Staten Island Peace Conference - Background


When British authorities were planning how to deal with their rebellious North American colonies in late 1775 and early 1776, they decided to send a large military expedition to occupy New York City. Two brothers, Admiral Lord Richard Howe and General William Howe, were given command of the naval and land aspects of the operation respectively. Since they believed it might still be possible to end the dispute without further violence, the Howe brothers insisted on being granted diplomatic powers in addition to their military roles. Admiral Howe had previously discussed colonial grievances informally with Benjamin Franklin in 1774 and 1775, without resolution. General Howe believed that the problem of colonial taxation could be resolved while retaining the supremacy of Parliament. At first King George III reluctantly agreed to grant the Howes limited powers, but Lord George Germain took a harder line, and insisted that the Howes not be given any powers that might be seen as giving in to the colonial demands for relief from taxation without representation or the so-called Intolerable Acts. As a consequence, the Howes were only granted the ability to issue pardons and amnesties, but not to make any substantive concessions. The Commission was, however mandated to seek the re-establishment of the pre-war colonial assemblies, to offer again the terms of Lord North's Conciliatory Proposal regarding self-taxation, and to promise a further discussion of colonial grievances.

After the fleet arrived in July 1776, Admiral Howe made several attempts to open communications with Continental Army General George Washington. Two attempts to deliver letters to Washington were rebuffed because Howe refused to recognize Washington's title. Washington did however agree to meet in person with one of Howe's adjutants, Colonel James Patterson. In the meeting on July 20, Washington learned that the Howes' diplomatic powers were essentially limited to the granting of pardons, to which he responded that the Americans had not committed any faults and thus did not need pardons. Lord Howe then sent a letter to Benjamin Franklin detailing a proposal for a truce and offers of pardons. After Franklin read the letter in Congress on July 30, he wrote back to the admiral that "Directing pardons to be offered to the colonies, who are the very parties injured, can have no other effect than that of increasing our resentments. It is impossible we should think of submission to a government that has with the most wanton barbarity and cruelty burnt our defenseless town, excited the savages to massacre our peaceful farmers, and our slaves to murder their masters, and is even now bringing foreign mercenaries to deluge our settlements with blood." He also pointed out to the admiral that "you once gave me expectations that reconciliation might take place." Howe was apparently somewhat taken aback by Franklin's forceful response.

"Some think it will occasion a delay of military operations; which we much want. I am not of that mind. Some think it will clearly throw the odium of continuing this war on his Lordship and his master. I wish it may. Others think it will silence the Tories and establish the timid Whigs. I wish this also, but do not expect it. All these arguments, and twenty others as mighty, would not have convinced me of the necessity, propriety, or utility, if Congress had not determined on it. I was against it from first to last. All sides agreed in sending me. You will hear more of this embassy. It will be famous enough."

John Adams to James Warren, September 8, 1776

In the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, British forces successfully occupied western Long Island (modern Brooklyn), compelling Washington to withdraw his army to Manhattan. General Howe then paused to consolidate his gains, and the brothers decided to make a diplomatic overture. During the battle they had captured several high-ranking Continental Army officers, including Major General John Sullivan. The Howes managed to convince Sullivan that a conference with members of the Continental Congress might yield fruit, and released him on parole to deliver a message to the Congress in Philadelphia, proposing an informal meeting to discuss ending the armed conflict between Britain and its rebellious colonies. After Sullivan's speech to Congress, John Adams cynically commented on this diplomatic attempt, calling Sullivan a "decoy-duck" and accusing the British of sending Sullivan "to seduce us into a renunciation of our independence"; others noted that it appeared to be an attempt to blame Congress for prolonging the war. The Congress did however agree to send three of its members – Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Edward Rutledge – to a conference with Lord Howe. They were instructed "to ask a few Questions and take Answers", but had no further authority. When Howe learned of the committee's limited authority, he briefly considered calling the meeting off, but decided to proceed after discussion with his brother. None of the commissioners believed the conference would amount to anything.

Lord Howe initially sought to meet with the men as private citizens, since British policy did not recognize the Congress as a legitimate authority. In order that the conference might take place, he agreed to the American demand that they be recognized as official representatives of the Congress.

Read more about this topic:  Staten Island Peace Conference

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