ACCORDING TO LEGEND, George Washington could not tell a lie. But, he was not above bribery.
To be clear, Washington was the one making the bribe. Yes, it appears that, in addition to his military prowess, he was an astute businessman who came up with a clever — albeit dubious — twist on what today is known as the “leveraged buyout.”
In the Spring of 1776, fresh from his victory in the Siege of Boston, Washington decided to see whether there might be a more expeditious, non-violent path to victory in the overall war. Although he won that battle in Beantown, it took a staggering 11 months. Soon thereafter, no doubt, he reviewed this hard-fought win and calculated how many more of these engagements would be necessary to achieve independence from England. He concluded that he needed a different approach, which was to appeal to British soldiers and officers with a carrot rather than the stick. The carrot was this: Leave the King’s Army, and the “Rebel Alliance” will reward you for abandoning ship.
If this is a revelation to you, join the club. I certainly don’t remember hearing or reading about this in any history class.
But it was front-page news in 1776. This proclamation, signed by Washington, was printed in newspapers throughout the country starting in March of that year. The image below was published in the Hartford Courant July 8, which, of course, was just four days after the Declaration of Independence was ratified.
The type is a bit hard to read, but here are some salient points:
— Washington reaches out directly to the British soldiers, presuming their “reluctance” to partake in this “odious” war, which is “in support of tyranny, against the rights and privileges of their American brethren …”
— For those willing “to quit the King’s service and settle in this country,” Washington is bequeathing land — lots of land — from 200 acres for a lowly private to 10,000 acres for “every” field officer.
— One minor detail is that, in order to give away this terra firma, Congress must first buy it “from the Indians.” As to what price Congress would pay and whether this was an offer the Native Americans “couldn’t refuse,” we do not know. Nor is it clear why anyone would have agreed to accept Continental Currency, since in most cases the money wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but it seems significant that Washington would offer funny money to the “Indians,” but he did not make such an offer to the British soldiers, who most likely would have scoffed at the currency and hence the whole deal.
But land, on the other hand, was something real and tangible. Nobody understood this better than Washington, a former surveyor and a man who made land speculation a serious avocation. In his lifetime, Washington amassed 52,194 acres in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Kentucky, the Ohio Valley and what is now West Virginia.
BUT, I SUPPOSE, this legal if somewhat questionable entreaty to the Native People was better than stealing the property outright, which, according to University of Georgia History Professor Claudio Saunt, is exactly what the U.S. government did between 1776 and 1887, to the tune of 1.5 billion acres. That’s “billion” with a “B.”
So, the “Indians” would have had every right to question this proposition. But imagine being on the other end of the deal, as a British officer, reading this offer. In his eyes:
- Washington is Enemy No. 1 to the British Crown.
- Enemy No. 1 is informing you that he is in charge of the country that your boss (the King) says is his.
- Enemy No. 1 is enticing you to quit what you’re doing in exchange for remuneration in the form of property.
- The only minor detail is that Enemy No. 1 doesn’t actually have the acreage to give you at the moment. You’re just going to have to trust him to work with his rag-tag team of rebels to acquire the property from “Indians,” who, by the way, aren’t all that amenable to losing more of their hunting grounds to invasive White People.
As to how many British soldiers or officers took Washington up on this offer, we do not know. It’s also unclear whether there might have been an additional set of Ginsu knives for those who “acted now.”
It’s also unknown whether there was an expiration date on this deal. It might have come in handy for Benedict Arnold, who had played a decisive role in aiding Washington to win the Siege of Boston and then, a few years later, infamously, switched sides to aid the British.
Nonetheless, this episode is a fascinating piece of trivia on this most revered of American holidays.