How the American Revolution played in British drawing rooms

In “The Howe Dynasty,” historian Julie Flavell explores the lives of two famed commanders fighting the Americans, told through the letters of their eldest sister.

Liveright

Richard and William Howe, British commanders during the American Revolution, were celebrities in their time but were regarded by contemporaries as inscrutable and enigmatic, men of action and not words. Historians largely agreed, but until now, most hadn’t bothered to consult the copious correspondence of a less celebrated Howe sibling, their sister Caroline.

In her vivid and compelling new book, “The Howe Dynasty: The Untold Story of a Military Family and the Women Behind Britain’s Wars for America,” historian Julie Flavell pays overdue attention to Caroline, in turn enriching our understanding of the better-known brothers. Though the formidable hostess was excluded from the male domains where decisions were made, she invited people of influence into her drawing room, wielding a quiet but determined power behind the scenes.

The involvement of Caroline and other politically engaged women of her class in public affairs was tolerated as long as they were perceived to be operating on behalf of their families, not themselves. Flavell offers many examples of how Caroline, the de facto leader of 10 siblings after first-born brother Scrope died in childhood, exerted her influence. In Flavell’s words, women like Caroline, including her mother and her aunt before her, “gathered and purveyed political intelligence, acted as go-betweens in requests for political favors, and protected the images and reputations of the men in their families.” 

Caroline’s most notable participation in political intrigues occurred in the lead-up to the American Revolution. Brothers George, William, and Richard were heroes of the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War), a global conflict that began with Britain and France fighting over territory in North America. George died in battle alongside American provincial soldiers in 1758, and the colony of Massachusetts subsequently paid for a monument to the fallen general, which was installed in Westminster Abbey.

This gesture has long been regarded as having deepened the brothers’ pro-American sympathies. As the disagreements between the Colonies and the mother country worsened, Benjamin Franklin, over a period of three months in late 1774 and early 1775, regularly visited Caroline’s home to play chess. Franklin was in London as a representative of the Colonies, and the chess games, Flavell writes, were “a front designed by Caroline to cover highly secret negotiations with the American in a last-minute quest for peace, negotiations that involved her brothers,” Richard and William, both members of Parliament.

“Historians have long puzzled over how Admiral [Richard] Howe became involved in the secret negotiations” with Benjamin Franklin, Flavell notes. Studying Caroline’s correspondence for clues, the author convincingly argues that the sister brought the men together. Howe’s letters to Lady Georgiana Spencer, in particular, prove to be a rich source. The two women were friends for 50 years, and their correspondence, Flavell writes, long overlooked by historians, is believed to be the largest single private collection of letters in the British Library. 

The attempts at reconciliation, of course, went nowhere, and soon England and her Colonies were at war. William and Richard served together as British commanders-in-chief between 1776-78. “The Howe Dynasty” covers the brothers’ command of the war but also, with the help of Caroline’s letters, provides the home-front perspective from the British side. News from America reached England in a month with favorable winds but took twice as long if the winds were unfavorable. It is affecting to read of Caroline’s preoccupation with how the winds were blowing, so desperate was she to receive word of her beloved siblings in America. In one letter to Lady Spencer she mentions “a little heart ache in the middle of the night listening to a high wind.”

Most in England were certain the fighting would be brief, that the rebels stood little chance against the mighty British forces. As the war dragged on, public perception turned against the Howes. The British press was more enamored of the rebel Gen. George Washington than of its own commanders; 18th-century writer Horace Walpole, that keen observer of British society, flatly declared that the “Howes are not in fashion.” 

The assessment became even more damning over time. The author describes “a legend that has clung to the Howe brothers,” that in their hope for peace with the Colonies, and due to their warm feelings for the Americans, they sacrificed their best chance for a decisive military victory in New York at the start of the war in 1776. 

Flavell, for her part, offers a robust defense of the brothers, rejecting what she calls “conspiracy theories” that hint at treason. Combining military analysis with an effective use of heretofore ignored sources, she brings together the domestic sphere and the  military sphere to form an original and more complete picture of a fascinating family.

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