Sherbrooke: “Forming a Government of Their Own”

The immense requirements of the Napoleonic Wars entailed more than Britain could furnish itself. To meet the deficit it turned, unasked and unwanted, to  the press-ganging of delinquent subjects, so it thought, now declared American citizens, so they thought. Inevitably President Madison found this most provoking and declared war with Britain on 18 June 1812.

It took eleven days for Madison’s declaration to reach Halifax, Nova Scotia, and by then it is old news. The HMS Belvidera had already limped into Halifax harbour and the governor, John Coape Sherbrooke, was concerned young men like Ned Myers who feeling that if his father could fight on the British side in 1776, then it was also his choice to fight for the United States.

Not all agree with Myers choice though and after running away to New York at the age of 11 and his march on Lake Ontario at the age of 19 is delayed twice by the farmers of the Empire State, presumably to Madison’s vexation as much as Myers. Captured in Quebec he is transferred to back to Halifax where his best hope is simply not to be recognized by his former neighbours and childhood friends.

The farmers of upstate New York are not alone in annoying Myers and his President. The fishermen of Eastport and Moose Island in Maine send word to Sherbrooke that they wish to remain on amicable terms with their northern neighbours and, when the war declaration reaches Boston harbour, a significant location to be sure, all but three vessels lower their colours to half-mast. The citizenry compel the exceptions to do likewise. Suffice it to say, the War of 1812 holds an ambiguous position for the United States: its second Revolutionary War or its first Civil War.

Taking advantage of the situation, Sherbrooke forbids the molestation of Americans living on the border with New Brunswick and lets the trade with New England continue. Unfortunately for Madison, thanks to British blockades, this illegal trade is all that US enjoyed and by 1814 the country was near ruin, unable to pay the bounties for the capture of deserters let alone the wages they were promised in the first place.

Still more unfortunately for Madison, Napoleon is defeated in Russia and to the delight of the farmers and landlords of Halifax, the town is now filled with troops, an influx which presumably helped Myers remain undetected. Sherbrooke’s orders are changed; Maine, then part of Massachusetts, is to be occupied. It took an oath of neutrality. In Eastport the oath is one of allegiance. Seeing the end of the conflict, Caleb Strong, the governor of Massachusetts, sends an emissary to Halifax with a request so significant that it is immediately forwarded to London.

20th November 1814

Secret and Confidential

My Lord:

A Gentleman who is a most respectable inhabitant of the Country lying between the Penobscot and he Boundary Line of New Brunswick And who was a Member of the House of Representatives of the State of Massachusetts having lately been allowed to go from Castine to Boston informed M Genl. Gosselin on his return that He had a Communication of importance to make to me which induced the Majr: General to grant him leave to come to this place.

On receiving this Gentleman (who was personally known both to Admiral Griffith & Myself at Castine) He stated thta the business which he came here upon was of a very delicate nature. And that he felt awkwardly situated having no Credentials to shew, As he did not think it prudent to carry any written documents about him let the should be discovered. He then said that He was Commissioned by the Executive of Massachusetts to Communicate with me on some very important points which I desired him to commit to writing and which I have now the honor to submit for Your Lordships Consideration neither Admiral Griffith nor Myself conceiving Ourselves Competent to discuss a subject of this magnitude with having received an especial authority so to do.

From the respectable Character of this Person & other Circumstances, Admiral Griffith & Myself have no doubt of his having been Commissioned to make the enclosed proposals on the part of the Government of Massachusetts: It therefore now rests with Your Lordship to receive them or not as You may think proper under the peculiar Circumstances of the Case.

It seems the New England States are very apprehensive that If Great Britain should conclude a Peace with the general Government their interests would be sacrificed – And as the President has refused to repay the expences already incurred by the Northern Commonwealths for the purposes of defence, the Executive of Massachusetts has resolved to withold all the pecuniary Aid from the General Government And to apply the Amount of the Taxes raised to the defence of their own Frontier, And It is supposed the other New England States will adopt the same line of Conduct at the Congress appointed to meet at Hartford on the 15th: of next Month to which Connecticut & Long Island have already Nominated their Delegates, But as the Legislatures of New Hampshire & Vermont are not now in Session theirs have not yet been appointed.

Notwithstanding the Custom which prevails of Calling these the “Federal States” It is right Your Lordship should be informed that there is a very strong democratic Party in each of those Commonwealths And that they will in the event of any attempt being made to Separate New England from the Union most probably be assisted by the General Government in resisting this Measure, It appears that the Federal Party wishes to ascertain at this early period whether Great Britain would under these Circumstances afford them Military assistance to effect their purpose should they stand in need of it.

Whether the British Government shall deem it expedient to comply with this request or not for the present, Your Lordship will I think see the good policy of sending more Troops out here immediately, to be in readiness either to oppose the Levies now raising in New England should they be inclined to act hostilely towards us, Or to assist them If the contrary policy be pursued in separating themselves from the Union & in forming a Government of their Own.

In this state of thing the importance of Our having taken possession of Castine & territory Contiguous to it will I doubt not strike Your Lordship forcibly, As from thence the Federallists with everything that they can require Should it be the policy of Britain to assist them in separating from the Union, Or If Affairs take a contrary turn We have at the Penobscot a Frontier much more easy to be defended that the Old One was, Whenever a sufficient Force arrives for that purpose.

Altho’ I shall be extremely happy to attend to any Instructions I may receive from Your Lordship relative to the Communication I am now transmitting And to act in any way you may be pleased to direct Yet I feel it my duty to state to Your Lordship candidly that I am unacquainted with & quite a stranger to diplomatic business – And as the subtlety of the New Englanders will require a most able Negociator to treat with them I presume to recommend that Your Lordship should under some feigned pretence send a person out here who is in Your Confidence, Well skilled in the finesse of diplomacy & thoroughly acquainted with the British Interests in this part of the World to be in readiness to take advantage of the Circumstances as they occur, & taking care to conceal for the present the real purpose for which such a person has been sent out.

I shall await Your Lordships Answer to this Communication with great anxiety As it involves in its Consequences events of Considerable importance And I mean not to interfere with the Politics of the New England States in any way until I am honoured with further instructions unless Circumstances should produce an open rupture between them & the Government of the United States sooner than is expected, in which Case I shall think it my duty to afford all the assistance I am able to the former As We are actually at War with the latter.

I have the honor to be with great respect My Lord,

Your Lordship’s

Very Obedient and
Most humble Servant

J.C. Sherbrooke

The Rt. Honble

The Earl Bathurst

&c &c &c

This paper the object of which it to prepare the way for Peace & Friendship between Great Britain and such States as may hereafter be disposed to pursue in good faith, a course of measures calculated to produce that desirable object, is submitted & received under the fullest pledge of Confidence, – that should any thing occur to prevent the accomplishment of that object, the Parties & Persons directly or indirectly concerned, and who may be implicated thereby, shall in no case be exposed while any evil consequences may result thereon.

The State of Massachusetts has been actuated by a strong desire not only to prevent the declaration of War by the united States against great Britain, but since that declaration has been made to embrace the earliest opportunity to bring the War to a close: Such circumstances have hitherto existed as have rendered inexpedient, a direct & decisive effort to accomplish that desirable object: If however the British Government does in fact entertain such Sentiments and Views, as the Governments of New England have attributed to it, the period is probably near, when the War may be brought to a conclusion, – mutually advantageous to Great Britain, and to those who may concur in producing that Event.

With a View to meet the occasion, the Government of Massachusetts at its late Session, has appointed delegates to assemble at Hartford, in Connecticut on the 15th of December 1814, And there to meet such Delegates from the other New England States, as may be by then appointed for the purpose contemplated in the appointment of those by Massachusetts – The States of Connecticut and Rhode Island, have already acceded to the principle of the proposed Convention, and appointed their Delegates accordingly. It is confidently expected that soon as Expedient the other two New England States not for a moment hesitate to adopt the same measure.

The Ostensible objects for which this Convention is to be organized, will fully appear from the resolve of the Legislature of Massachusetts for the appointment of the Delegates, by which it will be seen, that a prominent subject for deliberation is to be that of providing for the common defence and Welfare of the States represented in that Body, whose defence is neglected by the Government of the United States, whilst that Government exacts from these States the Means of Defence existing within their respective Territories, to employ them in making foreign conquest, explicitly refusing at the same time to reimburse to a State the Expences it may incur in providing for its own defence. For the purpose of providing for defence, it is contemplated that the States convened will among other things devise the necessary measures for taking into their own hands the Revenues of all kinds accruing to the general Government within their respective Territories, with a view to appropriate those Revenues to their own immediate and joint defence.

It will require no great degree of prescience, to forsee that this measure forced upon those States by the conduct of the general Government, and the law of self preservation, will necessarily lead to a collision between that Government and these States, and also that the credit of that Government already greatly impaired, and always founded principally on the basis of Northern revenue, must entirely fail.

One other great subject for consideration in the Convention will probably be, the establishment in due time of a Government for the States present, and such as may acceed afterwards, calculated to insure the pursuit of such regular and legitimate policy, as may afford security to foreign as well as domestic relations, and prevent as far as may be, a recurrence of that vascillating policy, as almost necessarily results from a Government entirely and immediately directed and controuled by popular caprice.

For the purpose of being prepared to operate in such a manner as future exigencies may require, the Legislature of Massachusetts has authorized his Excellency the Governor to levy an Army of 10,000 regular Troops, and probably a similar measure will be adopted by the other States acceding to the Convention, according to their ability.

It will be apparent, that situated as the States must be that accede to the Convention, they will not be disposed to carry on the War longer than until it can terminated consistently with their interest and their honor, and it will be equally apparent, that it is in the highest degree important, they should as early as possible be able to know, what it to be the relation that is to exist between them and the British Government. The distance between the two Countries is so great and the importance of the question growing out of this novel state of things, should it exist to the full extent contemplated, so weighty as respects those States, that it will not excite astonishment, that the earliest opportunity has been taken even before the subject is matured, to obtain such an answer as to satisfy the States in regard to the views of the British Government towards them. The liberal views of the Executive part of the Government of Massachusetts, under whose auspices this communication is made, will it is confidently presumed be full reciprocated.

It will be understood that the object of this communication is to ascertain whether Negociation will under existing circumstances be agreeable to the British Government. If so, to pave the way to it, and to prepare as expeditiously as is consistent for its conclusion. The Convention not having yet been in Session, and their views not being yet certainly known, but only presumed upon (though as is believed with good reason) no precise proposition can with propriety at this time be made. Still however the views under whose patronage this communication is made, may perhaps afford evidence sufficiently satisfactory at this stage of what will be the eventual determination of the Convention, more especially when the importance of Massachusetts among the Northern States is considered. They extend decisively to peace and friendship upon such principles of reciprocity, as shall be calculated in any event of Peace or War, to promote as far as possible, the interests of both Countries; How far there can be aid afforded directly by the States in the event of a European War, appears questionable, so long as her Colonies remain unmolested. Should those Colonies on the Continent be attacked, the States would not hesitate it is believed, to assist in the defence of them, under stipulation offensive and Defensive so far as relates to this Continent.

It is not to be concealed, that possibly, though not probably, the democracy of some one, perhaps more of the state Governements, influenced and countenanced, by the Executive of the United States, may overcome in an Election, the best exertions of well disposed people. It will be necessary to know whether in an event of that kind, any competent Military force, can be certainly relied on, to be provided by great Britain, in aid of the present authorities of the States, or of such Government as may grow out of the measures now in operation. This is a point of great importance, as events may turn. At the same time it must be understood that provided the force of the States is competent to preserve peace and order, prudential motives arising fro the tenderness and apprehension of many at seeing British Troops in the Country, will urge strongly and conclusively against their being deployed.

The Government of Massachusetts has observed with no small degree of satisfaction the wise and prudent course of conduct pursued by the officers commanding the Military and Naval forces of His Majesty in this quarter. It becomes however necessary to state, and it is done with extreme regret, that the order of the Admiral permitting or ordering depredations on our Coasts, has had the most painful effects on the Politics of the Eastern States, and certainly with very little benefit, perhaps none, in any point of view to the British Interests. Indeed it is a measure pregnant with the most serious consequences to both Countries. They levying of Contributions has excited a great degree of feeling and alarm, and has undoubtedly produced a war spirit in some limited degree, where it did not exist before. It would seem that no good can possibly result from pursuing that course of warfare in the North, and certainly much evil must result from it. In almost every instance the Sufferers being Men of some property are will disposed; Such proceeding will alienate extensively the friendly affections of good people, while the property obtained in such cases will be not object in a national point of view. If compensation can be made voluntarily in some delicate way, vast good would result from it, and to a degree that would perhaps many time counter-ballance the evil already experienced. If indeed the preservation of the good feelings of the people of this and the adjoining States towards Great Britain, be thought and object of any importance, depredation must cease on our Shore. If that mode of Warfare be thought advisable, it must operate altogether on the South. Punishment will then be brought Home to the Doors of the guilty. In that Country the British Government and people have no affections to lose.

There is, it is believed little room to doubt, that if these States be left unmolested, they will soon be able to establish a system of order and power, that will paralyze the Authority of the United States, and crush the baneful Democracy of the Country. The measures now ripening by means of the Convention, will soon afford a more decisive and important view of the ultimate measures proper to be taken by the British Government.

Consulted for this post

“John C. Sherbrooke to Henry, Earl Bathurst, November 20, 1814” in The War of 1812: Writings from America’s Second War of Independence. Ed. Donald R. Hickey (New York: The Library of America, 2013), pp. 594-601.

A. Patchett Martin, “Memoir of Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, G.C.B.” in Life and Letters of the Right Honourable Robert Lowe, Viscount Sherbrooke (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1893).

Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, Irish Rebels & Indian Allies (New York: Knopf, 2010)

2 thoughts on “Sherbrooke: “Forming a Government of Their Own”

  1. Very clever:

    “For some, it meant all of these things at different times and, such is the diversity of views, that for others it almost certainly meant all of them simultaneously.”

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