“An American” to the Earl of Carlisle and Others

“Father of the American Revolution” — Samuel Adams

Liberty Letters, Samuel Adams, May-June 1778

To the Earl of Carlisle, Lord Viscount Howe, Sir William Howe (or, in his absence, Sir Henry Clinton), William Eden, and George Johnstone.

Trusty and well-beloved servants of your sacred master, in whom he is well pleased.

As you are sent to America for the express purpose of treating with anybody and anything, you will pardon an address from one who disdains to flatter those whom he loves. Should you therefore deign to read this address, your chaste ears will not be offended with the language of adulation,—a language you despise.

I have seen your most elegant and most excellent letter “to his Excellency, Henry Laurens, the President, and other members of the Congress.” As that body have thought your propositions unworthy their particular regard, it may be some satisfaction to your curiosity, and tend to appease the offended spirit of negotiation, if one out of the many individuals on this great continent should speak to you the sentiments of America,—sentiments which your own good sense hath doubtless suggested, and which are repeated only to convince you that, notwithstanding the narrow ground of private information on which we stand in this distant region, still a knowledge of our own rights, and attention to our own interests and a sacred respect for the dignity of human nature, have given us to understand the true principles which ought, and which therefore shall, sway our conduct.

You begin with the amiable expressions of humanity, the earnest desire of tranquillity and peace. A better introduction to Americans could not be devised. For the sake of the latter, we once laid our liberties at the feet of your Prince, and even your armies have not eradicated the former from our bosoms.

You tell us you have powers unprecedented in the annals of your history. And England, unhappy England, will remember with deep contrition that these powers have been rendered of no avail by a conduct unprecedented in the annals of mankind. Had your royal master condescended to listen to the prayer of millions, he had not thus have sent you. Had moderation swayed what we were proud to call “mother country” her full-blown dignity would not have broken down under her.

You tell us that all “parties may draw some degree of consolation, and even auspicious hope, from recollection.” We wish this most sincerely for the sake of all parties. America, in the moment of subjugation, would have been consoled by conscious virtue, and her hope was, and is, in the justice of her cause and the justice of the Almighty. These are sources of hope and of consolation which neither time nor chance can alter or take away.

You mention “the mutual benefits and consideration of evils that may naturally contribute to determine our resolutions.” As to the former, you know too well that we could derive no benefit from a union with you, nor will I, by deducing the reasons to evince this, put an insult upon your understandings. As to the latter, it were to be wished you had preserved a line of conduct equal to the delicacy of your feelings. You could not but know that men who sincerely love freedom disdain the consideration of all evils necessary to attain it. Had not your own hearts borne testimony to this truth, you might have learned it from the annals of your own history; for in those annals instances of this kind at least are not unprecedented. But should those instances be insufficient, we pray you to read the unconquered mind of America.

That the acts of Parliament you transmitted were passed with singular unanimity, we pretend not to doubt. You will pardon me, gentlemen, for observing that the reasons of that unanimity are strongly marked in the report of a committee of Congress agreed to on the 22d of April last, and referred to in a late letter from Congress to Lord Viscount Howe and Sir Henry Clinton.

You tell us you are willing “to consent to a cessation of hostilities both by sea and land.” It is difficult for rude Americans to determine whether you are serious in this proposition or whether you mean to jest with their simplicity. Upon a supposition, however, that you have too much magnanimity to divert yourselves on an occasion of so much importance to America, and, perhaps, not very trivial in the eyes of those who sent you, permit me to assure you, on the sacred word of a gentleman, that if you shall transport your troops to England, where before long your Prince will certainly want their assistance, we shall never follow them thither. We are not so romantically fond of fighting, neither have we such regard for the city of London, as to commence a crusade for the possession of that holy land. Thus you may be certain hostilities will cease by land. It would be doing singular injustice to your national character to suppose you are desirous of a like cessation by sea. The course of the war, and the very flourishing state of your commerce, notwithstanding our weak efforts to interrupt it, daily show that you can exclude us from the sea,—the sea, your kingdom!

You offer “to restore free intercourse, to revive mutual affection, and renew the common benefits of naturalization.” Whenever your countrymen shall be taught wisdom by experience, and learn from past misfortunes to pursue their true interests in the future we shall readily admit every intercourse which is necessary for the purposes of commerce and usual between different nations. To revive mutual affection is utterly impossible. We freely forgive you, but it is not in nature that you should forgive us. You have injured us too much. We might, on this occasion, give you some instances of singular barbarity committed, as well by the forces of his Britannic Majesty as by those of his generous and faithful allies, the Senecas, Onondagas, and Tuscaroras. But we will not offend a courtly ear by the recital of those disgusting scenes. Besides this, it might give pain to that humanity which hath, as you observe, prompted your overtures, to dwell upon the splendid victories obtained by a licentious soldiery over unarmed men in defenceless villages, their wanton devastations, their deliberate murders, or to inspect those scenes of carnage painted by the wild excesses of savage rage. These amiable traits of national conduct cannot but revive in our bosoms that partial affection we once felt for everything which bore the name of Englishman. As to the common benefits of naturalization, it is a matter we conceive to be of the most sovereign indifference. A few of our wealthy citizens may hereafter visit England and Rome to see the ruins of those august temples in which the goddess of Liberty was once adored. These will hardly claim naturalization in either of those places as a benefit. On the other hand, such of your subjects as shall be driven by the iron hand of Oppression to seek for refuge among those whom they now persecute will certainly be admitted to the benefits of naturalization. We labor to rear an asylum for mankind, and regret that circumstances will not permit you, gentlemen, to contribute to a design so very agreeable to your several tempers and dispositions.

But further, your Excellencies say, “We will concur to extend every freedom to trade that our respective interests can require.” Unfortunately, there is a little difference in these interests which you might not have found it very easy to reconcile, had the Congress been disposed to risk their heads by listening to terms which I have the honor to assure you are treated with ineffable contempt by every honest Whig in America. The difference I allude to is, that it is your interest to monopolize our commerce, and it is our interest to trade with all the world. There is, indeed, a method of cutting this Gordian knot which, perhaps, no statesman is acute enough to untie. By reserving to the Parliament of Great Britain the right of determining what our respective interests require, they might extend the freedom of trade, or circumscribe it at their pleasure, for what they might call our respective interests. But I trust it would not be for our mutual satisfaction. Your “earnest desire to stop the effusion of blood and the calamities of war” will therefore lead you, on maturer reflection, to reprobate a plan teeming with discord, and which, in the space of twenty years, would produce another wild expedition across the Atlantic, and in a few years more some such commission as that “with which his Majesty hath been pleased to honor you.” We cannot but admire the generosity of soul which prompts you “to agree that no military force shall be kept up in the different States of North America without the consent of the General Congress or particular Assemblies.” The only grateful return we can make for this exemplary condescension is, to assure your Excellencies, and, on behalf of my countrymen, I do most solemnly promise and assure you, that no military force shall be kept up in the different States of North America without the consent of the General Congress and that of the Legislatures of those States. You will, therefore, cause the forces of your royal master to be removed; for I can venture to assure you that the Congress have not consented, and probably will not consent, that they be kept up.

You have also made the unsolicited offer of concurring “in measures calculated to discharge the debts of America, and to raise the credit and value of the paper circulation.” If your Excellencies mean by this to apply for offices in the department of our finance, I am to assure you (which I do with “perfect respect”) that it will be necessary to procure very ample recommendations. For, as the English have not yet pursued measures to discharge their own debt and raise the credit and value of their own paper circulation, but, on the contrary, are in a fair way to increase the one and absolutely destroy the other, you will instantly perceive that financiers from that nation would present themselves with the most awkward grace imaginable.

You propose to us a device to “perpetuate our union.” It might not be amiss previously to establish this union, which may be done by your acceptance of the treaty of peace and commerce tendered to you by Congress. And such treaty I can venture to say would continue as long as your ministers could prevail upon themselves not to violate the faith of nations.

You offer, to use your language, the inaccuracy of which, considering the importance of the subject, is not to be wondered at, or at least may be excused, “in short, to establish the powers of the respective Legislatures in each particular State, to settle its revenue, its civil and military establishment, and to exercise a perfect freedom of legislation and internal government, so that the British States throughout North America, acting with us in peace and war, under one common sovereign, may have the irrevocable enjoyment of every privilege that is short of a total separation of interests, or consistent with that total union of force on which the safety of our common religion and liberty depends.” Let me assure you, gentlemen, that the power of the respective Legislatures in each particular State is most fully established, and on the most solid foundations. It is established on the perfect freedom of legislation and a vigorous administration of internal government. As to the settlement of the revenue and the civil and military establishment, these are the work of the day, for which the several Legislatures are fully competent. I have also the pleasure to congratulate your Excellencies that the country for the settlement of whose government, revenue, administration, and the like, you have exposed yourselves to the fatigues and hazards of a disagreeable voyage and more disagreeable negotiation, hath abundant resources wherewith to defend her liberties now, and pour forth the rich stream of revenue hereafter. As the States of North America mean to possess the irrevocable enjoyment of their privileges, it is absolutely necessary for them to decline all connection with a Parliament who, even in the laws under which you act, reserve in express terms the power of revoking every proposition which you may agree to. We have a due sense of the kind offer you make to grant us a share in your sovereign; but really, gentlemen, we have not the least inclination to accept of it. He may suit you extremely well, but he is not to our taste. You are solicitous to prevent a total separation of interests; and this, after all, seems to be the gist of the business. To make you as easy as possible on this subject, I have to observe, that it may, and probably will, in some instances, be our interest to assist you, and then we certainly shall. Where this is not the case, your Excellencies have doubtless too much good sense as well as good nature to require it. We cannot perceive that our liberty does in the least depend upon any union of force with you; for we find that after you have exercised your force against us for upwards of three years, we are now upon the point of establishing our liberties in direct opposition to it. Neither can we conceive that, after the experiment you have made, any nation in Europe will embark in so unpromising a scheme as the subjugation of America. It is not necessary that everybody should play the Quixote. One is enough to entertain a generation at least. Your Excellencies will, I hope, excuse me when I differ from you as to our having a religion in common with you; the religion of America is the religion of all mankind. Any person may worship in the manner he thinks most agreeable to the Deity; and if he behaves as a good citizen, no one concerns himself as to his faith or adorations, neither have we the least solicitude to exalt any one sect or profession above another.

I am extremely sorry to find in your letter some sentences which reflect upon the character of his most Christian Majesty. It certainly is not kind, or consistent with the principles of philanthropy you profess, to traduce a gentleman’s character, without affording him an opportunity of defending himself; and that, too, a near neighbor, and not long since an intimate brother, who besides hath lately given you the most solid additional proofs of his pacific disposition, and with an unparalleled sincerity which would do honor to other princes, declared to your Court, unasked, the nature and effect of a treaty he had just entered into with these States. Neither is it quite according to the rules of politeness to use such terms in addressing yourselves to Congress, when you well knew that he was their good and faithful ally. It is indeed true, as you justly observe, that he hath at times been at enmity with his Britannic Majesty, by which we suffered some inconveniences; but these flowed rather from our connection with you than any ill-will towards us; at the same time it is a solemn truth, worthy of your serious attention, that you did not commence the present war,—a war in which we have suffered infinitely more than by any former contest, a fierce, a bloody, I am sorry to add, an unprovoked and cruel war,—that you did not commence this, I say, because of any connection between us and our present ally; but, on the contrary, as soon as you perceived that the treaty was in agitation, proposed terms of peace to us in consequence of what you have been pleased to denominate an insidious interposition. HOW, then, does the account stand between us? America, being at peace with the world, was formerly drawn into a war with France in consequence of her union with Great Britain. At present, America being engaged in a war with Great Britain, will probably obtain the most honorable terms of peace in consequence of her friendly connection with France. For the truth of these positions, I appeal, gentlemen, to your own knowledge. I know it is very hard for you to part with what you have accustomed yourselves from your earliest infancy to call your Colonies. I pity your situation, and therefore I excuse the little aberrations from truth which your letter contains. At the same time it is possible that you may have been misinformed. For I will not suppose that your letter was intended to delude the people of these States. Such unmanly, disingenuous artifices have of late been exerted with so little effect, that prudence, if not probity, would prevent a repetition. To undeceive you, therefore, I take the liberty of assuring your Excellencies, from the very best intelligence, that what you call “the present form of the French offers to America,” in other words, the treaties of alliance and commerce between his most Christian Majesty and these States, were not made in consequence of any plans of accommodation concerted in Great Britain, nor with a view to prolong this destructive war. If you consider that these treaties were actually concluded before the draft of the bills under which you act was sent to America, and that much time must necessarily have been consumed in adjusting compacts of such intricacy and importance, and further, if you consider the early notification of this treaty by the Court of France, and the assurance given that America had reserved a right of admitting even you to a similar treaty, you must be convinced of the truth of my assertions. The fact is, that when the British minister perceived that we were treating with the greatest prince in Europe, he applied himself immediately to counteract the effect of these negotiations. And this leads me, with infinite regret, to make some observations which may possibly be by you considered in an offensive point of view.

It seems to me, gentlemen, there is something (excuse the word) disingenuous in your procedure. I put the supposition that Congress had acceded to your propositions, and then I ask two questions:— Had you full power from your commission to make these propositions? Possibly you did not think it worth your while to consider your commission, but we Americans are apt to compare things together and to reason. The second question I ask is, What security could you give that the British Parliament would ratify your compacts? You can give no such security; and therefore we should, after forfeiting our reputation as a people, after you had filched from us our good name, and persuaded us to give to the common enemy of man the precious jewel of our liberties,—after all this, I say, we should have been at the mercy of a Parliament which, to say no more of it, has not treated us with too great tenderness. It is quite needless to add that, even if that Parliament had ratified the conditions you proposed, still poor America was to lie at the mercy of any future Parliament, or to appeal to the sword, which certainly is not the most pleasant business men can be engaged in.

For your use I subjoin the following creed of every good American:—I believe that in every kingdom, state, or empire there must be, from the necessity of the thing, one supreme legislative power, with authority to bind every part in all cases the proper object of human laws. I believe that to be bound by laws to which he does not consent by himself, or by his representative, is the direct definition of a slave. I do therefore believe that a dependence on Great Britain, however the same may be limited or qualified, is utterly inconsistent with every idea of liberty, for the defence of which I have solemnly pledged my life and fortune to my countrymen; and this engagement I will sacredly adhere to so long as I shall live. Amen.

Now, if you will take the poor advice of one who is really a friend to England and Englishmen, and who hath even some Scotch blood in his veins,—away with your fleets and your armies, acknowledge the independence of America; and as ambassadors, and not commissioners, solicit a treaty of peace, amity, commerce, and alliance with the rising States of this Western world. Your nation totters on the brink of a stupendous precipice, and even delay will ruin her.

You have told Congress, “if, after the time that may be necessary to consider this communication and transmit your answer, the horrors and devastations of war should continue, we call God and the world to witness that the evils which must follow are not to be imputed to Great Britain.” I wish you had spared your protestation. Matters of this kind may appear to you in a trivial light, as mere ornamental flowers of rhetoric, but they are serious things, registered in the high chancery of Heaven. Remember the awful abuse of words like those by General Burgoyne, and remember his fate. There is One above us who will take exemplary vengeance for every insult upon His majesty. You know that the cause of America is just. You know that she contends for that freedom to which all men are entitled,—that she contends against oppression, rapine, and more than savage barbarity. The blood of the innocent is upon your hands, and all the waters of the ocean will not wash it away. We again make our solemn appeal to the God of heaven to decide between you and us. And We pray that, in the doubtful scale of battle, we may be successful as we have justice on our side, and that the merciful Saviour of the world may forgive our oppressors.

I am, my Lords and Gentlemen, the friend of human nature, and one who glories in the title of

An American.

1Also attributed to Adams in The Remembrancer, 1778, p. 306.

Source: Samuel Adams, 12 January 1768, Samuel Adams letter, representing the Massachusetts House of Representatives, to Denny de Berdt.

Read more of our Liberty Letters in our Founders Corner Library.

Liberty Letters is a project of Steve Farrell and The Moral Liberal.

The Moral Liberal recommends David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Biography: John Adams