Genesis of the failed Staten Island peace conference: Bartlett reports "that Lord Howe Expressed himself very Desirous of an accommodation with America, without any more Bloodshed."
William Whipple, fellow New Hampshire congressional delegate—and Signer—had left Philadelphia on 12 August. Bartlett here importunes him to make a hasty return. "By that time this reaches you, I Expect you will be near ready to set out on your return to this City, make all convenient haste, the Congress is at this time very thin; Col Lee is arrived here, but several others have taken leave of absence, among them Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Haywood. The unhappy affair of the 27th on long Island has occasioned the Evacuation of our works there and on Governor's Island, our people were Ensnared, & what vexes me in a very Careless manner."
The "unhappy affair of the 27th" referred to by Bartlett was the thrashing administered by the British at the Battle of Long Island, which resulted in the capture of nearly 1,200 Continental officers and enlisted men. Two nights later, facing the commencement of General Howe's siege of Brooklyn Heights, Washington withdrew his remaining 10,000 troops to Manhattan.
One of the Americans taken prisoner was General John Sullivan, who spoke with Admiral Howe aboard his flagship, Eagle. Sullivan was from New Hampshire, and so when he was freed on parole to carry a message to Congress, he took himself to Bartlett: "Yesterday General Sullivan arrived at my Lodgings, being on his parole. He says he has a verbal message to Congress to propose himself & Lord Sterling [William Alexander, styled Lord Stirling] in exchange for Genls Prescott & McDonald. He also says that Lord Howe Expressed himself very Desirous of an accommodation with America, without any more Bloodshed; that he was very willing to meet, at almost any place, a number of the members of Congress (as private Gentlemen for he could not own any such Body as Congress) to try if they could make any proposals for an accommodation; that he said he had waited near two months longer in England than he should have otherwise Done, to procure proper powers for a final accommodation, with which he said he was now vested &c, and he allowed General Sullivan to come here to propose the aforesaid Conference to Congress. ..."
Bartlett trenchantly foresees difficulties for the delegates regardless of how they respond to Howe's offer. "If the Congress should accept of the proposed Conference, only on a verbal message when at the same time he Lord Howe [last two words careted in] Declares he can consider them only as private Gentlemen, especially when we are certain he can have no power to Grant any terms we can possibly accept; this I fear will lessen the Congress in the Eye of the Publick, and perhaps at this time intimidate people when they see us catching hold of so slender a thread to bring about a settlement:—On the other hand, General Sullivan's arrival from Lord Howe with proposals of an accommodation, with 30 falsehoods in addition, are now spread over this City, and will soon be over the Continent, and if we should refuse the Conference, I fear the tories, & moderate men so called will try to represent the Congress as obstinate & so Desirous of war & Bloodshed that we would not so much as hear the proposals Lord Howe had to make, which they will represent (as they already do) to be highly advantageous for America, even that he would consent that we should be independent, provided we would grant some advantages as to trade."
With so many inexperienced American soldiers feeling demoralized after their rout at Long Island, Bartlett fears that "Such an Idea spread among the people especially the Soldiers at this time might be of the most fatal Consequence—Whatever is done by Congress in the affair will I hope be ordered for the benefit of America."
Congress refused to meet with the Howes except as the elected representatives of the United States, and further refused to enter into any negotiation before learning the full extent of the Howe brothers' authority. A congressional committee comprising John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Rutledge met with Lord Howe on Staten Island on 11 September. He confirmed that while he and his brother were authorized to grant pardons following an unconditional surrender, they could not, without reference to Secretary of State Lord Germain, conclude any treaty or even broach the subject of American independence. The two sides parted amicably, but each was newly resolved to see the conflict through to final victory.
In a postscript, Bartlett reiterates his plea that Whipple quickly head back to Philadelphia: ""I have been for ten or twelve Days in so poor a State of Health with a Cruel Cough & asthma that I begin to fear I shall be obliged to quit Congress & try what Change of air & Exercise will do for me. Therefore Desire you will return here forthwith." Despite frequent allusions to his poor health in subsequent letters, Bartlett kept his seat until 26 October, two days after Whipple's return to Congress. By New Year's Day 1777, Bartlett too was back in in Philadelphia.
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