Men Of The Revolution: 12. Richard And William Howe

PrintPrintEmailEmail

William Howe was a tall, heavy, coarse-looking man with poor teeth and a complexion almost as swarthy as that of his brother Richard, who was known as Black Dick. Another characteristic the two shared was taciturnity: as Horace Walpole remarked, the general “was one of those brave, silent brothers, and was reckoned sensible, though so silent that nobody knew whether he was or not.” And a soldier who knew them said they had in common “the sullen family gloom. In one thing they differed, Sir William hated business and never did any.” Which was what a British wag had in mind when he wrote

Awake, arouse, Sir Billy , There’s forage in the plain. Leave your little filly, And open the campaign.

Brother Richard differed from William only in degree: he was older by three years, more inarticulate, and somewhat more effective—but only somewhat (he too was accused of “unaccountable inactivity"). Where William fussed about the lack of support he felt he received from England, to Richard every communication with London was a galling reminder of the two men through whom he must conduct official business. One was Lord Sandwich, first lord of the admiralty, whom he despised; the other was I/3rd George Germain, secretary of state for the colonies, whom Howe disliked so cordially that he had refused to speak to him since 1758.

Quite apart from his personal misgivings about the war, the type of service he to’ind himself engaged in must have been frustrating to a man who had served in the navy since the age of fourteen, earning a reputation as a brave and skillful officer. There was no enemy fleet to fight—only the occasional privateer; and most of the admiral’s American tour was devoted to ferrying troops hither and yon and acting in support of the army. Perhaps because his brother was so preoccupied, it fell to Richard Howe to negotiate some sort of settlement with the rebels, and while he approached the business conscientiously enough, to his chagrin nothing came of it. The first effort was made in July of i 776, shortly after a huge British armada landed on Staten Island, when Lord Howe sent a message to George Washington requesting a meeting. The affair got off’ to a bad start because the letter was addressed to “George Washington, Esq."—not to General Washington; the American commander refused to receive it, and a comic opera of sorts ensued, with each party trying to maintain face, until a meeting between Washington and Howe’s representative was finally arranged. It became quickly apparent during the discussion that Howe, although he was called a peace commissioner, had no authority to do much beyond granting pardons to rebels. Since the latter believed that they were only defending what they construed as their natural rights, they did not think pardons were in order, and Howe’s initial overture got nowhere.

After the Battle of Long Island he tried again. This time he managed to meet with a delegation of the Continental Congress that included Benjamin Franklin, who had been a friend of the admiral’s sister in London, but once more it was clear that Howe lacked substantive authority. He could talk with the rebels, he could listen to their grievances, and he could grant pardons, but anything else would have to be referred to London.

Despite these failures Howe continued to hope that an amicable settlement of differences might be achieved, but reading daily summaries of the press, which his critics have maintained are partisan and distorted. He has made no secret of his disdain for the press and has met with newsmen less than any recent President.

On that, Franklin Roosevelt was the champion. In a little over twelve years he held 998 press conferences, for a time averaging two a week. He gathered perhaps a dozen reporters at a time in his office, and he answered questions for periods of up to two hours. Truman averaged a conference a week. Eisenhower, who allowed his conferences to be filmed and shown on television after they had been edited, logged a hundred conferences in his first term but, because of illness, less than half that number in his second. Kennedy, whose conferences were presented live on television and averaged a half hour in length, managed sixtyfour in nearly three years, roughly one every fifteen days. President Nixon, through December, 1973, had held twenty-six (roughly one every two months on average, though he had gone as long as five months without one).

Such are some of the statistics that measure the accessibility of one of the three most powerful rulers on earth, a subject scarcely even brought up in Moscow or Peking. Whether indeed accessibility is a help or a hindrance in getting things done at the modern White House may be argued, but it remains the basis of the American social contract entered into nearly two centuries ago.