“We are,” John Adams wrote to a friend early in June 1776, “in the very midst of a Revolution, the most compleat, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the History of Nations.”
Adams was right, but it took prescience to discern it at that moment. In the aftermath of the costly British victory at Bunker Hill the year before — a few more victories like that, one former officer observed, and British army will be annihilated — George Washington had driven the Brits from Massachusetts, but they were on their way back with the largest armada ever sent across the Atlantic till that time.
Asked later who was primarily responsible for pushing the American colonists to embrace independence, Adams liked to cite King George III. His implacable demands made reconciliation impossible. And now Lord Germain, the king’s minister for the America colonies, meant to crush the rebellion once and for all by a massive military blow that would destroy the fledging American army and bring the rebellious Americans to heel.
You can see the logic. The Howe brothers, General William and Admiral Richard, commanded overwhelming military force. The Continental Army, such as it was, presented a sorry face to the world — “half starved,” as Washington later recalled, “always in Rags, without pay.” Yet the Howes, notwithstanding their mandate from Whitehall, tried desperately to avoid carnage. They pleaded with colonial — from the beginning of July and the official declaration of independence, they were national — leaders to reconsider. In August, after the rout of American forces from Gowanus Heights, Long Island, Howe forbore to pursue the Continental Army. That show of force, and of magnanimity, should have been sufficient. Surely, the Americans could see that resistance was futile.
Early in September, Howe convened a parlay. Benjamin Franklin and Adams (both of whom, should the British have been victorious, would surely have been hanged) led the American contingent. A friend of Franklin’s in earlier days, Howe expressed his affection for his American cousins, adding that “if America should fall, he should feel and lament it like the loss of a brother.” Franklin, Adams recalled years later, bowed, smiled, and replied: “My Lord, we will do our utmost to save your Lordship that mortification.”
It is easy to forget now, but the summer of 1776 was a deeply inauspicious time for the American revolution. Washington’s decision to stay and attempt to hold New York was a costly, near fatal, blunder. At any point until November, when the Continental Army managed to slip away to New Jersey, the Howes, commanding absolute naval superiority as well as a vastly superior and more numerous army, could have “corked the bottle” that was Manhattan and trapped them.