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This Day in History: The Carlisle Commission

On this day in 1778, the Continental Congress receives peace overtures from the so-called Carlisle Commission. Let’s just say that the British peace commission achieved anything but peace. To the contrary, the missive it sent to Congress caused such an uproar that the reading of the letter could not even be completed for three days.


The British had created the peace commission months earlier, soon after Parliament received word of the French alliance with America. At nearly the same time, the Continental Congress was across the ocean, then deciding that it would not negotiate with Britain until the King recognized American independence.

The Commissioners, April 1, 1778. London: Published by M. Darly,

Remember, at this point, the war had been ongoing for three years. Americans had offered their own olive branches to the King, and those overtures had been decisively rejected. The British were willing to talk now that the French were backing our cause?


Perhaps our ancestors had cause to view peace overtures with a bit of skepticsm.


Soon after the British commissioners arrived on American shores, General Henry Clinton contacted General George Washington, asking that an emissary be granted safe passage to deliver the Commission’s message to Congress. Washington refused. Instead, he waited a few days, then he wrote Congress himself, enclosing the Commissioners’ message.


Maybe he wanted the British to sweat for an extra day or two?


Washington’s package arrived in Congress on June 13. The Commission’s letter caused an immediate uproar! The commissioners had referenced the French effort to help America, but called it an “insidious interposition.” The reading of the letter was interrupted at this point. A motion was made and approved “not to proceed farther, because of the offensive language against his most Christian majesty.”


Congress finally resumed reading the letter on June 16.


An offer was being made by the British, the commissioners noted, because of “an earnest desire to stop the further effusion of blood and the calamities of war.” They offered Americans home rule, but stopped short of granting independence. They enclosed several acts of Parliament, repealing the last of the laws that had caused so much consternation in America.


Congress was completely unimpressed, and it responded the next day. What sarcastic character wrote the first line of this congressional response?!


“Nothing but an earnest desire to spare the farther effusion of human blood could have induced [Congress] to read [your] paper . . . or to consider propositions so derogatory to the honour of an independent nation.” Congress reiterated its determination to achieve independence and concluded: “[Congress] will therefore be contented to enter upon a consideration of a treaty . . . when the King of Great Britain shall demonstrate a sincere disposition for that purpose. The only solid proof of this disposition will be an explicit acknowledgement of the independence of these states, or the withdrawing his fleets and armies.”


Perhaps Congress wanted to stick it to the British just a little bit more? It soon unanimously resolved “that Congress approve the conduct of General Washington, in refusing a passport to” the Commission’s emissary.


Unfortunately, the Carlisle Commission was not yet done causing trouble. Naturally, that’s a story for another day.

Primary Sources:



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