The Dog Days of the Declaration: When Britain Got the News

             It was in the middle of August that British civilian and military officials first transmitted news of the Declaration of Independence back to the mother country. I will examine the international significance of the American decision to declare independence in an upcoming post, but for now it’s worth noting a few details regarding how the news got “back home.”            

            Some of the best reporters of the news of the Declaration and its contents were members of the British military fighting the Patriots in America. For example, Admiral Lord Richard Howe,

Admiral Lord Richard Howe, commander of British forces in North America

Admiral Lord Richard Howe, commander of British forces in North America

commander of the British forces that had invaded New York City the same year as the Declaration was issued, sent one of the first copies that arrived in London. I wonder what went through his mind as he read the document, which he surely did. Howe sympathized with the American cause and had even written a letter to Benjamin Franklin (a friend of Howe’s sister) urging a peace conference. Others dutifully gathered copies for the official record. David Armitage, author of The Declaration of Independence: A Global History, notes that these British officials were so efficient in reporting the news that the five copies they obtained and sent to be archived among British state papers now comprise “the largest collection of original printings of the document outside of the United States.” (73)

            Reaction in England ranged from enthusiastic support for American independence among Irish radicals to outright horror that Congress had crossed a political Rubicon. But many in England who opposed independence could understand the rationale behind the decision. George III,

George III

George III

once a beloved king in America whom colonists truly believed could do no wrong, had stubbornly supported his ministers’ policies that brought war and severe measures against the colonists. His reaction can be gauged from his comments to Parliament on October 31, 1776, his first public statement since news of American independence arrived in Great Britain: the colonists with a “daring and desperate spirit” had “presumed to set up their rebellious confederacies for independent states.”  Almost exactly one year earlier, he had said, “Those who have long too successfully laboured to inflame my people in America by gross misrepresentations, and to infuse into their minds a system of opinions, repugnant to the true constitution of the colonies, and to their subordinate relation to Great-Britain, now openly avow their revolt, hostility and rebellion … .” Nothing would change his mind: the colonists were rebels, outside of his protection.  Scots and Irish rebels earlier in the century had faced similar regal condemnation and then faced annihilation. What else could the Americans do?

edmund burke

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke, one of the staunchest champions of the American cause in Parliament, was no friend of independence. Yet, he summed up the situation well. “For a long time, even amidst the desolations of war, and the insults of hostile laws daily accumulated on one another, the American leaders seem to have had the greatest difficulty in bringing up their people to a declaration of total independence,” he wrote in a 1777 paper called “A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol.” “But the court gazette accomplished what the abettors of independence had attempted in vain.” For many in Great Britain, the news of American independence was no surprise at all.

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