Historical Context

The outbreak of hostilities in Massachusetts in 1775 propelled the United States and Great Britain into war. The commander in chief of the Continental Army, George Washington, and the commander in chief of British forces in the New World, Thomas Gage, served together during the preceding French and Indian War. They were among the few survivors of what became known as Braddock’s Defeat, a 1755 battle in the Ohio Valley where 977 of the 1,459 British and American soldiers were killed or wounded. Militia Colonel George Washington, aide-de-camp to General Braddock at the time, served courageously under fire to care for his mortally wounded general and led the retreat for reinforcements. Lieutenant Colonel Gage also conducted himself bravely in combat. He was wounded and improvised a rear guard that allowed the escape of a few survivors, one of whom was George Washington.

At the time these letters were composed in August of 1775, General Thomas Gage was the most powerful man in North America. He commanded all British forces in the New World and King George III had recently added to his responsibilities by appointing him the Royal Governor of Massachusetts with orders to impose obedience on the rebellious colonial inhabitants. This new appointment came as part of the Coercive Acts, incited by the Destruction of the Tea, now known as the Boston Tea Party. In addition to appointing a new royal governor, the legislation outlawed town meetings, closed Boston’s port, ordered British soldiers to be quartered in American homes, and required trials of royal officials to be conducted in England.

The following letter exchange between commanders can better be understood by understanding Gage’s views about law and order as sources of liberty. Gage writes that “I Acknowledge no Rank that is not derived from the King,” and thus did not recognize Washington in any official role.

General Gage viewed 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 all mankind.” To him, liberty was made possible by upholding English law, safeguarded by the king and parliament. Rebellion against these established customs would likely deteriorate into anarchy and cause great suffering in the empire. Upholding the law provided safe harbor for his majesty’s subjects.

Documents and Essential Questions

George Washington to Thomas Gage, August 11, 1775

What is the problem General Washington is addressing in his first paragraph?

What course of action does General Washington inform Lt. Gen. Gage he will take?

Thomas Gage to George Washington, August 13, 1775

What does it mean when Lt. Gen. Gage writes of the American rebels, “whose lives by the Laws of the Land are destined to the Cord”?

What does it mean when Lt. Gen. Gage writes, “I Acknowledge no Rank that is not derived from the King”? What does this show about how this British military leader viewed the Americans?

What does Lt. Gen. Gage claim his intelligence informs him about?

What does it mean when Lt. Gen. Gage writes that every honest man would like “this unhappy Breach forever closed” and that those who “influence the Councils of America, have views very distant from Accomodation.” How do you think Lt. Gen. Gage would explain the conflict to a third party unfamiliar with it?

George Washington to Thomas Gage, August 19, 1775

What did General Washington investigate in response to Lt. Gen. Gage’s letter? What does he write that he found from his investigation?

How does General Washington respond to this point in Lt. Gen. Gage’s letter: “I Acknowledge no Rank that is not derived from the King”?