Sold – Hancock Writes Washington in August 1776 Concerning a British Peace Proposal

He states that Congress has appointed a committee to consider it. That committee included Jefferson, Adams and Franklin.

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The first year of the Revolution went well for the Americans. Their taking of Fort Ticonderoga in May and stunning showing at Bunker Hill in June 1775 were followed by increasing popular acceptance of the rebellion. Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" was published in Philadelphia in January 1776 and became an instant...

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Sold – Hancock Writes Washington in August 1776 Concerning a British Peace Proposal

He states that Congress has appointed a committee to consider it. That committee included Jefferson, Adams and Franklin.

The first year of the Revolution went well for the Americans. Their taking of Fort Ticonderoga in May and stunning showing at Bunker Hill in June 1775 were followed by increasing popular acceptance of the rebellion. Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" was published in Philadelphia in January 1776 and became an instant best-seller. Its strong arguments advocating American independence caused an immediate clamor throughout the colonies, turning attention from reconciliation to, as Paine wrote, beginning the world anew. In early March 1776,  the American army captured Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston harbor and the British evacuated Boston. In April, independence was in the air and General George Washington arrived in New York to set up defences, anticipating a British plan to invade New York City. Meanwhile, the Continental Congress began to consider the question of independence, and on June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee presented a resolution to sever the bond between America and Britain.

The British, slow to fully appreciate the seriousness of the rebellion, did not initially take adequate measures to combat it. However, in the winter of 1775-6, as word reached London of the spread of interest in independence, they prepared a massive war fleet to send to America consisting of 30 battleships with 1200 cannon, 30,000 soldiers, 10,000 sailors, and 300 supply ships. The main portion of this armada arrived in New York harbor on June 29, 1776, and by mid-July it was all gathered there, dwarfing anything the Americans could field.

The British commanders, General William Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, arrived in New York harbor soon after their fleet.  But it was not only war that the Howes had in mind. Their government was interested in making a conciliatory gesture to the Americans to stave off a full-scale war, and the Howes were selected to command in America because they were known to be sympathetic to the colonists. The Howe's sister was a friend of of Benjamin Franklin, and Richard had already contacted Franklin in his own peacemaking feeler.  The King commissioned the Howes to "confer with persons of authority" in America on grievances of the colonies that had led "to the weakening of the Constitutional relation" between the colonies and the crown. Lord Drummond also appeared in New York purporting to be a secret emissary from the British government, seeking a negotiated peace However, events were moving very fast.

On June 28, 1776, the day before the British fleet appeared in New York, Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence was presented to Congress, with changes made by Adams and Franklin. On July 2, 12 of the 13 colonial delegations voted in support of Lee's resolution for independence, and on July 4, the Congress formally endorsed the Declaration of Independence, with all 13 of the new states concurring. The actual signing of the document would take place on August 2. So by the time the Howes arrived in New York to essentially offer pardons and amnesties, the Americans were committed to independence. How would the contending sides deal with  reconciliation efforts, efforts which would determine the future of both?

Lord Richard Howe began his mission of conciliation by sending a letter to George Washington under a flag of truce. It was rejected because it was addressed to Mr. Washington as an individual rather to General Washington in his capacity as an American leader. On that same day Washington reported to the President of Congress, John Hancock, that the British officer conveying the letter had told his American counterpart “That he (Ld Howe) had great Powers” to negotiate.  Washington did make a contact with Sir William Howe on July 15, writing him to enclose congressional resolutions about the mistreatment of American prisoners in Canada. Sir William replied the following day, but the letter was refused for the same reason that his brother's letter had been rejected on the 14th. The Howe brothers then took another tack. On July 19 a British barge appeared with a white flag. It was met by Washington's aides, Col. Joseph Reed and Lieut. Col. Samuel Webb, the latter reporting that the bearer, an aide-de-camp to General Howe, “said, as there appeared an insurmountable obstacle between the two generals, by way of Corresponding, General Howe desired his Adjutant General might be admitted to an Interview with his Excellency General Washington. On which Col. Reed, in the name of General Washington, consented.” At noon on the 20th Webb met Lieut. Col. James Paterson of 63rd Foot and took him to Col. Henry Knox's quarters, where, Webb wrote, “Washington attended with his suit and Life Guards…and had an Interview of about an hour with him.” Paterson pointed out the King's most gracious disposition towards the Americans so strongly manifested in the Powers he had granted and the Choice he had made of Persons unconnected with Ministerial Arrangements, to whom His Majesty had thought proper to delegate the full & free Execution of those great Powers.” Reed's memorandum of the meeting recorded the following exchange: Washington replied, “he was not vested with any Powers on this Subject by those from whom he derived his Authority and Power. But from what had appeared or transpired on this Head Ld Howe and Gen. Howe were only to grant Pardons—that those who committed no Fault wanted no Pardon: that we were only defending what we deemed our indisputable Rights.”

At this point, with the British essentially offering amnesty and the Americans insisting on independence, both the Howe and Washington began to prepare for military action. However, there was to be one more attempt at conciliation and it was initiated in early August when Washington approached Howe about a prisoner exchange. On August 5, Howe responded positively, and Washington wrote Hancock that “The mode for the Exchange of Prisoners, resolved on by Congress is acceded to by General Howe, so far as it comes within his command, a Copy of my Letter and his answer upon the Subject, I have the Honor to inclose you and to which I beg leave to refer Congress.”

Then, on August 17, Washington received a number of letters and papers from Lord Drummond, among them peace propositions and a letter stating that Drummond wanted to go directly to Philadelphia to lay them before Congress. He also included a letter from Lord Howe saying “I shall with great satisfaction embrace the first opportunity that may be offered…to promote so desirable an event.” Washington responded to Drummond the next day, saying “I have your Lordships Favor of this Day accompanied by Papers on Subjects of the greatest Moment and deserving the most deliberate consideration…I shall, by Express, forward to Congress your Lordship's Letter and the Papers which accompanied it…” He also wrote the Howes concerning the proposed prisoner exchange. Pursuant to this promise and understanding the potential importance of the peace proposal and the authority of Congress to determine a response to it, that same day Washington submitted all the papers he had received from Drummond to Congress. He wrote John Hancock, “I have the honor to Inclose you for the perusal and consideration of Congress, Sundry papers marked No. 1. to No. 7 Inclusive, the whole of which except No. 2. & 7, My Answers to Lord Drummond & Genl Howe, I received Yesterday Evening by a Flag, and to which I beg leave to refer Congress.” Drummond’s plan going beyond what Howe had intimated in July, Washington continued, “I am exceedingly at a loss to know the Motives and Causes Inducing a proceeding of such a nature at this Time and Why Lord Howe has not attempted some plan of negotiation before, as he seems so desirous of It…”   The Washington Papers lists the first five enclosures Washington sent to Hancock as “copies of Lord Drummond's letter to GW of 17 Aug., GW's reply to Drummond of that date, Drummond's letter to Lord Howe of 12 Aug., Drummond's peace proposals of 12 Aug., and Lord Howe's reply to Drummond of 15 August…”

Washington’s letter and enclosures reached Philadelphia on August 20, were read in Congress immediately. Congress then appointed a committee to consider what response to make, naming to it Jefferson, Franklin and John Adams himself, three of the foremost advocates of independence. This is confirmed by Adams’ autobiography in the Massachusetts Historical Society, which states “Tuesday August 20 1776. A Letter of the 18th. from General Washington, with sundry Papers inclosed, was laid before Congress and read. Resolved that the same be referred to a Committee of five: the Members chosen, Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Franklin, Mr. Rutledge, Mr. J. Adams and Mr. Hooper.” This committee would ultimately decide to appoint a group to meet with the British representatives to gauge the seriousness of the peace proposals for themselves.

Then Hancock reported back to Washington. Autograph Letter Signed, “Congress Chamber [Philadelphia], 20 August 1776, 3 O’Clock P.M.” “Your Letter by Express with its several Inclosures I yesterday Rec'd, & yours by Post this moment come to hand; I have laid the whole before Congress, & am directed to keep the Express; I shall therefore only by the Return of the Post Inclose you Two Commissions which please to order to be Deliver'd; Referring all other matters to be Sent by the Express.” It is signed “John Hancock Prest.” This letter is recorded in the Washington Papers, which notes that” Congress detained the express rider, because it was discussing the papers concerning Lord Dunmore that GW had enclosed in his letter ,” and that the commissions referenced “are probably those for James Chapman and Thomas Dyer, both of whom Congress promoted to major on this date.”

British forces did not wait for a reply and determined to create their own realities on the ground. The same day Hancock wrote Washington, August 20, Howe crossed over from Staten Island to Long Island with his 15,000 polished soldiers, and on the 27th led them against Washington's untried and outnumbered army. The Battle of Long Island was a severe defeat for the Americans, who retreated to Brooklyn Heights, facing possible capture by the British or even total surrender. But at night, the Americans crossed the East River in small boats and escaped to Manhattan, then evacuated New York City and retreated northward. It was a dark moment for hopes for American independence.

Perhaps the Howes expected this victory to energize his conciliation effort. On September 11, 1776, American representatives appointed by Congress, including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Edward Rutledge, attended a peace conference on Staten Island with Lord Richard Howe. To fetch the American delegates from Amboy, Howe dispatched his personal barge, in which the Americans were rowed to Staten Island. He personally greeted them at the water's edge of the grounds, then escorted them between lines of grenadier guards to the Billopp Manor House. Howe told them "I feel for America as a brother, and if American should fall, I should feel and lament it like the loss of a brother."  The conference was  in the form of an elegant dinner hosted by the admiral, but it failed as Howe was not empowered to grant a peace unless the Americans withdrew their Declaration of Independence. This the Americans could not and would not do, Franklin telling Howe “that he had nothing really to offer" and Adams saying "I avow my determination never to depart from the idea of independency."

Our research indicates that this letter of Hancock, written as President of Congress just 18 days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, is the only letter of his to Washington to reach the marketplace in at least 35 years. That it concerns a matter as important as peace negotiations is extraordinary.

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