The Hessians and the other German auxiliaries of Great Britain in the revolutionary war/3 The Treaties Before Parliament
THE TREATIES BEFORE PARLIAMENT.
The aggressive or apologetic tone of the ministers of German despots was of little importance, when once the course of their masters had been determined on. The impassioned protest of a young German poet or of a French pamphleteer could hardly be reckoned among political forces. The King of Prussia, whose word might have been law in the matter of letting-out German soldiers for foreign service, preferred to sneer rather than to command. But in the Parliament of Great Britain the treaties between the King of England and the mercenary princes were discussed by responsible ministers of the crown on the one side, and by statesmen, some of whom might one day be called to power, on the other. It is true that the majority which supported the administration was so overwhelming that the opposition could not hope soon to overthrow it. But there can be little doubt that if the greater number of votes in Parliament was in 1776 on the Tory side, the weight of intellect was as decidedly with the Whigs.
On February 29, 1776, Lord North moved that the treaties entered into between His Majesty and the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, the Duke of Brunswick, and the hereditary Prince of Hesse-Cassel, be referred to the Committee of Supply. He said that the troops were wanted as the best and most speedy means of reducing America to a proper constitutional state of obedience, because men could be readier had and upon much cheaper terms in this way than they could possibly be recruited at home; that the troops hired would cost less than could have been expected, referring to former times and taking all the circumstances together; and, lastly, that the force which this measure would enable them to send to America would be such as, in all human probability, must compel that country to agree to terms of submission, perhaps without further effusion of blood.
Lord North was supported by Mr. Cornwall, who assured the House that he had a better opportunity of knowing the means of treating with German princes and procuring troops than any man in it; that his situation for many years (as clerk in the German pay office during the last war) gave him this opportunity; and that he was astonished to hear any gentleman conversant with German connections call the present terms disadvantageous. He contended that the two months' previous pay allowed to the Duke of Brunswick was no more than a douceur; and insisted that the troops were all had on better terms than was ever known before, especially if the business should be effected within the year, of which he had no reason to doubt.
Lord George Germaine defended the measure on the ground of necessity. He quoted a number of precedents to show that in every war, or rebellion, England had had recourse to foreigners to fight her battles and to support her government; and Lord Barrington, who is known in his heart to have disapproved of the general conduct of the administration, and to have been in vain urging the king to accept his resignation, supported the motion on similar grounds. Recruits could be obtained on no other terms. He confessed that the bargain was not advantageous, but it was the best that could be made.
On the other side, Lord John Cavendish reprobated the measure in all its parts, Britain was to be disgraced in the eyes of all Europe. He objected to the terms of the treaties, particular by particular, and pointed out that a body of twelve thousand foreigners was to be introduced into the dominions of the British crown, under no control of either king or parliament; for the express terms of the treaty were “that this body of troops shall remain under the orders of the general to whom his Most Serene Highness [the Landgrave] shall have intrusted the command.”
Lord Irnham doubted the competency of the princes to make such treaties. He held it inconsistent with their duty to the Empire, which must thereby be rendered vile and dishonorable in the eyes of all Europe, as a nursery of men reserved for the purpose of supporting arbitrary power, whenever grasped by those who had more money, though not more justice and virtue, than the others whom they could pay for oppressing. He compared the princes to Sancho Panza, who wished that if he were a prince all his subjects should be blackamoors, as he could by the sale of them easily turn them into ready money.
Mr. Seymour answered Mr. Cornwall, and defied him to produce a single instance in which the same number of men, within the same time, had cost the nation so much.
The Hon. James Luttrell pointed out that there were already a hundred and fifty thousand Germans settled in America, and that the hired troops were likely to desert. Edmund Burke stated that for every thousand foreigners they were paying as much as for fifteen hundred natives. Sir George Saville insisted that this was the worst bargain of the kind ever made since the hiring of foreign troops had prevailed; and Alderman Bull closed the debate. “Let not the historian be obliged to say,” he exclaimed, “that the Russian and the German slave was hired to subdue the sons of Englishmen and of freedom; and that in the reign of a prince of the House of Brunswick, every infamous attempt was made to extinguish the spirit which brought his ancestors to the throne, and in spite of treachery and rebellion seated them firmly upon it.” The alderman's sentiments were better than his rhetoric, but both were equally unavailing. The motion was passed by two hundred and forty-two votes to eighty-eight.
On March 5, 1776, the Duke of Richmond moved in the House of Lords that a humble address be presented to his Majesty, praying that he would be graciously pleased to countermand the march of the foreign troops, and to give directions for an immediate suspension of hostilities in America. The protest expressed the sense which the House entertained of the danger and disgrace of the treaties, which acknowledged to all Europe that Great Britain was unable, either from want of men, or disinclination to this service, to furnish a competent number of natural-born subjects to make the first campaign. It was a melancholy consideration that the drawing off the national troops (though feeble for the unhappy purpose on which they were employed) would yet leave Great Britain naked and exposed to the assaults and invasion of powerful neighboring and foreign nations.
The document then pointed out that a reconciliation with the colonies would be preferable to the employment of foreigners, who, when they were at so great a distance from their own country, and suffering under the distresses of a war wherein they had no concern, with so many temptations to exchange vassalage for freedom, would be more likely to mutiny or desert than to unite faithfully and co-operate with his Majesty's natural-born subjects.
After showing the danger of foreign troops being brought into the realm, and complaining that they had already been introduced into two of the strongest fortresses, the protest continues: “We have, moreover, just reason to apprehend that when the colonies come to understand that Great Britain is forming alliances, and hiring foreign troops for their destruction, they may think they are well justified by the example, in endeavoring to avail themselves of the like assistance; and that France, Spain, Prussia, or other powers of Europe may conceive that they have as good a right as Hesse, Brunswick, and Hanau to interfere in our domestic quarrels.”
The danger of being obliged to defend the Landgrave of Hesse in his quarrels in Europe was then pointed out, and the opinion was expressed “that Great Britain never before entered into a treaty so expensive, so unequal, so dishonorable, and so dangerous in its consequences.”
In introducing the protest, the Duke of Richmond gave a short history of the several treaties entered into, since 1702, with the Landgraves of Hesse, and showed that the successive landgraves, from time to time, rose in their demands; and still, as they continued to extort better terms, never failed to establish their former extortion as a precedent for the basis of the new succeeding treaty, always taking care to make some new demand on Great Britain. This treaty was “a downright, mercenary bargain, for the taking into pay of a certain number of hirelings, who were bought and sold like so many beasts for slaughter. . . . But taking it on the other ground, that the treaties were formed on the basis of an alliance, what would be the consequence? That if any of these powers were attacked, or should wantonly provoke an attack, for the engagement was left general and unconditional, we should give them all the succor in our power. Thus, for the assistance of a few thousand foreign mercenaries, we are not only to pay double, but we are to enter into a solemn engagement to exert our whole force to give them all the succor in our power, if the Landgrave or the Duke shall be attacked or disturbed in the possession of his dominions.”
The Duke of Richmond further remarked on the danger of keeping a body of twelve thousand foreigners together under the command of one of their own generals, on the possibility of such a general arriving at the supreme command, and on the confusion which might be created by a difference on this head between the foreign general and the commander-in-chief.
The Earl of Suffolk answered in behalf of the administration. “The tenor of the treaties themselves,” he said, “is no other than has been usual on former occasions. The present, it is true, is filled with pompous, high-sounding phrases of alliance, but I will be so ingenuous as to confess to the noble duke that I consider them merely in that light; and if he will, I allow that the true object of those treaties is not so much to create an alliance as to hire a body of troops, which the present rebellion in America has rendered necessary.”
Having thus made light of the terms of a treaty for which he was personally responsible. Lord Suffolk proceeded to point out that the conditions of that treaty were advantageous if the employment of the troops should only last one year, but that in any case, if they wanted the soldiers, they were obliged to acquiesce in the terms demanded. He expressed his belief that the commander-in-chief superseded all other generals, and on being pressed he asserted positively that such was the case.
The Earl of Carlisle was persuaded that the number of hands required to carry on manufactures, the little use of new levies, at least for the first campaign, and the desire that every friend of his country ought to have for putting a speedy termination to the unhappy troubles, united, created an evident necessity for the employment of foreigners in preference to native troops. He called on their lordships to consider the unwieldy bulk of the empire, and the operations necessary even in case of a defensive war, and asked if it were possible for such an inconsiderable spot as the island of Great Britain, in the nature of things, to furnish numbers sufficient to carry on operations the nature of such a service would necessarily demand.
The debate was continued at great length and with considerable violence. On the Whig side the Duke of Cumberland lamented “to see Brunswickers who once, to their great honor, were employed in the defence of the liberties of the subject, now sent to subjugate his constitutional liberties in another part of this vast empire.” The Duke of Manchester pointed out that “that man must be deemed a mercenary soldier who fights for pay in the cause in which he has no concern.” The Earl of Effingham suggested that by a decree of the Imperial Chamber the directors of the circle might be ordered to march into the Landgrave's country to compel him to some act of justice or retribution; in which case England would be obliged to excuse her breach of the treaty by her ministers' ignorance of the imperial constitutions, or else to enter into a war, like that in America, not to maintain, but to subvert, the liberties of the Germanic body. The Earl of Shelburne denied the necessity of employing foreigners, and was supported in this by Lord Camden, who also appealed to their lordships, if the whole transaction were not a compound of the most solemn mockery, fallacy, and gross imposition that was ever attempted to be put upon a House of Parliament. “Is there one of your lordships,” he asked, “that does not perceive most clearly that the whole is a mere mercenary bargain for the hire of troops on one side, and for the sale of human blood on the other; and that the devoted wretches thus purchased for slaughter are mere mercenaries in the worst sense of the word?”
The Tory lords would seem to have done less than their share of the talking, perhaps, because it was unnecessary for them to speak, sure as they were of a majority. The motion was lost by thirty-two votes to one hundred.
It seems to me that their lordships were a little hard upon the German soldiers. Most of these poor fellows did not fight for pay at all, but fought because they could not help it. The people who were really “mercenaries in the worst sense of the word” were the Landgrave, the Duke, and the princes; but perhaps the noble lords could hardly be expected to say so.
As to the conduct of the British ministry in hiring the troops, it would seem that if the war were to be carried on energetically, no other course was possible. Owing to the distrust of regular soldiers that still lingered in English minds, the British army had not been maintained during peace of a strength equal to the demands now made upon it. Enlistments were made with difficulty, and could at best bring in but raw recruits. Conscription seems always to be out of the question in England. If men must be had, Lord North must seek them in Germany.
But the ministry and the empire paid a terrible price for the German auxiliaries. The answer to the treaty with the Landgrave was the Declaration of Independence. The employment of foreign mercenaries by the British government was largely instrumental in persuading the Americans to throw off their allegiance to the English crown, and to seek the alliance of their former enemies. The danger pointed out in the protest of the lords became a reality, and men of English blood held that France had as good a right as Hesse to interfere in their domestic quarrels.
- “Parliamentary Register,” 1st series, vol. iii. pp. 341-360.
- “Parliamentary Register,” 1st series, vol. v. pp. 174-216.
- Hanoverian troops had been sent to Gibraltar and Port Mahon.
- See Leckey's “History of England in the Eighteenth Century,” vol. iii. pp. 453 et seq. See also a clause in the Declaration of Independence (given in Appendix C).