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Letter to the Right Honorable Lord Viscount Howe



17th December, 1776.

MY LORD: Whatever errour the Court of Great Britain may have fallen into in the commencement and prosecution of the present unhappy contest with America, it was certainly a most politick step to commit the conduct of this important affair to your Lordship, and the General your brother.

The name of Howe is dear to America, and amongst the many distressing difficulties we have to surmount, it is certainly no inconsiderable one to overcome the predilection we feel for your family. The exalted virtues of your heroick brother, whose bones are embraced by that soil you are now drenching with blood, often rise in painful remembrance. We are ready to acknowledge the amiable dispositions that distinguish your private character; and whilst we feel the smart of the wounds you inflict, wish they had been administered by another hand. We consider you as the executioner of another' s wrath, not your own; and forgive with as much sincerity (pardon the allusion) as the condemned wretch forgives the appointed officer who is about to torture him into another state of existence. The idea I have of your Lordship' s character compels me to suppose that, before you undertook this fatal task, your judgment was fully convinced that the inflexible rules of honour and equity, the spirit of the British Constitution, and the sacred rights of mankind, fully authorized the claims of the British Court over her American subjects; and that a refusal of, and resistance to those claims on the part of America, is, and ought to be, deemed rebellion against Government. Under such a conviction, can we blame your Lordship for asserting and enforcing the rights of your Sovereign? For my own part, I can lay my hand upon my heart, and with sincerity declare, if you are so convinced, I blame you not. Let the same candour, my Lord, be extended to the poor Americans! If they think, and are firmly persuaded, that neither honour nor equity, neither the spirit of the British Constitution nor the rights of mankind, can authorize the unbounded expectation of the British Court, and that it is an indisputable duty they owe to themselves and their unborn posterity to defend their Constitution against such claims, ought they not to be respected, as then acting upon the best principles,


however ill-founded you may suppose those principles to be; and ought you not to pity whilst you punish?

The present dispute is, what the rights of the Crown and Parliament are with respect to America, and what they are not. Great Britain would have us acknowledge that her claims are just, and that without much reasoning upon the subject. She will not reason upon it; she will not hear what we have to say in our own defence, but we must acknowledge her claims are just. And when, my Lord, were acknowledgments of this kind forced upon mankind with success? To own the supremacy of the British Legislature over the lives and properties of the people of America, or to own the supremacy of his Holiness over our immortal souls, are doctrines which can only be established by the sword and the fagot, amongst men who have the free use of their reason. But I am, perhaps, going too far. I mean not to offend your Lordship, nor would I be wanting in that respect which is due to your character and station. If my zeal upon so interesting a subject should appear somewhat intemperate, your Lordship will make the proper allowance. Suffer me, then, to shed a few tears over the mangled limbs of my bleeding country. Know, then, that ruin and devastation, plunder and riot, insult and murder, mark the way of your savage mercenaries over this hospitable, cultivated, and once happy land. It is not enough that the hopeful youth, with fire in his eye, and a heart high beating in his country' s cause, is called forth and cut down in the field of battle, where the crimson glow of health fades from his cheek, and he yields his breath an early sacrifice at the shrine of liberty; but the voice of the trembling virgin cries aloud to Heaven against the brutal force of the salacious ravisher, who, having accomplished his infernal purpose, spurns at the body he has compelled to give the unlicensed joy. Take a view of the country before you: villages demolished, cities abandoned, and the miserable inhabitants driven from their comfortable houses, where they had long enjoyed all the endearing sweets of domestick felicity, to seek shelter, at this inclement season, they know not where; whilst the remains of their property, acquired by long labour and industry, are left a prey to unpitying foreigners, who destroy, without remorse, what they cannot immediately use or conveniently take away. Think not, my Lord, that this is an exaggerated picture, overcharged in the colouring. Facts have justified the assertion, and the mournful occasion prompts the style.

Such is the nature of the commission you are come to execute amongst us. Cruel as it is, I am nevertheless firm in opinion that your Lordship thinks you are only brandishing the sword of justice, not exercising the rod of oppression. But how you can think so, is hard for an American to conceive. I have been told, and fondly encourage the belief, that your Lordship holds in contempt those parricides who, through a selfish motive of securing themselves, basely betray their country' s cause, and that, although you think yourself obliged to take advantage of the treason, you despise the traitors. This is a principle of honour worthy your character, and perfectly consistent with the sentiments of a liberal mind.

But I hasten to a conclusion of this address. The unpardonable fault of America now, it is said, is the Declaration of Independence. When our faults were less, they were as hardly thought of and as highly censured. Even our modest complaints were called presumption, and dismissed with reproach. No lenient hand was held out to bring matters to a happy issue; no alleviation offered to the griefs we thought we suffered; no friendly shield interposed between us and the ruin we apprehended. Independence was so far from the wish of America, the very idea was distressing. But hard and cruel necessity drove us to the desperate determination. God only knows what the event will be. In the mean time, we would press upon you to call forth that humanity which, like a healing balm, lubricates every generous mind; and though you carry on your master' s work, let not the hand of rapine spread unnecessary desolation through our suffering country. Arrest the plunderer' s greedy grasp, and let not the cries of the despoiled virgin call to Heaven for vengeance on those who regard not God, and who trample on the sacred rights of humanity. Wrongs like these fix a stain even on victory itself, which the floods of ages cannot wash.

Yours, &c.