“The authors of the present unnatural revolt never daring to trust their cause or their actions to the judgment of an impartial public, or even to the dispassionate reflection of their followers, have uniformly placed their chief confidence in the suppression of truth.”
This address, dated less than two months after the pivotal the battles in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, outlines the atrocities—as perceived by King George III and his ministers—committed against the British government by the “infatuated multitudes” of subjects in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This also included the firing upon British ships by these “rebels.” Written by Thomas Gage, a high-ranking member of the British Army who was promoted to general in the early 1780s, the proclamation is an impassioned piece, reminding the king’s loyal subjects that several attempts have been made to heal the breach, but these same attempts have been manipulated by “well known incendiaries” to look otherwise. Gage closes with a special message for the people of the colony of Massachusetts, that, with the exception of John Hancock and Samuel Adams and their rebellious compatriots, all others are offered the king’s “pardon” if they desist hostilities.
Given the time frame of revolutionary events during this period, there may be little doubt that the issuance of King George III’s proclamation was hastened due to the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Earlier conflicts and events, such as the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party, were the rumblings before the shots fired over Lexington Green on the early morning of April 19, 1775. After all, despite the casualties of five civilians at the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770, the Battles of Lexington and Concord were different: this time there were British losses as well.
The man chosen to publish King George III’s proclamation to the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was Thomas Gage. Gage held a prominent history in Massachusetts and in the American colonies as whole; his was a familiar name and his military position and role in maintaining order in the colonies was well known. Although there is no evidence either way, the king’s choice of Gage as the messenger is an interesting one, and one to consider: given his office as governor of Massachusetts, as well as his own participation in the Battles of Lexington and Concord, his authorship of the proclamation could indeed be seen as propaganda itself.
When closely reading Gage’s words, there is a clear desire to sway the reader to view the recent events in the colony through the eyes of British opinion. By referring to the growing American as an “unnatural revolt” Gage diminishes the actions of the colonists by making them appear childish, rather than the actions of a population protesting the tyrannical acts of King George III and lawmakers in Parliament. Such expediency in this proclamation denotes the Crown’s growing rage over the colonists’ uncooperativeness—and, no doubt, there was a great wish to avoid the costs of another war. The initial problems arose when Great Britain imposed taxes in part to pay off the debt accrued during the French and Indian War, which had ended only twelve years before. The Crown and Parliament wished to avoid becoming embroiled in another costly war, especially against their own countrymen.
Gage’s overall tone is that the instigators of this upheaval held no confidence in their own “cause.” From his perspective, instead of basing their arguments on real or proven grievances and trusting their peers to understand the reasons behind their anger, the “incendiaries” are left to manipulate the issues and distort the actions of the Crown as their only methods. To raise much-needed support for their campaign, the rebel leaders—Samuel Adams and John Hancock, according to Gage and the king—were willing to say anything, truthful or not. This led to the inevitable argument that the revolutionary leaders in the colonies could not make the truth known as then there would be nothing with which to rally the masses.
Thomas Gage was born in Firle, Sussex, England, sometime between the years of 1719 and 1721. His father was Thomas Gage, the first Viscount Gage, and his mother was Benedicta Hal. His older brother, William Gage, would be made a baron and serve in Parliament. Gage attended public school and, in 1741, bought a commission as a lieutenant. In the 1740s and 1750s he rose in the military ranks in England—becoming a lieutenant captain, captain, and eventually a lieutenant colonel—until his regiment was sent to the American colonies in 1755.
After landing in Virginia, Gage fought in the French and Indian War, participating in the Braddock Expedition, the Battle of the Monongahela, and the Battle of Carillon. In 1759 Gage was made a brigadier general and was a leader in the Battle of Ticonderoga. He served through the duration of the war and was appointed military governor of the Montreal on September 21, 1760—a position he held until 1763.
In November of 1763 Gage was temporarily installed as the commander in chief of all British forces in North America. The role became official in November 16, 1764. Throughout the following decade Gage would work to build forts and garrisons, raise troops, and control the rising unrest in the colonies. His support of the 1765 Stamp Act and his deployment of troops to occupy Boston only served to increase the feeling of instability.
After a brief return to England in 1773, Gage returned to the colonies as the newly-appointed military governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, replacing Governor Thomas Hutchinson. Gage’s tenure in the Massachusetts Bay Colony made him very unpopular with the colonists. One of his duties was the enforcement of the Intolerable Acts of 1774; these five Coercive Acts were devised following the Boston Tea Party in December 1773. The most prominent of these acts was the Boston Port Act, which closed the highly commercial port of Boston; this went into effect on June 1, 1774, roughly a year before Gage wrote the “Proclamation on Behalf of King George III.”
Gage’s chosen time of writing could not have been more momentous as, merely five days after writing this proclamation in the name of the king, his troops engaged in the Battle of Bunker Hill—a key skirmish in the Revolutionary War. Though the British forces won the battle, they suffered heavy losses and Gage was recalled to Great Britain. He was replaced by General William Howe and assigned a new position in Great Britain, where he was made a full general in 1782. Gage died at his home in London on April 2, 1787.
This proclamation displays the clever writing and rhetorical devices employed by Thomas Gage and may be read in a number of different ways. On the first instance it can be read at face value as a message to those rebelling against the Crown and inciting violence and unrest. Gage describes the actions of the disillusioned masses who had been erroneously led by equally disillusioned men, committing acts of violence against members of the king’s army and—a consequence of such acts—also delivered that same ferocity toward innocent citizens, their very own countrymen. Though the Crown tried in vain to right the supposed wrongs felt by the rebelling subjects, these efforts were manufactured to look as though they intended even more harm, and that the king and his ministers were deliberately misleading their people. Gage’s closing statement, though benevolent, offers unquestioned immunity and protection to all those who “lay down their arms” and return “to the duties of peaceable subjects,” while excluding ringleaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock, as well as their associates, from this mercy. Gage even ends his address with the words, “liberty founded upon law.” Although he never refers specifically to the Sons of Liberty, Gage’s use of the word liberty is clever indeed.
The proclamation can also be interpreted as a shrewd piece of propaganda. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, through the actions of the Sons of Liberty and their followers, is described as instigating rebellion and mutiny against the laws of the king. The fear of the consequences associated with these crimes, as listed by Gage, would drive participants to recant their heresies. The language used is educated and respectful, yet powerful to those who did not wish to rouse the Crown’s anger. The proclamation also attempts an appeal to the human nature of readers and their sense of self-preservation; it asks them to see the disgust of the men who place their own countrymen in danger, who invoke the name of God in such atrocities: “to compleat the horrid profanation of terms, and of ideas, the name of God has been introduced in the pulpits to excite and justify devastation and massacre.”
Of course, what is not mentioned is how such actions of an “unnatural revolt” were provoked. Issues of taxes are not discussed, nor, interestingly, is the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770. The image presented within the proclamation is that of a small gang of troublemakers who seek an upheaval of society for no reason other than to cause mayhem and catastrophe. How can they fear the king when he is over three thousand miles away? Gage does not spend any time in discussing what drove previously peaceful subjects toward their behavior; in such a discourse, it is debatable that it had a place in the mind of its writer.
Much of the proclamation is spent in rehashing the events of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, though Gage does not refer to them as battles. After all, a battle suggests equally opposed forces, whereas everyone in the colonies was meant to be on the same side. Read in hindsight, it reveals an intriguing recount of such a pivotal episode in American history; this highlights one of the many benefits of reading history through primary source documents, but one that can only be done while keeping to the original context. Gage and his peers could not have seen the Battles of Lexington and Concord as anything other than hostile acts by their people, an insurrection that threatened the structure of their society. He described the rebels’ actions during days following Lexington and Concord, accusing them of trying to besiege the army while members of their group perpetrated “daily and indiscriminate invasions upon private property, and with a wantonness of cruelty ever incident to lawless tumult, carry depredation and distress wherever they turn their steps.” Gage is a shrewd writer and, as a piece of propaganda, the proclamation clearly demonstrates his hopes that his recount of events stirs fears within those in the colony, as well as the hangers-on of the “incendiaries.”
King George III himself is a captivating historical figure to study, purely because he has been interpreted in many different ways. He was seen as a tyrant who stubbornly resisted the American colonists’ quest for the freedom to govern themselves. He was seen as the mad king, locked screaming in Windsor castle while his son, Prince George of Wales (later King George IV) took command, thereby initiating the Regency period in British history. George III was also a king who sought to distance himself from his German-born great-grandfather and grandfather—George I and George II (George III’s father, Prince Frederick of Wales, died in 1751)—by presenting his image as thoroughly British. Given his pride in Britain, it is amusing to consider that it would not be until the First World War that the royal family would change their name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the far more English, Windsor. This pride may be interpreted as a reason for his not wanting to relinquish Great Britain’s hold over America, though this is just conjecture.
At the time of Gage’s proclamation, George III had been infuriated by the Boston Tea Party and felt that the unrest and protest were the result of too much lenience from Great Britain. The king was pleased with the Intolerable Acts (first known as the Coercive Acts) that were set in place at this time—and enforced by Thomas Gage—and their provisions related to colonial governance, ports, trials, and the quartering of soldiers. Another measure included within the acts was the Quebec Act. The Quebec Act extended the boundaries of Quebec southward to the Ohio River and allowed the practice of Roman Catholicism. The act was also a demonstration of the king’s power over his colonial subjects and his control of their lives.
However, not everyone in the Massachusetts Bay Colony saw George III as a tyrant; some held a more sympathetic opinion of their former ruler, namely John Adams. This uprising within the North American colonies instilled fear in the king, a fear that resonated throughout Europe after independence was declared and as the revolutionary fever then spread to France.
It is an understandable fear for George III and his empire: once one domino fell, so went them all. This, then, points to another goal of the proclamation of 1775: to search out those who wished to clip away Britain’s ties to the North American colonies.
Vilified by the British and hallowed by the Americans, Samuel Adams, second cousin to John Adams, figured conspicuously in Thomas Gage’s words for the king’s proclamation as being one of the rebels inciting the “unnatural” revolt against the Crown. His legacy, though, as interpreted by historians since his death in 1803, reveals more of an enigma. Thomas Hutchinson, royal governor of Massachusetts during the time of the Boston Massacre, had a low opinion of Adams and saw him as a threat. Peter Oliver, a member of the Massachusetts Superior Court in the 1770s, shared Hutchinson’s opinion of Adams.
Modern research has not made much progress in upgrading Adams’ image, and some of these analyses still appear to coincide with Thomas Gage’s depiction of Adams as one of the anarchistic leaders of the rebellion. Indeed, some historians have criticized Adams for organizing riots and disregarding laws. Given these descriptions, Adams might be difficult to envision as a calm patriot who played a crucial role in the American Revolution. Despite contradictory opinions regarding his methods and influence, it is agreed that his leadership and role in the revolutionary movement shaped the course of the war and of American history. The nineteenth century saw attempts at improving the memory of Samuel Adams, one of which was by his own descendant, William V. Wells, who denounced the claims of his great-grandfather’s participation in the Stamp Act riots. While Wells’s desire to portray his great-grandfather positively and as a true patriot is admirable, there is not much of a degree of separation between the two men for Wells to be objective. His protests against the defamation of Adams, therefore, are seen as more of a defense of his relative rather than an independent reinterpretation of a historical figure.
The proclamation written by Thomas Gage and distributed to those within the Massachusetts Bay Colony in June 1775—a colony on the precipice of all-out war—was a tool of King George III and his ministers in an attempt to rein in the populace, to frighten those at the helm (presumably meaning the Sons of Liberty, though the term was not used by Gage in the proclamation) into submitting peacefully back into an unquestioned, structured society as ordained by those in London. However, by this time, especially after the Battles of Lexington and Concord—an uprising as seen by Gage and his peers, and much more so by the Crown—the moment for a return to a peaceful life in the colonies, as so requested, had passed. This sentiment would only be strengthened further by the events in Charlestown, at the Battle of Bunker Hill, in such a short time following the writing of the proclamation. Those in the colonies, both American colonists and the British army charged with keeping order, had passed the point of no return.
Though Gage provides the promise of pardoning all those—excepting, of course, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and their followers—who lay down their arms against the British Army, this seemingly magnanimous gesture, at its heart, was a scare tactic. While the common man in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, irritated with taxes and the ambivalent attitude of the Crown toward the colonies, was accustomed the presence of troops in the area, the idea of King George III, his Parliament, and ministers was more abstract. The proclamation distributed by Thomas Gage disrupted this abstraction and made colonists realize the king and his powers were forces with which to reckon.
Throughout the proclamation by Thomas Gage, there are a number of references to the Crown and state being misinterpreted and how, as a consequence, this led to the general public being misled by the colonial press. Such a level of misrepresentation led invariably into the very hands of those wishing to distort the wishes and actions of those holding sway in London. Among others, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and the Sons of Liberty utilized this tool—as well as those fashioned themselves—to further bring the “multitudes” to their rebellious side.
Part of Thomas Gage’s frustration with this issue lies within the misleading of the public. King George III, his ministers, and those in Parliament had attempted to make amends: “the good effects which were expected arise from the patience and lenity of the King’s government, have been often frustrated, and are now rendered hopeless, by the influence of the same evil counsels.” All that had been done, evidently in vain, according to Gage. Any further attempts by the Crown to intercede would be rendered useless; such efforts would not be taken seriously and genuinely. The attacks on British troops in Lexington and Concord, and the subsequent acts against British ships in Boston Harbor, changed the whole course of action as far as those in Great Britain were concerned. According to Gage, now was the time for aggressive action.
Neither King George III—nor his ministers—saw the fault of the matter lying within themselves or in their actions; such a thought held no place or consideration in their attitudes or decision-making. The American colonists, living within the British-ruled colonies, were to live their lives according to the laws set down by their government. As subjects of the Crown, they were to adhere to the structure put in place for society. For those in power, it simply did not make sense to discredit the actions of the Crown, much less to engage in warfare against the king’s own troops. The men in the colonies clamoring for their “liberty” had disrupted their own peace by havoc of their own creation—a havoc, to Gage and his peers, that was manufactured as crimes of the Crown. The pen of Thomas Gage well illustrates the hostility and aggression exhibited by the British at this point in time.
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