James Grant’s American Confession

Portrait of Major General James Grant, c. 1770, by an unknown artist. (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

In American history, the name James Grant became synonymous with advocacy for British supremacy in colonial matters. For much of Grant’s early military career, he was stationed in North America where he participated in the French and Indian War. His time spent on the continent allowed for him to form his own opinions on the colonies. He was appointed to the House of Commons in 1773, and at some point during his tenure he delivered a speech in front of the Parliamentary assembly giving his opinion of the North American colonies to his fellow statesmen. The full text of the speech does not survive, but Grant’s notes for it were acquired by the Library of Congress and were not made available to the public until very recently.[1] They have been given little attention in scholarship outside of Paul Nelson’s excellent book, General James Grant: Scottish Soldier and Royal Governor of East Florida.[2] Without this cornerstone piece, Grant fades into historical obscurity. Grant’s notes for his speech offer insight into the opinions of proponents of Crown measures taken against the colonies in the aftermath of the Seven Years War.

In essence, the speech was fiercely pro-British. Grant began his address by mentioning the ties he had with the colonies:

I served the war in America—in 1763 I commanded the regular and provincial troops in the Southern Provinces . . . under . . . Genl. Amherst the Authority of Majr. Delegated powers being not despised by the provinces, since the Peace I have had the honor to preside for years over an Infant Colony—I know the Country from Quebec to Florida and am not . . . a stranger to the manners and customs of people amongst whom I have resided so long.

Grant went on to clarify his affections for the colonies and how he had a vested interest in their successful development:

I love the Colonies but as a subject of Great Britain I am particularly interested in the burgeoning contest, as I have a little property on both sides of the Atlantic.

It quickly becomes apparent in Grant’s writing that he was careful in his choice of words so as to not offend any Parliamentarians. He used the above statement to segue into voicing his opinion on the colonies’ insurrections:

And I shall therefore speak my testament truly—without the least regard to men or party disputes- for I neither want the favor or dread the frowns of a minister, I wish, Mr. Grenville had given less attention to America after the Peace, I do not mean to reflect upon him for I have great respect for his memory but in fact he would not have come at American money with less trouble to himself—his successors and the colonies—America Sir at this time might have been managed with a simple hair and a silk thread—they copied the luxuries of europe their imaginary wants increased faster than their wealth and if they had been left to themselves I am convinced they would not have kept a silver dollar for a cookery. Yes, I never doubt legislative authority of their country extracted to start of the British Empire and their parliament might let America at large notwithstanding . . . but I never knew an America that thought . . . to plead treason . . . as . . . the repeal of the Stamp Act is not the cause of the present disturbances . . . but the [instability] has a much deeper root. They considered the Declaratory Law . . . without substance and would not have been alarmed as than if we had kept clean of what they call a Tea Monopoly. But Sir we are not to muse of what should have been done or insofar have been we also to look forward and consider in what manner order is . . . drawn out of the anarchy

Grant seemed to acknowledge that the colonies should have been managed better but he asserted that there was nothing Parliament could do at that point to solve the problem. In other words, the damage had already been done and Parliament should now look towards resolving the issue and restoring peace to the growing anarchy in the colonies. At this point, the notes indicate that Grant tried to ease the minds of parliamentarians by dismissing colonial rebellious action as well as colonial military strength should the former result in an armed conflict.

I don’t think that is so delicate a matter as it appears for some Gentlemen, and I am here to say they are not much alarmed at their non-importation-exportation resolutions I declare and am not under the smallest dread of any danger arising from the number of men they can bring into the field.

At this point in the speech, Grant made his most noteworthy comment on the colonies:

The Americans love their ease as well as we do at home and will part with the Consequences of life as unwillingly as they will Be all of mind, So they mess with Hardships, Fatigue, and Difficulties . . . but disprove those enterprising Bostonians of their Turkeys and hams At Dinner & their Chocolate Morning & Evening . . . they will soon come to think and reason differently.

Grant was certain that if Britain ceased exporting all manufactured goods to the colonies, the deprivation resulting from their inability to produce goods at home would decrease their standard of living and thus the rebellious Americans would submit to British authority.

The next segment of the speech dealt with the assessment of military might in the colonies. Grant held colonial military strength in low regard.

I should be sorry sir to hear that the Americans assembled in array upon the heights, only I should apprehend the least danger to the King’s Troops. I am certain without the loss of a man in action the American Army would perish in their camps[.] when they served with the King’s Troops and were . . . in our Hospitals as our own soldiers were—they dyed in the proportion of twenty to one[.] I don’t think, sir, from opinion: I talk from certain information. Nothing more common amongst them than for a man in appearance in tolerable health saying I vow I feel poorly. I shall dye next week and they seldom fail to keep their word after making the Declaration. They themselves used to say in our camps, I vow those heathens—those Regulars—they drink, they whore, and they swear and they live. We don’t drink, we don’t whore, we don’t swear, but we [fall ill] and we die.

I don’t mean to say sir that the Americans from their numbers may not become formidable and I don’t mean to say that they cannot be made soldiers but I say sir that they are not soldiers at present and I should be upon their account and ours that we had the making of them.

A handful of Canadians and Indians in the late wars would have overcome America if the colonies had not been supported and protected by the King’s Troops. The taking of Louisburg and the defeat of Dieskau are not sufficient to make me alter my opinion. Sir Jeffrey amherst constantly used them as laborers and seldom put arms in their hands, when a body of them . . . joined Lord Albermarle’s Army during The siege of Havannah they never employed to carry ammunition to the batterys they were never put upon any other duty—as they were unter my immediate direction the Commanding officer of artillery observed to me that I made those people work hard. I told him I knew them better than he did, that they would do very well for ten days or a fortnight but that after that time we should lose the use of them, and as it happened so they all fell sick [and] were not able to take care of one another- the army indeed became sickly but not in the same degree or we should not have succeeded—tis not for me to presume to propose what measures should be taken to put an End to their unlucky and unfortunate disputes . . . But I say they [Americans] are not soldiers at present, and I should be sorry upon their account and ours that we had the making of them.

Grant’s impression of the Provincial forces, formed when he served alongside them during the French and Indian War, was low. He did not believe that they were soldier material. As he stated, they were not robust or healthy enough to be soldiers, and were a burden on campaign. It was clear, Grant argued, that without the assistance of British Troops, the American colonies were not strong enough to defend themselves. Grant believes that American soldiers would pose little threat to the British should the insurrectionists take up arms against the Crown.

Following his speech, Grant was met with much hostility to his confession from both political opponents and American representatives. According to Paul Nelson, “He [Grant] was followed on the floor of Commons by Charles James Fox, who lacerated him for his diatribes against Americans, with other members expressing similar views. Colonials also were incensed, and never again did they think of Grant or even mention his name without painfully remembering his infamous speech and excoriating both him and it.”[3]It is perplexing that Grant was met with such aggression from his utterances because his notes appear to have a careful tone to them. Despite how his notes are written, the public record of his speech reveals a much more, “virulently anti-American” tone.[4]

Grant decided it was best to calm the damage he had inflicted with his speech while also restoring his good reputation by replying to his critics’ comments. In his notes, Grant stated that he had spoken from a position of political neutrality within the House.

I don’t expect that my sentiments [will] correspond with those of either side of the house, I am free to declare that I am not under the smallest obligation to administration

He continued,

An Hon. Gent. did me great anguishe in thinking that what I said of American soldiers in camp extended to America at large. Nothing more distant from my thoughts. I have lived with the greatest intimacy of friendship with many Gentlemen in that country, for whom I have the greatest regard and respect. And when I mentioned what sickly soldiers said in camp about whoring I sincerely did not mean to say that the Americans in General declined the embraces of women[.] the increase of the colonies is sufficient proof of the contrary . . . I can hardly be suspected of wishing that country to be oppressed or disrespected, I certainly wish them more wisdom in their country and more decency in their expressions and I certainly think they should contribute to the expense of government but I wish that to be done in the way most agreeable to them and most useful to the country[.] at the same time I respect that I am clearly of the opinion that Parliament have an absolute and undoubted right to tax America. But in this together [we] agree with the Americans for they say declare what you wish but don’t tax us

Grant then addressed the comments made by another member of Parliament:

An hon. Gentlemen and very respectable member of this house concluded his speech right with saying they [the Americans] can beat you. As a military man I thought myself called upon to declare to the House that I differed in opinion with the honorable gentlemen and I have given my reasons for thinking they will not beat you. Every word I said as strictly true is evidence was necessary. The director, Physician, and Surgeon of the hospitals which I have alluded will confirm every word I have said at your Bar. I am sorry to differ in Opinion with the Honorable Gentleman upon this floor as I am not possessed of the same spirit of prophecy which he is, I have only said what the Americans did or did not do in the late war, I do not pretend to say what they may do form their numbers they no doubt may become formidable in time. I have never said that they cannot be made

The notes proceed with Grant claiming he had given his American Confession, revealing his opinion to the House of the military strength and condition of the colonies. Furthermore, he also reasserted his political neutrality by stating he had no “political connection” with either factions in the House. Grant also revealed a bit of his stubborn personality when he essentially stated that if he never acted improper then he would stand fast in his convictions:

I spoke my sentiments freely in the committee, I gave my opinion with regard to America candidly, in short sir I made my American Confession in which sir I believe I did not much differ in some things from gentlemen on this side [of] the House and of course I may venture to say I did not totally agree with the Gentlemen on the other side. I shall follow the same rule in what I have to say at present for I am free to declare that I am under no official obligation and have no Political connection with either side of the House. I wish to observe Decency and never mean to be Personal, tis better to avoid the Description of threats and houses, but if I should unfortunately and without I reckon say anything improper I shall never desist

Grant argued against proponents who claimed he wished ill for the colonies:

I have Sir an Estate in America from which I receive from fifteen hundred to two thousand pound a year, I can hardly be suspected of wishing a country where I have so much at stake to be oppressed or distressed. Sir I wish them to become dutiful subjects I wish them more wisdom in their councils, More decency in their Expressions, and less fashion in their procedure. After they have [accepted] the supremacy of the country I think they should contribute to defraying the Public expense. I wish money to be raised in the way most agreeable to them and should be most pleasing to that country. But that I may not be misunderstood, I again repeat that I am clearly of the opinion and have been that Parliament has an absolute and untroubled right to tax America.

He concluded his speech by saying, “I shall trouble you no more with the yankeys tonight.”

Grant’s American Confession notes reveal a man who fundamentally believed in the subjugation of the colonies but who does so out of respect for a natural socio-political order. His perspective, then, arose from a belief in the supremacy of Parliament over colonial matters. This should not be surprising as it was a sentiment shared by many proponents of British authority during the American Revolution.

What makes these notes unique is how these personal conclusions were drawn from the author’s experiences in the colonies, something many other statesmen in the Commons at the time did not have.[5] Grant based his conclusions on his experience as an officer for the British Army during the French and Indian War and during his service as a governor of East Florida. His notes offer scholars insight into the pro-British perspective of the American Revolution, a perspective that is often overlooked in accounts of that period of American history.

 

[1]Notes, in Inventory of things belonging to Major Grant, circa 1750s, James Grant of Ballandalloch Papers, 1720-1819Library of Congress, Reel 30. All further extracts are from this source.

[2]Paul David Nelson, General James Grant: Scottish Soldier and Royal Governor of East Florida (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993).

[3]Ibid., 86.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Lewis Namier and John Brooke, The History of Parliament: The House of Commons, 1754-1790 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).

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11 Comments

  • Is this the same speech wherein he boasted that, with but a single regiment he could march the length of the colonies and put down the rebellion?

    • That is the same one. Although, instead of a regiment he says: with 5,000 regulars he could March from one end of America to the other without serious opposition.

  • Great article, George. It is always terribly important to get British perspectives such as this on the war. Very raw, real emotion involved and a great counterbalance to the American’s experience that dominates the conversation. Looking forward to more revelations from the Library of Congress!

  • Very insightful to read the words of James Grant. Washington was also critical of his own militiamen. Grant’s performance as a tactician at Fort Duquesne in 1758 was somewhat lacking. I believe most of the KIA were militia and the result of his miscalculated tactic in approaching the fort.

  • Very interesting. Is there anything regarding his views and whether they changed after his service in 1776-77 under Howe, who, as we know and based on family connections, had some views which were sympathetic to the Rebels and appears to have wanted out after seizing Philadelphia?

    • Hi John, great question. Ever since his time in the House of Commons Grant was a staunch proponent of launching a ruthless war against the colonies. He believed the Americans grew more hostile with each year the war went on, indeed by September 1777 it had already raged for quite some time, and to combat this aggressive insurgency the British should, in his opinion, launch a harsh war. I do not doubt Grant would have supported a total war waged across the countryside in the colonies. This of course is in stark opposition to prevailing British leadership decisions who sought to, at some point, resume positive relations with the Crown’s American subjects. To answer your question, I believe Grant did not grow more sympathetic to the rebels as Howe had, but rather quite the opposite, he grew more alarmed at the increasing rebel violence and thus sought to quash it by using whatever means necessary, even if that meant using brutality to subdue the insurgents.

  • I believe it was also said of him that he was too fat to sit a horse. One likeness I’ve seen of him bears this out much more so than the portrait used in the article.

    • Hi Ed, once Grant reached a certain level of prominence in his career he was known to indulge in foodstuffs. He even had his own personal chef who remained in his employment ever since his appointment to Governor of East Florida in 1764. I believe this, along with his enjoyment of fine cuisine, contributed to Grants larger stature.

  • George: Thanks for answering the question. He doesn’t seem to have been a “realist” in that regard, since there appears to be nothing supporting a British commitment to the logistics and expenditures such a war would have required – especially following French intervention and the need to fight a multi-front war, including in the Caribbean. As for the type of war he would have advocated, on a more limited geographic scope it ultimately failed in the South (coupled, of course, with British logistical disadvantages). Your thoughts would be welcome.

    • Hi John, thank you. I agree with you. Grant’s opinions did not seem to stem from a “realist” perspective, especially when judging how costly an overseas war was at that time. At one point, Grant advocated three large armies to be put on the field on top of a full garrison of outposts and major points of interest. As we can imagine, this would be a very costly endeavor. I believe the type of war Grant wanted to fight would have alienated the populace rather than subdue them. I think British leadership was right in not waging a total war with the colonies, at least not to the extent that Grant had wanted, because their aim was to bring the North American market back under Crown control. Had more atrocities been committed by the British, under a harsh Grant campaign, American propagandists would have rallied more support for Liberty’s cause rather than achieve subjugation of the colonies, which was Grant’s aim with waging such a war. In sum, I agree with you, I do not think Grant’s war would have worked out very well for the British.

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