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Who were the Carlisle Commissioners? Part one

By Dr. Robert V. McNamee

In July, Electronic Enlightenment (EE) updated with materials taken from the Virginia Historical Society and the correspondence of Adam Ferguson, amongst others. These apparently disparate historical correspondences (and others already published in EE) are brought together within this unique digital framework so that students, scholars and the public can read, in this instance, “across the Atlantic.” A good example can be found in the case of the “Carlisle Commission” of 1778, an attempt to reach a negotiated peace three years into the American Revolutionary War — a war, it is worth reminding ourselves, that lasted for nearly eight and a half years!

In April 1778, British Prime Minister, Lord North, sent a commission to arrange a negotiated peace settlement with the US Continental Congress. Headed by the Fifth Earl of Carlisle, the commission included George Johnstone who had previously served as Governor of West Florida. The voyage was not a success; the commissioners tried to stir public opinion with warnings of widespread destruction if the American colonists continued to resist. Commissioner Johnstone was accused of trying to bribe Congressmen, while the Marquis de Lafayette challenged Carlisle to a duel over his anti-French remarks.

Newly digital correspondence contributes personal and formal insight into the events of 1778. First, from the newly added correspondence of Adam Ferguson (1723–1816), Scottish philosopher, historian and father of modern sociology, we hear his “armchair” opinion of the American troubles. At the time of writing, Ferguson doesn’t yet know that within months he will be on his way across the Atlantic as a Carlisle commissioner. On Thursday, 15 January 1778, he writes to Sir John Macpherson:

I imagine that no less than three or at least two Powerful bodys will be wanted to retrieve the Affairs of Government in America. One to make War on the Coast of New England Another from Canada on the Back settlements & a third perhaps to mantain this Ground we have chosen to take in Pensilvania if Peradventure we have it in the beginning of next Summer. And the Object of the Campaign shoud be to have the exclusive possession of Hudsons River with the Lakes. Places of Arms at New York and Albany & an open Route for the War from Canada on the North as well as from the Coast of the South. In our Way to this Object the Rebels may be induced to prefer accommodation to the Continuance of Such A War. But Lord have mercy on those who expect any Good in this bussiness without Sufficient Instruments of Terror in one hand & of Moderation and justice in the Other. And so much for the opinion of us here who Govern the world at our own fire Sides.

Three months later (Monday, 27 April 1778), we find Edmund Pendleton (1721–1803), revolutionary politician and US judge, writing to General George Washington (1732–1799):

Caroline, Virginia, April 27, 1778

Dear Sir

It gave me infinite pleasure to hear by my worthy friend Woodford that you was in fine health, a circumstance the more pleasing, as it could scarcely have been expected, after such uncommon and unremitted toil for near three years. I am not superstitious, nor disposed to offend you by what I know you abhor, yet it is firmly my creed that Heaven has raised and will preserve you for the sake of the Milions whom you are now engaged in rescuing from Slavery … I think however the Martial Spirit is somewhat recovering and am not without hopes that the Militia will with tolerable alacrity obey your call for them, if you find it necessary. I will not trouble you with news, General Woodford, will better retail any little we may have — but what do you think of the Commissioners from London to treat with Congress, acknowledging independence? I suppose it another Verse of the old Syren’s Song which has preluded each Campaign, composed at first to take you off your guard, but that hope abandoned, is continued to make the people of England and timid Americans believe that the want of Peace is the fault of Congress. I thank you for your kind remembrance of me by my friend, and beg leave to assure you I have the Honor to be, with the warmest zeal, Your Excellency’s devoted friend and Obedient Servant,

Edmd Pendleton

The same day Pendleton repeats his assessment of the newly arrived Commissioners’ intentions. Writing to then Lieutenant William Campbell, Pendleton reports:

They know, tho they conceal it from their nation, that we are ready to make a friendly and equal alliance with them at any time, but this is not their purpose, unconditional submission, in plain English our absolute slavery is their aim, out of which you must drive them by bullet and bayonet reasoning, therefore give it them home and their masters will treat properly.

george washington
General George Washington

Finally, in a remarkable letter from Commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary forces and future first President of the United States of America, General George Washington, to Adam Ferguson, 9 June 1778, we hear of the failure of Ferguson’s attempts to gain passage through rebel territory:


The Letter which accompanies this will inform Sir Henry Clinton, that I can not grant the Passport requested by his Favor of this date, without the previous instructions of Congress upon the Subject. This I have thought proper to advise you to prevent you the inconvenience of proceeding, should this find you on the way.

I have the Honor to be Sir Your most Obedient Servant

G. Washington

Head Quarter June 9: 1778

While we hear the other side of this exchange in a letter written ten days later by Ferguson to his friend Sir John Macpherson:

From on board The Trident Delaware River June 19th 1778

My Dear Friend

. . . I set out from Philadelphia with a Flag and a Trumpet for Washingtons Camp in my way to the Congress: but was met at one of the out Posts of their Army with a Very Civil Letter intimating that he [General Washington] coud not grant a Passport without previous instructions from Congress. The Dispatches went but there is yet no return & we expect none till after we are settled at New York. Proposals are made which the Congress will scarcely be able to reject without losing The Support of their Constituents. . . . Pray Make up my Wifes letters in bundles & send them by The Packet to New York or Otherwise. Say nothing of My Conjectures when they happen to be dissagreeable. Write me what you may expose to be miscarryed inspected or lost. I am most


Your Adam Ferguson

These letters from across both sides of the Atlantic illustrate the failure of the Carlisle Commissioners to negotiate peace three years into the American Revolutionary War. The Commissioners clearly tried to stir anti-Congressional feelings in the colonists, while General George Washington and Edmund Pendleton saw through the Commissioners’ transparent plan and rejected their safe passage through rebel territory. Electronic Enlightenment makes historic discoveries like this possible, and with each update to the database, continues to recreate the world’s first, great social network.

Dr. Robert V. McNamee is the Director of the Electronic Enlightenment Project, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Electronic Enlightenment is a scholarly research project of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, and is available exclusively from Oxford University Press. It is the most wide-ranging online collection of edited correspondence of the early modern period, linking people across Europe, the Americas, and Asia from the early 17th to the mid-19th century — reconstructing one of the world’s great historical “conversations”.

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Image credit: Gilbert Stuart Williamstown Portrait of George Washington via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. […] a Carlisle Peace Commissioner but his application was wilfully ignored by Governor Johnstone. As aforementioned in yesterday’s blog post, the Carlisle Peace Commissioners set out to the United States in 1778, three years into the […]

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