Tag Archives: George III

George III Comments on the Declaration of Independence for the First Time

George III

On this day in 1776, George III addressed Parliament and gave his first public comments on the Declaration of Independence. In some ways, the delay was understandable. It took two months for news to travel across the Atlantic under the best of circumstances and the monarch was known for his measured approach to public speaking. However, the king was not amused, making harsh comments about the revolution that he always saw as a rebellion. The History Channel sums up his comments concisely:

In the address, the king spoke about the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the revolutionary leaders who signed it, saying, “for daring and desperate is the spirit of those leaders, whose object has always been dominion and power, that they have now openly renounced all allegiance to the crown, and all political connection with this country.” The king went on to inform Parliament of the successful British victory over General George Washington and the Continental Army at the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, but warned them that, “notwithstanding the fair prospect, it was necessary to prepare for another campaign.”

George III is one of the most complicated and misunderstood characters in the story of the American Revolution. For many contemporary readers of the Declaration, the lengthy list of charges leveled against George III is a perplexing catalog of indictments whose meaning (at least for most of the grievances) seems lost in obscurity. “Today most Americans, including professional historians, would be hard put to identify exactly what prompted many of the accusations Jefferson hurled against the King,” wrote Pauline Maier in her book American Scripture. Historians from past generations had a similar response. “When the Declaration is read now days at Fourth of July celebrations the audience listens with much attention to the opening paragraphs,” wrote then-noted scholar Sydney George Fisher in a 1907 article called The 28 Charges Against the King in the Declaration of Independence. “But when the 28 charges against the King are reached the audience listens only out of politeness or patriotic duty. The charges seem very dull and tiresome and mean nothing much to the modern mind except that one carries away a general impression that the King must have been a horrible monster of tyranny and cruelty against an innocent child-like and loving people.”

The list of grievances rolls over the reputation and character of George III like Doomsday, accusing him of old harms (“for imposing Taxes on us without our Consent,” i.e., “No taxation without representation,” the rallying cry of the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765) and new terrors (his decision to send Hessian mercenaries to fight Americans is called “totally unworthy of the head of a civilized nation,” no doubt because of the German soldiers’ reputation for rape and plunder). The tone of this résumé of woe is astounding. The king, once the object of paternal respect and the loyal toast, had been a popular monarch in America. Any of the love, affection, and respect George III once enjoyed from his American subjects are ashes in the fires of revolution.

George III’s comments did little to assuage those harsh feelings. Even as efforts on both sides of the Atlantic attempted negotiation during the war, the king evinced stubborn refusal to consider any settlement that would grant independence to the American colonists. He was determined not to reign during the dissolution of the British Empire. His comments to Parliament are a confirmation of the great breach that occurred whether he wanted it or not.

However, the rejection of George III in the Declaration is more than long-winded rhetorical flourish: It is the rejection of the last link of loyalty between America and a once-beloved empire. This calculated annihilation of the royal mystique that had prompted Congress to continue seeking reconciliation with the sovereign for months after shots had been fired and a war fought in earnest is jaw-dropping in its goals, implications, and results. Americans, Britons, and the rest of the world observing the Revolution would not have missed the gravity of the accusations and how they were framed – or simply that they were enumerated in print, a decision that could only be considered blatant treason.

In colonial America, it had been the custom to celebrate the king’s birthday with all the pomp and pride of subjects who loved their monarch. The fireworks, processions, sermons, and proclamations would usually end with Americans-who-were-also-Britons offering the words, “God Save the King,” often as part of a toast during the celebrations.  Once the Declaration of Independence was circulated throughout the American states, there was a different toast in honor of the document: “George rejected and liberty protected.” He had been their father figure, friend, protector from unbridled power, successor to the royal line that granted the colonies their charters, and guardian against foreign enemies. In the Declaration, he is a figure of tyranny, even evil, cast as an adversary in harsh tones like those used in Common Sense. The birthday of an irrelevant king was replaced with the birthday of a nation. No other section of the Declaration contains so much poignancy when closely examined; no other section did more to convince Americans “’TIS TIME TO PART.”

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Watch Out, Grammy Awards: The Declaration is Now A Music Video

 From Soomo Publishing comes a surprising gem no doubt geared toward bored Millenials in college asking, “What does the Declaration of Independence have to do with me?” It’s fluff, but it’s relevant fluff in the form of a music video based on the idea that the break with England came when “it was too late to apologize.” I have no idea what band made this video, and it will never replace Carl Lotus Becker or Dumas Malone. Consider it a palate cleanser before tackling another chapter on the political history of revolutionary America.

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The Hessians and their Aggressions

hessians_yager_3

"Mercenaries" such as these smartly-dressed Hessian troops are mentioned in the Declaration of Independence as threats to Americans lives and liberties.

Among the 27 grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence is the following accusation leveled at the British king George III:

 “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 and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.”

            The document is referring to the nearly 30,000 contract soldiers from various German states who fought with British forces in the American Revolution. Although their fearsome reputation often was built on exaggeration, these so-called “Hessians” were responsible for their share of depredations against American lives and property. If nothing else, many Americans considered the use of mercenaries tantamount to an act of war by a foreign power against their lives and fortunes. Earlier in the century, Great Britain had used similar mercenary forces to suppress rebellions in Ireland and Scotland.  Under international law at the time, the Hessians were not really mercenaries (the correct term is“auxiliaries,” subjects of a ruler who assisted another by providing soldiers in return for money), but those fine points didn’t matter.  The presence of foreigners with British forces was enough to convince many fence-sitting Americans that their choices were simply fight or submit.

            George Washington considered the German mercenaries both a real threat and an opportunity. On August 26, 1776, Washington ordered one of the first psychological warfare operations in the history of the United States military when a baker and Patriot operative named Christopher Ludwick distributed pamphlets urging “Hessians” to desert and aid the Continental Army. “The papers designed for the foreign Troops, have been put into several Channels, in order that they may be conveyed to them, and from the Information I had yesterday, I have reason to believe many have fallen into their Hands,” Washington wrote in a letter to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. Congress established a committee to develop a plan based on propaganda, promises of citizenship, and enticements of free land that might convince Hessians soldiers to switch sides. Despite the propaganda and promises, their efforts produced scant results. In America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army by Charles Patrick Neimeyer, the author notes that only 66 Hessians deserted in 1776, a remarkably low number considering the Patriot’s efforts. Even though 18th century armies normally had high desertion rates, foreign mercenaries fighting in the British Army against the Americans were battling far from home and at time when the war was going well for their side. The Hessians remained an active and formidable component of British forces throughout the American Revolution. (By the way, Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration and one of the United State’s first great medical men, wrote an excellent biography of Christopher Ludwick which can be found here courtesy of Google Books.)

            However, the presence of the foreign troops unintentionally aided arguments for independence. They were foreign troops who were seen as invaders. No king who claimed to love his people would do such thing. Many Americans concluded that the king did not love Americans – he hated them, and he would use every tool in his imperial arsenal to destroy them. A king who did that was a tyrant and under the doctrine of natural rights no people owed any continued allegiance to a sovereign who treated them in such a miserable way. Thus, the presence of the “Hessians” was one more piece of evidence submitted in the Declaration to a candid world that the American Revolution was not a rebellion, but a legitimate war. One of these foreigners clearly saw what Americans believed when he observed troops in the Continental Army. “With what soldiers in the world could one do what was done by these men, who go about nearly naked and in the greatest privation? Deny the best-disciplined soldiers of Europe what is due them and they will run away in droves, and the general will soon be alone. But from this one can perceive what an enthusiasm – which these poor fellows call ‘liberty’ – can do!” wrote the Hessian officer Johann Von Ewald.  Offers of money or land could not purchase that kind of loyalty to a cause, one that declared liberty and independence. No wonder Gen. Washington wanted the Declaration read aloud to his troops.

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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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The Dog Days of the Declaration: Just When Was It Signed?

Detail of a copy of the John Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence

Detail of a copy of the John Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence

Most Americans consider July 4 the day when all the action took place that made the Declaration what it was: A statement of liberty and freedom, a proclamation of independent nationhood, and even a manifesto defining what American patriots had been fighting for during a war that had been waging for 16 bloody months. The Continental Congress voted, declared, and signed all in one earth-shattering climax of patriotic energy. Charming popular depictions of the history of the Declaration reinforce this misconception. As a high school student enthralled with the bicentennial celebration of the nation in 1976, I saw the musical 1776 repeatedly, awed by its closing scene of the Congress’ delegates signing the Declaration as a bell tolled once for each of the 13 states. It was dramatic, heady stuff for a sophomore who already knew that he was in love with this nation’s history.

            The truth is just as dramatic – but more complex. August is a significant month in the history of the Declaration for many reasons, including the fact it’s probably when the majority of the delegates actually signed the document. Contrary to the popular tradition established late in the 18th century and fostered to this day, the Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4, 1776. We have good records of the proceedings in the Continental Congress, including the Journals of the Continental Congress that were kept from 1774 to 1789. The entry for July 4, 1776, contains a copy of the Declaration in its adopted form and the words, “Signed by order and in behalf of the Congress, John Hancock, President.”  There is no list of additional signatures. A later entry (July 19) clearly states an order that the Declaration passed on July 4 be “fairly engrossed,” defined in Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language as “written in large fair characters.” No doubt, this order created an official copy of Declaration – but again, there is no record of additional signers. However, the order also included a directive that the Declaration “when engrossed be signed by every member of Congress.” On August 2, the journal notes “The declaration of Independence being engrossed & compared at the table was signed by the Members.” Thus, the best documentary evidence indicates that on July 4 the only founder who signed the Declaration was John Hancock, whose iconic and bold five-inch-long signature

John Hancock's signature from the Declaration of Independence

John Hancock's signature from the Declaration of Independence

prompted the birth of the phrase synonymous with placing one’s name on something: “He put his John Hancock on it.” Eventually, 56 delegates signed. Eight did not, some because they actually opposed independence. A few might have even signed as late as September or October 1776 because they were absent on other business.

            Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin all stated more than decade later that the Declaration had been signed on July 4. How could these titans of the American Revolution get such a basic fact wrong? Memories fade, and their idea of what “signing” meant could simply mean that when Hancock signed the Declaration as the president of Congress he was validating the document in the name of all the delegates.  It is clear that some delegates were not even present in Congress on July 4, a fact substantiated by multiple sources. One thing is certain: When the majority of delegates gathered to sign the Declaration in August, they had to be prepared to do more than fight the heat, flies, and thunderstorms of a Philadelphia summer. They now had to fight for their lives. Certainly, the men who signed the Declaration knew they had signed their death warrants. George III had promised the Patriot leaders “condign punishment,” 18th-century regal cant for swinging by the neck on a British rope as a traitor until the offender was dead.  Dr. Benjamin Rush, a delegate from Pennsylvannia, left an account of the mood in the room when he and the delegates present at the time took their turns signing the Declaration several weeks after Congress approved it. In an 1810 letter to John Adams, he wrote:

“Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many to be our own death warrants? The silence and gloom of the morning were interrupted, I well recollect, by Colonel Harrison of Virginia who said to Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts ‘I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body, I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body, you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.’ This speech procured a transient smile, but it was succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted.”

These were men who had truly pledged “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.” They knew what they had done, but they could not look back across 233 years of national history to put their minds at ease regarding the outcome of their actions. Many of them were people who in the world of 18th-century America had the most to lose. The members of the Continental Congress were lawyers, men of property and commercial success, local politicians, a world-famous scientist and writer, Virginia aristocrats and New York millionaires who risked everything they had on a revolution that challenged the most powerful nation on earth. Few of us have faced risks like that when we signed a document. Their signatures, and the country they created to the blessing of us all, are more than just ink on parchment.

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