Winning Hearts and Minds: Pardons and Oaths of Allegiance

The War Years (1775-1783)

January 3, 2023
by Joseph E. Wroblewski Also by this Author


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“I, A. promise and declare that I will remain in a peaceable Obedience to His Majesty, and will not take up Arms, nor encourage Others to take up Arms, in Opposition to His Authority, shall and may obtain a full and free Pardon of all Treason and misprisions of Treason, by him heretofore committed or done, and of all Forfeitures, attainers, and Penalties for the same; and upon producing to Us, or either of Us, a Certificate of such his appearance and Declaration, shall and may have and receive such Pardon made and passed to him in due Form.”[1]

The above is a part of a Proclamation first issued on July 14, 1776, then again on November 30, 1776, by Adm. Richard Viscount Howe and his brother Gen. William Howe, who aside from being the military commanders of the British Expeditionary Force sent to put down the Rebellion in North America, were also accredited as “the King’s Commissioners for the restoring of Peace in His Majesty’s Colonies and Plantations in North America.”[2] The pardons bore an influence upon the colonists in the early stages of the War of Independence, particularly in New Jersey and elicited a response from the Patriots.

The two men chosen for this dual task of being both military commanders and peace commissioners were part of a British aristocratic family. At the age of thirteen, Richard Howe became an able-bodied seaman in the Royal Navy, then one year later he was able to secure a midshipman’s berth. At seventeen, William Howe’s future was secured when his family was able to buy him a commission as a Cornet in the Duke of Cumberland’s Dragoons.[3]

Richard and William distinguished themselves during the French and Indian War, leading to promotions. Eventually, Richard became the youngest Admiral in the Royal Navy. Thirty-five-year-old William was appointed the Colonel of the 46th Regiment of Foot. Additionally, both brothers were influential Whig politicians: Richard was elected to the House of Commons from the navy town of Dartmouth (1757-1782) and William was elected from his home district of Nottingham (1758-1780). As Whig politicians, they espoused the doctrine of the supremacy of Parliament and affirmation of human rights. Also important in their rising careers were their ties to the Royal Family: George III was a “blood cousin.” As to their lofty status in the British military and politics, historian David Hackett Fischer attributes it to the fact that their opportunities came about by “privilege” but their achievements were earned by “merit.”[4]

With the time Richard and William spent in North America and their Whig politics when the troubles arose between the Colonies and the Mother Country, they were sympathetic to American grievances. In 1774, William while addressing his constituents in Nottingham, went so far as to state that he would refuse to serve in North America. Regardless of this statement, he acceded to the King’s request and in May 1775, arrived in Boston as Gen. Thomas Gage’s second in command. He exhibited courage in leading an attack at the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775). When General Gage was relieved of his command, Maj. Gen. William Howe was named Commander-in-Chief of British Forces in North America.[5] While these actions were taking place in the colonies, Adm. Richard Howe, who was still in Britain, was called upon by the King and cabinet members to take command of all British naval forces in North America and also serve as a “peace commissioner.”

The two main factions in Parliament had different ideas of how to deal with the Americans: Tories called for severe actions to deal with the rebels; while the Whigs called for using less harsh methods and seeking some type of conciliation.[6] While neither side was going to accede to the other’s demands, by early 1776 they came to an agreement that called for Vice Admiral Howe to try and bring about an equitable solution to the conflict. Reluctantly, the Whig Admiral agreed to the appointment, but only if his brother, William was appointed a co-peace commissioner, to which the government agreed. Richard Ketchum in The Winter Soldiers gave a theory behind these dual appointments:

The logic behind this split role was that the army would teach the insurgents obedience by the example of overwhelming force; the navy would show them the economic consequences of rebellion by a blockade of their coast; and in the resulting chaos, a political solution would be found.[7]

The Howes came to America with a “carrot,” the offer of both a pardon for their rebellion and possibly a negotiated end to their grievances. Also loomed the use of the “stick” the threat of overwhelming military force.

On July 2, 1776, General Howe arrived in New York Harbor with about 10,000 troops who had been in Halifax following the evacuation from Boston (March 1776). Then on July 12, 1776, Admiral Howe arrived on the warship Eagle. Eventually, his naval command, consisting of approximately half of the entire British Navy, including transports, arrived with thousands more troops, both British and Hessian.[8] One of the first actions of the “Peace Commissioners” was to issue a Proclamation calling for an end to hostilities and an offer of a free pardon on July 14, 1776.

The hope of negotiating a peace settlement ran into roadblocks right at the start, the main one being the issuing of the Declaration of Independence. In a letter to Lord George Germain from the “Peace Commissioners” dated August 11, 1776, they informed him of the Declaration, stating that:

On the 4th of July last the General Congress came to a resolution to declare that the associated colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown and that all political connections between them and the state of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved.[9]

Another problem seemed trivial, but it kept talks between the parties from the beginning—how to address George Washington. The day after Admiral Howe arrived off Staten Island, he sent a letter addressed to George Washington, Esqr. in which he stated:

The Situation in which you are placed and the acknowledged liberality of your Sentiments, induce me very much to wish for an opportunity to converse with you on the Subject of the Commission with which I have the honor to be charged; As I trust that a dispassionate consideration of the King’s benevolent intentions, may be the means of preventing the further Effusion of Blood, and become productive of Peace and lasting Union between Great Britain and America.[10]

The letter was carried under a flag of truce by Lt. Phillip Brown and he was met midway between Governor’s Island and Staten Island by members of Washington’s staff: Cols. Joseph Reed and Samuel Webb. When Lieutenant Brown was asked to whom the letter was addressed he stated—George Washington, Esquire; they then said they did not know who the individual was and refused to receive it.[11] This was all part of a psychological warfare game between the British and Americans. The Howe brothers could not refer to George Washington as “General” because the British Government did not recognize the Continental Army as a legitimate military entity nor the existence of the validity of the Continental Congress. While the Americans would not accept any correspondence to Washington unless it was addressed to “General Washington,” an appointment from the Second Continental Congress.[12]

It soon became evident to the Howes that their overtures as Peace Commissioners were not going to have any effect in bringing the “Rebels” to negotiations. They decided to use “the stick” in their arsenal at this impasse: their overwhelming military force. The first major engagement occurred on August 27, 1776, with the Battle of Long Island (also called the Battle of Brooklyn Heights) resulting in a decisive victory for the British.[13] On September 21, General Howe wrote to Lord Germain: “My Lord, I have the satisfaction to inform your lordship of His Majesty’s troops being in the possession of the City of New York.” In the remainder of the letter, he detailed the actions of the troops in taking the city.[14] While in the role of military commanders the letter carried good news, but in their role as peace commissioners, they encountered a roadblock which they detailed to Germain.

Admiral Howe learned from Maj. Gen. John Sullivan, who had been captured at the Battle of Long Island, that the Americans believed that the “Peace Commissioners” only had the power to grant pardons and declare peace in the colonies without addressing their grievances.[15] Richard Howe then had the idea to parole General Sullivan and send him to Philadelphia to inform Congress that the Peace Commissioners desired to meet with representatives from their legislature to discuss the grievances and seek a peaceful solution to the hostilities. General Sullivan agreed and upon his return (September 9), he informed the Admiral that three deputies from Congress would come to meet with the commissioners.

The three deputies, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge, met with Richard Howe on Staten Island, on September 11, 1776 (the Admiral noted in his letter to Germain that General Howe did not attend because “his presence with the army was necessary.” Richard Howe then described how the King and his government would be willing to remove the major objections concerning trade, the power of the colonial legislatures to tax, and the offer of a free pardon for having taken up arms against the crown. Admiral Howe stated that the Congressional representatives “were very explicit in their opinions that the associated colonies would not accede to any peace settlement or alliance but as free and independent states.”[16]

In this letter, Howe explained that the problem arose due to Congress’s refusal to negotiate unless the independence of the United States was recognized. The Admiral concluded that there was no reason for future talks and the three gentlemen returned to Amboy.[17]For the remainder of Autumn 1776, the British concentrated on the military option of trying to destroy the Continental Army and the will of the Americans to continue the rebellion.

The British had driven Washington’s army out of New York and New Jersey, and by December 8, 1776, the Continental Army was across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. In a letter dated December 20, General Howe described how the British controlled New Jersey, his plan to set up a “chain” of cantonments from the Raritan to the Delaware River, and would go into winter quarters.[18]In a second letter of the same date Howe described his plans for operations for 1777.[19]

The military successes of 1776 led the Howe brothers, in their role of Peace Commissioners, on November 30, reissued their Proclamation of July 14 with the stipulation that the offer of a “free pardon” was good for sixty days, after that, it could only be granted with a stipulation that the individual perform military service in either a loyalist unit or the regular British Army. By the end of December, they reported that their offer was an outstanding success with around 4,000 men taking up the offer and 2,700 in New Jersey alone. James Gigantino in William Livingston’s American Revolution noted a side effect of so many taking the pardon:

The success at seeing so many Americans for the crown led the British Commissioners for Restoring Peace in America to believe that royal control had been reestablished, especially when many men in occupied New York and New Jersey readily joined loyalist units.[20]

Gigantino further speculates another consequence of the number of “disaffected” taking the pardon: it encouraged General Howe to plan an attack against Philadelphia in early spring to crush the rebellion.[21]

One of the reasons people took the oath was to receive protection of their person and property from the British military. After taking the oath the person received the following certificate:

I do hereby certify that the bearer came and subscribed this the declaration specified in a certain proclamation published at New York on the thirtieth day of November last, by the Right Honorable Lord Howe and His Excellency General Howe. Whereby he is entitled to the protection of all officers and soldiers serving in His Majesty’s Army in America, both for himself, his family and property, and to pass and repass on his lawful business without molestation.[22]

In actuality, these certificates did not protect many recipients, particularly from Hessians and unlettered British soldiers.

The fact that so many Americans took the oath of loyalty did not sit well with the Patriots, particularly George Washington. On December 18, 1776, Washington wrote letters to his brothers John and Samuel in which he described the retreat from New York and across New Jersey. A good deal of the blame for the present condition of the Continental Army he laid at the foot of those who took the Howes’ pardon:

we are in a very disaffected part of the Province and between you and me, I think our Affairs are in a very bad situation; not so much from the apprehension of Genl. Howe’s Army, as from the defection of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In short, the Conduct of the Jerseys has been most Infamous. Instead of turning out to defend their Country and affording aid to our Army, they are making their submissions as fast as they can.[23]

Once his army was ensconced in Morristown, following the Battle of Princeton, Washington on January 25, 1777, issued a proclamation, part of which ordered:

I do therefore, in behalf of the United States, by virtue of the powers committed to me by Congress, hereby strictly command and require every person, having subscribed to such declaration, taken such oaths, and accepted protection and certificates from Lord or General Howe, or any person acting under their authority, forthwith to repair to Head-Quarters, or to the quarters of the nearest general officer of the Continental Army or Militia (until farther provision can be made by the civil authority) and there deliver up such protections, certificates, and passports, and take the oath of allegiance to the United States of America.[24]

Aside from Washington’s call for an oath of allegiance and the surrender of certificates of protection, individual States called for their citizens to take an oath of allegiance.[25] In New Jersey, this was in the form of their Oaths of Abjuration and Allegiance.

As early as September 1776 the newly formed Provincial Congress of New Jersey passed a law requiring an oath of abjuration: “I AB,dosincerely profess and swear (or if Quaker, affirm) that I do not had myself bound to bear allegiance to the King of Great Britain, so help me God.” Also, there was an oath of allegiance: “I, AB do sincerely profess and swear (or if Quaker, affirm) that I do and will bear true Faith and Allegiance to the Government established in this State under the authority of the people. So help me God.” These oaths for the time being only applied to New Jersey civil or military officials. This was followed on October 4, 1776, with An Act to punish Treason and Disaffected Persons. It defined treason as anyone who aided or abetted the British Army or defended the authority of Great Britain was guilty of treason and was liable to fines and imprisonment.[26]

Then in June 1777, once the Patriots had control over most of the State, Gov. William Livingston got the legislature to extend the taking of these oaths to anyone who had exhibited “treasonable actions,” particularly aimed at those who had taken the Howes’ pardons. To oversee the administration of these oaths, a Council of Safety comprised of twelve members, including Governor Livingston, was created. This council could name individuals suspected of treasonable activities and was also empowered to administer the oaths. The accused individual could appear before the council, or a county judge, a justice of the peace, swear the oaths then would be given a certificate indicating he was a “repentant offender” and entitled to a “free and unconditional pardon” for all previous treasonable actions. If any property had been confiscated, once the certificate was recorded by a county clerk, it would be returned to the individual, or if it had been sold, he would receive the proceeds of the sale.[27]

An example of a person who took both the Howes’ pardon and the New Jersey oaths of abjuration and allegiance was Richard Stockton, one of the five Signers of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey. Stockton had been captured by Tories in Freehold, New Jersey at the beginning of December 1776, turned over to the British, and imprisoned in the Provost Jail in New York City.[28] While in the Provost Jail he accepted the Howes’ pardon, was released, and returned to Princeton by the middle of January.[29] It wasn’t until December 1777 that he was called before the Council of Safety and told to take the oaths of abjuration and allegiance or face judicial consequences: he took the New Jersey oaths.[30] Sadly, in 1779 he developed cancer of the lip. Even after two operations to remove the tumors by Dr. Benjamin Rush, his son-in-law, he succumbed to cancer in February 1781.[31]

In conclusion, hope of the Peace Commissioners, Richard and William Howe, for a “reconciliation” with the Colonists was doomed due to the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.[32] In New Jersey, the offer of a “full and free pardon” by pledging allegiance to the King and refraining from active participation in the Revolution became moot once the Patriots regained control of the state following Washington’s victories at Trenton and Princeton. Amid cries for retaliation against Loyalists and those who took the Howes’ pardon and were suspected of being “disaffected,” New Jersey authorities imposed the oaths of abjuration and allegiance with threats of imprisonment, expulsion, and/or confiscation of property for those who refused.


[1]“Proclamation of Admiral Howe and General Howe, November 30, 1776,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution, An earlier pardon was offered to the Rebels—General Gage on June 12, 1775, issued a Proclamation in which he offered an amnesty to all who laid down their arms, except for Samuel Adams and John Hancock.

[2]Peter Force. American Archives, A Documentary History of the United States of America, 5th Series, Vol. 3, (Washington, DC: 1853), 927–28. An indication of the what the Howes viewed as the duality of their positions is when they wrote to Lord Germain: with regards to military matters they used their military ranks in the address; however, in dealing with matters about the prospects for peace, they referred to themselves as Commissioners for Restoring the Peace in America.

[3]Lord Howe’s rank of nobility was viscount, below an earl and above a baron. Upon the death of his brother George, he became the 4th Viscount Howe, a peerage based in Ireland; in 1788 he was raised to the rank of 1st Earl Howe and Baron Howe of Langar (British peerages). William Howe was knighted to the Order of the Bath by King George III following his victory at Long Island and became the 5th Viscount Howe when his brother Richard, who had no heirs, died in 1799.

[4]David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 68-70. In the fourth chapter, “Plan of the Campaign,” 68-80, Fischer gives an excellent overview of the Howe family’s background and of the brothers’ military achievements, and their role as Whig politicians.

[5]He was named interim Commander-in-Chief of British Forces in North America in October 1775 and permanently appointed in April 1776.

[6]For an excellent report on attempts at “Conciliation” that involved Richard Howe and his sister Caroline, other members of Parliament and Benjamin Franklin, see Bob Ruppert, “Franklin’s Secret Efforts to Bring about Reconciliation,Journal of the American Revolution, January 18, 2018,

[7]Richard M. Ketchum, The Winter Soldiers (Garden City: Doubleday, 1973), 91.

[8]Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783; (Colonial Office series), Kenneth G. Davies, ed. (Shannon: Irish University Press, 1972), 244-246.

[9]“Commissioners for Restoring Peace in America to Lord Germain, August 11, 1776, Staten Island,” Documents of the American Revolution, 183.

[10]Lord Howe to George Washington July 13, 1776,”

[11]The Howes described the situation to Lord Germain in a letter from August 11, 1776. Documents of the American Revolution, 183.

[12]For an excellent description of the “cat and mouse game” over the title of address for George Washington, see: “Memorandum of an Interview with Lieutenant Colonel James Paterson, July 20, 1776,”

[13]For an excellent account of Washington’s campaign in New York, see Barnet Schecter, The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).

[14]William Howe to Lord George Germain, September 21, 1776, Documents of the American Revolution, 227.

[15]William Howe to Germain, September 20, 1776, Documents of the American Revolution, 225. For an excellent explanation of why the mission of the Howe brothers as Peace Commissioners failed, see Weldon A. Brown, “The Howe Peace Commission, 1776,” North Carolina Historical Review, 13, no. 2, 1936, 122 – 142.

[16]Commissioners for Restoring Peace in America to Germain, September 20, 1776, Documents of the American Revolution, 225.

[17]Ibid., 226. An excellent discussion of the meeting is found at “August Highlights: A Tale of Two Declarations,” Course of Human Events, August 4, 2016,

[18]William Howe to Germain,December 21, 1776, Documents of the American Revolution, 266.

[19]Ibid., 268.

[20]James J. Gigantino, II, William Livingston’s American Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), 93.


[22]Hamilton Schuyler, A History of Trenton: 1679–1929 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1929), 13-14.

[23]George Washington to John Augustine Washington, December 18, 1776, The Writings of George Washington: W. C. Ford, ed. (New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1890), 6:109-112.

[24]“Proclamation concerning Persons Swearing British Allegiance, 25 January 1777,”

[25]Abraham Clark, a delegate to the Continental Congress objected to Washington’s proclamation and felt administering oaths of allegiance should be left to individual states.

[26]In 1777 and 1778 the legislature added confiscation and the sale of personal and real property of those found guilty of treason or being “disaffected.”

[27]While we have the approximate number that around 2,700 New Jersey men took the Howes’ Pardon, I could not find a number for those who took the Oaths of Abjuration and Allegiance. The New Jersey State Archives does have the signatures of 160 men who swore the oaths; Fischer in Washington’s Crossing, 162, stated that about 12 percent of New Jersey’s population took the oaths.

[28]A question still remains as to why Stockton chose to go to Freehold, New Jersey, a hotbed of Loyalism, unlike a fellow signer from Princeton, John Witherspoon who went across the Delaware. Some felt that he went there because he had planned to defect to the British, although there is no evidence that this was the case. For a discussion of implication Stockton’s move to Freehold, see: John Baxter, “A Tale of Lost Hope and Thanksgiving,”

[29]For an excellent description of Richard Stockton’s life after taking the British pardon and the Whig reaction to him see: Christian M. McBurney, “Was Richard Stockton A Hero?,” Journal of the American Revolution, July 18, 2016,

[30]Minutes of the Council of Safety of the State of New Jersey, December 22, 1777 (Jersey City, NJ: John H. Lyon, 1872), 178.

[31]As a volunteer docent at Morven Museum and Garden, while describing Richard Stockton’s role during the American Revolution, I conclude by stating that New Jersey must of forgave Stockton for taking the Howe Brothers’ pardon in that: one of the two statues in the U.S. Capitol that each state is allotted is a marble one of Richard; in 1968 the last state college established in New Jersey was Richard Stockton State College (today Stockton University) in Pomona; and on the New Jersey Turnpike southbound at milepost 58 is the Richard Stockton Service Area!

[32]The Howe brother’s involvement with the “North American Colonies” ended in 1778 when Gen. William Howe resigned his command and returned to England in May and the Admiral Richard relinquished his command of the British naval forces in American waters in September.

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