Today, the George Washington Silver Half Dollar Coin remembers the events up to and after July 14, 1776 when the general refused letters from the British that did not include his military title.
From the Life of George Washington by Washington Irving, published in 1856:
Lord Howe was indeed come, and affairs now appeared to be approaching a crisis.
In consequence of the recent conspiracy the Convention of New York, seated at White Plains in Westchester county, had a secret committee stationed in New York for the purpose of taking cognizance of traitorous machinations.
To this committee Washington addressed a letter the day after his lordship’s arrival, suggesting the policy of removing from the city and its environs, “all persons of known disaffection and enmity to the cause of America;” especially those confined in jail for treasonable offences, who might become extremely dangerous in case of an attack and alarm.
He took this step with great reluctance; but felt compelled to it by circumstances.
The late conspiracy had shown him that treason might be lurking in his camp. And he was well aware that the city, and the neighboring country, especially Westchester county, and Queens and Suffolk counties on Long Island, abounded with “Tories,” ready to rally under the royal standard whenever backed by a commanding force.
In consequence of his suggestion, thirteen persons in confinement for traitorous offences, were removed to the jail of Litchfield, in Connecticut. Among the number was the late mayor; but as his offence was not of so deep a dye as those whereof the rest stood charged, it was recommended by the president of the Convention that he should be treated with indulgence.
The proceedings of Lord Howe soon showed the policy of these precautions.
His lordship had prepared a declaration addressed to the people at large, informing them of the powers vested in his brother and himself as commissioners for restoring peace; and inviting communities as well as individuals, who, in the tumult and disasters of the times had deviated from their allegiance to the crown, to merit and receive pardon by a prompt return to their duty.
It was added, that proper consideration would be had of the services of all who should contribute to the restoration of public tranquility.
His lordship really desired peace. According to a contemporary, he came to America “as a mediator, not as a destroyer,” and had founded great hopes on the efficacy of this document in rallying back the people to their allegiance.
It was a sore matter of regret to him, therefore, to find that, in consequence of his tardy arrival, his invitation to loyalty had been forestalled by the Declaration of Independence.
Still it might have an effect in bringing adherents to the royal standard.
He sent a flag on shore, therefore, bearing a circular letter, written in his civil and military capacity, to the colonial governor, requesting him to publish his address to the people as widely as possible.
We have heretofore shown the tenacity with which Washington, in his correspondence with Generals Gage and Howe, exacted the consideration and deference due to him as commander-in-chief of the American armies.
He did this not from official pride and punctilio, but as the guardian of American rights and dignities.
A further step of the kind was yet to be taken.
The British officers, considering the Americans in arms as rebels without valid commissions, were in the habit of denying them all military title.
Washington’s general officers had urged him not to submit to this tacit indignity, but to reject all letters directed to him without a specification of his official rank.
An occasion now presented for the adjustment of this matter.
Within a day or two an officer of the British navy, Lieutenant Brown, came with a flag from Lord Howe, seeking a conference with Washington.
Colonel Reed, the adjutant-general, embarked in a barge, and met him half-way between Governor’s and Staten Islands.
The lieutenant informed him that he was the bearer of a letter from Lord Howe to Mr. Washington. Colonel Reed replied that he knew no such person in the American army.
The lieutenant produced and offered the letter. It was addressed to George Washington, Esquire.
He was informed that it could not be received with such a direction. The lieutenant expressed much concern.
The letter, he said, was of a civil rather than a military nature— Lord Howe regretted he had not arrived sooner— he had great powers — it was much to be wished the letter could be received.
While the lieutenant was embarrassed and agitated, Reed maintained his coolness, politely declining to receive the letter, as inconsistent with his duty.
They parted; but after the lieutenant had been rowed some little distance, his barge was put about, and Reed waited to hear what further he had to say.
It was to ask by what title General — but, catching himself, Mr. Washington chose to be addressed.
Reed replied, that the general’s station in the army was well known; and they could not be at a loss as to the proper mode of addressing him, especially as this matter had been discussed in the preceding summer, of which, he presumed, the admiral could not be ignorant.
The lieutenant again expressed his disappointment and regret, and their interview closed.
On the 19th, an aide-de-camp of General Howe came with a flag, and requested to know, as there appeared to be an obstacle to a correspondence between the two generals, whether Colonel Patterson, the British adjutant- general, could be admitted to an interview with General Washington.
Colonel Reed, who met the flag, consented in the name of the general, and pledged his honor for the which was fixed for the following morning.
At the appointed time, Colonel Reed and Colonel Webb, one of Washington’s aides, met the flag in the harbor, took Colonel Patterson into their barge, and escorted him to town, passing in front of the grand battery.
The customary precaution of blindfolding was dispensed with; and there was a lively and sociable conversation the whole way.
Washington received the adjutant-general at head-quarters with much form and ceremony, in full military array, with his officers and guards about him.
Colonel Patterson, addressing him by the title of your Excellency, endeavored to explain the address of the letter as consistent with propriety, and founded on a similar address in the previous summer, to General Howe.
That General Howe did not mean to derogate from the respect or rank of General Washington, but conceived such an address consistent with what had been used by ambassadors or plenipotentiaries where difficulties of rank had arisen.
He then produced, but did not offer, a letter addressed to George Washington, Esquire, &c. &c., hoping that the et ceteras, which implied everything, would remove all impediments.
Washington replied, that it was true the et ceteras implied everything, but they also implied anything.
His letter alluded to, of the previous summer, was in reply to one addressed in like manner. A letter, he added, addressed to a person acting in a public character, should have some inscription to designate it from a mere private letter; and he should absolutely decline any letter ad dressed to himself as a private person, when it related to his public station.
Colonel Patterson, finding the letter would not be received, endeavored, as far as he could recollect, to communicate the scope of it in the course of a somewhat desultory conversation.
What he chiefly dwelt upon was, that Lord Howe and his brother had been specially nominated commissioners for the promotion of peace, which was esteemed a mark of favor and regard to America; that they had great powers, and would derive the highest pleasure from effecting an accommodation; and he concluded by adding, that he wished his visit to be considered as making the first advance towards that desirable object.
Washington replied that, by what had appeared (alluding, no doubt, to Lord Howe’s circular), their powers, it would seem, were only to grant pardons.
Now those who had committed no fault needed no pardon; and such was the case with the Americans, who were only defending what they considered their indisputable rights.
Colonel Patterson avoided a discussion of this matter, which, he observed, would open a very wide field; so here the conference, which had been conducted on both sides with great courtesy, terminated.
The colonel took his leave, excusing himself from partaking of a collation, having made a late breakfast, and was again conducted to his boat.
He expressed himself highly sensible of the courtesy of his treatment, in having the usual ceremony of blindfolding dispensed with.
Washington received the applause of Congress and of the public for sustaining the dignity of his station.
His conduct in this particular was recommended as a model to all American officers in corresponding with the enemy; and Lord Howe informed his government that, thence forward, it would be politic to change the superscription of his letters.
The George Washington Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin shows with an artist’s image of Lord Howe, circa 1782.