In March, 1778, Lord North, the British Prime Minister, authorized the Carlisle Peace Commission to negotiate with the Continental Congress, terms for reconciliation rather than independence, in an effort to end the war with the American colonies. According to a number of accounts, the arrangements that England was willing to offer were extremely generous. Nonetheless, on June 17, in a “unanimous” decision, Congress rejected this offer.
In a 2018 review of the workings of the Carlisle Peace Commission, Anthony Gregory drew attention to this decision and noted that none of the historians who had thus far evaluated the outcome of the Commission’s efforts “scrutinized the Congress’s confident claims of unanimity.” Although not among the reasons given by Gregory for raising his concern, it is interesting to investigate whether the Continental Congress as a whole was truly in agreement, as the word unanimous suggests, when the final decision was reached. Of the eighty delegates who were eligible to cast a vote, the Congressional Record shows that none of North Carolina’s five elected representatives were present and in six of the other colonies the numbers in attendance were substantially lower than the numbers of elected representatives. Connecticut and Virginia each had eight elected representatives, but only three from each colony were present for the vote. For Maryland eight were also elected but only two were present. Similarly, Georgia had five representatives yet only one attended, and for New Jersey as well as Pennsylvania nine were elected, and of these eighteen delegates only five were available to cast a vote. In fact, South Carolina was the only colony where all five of its delegates were in attendance. Of the eighty elected delegates in total, only thirty-one were present when the final vote was tallied on June 17.
Given the critical importance of this decision for the future of the thirteen colonies, the question these figures raise is whether the views held by this relatively small number of delegates were truly representative of the views held by the much larger body charged with making decisions on behalf of the Second Continental Congress. Although it is not possible to know the views of the main body of the 1778 delegation, when Congress met in 1775 and 1776 to decide on the issue of reconciliation versus independence these two opposing positions were debated at considerable length. The following comment by historian Neil York offers a sense of the uncertainty that had existed among a very large number over the two conflicting political ideologies.
Through the fall of 1775, for every John Adams wanting independence there were probably two other patriots wanting reconciliation. There continued to be, as Adams observed, “a Strange Oscillation between Love and Hatred, between War and Peace.” Thus the messages from leaders in New York and New Jersey, as well as from Pennsylvania and Maryland, urging Congress not to do anything precipitate, anything that could frustrate their desire to reunify the empire.
As a concrete illustration of this Congressional rancor, even though the colonies had voted to ratify the Declaration of Independence on July 2, 1776, as recently as one day before that vote was taken not all the colonies or the delegates chosen to represent the colonies favored the message contained within the document. On July 1 a “Committee of the Whole took a vote and found that only nine of the thirteen colonies were ready to support independence, with Pennsylvania, Delaware, South Carolina, split and the delegates from New York still without official authorization to vote for independence.” In terms of the delegates themselves, although eighty-eight were authorized to attend the Second Continental Congress in 1775-76, and thirty-four might have signed the printer’s proof of the Declaration on July 4, twenty-two others waited until August 2 or later to sign, and the remaining delegates did not sign at all.
While the reasons for delaying or failing to sign are not known for every delegate, Carter Braxton, one of the delegates who had delayed until August 2, mentioned several reasons given by many of his peers. One reason centered on the fear that once independence from Britain was achieved, civil wars could erupt among several of the colonies over long-simmering border disputes. For instance, the border dispute between Connecticut and Pennsylvania, which dated back to the charter of 1662 and erupted in gunfire in the 1770s, was not resolved until 1783 when “All local Pennsylvania officials in the formally contested area were ordered to protect Connecticut people in the Wyoming Valley, and Pennsylvania settlers were warned not to molest them.” A second reason stemmed from an equally longstanding desire on the part of many to achieve reconciliation. So long as the colonies delayed their endorsement of separation, the possibility of reaching a negotiated settlement of the differences that existed between the colonies and Great Britain could continue to be explored. Once independence was declared, that possibility would no longer exist. Strangely enough, Thomas Jefferson was among those who initially had hoped for reconciliation. Seven months after the battles of Lexington and Concord he wrote, “There is not in the British Empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do.” Following his assessment of the grievances, however, he was “saddened that he could no longer live in what he deemed an unjust empire.”
The possibility of a pre-existing bias towards independence that could have influenced the June 17, 1778 vote among these thirty-one delegates becomes especially important when we consider the highly suspicious attitude held by the delegates towards the Peace Commission itself as revealed in the following material that also appeared in the Congressional Record and was unanimously approved on June 17:
Whereas, many letters, addressed to individuals of these United States, have been lately received from England, through the conveyance of the enemy (the Peace Commission), and some of them, which have been under the inspection of members of Congress, are found to contain ideas insidiously calculated to divide and delude the good people of these states: Resolved, That it be and it is hereby earnestly recommended to the legislative executive authorities of the several states, to exercise the utmost care and vigilance and take the most effectual measures to put a stop to so dangerous and criminal a correspondence.
In addition to this warning, and on the same day, the delegates unanimously appointed a sub-committee that consisted of three members (Richard Henry Lee, William Henry Drayton, and Gouverneur Morris), all of whom are known to have been in favor of independence and opposed to reconciliation. The sole purpose of the sub-committee was to review and censor all the correspondence from the Commission. As an illustration of how committed Drayton was to independence over reconciliation, the following excerpt is from a letter he sent to the Carlisle Commissioners shortly before June 17, 1778:
America is independent de facto et de jure. She will maintain her station at the expense of her last drop of blood . . . Our resolution is fixed, nor do we fear “the horrors and devastations of war,” with which, in the conclusion of your letter, you threaten us. France has acknowledged our independence; the great powers of Europe smile upon us; we rely upon our own virtue and the favour of Heaven. If we continue firm, we shall continue independent. Farewell.
While there is no way of knowing how long the American colonies would have remained within the British fold if the Peace Commission’s offer had been accepted, given the seriousness of the issue at hand it would seem reasonable to ask why no attempt was made to delay the vote to provide more time for additional delegates to attend, or for those already in attendance to consult with their colleagues at home before the final decision was rendered. In 1775 and 1776, Congress had delayed the vote on the Declaration itself for approximately three weeks to provide ample time for the delegates to decide how best to proceed. In the minutes of all forty-six sessions held by the Continental Congress between April 22, 1778, when Congress first learned of the Commission’s offer, and June 17, 1778, there is no mention of any comparable motion to delay before the final vote was rendered. Nor is there any evidence of a lengthy discussion on the merits of reconciliation versus independence similar to that which had taken place in 1775 and 1776.
In essence, our concern with the word “unanimous” is, how open minded to reconciliation were these thirty-one delegates in relation to the eighty delegates as a whole? If a more representative body had been present on June 17, 1778, and if their views had resembled the views of those who met in 1775 and 1776, it is possible that the Commission’s offer might not have been rejected and the war could have ended far earlier than 1783, in which case both countries could have been spared “a great waste of blood and treasure” as many in England had advised the king as early as 1775.
Most students of the war believe that about thirty thousand who served in the Continental army perished while on duty, a percentage roughly equal to the total of regulars in the Civil War and nearly ten times greater than among those whose soldiered for the United States in World War II. If these conservative estimates are correct, about one in sixteen American males died in the Revolutionary War, compared with one in ten in the Civil War, and one in seventy-five in World War II . . . (In terms of Britain and her allies) one-quarter of all British and German soldiers deployed in North America—roughly ten thousand redcoats and seventy-five hundred mercenaries died there . . . Taken as a whole, in excess of fifty thousand who served Great Britain died and more than twenty thousand Frenchmen died. Spanish died too, so that ultimately close to one hundred thousand who served in British and European armies lost their lives in this widespread conflagration.
In terms of “treasure,” although France was certainly an essential ally, it did not offer its military assistance merely as a gracious gesture. On February 6, 1778, France had signed an agreement with Benjamin Franklin to loan the “Thirteen United States of North America” sufficient funds to offset the costs of supplying ample aid to win the war. At the end of the war France sent an invoice to Congress for all of its military expenses incurred between 1778 and 1782, which totaled 18,000,000 livres “with interest at five percent per annum.” It was further stipulated that this amount should be returned “in twelve equal payments of 1,500,000 livres each, and in twelve years only, and commence from the third year after a peace.” Although this one debt finally was settled three years earlier than the due date, it is said that the overall cost of the Revolutionary War was around 165,000,000 pounds which led to what John Smith referred to as a “downward dollar plunge and near bankruptcy” for the newly established American Republic.
Finally, and despite these considerations, it is important to acknowledge that even if all the elected delegates had been present in 1778, and a more balanced approach had been taken, it still might have been difficult for Congress to have negotiated a peaceful settlement with Great Britain. In addition to the forgoing financial agreement, and also on February 6, 1778, the United States and France had signed the Treaty of Alliance that established a military agreement between the two countries. Among the many articles in this treaty, Article 8 contained the following provision: “Neither of the two parties shall conclude either a truce or peace with Great Britain, without the formal consent of the other first obtained.” For the colonies to have accepted the Peace Commission’s offer, it would have been necessary for France to have agreed with their decision. Because France was an avowed enemy of Great Britain such an agreement would have been extremely difficult to obtain and, without such an agreement, the Commission’s offer could not have been ratified.
Of equal importance, and as a further function of the Treaty of Alliance, a fleet of armed French ships had arrived off the coast of North America on July 8 and was heading to New York. It goes without saying that preparations for such a fully equipped and lengthy military voyage must have taken place long before June 17, which by itself suggests that both France and the United States were already on their way to war with Britain long before the Peace Commission even arrived in North America. Thus, although we certainly agree with the importance of Gregory’s concern over the use of the word “unanimous,” beyond the reasons given by Gregory for Congress’s dismissal of the Carlisle Commission’s offer, it would appear that a thorough examination of the rationale behind the June 17 decision could prove far more complex than previously thought.
Weldon A. Brown, Empire or Independence (Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1941), 252; David K. Wilson, The Southern Strategy (Charleston: University of South Carolina 2005), 61; Anthony Gregory, “Formed for Empire: the Continental Congress Responds to the Carlisle Peace Commission,” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 38, No. 4, (2018) 643.
The names of all delegates who were elected to attend the meetings of the Second Continental Congress from 1775 through 1781, when they were elected and the years during which they served are reported in Andrew Dodge andBetty K. Koed, Delegates to the Continental Congress (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2005). For the names of those who attended the meeting on June 17, 1778 see Journals of the Continental Congress, 1778, 11:614.
“Contract between the King and the Thirteen United States of North America, signed at Versailles July 16, 1782,” avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fr-1782.asp.
John L. Smith, “How was the Revolutionary War Paid For?” Journal of the American Revolution, February 23, 2015, allthingsliberty.com/2015/02/how-was-the-revolutionary-war-paid-for/.
According to Gregory, rejection of the Commission’s offer resulted from Congress’s belief that the offer lacked the king’s approval and, therefore, was not to be trusted. It was also felt that the offer was principally intended to promote internal dissent, undermine Congressional authority and sever the relationship between America and France.