The Conference at Staten Island (and a bed-time conversation between John Adams and Benjamin Franklin)

On September 2, 1776, General John Sullivan of the American Army appeared before Congress. Captured at the Battle of Brooklyn in August, Sullivan was to be exchanged for the British general Richard Prescott. He was sent by British Admiral Richard Howe to deliver a message to the Congress. Howe requested “a half an Hours Conversation with some of the Members of Congress, in their private Capacities.” Congress, after a debate lasting three or four days, approved a Committee be sent to Howe “to know whether he had Power, to treat with Congress upon Terms of Peace and to hear any Propositions, that his Lordship may think proper to make.” Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge were chosen by Congressional vote to meet with Admiral Howe.[1]

The men left Philadelphia on the 9th. On their way through New Jersey, Adams observed many soldiers “straggling and loitering” which gave him a “poor Opinion of the Discipline of our forces and excited as much indignation as anxiety.” The taverns along the route were so full that Adams wound up sharing a bed with Franklin in Brunswick. As the gentlemen were getting into bed, “in a Chamber little larger than the bed, without a Chimney and with only one small Window,” a conversation arose regarding one of Franklin’s theories. Fortunately, Adams recorded the event for posterity.[2]

Adams, who did not like the night air blowing upon him, closed the window, much to Franklin’s dismay. Franklin beckoned Adams to open the window and come to bed and Franklin would explain his “Theory of Colds.” Curious, Adams obliged and leapt into bed before the cold air could get him. As Franklin “began an harrangue, upon Air and cold and Respiration and Perspiration,” Adams was “so much amused” that he soon fell asleep, recalling “little of the Lecture, except, that the human Body, by Respiration and Perspiration, destroys a gallon of Air in a minute: that two such Persons, as were now in that Chamber, would consume all the Air in it, in an hour or two: that by breathing over again the matter thrown off, by the Lungs and the Skin, We should imbibe the real Cause of Colds, not from abroad but from within.”[3]

It is comical to imagine the seventy-year-old Franklin droning on as Adams, thirty years his junior, nods off next to him in the same bed.

The next morning, they continued on to Amboy. As the barge approached the Staten Island shore on September 11th, Howe came to the water’s edge to greet the Americans. The meeting took place at Colonel Christopher Billopp’s house. The men walked from the shore to the house “between Lines of Guards of Grenadiers, looking as fierce as ten furies, and making all the Grimaces and Gestures and motions of their Musquets with Bayonets fixed.” Adams supposed this was some type of military etiquette.[4]

The men met in a large room, prepared purposefully for the meeting. The rest of the home was “as dirty as a stable” according to Adams, but the room in which they were meeting was “not only wholesome but romantically elegant,” and the men were provided “good Claret, good Bread, cold Ham, Tongues and Mutton.”[5]

Once the pleasantries were over, Howe stated that he could not deal with the men in an official capacity, but wondered “whether there was any probability, that America would return to her Allegiance.” Talking to the men as private citizens, Howe hoped that the meeting “might prepare the Way, for the Peoples returning to their Allegiance, and to an Accommodation of the Disputes between the two Countries.” If only the men of the Congress would declare their allegiance as British subjects, Howe was authorized to treat with them, “to confer, advise and consult, with any number or description of Persons concerning the Complaints of the People in America.”[6]

Adams and the other Congressional representatives agreed that Howe’s “Commission contains no other Authority, than that of granting Pardons” and they informed Howe that independence was a fact, and “the Declaration which had been made, of Independence, was the Result of long and cool deliberation.” Howe was also informed “That it had been made by Congress, after long and great Reluctance, in Obedience to the possitive Instructions of their Constituents.” Franklin went so far as to give his private opinion to Howe that “America would not again come under the domination of Great Britain: and therefore it was the Duty of every good Man, on both sides the Water, to promote Peace, and an Acknowledgment of American Independency.” Howe, realizing that no accommodation would be made between the British and the Americans, ended the conference.[7]

If anything positive came from the conference for the Americans, it was that it bought General Washington more time to plan and prepare for the British onslaught that was to come.

 

 

[1]  “John Adams to Abigail Adams, 6 September 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-02-02-0078 [last update: 2015-12-30]). Source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 2,June 1776 – March 1778, ed. L. H. Butterfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963, pp. 120–121.
[2] The quotations here and below come from the diary of John Adams: “[Monday September 9, 1776.] ,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-03-02-0016-0187 [last update: 2015-12-30]). Source: The Adams Papers, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, vol. 3, Diary, 1782–1804; Autobiography, Part One to October 1776, ed. L. H. Butterfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961, pp. 417–420.
Adams does not say where Rutledge slept that night.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] “[Tuesday. September 17th. 1776.] ,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-03-02-0016-0189 [last update: 2015-12-30]). Source: The Adams Papers, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, vol. 3, Diary, 1782–1804; Autobiography, Part One to October 1776, ed. L. H. Butterfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961, pp. 420–431.
The stone house, which was built around 1680, still stands on Staten Island today. The state of New York obtained ownership in 1926. The house was restored over the following decade before being opened as a museum known as the Conference House.
Image credit: The Conference House, from the New York Public Library

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