Primary tabs

General Burgoyne to General Lee



Boston, July 8, 1775.

DEAR SIR: When we were last together in service I should not have thought it within the vicissitudes of human affairs that we should meet at any time, or in any sense, as foes. The letter you have honoured me with, and my own feelings, continue to prove we are still far from being personally such.

I claim no merit from the attentions you so kindly remember in the early periods of our acquaintance, but as they manifest how much it was my pride to be known to be your friend; nor have I departed from the duties of that character, when, I will not scruple to say, it has been almost general offence to maintain it: I mean since the violent part you have taken in the commotions of the Colonies.

It would exceed the limits and the propriety of our present correspondence to argue at full the great cause in which we are engaged. But anxious to preserve a consistent and ingenuous character, and jealous, I confess, of having the part I sustain imputed to such motives as you intimate, I will state to you, as concisely as I can, the principles upon which, not voluntarily, but most conscientiously, I undertook it.

I have, like you, entertained from infancy a veneration of publick liberty. I have likewise regarded the British Constitution as the best safeguard of that blessing to be found in the history of mankind.

The vital principle of the Constitution, in which it moves and has its being, is the supremacy of the King and Parliament; a compound, indefinite, indefeasible power, co-evil with the origin of the Empire, and co-extensive over all its parts.

I am no stranger to the doctrines of Mr˙ Locke, and other of the best advocates for the rights of mankind, upon the compacts always implied between the governing and the governed, and the right of resistance in the latter, when the compact shall be so violated as to leave no other means of redress. I look with reverence, almost amounting to idolatry, upon those immortal Whigs who adopted and applied such doctrine during part of the reign of Charles the First, and in that of James the Second.

Should corruption pervade the three estates of the Realm, so as to pervert the great ends for which they were instituted, and make the power vested in them for the good of the whole people operate, like an abuse of the prerogative of the Crown, to general oppression, I am ready to acknowledge that the same doctrine of resistance applies as forcibly against the abuses of the collective body of power, as against those of the Crown, or either of the other component branches separately: still always understood that no other means of redress can be obtained; a case, I contend, much more difficult to suppose when it relates to the whole, than when it relates to parts.

But in all cases that have existed or can be conceived, I hold that resistance, to be justifiable, must be directed against the usurpation or undue exercise of power, and that it is most criminal when directed against any power itself inherent in the Constitution.

And here you will immediately discern why I drew a line in the allusion I made above to the reign of Charles the First. Towards the close of it the true principle of resistance was changed, and a new system of Government projected accordingly. The Patriots, previous to the long Parliament, and during great part of it, as well as the glorious Revolutionists of 1688, resisted to vindicate and restore the Constitution; the Republicans resisted to subvert it.


Now, Sir, lay your hand upon your heart, as you have enjoined me to do on mine, and tell me, to which of these purposes do the proceedings of America tend?

Is it the weight of taxes imposed, and the impossibility of relief after a due representation of her burden, that has induced her to take arms? or is it a denial of the rights of British legislation to impose them, and consequently a struggle for total independency? For the idea of power that can tax externally and not internally, and all the sophistry that attends it, though it may catch the weakness and the prejudice of the multitude in a speech or pamphlet, it is too preposterous to weigh seriously with a man of your understanding; and I am confident you will admit the case to be fairly put. Is it then from a relief of taxes, or from the control of Parliament, "in all cases whatsoever," we are in war? If for the former, the quarrel is at an end; there is not a man of sense and information in America, who does not know it is in the power of the Colonies to put an end to the exercise of taxation immediately and forever. I boldly assert it, because sense and information will also suggest to every man, that it can never be the interest of Britain, after her late experience, to make another trial.

But if the other ground is taken, and it is intended to wrest from Great Britain a link of that substantial, and, T hope, perpetual chain, by which the Empire holds, think it not a ministerial mandate; think it not a mere professional ardour; think it not a prejudice against a part of our fellow-subjects, that induces men of integrity, (and among such you have done me the honour to class me,) to act with vigour; but be assured it is a conviction that the whole of our political system depends upon the preservation of its great and essential parts distinctly, and no part is so great and essential as supremacy of legislation. It is a conviction, that as a King of England never appears in so glorious a light as when he employs the executive powers of the state to maintain the laws, so, in the present exertions of that power, His Majesty is particularly entitled to our zeal and grateful obedience, not only as soldiers but as citizens.

These principles, depend upon it, actuate the Army and Fleet throughout. And let me at the same time add, there are few, if any, gentlemen among us who would have drawn his sword in the cause of slavery.

But why do I bind myself to the Navy and Army? The sentiments I have touched are those of the great bulk of the Nation. I appeal to the landed men who have so long borne burdens for America; I appeal to those trading Towns who are sufferers by the dispute, and the City of London at the head of them, notwithstanding the petitions and remonstrances which the arts of party and faction have extorted from some individuals; and last, because least in your favour, I appeal to the majorities in the Houses of Parliament upon American questions this session. The most licentious news-writers want assurance to call these majorities Ministerial, much less will you give them that name when you impartially examine the characters that compose them; men of the most independent principles and fortunes, and many of them professedly in opposition to the Court in the general line of their conduct.

Among other supporters of British rights against American claims, I will not speak positively, but I firmly believe I may name the man of whose integrity you have the highest opinion, and whose friendship is nearest your heart — I mean Lord Thanet, from whom my Aid-de-Camp has a letter for you, and also one from Sir Charles Davers. I do not enclose them, because the writers, little imagining how difficult your conduct would render our intercourse, desired they might be delivered to your own hands.

For this purpose, as well as to renew "the rights of fellowship," I wish to see you; and, above all, I should find an interview happy if it should induce such explanation as might tend in their consequences to peace. I feel, in common with all around me, for the unhappy bulk of this Country; they foresee not the distress that is impending over them. I know Great Britain is ready to open her arms upon the first overture of accommodation; I know she is equally resolute to maintain her original rights; and if the war proceeds, your one hundred and fifty thousand men will not be a match for her power.

The place I would propose for our meeting is the house upon Boston Neck, just within our advanced sentries, called


Brown' s house. I will obtain authority to give my parole of honour for your safe return. I shall expect the same on your part, that no insult be offered to me. If this plan is agreeable to you, name your day and hour. At all events, accept a sincere return of the assurances with which you honour me, and believe me, in all personal considerations, affectionately yours.

P˙ S. I obeyed your commands to General Howe and Clinton. I also communicated your letter and my answer to Lord Percy. They all join me in compliments, and authorize me to assure you they do the same in principle.