General Thomas Gage issues order declaring martial law in Massachusetts

Thomas Gage

On the 12th of June, 1775, General Thomas Gage was at the end of his patience and very nearly at the end of his career. The commander of British military forces in North America and governor of Massachusetts had tried for more than a year to collect payment for the tea destroyed in the Boston Harbor tea party.

All he had to show for his pains was an increasingly defiant population, a hangover from the April battles of Lexington and Concord and the city of Boston surrounded by a growing, ragtag army of rebel militia.

He continued pursuing a strategy that, by now, he knew was likely to fail, and on June 12 he issued the order declaring martial law in Massachusetts and urging the rebels to accept a full pardon for their actions up to that point. It was the last attempt by Gage to bring a peaceful end to the troubles in America, and a last chance for a surrender before he planned to unleash the force of the British military against its colonists. How had it come to pass?

For the previous year, Gage was a man stuck in the middle – between two sides who couldn’t have had more disparate views of the situation in the colonies.

In England, the Parliament was convinced its actions against Massachusetts were well-considered and relatively mild. Britain had closed the port of Boston, refusing to let the city engage in trade until the destroyed tea had been paid for.

It was only right, the English concluded, that the colonists should make restitution and only the slightest of punishments. If the debt was paid, the port could be opened and all would be resolved.

In Massachusetts, the actions were having the opposite of their intended consequences. While the colonists did recognize the issue of the tea was open for debate and there were some who favored restitution, the closing of the port was an act of economic warfare. It impoverished the people of Boston, and it forced the other colonies to send aid, bringing the colonies together. It created an unspoken acknowledgement that if Massachusetts were to cave in, it would be letting down all the colonies that had offered assistance.

In the wake of the shocking skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, the growing militia had gathered en masse outside Boston, encircling the city. The people held their breath to see what Gage would do next.

Gage was a perceptive man. He had an evolving view of the colonists, and they had repeatedly exasperated him. His background was as the second (non-inheriting) son of English nobility. He was a protestant with some strong anti-Catholic opinions, his family having given up its Roman Catholic roots generations earlier.

His family had bought him a military commission, and he had served largely with distinction in the military since 1741.

He was present at the May 1745 Battle of Fontenoy, where 2,500 British soldiers had died in a crushing defeat by the French in the War of Austrian Succession. And he was at Culloden in April 1746 for the decisive British victory over Charles Stuart.

With a reputation as a moderate and reasonable man, Gage was sent to America in 1755 to participate in the Indian wars in the Ohio Valley, where he participated in a less-than-successful campaign and his unit aided the escape of none other than George Washington from an Indian onslaught at the Battle of Monongahela.

From Ohio, Gage proceeded to Quebec, where he was more successful, and in 1763 he was appointed commander in chief of British forces in North America. By 1775 he had nearly 20 years in the colonies. He had married a wife from New Jersey from a well-to-do family. And his own wealth was considerable. He had accumulated 18,000 acres of land in New York, more property in Canada and a plantation in Montseratt.

In sum, he had every interest in seeing the colonies return to prosperity under British rule and little appetite for war. He had been somewhat tolerant of the debate over government that took place among the colonists, but over the years he had come to dislike an independent streak he saw growing in the Massachusetts.

“America is a mere bully, from one end to the other, and the Bostonians by far the greatest bullies,” he wrote in a 1770 letter. And in 1772, he warned that: “Democracy is too prevalent in America, and claims the greatest attention to prevent its increase.”

Originally Gage believed the general public was being incited by the elites, and these wealthy leaders were at the root of the rebellious nature of the colonists, though it was the democratic institutions of the colonies that were the vehicle for the growing rebellious spirit.

At his request, he was given permission to ban town meetings and replace locally chosen judges and government leaders with hand-picked loyalists.

All these actions, in his view, were designed to keep the peace long enough for the colonists to grow tired of rebellion and return peacefully to the bosom of England. It was his long-held belief that if England could not nudge the colonists back into line through persuasion, the cost of war would be enormous. It would require an overwhelming show of force and would be hugely expensive, probably more expensive than the government would ultimately be willing to pay for.

His proclamation on June 12, 1775, declared martial law, but included one last attempt to get the colonists to see reason:

“I avail myself of the last effort within the bounds of my duty, to spare the effusion of blood; to offer, and I do hereby, in His Majesty’s name, offer and promise his most gracious pardon to all persons who shall forthwith lay down their arms, and return to their duties of peaceable subjects,” he wrote.

Two men were not offered pardons: John Hancock and Samuel Adams. After Gage removed them from office, the two men had helped form a government in exile, the Continental Congress, which was viewed as treasonous by Britain. It is likely that Gage could not have pardoned these men because he was under orders to arrest the principals behind the Continental Congress.

At the same time he issued the proclamation, Gage was laying plans to use the army at his disposal to clear out the rabble surrounding Boston. The English government had backed down after the Boston Massacre in 1770 had flared up and caused bloodshed. This time, under Gage, it would be different as the two sides moved closer to greater conflict at Bunker Hill.