It was on this day, July 17th, in 1776 that the importance of titles when speaking to those fighting for our country all began. It all started with a dispatch that was being given to General George Washington from British General William Howe and Admiral Richard Viscount Howe – William Howe’s brother. The two were dispatching that George Washington begin opening peace negotiations.
However, in the dispatch, the Howe’s forgot to mention “general” when referring to George Washington. Because of it, George Washington refused to accept the dispatch, seeing it as a sign of disrespect. On July 17th, the Continental Congress had just learned of his refusal. So, how did the Continental Congress respond? They said that their commander in chief was acting “with a dignity becoming his station.” From that point forward, the Continental Congress forced all American commanders to only accept letters that are addressed to them properly, “in the characters they respectively sustain.”
Prior to the incident, the Howe brothers were preparing “the largest European force ever” that would eventually land on Staten Island in New York. This was all going on while the Continental Congress was voting to approve the newly written Declaration of Independence – which was being held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania early in July of 1776.
On the other hand, General George Washington – the Continental Army’s commander in chief – had spent a couple months moving nearly 19,000 men to New York from Boston. When in New York, they would confront the Howe brothers and the 30,000 men they were in charge of in New York.
Before Washington could get to New York, the Howe brothers had two options for the rebellion side. First off, they could just completely destroy the rebel army, using any amount of force needed. However, they were also given a second option: negotiate with Washington to bring the colonies back under British control. That option would also pardon the ones that were leading the revolt.
With a decision to make, the Howe brothers decided to attempt peace negotiations with the rebels. In a letter to Washington, the Howe brothers invited Washington to enter negotiations with the brothers – who were representing the British crown. On the letter, they titled it to George Washington, instead of General George Washington. Doing so would have given legitimacy to the rebel army, which the British denied the right to exist. Without the title of “general” next to his name, George Washington decided to not accept the peace offering. In fact, Washington didn’t even choose to open the letter.
All in all, the two sides began to fight. The British took Long Island, but the patriots were able to evacuate to Manhattan after the Brooklyn battle. After some time of fighting, the British extended more peace offerings, but the patriots would later withdrawal from the talks because the British wouldn’t recognize their independence. The informal negotiations were between the British and the Continental Congress, which was assembled on Staten Island at the time.
Eventually, the patriots would gain the independence they sought after for a long time.