Just months before the Declaration of Independence, at the same time and on the same mission as Thomas Paine, he seeks to convince Americans that they are at war with Great Britain and must support the “Great American Cause”
He argues, “We are to consider ourselves either in a state of peace or of war with Great Britain. If the former, why are our ports shut up, our trade destroyed, our property seized, our towns burnt, and our worthy and valuable citizens led into captivity, and suffering the most...
He argues, “We are to consider ourselves either in a state of peace or of war with Great Britain. If the former, why are our ports shut up, our trade destroyed, our property seized, our towns burnt, and our worthy and valuable citizens led into captivity, and suffering the most cruel hardships?”
Many Americans were reluctant revolutionaries, and it took a while for the reality and fact of the Revolution to work a change of mind. They may have supported the American arguments and opposed the British ministry, but they clung to the idea that the mother country and her colonies could yet reconcile short of American independence. In their mindset, they understood that military actions were being taken, and may even have been required, but they were in denial and were unprepared to accept that the colonies were in a war with Great Britain that must lead to a split. This sentiment was strongest in the colonies south of Virginia and in New York. The revolutionaries leaders knew that winning the war was going to need broad support in all the colonies. Thomas Paine wrote “Common Sense” and then “The Crisis” in 1776 for the exact purpose of converting his hesitating fellow citizens. Washington shared this same concern, at the same time as Paine, and the need arose for him to echo Paine’s sentiments in his own words.
From the outbreak of the Revolution in April 1775, New York was on the minds of both the British and Americans. Its location was strategic, as it constituted the connecting link between New England, the hotbed of rebellion, and the rest of the colonies. Adding to this was its status as an important and central port lying right on the Atlantic Ocean. But the first priority for the Americans was Boston, which was in actual possession of the British, and which the Americans had under siege. When George Washington was appointed commander of American forces, he went immediately to Cambridge, Mass., arriving in July 1775. He set about devising a way to dislodge the British from the city, but he and his officers found it difficult to agree on one. Then a young Continental Army colonel from Boston named Henry Knox suggested that cannon might be used to drive the British from the town, so Washington sent Knox to Crown Point and the recently captured Fort Ticonderoga in northern New York to retrieve all their cannon and mortars and bring them to Boston.
Knox and his men moved the cannons 300 miles in fifty-six days with the help of oxen and ice sledges. They arrived outside Boston on January 25, 1776, with the huge haul of 59 cannons. When powder for the cannon finally arrived, the Americans began firing on Boston on March 2, and on March 4 mounted the largest guns on Dorchester Heights. British commander William Howe wanted to send troops up Dorchester Heights to dislodge the guns, but a snowstorm prevented the assault. Fearing his position was untenable because of the certainty of bombardment, he decided to leave Boston. On March 17, 1776, known afterward as “Evacuation Day,” 11,000 British troops left the city by boat. Washington marched into Boston on March 18, but there was little time for rejoicing. He rightly suspected that the British would next head for New York City.
Anticipating this, and knowing that British possession of New York City would threaten vital American lines of communication between New England and the rest of the colonies, in January 1776 Washington dispatched General Charles Lee to New York City to survey and plan for the city’s defense. Lee then worked with Washington to devise a multilayered plan in which troops would be stationed and ready to fight in different parts of the city. On March 27, soon after the British evacuated Boston, Washington took his next action relating to New York, writing Congress of his plans for detaching regiments of the Continental Army in Cambridge to New York under Brigadier General John Sullivan, with the remainder of the Army to follow. Two days later, on March 29, Washington appointed Major General Israel Putnam commander of the troops in New York, with instructions to concentrate on the execution of all plans for the defense of the city and its waterways. On April 4, In New York, Washington’s Quartermaster General, Thomas Mifflin, informed the New York Committee of Safety that within ten days a total of 12,000 American troops would be in the city.
In the weeks leading up to war, New York called a Provincial Convention that assembled in New York City on April 20, 1775. It elected delegates to the Second Continental Congress, and concluded business on April 22. The next day news of the battles of Lexington and Concord arrived. As a result the First Provincial Congress was convened in May. It was not fully reconciled to war, and adapted a “plan of Accommodation between Great Britain and America”; and in the Continental Congress its delegates were to urge extreme caution in the quarrel with Britain. But it also ordered the militia to stockpile arms, and disarmed all loyalists. In June the British troops in New York City left to board British ships in the harbor, where they stayed docked as if blockading the city, and the Provincial Congress then authorized the raising of four regiments for the Continental Army. It adjourned on November 4, 1775 and appointed a Committee of Safety to sit and act for it during its recess.
To aid the war effort and fill the void of civil government left when British colonial institutions collapsed, the Continental Congress recommended each colony establish a committee of safety to execute resolutions – especially when the legislature adjourned. Smaller than its cumbersome large Provincial Congress, the New York Committee of Safety was established that could act more efficiently. Occupying a somewhat vague position within both the civil government and military hierarchy, the Committee worked with Washington to preserve order amidst the ongoing struggle. Commencing July 11, 1775, the Committee received orders and tentatively assumed it responsibilities: responding to government letters, executing resolutions, obliging Continental Army officials “as far as…[the Committee] shall think proper,” directing the military when in New York, and administering finances. Regularly corresponding with the Committee of Safety, Washington notified officials of potential invasions so that necessary defensive preparations could commence, and solicited the Committee’s aid procuring military supplies and recruits. In early April 1776, given his impending arrival in New York, Washington requested the Committee regulate “taverns and tippling houses” so his troops would have less distractions and cause for “debauchery.” On April 4, Washington left Cambridge with the Army; he arrived in New York with General Horatio Gates on April 13, 1776, and on April 17 Martha followed.
But New York had not yet come down decisively on the side of independence. Upon his arrival in New York, Washington was angered to find that, despite the efforts of Generals Lee and Putnam during the past months to halt the supplying of the British warships at New York, American merchants and government officials in that city were supplying the British ships still in the harbor. In fact, the Provincial Congress and the Committee of Safety continued as late as April 4 to permit fresh provisions to be taken to the ships in return for a British promise not to interfere with vessels bringing provisions and firewood to the city. Washington strongly believed that accepting that a state of war existed would be the key factor in winning that war, and that stopping the flow of supplies and intelligence to the British was key to the American cause. He determined to go to the Committee and request that it prevent further discourse between American civilians and British vessels. Warning the Committee that such communication and trade undermined the American cause as well as threatened New York itself, Washington advised the Committee to punish internal enemies who continued their relationship with British vessels.
Letter signed, “Head-Quarters, 17 April, 1776”, to the New York Committee of Safety, setting about to convince the Committee that the former Colonies and Great Britain were now indeed at war, and insisting that such communications with the enemy must cease. Although the addressee is not shown in the letter, Washington’s letter book in the Library of Congress states that it is addressed to the Committee, and William Paulding, its chairman.
“Gentlemen, There is nothing that could add more to my happiness than to go hand in hand with the Civil Authority of this, or any other Government to which it may be my Lot to be ordered, and if in the prosecution of such measures as shall appear to me to have a manifest tendency to promote the Interest of the great American Cause I shall encounter the local convenience of individuals, or even of a whole Colony, I beg it may be believed that I shall do it with reluctance and pain, but in the present important Contest the least of two Evils must be preferred.
“That a continuance of the intercourse which has hitherto subsisted between the Inhabitants of this Colony, and the Enemy on board the Ships of War, is injurious to the common Cause, requires no extraordinary abilities to prove. A moment’s reflection not only evinces this truth, but points out the glaring absurdity of such procedure—We are to consider ourselves either in a state of Peace or War with Great Britain. If the former why are our Ports shut up—Our Trade destroyed—Our property seized—Our Towns burnt, and our worthy and valuable Citizens led into Captivity & suffering the most cruel hardships? If the latter, my imagination is not fertile enough to suggest a reason in support of the intercourse.
“In the weak and defenseless state in which this City was some time ago—political prudence might justify the Correspondence that subsisted between the Country and the Enemy’s Ships of War but as the largest part of the Continental Troops is now here—As many strong Works are erected and erecting for the defense of the City and harbor, those Motives no longer exist, but are absorbed in others of a more important Nature. To tell you Gentlemen, that the advantages of an intercourse of this kind are altogether on the side of the Enemy, whilst we derive not the smallest benefit from it would be telling what must be obvious to everyone. It is indeed so glaring that even the Enemy themselves must despise us for suffering it to be continued, for besides their obtaining Supplies of every kind by which they are enabled to continue in your harbors, it also opens a regular Channel of intelligence, by which they are from time to time made acquainted with the number and extent of our Works—Our Strength and all our Movements, by which they are enabled to regulate their own plans to our great disadvantage and Injury—for the truth of this I could produce instances, but as it may be the Subject of future discussion I shall decline it at present. It would Gentlemen, be taking up too much of your time to use further Arguments in proof of the necessity of putting an immediate and total Stop to all future Correspondence with the Enemy—It is my incumbent duty to effect this, convinced as I am of the disadvantages resulting from it, and it cannot be thought strange or hard, that under such Conviction, I should be anxious to remove an Evil which may contribute not a little to the ruin of the great Cause we are engaged in, and may in its Effects prove highly detrimental to this Colony in particular.
“In effecting the Salutary purposes above mentioned I could wish for the concurrence and support of your honorable Body. It will certainly add great weight to the measures adopted when the Civil Authority Co-operates with the Military to carry them into Execution1—It will also redound much to the honor of the Government, and of your Committee in particular, for the World is apt to judge from appearances, and while such Correspondence exists the reputation of the whole Colony will suffer in the Eyes of their American Brethren.
“It is therefore Gentlemen that I have taken the Liberty to address you on this important Subject, relying upon your Zeal and attachment to the Cause of American Liberty for your assistance in putting a Stop to this Evil, and that you will cooperate with me in such measures as shall be effectual, either to prevent any future Correspondence with the Enemy, or in bringing to Condign punishment such Persons as may be hardy and wicked enough to carry it on, otherwise than by a prescribed mode, if any Case can possibly arise to require it.” The letter has a little uneven fading, but is fully and readily legible.
The text is in the hand of aide William Palfrey, who was John Hancock’s chief clerk before the Revolution, and was active in the movements that preceded it. He was one of the group who greeted Washington on his way to Cambridge. Palfrey was promoted to lieutenant colonel and made Washington’s aide-de-camp March 6, 1776. On April 27, with his mentor Hancock’s assistance, he was appointed Paymaster General of the Continental Army, a post he held until his appointment as United States consul to France in November 1780. The ship on which Palfrey sailed to his new assignment was never heard from again, and is considered lost at sea.
The document is endorsed by a member of the committee: “Ordered all the deputies to the provincial Congress now in this City be summoned to attend this Committee to morrow morning at Nine o’Clock, and that the Continental Delegates now in this City be requested to attend to take this Letter into Consideration.”
The Committee of Safety read Washington’s letter on the afternoon of April 17, and then requested all of the deputies to the Provincial Congress and delegates to the Continental Congress who were in the city to attend the Committee’s session the next morning to consider the letter. The next day the Committee responded to Washington, making it clear that New York accepted his characterizations and would unambiguously take the colonies’ side. “Your recommendation of Yesterday we took into consideration immediately on receipt of it. And thereupon framed the enclosed Resolves and Orders. We cannot sufficiently thank Your Excellency for Your most delicate Attention to the civil Government of this Colony; and beg leave to give You the strongest Assurances that we most eagerly embrace this as we shall every other opportunity of cooperating with You in every Measure which shall come recommended to us with the Argument of public Utility.” The Resolves and Orders, promulgated on April 19, forbade New Yorkers interacting with the British, on pain of them being considered “as enemies to the rights and liberties” of America.
The Declaration of Independence was less than three months away.
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