Sunday, January 31, 2021

ARP186 Carlisle Peace Commission

 A couple of weeks ago, I covered the British as they sent General Howe back to London, following a big party in Philadelphia.  A couple of weeks after Howe departed, another ship, the Trident, arrived in Philadelphia from London on June 6, 1778.  It carried a group of peace commissioners. The three commissioners, led by the Earl of Carlisle, arrived with substantial bargaining power from London to at long last bring this rebellion to an end.

Britain Gets Conciliatory

Over the winter of 1777-78, following news of the capture of Burgoyne’s Army at Saratoga, political leaders in London feared that perhaps they really had underestimated the military capacity of the Americans.  Perhaps a political compromise could resolve this matter.

Earl of Carlisle
Many British leaders believed that speed was of the essence.  London was already receiving word that France was seriously considering entry into the war through a military alliance with the United States.  Britain’s bargaining power would be much greater before that happened.

Parliament, however, went on recess in December, shortly after word of the defeat at Saratoga arrived in London and would not meet again for six weeks.  Members debated taking a shorter recess to deal with events that were quickly developing into war with France.  The members, however, voted to retain their extended recess and put off any decisions until the following year.

When Parliament returned on January 20, 1778, the North Ministry was ready to get to work.  In the Taxation of the Colonies Act of 1778, Parliament repealed the tea tax.  It also disclaimed the Declaratory Act which had maintained Parliament’s right to tax the colonies.  Going forward, Parliament would only levy tariffs related to the regulation of trade, and never to raise revenue.  This is exactly what the patriot leaders had been demanding about a decade earlier.  The bill also repealed the Massachusetts Government Act.  This was the 1774 law that altered Massachusetts’ colonial charter to reduce the colonists’ power of self-government.  It was one of the main reasons that colonists had taken up arms at Lexington and Concord in 1775.

The ministry also got Parliament’s approval to send a Commission to America to make further concessions.  If London could give into the demands that had originally started the war, perhaps they could reach a political settlement before France entered the war.

William Eden

The man behind the push for a peace commission was William Eden.  Eden was the son of a Baronet, though since he was not the first born, he would not inherit a title.  William did, however, get a top notch education and trained to be a lawyer.

William Eden
His career soon veered into government service in the areas of diplomacy and trade. In 1772, at the age of 27, he received an appointment to serve as Undersecretary of State in the North Ministry.  This was due to family connections.  He was related to Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn.  Two years later, Eden won a seat in the House of Commons, but also retained his position as Undersecretary of State.

Two years after that, in 1776, he took a third position as a Lord of Trade.  This position on the Board of Trade was one of those honorary jobs that paid £1000 per year but did not require the salary holder to show up for work.  It was the ministry’s way of rewarding members of parliament for political loyalty.

Eden, however, took the unusual step of showing for meetings of the Board of Trade, and taking an active role in debate.  Through his government positions, he also created for himself an informal job of intelligence officer.  Eden began making contacts and sending agents all over Europe to obtain intelligence of interest to the ministry.  One of his agents was Paul Wentworth, who I’ve mentioned before went to Paris to keep tabs on the American Commissioners.  It was through Eden’s intelligence network that the North Ministry received word that France was seriously considering entering the war in early 1777.

Eden was no radical Whig.  In Parliament he had supported taxation of the colonies before the war.  He also supported the use of a large military force to put down the rebellion.

But with war with France imminent, Eden became a vocal proponent of a peace commission, and not one of those BS commissions that had gone before with the power to do nothing, other than to forgive the Americans for their treason.  This commission had to make real concessions and as quickly as possible.

Edward Thurlow
During Parliament’s winter recess, Eden put together the proposals for legislative changes and for the creation of a Peace Commission.  He got Prime Minister Lord North’s approval, as well as that of the conservative Attorney General Lord Thurlow.

Parliament began debate on the conciliatory laws and authorization for the peace commission in mid-February, shortly after it returned.  By early March, both the House of Commons and House of Lords had approved the bills and the commission.  The relatively speedy approval of the plan, after about three weeks, should not belie the fact that it was quite controversial within Parliament.  Many conservative Tories thought that the ministry was essentially giving up on the war after the setback at Saratoga and was surrendering to all the colonial demands. 

At the same time, radical Whigs thought that the reforms and the commission did not go far enough.  Leader of the opposition, Lord Rockingham, recommended during debates that the Commission be empowered to grant independence to the United States.  Rockingham and his faction believed that these were the only conditions that would end the war immediately.  This would allow Britain to negotiate a favorable trading relationship with the US and might successfully short circuit a war with France.  Even if France still did go to war with Britain, the US would not be France’s ally.

The radicals were even calling for Lord North’s resignation. They felt that the Americans needed new leadership to accept the real change in policy.  The call for American independence began with a few radicals.  But, as Parliamentary debate continued, the war with France began, the pro-independence movement in Parliament continued to grow to the point where a majority might support it.  Conservatives had to convince the dying William Pitt, Lord Chatham to return to the House of Lords to make a final speech in favor of holding onto the colonies.  He called the independence of America the dismemberment of the monarchy. Chatham would die a few weeks after this speech, but it was effective in forestalling any continued debate over recognizing American independence.

Peace Commissioners

Even as Parliamentary debate on the commission was getting started in February, Lord North sought to have Eden serve on the peace commission that would go to America.  Eden, however, was not so crazy about the idea.  He feared that he would lose his lucrative government positions.  He preferred to stay in London.  Instead, he requested an appointment to the King’s Privy Council.  

The King nixed that idea, but did agree to Eden’s request for £1000 pounds to pay for his duties as a commissioner.  The ministry also agreed that he could continue to hold his position as Undersecretary of State and on the Board of Trade while he was away.  Eden also got Lord North’s promise that North would not resign while he was in America trying to negotiate a peace, and that the ministry would support a major military operation in America in order to help convince the Americans to accept a negotiated end to the war..

So with all that, Eden was on board. The Ministry then looked for other commissioners.  Eden did not think he should head the commission.  His positions in favor of colonial taxation and the use of Native Americans to help suppress the rebellion might make him an unpopular in the eyes of Americans.  

Instead, the head of the commission went to Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle.  Lord Carlisle was 29 years old at the time and a member of the House of Lords.  He had done little of note in the government. However, he was a childhood friend of Eden from when the two attended Eton together years earlier.  His title made it appropriate for him to lead the Commission, and Eden thought that they would work well together and that Carlisle would rely on Eden’s advice. 

George Johnstone
Parliament’s third commissioner was Richard Jackson.  As a member of parliament, Jackson tended to be a radical Whig.  Congress chose him as a commissioner because they thought that he would be popular with the Americans.  Jackson had served as a colonial agent before the war, and was good friends with Benjamin Franklin.  Eden, however, thought that Jackson was too radical.  He had spoken in favor of recognizing American independence.  That was farther than Eden wanted to go, and farther than the Commission was authorized to go.

Instead, Eden arranged for Jackson to be replaced on the Commission by George Johnstone, a Scottish member of Parliament who had been Royal Governor of West Florida and was by this time in his fifties.  Both Johnstone and Eden seemed in agreement and believed they would work together well.  Johnstone was not, however, on the best terms with Secretary of State Lord Germain.  The two men had fought a duel against each other in 1770 after Johnstone had questioned Germain’s honor.

Also added to the commission were Admiral Sir Richard Howe and General William Howe.  Recall that the Howe Brothers had been appointed as peace commissioners two years earlier, but not given authority to make any political concessions.  It was thought that the Commission needed to work in concert with the military commanders to put pressure on the Americans to accept the negotiated peace.  The ministry had already accepted General Howe’s offer to resign and had recalled him to London. However, this was not yet public knowledge and not revealed explicitly to the Commission.  Instead, the ministry gave the commission the authority to swap Howe’s seat with the new North American Commander, General Sir Henry Clinton, if appropriate.

Commission goes to America

With all the details worked out, the commission finally set sail from London on April 12, 1778, bound for New York.  By this time, of course, officials had wasted four precious months since the commission’s initial conception.  In that time, Britain and France had gone to war, and Americans had become aware of their new alliance.

London Cartoon making fun of the Commission
Before the commissioners even reached New York, they encountered a British naval vessel in mid-passage.  The captain informed them that Admiral Howe and General Clinton had both gone to Philadelphia.  The commissioners changed course and headed straight to Philadelphia.  They would need to confer with Clinton and Howe before they could begin any real negotiations.

When the commissioners arrived in Philadelphia on June 6, they were surprised to learn that General Howe had already left for London, and even more surprised to learn that General Clinton was preparing to evacuate Philadelphia.  This was the first that the commissioners were hearing about the evacuation plans.

Back in London, Lord Germain had assured the commissioners that the military would engage in an offensive to encourage the Americans to enter negotiations.  Germain had said nothing about evacuation Philadelphia, even though he had sent orders to General Clinton to do just that more than a month before the commissioners left London.

Eden angrily wrote Germain about having the commission undercut by the evacuation and by Germain’s decision to not bother to mention that fact to the commissioners before they left.  Germain’s pathetic response was that Eden was supposed to be an intelligence agent who knew all the government secrets, so he should have known about that.

The commissioners attempted to get General Clinton to delay the evacuation, but Clinton had direct orders from London and was concerned that a French fleet might trap the British in Philadelphia if he delayed.

No Negotiations

Despite the weakened negotiating position, the commission was able to offer an impressive set of concessions.  Parliament had authorized the commission to void any law passed since the Seven Years War that the Americans found objectionable.  The Commission could offer the Americans representation in Parliament, or in the alternative, recognize the Continental Congress as the legitimate representative body of the colonies within the British Empire.  It could guarantee that Parliament would never again attempt to levy taxes on the colonies and that it would never again alter a colonial charter, except at the request of the colonial legislature.  Further, the commissioners could offer rewards to American leaders who helped to end the war and bring about peace.  There was discussion, for example, of making George Washington a duke.

Commission ridiculed as begging for Peace
On June 13, a week after the commission’s arrival in Philadelphia the commissioners sent a message to the Continental Congress in York, essentially saying that they just wanted the war to end and that they were willing to discuss pretty much any and all the demands that the colonies had articulated as reasons for the war and independence.  General Washington did not permit the messenger to go to Congress, but did allow the message to be delivered.

If the Carlisle Commission had arrived two years earlier with these same concessions, they probably would have been met with celebration by the colonies.  It almost certainly would have ended the hostilities and the calls for independence.  But this was 1778, not 1776.  The Americans had been through too much and had come too far to negotiate a return to colonial status.  

Four days later, President Henry Laurens, on behalf of a unanimous Congress rejected the peace overture and rejected any offers for further meetings. As a condition for any further discussions, the British either had to recognize American Independence, or remove all military forces from the US.  Further, the commander would have to present himself before the army, put his head between his legs, and kiss his own arse.  Ok, maybe that last condition wasn't true, but it was just about as likely as either of the first two.

The bottom line was that Americans were committed to full independence by this time and would accept nothing less. Once that happened they were happy to discuss trade relationships or other friendly intercourse between the two separate countries.  In other words, we can be friends, but we are just not into you in that way.  The time for any political compromise was over.

Continuing Efforts

By July, after the British evacuated Philadelphia, a topic I will cover in more detail in an upcoming episode, the Commission saw there was no real chance of success.  The commission made one desperate attempt from New York on July 11 explicitly saying that Britain was open to any concession short of complete independence and that British forces could not evacuate North America due to the war with France.  This message reached Congress but received no response.

The commission tried to reach out directly to the people issuing public proclamations of the concessions that they were willing to make.  If they thought that there was some silent majority ready for peace and that only the radicals in Congress would show resistance, they would be quickly disappointed.  Patriots around the country held public burnings of the conciliatory bills, making clear they were not interested in anything less than complete independence.  Attempts to get loyalists talking about a negotiated peace only stirred up patriots to publish more pamphlets about the importance of independence.

Lord Carlisle wrote to his wife that the arrival of the French fleet “makes every hope of success in our business ridiculous.”  Eden wrote to Lord Wedderburn that had he known of the decision to evacuate Philadelphia, he never even would have come to America.  Britain could not negotiate from a position of strength, and the commission only looked weak and craven.  He wanted to return home, but officials in London urged him to stay with the commission, which had moved to New York, and was continuing its efforts.  Many believe the ministry wanted him to stay, not because they believed there was any chance of success, but because they did not want him to return to Parliament and join the opposition.

Francis Dana
To make matters worse, Commissioner George Johnstone attempted to bribe three members of Congress, Francis Dana, Joseph Reed, and Robert Morris.  The delegates all reported the attempted bribery and Congress declared that no patriot could have any communications with such a dishonorable character without bringing their own reputation into question.  

The other members of the Commission had to distance themselves from Johnstone and said they had no knowledge of what he had been doing.  Johnstone had to resign from the commission and return to England.  There, he returned to Parliament and continued with his successful political career in support of the ministry.

By the end of August, the commission released another pronouncement that further attempts at conciliation were futile and that if the Americans wanted to resume discussions, they would have to initiate the talks.  Back in London the King had received initial reports of the failure to start talks in June and told Lord North: “The Present accounts from America put a stop to all negotiations.  Further concession is a joke.”

End of the Commission

In October, the Commission issued one last proclamation making an offer to any individuals or states that might want to seek a peace with Britain and return to the empire.  The proclamation went on to emphasize the dangers to the Americans in allying themselves with their traditional enemy of France.  That resulted in Lafayette challenging Eden to a duel.  Eden declined, noting that bad mouthing an enemy during a time of war is not dishonorable.

The proclamation also threatened that the war would become even more harsh as Britain took off the gloves in this all-out war against France and those who allied themselves with it.  Eden had suggested privately that military leaders send in guerilla units into the continent to engage in continuing acts of destruction and devastation in order to convince the people to demand a peaceful resolution.  That, of course, never happened.  

The only thing the Commission managed to do was restore trade privileges to loyalists living in New York City or Newport, Rhode Island, the only two areas within the United States where Britain still had a significant military presence.

By the end of 1778, the Commission had given up completely and returned to England.  The commissioners continued to try to convince the ministry to apply more military pressure to North America, but by that time, the ministry was focused on other concerns with France.  The commission finally disbanded on June 1, 1779.

Next week, the British Army packs up and evacuates Philadelphia.

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Next Episode 187 Evacuation of Philadelphia 

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Further Reading



Carlisle Commission message to Continental Congress, and Congress’ Response:

Jordan, Myron K. Reconciliation and Reunion, Portland State Univ. (Master’s Thesis) 1775:

Savage, John T. Britain’s Conciliatory Proposal of 1778: A Study in Futility, Univ. of Richmond, (Master’s Thesis) 1968:

Rabb, Reginald E. "The Role of William Eden in the British Peace Commission of 1778” The Historian, vol. 20, no. 2, 1958, pp. 153-178. JSTOR,

Einhorn, Nathan R. “THE RECEPTION OF THE BRITISH PEACE OFFER OF 1778” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 16, no. 3, 1949, pp. 191-214. JSTOR,

George Johnstone:,_George_(DNB00)

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Cobbett, William Parliamentary History of England, vol. 19. London: T.C. Hansard, 1814, pp. 775-815 debate on conciliatory bills of 1778 (Google Books). 

Carlisle Commission October Proclamation:

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Commager, Henry Steele and Richard Morris (eds) The Spirit of Seventy-Six, Castle Books, 2002. 

Hibbert, Christopher Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution Through British Eyes, W.W. Norton & Co. 1990 (book recommendation of the week). 

Reich, Jerome R. British Friends of the American Revolution, Routledge, 1997.

Stryker, William The Battle of Monmouth, Kennikat Press, 1927 (reprint)

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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