IMMEDIATELY after the evacuation of the British from Boston in 1776, Washington hastened to New York with a greater part of his army, for he suspected General William Howe of an intention to attack that city. British war vessels lingered in Boston harbor even so late as June, and there was a prevailing fear in New England that Howe intended to return to their shattered capital. It was therefore determined by the Massachusetts Assembly to drive the ships to the sea. This was done at the middle of June, by General Lincoln, at the head of militia and a few regulars, who so annoyed the ships with cannon planted on the shores, that they departed never to return. Howe went to Halifax to prepare for attacking the Americans at what he supposed to be a more vulnerable point.
In June, 1776, General Howe sailed with his recruited army from Halifax for New York, and arrived at Sandy Hook at near the close of that month. There he was soon afterward joined by a large fleet commanded by his brother Richard, Earl Howe. The latter had been made joint commissioner with the general, and authorized by the king to offer pardon to all rebels, in his name, and to negotiate for peace or to prosecute the war as circumstances might demand. The admiral was the pleasant gentleman whom Dr. Franklin met at the chess-playing with Mrs. Howe, in London, and had some diplomatic correspondence with him. He addressed a courteous letter to Franklin, on his arrival, with copies of a proclamation of pardon, which the Congress permitted the shrewd American diplomat to answer. It was done in terms that made Howe shrink from the task of replying to it.
When Washington arrived in New York, he pushed forward the defences of the city, and in the Hudson Highlands, for already intimations had reached the Americans that a grand scheme of the ministers for dividing the colonies, was to effect a junction between troops going up the Hudson Valley, and others coming down from the St. Lawrence, the latter being already at the foot of Lake Champlain. Fort Washington was built on the highest part of Manhattan Island (now Washington Heights); and strong batteries were constructed near it as well as in the more immediate vicinity of the little town whose northern verge was on The Fields, now City Hall Park.
The commander-in-chief went to Philadelphia to confer with the Continental Congress on the topic of the general defence of the colonies, for the theatre of war was evidently about to expand along the entire sea-board. It was then known that the mercenaries of the British monarch were on their way to America; and it was believed that the city of New York was destined to receive the first stunning blow from the combined British and German armies. Danger appeared imminent, and Congress authorized the enlistment of thirteen thousand troops from New England, New York, and New Jersey; also the establishment of a Flying Camp under General Hugh Mercer, composed of men from Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. These were to rendezvous at Amboy, in New Jersey, opposite Staten Island. The Congress also authorized the forming of a body of Indians, two thousand in number, for service in Canada, to oppose the savages employed by Carleton. General Schuyler, who was wiser concerning the Indians than the senators at Philadelphia, asked the significant question: "Where are the Indians to be found?" He knew it would be impossible to gather so large a number for such a purpose. "I think," he said, "that if the Indians can be kept from joining the enemy, it will be as much as we have a right to expect." Knowing their cruel disposition, he was averse to employing them in war; he knew, also, that their maxim in alliances with the white people was to adhere to the strongest, most liberal in giving rewards, and with whom there was the least danger. Schuyler labored successfully in effecting that neutrality; he held the Six Nations in restraint from 1775 until 1783.
Washington returned to New York early in June, and made his summer headquarters at Richmond Hill (now the intersection of Charlton and Varick streets), afterward the country seat of Aaron Burr. Soon after his return a foul conspiracy, hatched by the unscrupulous Governor Tryon on board the Duchess of Gordon, was discovered. The brothers Howe were hourly expected to enter the harbor of New York with a powerful fleet and army, and a plan was formed for causing the uprising of the Tories in New York and in the lower valley of the Hudson at that moment; to cut off all communication with the mainland; to fire the magazine; to murder Washington, his staff and other leading officers of the American army in the city; or to seize them and send them to England for trial on a charge of treason; and, making prisoners of the great body of the troops, carry out the separating design of the ministry just mentioned. The mayor of New York (Matthews) was Tryon's chief vehicle of communication with the Tories. A large number of persons were concerned in the plot. Their influence was felt even above the Hudson Highlands, by the offer of large rewards for those who should join the king's troops when they should land. The up-river recruits were to spike the great guns on the fortifications in the Highlands, and then hasten to join the Loyalists below. Washington's Life Guards were tampered with, and two of them were seduced from their fidelity. To one of them, an Irishman named Hickey, was entrusted the task of destroying Washington. He resolved to poison his commander, and tried to make the general's housekeeper, a faithful maiden, an accomplice in the deed. She pretended to favor his plans. It was arranged for her to put poison, that he should prepare, into green peas, a dish of which Washington was very fond. At the appointed time he saw the poison mixed with the peas and watched the girl, at an open door, as she carried the fatal mess to the general's table and placed it before him. The maiden had revealed the plot to Washington, and he made an excuse for sending the peas away. He ordered the arrest of Hickey, who was tried by a court-martial, and was condemned. He was hanged on a tree in Colonel Rutger's field a little east of the Bowery, on the 28th of June, 1776, in the presence of twenty thousand people. Already Mayor Matthews and more than twenty others had been arrested by order of the Provincial Congress, but only Hickey suffered death. It was the first military execution in the Continental Army; and it is a notable fact that the delinquent was from a body of men who were specially chosen for their trustworthiness. The horrible plot was traced directly to Governor Tryon, as its author. Ten days after the execution of the Life-Guardsman, General Howe landed nine thousand troops on Staten Island, and there awaited the arrival of his brother Lord Howe with a large fleet.
At the moment when British armies and navies were hovering on the American coasts charged with the unrighteous business of suppressing by force of arms the uprising of a free people in defence of their liberties, that people, by their representatives in Congress assembled, were laying broadly the foundations of an independent nation. In all their debates, petitions and remonstrances, the colonists had steadily disclaimed a desire for political independence of Great Britain. As a body, they were sincere; and it was only when dependence was made a synonym for slavery, that any great number of Americans sincerely entertained a wish for independence. That desire had been cherished in the hearts of a few like Samuel Adams and Christopher Gadsden, from the time when Writs of Assistance and the Stamp Act foreshadowed the oppressive measures toward the Americans which the new king would be willing to sanction; but not until late in 1775, when the respectful petition of the Congress had been treated by the sovereign and the legislature with scorn, and it was known that there were negotiations on foot for the hire of foreign troops to enslave the Americans, did any considerable number of thinking men, in the colonies, openly express opinions favorable to independence. When Great Britain sent armies hither to coerce submission to her injustice; "to plunder our seas, ravage our coasts, burn our towns, harass our people, and eat out their substance;" when King, Lords, and Commons became totally "deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity," the colonies were forced to "acquiesce in the necessity which compelled them to dissolve the political bands which connected them with the parent state, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature, and of nature's God, entitled them."
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