The Last News Story of Colonial America

Guest blog post by Robert G. Parkinson, author of Thirteen Clocks: How Race United the Colonies and Made the Declaration of Independence

What was the tipping point that pushed Americans into taking the step of declaring their independence? After all, the colonies had been at war with Britain for more than a year by the end of the spring of 1776. The other factor most attributed to causing independence, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, was five months old by that time. What changed in May 1776 to encourage patriot political leaders in both the Continental Congress and in many of the separate colonial assemblies to support severing ties with Britain? What produced a sudden support for independence?

The Germans were coming.

The news that King George had arranged for the purchase of upwards of ten thousand mercenaries from the German states of Hesse-Cassel, Hanau, Brunswick, and Hanover struck the American colonies like a tsunami in early May 1776. When Americans learned that the King had made these arrangements—instead of sending over peace commissioners or negotiators—they rapidly embraced independence as the only course of action to take. The last news story of colonial America was that the Germans were coming. Before, there had only been wild speculation about the Crown trying to buy soldiers to put the rebellion down. Rumors about Russians circulated in the fall of 1775. But before May 1776—long after the King had actually signed treaties with the German princes—none of it could be considered fact.

Then, on May 2, 1776, a ship captain named John Lee steered his vessel into a slip in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and scampered down the wharf in search of the closest patriot leader to tell about a massive British fleet he had spotted already on its way across the Atlantic, bound for Manhattan. On board, he reported to patriot leader Timothy Pickering, were not only scores of British soldiers, but also twelve thousand German mercenary troops. Letters documenting Lee’s testimony flew out of New England, headed for General Washington’s headquarters in New York and to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Within two days colonial newspapers had the story, telling their readers all about the coming invasion.

Then, just two weeks after Lee’s eyewitness report reached Congress, a man with an even more amazing story arrived in Philadelphia. It hadn’t been that long ago, but it surely felt like a lifetime since George Merchant tried to keep out the cold Canadian wind on sentry duty outside Montreal just that past November. The Virginia frontiersman was part of Daniel Morgan’s rifleman unit, then assigned to aid in the conquest of Canada. Something happened and he found himself captured, questioned, and soon enough, bound across the Atlantic, headed to England as a prisoner of war. Once there, he suffered further interrogation and jail in Bristol, but found succor from a few sympathizers of the American “cause” who helped arrange for his escape. Before they did, they gave him a number of important papers for him to secret away in the lining of his clothing.

Upon reaching Nova Scotia, Merchant managed to get to New Hampshire, where he found John Langdon, a leading patriot authority. Langdon took one look at Merchant’s papers and flew to his writing table to let everyone know what they contained: the official treaties that arranged terms by which King George had negotiated with the German princes for thousands of professional soldiers. Like Lee’s testimony, Langdon sent letters recounting Merchant’s texts all over America. He also sent Merchant himself south, where he was to go to Philadelphia to seek out Josiah Bartlett, Langdon’s colleague and friend from New Hampshire. On May 20, Merchant introduced himself to Bartlett at a Philadelphia coffeehouse. The two of them went immediately up the street to spread the texts on the table in front of the Continental Congress.

This was the final straw. Almost instantly, the news of Lee’s testimony and Merchant’s documents raced through American newspapers. For the rest of May and early June, patriot printers documented the news of the German invaders. As Benjamin Franklin wrote late in May, “The German Auxiliaries are certainly coming. It is our Business to prevent their Returning.”

It was just at this moment that the colonial rebellion turned into a movement of national independence. In the ten days between Lee’s testimony and Merchant’s documentation arriving in the city, Congress passed a resolution ordering any colony that had not yet done so to start drafting state constitutions, a move that John Adams thought was essentially American independence. From Williamsburg, Virginia patriots ordered their delegates in Philadelphia to bring the question of independence to the floor for formal debate. Within two weeks of George Merchant presenting his secret documents, Congress had not only voted unanimously to leave the British Empire but had assigned Thomas Jefferson to draft a declaration of independence.

Near the climax of that Declaration, Jefferson would write that one of the King’s chief crimes was “transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy unworthy the head of a civilized nation.” His colleagues wanted more to that accusation, adding that the King’s actions were “scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages.”

The news of thousands of German mercenaries supplementing British forces would turn out to be the last news story of colonial America. It convinced Americans, both within the patriot leadership and without, that what Common Sense had advised seven long months ago was now inescapable: “’Tis Time to Part.”

It wasn’t natural rights or abstract concepts of consent or representation that made conditions right for the founding of the United States. It was the intervention of thousands of “proxies,” men hired to fight on behalf of King George, into the Revolution that provoked Jefferson, Franklin, and their colleagues to declare American independence. When we celebrate the Fourth of July we forget these tiny details—and the vital participation of men like Captain John Lee or the rifleman George Merchant—but they, too, were essential in bringing Independence Day about on July 4, 1776.

Robert G. Parkinson is associate professor of history at Binghamton University.