of Sandwich was supported by Lord Howe and Admiral Keppel. They censured his mismanagement and prodigality, exposed his blunders and want of capacity, and painted in glowing colors his misconduct and the fatal consequences to the navy and to the nation, by his having been thus long continued in an office of such high trust and responsibility. But he had his friends and defenders; and after long and warm debates, the motion for his removal was lost by a small majority.
After many desultory grounds and circumstances of uneasiness were discussed, a motion of high importance was made in the house by General Conway. This was for an address to the King, requesting him to put an immediate period to the destructive war in America. This motion was lost only by a single vote -- 193 were in favor, and 194 against it. But the object of peace was not relinquished. The address was again brought forward, and finally carried.
After various expedients had been proposed, which were reprobated in strong terms, Lord Cavendish moved that the House should resolve that the enormous expenses of the nation, the loss of the colonies, a war with France, Spain, Holland, and America, without a single ally, was occasioned by a want of foresight and ability in His Majesty's ministers and that they were unworthy of further confidence.
In short, such a general reprobation of all former measures ensued, and such a universal vilification of the heads of departments, and such unlimited censure fell on ever part of their conduct, through a seven years' war, that the old ministry found themselves on the point of dissolution.
Lord George Germaine, who had kept his ground beyond all expectation, through a very tempestuous season, now found himself obliged to resign his office as Minster of the American Department. Though rewarded for his services by peculiar tokens of His Majesty's favor, and dignified by a peerage, he stood for a time in a most humiliating predicament. Several of the House of Lords thought the nation disgraced and themselves affronted by the creation of a man to that illustrious order who had formerly been censure by a court martial and dismissed from all employment in a military line, and who had recently and obstinately pursued measures in the cabinet and supported a destructive system that had brought the nation to the brink of ruin. [The Marquis of Carmarthen stood at the head of opposition against the promotion of Lord George Germaine.]
His promotion was also opposed in the House of Commons from the "impolicy of rewarding in the present conjuncture of affairs a person so deeply concerned in the American war." It was observed that it might have a tendency to defeat the purposes of a great and solemn inquiry in which the conduct of that noble personage might appear to deserve the severest punishment. But supported by royal prerogative, His Lordship retained his high rank, and enjoyed a kind of triumph in the favor of the King, in spite of the reproaches of his enemies. Yet, neither ribbons nor stars could erase the stigma that hung on his character, both as a minister and a soldier.
Nor at this period could the puissant nobleman at the head of the treasury any longer stand the torrent of reproach and complaint that was poured out against him. On March 20, 1782, Lord North resigned his place and declared to the House of Commons that the present administration from that day ceased to exist.
It has been observed by a British writer of ability that "Lord North was educated in the school of corruption; naturally of an easy, pliant temper; that the disposition was increased by the maxims he had imbibed. He was rather a man of wit, than consummate abilities; ready and adroit, rather than wise and sagacious He considered the faculty of parrying the strokes leveled at him in the House of Commons as the first qualification of a minister. Under his administration, a regular system of pension and contract was adopted, more pernicious than the casual expedients of Walpole to facilitate his measures." [See a view of the reign of George III. Another British writer has thus sketched the character of Lord North: "It must be remarked that a certain confusion and indistinctness of ideas unfortunately pervaded his general system of thinking. He seemed habitually to aim at the thing that was right, but invariably stopped short of the true and genuine standard of political propriety. With the reputation of meaning well, he acquired the imputation of indecision and instability. The general tenor of his administration must certainly be allowed to exhibit very few indications of energy, wisdom, or force of penetration. But occasionally capable of resolute and persevering exertions, his temper was mild, equable, and pleasant, although his notions of government evidently appeared of the high Tory cast." Belsham.]
However he might merit the severities contained in the several sketches of his character, His Lordship quit his station with as much firmness, address, and dignity as any man of understanding and political abilities possibly could have done, who had stood at the head of administration during an unfortunate war that continued near seven years. At the same time, what had greatly enhanced his difficulties and his responsibility, all the other powers in Europe were either in alliance with America, or stood by as unconcerned spectators of a combat which augured a train of most important events to the political, civil, and religious state of Christendom, if not to the world.
His Lordship declared that he did not mean to shrink from trial; that he should always be prepared to meet it; that a successor might be found of better judgment and better qualified for the high and arduous station; but none more zealously attached to the interest of his country, and the preservation of the British constitution than himself.
It is indeed easy to believe that His Lordship was willing to retire, and happy to quit the helm of state which he had held with such an unsuccessful hand. He had sent out his mandates and proclaimed his recisions until the thirteen United States of America were irretrievably lost to Great Britain; until Minorca was capture by the Spaniards... Dominica, St. Vincent's, Tobago, Granada, and other islands in the West Indies by the French; and until two British armies, commanded by some of the most distinguished officers in the nation, were prisoners in the American states.
Thus after the blood of thousands of the best soldiers in England, of the best officers in the nation had been sacrificed, and multitude of Americans, formerly the best subjects to the Crown of Britain, had been immolated on the altar of ambition, avarice, or revenge; after the nation was involved in expenses beyond calculation, her trade ruined, and the national character disgraced by the iniquitous principles of the war; it is not strange that the Parliament was agitated, the ministry dismayed, and the people thrown into consternation and disgust. The murmur was universal, the public councils were divided, and the ministry and their measures were become the ridicule of foreign nations.
Through all the struggle between Great Britain and her colonies, not one of the powers of Europe had declared against America; but, on the contrary, most of them had either secretly or openly espoused her cause. Yet it is not to be supposed that the passive demeanor of some and the friendly deportment of others, was the result of a general love of liberty among potent nations, or splendid courts, where the scepter of royalty was swayed, at least in some of them, with a very despotic hand. Their interests and their ambition were united; and led them to anticipate and to boast the pernicious consequences to England of this unfortunate war.
Doubtless a jealousy of the enormous power of Britain, and the proud glory to which she had arrived in the preceding reign, operated strongly to cherish the pacific disposition of some, and to prompt others to lend a hostile arm to dissever the growing colonies from the Crown and authority of Great Britain. They could not but rejoice a the dismemberment of an Empire that had long been the dread of some and the envy and hatred of other nations. It was too soon for them to forget that under the wise and energetic administration of a Chatham, the kingdoms of the earth had trembled at the power of England; that in conjunction with the American colonies, Britannia, mounted on a triumphal car, had bid proud defiance to all the potentates in Europe; that the thunder of her cannon was dreaded from the eastern seas to the western extreme; and that her flag was revered, and that her navy gave laws from the Ganges to the Mississippi.
The insolence of this proud mistress of the seas only partially checked, her glory shrouded, and the haughty islanders humbled... humbled by their own injudicious and overbearing measures, was a spectacle viewed with delight by neighboring nations, and contemplated by France with peculiar satisfaction. Yet it was perhaps, equally the policy and the interest of both the French and the British prime ministers at this period to promote pacific measures. It was the wish of both nations to be relieved from the distresses of a long and expensive war; and the officers in the first departments were convinced, more especially in England, that they had little other chance to keep their places, than by a compliance with the general will of the people.
The discontents among the inhabitants of Great Britain ran higher than ever. Chagrined by repeated defeat and losses both by sea and land; alarmed at the monstrous accumulation of the national debt, the weight of taxes; the value of landed property daily sinking, and the public burdens increasing; many gentlemen who had been sanguine in favor of the American war seemed to awaken at once from their lethargy and to appear sensible that ruin stare din the face of themselves, as well as of the nation.
From the present temper that discovered itself within the House of Commons, or from appearances without, the minority had no reason to be discourage with regard to their favorite object, which was the restoration of peace between Great Britain and the colonies. On February 27, 1782, General Conway made a second motion for addressing the Throne, and urging that the ruinous war with America should no longer be pursued.
Fortunately, a petition from the city of London was the same day presented, praying that a cessation of hostilities between Great Britain and her former provinces might immediately take place. The motion for peace was now carried in the House without much opposition. An address was presented for that purpose to the King on March 1. In this he was humbly implored to lend his sanction to measures for a restoration of general harmony. His answer, though in miler language than had of late been the fashion of the court, was not sufficiently explicit, but it was not left open to retraction. The prompt measures, the zeal and vigor of an opposition that had long been in the minority, at last gained the ascendancy, and secured a truce so much desired by a people weary of war, and so necessary for the relief, the honor, and the restoration of character to a gallant nation.
In order to facilitate this happy event, a proposal for conciliation was made, that could scarcely have been expected to succeed. A coalescence of parties where animosities had run so high, and the minds of men had been so embittered by a series of disappointments and unceasing irritation, was a circumstance not within the calculation of anyone. But it was found necessary to bury or at least to suppress, the prejudices of party, to lay aside private resentment, and to unite in one system for the general good. All were so convinced of this necessity that the proposal was conceded to; and after the resignation of Lord North, a complete change of ministry took place, composed of active and conspicuous characters from each party; but according to a trite saying, it proved indeed not more than a rope of sand.
Sir Welbore Ellis had been appointed Minister for the American Department, immediately on the removal of Lord George Germaine. But is principles and his reasonings relative to American affairs; his general observations on the transactions of war, of the belligerent powers, of the French nation, of the American loyalists, of the mean of harmony, and the restoration of peace; subjected him to the satirical strokes and the severe epithets of pointed ridicule that have always flowed so easy from the lip of the oratorical Burke. The chastisement also of his opinions by Mr. Fox and others, zealous for the termination of the contest between Great Britain and her colonies showed that the friend and pupil of Lord Sackville did not stand on very firm ground.
Though it appeared to the world to be composed of motley materials, yet all matters were adjusted for the establishment of a new administration, and the nation cherished the most sanguine hopes from the change. The Marquis of Rockingham stood at the head of the new arrangement. No character among the nobility of Britain was at this time held in higher estimation than his; nor was any man better qualified for the appointment of First Lord of the Treasury as a successor to Lord North, whose character, principles, abilities, and perseverance have been sketched in the course of narration.
The manners of Rockingham were amiable; his temper, mild and complacent; his rank, fortune, and personal influence, commanding; his principles, uniform in favor of the rights of man; and is capacity, and constant opposition to the American war rendered him a fit person to stand in this high station of responsibility. He was well qualified to correct the political mistakes of his predecessor, and to retrieve the honor of the nation on the approach of negotiations for peace. But as in human life the most important events sometimes depend on the character of a single actor, the sudden exit of such a character often blasts the hopes, clouds the minds, and defeats the expectations of contemporaries.
This observation was fully verified in the premature death of the noble Marquis, who lived only three months after his appointment to the helm of administration. All eyes had been fixed on him as the band of union, and the promoter and the prop of both public and private peace; but his death, which took place on July 1, 1782, involved his country in new difficulties and created new scenes of dissension and animosity.
Many other departments in the new system of ministerial measures were filled by gentlemen of the first character and consideration. Lord John Cavendish was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer; the Duke of Richmond, Master of the Ordnance; Grafton, Lord of the Privy Seal; Admiral Keppel, First Lord of the Admiralty; Lord Camden, President of the Council; General Conway, Commander in Chief of All Forces in Great Britain; Mr. Thomas Townsend, Secretary at War; Lord Shelburne and Mr. Fox, Principal Secretaries of State; Colonel Barre, Treasurer of the Navy; and Mr. Burke, Paymaster of the Troops.
On the death of the Marquis of Rockingham, Lord Shelburne, to the surprise of his associates in the ministry, had gained such an interest as to obtain the appointment of First Lord of the Treasury, in the room of a favorite of the nation and of the new ministry. To the newly coalesced administration, the unexpected advancement of Lord Shelburne to this dignified and important station was so disgusting that it broke the coalition. Mr. Fox and Lord Cavendish resigned their places. This precipitant dereliction of office at such a critical period, by gentlemen of their high consideration, was regretted by some, severely censured by others, and was mortifying indeed to their friends, who, though far from being pleased, continued to act with the new Lord Treasurer.
The reasons assigned by Mr. Fox for thus quitting his place, at such a crisis, were "that the system in which he consented to unite in the coalition was not likely to be pursued"; that the first principle of this system was an express acknowledgment of the independence of the United States of America, instead of making it an article in the provisional treaty, as proposed by some. To this unequivocal independence of America, he knew Lord Shelburne to be opposed.
In reply to this, His Lordship rose and defended his own opinions. He declared he was not ashamed to avow and to act upon the ideas of the great Lord Chatham. He said it was well known that this distinguished statesman had asserted that "the sun of England's glory would set if independence was granted to America." He added that he "wished himself had been deputed to Congress that he would then have exerted all his talents to convince them that if their independence was signed, their liberties were gone forever." He expressly declared that it was his opinion "that the independence of the United colonies not only threatened the extinction of their own liberties, but the ruin of England; and that certainly by giving them independence, they would finally be derived of that freedom they had been struggling to secure and enjoy."
It was difficult, even at this late period to convince many of the most intelligent gentlemen in England that independence was a gift that America did not now ask; the boon was their own; obtained by their own prowess and magnanimity, in conjunction with the armies of their brave allies.
It may be proper to observe that if England should in reality feel that the splendor of her solar rays are eclipsed by the dismemberment of such a branch of the Empire, the amputation might not yet be fatal to her prosperity and glory. They might yet prosper in a friendly alliance with the colonies, if the Parliament, the nation, and their sovereign should be in future disposed to moderation and justice, and would show themselves sincere in promoting friendship and harmony with an infant republic. It is true this republic had been forced into pre mature existence; yet she held herself in all diplomatic concerns on a footing with any other nation, and was now ready to form alliances with them and all other foreign powers, without becoming dependent on, or tributary to any.
Affairs were now brought to a point. There was no possibility of oscillating longer between peace and war. Coercion had been long enough unsuccessfully tried. Negotiation was now the only path to be trodden, however thorny it might appear to the pride of royalty, or to the omnipotence of a British Parliament.
After repeated captures of the best appointed armies, composed both of domestic and foreign troops, despair of subjugating the United States had lowered down the spirit of the nation, and of the King of England so far as to become willing to treat on terms for the restoration of amity, and to speak with some degree of temper of the total separation and independence of America.
Lord Shelburne's opinions had been so diametrically opposite to those of the gentlemen who had seceded from the administration that they thought themselves fully justified in withdrawing from public service, even while the important business was in agitation, and everything ripening for new negotiations, replete with events beyond the calculations of the wisest statesmen and politicians. In their self approbation, they were confirmed, when they thought they discovered a degree of duplicity in the business. Notwithstanding Lord Shelburne had explicitly avowed that his own wishes were of a different nature, it appeared he had directed General Carleton and Admiral Digby to acquaint the commander in chief of the American army and to request him to inform Congress that the King of Great Britain, desirous of peace, had commanded his ministers about to negotiate, to insure the independence of the thirteen provinces, instead of making it a condition of a general treaty. [This sentiment had been communicated by order of the minister in a joint letter from General Carleton and Lord Digby to General Washington, dated New York, August 2, 1782.]
But when Mr. Oswald, who had been appointed to act as the commissioner of peace in behalf of Great Britain, and to arrange the provisional articles for that purpose, arrived at Paris, in the autumn of 1782, it appeared that his instructions were not sufficiently explicit. They did not satisfy the American agents deputed by congress to negotiate the terms of reconciliation among the contending powers. These were Doctor Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams, esquires. Mr. Adams was still at the Hague; but he had been directed by Congress to repair to France, to assist his colleagues in their negotiations for peace.
The ambiguity of Mr. Oswald's commission, occasioned much altercation between the Count de Vergennes and Mr. Jay on the subject of the provisional articles. Their disputes were not easily adjusted; and the Spanish minister, the Count de Aranda, rather inclined to an acquiescence in the proposals of the British commissioner. Mr. Jay, however, resisted with firmness; and was supported in his opinions by Mr. Adams, who soon after arrived in Paris. But before his arrival, Mr. Reyneval, the secretary and confidential friend of the French minister repaired rather privately to England. It was suspected, and not without sufficient grounds, that this visit was decidedly intended to procure a conference with Lord Shelburne.
It was undoubtedly the wish of both France and England to exclude America from the right of fishing on the Banks of Newfoundland; an advantage claimed by Americans as a right of nature, from their continuous situation, and as their right by prescription. The American commissioners insisted that their claims were equally just with any exclusive pretensions either of Great Britain or France. The navigation of the Mississippi, British debts, and the American loyalists were matters of dissension, debate, and difficulty.
The American ministers were not disposed to relinquish any claims of honor, equity, or interest either to the haughty demands of Great BRitain, the intrigues of France, or even to the condescending instructions, in some instances, of their own national Congress. This body had, in the enthusiasm of their gratitude for the assistance lent in their distress by France, instructed their agents to take no step of importance without the advice and counsel of the Marquis de la Fayette, which would have given great advantage to the French ministry. [See Journals of Congress.]
The limits of the eastern boundaries of the United States were a subject of dispute, thought by some of them of less consequence; but with regard to the western territorial rights, the American commissioners were tenacious indeed. The American territory has been parceled out, and patented by the sovereigns of Europe, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean; and by existing treaties, the United States have no inconsiderable claim in the distribution. Their claims were undoubtedly founded on as equitable a basis as those of Great Britain and France. The negotiating ministers of Congress were unwilling to relinquish any part of their claim. they supported their independent attitude with manly dignity, nor did they yield in the smallest degree to the encroaching spirit of Britain.
The American claims to a vast, uncultivated tract of wilderness, which neither Great Britain, France, nor America had any right to invade may ultimately prove a most unfortunate circumstance to the Atlantic states, unless the primary object of the American government should be to civilize and soften the habits of savage life. But if the lust of domination, which takes hold of the ambitious and the powerful in all ages and nations, should be indulged by the authority of the United States, and those simple tribes of men, contented with the gifts of nature that had filled their forests with game sufficient for their subsistence, should be invaded, it will probably be a source of most cruel warfare and bloodshed, until the extermination of the original possessors. In such a result, the mountains and the plains will perhaps be filled with a fierce, independent race of European and American emigrants, too hostile to the borderers on the seas to submit willingly to their laws and government, and perhaps too distant, numerous, and powerful to subdue by arms. [The reader will observe that the author of this work has been in the habit of making appropriate observations on events as they passed and has often hazarded conjectures on probable results. The work was written a number of years before publication, but she did not think proper either to erase them or alter the manner on revision. Some of those conjectures have already taken place; others probably may, at some subsequent period.]
It was the opinion of some of the American commissioners for negotiating the treaty of peace that the Count de Vergennes was opposed to the claims of the United States in every stage of the business; not because, in equity, he thought they had no right to the fisheries or the western lands, but from a general unfriendly disposition to America, and a reluctance to her being declared by Great Britain an independent nation. But it is more probable that his cold, equivocal demeanor arose not so much from any personal disaffection to the people or to individuals, as from a desire to hold the Americans forever dependent on France. It was suggested by some to be the policy of that nation to endeavor to keep the United States, as long as possible, dependent on her aid and protection.
The political creed of Monsieur de Vergennes is said to have been that "it was absolutely necessary to hate the English... to cajole the Spaniards... not to hurt the Emperor... to live on good terms with Prussia... to gain over the Dutch... to protect the Turks... to respect Rome... to support the infant republic of America... to subsidize Switzerland... and to inspect the conduct of the colonies."
The French were indeed generally sensible that most of the citizens of America spurned at all ideas of a dependence on any foreign power, after her emancipation from Britain. Yet they were jealous that many others felt so warmly prejudiced in favor of a nation from whom they derived their origin, that they little doubted a renewal of the connection with, or even a dependence again on Great Britain, when the noise of war should cease and the old habits of intercourse, so natural from consanguinity, language, and manners, should be reassumed. This jealousy as disseminated and these apprehensions were expressed by gentlemen of judgment and penetration throughout the kingdom of France, both in public and in private circles. Indeed, it was the general opinion there that a predilection in favor of England would supersede, in the American mind, a connection with any other European power, as soon as recent injuries were forgotten, and the passions of men had subsided.
Time and opportunities afterward evinced that the most liberal sentiments toward America governed the French nation in general. It appeared by their conduct in many subsequent transactions that there was very little to justify the opinion that the design of the nation was to hold the American colonies dependent on France, or even to continue the alliance, but on terms of reciprocity and mutual advantage.
No national contracts ever yet bound mankind so firmly as not to b shaken when they militate with personal or national interests. Much less does a religious observance of treaties prevent their abandoning former obligations when the balance of advantage is likely to be thrown into the hands of their foes.
From the jealousy of the French of the power and rivalry of the English nation, they might rationally infer that if the old and natural connection with the parent state should again be revive, it would cut off the many advantages they had promised themselves from an irreparable breach between Great Britain and the colonies. Thus, some of the politician in France judged this a reason sufficient for the most strenuous efforts in the ancient, hereditary enemy of Great Britain, to hold, and, if possible, to bind America by treaties, to conditions that might in some measure make her dependent on themselves; at least, these were reasons of policy. Reasons of equity, when inconsistent with interest, are seldom to be found among statesmen and politicians deputed to transact national affairs.
Among the many difficulties that occurred in the negotiations for peace, the demands made in favor of the American loyalists, both by the British and the French ministry were not the most easily accommodated of any of the impediments thrown in the way of conciliation. But on Mr. Oswald's receiving a new commission from his Court, soon after the Count de Reyneval's visit to England, negotiations went forward, all difficulties were surmounted, and provisional articles of peace between Great Britain and America were signed by both parties on November 30, 1782.
In the mean time, the pacific dispositions of the British cabinet were (as observed) announced to the commanders of their armies and the fleets in America, and through them, to Congress and the commander in chief of the troops of the United States. But though the ideas of peace were congenial to their wishes, and flattering to their hopes, they still considered that they had much to apprehend before they could quietly sit down in the enjoyment of domestic felicity. The Americans, on this intelligence, lost no part of their vigilance. They thought it more than ever necessary to be guarded at all points against the machinations and intrigues of their enemies, the emissaries of Britain, and the rancor and violence of American refugees and loyalists. This description of persons were how, more than ever, embittered by the idea that England was about to be reconciled to the colonies on their own terms -- absolute and unconditional independence.
Their situation at the time, indeed, appeared to be hapless enough. The corps of provincial troops that had been exposed in the service of Britain and had risked everything during the war, expected now to be disbanded on the peace, when both officers and privates had little to hope from government, according to the provisional articles, and still less from their country.
According to the stipulations of the British negotiators, the whole body of loyalists were left unprovided for any further than by an engagement from the American commissioners to suggest to Congress and to urge in their behalf a recommendation to the several legislatures of the Untied States. The purport of this recommendation was a proposal that they would suffer such as had property to return for a limited time to endeavor to recover or repurchase their confiscated estates. Twelve months was the time agreed upon by the commissioners for the residence of the Tories in their native provinces after the ratification of peace.
Thus, abandoned by their friends, and cast on the mercy of their country, they had little lenity to expect from their countrymen, after a war of seven years, in which many of them had perpetrated every treacherous and cruel deed, to facilitate the subjugation of their native land, and to consign succeeding generations to the shackles of foreign domination. No prospect now appeared before them, but to decamp in hopeless poverty, and seek some unexplored asylum, far from the pleasant borders of their natal shores.
Instigated by despair and revenge, some of this class of people had recently given new proofs of their vindictive feelings and new provocations to their countrymen. The most unjustifiable rigor, and the most outrageous cruelties had been practiced on those who were so unfortunate as to fall into their hands. The story of one hapless victim will be a sufficient specimen of the atrocious length of villainy to which man may be prompted by disappointment and party rage.
The Associated Board of Loyalists of New York, impatient for the laurels they had expected to reap from the ruin of their neighbors, their country, and the cause of freedom; provoked at the desertion of their British patrons, and despairing of the triumph they had promised themselves in the complete success of the ministerial troops and the conquest of America by the arms of Britain; adopted the unjust and dangerous resolution of avenging on individuals anything which they deemed injurious to their partisans.
They said in their won vindication, and perhaps they had too much reason to allege, that the troops of Congress, in many instances, had not bee less sanguine than themselves in the inflictions of summary punishment. Doubtless, both parties were far from exercising that lenity and forbearance toward their enemies that both humanity and equity require. This was often made a pretext to justify enormities and even private executions, at which compassion and virtue shudder.
Nothing of the kind had recently occasioned so much public observation as a the wanton murder of a Captain Huddy, who, with some others, had been captured by a party of loyalists. He had been some time their prisoner, without any singular marks of resentment; but on the death of a man while prisoner, killed by the guards from whom he was endeavoring to escape, Huddy was brought out of his cell, deliberately conveyed to the Jersey shore, and, without a trial, or any crime alleged against him, he was in the most ludicrous manner hanged amid the shouts of his enemies, who exclaimed at the solemn period of execution "Up goes Huddy, for Philip White."
General Washington considered this transaction as too insolent and cruel to be passed over with impunity. It drew him into the painful resolution, by the advice of the principal officers of the army, to retaliate by selecting some British prisoner of equal rank to suffer death, unless Lippencot, one of the associated loyalists, who commanded the execution of Huddy, was given up to justice. The designation of an innocent victim to suffer death for the crime of an unprincipled murderer is a circumstance from which the mind turns in horror; but according to the laws of war, there was no receding from the determination, however severe might be the fate of him who was selected as the hapless victim.
General Washington previously demanded justice on the guilty perpetrators of the crime; but Sir Henry Clinton and other officers to whom he represented the business waved a compliance for some time and appeared in some measure to justify the deed, by asserting that it was done only by way of example, to prevent similar enormities, which their partisans, the loyalists, said they had frequently experienced.
Several British officers of the same rank with Huddy were prisoners in the American camp; and, according to the denunciation made by the American to the British commander in chief, they were brought forward with great solemnity, and a lot cast for the sacrifice to be made to justice. This was done with much tenderness, sympathy, and delicacy; when the lot fell on Captain Asgill of the Guards, a young gentleman of education, accomplishments, and family expectations, who was only 19 years of age. He was immediately ordered into close custody until the trial and punishment of Captain Lippencot should take place. But his trial was conducted with so much partiality and party acrimony that Lippencot was acquitted After this, Sir Henry Clinton demanded the release of Asgill, as on a legal trial no guilt was affixed to the transaction of Lippencot.
This occasioned much uneasiness to General Washington and to others, who though fully convinced of the iniquity of the murderous party that procured the death of Huddy, yet they wished for the release of Captain Asgill. Every humane bosom revolted at the idea of seeing a youth, whose character was in all respects fair and amiable, condemned to die instead of a wretch whose hands, stained with blood, and his heart hardened by repeated murder and crime, might have had an earlier claim to a halter.
Great interest was made by many British officers, and by Sir Guy Carleton himself, for the life and release of Captain Asgill, but without effect. He remained a prisoner under the sentence of death, although execution was delayed, until every compassionate heart was relieved by the interference of maternal tenderness. The address of Lady Asgill, his mother, whose heart was wrung with agonizing fears for the fate of an only son, procured his release.
After the first pangs of grief and agitation, on the news of his critical and hazardous situation had subsided, she wrote in the most pathetic terms to the Count de Vergennes; urging that his influence with General Washington and the American Congress might be exerted to save an innocent and virtuous youth from an ignominious death, and restore the destined victim to the bosom of his mother. This letter, fraught with sentiments that discovered a delicate mind, an improved understanding, and a sensibility of heart, under the diction of polished style, and replete with strong epithets of affection, the French minister showed to the King and Queen of France, as a piece of elegant composition.
Though on a despotic throne, where the sovereign disposes of the subject by his fiat, and cuts off life at pleasure, without regret or hesitation, the King of France and his royal partner were touched by the distress of this unhappy mother, and lent their interest for the liberation of her son. The Count de Vergennes was directed to send a letter to General Washington; which he did, accompanied with the observations of the King and Queen, and combined with his own request in favor of young Asgill.
The commander in chief was happy to transmit to Congress the several requests and observations, which he had reason to expect would relieve him from an affair that had embarrassed his mind, both as a man of humanity and the commander of an army. Congress immediately directed that Captain Asgill should be liberated from imprisonment, and left at his own option to choose his future residence; on which, he took leave of the army and of America, and repaired to his friends in England.
The reply of General Washington and the resolutions of Congress relative to granting a passport to Mr. Morgan, secretary to General Carleton, to go to Philadelphia, was not equally condescending. On his arrival at New York, Sir Guy Carleton had requested that he might be permitted to send some letters of compliment to Congress. General Washington forwarded the request, which drew out a resolve of Congress "That the commander in chief be hereby directed to refuse a compliance with the request of General Carleton to grant a pass to Mr. Morgan to bring dispatches to Philadelphia." It was also resolved that no intercourse should be opened or that any of the subjects of Great Britain should be permitted to pass or repass from the British to the American posts while the provisional articles of peace were held in suspense.
This was not only a judicious, but a necessary precaution in the Congress of the United States. At this period, a small circumstance of intelligence or information might have given a pretext to defeat a pending negotiation for peace. The fleets and armies of Britain still kept their station in America; while the clashing interests of foreign nations, with regard to American claims, were not yet adjusted; and while the loyalists were clamorous and vindictive, watching the opportunity of impeding the present measures, which, if ratified, must leave them in a hopeless state of despondency; at the same time, it set their countrymen on a point of elevation, contrary to their predictions, their wishes, and their interests, which had prompted them to opposition, and for which they had hazarded their ease, their lives, and the friendship and esteem of their former associates and friends. These people certainly had high claims of gratitude from the British government for their unshaken loyalty, through the sharp conflict that severed the colonies from the dominion of Britain, and themselves from their native country forever.