Washington wrote of ambitious plan to conquer Canada
An auction house is selling a letter from the future founding president of the United States in which he outlined his plans for the colonies’ neighbours, writes RANDY BOSWELL.
The U.S. auction house Sotheby’s is set to sell a faded and fragile letter written 235 years ago by George Washington in which the newly appointed commander of the American revolutionary army passionately outlines his strategy for conquering Canada.
Signed on Sept. 14, 1775, by the future founding president of the United States, the letter was dispatched to the rebel colonies’ northern general Benedict Arnold — infamous for later betraying the revolution, but at the time in charge of the planned capture of Quebec and of persuading Canadian citizens to reject British authority and join the rebel cause.
The three-page letter — held until now in a $15-million collection of historic documents amassed by the late U.S. newspaper publisher and antiquarian James Copley — is expected to sell for up to $300,000 at an April 14 sale in New York.
“During the early foment of revolution, American patriots often looked at Canada as the key to inde- pendence. Dreams of a ‘fourteenth colony’ f ired the imaginations of politicians and military men alike,” Sotheby’s states in its description of the yellowed letter. “The Continental Congress had authorized an invasion of Canada even before George Washington was appointed as Commander of the Continental Army on 3 July, 1775. He gave the northern venture the highest priority, and appointed to lead it the daring and dashing Benedict Arnold.”
In his official marching orders to Arnold, received by the general as he headed north toward Canada through the Massachusetts backwoods, Washington instructs with upper-case import: “ Upon your Conduct & Courage … the Safety and Welfare of the whole Continent may depend.”
Arnold would lead his army of 1, 200 men northward nearly 600 kilometres in 45 days to the St. Lawrence River, ominously arriving at the outskirts of Quebec City as winter was setting in. The American march through the northeast U. S.
‘Should any American Soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any Canadian or Indian in his Person or Property, I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary Punishment as the Enormity of the Crime may require. Should it extend to Death itself, it will not be disproportionate to its Guilt at such a Time and in such a Cause.’
GEORGE WASHINGTON in a 1775 letter to Benedict Arnold
wilderness and along wild waterways “is still counted as one of the great achievements of 18th-century warfare,” the auction house notes.
“ You are in trusted with a Command of the utmost Consequence to the Interest & Liberties of America,” Washington writes. “Consider yourselves as marching not through an Enemies Country, but that of our Friends and Brethren, for such Inhabitants of Canada & the Indian Nations have approved themselves in this unhappy Contest between Great Britain & America.”
The generous treatment of Canadian civilians by the invading Americans was key to Washington’s plan to convince Britain’s northernmost colonists to join the revolution.
Washington instructs Arnold, in fact, to inflict a swift death sentence on any American soldier who mistreats the Canadians being targeted for recruitment to rebellion.
Instill fear of punishment for “every Attempt to Plunder or insult any of the Inhabitants of Canada,” Washington orders Arnold. “Should any American Soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any Canadian or Indian in his Person or Property, I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary Punishment as the Enormity of the Crime may require. Should it extend to Death itself, it will not be disproportionate to its Guilt at such a Time and in such a Cause.”
Washington further demands that Arnold and his men display sensitivity toward the Catholic faith practised widely in Quebec, despite its natural offence to the devoutly Protestant soldiers from the south.
“Avoid all Disrespect or Contempt of the Religion of the Country and its Ceremonies — Prudence, Policy and true Christian Spirit will lead us to look with Compassion upon their Errors without insulting them,” Washington states. “While we are Contending for our own Liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others; ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the Hearts of Men …”
Above all, he commands Arnold, do nothing to “turn the Hearts of our Brethren in Canada against us” and strive to “convert those favourable Dispositions they have shewn into a lasting Union and Affection.”
In the end, Arnold’s efforts to bring Quebec into the revolutionary fold fizzled due to sickness that decimated his troops and deep wariness among the Canadian population toward the southern rebellion.
While he led an ineffectual siege at Quebec through the winter of 1776 and then briefly commanded a captured Montreal, British and Canadian troops soon drove the Americans out of Canada.
By 1779, angry at having been passed over for promotions and a target of contempt within the American army, Arnold began sharing secrets about U.S. troop numbers and movements with the British.
He eventually joined the British side and was living in Saint John, N.B., when Washington became the first president of the United States in 1789.