Thomas Gage Reconsidered: When Law Interferes with War


August 26, 2015
by Gary Shattuck Also by this Author


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You have sent General Gage, who is a man of great abilities, to quell the disturbances in that country, which I am sure he never will do, unless, at the same time that you give him the sword in one hand, you give him the olive branch in the other; and I think you will gain more by the olive branch being properly used, according to the temper of those people, than you will by striking a severe blow with the sword.

                                                                        Colonel Isaac Barré, House of Commons, concerning Gage’s assignment to Boston

                                                                        April 15, 1774[1]


I have repeatedly given the strongest assurances that I intended nothing hostile against the Town [Boston] or Country, and therefore desire you to ease the minds of the people against any reports that may have been industriously spread amongst them to the contrary; my wish is to preserve peace and tranquility.

                                                                        General/Royal Governor Thomas Gage, responding to a Worcester County grievance

                                                                        October 1774[2]


But it is more than evident that you cannot force [the Americans], united as they are, to your unworthy terms of submission – it is impossible: and when I hear General Gage censored for inactivity, I must retort with indignation on those whose intemperate measures and improvident councils have betrayed him into his present situation.

                                                                        William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, debating a House of Lords’ effort to withdraw Gage’s troops from Boston

                                                                        January 20, 1775[3]


For over two hundred years, Revolutionary War historiography has repeatedly excoriated Gen. Thomas Gage, seeking to assign him virtually sole responsibility for the early reverses suffered by British policy in 1774-1775 intended to quell colonial discord.  Assuming the opprobrium heaped upon him by contemporaries, one calling him “a lukewarm coward” and his own soldiers describing him as “Tommy, the old woman,” modern day historians unsympathetically pass a similar judgement.[4]  For the discriminating John Shy, Gage was “a weak link,” “surprisingly feeble” in understanding the challenges he faced, warranting blame for advocating a misplaced legal resolution to the conflict when, rather, the “practical” military option should have been employed.[5]  While constituting a convenient, shorthand dismissal of Gage’s actions, these myopic assessments wholly fail to acknowledge the very real, and persistently looming, constraints imposed on him by the titanic changes then taking place within the complex British Empire’s constitutional system.  When those important legal considerations, ones designed for peace over war, are factored into the military context of the times, an entirely different perspective emerges that seriously calls into question those condemnations of purported ineptitude.

The early martial education of Thomas Gage (1721-1787), the second son of Irish peer Viscount Thomas Gage, is first noted with his enlistment in the army in 1741 as a lieutenant.   Following a period of service in Europe, as a lieutenant colonel he accompanied General Edward Braddock to North America in 1754 at the opening of the Seven Years’ War.  Surviving the debacle on the Monongahela River the following year, Gage went on to serve in various capacities at Ticonderoga, Lake Ontario, and Quebec. He was named governor of Montreal in 1760, instituting a welcomed period of “mild rule” over a population that had experienced oppression under his predecessor.  With the arrival of peace in 1763, Gage had attained such respect that he was promoted to major-general and then was named commander-in-chief of all British forces upon Gen. Jeffrey Amherst’s return to England.[6]

To understand the myriad of challenges that Gage faced in the next several years, it is necessary to consider the effects of huge philosophical changes taking place within the vast British Empire as they concerned relations between London and its many colonies.  It had actually started some years earlier upon the conclusion of King George’s War in 1748, when Parliament decided the times were ripe to exert its authority outwards.  Up until then, the profitable benefits of a robust trading network, further enhanced by various navigation acts passed in the homeland’s favor, precluded the need for close supervision over the colonies. But this unintentionally fostered the appearance of unacceptable notions of independence in their midst, in the form of a dizzying number of some twenty-five separate constitutions on the eve of the Revolution, each the product of widespread assemblies with differing constituencies advocating differing needs and which were not always in accord with each other.  While there was never a single body of law emanating from London that tried to reconcile their numerous differences, attempts were made by the Privy Council and Board of Trade to administer the challenges they posed in a consistent manner.  As a result, a complex legal situation presented itself in the form of no less than three distinct kinds of constitutions: the British constitution applicable to “the central state and its immediate dependencies (Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland); separate provincial constitutions for Ireland and each of the colonies; and, “an undefined … unacknowledged, imperial constitution – the constitution of the British Empire.” These allowed for the simultaneous rule by Parliament over general affairs as the colonies attended to their respective local needs.[7]

Making the situation even more difficult to administer, there was also a profound transition taking place concerning the many participants’ perception of the location of the center of power.  By the 1760s an aggressive Parliament, no doubt emboldened by the war’s successes, unashamedly, and earnestly, began flexing its muscle on multiple levels, much to the detriment of the royal prerogative, itself in slow decline following the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  While this was the moment when “parliamentary omnipotence” was becoming entrenched within the country’s constitutional order, it was hardly a universally accepted notion for the colonies. Consistent with their particular constitutions, they argued that their interests had to also be acknowledged and addressed within the larger umbrella of the British constitution.[8]  As a result, as one legal historian describes, there were diametrically opposed, and irreconcilable, concepts at issue:

The dynamics of the eighteenth-century British constitution had produced a constitutional dilemma.  American liberty – the right to be free of arbitrary power – could not be secured under parliamentary supremacy.  British liberty – the representative legislature over the crown – could not be secured without parliamentary supremacy.[9]

In sum, a developing constitutional scheme played out on a worldwide stage, together with rising internal conflicts over the questioned supremacy of Parliament and representation of far-off colonies. These tensions were well understood by politicians and military men alike, including Thomas Gage, as critical issues that had to be acknowledged in the execution of their duties.

Notwithstanding, there were basic concepts that all shared and which were at the root of those larger differences.  Fundamentally, the importance of a constitution for the protection of individuals’ property interests was manifest.  In fact, it was that specific issue justifying its very existence, with one Member of Parliament describing in 1647:  “The law of God doth not give me property, nor the Law of Nature, but property is of human constitution.  I have a property and this I shall enjoy.  Constitution founds property.”[10]  And there was no more important aspect of the right to pursue property (to include personalty, realty, and office holding) than to uphold one’s liberty in doing so, for if that was infringed, then one was deprived of a fundamental aspect of an Englishman’s prerogative.  Finally, protecting all of this was the unspoken power of the rule of law, the fence that guarded all from trespassing intruders.[11]

The times were becoming even more complex for those involved with military matters.  Concepts of equity and fair play between warring contestants were no longer disregarded and began to enter into the minds of both British and American commanders, instilled in them by such important works as Swiss philosopher and diplomat Emer de Vattel’s 1758 Law of Nations.[12]  In fact, Vattel’s highly influential tome describing the rights and obligations of nations in their interactions with each other on the international stage drew the attention and set the expectations of many, remaining today one of the most important works of its kind.  Discerning the existence of some semblance of order even within a state of nature, de Vattel prescribed appropriate avenues of conduct that a nation was obligated to pursue, to a sympathetic public, itself already appreciative of the fact that “the rationality of the universe provided a source of obligation governing all human conduct.”[13]

While there was no statutory body of law mandating the conduct of military officials when a civil war arose, such as the one taking place in North America, de Vattel provided appropriate guidance, telling them “it is very evident that the common laws of war – those of humanity, moderation, and honor … ought to be observed by both parties ….”[14]  With these several overarching concerns, those of complex constitutional dimension, the overriding need to protect Englishmen’s fundamental right to property and liberty, each protected in turn by the rule of law, and internationally recognized expectations of conduct in a time of war, all coming together at one time as they did when Gage assumed command of North American British interests, it is now possible to view the challenges he faced, and the decisions he made, with much heightened appreciation.

Between 1763 and 1772, Gage administered to the varying demands of British policy from his New York City headquarters where he received and sent out many dispatches from and to military and civilian correspondents.[15]  Revealing a discerning intellect, adapting to many thorny complaints which often required an understanding of the law in their resolution, Gage worked through delicate issues monitoring the empire’s western frontier as voracious traders and settlers sought to work around the prohibitions imposed on them by the Proclamation of 1763 that limited their ability to exploit Indian lands.

On occasion, Gage raised legal concerns that might affect the way a particular matter was resolved. One instance occurred in 1766 when he invoked the teachings of de Vattel concerning questionable French conduct, writing, “… but I don’t conceive that it is consistent with the Law of Nations ….”[16]  Three years later, he cautioned another, “You are doing everything you can that some sort of Justice may be carried on in the settlements … But I would have you avoid giving any handle to litigious people, who might hereafter endeavor to hamper you with tricks of law.”[17]  That concern was further evident in 1768 when British troops arrived in Boston requiring accommodations that local inhabitants refused to provide because of a local law requiring they be housed at nearby Castle Island.  When Gage arrived on the scene to help resolve the standoff he found himself similarly frustrated in acquiring quarters for the troops, mindful that he could be cashiered from the service should the civil authorities find him guilty of disobeying the law.[18]  Further, his frustration with the law interfering with his work was made evident when he described to London the challenge that a pernicious presence of lawyers presented during the Stamp Act protests: “The lawyers are the source from whence the clamors have flowed in every province.”[19]  Clearly, Gage fully understood the important role that law played in the minds of the colonists and it was a factor never far from any consideration he made in a military context.

At the time of the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, Gage was in Britain having relinquished his duties in New York City.  It is true that he viewed the event with great disdain, arguing to George III that force be used against the colonists; his view contributed to Parliament’s passing the several so-called Coercive Acts.  However, with his subsequent appointment as both captain-general and governor to Massachusetts in order to see to the implementation of those acts, he also appreciated the legal conundrum he faced.  With his occupying both military and civil positons, he wisely chose to clarify the authority the government was allowing him, ultimately receiving permission to employ military resources in support of the civil law.[20]

However, the delegation of such expansive authority was not without limitation.  As directed by the American secretary of state, Lord Dartmouth, while his use of force was permitted, it came with conditions:

The King trusts, however, that such necessity will not occur, and commands me to say, that it will be your duty to use every endeavor to avoid it; to quiet the minds of the people, to remove their prejudices, and, by mild and gentle persuasion, to induce such a submission on their part, to this law ….[21]

Even so, it was a monumental challenge that Gage faced, having assessed it on a plane far exceeding forcing mere compliance with law by a recalcitrant population, telling his superiors that their grievances were of constitutional magnitude:

There are three fundamentals on which the people of this country endeavor to establish the political doctrines they have promulgated within these few years.  These are Charter Rights, British Constitution, and the Laws of God and Nature.[22]

Notwithstanding, armed with both direct and indirect authority, Gage then set off in an effort to execute his difficult assignment with the same degree of tact and understanding, consistent with Dartmouth’s guidance to use “mild and gentle persuasion,” as he had in the past.

While Gage had been warmly received upon his arrival in Boston in May 1774, greeted by a population that appreciated his past conduct towards them, things changed quickly with the closing of the all-important harbor and institution of the remaining onerous acts.  It was no mean feat on his part to then navigate the following difficult months in a peaceful manner as colonists assembled both provincial and continental congresses to address the acts’ meaning and impact.  However, as the summer unfolded it became obvious that more troops were needed to quell increasing protests leading Gage, in a display of “realism,” to not only petition for more, but to also recommend rescinding the laws he had been sent to enforce, causing his London overseers to seriously question his resolve.[23]

Meanwhile, confined in Boston with his men awaiting the arrival of reinforcements, Gage was forced to assume a non-confrontational approach which allowed for many displays of untoward conduct by the local inhabitants challenging his authority, essentially daring him to take action.  Declining to impose martial law on the city, Gage allowed the residents “almost complete freedom,” refusing to censor the press, allowing troublemakers to attend and conduct their meetings, and watching as those in the countryside assembled their militia and collected their tools of war.[24]  At the same time, he severely constrained his soldiers, refusing to allow them to carry side arms and bringing them up on charges when they ran afoul of the local population, even allowing for their public flogging when found at fault.

By early 1775, the situation had developed to such a degree that both British and Americans realized it was only a matter of time before hostilities broke out.  The colonists had refused to back off of their confrontational approach and Gage’s troops were becoming increasingly frustrated at being restrained.  Word that Gage had allowed the militia to assemble and train was met with disdain by Dartmouth, writing to the commander in January of his incredulity on this point while also revealing British continued reliance on the primacy of law to justify their actions.  Now, he suggested to Gage a convenient opening allowing the application of additional authority, a move that had been approved by both the attorney and solicitor generals: “In reviewing the charter of Massachusetts,” he wrote, “I observe there is a clause that empowers the governor to use and execute the law martial in time of actual war, invasion, and rebellion.[25]  From London’s point of view, the line had been crossed by the colonists and now an “actual and open rebellion” existed inviting the imposition of martial law.  However, refusing to be held responsible at a later time for such a dire act, Dartmouth predictably cautioned that “the expediency and propriety of adopting such a measure must depend upon your own discretion ….”[26]

Meanwhile, with Gage’s inclination towards caution and hesitancy in handling the rising discord becoming more evident, and the naming of three generals to act as his replacements (William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne), the tenor at home calling for the shedding of blood became even shriller.  As Burgoyne rhetorically, and tellingly, inquired of Parliament that February, while also invoking his own interpretation of the legal issues at stake, “Is there a man in England – I am sure there is not an officer or soldier in the king’s service – who does not think the Parliamentary rights of Great Britain a cause to fight for – to bleed and die for?”[27]  Clearly Gage was alone in his isolated predicament, delaying imposition of martial law while weighing the costs and benefits of unleashing his troops at a time when, to his mind at least, all legal avenues had not been exhausted, while some in England recognized that that time had long passed.

As these others weighed in and evaluated his actions, Gage began to shrug off his solicitous attitude towards the unappreciative colonists and assumed a calculated approach, reluctantly invoking the use of the military to fulfill his difficult mandate, an effort he intended to protect those under his care.  Lamenting the protestors’ failure to adhere to existing law by sending their complaints to Parliament for resolution as they had done in the past, he later justified his recent actions to Connecticut Gov. Jonathan Trumbull:

I have commenced no operations of war but defensive.  Such you cannot wish me to suspend, while I am surrounded by an armed country … But it must quiet the minds of all reasonable people when I assure you that I have no disposition to injure or molest quiet and peaceable subjects, but on the contrary shall esteem it my greatest happiness to defend and protect them against every species of violence and oppression.[28]

Unfortunately, that effort to disarm the rebelling colonists on April 19, 1775, resulting in the debacle of Lexington and Concord followed by his subsequent encirclement in Boston by a horde of angry farmers, met with wholesale failure.  However, even in that instance Gage refused to abandon a peaceful approach as he then agreed with selectmen to grant the requests of scared residents seeking permission to leave the town.  At the same time, some two hundred local merchants and traders rallied to his assistance and formed a Loyalist contingency to aid him in his troubles.[29]

A short distance away within the rebel ranks evidence that not all of them were opposed to his presence became clear, identifying themselves as “King’s Troops,” ones standing in opposition to what they called the “Parliaments,” demonstrating that even they appreciated the legal aspects of what they were doing.[30]  With both outright support coming to his side and the presence of a disruptive rebel faction, itself in search of an appropriate identity, it is not difficult to understand Gage’s plight as he wrestled with further thoughts of having to use his military powers to enforce the law.

Gage's 1775 proclamation. (Library of Congress)
Gage’s 1775 proclamation. (Library of Congress)

Yet, it did indeed become more complex following the arrival of the three generals and only days before the Pyrrhic victory at Bunker Hill. On June 12 Gage found it necessary to take more forceful action to demonstrate that events had not spiraled entirely out of his control.  Now, as he explained to Dartmouth, there was in fact a rebellion, one so “open and manifest [as not] to need the opinion of the law officers.”[31]  Consistent with his past cautious approach, however, he was only willing to incrementally increase the pressure on the population by issuing “A Proclamation” addressing “the present unnatural rebellion” standing in opposition to “the constitutional authority of the state.”[32]  Recognizing that under the circumstances “justice cannot be administered by the common law of the land,” its terms provided for the issuance of pardons, excepting certain leaders, to anyone laying down arms and returning to their peaceable ways. It ended with the imposition of martial law.  Of course, only days later the confrontation that took place on the Charlestown peninsula changed everything and any future thought of control Gage might have had over the population was absolutely lost.

As stalemate continued to surround the helpless soldiers in the following months, and up until the time of his departure in October, Gage remained steeped within legal constructs, including those provided by de Vattel’s Law of Nations.  When captured American officers removed into Boston following Bunker Hill experienced rough handling by Gage’s men, Washington angrily wrote to him echoing the legal scholar’s dictates to treat his opponents with “humanity, moderation, and honor,” while also reminding the British commander that “the obligations arising from the rights of humanity … are universally binding and extensive.”[33]  Not needing any lecture from a rebel acting contrary to established law, Gage responded two days later telling him “To the glory of civilized nations, humanity and war have been compatible, and compassion to the subdued is become almost a general system.”[34]  Continuing, he told Washington that “your prisoners, whose lives, by the law of the land, are destined to the cord [emphasis in original], have hitherto been treated with care and kindness, and more comfortably lodged, than the king’s troops in the hospitals; indiscriminately it is true, for I acknowledge no rank that is not derived from the king.”

Gage then took Washington to task for his own treatment of British prisoners before expressing hope he would treat them with “sentiments of liberality.”  In ending, he then referred to the war’s illegality before describing what he expected from his men, and their own devotion to the law:

I trust, that British soldiers, asserting the rights of the state, the laws of the land, the being of the constitution, will meet all events with becoming fortitude.  They will court victory with the spirit their cause inspires, and from the same motive will find the patience of martyrs under misfortunes.[35]

Clearly, even on the issue of prisoners, and as he had consistently done in the past, Gage never abandoned a position on the side of law and order.

In October, Gage took sail for England leaving his troubles under the care of William Howe.  During the course of his trip he penned his thoughts, giving vent in a retrospective review of what led to his misfortune.  From this late perspective much became clear to him as he determined that the recent upheavals had long been in the minds of the colonists and, inferring that he was himself a victim, that many well-intentioned people had been lulled into believing their protestations of loyalty to the Crown.  Writing once again to Dartmouth, he opined that, “I am convinced, that the promoters of the rebellion have no real desire of peace, unless they have a carte blanche.  Their whole conduct has been one scene of fallacy, duplicity, and dissimulation, by which they have duped many well inclined people.”[36]  His protestations and the subsequent fallout that ensued upon his arrival home notwithstanding, Thomas Gage remained within the military for the next several years, serving as a colonel before finally being named a full general in 1782.

The American Revolution constituted a seismic event in the legal arena for both the British and the Americans.  With the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, the colonists formally announced their separation not from English legal precedents, but in rejection of the interpretations that London had put those precedents to the detriment of those in North America.  Even with the split, during the war the Americans continued to utilize their rich English past, incorporating its common law into their decisions; they continued to do so after the peace in 1783 when they established their own legal framework.

That very perception of the importance and needed continuity that the law represented was something that Thomas Gage never abandoned in the years leading up to the outbreak of war.  Some may argue that it was a misplaced, misdirected attention he allowed to overcome him when he should have simply struck out in militaristic form at an earlier point in time.  As a result of such simplistic thinking, history has subsequently been unkind to this unfortunate man, one placed into an unwinnable situation from which few, if any, could have extracted themselves in honorable fashion.  In the end, revealing just how much he actually did appreciate and understand the fine line separating peace and war, Gage delayed in implementing aggressive action knowing that once unleashed, it could never be recalled.  And for that, can he truly be faulted?



[1] Essex Gazette (Salem, MA), May 31 to June 7, 1774.

[2] The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775 (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838), 869.

[3] Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, eds., The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Its Participants (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1958), 230.

[4] John Fisk, The American Revolution, vol. 1 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1891), 112; Richard M. Ketchum, Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1962), 15.  Ketchum graciously describes Gage as “an even-tempered, persistent man who saw his duty and followed it to the best of his ability.” Ibid, 14.

[5] John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 114.

[6] Leslie Stephen, ed., Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 20 (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1889), 355.  While on the Monongahela, Gage struck up a friendship with George Washington, who later solicited his assistance in obtaining future employment with the British army.  George Washington’s Mount Vernon, “Thomas Gage,” accessed July 16, 2015,

[7] Jack P. Greene, The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 13-18, 53-54.  Subsumed within this constitutional hierarchy was the all important aspect concerning the legitimacy of colonial laws passed by the various assemblies which were, in turn, subject to Privy Council review to determine their repugnancy to established law, a concept one legal scholar recently termed the “Transatlantic Constitution.”  Mary Sarah Bilder, The Transatlantic Constitution: Colonial Legal Culture and the Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 1.

[8] Greene, The Constitutional Origins, 46; see also, Greene, Peripheries and Center: Constitutional Development in the Extended Polities of the British Empire and the United States, 1607-1788 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986).

[9] John Phillip Reid, Constitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority of Law (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 173.

[10] John Phillip Reid, Constitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority of Rights (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 30-31.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Emer de Vattel, The Law of Nations; or, Principles of the Law of Nature applied to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns (London: G.G. and J. Robinson, 1797), passim.  For additional information regarding the effect of Vattel’s work as applied to Revolutionary War prisoners of war, see this writer’s article “Christopher French, Prisoner of War,” Journal of the American Revolution, May 5, 2015,

[13] Henry J. Bourguignon, “Incorporation of the Law of Nations during the American Revolution – The Case of the San Antonio,” The American Journal of International Law 71, no. 2 (April 1977): 281.

[14] De Vattel, The Law of Nations, 425.

[15] See, e.g., Thomas Gage, “Some Letters and Papers of General Thomas Gage,” The John P. Branch Historical Papers of Randolph-Macon College 4, no. 2 (June 1913): 86-111.

[16] Gage to General Conway, June 24, 1766, Charles H. Metzger, “Sebastien Louis Meurin: The Last of the Illinois Jesuit Indian Missionaries,” Illinois Catholic Historical Review 3, no. 1 (July 1920): 258.

[17] Gage to Commanding Officer, March 24, 1769, “Some Letters,” 96.  On another occasion, Gage wrote to Indian superintendent Sir William Johnson lamenting the “irregular behavior of the traders,” a situation he explained he had forwarded on to London superiors counseling that “they must be restrained by law, and a judicial power invested in the officers commanding at the posts, to see such law put in force.”  Gage to Johnson, January 25, 1767, E.B. O’Callaghan, ed., The Documentary History of the State of New York, vol. 2 (Albany: Weed, Parsons & Co., 1849), 836.

[18] Fisk, The American Revolution, 59.

[19] Milton M. Klein, “Prelude to Revolution in New York: Jury Trials and Judicial Tenure,” The William and Mary Quarterly 17, no. 4 (Oct. 1960): 440.

[20] Shy, A People Numerous and Armed, 103.

[21] Dartmouth to Gage, April 9, 1774, The Parliamentary History of England, from the earliest period to the year 1803, vol. 18 (London: T.C. Hansard, 1813), 75-76.

[22] Reid, Constitutional History: The Authority of Rights, 214.

[23] Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 262.

[24] Ketchum, Decisive Day, 15.

[25] Dartmouth to Gage, January 27, 1775, Jared Sparks, The Writings of George Washington, vol. 3 (Boston: American Stationers’ Company, 1837), 508.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston, and of the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1903), 52-53.

[28] Gage to Trumbull, May 3, 1775, Trumbull Papers, Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, vol. 10, Fifth Series (Boston: Published by the Society, 1888), 298-301.

[29] Ibid., 93-96.  At the same time, the provincial congress made clear its disdain for Gage, ordering no further obedience be given and declaring him “an unnatural and inveterate enemy of the country.” Benson John Lossing, Washington: A Biography, vol. 3 (New York: Virtue, Emmins Co., 1856-1860), 551.

[30] Reid, Constitutional History: The Authority of Law, 173.

[31] Gage to Dartmouth, June 12, 1775, Sparks, The Writings of George Washington, 510.

[32] Library of Congress, “By his Excellency The Hon. Thomas Gage, Esq. … A Proclamation,” accessed July 18, 2015,

[33] Washington to Gage, August 11, 1775, Peter Force, ed., American Archives, Fourth Series, vol. 3 (Washington: M. St. Clair Clark and Peter Force, 1837), 245.

[34] Gage to Washington, August 13, 1775, The London Magazine or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer for the Year 1775, vol. 44 (London: By His Majesty’s Authority, 1775), 519-520.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Gage to Dartmouth, October 15, 1775, Sparks, Writings of George Washington, 514.


  • Excellent article Gary! Your thoughts on Thomas Gage are highly relevant today. As you point out the political and legal environment highly impacts a military commander’s effectiveness. We have experienced this in our recent history and a lesson we are continuing to learn.

    It is certainly understandable and admirable that Gage was reluctant to exert military force. Military leaders are the most likely stakeholder to caution against going to war they understand first hand the many negative consequences.

    In the end Gage proved his mettle on the battlefield but was confronted with an unwinable hand by political leadership.

  • Thank you, Gene, for your kind words. I know that for many, discussions about the legality and/or morality of a military commander’s decisions come across as pretty dry topics when there are battles, etc. that might otherwise draw our attention. But I think that drilling down and asking the next level of questions, such as why things unfolded as they did are every bit as interesting; thus, the constraints that people like Gage and Washington faced when according their militaristic actions within the dictates of the law (a highly unique situation for Washington who had absolutely no law, per se, to follow early on since the colonists had severed their legal ties to England). Now, that is a state of nature!

    I think Gage deserves our respect and understanding for the unfortunate predicament he was placed in. Nobody from the British side could have overcome the obstacles he faced in those early days: lack of men, lack of resources, surrounded by a large, angry population witnessing this standing army in their midst, sworn to uphold a substantial legal tradition, and then conflicting directions from London placing the discretion with him. While history has been unkind to him, when his actions are examined more closely, he becomes much, much more sympathetic.

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