The story behind the curious and delicately drawn riddles which appear on these pages began when the long lines of General John Burgoyne’s sullen British troops marched out of camp to stack their arms and ammunition in a meadow not far from Saratoga, New York. The staggering news of Burgoyne’s defeat brought France into the war against Great Britain, and George III decided, early in February of 1778, that the only way out of this dilemma was to withdraw most of the British armies from America and employ them with the navy against French and Spanish settlements.
To do this, he authorixed Lord North to offer the rebels everything they wanted—except independence. In the midst of the heated debates that followed Lord North’s conciliatory proposals, the appointment of five British peace commissioners, and the Continental Congress’ determined stand against any such nonsense, an Englishman named Matthew Darly produced the two little rebuses illustrated here. Darly was a London engraver and caricaturist, loyal to the Crown, but in these two charming letters he summed up with unusual insight what people felt, at the particular moment in history, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
The rebus as a form of communication dates back to earliest times, when its function was to give a word a visible symbol which would take the place of writing. Among earliest examples are signboards used in ancient Egypt and in Herculaneum and Pompeii. The French first made the rebus into a kind of riddle, and it became a form of amusement for generations of adults and children in France, England, and America.
England to America
My dear Daughter I cannot behold without great pain your headstrong backwardness to return to your Duty in not opposing all the good I long intended for your sole Happiness and being told that you have given your hand to a [undeciphered] and two-faced man I have sent you five over wise men the greatest of all my children to put you to rights and hope you will listen to them and mind what they say to you they have instructions to give you those things you formerly required so be a good girl discharge your soldiers and ships of war and do not rebel against your mother rely upon me and do not consult [ ? ] to what that French Rascal shall tell you I see he wants to bring on an enmity to all unity between you and I but listen not to him all the world takes notice of his two faces I’ll send him such Messages from my great cannons as shall make his heart repent and know that one good or ill turn merits another. NB let not [undeciphered] take too much hold of your heart.
I am your friend and mother.
America to her mistaken mother
You silly old woman that you have sent a dove to us is very plain to draw our attention from our real interests but we are determined to abide by our own ways of thinking your five children you have sent to us shall be treated as Visitors and safely sent home again you may consult [ ? ] them and admire them but you must not expect one of your puppets will come home to you as sweet as you sent him, twas cruel to send so pretty a man so many thousand miles and to have the fatigue of returning back after bobbing his coat and dirtying those reddened shoes if you are wise follow your own advice you gave to me take home your warships [and] soldiers guard well your own triflings and leave me to my self as I am at age to know my own interests without your foolish advice and know that I shall always regard you and my Brothers as relations but not as friends
I am your greatly injured