On this day in 1776, the Continental Congress learns of General George Washington’s refusal to accept a dispatch from British General William Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard Viscount Howe, opening peace negotiations, because it failed to use the title “general.” In response, Congress proclaimed that the commander in chief acted “with a dignity becoming his station,” and directed all American commanders to receive only letters addressed to them “in the characters they respectively sustain.”
The Howe brothers had assembled the largest European force ever to land in the Americas on Staten Island, New York, while Congress was voting their approval of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in early July 1776. The commander in chief of the Continental Army, General George Washington, had spent the spring of 1776 moving his 19,000 men from Boston to New York, where they would confront 30,000 under the charge of the Howe brothers.
The Howes had the authority to use their overwhelming force to put down the colonial rebellion, but they also had permission to readmit the former colonies to the British empire and pardon those who had led the revolt. Of their two options, the Howes preferred the latter. Thus, the brothers wrote to Washington, inviting him to enter into negotiations with them as representatives of the crown. However, they could not use Washington’s title, “general,” as to do so would have given legitimacy to the rebel army the British denied had the right to exist. Washington would neither excuse the affront nor open the letter.
Washington’s decision forced the Howes to fight. The British took Long Island, but allowed the Continentals to evacuate to Manhattan following the Battle of Brooklyn Heights on August 27, 1776. Hoping that the Patriots now appreciated their overwhelming strength and charity, the British began informal negotiations with members of Congress on Staten Island. The Patriots, however, withdrew from the talks when the British refused to recognize their independence.