Sunday, January 10, 2016

Scorpions in a Bottle: The Carlisle Commission


In For Want of a Nail, Sobel takes a page from our own history, and has Lord North send a peace commission to the Continental Congress in the spring of 1778 headed by the Earl of Carlisle. In our own history, this came after the surrender of Burgoyne's army at the Battle of Saratoga, and was a desperate attempt by North to forestall a military alliance between the American rebels and the French. In our history, North deliberately deceived the commission's members by failing to tell them that he had ordered General Clinton to evacuate Philadelphia. Had he done so, of course, the commissioners would have known that their mission was doomed to failure, and they would have refused to go. As it was, the mission had already failed before the commissioners set out from London, since the Americans and the French had already signed an alliance in February.

One would expect that a British victory at Saratoga would have made the North ministry more determined than ever to use military force to crush the American rebellion. This would have been consistent with 15 years of previous British policy, which was based on a dismissal of American concerns and contempt for the Americans as people. However, Sobel was evidently interested in exploring a world where the Americans returned to being loyal British subjects, and a long, costly British military campaign in America, even if successful, would have sowed the seeds of lasting enmity between Britain and America. So, instead of military conquest, Sobel shows us a British government willing to use negotiations, and satisfaction of American grievances, to end the war. In the Sobel Timeline, the Carlisle Commission basically offers the Americans the same terms as it did in our history. With the Rebellion going much worse for the Americans, this turns out to be an offer that the Americans can't refuse.

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(this section continues on from the Joseph Galloway section)



In London, rumors of victory and defeat in America came hard upon one another’s heels. Word came first of defeat at Bennington, then at Freeman’s Farm, then at Bemis Heights. All of London held its breath, as if fearing that the next news from America would tell of Burgoyne’s surrender to Gates. Instead, news came of Gates’ defeat, and the disintegration of his army. Burgoyne’s victory, along with Howe’s capture of Philadelphia and his repulse of Washington’s counterattack, raised the prestige of the North ministry, and discredited those like Burke and Wilkes who had denounced the ministry’s America policy. Finally, North received word from Paul Wentworth, his agent in Paris, that the French government had grown discouraged by the news from America and was cutting off its supplies of money and arms to the rebels. Wentworth also reported that he had been approached by Franklin, who wished to negotiate an end to the Rebellion and the return of the colonies to British rule. [1]

If the Americans had given up hope of winning their independence, North had given up hope of the military conquest of the rebellious colonies. Burgoyne’s report on his victory had stressed the failure of the expected Loyalist uprising to occur, and the stiff resistance he had encountered from the rebels. He also emphasized the precarious nature of his occupation of Albany, and the general anti-British sentiment of the surrounding country. [2] With these facts in mind, on February 16, 1778, North called a secret meeting of the Cabinet to discuss a possible negotiated settlement of the conflict. No one present disagreed with North’s analysis of the general situation: the ministry had erred badly in its response to the Americans’ growing intransigence in the Crisis, misreading the temper of the American colonists, and the strength of Loyalist sentiment. Instead of cowing the Americans into submission, the ministry’s policies had stiffened the Americans’ resolve to resist, and finally driven them into open rebellion.

Without revealing the source of his information, North informed the Cabinet that the Americans were prepared to return to British rule provided that there was a general settlement of colonial grievances along the lines of Galloway’s Plan of Union. There were heated objections from a few members, notably Lord Germain, but a majority of the Cabinet sided with North, as long as the proposal was seen to emanate from the ministry rather than the colonists. A month later, a commission headed by the Earl of Carlisle was sent to the Congress to offer the proposed settlement. [3]

Events in America continued to favor the reconciliationists. Disillusioned former soldiers from the Continental Army blamed the Congress, and the revolutionary state governments, for the military failures suffered at Saratoga-Albany and Philadelphia. In Virginia, for instance, Governor Patrick Henry was deposed by Theodorick Bland, who had served as a cavalry commander in the Continental Army under Washington. Bland and his supporters (most of whom, like him, were former members of the Continental Army), raised up Edmund Pendleton in Henry’s place. Pendleton issued instructions to Virginia’s delegation to the Congress to support efforts at reconciliation with Britain, leading to the resignations of the radical members Richard Henry Lee and Joseph Jones. [4]

Events in Virginia were echoed elsewhere in the rebellious colonies. By the time the Earl of Carlisle’s commission arrived in America in early May, reconciliationists had gained control of the Congress, and Galloway was one of its most prominent members, replacing Carroll as President on May 23. Under Galloway’s leadership, the Congress agreed on May 27 to ask Lord North for an armistice based on the Carlisle proposals. Carlisle sent word to the British military leadership of the agreement, and they began making preparations for the joint military rule of the reunited colonies that would cause them to be known as the Four Viceroys. The formal articles for armistice were signed by Carlisle and Galloway on June 12, 1778, and over the next two weeks most of the remaining rebel militia surrendered to their British counterparts. The North American Rebellion was over. [5]

1. Dame Brook Alyson. Lord North and His Times (London, 2001), pp. 356-62.

2. Wesley Van Luvender. The Military Thought and Actions of John Burgoyne (New York, 1944), p. 476-79.

3. Henderson Bundy. The Carlisle Commission (New York, 2005), pp. 34-36.

4. Patricia Foster Gooch. Virginia in Rebellion, 1775-1778 (Norfolk, 1997), pp. 282-93.

5. Bundy. The Carlisle Commission, pp. 203-11.

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