September 22, 1773 An Edict from the King of Prussia

If the findings of a 2004 Pew survey are any indication, older and younger audiences alike turn to late night comedians as a source of political news. Whether anyone leaves such programs better informed may be a matter for conjecture, but one thing is certain. The use of satire in political commentary is anything but new.

If the findings of a 2004 Pew survey are any indication, older and younger audiences alike turn to late night comedians as a source of political news.

Whether anyone leaves such programs better informed may be a matter for conjecture, but one thing is certain. The use of satire in political commentary is anything but new.

Anything but new but highly, effective. In the 4th century BC the Greek comedic playwright Aristophanes lampooned the Athenian general Cleon as an unprincipled and warmongering demagogue. The playwright’s work was in no small measure a reason for the sentence of death, against the Great Socrates.

Seventeen centuries later the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri had the soothsayers and fortune tellers of his time walking through the inferno of purgatory with their heads screwed on backwards, rendering them no longer able to see what lay ahead.

On this day in 1773 the poison pen of one Benjamin Franklin skewered Great Britain’s King George III…writing as the King of Prussia, no less.

At the height of the revolution, public opinion remained essentially split in thirds with one part for independence, one for remaining and a third that didn’t care that much, either way.

The seven years war of 1754 was a world war for global supremacy between Britain and France with major ramifications, for the Spanish Empire. Britain’s North American colonies experienced the conflict as the fourth French and Indian war, pitting France and a coalition of first nations against Britain and her own following of native American allies.

“When you’re born, you get a ticket to the freak show. When you’re born in America, you get a front row seat.”

George Carlin

For British policymakers it all seemed quite reasonable to impose the costs of this “protection”, on King George III’s North American subjects. The Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend Acts of 1767 and the Tea Act of 1773 were all measures enacted to extract ever greater taxes, from the American colonists.

The colonists themselves took a dim view of all of it and threw the tea off the boat, that December. Literally.

Political satire was nothing new to Benjamin Franklin. The teenage Franklin’s anonymously written Silence Dogood letters skewered the brahmins of Boston and generated proposals of marriage to a widow, who did not exist. The young Franklin’s ‘outing’ as the author earned him a beating from his older brother the publisher and a one-way trip out of Boston to Philadelphia, where an older Franklin was destined to enter the pages of history.

Benjamin Franklin was a man of words whose contributions to the coming revolution were the equal to that man of action, George Washington. In 1773 Franklin sat down to lampoon 100 years of American grievance against Great Britain writing as Frederick II, King of Prussia.

The choice was inspired. A growing power on the continent, Frederick “The Great” had recently seized large chunks of Poland and Silesia, claiming both to be rightfully his going back to the time, of the Teutonic knights. The treaty of Paris ending the seven years war settled territorial issues from Canada to the French sugar plantations of the Caribbean but left Britain’s ‘ally’ Prussia, out of the bargain. Suffering losses of some 260,000 men Frederick II was left to negotiate peace terms, on his own.

For these reasons Franklin’s hoax carried with it, a ring of authenticity. Published this day in 1773, An Edict from the King of Prussia made claims on Britain herself, in the name of the Prussian King:

“We have long wondered here at the Supineness of the English Nation, under the Prussian Impositions upon its Trade entering our Port…”

The edict went back to the 5th century Germanic brothers Hengist and Horsa who led the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the 5th century invasions of the British Isles and the 6th century Cerdicus, first of the Kings of Saxon Wessex who reigned from 519 to 534 AD:

“Whereas it is well known to all the World, that the first German Settlements made in the Island of Britain, were by Colonies of People, Subjects to our renowned Ducal Ancestors, and drawn from their Dominions, under the Conduct of Hengist, Horsa, Hella, Uffa, Cerdicus, Ida, and others…”

Fictitious “edict” from the King of Prussia
Frederick II “The Great, King of Prussia was the longest reigning monarch of the House of Hohenzollern reigning from 1740 until his death in 1786.

In 1,546 words the King’s edict went on to enunciate in “claims both antient (ancient) and modern”, Prussian rights to the lands, peoples, commerce and above all taxes of Great Britain, in the name of the Prussian state.

Back in England many swallowed the ruse whole as a bald pretext for war, with her former ally. The more perspicacious among them may have noticed a remarkable similarity between the Prussian King’s grievances, and those of the American colonies.

No matter. Insensate obstinacy doth dwell where humor and reason, fear to tread. Or something like that. The following year the “Liberty and Union” banner unfurled above the town green in Taunton Massachusetts, that first distinctly American flag as yet symbolizing a desire for greater autonomy and continued union, as loyal British subjects.

The “Intolerable Acts” also happened in 1774, that series of punitive measures passed by the parliament to punish the American colonies, in the wake of the Boston Tea Party.

There would as yet be olive branches and frantic supplications on both sides of the Atlantic, but to no avail. The “Shot heard ’round the World” lay such a short time in the future to make it known to all that the path, was now set.

September 21, 1776 One Life to Lose

An ardent patriot in the cause of American independence, the young school teacher turned spy placed his trust, where it did not belong.

From the earliest days of the American Revolution, the nine Hale brothers of Coventry Connecticut fought on the Patriot side. Five of them were there to help out at the battles at Lexington and Concord. The youngest and most famous brother was still at home in New London at the time, finishing the term of a teaching contract.

Nathan Hale’s unit participated in the siege of Boston. Hale himself joined General George Washington’s army in the spring of 1776, as the army moved to Long Island to block the British move on the strategically important port city of New York.

On June 29, General Howe appeared at Staten Island with a fleet of 45 ships. By the end of the week, he’d assembled an overwhelming fleet of 130.

There was an attempt at peaceful negotiation on July 13, when General Howe sent a letter to General Washington under flag of truce. The letter was addressed “George Washington, Esq.”, intentionally omitting Washington’s rank. Washington declined to receive the letter, saying there was no one present by that address. Howe tried the letter again on the 16th, this time addressing “George Washington, Esq., etc., etc.”. Again, Howe’s letter was refused.

British Landing
British Landing on Long island

The next day, General Howe sent Captain Nisbet Balfour in person, to ask if Washington would meet with Howe’s adjutant, Colonel James Patterson. A meeting was scheduled for the 20th.

Patterson told Washington that General Howe had come with powers to grant pardons.  Washington refused, saying “Those who have committed no fault want no pardon”.

Patriot forces were comprehensively defeated at the Battle of Brooklyn, fought on August 27, 1776. With the Royal Navy in command on the water, Howe’s army dug in for a siege, confident that the adversary was trapped and waiting to be destroyed at their convenience.

Retreat-from-LI
British retreat from Long Island

On the night of August 29-30, Washington withdrew his army to the ferry landing and across the East River, to Manhattan.

With horse’s hooves and wagon wheels muffled, oarlocks stuffed with rags, the Patriot army withdrew, as a rearguard tended fires, convincing the redcoats in their trenches that the Americans were still there.

The surprise was complete for the British side, on waking for the morning of the 30th.  The Patriot army had vanished.

The Battle of Long Island would almost certainly have ended in disaster for the Patriot cause, but for that silent evacuation over the night of August 29-30.

Following evacuation, the Patriot army found itself isolated on Manhattan island, virtually surrounded.  Only the thoroughly disagreeable current conditions of the Throg’s Neck-Hell’s Gate segment of the East River, prevented Admiral Sir Richard Howe (William’s brother), from enveloping Washington’s position, altogether.

Expecting a British assault in September, General Washington became increasingly desperate for information on British movements.

Nathan Hale Capture

Washington asked for volunteers for a dangerous mission, to go behind enemy lines, as a spy.  Up stepped a volunteer.  His name was Nathan Hale.

Hale set out on his mission on September 10, disguised as a Dutch schoolmaster. He was successful for about a week but appears to have been something less than “street smart”.  The young and untrained Patriot-turned spy, placed his trust where it did not belong.

Major Robert Rogers was an old British hand, a leader of Rangers during the earlier French and Indian War.  Rogers must have suspected that this Connecticut schoolteacher was more than he pretended to be, and intimated that he, himself, was a spy in the Patriot cause.

The hanging of Nathan Hale

Hale took Rogers into his confidence, believing the two to be playing for the same side.  Barkhamsted Connecticut shopkeeper Consider Tiffany, a British loyalist and himself a sergeant of the French and Indian War, recorded what happened next, in his journal: “The time being come, Captain Hale repaired to the place agreed on, where he met his pretended friend” (Rogers), “with three or four men of the same stamp, and after being refreshed, began [a]…conversation. But in the height of their conversation, a company of soldiers surrounded the house, and by orders from the commander, seized Captain Hale in an instant. But denying his name, and the business he came upon, he was ordered to New York. But before he was carried far, several persons knew him and called him by name; upon this he was hanged as a spy, some say, without being brought before a court martial.”

The “stay behind” spy Hercules Mulligan would have far greater success reporting on British goings-on, from the 1776 capture of New York to the ultimate withdrawal seven years later.  But that is a story for another day.

Nathan Hale was arrested on September 21, 1776, and hanged as a spy. He was 21. CIA.gov describes Hale as “The first American executed for spying for his country”.

Nathan Hale

There is no official account of Nathan Hale’s final words, but we have an eyewitness statement from British Captain John Montresor, who was present at the hanging.

Montresor spoke with American Captain William Hull the following day under flag of truce.  He gave Hull the following account: “‘On the morning of his execution,’ said Montresor, ‘my station was near the fatal spot, and I requested the Provost Marshal to permit the prisoner to sit in my marquee, while he was making the necessary preparations. Captain Hale entered: he was calm, and bore himself with gentle dignity, in the consciousness of rectitude and high intentions. He asked for writing materials, which I furnished him: he wrote two letters, one to his mother and one to a brother officer.’ He was shortly after summoned to the gallows. But a few persons were around him, yet his characteristic dying words were remembered. He said, ‘I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country‘.

George-Washington-Brooklyn-Heights