Richard Howe: Admiral of the British Fleet in North America and Peace Commissioner

Admiral of the Fleet Howe, 1st Earl Howe (detail) by John Singleton Copley, 1794. (National Maritime Museum)

In the Spring of 1775, Benjamin Franklin, still stationed in England, made what he thought was a last attempt to secure a plan of reconciliation between Great Britain and her American colonies. One of the men he worked with was Adm. Lord Richard Howe. Though their efforts proved unsuccessful, at their final meeting on March 7, they promised to support each other if there ever was another effort.

He [Lord Howe] was sorry that [in the end there] was no Appearance of Things going [as] he had wished … if he should chance to be sent [as a Peace Commissioner] on that important Business [to America], he hop’d he might still expect [Franklin’s] Assis- -tance. [Franklin] assur’d him of his Readiness at all times of co-operating with him. [1]

On March 21, Franklin set sail for Philadelphia. Any future effort on their part was delivered a series of blows four weeks later with the events at Lexington and Concord followed by the convening of the Second Continental Congress, the appointment of George Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental forces, the battle of Bunker Hill, the siege of Boston, and the rejection of the Olive Branch Petition. On August 23, George III would declare that the colonists

have at length proceeded to open and avowed rebellion, by arraying themselves in a hostile manner, to withstand the execution of the law, and traitorously preparing, ordering and levying war against us. [2]

By the end of the summer, George III and his Privy Council were frustrated and dissatisfied with how their military leaders were responding to one event after another in the colonies. As a result, on August 2, Gen. William Howe, Admiral Howe’s brother, replaced Gen. Thomas Gage as Commander-in-Chief of the British army at Boston and on September 10, Adm. Lord Molyneux Shuldham replaced Adm. Samuel Graves as Commander-in-Chief of the British Fleet in North America.[3]

Six months earlier, Lord Frederick North, the First Lord of the Treasury and George III’s first minister, had proposed a Conciliatory Resolution. It provided that when a colony shall propose to

provision, according to their condition, circumstance and situations for contributing their proportion to the common defence … and shall engage to make provision also for the Support of the Civil Government, and the Administration of Justice … it will be proper if such Proposal shall be approved by his Majesty and the two Houses of Parliament … to forbear … to levy any Duty, Tax, or Assessment, or to impose any farther Duty, Tax, or Assessment except only such Duties as it may be expedient to continue to levy or to impose for the Regulation of Commerce; the nett produce of the duties … to be carried the account of such Colony respectively.[4]

Unfortunately, the hardliners in Parliament saw the resolution as too lenient; the Whigs in Parliament saw it as “insincere and insufficient,” Lords North and Dartmouth saw it as a policy of conciliation and coercion; the colonists saw it as an attempt to divide and conquer, and the Continental Congress saw it as an unsatisfactory proposition “because it imports only a suspension of the mode, not the renunciation of the pretended right to tax us.”[5]

On July 4, Lord Hyde, a close friend Lord Howe, sent a letter to Lord Dartmouth encouraging him to pursue a peace commission.[6] Between July 16 and August 20, Lord Howe received three letters from his brother, William; the first on July 16, the second on July 29, and the third on August 20. The first letter described the current situation in and around Boston; the second letter was a more accurate description of the Battle of Bunker Hill than was reported in the London newspapers; and the third letter described in depth plans for the following year’s spring offensive. Howe hoped to ingratiate himself to Lord Germain by forwarding each one to him. Accompanying each letter was a personal note: with the first letter, he acknowledged Germain’s role in his brother’s appointment;[7] with the second letter, he feared the Privy Council might not act decisively, that is, send the reinforcements that his brother requested;[8] and with the third letter, he offered his professional opinion as to the possibility of the British forces evacuating Boston before the end of fall.[9] He wished to show Germain that they were of a like mind in how to deal with the colonists.

While Howe was developing his relationship with Germain, Lord North, with the aid of William Eden, an under-secretary in the Northern Department, were persuading key members of the Privy Council, specifically Lord Suffolk, Secretary-of-State for the Northern Department, Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Solicitor-General Wedderburn, that a peace commission was still a viable solution. The lynchpin in the their efforts however was not a member of the Privy Council, but rather the Privy Council’s most reliable and effective voice in the House of Commons, Lord George Germain. He strongly believed that the rebellion should be put down with whatever amount of force was necessary and that the colonies must acknowledge the supremacy of Parliament.

In early September, Lord North, at Lord Dartmouth’s recommendation and Lord Hyde‘s urgings, put forth Lord Howe’s name for consideration as the Peace Commissioner. Hyde had also let it be known to Dartmouth that Howe was showing interest in returning to active service. Before Howe could proceed any further, a situation arose. On December 7, Sir Charles Saunders, the Lieutenant-General of the Marines, died. That same day, Lord Sandwich recommended Sir Hugh Palliser, an Admiral of the Blue and a Lord of the Admiralty, for the position. Lord North agreed to the nomination, and the following day, George III confirmed the appointment. When Howe learned of the appointment, he confronted North. He told him that he would “wait on the King” the next day and resign his commission because North had broken his promise to him that he would be appointed to the position when it became available. North apologized and with the help of Germain, the new Secretary of State for the American Colonies, convinced Howe not to resign and promised to make good on the promise. Later that afternoon, John Robinson, an under-secretary at the Treasury, proposed to Lord Sandwich that Lord Howe be granted the position of General of the Marines. The position was currently held by Admiral Forbes, but they believed he could be convinced to retire as long as he was granted a significant pension.[10] On December 17, Adm. Augustus Keppel, one of the most influential and respected men in the navy, learned of the movement against Forbes, his friend. He wrote to Lord Sandwich protesting it:

I am not used to feel disgrace or affronts; but indeed, my Lord, I must feel cold to my own honour and the rank in which I stand in his Majesty’s service, if I remain silent and see one of the youngest rear-admirals of the fleet promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-general of Marines, and a few days afterwards another rear-admiral made General of Marines. It is not for me to say who should or should not be appointed to those honours; but … a series of long service may, I hope, permit me to observe, that such a repetition of promotion to the junior admirals of the fleet cannot but dispirit every senior officer.[11]

Sandwich dismissed the protest.

On January 11, Admiral Forbes announced his refusal to retire. Hyde then urged Lord North to approach Palliser and discover what it would take for him to resign his new appointment. Like Forbes, Palliser refused to entertain the idea. In the same letter to Lord North, Hyde reminded his Lordship of his recommendation the previous summer that Lord Howe could serve both as a peace commissioner and the Commander-in-Chief the British Fleet in North America.[12] To rid themselves of their problem and continue to pursue a policy of conciliation and coercion in the colonies, George III and the Privy Council, less Lord Sandwich, decided that Lord Howe would be granted the two positions. Sandwich was both angry and jealous of Howe’s prerogative over appointments within the navy.

On January 19, Lord Hyde reported that Howe would accept the two positions under three conditions: first, that he be made Lieutenant-General of the Marines, second, that he be assured of Lord Sandwich’s support, and third that he be the sole commissioner.[13] It took North, with the aid of Germain, a full week to convince Sandwich to support the King and Privy Council’s position. On January 28, Lord North sent a brief note to the George III informing him

that Lord Sandwich has consented with great good humour, & readiness to appoint Lord Howe Commander of the Fleet [in North America], giving a separate command to Adl. Shuldham of the Fleet in the river & Gulph of the St. Lawrence.[14]

When Lord Howe learned of the compromise, that is, the transfer of Rear-Admiral Shuldham, he again threatened to resign, stating he did not want Shuldham to have command in the St. Lawrence. On February 2, Howe met with George III; following the meeting the King directed Sandwich to recall Rear-Admiral Shuldham. He also wrote to North, “I can easily imagine You must be anxious to know how matters stand with Lord Howe, I therefore … acquaint You that things are very far from desperate – that if no one will interfere I do not despair of bringing things to right.”[15] The next day he again wrote to Lord North, “I have seen Lord Sandwich and I think settled the Command of the N. American Fleet agreably to Lord Howe’s proposal to Me yesterday … Saving Lord Sandwich and Shuldham.”[16] Later in the day, Lord Sandwich wrote to George III,

Lord Sandwich has the honour to inform Your Majesty that he has seen Ld Howe & told him that he should have his promotion antedated [to Palliser’s appointment as Lieutenant general of Marines], & the compleat Command in the river St Lawrence as well as in other parts of America … [I shall] contrive to satisfy Admiral Shuldham by some other means, but did not intimate what those means were.[17]

Ten days later, it would be announced that Rear-Admiral Admiral Shuldham had been promoted to Vice-Admiral and granted an Irish peerage. On February 6, Lord Howe accepted with no further conditions his two positions.[18]

Howe was soon to discover that his adversary was no longer Lord Sandwich, but rather Lord Germain. He had persuaded George III and the Privy Council, less Lords North and Dartmouth, that there should be two commissioners sent to the colonies. He was concerned that Lord Howe’s preference for conciliation might interfere with how he carried out his military instructions. North had to remind Germain that Howe would serve alone and that he would serve as Commander-in-Chief only if he was the peace commissioner. An understanding was then reached; Germain would stop pushing for a second commissioner of his choice if Howe agreed to accept Gen. William Howe, his brother, as the second commissioner. Germain believed his brother was less likely to grant concessions to the colonists and more likely to adhere to whatever instructions he was issued. Still not satisfied with the structure of the commission, Germain asked Edward Thurlow, the Attorney General, and Alexander Wedderburn, the Solicitor General, to write Howe’s instructions in such a way as to preclude him from granting any concessions. Their draft was completed on February 22. It stated that the commissioners were authorized to inquire into the state of the colonies, restore peace wherever royal authority had been re-established, grant pardons, and suspend after everything else the Prohibitory Act.[19] Germain also wanted the colonists to formally acknowledge Parliament’s right to make laws binding the colonies in all cases whatsoever before any negotiations were considered. North said everything outlined in the draft should occur before the colonists were required to accept the supremacy of Parliament. When Germain became adamant in his position, North and Dartmouth threatened to resign rather than agree to the Secretary’s demand. Before the situation escalated, Lord Suffolk suggested that if the colonists laid down their arms, dissolved their congresses, and allowed royal government to be restored, England did not need to demand an acknowledgement of Parliament’s supremacy before any negotiations could begin.[20] Germain as well as Wedderburn were concerned that if Lord Howe brought an end to the rebellion without obtaining the acknowledgement, there was a strong likelihood that England would never get it.[21] George III ordered North and Germain to consult with Lord Mansfield and come to a compromise. It was eventually agreed upon that while the commission did not need to demand the acknowledgement, the colonists needed to be told that they would not “be at peace” until they did so.[22]

When Howe saw the draft of his instructions, he immediately filed a protest with Lord Germain. He realized that asking for a preliminary acknowledgement of the supremacy of Parliament would preclude any chance of conciliation.

He always flattered himself the intentions of government were that he should be authorized upon his arrival, to hold forth to the Americans, in the mildest tho’ firmest manner, the most favorable terms that Government meant to grant. In order to induce them to lay down their arms and return to their Duty. But observing that a method directly the reverse is now ordered to be pursued, … he finds … that he is disqualified from engaging as a Commissioner to the execution of Instructions framed on that Plan.[23]

Germain then met with George III and asked about the possibility of replacing Howe as one of the peace commissioners.

Lord Howe has many Difficultys about the Instructions; however at all Events he will not decline the Command of the Fleet; upon hearing that Circumstances your Majesty may not be very anxious whether he accepts of being on of the Commissioners.[24]

George III refused to hear of it and instead changed Howe’s instructions. He agreed that the colonists did not have to acknowledge Parliament’s authority as a preliminary to the colonies being declared “at peace,” but such an acknowledgement was necessary before the Prohibitory Act would be suspended. Lord Howe, realizing that he probably could not gain any further considerations, accepted his new instructions.

For the next month, however, he pushed for authority per Lord North’s resolution to negotiate a system of colonial contributions in place of Parliamentary taxation. He asked to be less “tightly bound.” Germain refused to make the change. “Lord George is very ready to explain verbally his Ideas upon the Construction of any of the Articles, but he cannot take upon himself to make any Material Alterations in them without the previous Concurrence of the Ministers,” and George III told North that Howe was to accept the instructions as they were agreed upon:

I wish You would without further delay see Lord G. Germain and put the finishing hand to the Commission. Lord [Richard] Howe’s idea of not being so tightly bound … I hope will not be consented to, as I think the alteration most material; indeed if Lord Howe would give up being a Commissioner I should think it better for himself as well as the Service.[25]

Howe refused to accept their decisions. Tired of battling with him and worn down by his demands, they agreed one final time to make some of the changes. On April 27, his final instructions were agreed upon; two weeks later copies were delivered to all of the appropriate parties.[26] The instructions only allowed him to offer pardons to those who took an oath of allegiance. He could not begin negotiations until the rebellion had been put down. That meant the illegal congresses had to be dissolved, royal officials were able to resume their duties, armed forces were disbanded, and assemblies promised to obey the laws of Parliament. When all of these were accomplished, the colonies would then be declared “at peace” and their assemblies could ask that the Prohibitory Act be suspended. If these limitations were not enough, every action taken by Howe had to be ratified in London. It seems that George III, Germain, many in the Privy Council and a majority in Parliament were willing to accept a peace commission, but only as a means to bring about the submission of the colonies. They had no intention of negotiating Parliament’s supremacy or sovereignty.

On May 11, Vice-Admiral Lord Richard Howe set sail aboard HMS Eagle from the Isle of Wight for Halifax where he planned to join up with the army and navy that had recently fled Boston.[27] He arrived off the coast of Halifax on June 23 where he learned that his brother and Lord Shuldham had taken their forces to New York. His trip to New York should have taken six days, but because of weather conditions, it took almost three weeks.[28] While at sea, Howe prepared a circular letter to the colonial governors and enclosed with it a declaration to the colonists. The circular informed the governors of his arrival and asked them to publicize the declaration; the declaration announced that he and his brother were commissioners empowered to pardon those who returned to their allegiance and to declare any colony or part thereof to be at peace.[29] The two documents were sent ashore on the first ship he encountered off New England. He also wrote a letter to his friend Benjamin Franklin. It was dated June 20, but was not actually sent until he arrived at Staten Island on July 12:

My Worthy Friend … you will learn the Nature of my Mission from the Official Dispatches which I have recommended to be forwarded by the same Conveyance. Retaining all the Earnestness I ever express’d to see our Differences accommodated, I shall Conceive, if I meet with the same Disposition in the Colonies which I was once taught to expect, the most flattering Hopes of proving serviceable in the Objects of the King’s paternal Solicitude by promoting the reestablishment of lasting Peace and Union with the Colonies. But if the deep rooted Prejudices of America and the necessity of preventing her Trade from passing into foreign Channells, must keep us still a divided People, I shall from every private as well as public motive, most heartily lament, that this is not the moment wherein those great Objects of my Ambition are to be attain’d; and that I am to be longer deprived of an Opportunity to assure you personally of the Regard with which I am your sincere and Faithfull humble servant.[30]

His voyage had come to end, but his task was only beginning. He “was ready to see if words rather than bullets night not settle the Imperial crisis.”[31]


[1] Benjamin Franklin to William Franklin: Journal of Negotiations in London, March 22, 1775, in William B. Willcox, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978), 21:475-79.

[2] “A Proclamation, by the King, for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition, 23 August 1775,“ in Peter Force, American Archives, Series 4, Vol. 3 (Dekalb, Il: University of Northern Illinois, 2004), 240.

[3] George III to Lord North, July 28, 1775, in John W. Fortescue, ed., The Correspondence of King George the Third from 1760 to December 1783 (London:1927-28), 3:236-37; Earl of Sandwich to John Robinson, September, 10, 1775, in The Manuscripts of the Marquess of Abergavenny, Historical Manuscripts Commission, Tenth Report, Appendix VI (London, 1887).

[4] “Commons Debate, February 20, 1775,” in John Almon, ed., Parliamentary Register (London, 1802), 1:193-214.

[5] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 2:231.

[6] Lord Hyde to Lord Dartmouth, July 4, 1775, in The Manuscripts of the Earl of Dartmouth, Historical Manuscripts Commission, Eleventh Report, Appendix V (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1887), 325.

[7] William Howe to Lord Howe, June 12, 1775, The Manuscripts of the Earl of Dartmouth.

[8] William Howe to Lord Howe, July 29, 1775, The Manuscripts of Stopford-Sackville, with the Germain Papers (Ann Arbor, MI: William Clements Library of the University of Michigan), English Series.

[9] “William Howe to Lord Howe, August 20, 1775, The Manuscripts of Stopford-Sackville, with the Germain Papers.

[10] John Robinson to Lord Sandwich, December 8, 1775,” in G. R. Barnes and J. H. Owen, eds., The Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, 1771-1782 (London: Naval Records Society, 1931-38), 2:201.

[11] Vice-Admiral Keppel to Lord Sandwich, December 17, 1775, in Thomas Keppel, The Life of Augustus Viscount Keppel, Admiral of the White and First Lord (London: Henry Colburn, 1842), 1:416-17.

[12] Lord Hyde to Lord North, January 10, 1776, in The Letters of Thomas Villiers, Earl of Clarendon (Oxford: Clarendon Deposit in the Bodleian Library), c. 347.

[13] Lord Hyde to Lord North, January 19, 1776, ibid., c. 347.

[14] Lord North to George III, January 28, 1776, in John Fortescue, ed., The Correspondence of George III (London: MacMillan and Co. 1927-28), 3: 338.

[15] George III to Lord North, February 2, 1776, ibid., 3:336.

[16] George III to Lord North, February 3, 1776, ibid., 3:337.

[17] Lord Sandwich to George III, February 3, 1776, ibid., 3:337-38.

[18] London Chronicle and Morning Post, February 6, 1776.

[19] Thurlow and Wedderburn to Germain, February 22, 1776, C.O. 5/160, British National Archives.

[20] Suffolk to Germain, March 7, 1776, The Manuscripts of Stopford-Sackville, with the Germain Papers.

[21] Wedderburn to Germain, March 7, 1776, ibid.

[22] George III to North, March 17, 1776, The Correspondence of George III, 3:345.

[23] Howe to Germain, March 26, 1776, ibid, 3:345

[24] Germain to George III, March 26, 1776, ibid., 3:346.

[25] Germain to Howe, April 2, 1776,” The Manuscripts of Stopford-Sackville, with the Germain Papers; George III to North, April 13, 1776, in The Correspondence of George III, 3:351.

[26] Additional and Separate Instructions for Lord Howe and William Howe, May 6, 1776, C. O. 5/177, British National Archives; “Separate Instructions for the American commissioners, 7 May 1776,” Historical Manuscripts Commission, Sixth report of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, Part 1 (London:1877), 400-01.

[27] Entryies for May 11, 13, and 14, 1776, in Edward H. Tatum, Jr. ed., The American Journal of Ambrose Serle, Secretary to Lord Howe, 1776-1778 (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1940),1-5.

[28] “Journals of Henry Duncan, Captain Royal Navy, 1776-1782,” in John Knox Laughton et al., eds., The Naval Miscellany (Naval Records Society, Publications, XX, XL, LXIII, XCII), (London:1902-52), 1:116-17.

[29] Peter Force, ed., American Archives, Fifth Series (Washington DC: M. St. Clair Clarke and Peter Force,1848), 1:605-06.

[30] Lord Howe to Benjamin Franklin, June 20, 1776, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 22: 483-84.

[31]Ira D. Gruber, The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1974), 92.

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