One on One: Russian mercenaries and the American Revolution
Published 12:35 pm Wednesday, July 12, 2023
By D.G. Martin
What did Russian mercenaries have to do with our Declaration of Independence?
In early 1776, American leaders in the British colonies were still of different minds about the question of breaking their ties with their king and mother country.
Even after the battles at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill and the American siege of Boston, and even after the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge near Wilmington, North Carolina, many hoped that the conflict between Britain and its American colonies could be resolved.
King George III was recognized as Britain’s and the colonists’ rightful sovereign. He had been persuaded to appoint the Howe brothers, Admiral Richard and General William, as commissioners to attempt to bring about a reconciliation. But they had power only to accept submission by the rebellious colonists. They did not have the authority to negotiate a settlement that would recognize the liberties the colonists demanded.
John C. Miller, an American historian writing during World War II in his book “Origins of the American Revolution,” said, “Had the British government pursued consistently this policy of dividing and bewildering Americans holding out the prospect of reconciliation, the Declaration of Independence might have been postponed and the rebellion crushed. But the mother country, while holding an olive branch in one hand, brandished a sword in the other.”
Miller explained how in January 1776, Thomas Paine, in his publication “Common Sense,” made “the first vigorous attack upon the King – the strongest bond of union yet remaining in the British Empire – and likewise the first appeal for an American Republic.”
Miller said, “Paine did more than smash the oversized statue of George III: he ripped up monarchy root and branch by pronouncing it to be a form of government condemned by the Almighty and by right reason.”
Miller continued, “Thus George III became the incarnation of evil as previously he had been the embodiment of every virtue.”
Instead of the longstanding respect British colonists previously had for their king, George III had become a great liability.
Miller wrote, “Of all the acts of ‘transcendent folly and weakness,’ nothing did more to convince the Americans of the necessity of an immediate declaration of independence than the hiring of foreign mercenaries to help suppress the rebellion in the colonies.”
Early in 1776, the British government was “scouring Europe for mercenaries to employ against Americans; it was remarked that twenty thousand Russian mercenaries would be charming visitors at New York and civilize that part of America wonderfully.”
When Catherine the Great refused to permit her subjects to fight on Britain’s side, Britain turned to the German states. Miller wrote Britain was like a mean hag who was trying to collect all neighborhood bullies to beat up her children.
These rumors about foreign mercenaries incensed the colonists.
With all these factors pushing for independence, there was still a reluctance to part ways. But “In April 1776, Judge William Drayton of South Carolina declared that Americans were absolved from all allegiance to the king of Great Britain; and the North Carolina provincial Congress directed its delegates in the Continental Congress to vote for independence and foreign alliances. But the greatest triumph of the radical cause came on May 15, 1776, when the Virginia Convention unanimously instructed its delegates to cast their vote for independence.”
However, middle colonies such as Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania had “desperately attempted to arrest its progress.”
Pennsylvania, where the Continental Congress was meeting, “proved the worst stumbling block of all.”
Miller explained, “In Pennsylvania, the radicals found it necessary to carry out a coup d’état to put the province in line: a Provincial Conference dispossessed the assembly of its authority and on June 24 declared the province was ready to join the other colonies in declaring independence.”
“On July 4th,” Miller wrote, “when the Declaration of Independence was adopted, New York still declined to vote; And it was not until July 15 that the New Yorkers formally threw in their lot with the rebellious states.”
All in all, the decision to cut ties with Britain was far from unanimous. It was a close call. And if it had not been for the rumor about the Russian mercenaries, it might not have happened at all.
D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.