August Highlight: A Tale of Two Declarations

Research Highlights"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us..."

The opening lines of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities have a universal quality -- relevant to their original subject, the French Revolution; relevant to the earlier American Revolution; relevant in Dickens' time; relevant today. Let's focus on the American Revolution, and more specifically on two characters: Benjamin Franklin and Lord Howe. 

Independence Hall, Philadelphia. On July 2nd, the Continental Congress voted in favor of a resolution for independence first presented in June. On July 4th, they approved the document we call the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Franklin helped to craft the Declaration as a member of the Committee of Five, and signed the engrossed parchment in August.

HMS Eagle, off the coast of New England. On June 20th, Vice Admiral Lord Howe issued a declaration as one of the King's Commissioners for Restoring Peace. The trouble was, he didn't make it to New York Harbor to deliver his declaration until July 12th.

Howe believed that, if he had arrived a few days sooner, his message from the King could have prevented the Declaration of Independence. In actuality, his declaration galvanized the patriots' position. This month, we examine these two declarations through the words of two friends and leaders on opposite sides of the American Revolution.


Arrival of British Troops in New York

When independence was declared, the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in America was General William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe (1729-1814). His brother, Vice Admiral Richard Howe, 1st Earl Howe (1726-1799), was on his way from England with ships full of reinforcements. On May 3rd, King George III appointed the Howe brothers as "his Majesty's Commissioners for restoring peace to his Majesty's Colonies and Plantations in North-America." This title sounded dubious to many Americans; a newspaper piece attributed to William Henry Drayton questioned, "Is there not some Error in this Title? Ought we not instead of 'Peace,' to read Tyranny?" The Commissioners had extremely limited power. The Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord George Germain, only allowed for the Howes to grant pardons, not to make any real efforts toward reconciliation or peace. This meant that they could not acknowledge the Continental Congress as an authoritative body; instead, Lord Howe addressed the now powerless colonial governors.

Howe left England in May and sailed for Halifax before discovering that his brother and the British forces had moved to New York. This delayed his arrival, and according to several contemporary sources (including Elbridge Gerry, who wrote as much in a letter to Samuel and John Adams), Howe believed he could have prevented the Declaration of Independence had he arrived earlier. Instead, by the time he reached New York on July 12th, news of the Declaration of Independence was spreading rapidly through the colonies. 

Howe's message reached the Continental Congress on July 18th -- a week after Howe had arrived in New York Harbor, and two weeks after the Declaration of Independence had been approved. Lord Howe sent the following declaration to the colonial governors (and, in a roundabout way, to Congress):

By RICHARD Viscount HOWE, of the Kingdom of IRELAND, one of the King' s Commissioners for restoring peace to His Majesty' s Colonies and Plantations in NORTH AMERICA, &c˙, &c˙, &c.


Whereas by an act passed in the last session of Parliament to prohibit all trade and intercourse with the Colonies of New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the three lower Counties on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, and for other purposes therein mentioned, it is enacted that "it shall and may be lawful to and for any person or persons appointed and authorized by his Majesty to grant a pardon or pardons to any number or description of persons, by Proclamation, in his Majesty' s name, to declare any Colony or Province, Colonies or Provinces, or any County, Town, Port, District, or place, in any Colony or Province, to be at the peace of his Majesty; and" that "from and after the issuing of any such Proclamation in any of the aforesaid Colonies or Provinces, or if his Majesty shall be graciously pleased to signify the same by his royal Proclamation, then, from and after the issuing of such Proclamation," the said "act, with respect to such Colony or Province, Colonies or Provinces, County, Town, Port, District, or place, shall cease, determine, and be utterly void:"

And whereas the King, desirous to deliver all his subjects from the calamities of war, and other oppressions which they now undergo, and to restore the said Colonies to his protection and peace as soon as the constitutional authority of Government therein may be replaced, hath been graciously pleased, by letters patent under the great seal, dated the sixth day of May, in the sixteenth year of his Majesty' s reign, to nominate and appoint me, Richard Viscount Howe, of the Kingdom of Ireland, and William Howe, Esq˙, General of his Forces in North America, and each of us, jointly and severally, to be his Majesty' s Commissioner and Commissioners for granting his free and general pardons to all those who, in the tumult and disorder of the times, may have deviated from their just allegiance, and who are willing, by a speedy return to their duty to reap the benefits of the royal favour; and, also, for declaring in his Majesty' s name, any Colony, Province, County, Town, Port, District, or place, to be at the peace of his Majesty: I do therefore hereby declare, that due consideration shall be had to the meritorious services of all persons who shall aid and assist in restoring the publick tranquillity in the said Colonies, or in any part or parts thereof; that pardons shall be granted, dutiful representations received, and every suitable encouragement given, for promoting such measures as shall be conducive to the establishment of legal government and peace, in pursuance of his Majesty' s most gracious purposes aforesaid.

Given on board his Majesty' s ship the Eagle, off the Coasts of the Province of Massachusetts Bay,the twentieth day of June, 1776. HOWE.

Realistically, could Howe's promise of pardons have really convinced the Continental Congress to delay or deter the Declaration of Independence?

Lady Howe Mating Benjamin Franklin, Edward Harrison May

On July 12th, Howe also sent a letter to Benjamin Franklin. The two had met in 1774 and became friends after chess meetings between Franklin and Howe's sister (depicted in Edward Harrison Mays' painting, above) turned into conversations between the two men about potential steps toward peace. Howe's letter, begun on June 20th while still at sea and finished on July 12th, warns Franklin of the seriousness of the present situation:

Portrait of Richard Howe, 1st Earl of HoweEagle. June 20. 1776.

I cannot my Worthy Friend, permit the Letters and Parcels which I have sent in the State I receiv'd them, to be landed without adding a word upon the subject of the injurious Extremities in which our unhappy Disputes have engaged us.

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 accomodated, 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 Sollicitude, 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


P.S. I was disappointed of the Opportunity I expected for sending this Letter at the Time it was dated, and have been ever since prevented by Calms and contrary winds, from getting Here to inform Genl. Howe of the Commission with which I have the Satisfaction to be charged, and of his being join'd in it.

Sandy Hook. 12th July. 


The Continental Congress received Howe's circular letter to the colonial governors and the Commissioners' declaration on July 18th, and responded the following day by resolving,

"That a copy of the circular letters, and of the declarations they enclosed from Lord Howe to Mr. W Franklin, Mr. Penn, Mr. Eden, Lord Dunmore, Mr. Martin, and Sir James Wright, late governors, which were sent to Amboy, by a flag, and forwarded to Congress by General Washington, be published in the several gazettes, that the good people of these United States may be informed of what nature are the commissioners, and what the terms, with the expectation of which, the insidious court of Britain has endeavoured to amuse and disarm them, and that the few, who still remain suspended by a hope founded either in the justice or moderation of their late King, may now, at length, be convinced, that the valour alone of their country is to save its liberties."

The problem was, Lord Howe was still in the mindset of the conversations he had with Franklin in 1774, when reconciliation was still possible. Franklin and most of the Continental Congress, on the other hand, had moved on completely from any idea of peace that didn't involve an independent United States. On July 20th, the Continental Congress resolved, "That Dr. Franklin may, if he thinks proper, send an answer to the letter he received from Lord Howe." He did so immediately. Keep in mind that this letter was written between two friends:

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin

Philada. July 20th. 1776.

My Lord,

I received safe the Letters your Lordship so kindly forwarded to me, and beg you to accept my Thanks.

The Official Dispatches to which you refer me, contain nothing more than what we had seen in the Act of Parliament, viz. Offers of Pardon upon Submission; which I was sorry to find, as it must give your Lordship Pain to be sent so far on so hopeless a Business.

Directing Pardons to be offered the Colonies, who are the very Parties injured, expresses indeed that Opinion of our Ignorance, Baseness, and Insensibility which your uninform’d and proud Nation has long been pleased to entertain of us; but it can have no other Effect than that of increasing our Resentment. It is impossible we should think of Submission to a Government, that has with the most wanton Barbarity and Cruelty, burnt our defenceless Towns in the midst of Winter, excited the Savages to massacre our Farmers, and our Slaves to murder their Masters, and is even now bringing foreign Mercenaries to deluge our Settlements with Blood. These atrocious Injuries have extinguished every remaining Spark of Affection for that Parent Country we once held so dear: But were it possible for us to forget and forgive them, it is not possible for you (I mean the British Nation) to forgive the People you have so heavily injured; you can never confide again in those as Fellow Subjects, and permit them to enjoy equal Freedom, to whom you know you have given such just Cause of lasting Enmity. And this must impel you, were we again under your Government, to endeavour the breaking our Sprit by the severest Tyranny, and obstructing by every means in your Power our growing Strength and Prosperity.

But your Lordship mentions “the Kings paternal Solicitude for promoting the Establishment of lasting Peace and Union with the Colonies.” If by Peace is here meant, a Peace to be entered into between Britain and America as distinct States now at War, and his Majesty has given your Lordship Powers to treat with us of such a Peace, I may venture to say, tho’ without Authority, that I think a Treaty for that purpose not yet quite impracticable, before we enter into Foreign Alliances. But I am persuaded you have no such Powers. Your Nation, tho’ by punishing those American Governors who have created and fomented the Discord, rebuilding our burnt Towns, and repairing as far as possible the Mischiefs done us, She might yet recover a great Share of our Regard and the greatest part of our growing Commerce, with all the Advantage of that additional Strength to be derived from a Friendship with us; I know too well her abounding Pride and deficient Wisdom, to believe she will ever take such Salutary Measures. Her Fondness for Conquest as a Warlike Nation, her Lust of Dominion as an Ambitious one, and her Thirst for a gainful Monopoly as a Commercial one, (none of them legitimate Causes of War) will all join to hide from her Eyes every View of her true Interests; and continually goad her on in these ruinous distant Expeditions, so destructive both of Lives and Treasure, that must prove as perrnicious to her in the End as the Croisades formerly were to most of the Nations of Europe.

I have not the Vanity, my Lord, to think of intimidating by thus predicting the Effects of this War; for I know it will in England have the Fate of all my former Predictions, not to be believed till the Event shall verify it.

Long did I endeavour with unfeigned and unwearied Zeal, to preserve from breaking, that fine and noble China Vase the British Empire: for I knew that being once broken, the separate Parts could not retain even their Share of the Strength or Value that existed in the Whole, and that a perfect Re-Union of those Parts could scarce even be hoped for. Your Lordship may possibly remember the Tears of Joy that wet my Cheek, when, at your good Sister’s in London, you once gave me Expectations that a Reconciliation might soon take place. I had the Misfortune to find those Expectations disappointed, and to be treated as the Cause of the Mischief I was labouring to prevent. My Consolation under that groundless and malevolent Treatment was, that I retained the Friendship of many Wise and Good Men in that Country, and among the rest some Share in the Regard of Lord Howe. The well founded Esteem, and permit me to say Affection, which I shall always have for your Lordship, makes it painful to me to see you engag’d in conducting a War, the great Ground of which, as expressed in your Letter, is, “the Necessity of preventing the American Trade from passing into foreign Channels.” To me it seems that neither the obtaining or retaining of any Trade, how valuable soever, is an Object for which Men may justly Spill each others Blood; that the true and sure means of extending and securing Commerce is the goodness and cheapness of Commodities; and that the profits of no Trade can ever be equal to the Expence of compelling it, and of holding it, by Fleets and Armies. I consider this War against us therefore, as both unjust, and unwise; and I am persuaded cool dispassionate Posterity will condemn to Infamy those who advised it; and that even Success will not save from some degree of Dishonour, those who voluntarily engag’d to conduct it. I know your great Motive in coming hither was the Hope of being instrumental in a Reconciliation; and I believe when you find that impossible on any Terms given you to propose, you will relinquish so odious a Command, and return to a more honourable private Station. With the greatest and most sincere Respect I have the honour to be, My Lord your Lordships most obedient humble Servant

B Franklin

In a letter to John Hancock written on July 31st, the day after Franklin's letter was delivered to Howe, Col. William Palfrey (one of the emissaries who delivered the letter) described Howe's reaction: "When he had finished reading it, he said his old friend had expressed himself very warmly; that when he had the pleasure of seeing him last in England, he made him acquainted with his sentiments respecting the dispute between Great Britain and the colonies, and of his earnest desire that a reconciliation might take place equally honorable and advantageous to both." When Palfrey asked if Howe would respond to Franklin, he declined, "saying the doctor had grown too warm, and if he expressed his sentiments fully to him, he should only give him pain, which he would wish to avoid."

Howe cooled down and responded a few weeks later, on August 16th, admitting to the Commissioners' limited powers:

Eagle off Staten Island Augt. the 16: 1776.

I am sorry my worthy friend, that it is only on the assurances you give me of my having still preserved a place in your esteem, that I can now found a pretension to trouble you with a reply to your favour of the 21st. past.

I can have no difficulty to acknowledge that the powers I am invested with, were never calculated to negociate a reunion with America, under any other description than as subject to the crown of Great Britain. But I do esteem those powers competent, not only to confer and negotiate with any gentlemen of influence in the Colonies upon the terms, but also to effect a lasting peace and reunion between the two countries; were the temper of the Colonies such as professed in the last petition of the Congress to the King. America would have judged in the discussion how far the means were adequate to the end; both for engaging her confidence and proving our integrity. Nor did I think it necessary to say more in my public declaration; not conceiving it could be understood to refer to peace, on any other conditions but those of mutual interest to both countries, which could alone render it permanent.

But as I perceive from the tenor of your letter, how little I am to reckon upon the advantage of your assistance for restoring that permanent union which has long been the object of my endeavours, and which I flattered myself when I left England would be in the compass of my power; I will only add, that as the dishonour to which you deem me exposed by my military situation in this country, has effected no change in your sentiments of personal regard towards me; so shall no difference in political points alter my desire of proving how much I am your sincere and obedient humble Servant


Franklin drafted a response to Howe on August 20th but didn't send it, instead waiting until a committee had been chosen to meet with Lord Howe in person. The committee included John Adams, Edward Rutledge, and (of course) Benjamin Franklin. The meeting between these representatives of the United States and Lord Howe, which took place on was called the Staten Island Peace Conference. Franklin's draft was short but powerful:

The Temper of the Colonies as professed in their several Petitions to the Crown was sincere. The Terms they proposed should then have been closed with, and all might have been Peace. I dare say your Lordship as well as my self, laments they were not accepted. I remember I told you that better would never be offered, and I have not forgotten your just Comparison of the Sybyl’s Leaves. But the Contempt with which those Petitions were treated, none of them beaing vouchsaf’d an Answer; and the cruel Measures since taken, have chang’d that Temper. It could not be otherwise. To propose now to the Colonies a Submission to the Crown of Great Britain, would be fruitless. The Time is past. One might as well propose it to France, on the Footing of a former title.

Since the war continued for six years, it goes without saying that the Peace Conference, depicted here by Alonzo Chappel, was unsuccessful.

Chappel, Staten Island Conference Engraving

In actuality, this is A Tale of Three Declarations. The third came from the Howe brothers on September 19th, and it is considered to be the first official British response to the Declaration of Independence (King George III did not respond publicly until a speech in Parliament on October 31). 

In addition to Franklin's letter and the Peace Conference, the Continental Congress may have responded to the Commissioners' declaration in another way. On July 19th, the same day the Commissioners' declaration was reported in Independence Hall and ordered to be printed in the newspapers, the Continental Congress resolved to have the Declaration of Independence engrossed on parchment, to be signed.

Perhaps a coincidence. Or perhaps, a well-timed response to the King and his Commissioners, signed by unacknowledged representatives of an unacknowledged independent nation, who were willing to pledge their lives, fortunes, and sacred honors to their cause.

Engrossed and Signed Declaration of Independence

By Emily Sneff

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