Modern history

GENERAL GAGE’S DILEMMA

image The Agony of an Imperial Whig

An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery.

—Edmund Burke, 1775

ON THE HOT SUMMER AFTERNOON of August 27, 1774, while Paul Revere was preparing for yet another ride to Philadelphia, a senior British officer sat at his desk in Danvers, Massachusetts, seething with anger and frustration. Lieutenant-General the Honourable Thomas Gage was commander in chief of British forces in the New World. Mighty powers were his to command. A single stroke of his fine quill pen could start regiments marching from the Arctic to the Antipodes. The merest nod of his powdered head could cause fortresses to rise on the far frontier, and make roads appear in the trackless wilderness. In the late summer of 1774, General Thomas Gage was the most powerful man in North America.

And yet as he toiled over his endless correspondence in a borrowed country mansion on this sweltering August day, his letters overflowed with impotent rage. The source of his frustration was a political office that he had recently been given. In addition to his military duties, the King had appointed him Royal Governor of Massachusetts, with orders to reduce that restless province to obedience and peace. Parliament had armed him for that task with special powers such as no Royal Governor had possessed before. For months he had tried to act with firmness and restraint, but the people of New England had stubbornly set all his efforts at defiance.

Thomas Gage thought of himself as a fair-minded and moderate man, a friend of liberty and a defender of what he was pleased to call the “common rights of mankind.” He rather liked Americans—at least, some Americans. He had married an American, and loved her dearly—his beautiful, headstrong Margaret. But even his wife was being difficult these days. She was away from him for long periods, and when they were together she lectured him about liberty and justice in that self-righteous American way. 1

What was it, he wondered, about these impossible people? Was it something in the soil, or the American air? General Gage reminded himself that most of these infuriating provincials were British too—blood of his blood, flesh of his own freeborn nation. They had been allowed more liberties than any people on the face of the globe, yet they complained that he was trying to enslave them. They were taxed more lightly than the subjects of any European state, but refused even the trivial sums that Parliament had levied upon them. They professed loyalty to their rightful Sovereign, but tarred and feathered his Royal officers, and burned His Majesty’s ships to the water’s edge.

Now, on top of every other outrage, General Gage had just been told that some of these New England people were making threats against his own person. His Captain of Engineers John Montresor, an able but irritating officer, had informed him that he was no longer safe in the country and must move to Boston, under the guns of the British garrison. 2

Boston! Thomas Gage had come to hate that town. A few months later he would write, “I wish this cursed place was burned.” 3 Of all the Yankee race, General Gage believed that Bos-tonians were the worst. In 1770 he had written, “America is a mere bully, from one end to the other, and the Bostonians by far the greatest bullies.” 4 Many British soldiers shared that same opinion. Gage’s able subordinate, Lord Percy, had arrived in the New World thinking well of America. A few weeks among the Bostonians had changed his mind, and persuaded him that they were “a set of sly, artful, hypocritical rascals, cruel, and cowards.” 5 One of the most sly and artful of them all, in the opinion of these angry men, was a Boston silversmith who had become so familiar to them that he was identified in General Gage’s correspondence merely by his initials: “P. &--- R:---. & 6

In origins and attitudes, Thomas Gage and Paul Revere were as far apart as two self-styled gentlemen could be, and still remain within the English-speaking world of the 18th century. Gage was the older of the two, having been born about the year 1720. He was the younger son of an aristocratic Anglo-Catholic family with its seat at Firle Place, Sussex, in the south of England. 7

For many generations, Thomas Gage’s ancestors had shown a genius for embracing the great lost causes of British history. As early as 1215, several Sussex Gages were said to have backed King John against Magna Carta. When the Reformation came to England they sided with the Catholic party, and one of them became the jailor of the Protestant Princess Elizabeth, England’s future Queen. 8 During the English Civil War, the Gages rallied to the Royalist cause of Charles I and suffered a heavy defeat. In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, they stood with James II and were defeated yet again. When the house of Hanover inherited the throne the Gages became Jacobites, stubbornly faithful to the hopeless cause of a Catholic King over the water. Through many generations, the Gages of Firle had remained steadfast to the cause of hierarchy, authority, and the Roman Catholic Church. 9

In 1715, that pattern suddenly changed. Sir William Gage, the seventh baronet, decided to convert from Catholicism to the Protestant Church of England. According to the Anglo-Catholic poet Alexander Pope who knew him well, he did so not from high principle but because he wished to “have the use of horses, forbidden to all those who refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Church.” Whatever the reason, the Gages outwardly joined England’s Protestant establishment, while some of them inwardly retained their Catholic faith. 10

The property of the Anglican convert Sir William Gage was inherited by our general’s father, Thomas Gage of Sherburne, who appears to have been a corrupt and dissolute man, not highly esteemed by some who knew him. One acquaintance described him as “a petulant, silly, busy, meddling, profligate fellow.” He spent much of his time at London’s gaming tables, while his beautiful wife became so notorious for her promiscuity that one fashionable Augustan rake offered to pay his debts “when Lady Gage grows chaste.”11

The Gages may not have been an admirable couple, but London found them amusing, and they were well connected at Court. In 1720, for no apparent merit, Thomas Gage of Sherburne was raised to the peerage as the first Viscount Gage. This improbable pair became the parents of our General Thomas Gage. He was their second son.

Young Tom Gage, like his fictional contemporary Tom Jones whom he resembled in some respects, was raised on an idyllic West Country estate called Highmeadow in Gloucestershire. At about the age of nine he was sent to the Westminster School, and studied there for eight years. Away from home, he grew into a person very different from his parents—disciplined and hardworking, cautious and serious, not clever or witty, but upright, solid, and well-meaning.

The English education of Thomas Gage made a striking contrast with the American schooling of Boston boys such as Paul Revere. Both of them learned English as their mother tongue, but they were trained to speak in different dialects. When they came to their great dispute over the Massachusetts Charter, Paul Revere pronounced it chaa-taa. Thomas Gage said chawh-tawh. Behind that superficial distinction of speech lay two profoundly different English-speaking cultures. Thomas Gage’s dialect had only recently developed as the linguistic property of Britain’s narrow ruling class. Its fluted tones and mellow cadences were the exclusive emblems of a small elite who claimed to rule the English-speaking world by right of birth and breeding. 12

The dialect of England’s governing class was the outward expression of a culture as idiosyncratic as the folkways of New England. Thomas Gage and Paul Revere were both taught to cherish English law and liberties, but they understood that common heritage in very different ways. For Thomas Gage, the rule of law meant the absolute supremacy of that many-headed sovereign, the King-in-Parliament. For Paul Revere it meant the right of a free-born people to be governed by laws of its own making. Both were highly principled men, but their principles were worlds apart. The ideas they shared in common were the ethical foundation-stones of English-speaking society. Their differences were what the American Revolution was about.

Neither Thomas Gage nor Paul Revere was a man of learning. They did not attend college or university. While in their teens, both were required to make their own way in the world, but they did so in different ways. Where Paul Revere followed a calling, Thomas Gage found a career. The future British general had been born to aristocratic privilege, but he was disqualified by the order of his birth from inheriting the landed wealth on which it rested. Like many younger sons of aristocratic families, he was sent into the army. A King’s commission was purchased for him at an early age in Cholmondeley’s Regiment of Foot.

Thomas Gage liked the army. He found pleasure in its pageantry, and comfort in its discipline. In combat he proved his courage many times on what his contemporaries called the field of honor. But he was a soldier who learned to hate war, with very good reason. It was his fate to witness the worst that 18th-century warfare could do. As a junior officer, he was present at the British defeat at Fontenoy (May 11, 1745), one of the bloodiest conflicts in the 18th century. This was the battle that began as if it were a ball, when a British Guardsman stepped forward, swept off his hat, and bowed gallantly to the French Guards only fifty yards away. According to a more doubtful tradition that officer also courteously invited the enemy to take first shot: “Que Messieurs les enemis tirent les premiers.” The battle of Fontenoy ended with 30,000 men fallen on a Flanders field, in scenes of horror and brutality beyond description. 13

A year later Thomas Gage was in Scotland for another epic slaughter. This time he was on the winning side at the battle of Culloden (April 27, 1746) which broke the power of the Highland clans and left Drumossie Moor carpeted with corpses of kilted warriors. In later years Thomas Gage and his contemporaries liked to call themselves “Old Cullodeners.”

After Culloden, Gage returned to Flanders. A period of peacetime soldiering followed, on the staff of the Earl of Albemarle, father of an old school friend. Then, in 1755, he was posted to America with General Edward Braddock. It was Gage who commanded the vanguard on Braddock’s expedition against the French in the Ohio Valley. On July 9, 1755, that ill-fated force marched blindly into a forest ambush and was nearly annihilated. As always, Gage conducted himself bravely in combat. Wounded himself, he improvised a rear guard that allowed the escape of a few survivors, including George Washington. 14

In the French and Indian War that followed, Thomas Gage was authorized to raise a new type of regiment, called the 80th Foot, or Gage’s Light Armed Infantry, and modeled after the American Rangers. He recruited men of independent spirit, dressed them in brown camouflage coats with black buttons, and hoped to train them in new tactics for forest fighting. Instead, he was ordered to lead the light infantry against the ramparts of Fort Ticonderoga, in a headlong frontal assault on a strongly fortified position. With high courage Gage and his men charged directly into an impenetrable abattis of fallen timber that had been cunningly prepared to entrap them. The result was yet another glorious disaster for British arms. As Gage’s light infantry struggled with desperate bravery to break through that trap, they were caught in a deadly crossfire. Bodies in brown and red coats were left in grotesque postures, suspended from a tangle of dead branches on that killing ground. More than 1600 men fell. Once again Gage himself was among the many wounded. 15

After each defeat Thomas Gage was promoted. In 1759, he became a brigadier and was given command of a major British expedition in the conquest of Canada. His orders were to march from Lake Ontario and capture Montreal while James Wolfe attacked the fortress of Quebec. Wolfe’s campaign succeeded brilliantly. Gage was unable to get started. His mission ended in a fiasco that was thankfully lost in the shadow of the triumph at Quebec.

When the other generals went home Gage remained in America, and was promoted yet again—this time to the rank of major-general and the office of commander in chief for British America. Never fortunate in war, Gage was more successful as a peacetime soldier. He was known for discipline and strict economy, which won approval from his superiors in London. King George III thought highly of him. Gage’s high office was due in part to Royal favor.

A portrait by John Singleton Copley shows Gage in the uniform of a British general, circa 1768-69. He was a handsome man, with delicate, fine-boned features. But even in middle life he looked ten years older than his true age. His hair was sparse and gray, and his skin appeared as pale and dry as a piece of old parchment. His eyes were very tired—the sad, haunted, world-weary eyes of an old soldier who had seen too much of death and suffering, and lost too many comrades to the cruelty of war. His expression suggested an air that the battle-worn proconsuls of an earlier empire had called the tedium vitae, a weariness of life itself. 16

By temperament and principle this British proconsul was a cautious and conservative man, with an infinite capacity for taking pains. His conservatism grew stronger as his responsibilities increased. It was reinforced in middle age when he became a man of property. While commander in chief, he married a beautiful American heiress, Margaret Kemble of New Brunswick, New Jersey, and acquired a large family. He also made a fortune of his own by windfalls that came from his offices. Through friends in high places he acquired 18,000 acres in New York’s Oneida County, and a large tract of Canadian land that is now Gagetown, New Brunswick. He also bought a plantation on the West Indian island of Montserrat that brought him an income of 600 pounds a year. 17

image

General Thomas Gage, a portrait by John Singleton Copley, circa 1769. The painting was “universally acknowledg’d” to be “a most striking likeness” in the words of Captain John Small on Gage’s staff. (Yale University Art Gallery)

By 1774, General Gage had acquired a strong stake in America and the Empire. He wanted very much to keep the peace. He worked faithfully to support the authority of King and Parliament, while seeking to conciliate the Americans. Even his enemies regarded him as decent, able and full of good intentions. One called him “a good and wise man … surrounded with difficulties.” 18

Like Paul Revere, General Gage was also respected as a man of honor and integrity. As a young lieutenant his nickname in the army had been “Honest Tom.” 19 Unlike many of his family, he made his peace with England’s Protestant establishment, and whole-heartedly embraced its principles as his own. His politics were firmly within the English Whig tradition. He believed deeply in the British Constitution and the rule of law. In America, Gage always insisted that his troops were bound by “constitutional laws,” and permitted them to “do nothing but what is strictly legal,” even in the face of heavy provocation. 20 He recognized an obligation to respect what he called “the common rights of mankind,” But at the same time he also saw the need for strict authority and decisive action, if the empire was to be preserved. 21

image

Margaret Kemble Gage, a portrait by John Singleton Copley, circa 1771. “Beyond compare the best Lady’s portrait I ever drew,” the artist himself wrote with pride. (Tim-ken Gallery of Art, San Diego, California)

Here was General Gage’s dilemma. On the one hand, he wrote that “the strictest orders have been given, to treat the inhabitants on all occasions, with leneity, moderation and justice; that they shall … be permitted to enjoy unmolested the common rights of mankind.” 22 On the other hand, he declared that, “lenient measures, and the cautious and legal exertion of the coercive powers of government, have served only to render them more daring and licentious.” 23

Edmund Burke summarized General Gage’s dilemma in a sentence. “An Englishman,” Burke observed in Parliament, “is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery.” 24

The outbreak of the Imperial quarrel over the Stamp Act in 1765 took Gage completely by surprise. He had no idea what to do, and wrote home to a minister in London, “I must confess to you, Sir, that during these commotions in North-America, I have never been more at a loss how to act.” 25

As resistance grew into mob violence, Gage began to think that the trouble arose not from the mobs themselves, but from colonial elites who set the rioters in motion. In company with others of his rank, he believed that the “lower orders,” or the “inferior people,” as he described the vast majority of humanity, were of no political importance.

After the Stamp Act Riots he wrote, “The plan of the people of property, is to raise the lower class to prevent the execution of the Law … The lawyers are the source from which these clamors have flowed … merchants in general, assembly men, magistrates, &c have been united in this plan of riots, and without the influence and instigation of these the inferior people would have been quiet … The sailors who are the only people who may be properly stiled Mob, are entirely at the command of the Merchants who employ them.” 26

Further, Gage persuaded himself that of all the colonial elites, a few designing men in Boston were the ringleaders. He believed that some of these leaders were quite mad, and in the case of James Otis he was correct. Others he took to be merely corrupt, and he succeeded in buying the allegiance of Dr. Benjamin Church, who became Gage’s secret agent while sitting at the inner councils of the revolutionary movement. But when Gage tried to bribe Samuel Adams and other Whig leaders, he discovered the limits of that idea.

Where bribery failed, Gage tried a show of force. It was he who recommended in 1768 that two regiments of British infantry should be sent to Boston to “overawe” the inhabitants. Other British leaders wanted to keep the troops at Castle William in Boston harbor, so as not to inflame the people. Gage urged that the troops be landed in the town itself and be quartered among the population—the act that outraged Paul Revere and many Bosto-nians. Further, Gage unwisely chose for that difficult assignment the 29th Foot, a regiment notorious for poor discipline, hot-tempered officers, and repeated violent clashes with civilians in Canada and New York. It would be soldiers of the 29th who fired without orders in the incident that Paul Revere called the Bloody Massacre. Had Gage chosen another unit, the course of events might have been very different. 27

After the Massacre, the British regiments were withdrawn from the town, much against Gage’s wishes. He agreed that the 29th Foot should be sent away, but thought that other troops should remain. 28 He was appalled by the irresolution of other British leaders. When he was overruled, he wrote angrily to his superiors in London, “You have yielded by bits, and in such a manner, as it appeared that every thing was constrained, and extorted from you: such a conduct could not fail to encourage people here to commit every extravagance to gain their ends, and on demand has risen upon another.” 29

But Gage himself began to take another view of the American problem. He decided that his first impression was wrong—that the trouble did not rise from corrupt elites alone, but from a deeper root that was embedded in American conditions and institutions, and specifically in the growth of what he called democracy. As early as 1772, he wrote to his superiors in London, “Democracy is too prevalent in America, and claims the greatest attention to prevent its increase.” 30

A large part of the problem, he was convinced, arose from the vast abundance of cheap land in America. Gage observed that “the people themselves have gradually retired from the Coast,” and “are, already, almost out of the reach of Law and Government.” In 1770 he told his superiors in London that it was “the interest of Great Britain to confine the Colonists on this side of the back-country.” By restricting American settlement to the Atlantic coast, he believed that the material base of American “democracy” might be undercut. 31

The second part of General Gage’s policy was root and branch reform of American institutions, especially in New England. Like many members of Britain’s ruling elite, he deeply disapproved of the folkways of New England. Town meetings in particular, which the Whigs of Boston regarded as the palladium of their liberty, appeared to Thomas Gage as instruments of “democraticall despotism.” The British general advised London to abolish town meetings altogether and replace them with oligarchic British borough governments. 32

The laws and covenants that New Englanders perceived as the ark of their ancestral rights were seen by Gage to be merely a bizarre form of litigious anarchy. New England, he wrote, was a “country, where every man studies law, and interprets the laws to suit his purposes.” Gage proposed to limit access to law, and shift trials in political cases to England. 33

The austere system of Calvinist faith and Puritan morals that lay at the heart of the New England Way was despised by Gage as a structure of organized hypocrisy. “They have a particular manner in perverting and turning everything to their own purposes,” he wrote. Gage proposed to restrain the Congregational churches of New England, and to strengthen the Anglican establishment in America. 34

The Puritan ethic of work and calling that Paul Revere served all his life had no meaning to Thomas Gage, and was condemned by him as a fraud and a humbug. “The protection of Britain has made them opulent,” Gage wrote in one of his more memorable prophecies: “Were they cast off and declared aliens, they must become a poor and needy people.” He proposed to keep America in a condition of commercial dependency on Britain. “When all connection, upheld by commerce, with the mother country, shall cease, it may be suspected that an independency of her government will soon follow.” 35

Gage urged his superiors in London to act decisively on these assumptions. As early as 1770, he advised the King and his ministers to enact a set of coercive laws— specifically, to punish Boston for its violence, to abrogate the charter of Massachusetts, and to abolish town meetings in New England. On September 8, 1770, he wrote:

I hope that Boston will be called to strict account, and I think it must be plain to every man that no peace will ever be established in that province, till the King nominates his council, and appoints the magistrates, and that all town-meetings are absolutely abolished; whilst those meetings exist the people will be kept in a perpetual heat. 36

Parliament was not ready for such strong measures when this advice was written. But three years later, the Boston Tea Party convinced the rulers of the Empire that General Gage had been correct.

At that critical moment Gage happened to be in London. He had returned on leave to England in June 1773. It was his first visit home since he had sailed to America with the Braddock expedition nearly twenty years earlier. He wrote to a friend that London seemed as strange to him as Constantinople, or “any other city I had never seen.” He was appalled by its corruption, and by the incompetence of the government. “This is a strange place,” he wrote, “I have much business with many people and can never find them. Many have business with me, and are hunting me whilst I am seeking others, so that it is a perpetual hunt.” 37

He was still in England, rusticating at his childhood home of Highmeadow in Gloucestershire, when news of the Boston Tea Party arrived in February 1774. King George III summoned him to an audience, and was much impressed by Gage’s forthright suggestions. The King instructed his ministers to “hear his ideas as to the mode of compelling Boston to submit to whatever may be thought necessary.” 38

The King’s chief minister, Lord North, did as he was told. In 1774, Parliament enacted a set of Coercive Acts that were modeled on General Gage’s ideas. The port of Boston was closed. The structure of government of Massachusetts was modified much as Gage requested. Most town meetings were curtailed. Trials for political offences were transferred from the colonies to England. To enforce this new policy, Gage himself was ordered back to America as commander in chief and governor of Massachusetts. 39

When Gage arrived in Boston, the town received him politely, and even gave him a public dinner in Fanueil Hall. “They are making a good deal of ceremony with me,” he wrote, “much less ceremony and more obedience to the laws would please me better.”40But when he began to enforce the Coercive Acts (which Americans called the Intolerable Acts), relations rapidly cooled. In 1774, Gage published a proclamation forbidding most town meetings except by permission, and sent troops to stop a town meeting in Salem. The stubborn Salemites responded by barring the doors of their town house and going on with their meeting. The Regulars, under orders not to use force, retreated in bewilderment. 41

Gage himself tried to suspend town meetings in Boston, with no better success. He summoned the selectmen before him and forbade them to convene a town meeting that had just been announced. The Boston leaders solemnly explained to him that they had “called no meeting,” but that “a former meeting had only adjourned themselves.” As always, Gage was scrupulous to act within the law. He was baffled by the legalistic arguments of the Boston leaders. Tory Lieutenant-Governor Andrew Oliver wrote that Gage was “a gentleman of an amiable character, and of an open honest mind; too honest to deal with men who from their cradles had been educated in the wily arts of chicane.” Town meetings continued in Boston. 42

Some of his subordinates were less scrupulous about their methods, with explosive results. In 1774, a Yankee sailor named Samuel Dyer was caught trying to persuade soldiers of the King’s Own to desert. The regimental commander, Lt. Col. George Mad-dison, asked Admiral John Montagu to impress Dyer into the Royal Navy and “carry him to England.” This was done, but Dyer gained his liberty in England. He returned to America a free man, full of rage against his persecutors. In Boston, he went looking for Colonel Maddison, found two other British officers in the street, and instantly attacked, attempting to assassinate one of them with his own sword. New England Whigs were appalled by Dyer’s violence, which threatened the moral standing of their cause. They arranged his capture, and a Massachusetts court ordered him confined as a lunatic. But the people of New England were deeply shocked that Colonel Maddison and Admiral Montagu had ordered a man to be pressed and deprived of his freedom for a political act. It confirmed their worst suspicions of Imperial power. 43

Under the terms of the Coercive Acts, Gage nominated Royal judges to the Massachusetts bench—a major break with precedent. He chose men mostly for strong Loyalist principles. So hostile was the population that juries refused to serve, and many of the new judges refused to sit on the bench, in fear of their lives. A member of one of the first juries to defy him was Paul Revere. 44

As governor, Gage also tried to restrain the Congregational clergy of New England. The ministers asked him to proclaim a day of Fasting and Prayer, an old New England custom in troubled times. Gage refused, explaining candidly, “I saw no cause for an extraordinary day of humiliation, which was only to give an opportunity for sedition to flow from the Pulpits.” The clergy went ahead without him, and another bond of union was broken. 45

In the face of growing anger throughout New England, Gage advised his superiors to stand firm and yield nothing. He told them that the time for “conciliating, moderation, reasoning is over. Nothing can be done but by forcible means.” But still he hoped to avoid bloodshed. “I mean my Lord,” he wrote home to London, “to avoid any bloody crisis as long as possible, unless forced into it by themselves, which may happen.” 46

Gage did not believe that the troubles in Massachusetts would spread throughout America. He knew about Paul Revere’s rides to New York and Philadelphia, and was well informed about meetings of the Continental Congress. 47 But the British general regarded Congress as a “motley crew,” and did not imagine that it could ever act together. He had no fear that the contagion of revolution would seriously infect the southern plantations or the western backcountry. These colonies might “talk very high,” he assured London, “but they can do nothing. Their numerous slaves in the bowels of their country, and the Indians at their backs, will always keep them quiet.” 48

This soldier who hated war did not wish to use force against the Americans, except as the last resort. His purpose was to remove from Yankee hands the means of violent resistance until a time when cooler heads would prevail. To that end, General Gage proposed to disarm New England by a series of small surgical operations—meticulously planned, secretly mounted, and carried forward with careful economy of force. His object was not to provoke a war but to prevent one. 49

New England’s Whig leaders were vulnerable to such a strategy. Many weapons were in the hands of the people, but not enough for long struggle against the King’s troops, and there was no easy source of resupply. Few firearms were manufactured in New England; gunpowder had to be imported from abroad. This gave General Gage his opportunity. While still in his summer house at Danvers, he began to plan a series of missions against the arsenals and powderhouses of New England, designed to remove as many munitions as possible—enough to make it impossible for the people of that region to make a determined stand against him. 50

The plan had one major weakness. It could only succeed by surprise. The people of New England were jealous of their liberties, including their liberty to keep and bear arms. If they learned in advance of General Gage’s intentions, his strategy for stopping the movement toward war could start one instead. The British commander knew that the Whigs of Boston had been organizing against him, and were attempting to penetrate his designs. Prominent among them was a leader whose incessant activities were particularly dangerous to their scheme—the busy Boston silversmith named Paul Revere.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!