Congress granted Franklin permission to reply, which he did on July 30. It was an adroit response, one that made clear America’s determination to remain independent, yet set in motion a fascinating final attempt to avert revolution. “I received safe the letters your Lordship so kindly forwarded to me, and beg you to accept my thanks,” Franklin began. But his letter quickly turned heated, even resurrecting a phrase— “deluge us in blood”—that he had edited out of Jefferson’s draft of the declaration:
“It is impossible we should think of submission to a government that has with the most wanton barbarity and cruelty burnt our defenseless towns in the midst of winter, excited the savages to massacre our peaceful farmers, and our slaves to murder their masters, and is even now bringing foreign mercenaries to deluge our settlements with blood.”
Skillfully, however, Franklin included more than fury. “Long did I endeavor,” he went on, “with unfeigned and unwearied zeal, to preserve from breaking that fine and noble china vase, the British empire; for I knew that, being once broken, the separate parts could not retain even their share of the strength or value that existed in the whole.”
Perhaps, Franklin intimated, peace talks could be useful. If Britain wanted to make peace with an independent America, Franklin offered, “I think a treaty for that purpose is not yet quite impracticable.”
Howe was understandably taken aback by Franklin’s response. He waited two weeks, as the British outmaneuvered General Washington’s forces on Long Island, before answering his “worthy friend.” The admiral admitted that he did not have the authority “to negotiate a reunion with America under any other description than as subject to the crown of Great Britain.” Nevertheless, he said, a peace was possible under terms that the Congress had laid out in its Olive Branch Petition to the king a year earlier, which included all of the colonial demands for autonomy yet still preserved some form of union under the Crown.
Franklin had envisioned just such an arrangement for years. Yet it was, after July 4, likely too late. Franklin felt so, and John Adams and others in his radical faction felt that way even more fervently. Congress debated whether Franklin should even keep the correspondence alive. Howe forced the issue by paroling a captured American general and sending him to Philadelphia with an invitation for the Congress to send an unofficial delegation for talks before “a decisive blow was struck.”
Three members—Franklin, Adams and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina—were appointed to meet with Howe on Staten Island. The inclusion of Adams was a safeguard that Franklin would not revert to his old peace-seeking habits.
Howe sent a barge to Perth Amboy to ferry the American delegation to Staten Island. Although the admiral marched his guests past a double line of menacing Hessian mercenaries, the three-hour meeting on September 11 was cordial, and the Americans were treated to a feast of good claret, ham, tongue and mutton.
Howe pledged that the colonies could have control over their own legislation and taxes. The British, he said, were still kindly disposed toward the Americans: “When an American falls, England feels it.” If America fell, he said, “I should feel and lament it like the loss of a brother.”
Adams recorded Franklin’s retort: “My Lord, we will do our utmost endeavors to save your Lordship that mortification.”