On July 13, 1776, Lord Howe, who had just led the largest armada ever to have crossed the Atlantic, and whose troops were encamped on Staten Island, getting ready to crush the American rebellion, attempted to deliver a letter to George Washington. The letter proposed negotiations with a view to preventing bloodshed and restoring peace between Britain and the American colonies. But according to the account in Revolutionary Summer, by Joseph Ellis, the letter could not be delivered. Howe’s emissaries attempted to give it to General Washington’s representative, Joseph Reed, a lawyer from Philadelphia, in a meeting of rowboats in the harbor between the two gathering armies. But Reed refused to accept the letter because it was addressed to George Washington, Esq., rather than to General Washington, commander of the Continental army.
Timing is important in negotiations. This peace overture was probably doomed because it took place just after the colonies had formally declared their independence. Only a few days previously, on July 9, Washington had ordered the reading of the amended and approved July 4 version of the Declaration of Independence to his troops. His orders were to defend New York City from the British invasion, a task he was starting to realize was probably hopeless. Nevertheless, he could not back down at this juncture.
Recognition of the other side’s status is also important in negotiations. Just as Reed could not accept the letter because it failed to recognize Washington’s claim to be leading a co-equal army of an independent nation, Howe could not, consistently with his own orders, accord Washington that status. To do so would have been to surrender in advance the very principle the British were fighting for. They were in America to put down a colonial rebellion. They were not about to accept the premise that they were declaring war on another nation.
It’s obvious in hindsight that George III bungled these negotiations badly. If Britain wanted to hold the colonies, they should have started negotiations much sooner, and been prepared to accord the Americans some degree of autonomy or representation in Parliament. Instead, Lord Howe made his last ditch effort to negotiate peace after the colonies had formally committed themselves to independence, was not prepared to extend any substantial concessions, and mistakenly expected that the Americans would back down in the face of overwhelming force. Because of Britain’s poor negotiating strategy, and their confidence of victory in war, we celebrate our independence every year with a bang of exploding fireworks, rather than with appreciation of the virtues of diplomacy.