The 25th Grievance of the Declaration of Independence

Carl, J.H., "Jäger Corps" (1784). (Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library)

When Thomas Jefferson wrote the twenty-seven grievances against the King listed in the Declaration of Independence, he did so with the intention of encapsulating the sentiment and objections that colonists felt about their current situation. It was a collective account of their grievances and their interpretation of the unfairness of how they were being treated differently and with inequity to their brethren throughout the British empire. Upon closer examination, we find that the 25th grievance was carefully designed to have a specific useful purpose to the cause. This grievance would incite anger and hatred and would kindle further revolutionary ideals amongst the more centrist of the objectors to American independence. It would not be a stretch to describe this grievance as propaganda, intended to ensure that fear in place of logic would drive the undecided towards the cause. Further, this grievance, along with the 27th, must be separated from the others as they describe the threat of what was to come rather than current and past sufferings.

This nuance, this consideration of the construct of the words and sentences used in the declaration, must be recognized by those who write of the period and synthesize the works available on the subject. While the balance of the grievances documented tangible complaints that impacted the daily life and welfare of the colonists, the 25th and 27th grievances outlined the extent of how their lives could worsen through the threat of the British government employing foreign armies and inciting violence and death from the “insurrectionists amongst us.” These grievances follow the observation that the King had withdrawn his protections, leaving Americans vulnerable to not just the injustice of British rule but the threat of death and annihilation from forces outside and within. On July 4, 1776 when the pronouncement was adopted by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, these grievances were simply a description of a coming storm and not an account of current events.

There are those who will argue that Jefferson built a crescendo of fear upon the 23rd grievance where he recognized that the King had removed his cloak of protection and would wage war upon his subjects. While this is true, Jefferson’s choice of words to identify those who would wage that war as being separate and distinct from Britain’s standing army, would do more to support the cause and incite outrage than British soldiers who spoke their language and shared their culture and heritage. Here Jefferson had to measure his words carefully because he could not insert the words Hessian or German into his narrative without offending and alienating a significant portion of the population who shared that language and culture and were less connected to the grievances between the English and their King.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.[1]

One sentence, carefully constructed both to cause outrage and yet protect against insulting segments of the population of the American colonies, particularly in Pennsylvania. He refers to King George III, the recognized king and monarch of the British empire including the American colonies. Unable to address the ongoing problem of discontent and disruption within the colonies through his own authority and traditional subservience by his subjects, and further hampered by the limitations of a lack of a standing army of sufficient size and strength, the King of England and Elector to the Holy Roman Empire would draw upon other resources and means at his disposal. His first instinct was to enlist his extended army from Hanover to relieve the British garrisons in Minorca and Gibraltar. Such mobilization of auxiliary troops had the potential to free up nearly 6,000 soldiers for duty in North America.[2] While the King may have had his convictions on such use of auxiliaries, Parliament and indeed the British people were less convinced. Admiral Richard, Lord Howe’s secretary, Ambrose Serle, wrote in his journal, “if the Rebellion could have been reduced without Foreign Troops at all,” it would have been better, “for I fear our Employment of these upon this service will tend to irritate and inflame the Americans infinitely more than two or three British Armies upon such an Occasion.”[3] While Serle pondered the implications of such action, Samuel Adams recognized the value of words and the impact on emotions. To further ensure the maximum benefit, he along with Benjamin Franklin brought every bit of their oratorical and written skills to bear. Adams proclaimed, “All are not dead; and where there is a Spark of patriotick fire, we shall enkindle it.”[4]

Note that Jefferson chose the word Mercenaries carefully to incite outrage. Such use of propaganda was useful in enraging the population and drawing out the more aggressive tenets of their revolt against the King and his imposing acts and tariffs. The term is pejorative in every sense. The proper word, one which has remained a source of debate amongst historians for centuries, is auxiliary. The root word of mercenary is from the Latin mercesor wages. It is used to describe a soldier who serves a foreign army for payment only.[5] On the other hand, the word Auxiliary from the Latin augere, to increase, means helping or subsidizing. The use of both mercenaries and auxiliaries was a common practice in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe and extended to the Seven Years War and later the American Revolution. The use of either word was acceptable at the time and they are often treated as synonymous and interchangeable by historians. While many have interchanged the words loosely and carelessly, the subtlety of Jefferson’s choice was both intentional and carefully considered. One could soundly voice opposition and understand the affront of using mercenaries, yet be challenged to fault supplementing one’s capabilities or effort, regardless of the cause. The Continental Congress and the Founding Fathers were well aware of this when they carefully constructed the sentence and incorporated it into the final draft that would be presented to the people. Mercenary was the preferred word to incite the outrage and affront to learned and common people alike. Despite that, the word is inaccurate and misleading and should be challenged in academic circles.

Jefferson supplemented such an affront with the threat—and threat is the only accurate descriptor at the time of his writing—of death, desolation, and tyranny that would surely result from the employment of these foreign hordes. Yet Jefferson further exacerbated his statement with the punctuation of “Cruelty & Perfidy” as if it had already reached the shores of the Americas. In reality, these troops had barely mustered at ports of embarkation in the North Sea, let alone arrived at their initial destination of Staten Island in New York. Jefferson described their presence before they even arrived.

Finally, Jefferson described such an act as unparalleled even in the most barbarous times in history and personally exhorted the king of the unworthiness of his actions, appealing to sensibilities that were simply not there. The King could not comprehend the idea of tyranny in his actions nor did he view the Americans as anything more than ungrateful and disobedient. Yet he underestimated the effect of the written word and the influence that pen and paper would have on the greater population of the colonies. While the House of Lords and the King himself may have viewed the discontent of a few in New England as not representative of the consensus of the colonies at large, there was growing dissatisfaction amongst the people.

The ability of Jefferson to orate and write on the threat posed by their sovereign on colonies as a whole was a danger not contemplated by Great Britain. In this sense the construct of the grievance was important to maximize the effect on the people. On the surface the idea of foreign armies should not have had such an ill effect on the more learned of the colonists, given that the English, French, Austrians, and Dutch had all made use of foreign armies to proxy their wars.

Yet, it cannot be said that the King did not understand the nuance of descriptors in identifying the human resources necessary to the conduct of war. In his letters to Lord North from September 16 through October 25, 1775 he stated that “every means of distressing America must meet with his concurrence.” Before approaching German princes he appealed to Katherine the Great of Russia for troops, stating directly that employment of her troops should be categorized not as auxiliaries but as mercenaries. Katherine declined the request but the nuance was there all the same. With Russian forces he mitigated against any sense of sympathy and conciliation, for the Russians shared no common language or culture with Americans. In his speech to Parliament, he termed the American insurgents as an “unhappy and deluded multitude” who must be forced into a more sensible mindset through the application of force by those sent to suppress them. Yet, while he endeavored to send every available soldier to America and “mercenaries were being actively and expensively engaged,” he represented to Parliament and the British people that only small forces were being sent accompanied by propositions of a conciliatory nature.[6]

In German the word for such activity was Soldatenhandel. The various minor nobles and princes supplemented and financed their polities and kingdoms by letting out their soldiers for sale—in some case for their personal gain, in other cases, such as Hessen-Cassel and Hessen-Hanau, for the benefit of their subjects. But Jefferson and others understood that they would need to dispel this notion of acceptability to stir the emotions and indignation of the populace. While the threat was not merely imagined, it had not yet occurred at the time of the writing of the grievance and while it would eventually play out, these soldiers committed no more destruction than the British themselves. In fact, some significant debate would take place as to who committed more egregious actions, the British or the Hessian auxiliaries.

While Paul Revere shouted the famous line, “The regulars are out,” referring to Britain’s professional army, it was the threat of foreign Mercenaries coming that shook the Americans and outraged them that their King would unleash such a barbarous act of tyranny on his own people. And it was what moved their leanings towards independence over reconciliation. Further, it would become part of the fuel that sparked the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution that protected their rights to bear arms against such acts by their government. Of course, King George III saw no such conflict and hardly saw his actions as tyrannical. Here we must consider the words of Thomas Paine. He recognized the ridiculous composition of the monarchy: “The state of a king shuts him from the world, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly.”[7] Excluded from direct and primary sources of information, he relied on his advisors to assist in matters that required the highest level of judgment. In his role of elector to the Holy Roman Empire, he presumed the use of the tools at his disposal to be legitimate. Those Hessians, and particularly those soldiers from Hannover, were simply extensions of his own power and legitimate rule.

The colonists saw it differently, both in theory and practice. In the absence of their physical presence, words were used to describe foreign troops in such a way as to incite fear and anger in the people they were sent to fight. For the most part the British and Germans saw the Hessian soldiers as Hilfstruppen, the German word for auxiliary troops. The troops from Hanover saw their obligations and interests aligned with the British through shared interests, obligations, and familial ties. The Hessian princes saw this in much the same light with familial ties replaced by historical debts and mutual obligations, most recently during the Seven Years War. But the officers and men of the various polities of the Holy Roman Empire saw things quite simply. Hessians had been taught to hold their sovereign in the highest reverence and respect.[8] They would consider the American rebels in no different light that any people that would rebel against the God-given authority of their sovereign. In this, Jefferson could capitalize on the fear he instilled in his words.

What we must conclude from the close examination of both Jefferson’s careful construct as well as King George and Lord North’s correspondence is an understanding that words and descriptors could alter the influence, perception, and impact of the actions which would follow. For how does a bullet from a British soldier have any less impact than that of a Hessian. How can the destruction of one’s personal property and the stripping of liberty be lessened when caused by one nation or another? The real impact is felt equally. Yet the affront of such action is manipulated in perception by mere words. There was an understanding by both the British and the Americans that the employment of propaganda, words and the manipulation of intent and meaning, would serve the cause with far greater impact than bullets and bayonets.


[1] The Declaration of Independence. Philadelphia: July 4, 1776.

[2]Robin May, The British Army in North America 1775-83(Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1997). Also, Jean-Pierre Wilhelmy, Soldiers for Sale: German Mercenaries with the British in Canada during the American Revolution 1776-1783 (Montreal: Baraka Books, 2009), accounting of disposition of troops in various tables and indexes.

[3]Ambrose Serle, The American Journal of Ambrose Serle (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1940), 77.

[4]Samuel Adams to James Warren, December 9, 1772, in “Warren-Adams Letters, being chiefly a correspondence among John Adams, Samuel adams, and James Warren,” Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1917), 1:14.

[5]David B. Guralnik, ed. Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979).

[6]Bodham W. Donne, ed. The Correspondence of King George the Third with Lord North From 1768 to 1783 (London: John Murray, 1867), 270-279.

[7]Thomas Paine, Common Sense (Philadelphia: William and Thomas Bradford, 1776).

[8]Rodney Atwood, The Hessians: Mercenaries from Hessen-Kassel in the American Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 60.

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