|This Week in History
February 14 - 20, 1777
Franklin Skewers the British Ideology: 'The Sale of the Hessians'
Benjamin Franklin was a master of satire, and well he might have been, seeing that he was trained by the circles of the great satirist, Jonathan Swift. When Franklin was sent to France by the Continental Congress after the outbreak of the American Revolution, part of the work which he took upon himself, was to counter the well-financed British propaganda machine which was pouring out disinformation, trying to convince the Europeans that the Americans were in the wrong, and would soon re-enter the British Empire. Franklin wrote to acquaint Europeans both with the higher purpose of America's drive for independence, and with the real face of the evil which the Americans were trying to eliminate.
In October of 1775, King George III had sent a message to the British Parliament characterizing the disturbances in the American colonies as a "desperate conspiracy" to establish "an independent Empire." Britain needed a greatly expanded army and navy to maintain its hold on America, but recruiters were unable to obtain the required cannon fodder. So royal agents had been sent to various German rulers to hire whole chunks of their standing armies to send to America under British command. This action by the King hit Americans like a thunderbolt, and the Declaration of Independence attacked George III for an action "unworthy the head of a civilized nation."
A British treaty with the Duke of Brunswick produced 4,300 soldiers, in return for more than 11,000 pounds sterling, and twice that much each year for two years thereafter. In addition, the Duke received a payment of "head money" for each man who was sent, with a similar payment of seven pounds for each man killed. And according to the custom of hiring mercenaries, three wounded soldiers counted as one dead man.
Six German statesBrunswick, Hesse-Casel, Hesse-Hanau, Waldeck, Anspach-Bayreuth, and Anhalt-Zerbstsent almost 30,000 men to America, of whom 12,000 never returned home. Almost 5,000 of them deserted to stay in the New World, encouraged to do so by American descriptions of the kind of life which would be available to them in America, which were printed on small pieces of paper and stuffed into tobacco pouches. These were left in strategic places where the Americans knew the pipe-smoking German soldiers would find them.
More than half of the mercenaries came from the principality of Hesse-Cassel, and thus all the German soldiers came to be known as "Hessians." The ruler of Hesse-Cassel was so in love with money that he stripped his own kingdom of one out of every four able-bodied men. But Franklin turned the British blood money against itself, demonstrating how the oligarchs' total disregard for human life led them not only to blatant killing, but also to numerous varieties of indirect murder. And all this they did while mouthing pious sentiments of "morality."
Franklin crafted a satirical letter, known as "The Sale of the Hessians," which laid bare not only the evil practiced by the German princes, but also the Satanic outlook of the British Empire, which followed the doctrine of "Every man has his price." Franklin's letter was dated Feb. 18, 1777, and was supposedly written by a Count de Schaumbergh to a certain Baron Hohendorf, the putative commander of the Hessian troops in America. The Count opens his missive by saluting the Baron and then continues: "On my return from Naples, I received at Rome your letter of the 27th December of last year. I have learned with unspeakable pleasure the courage our troops exhibited at Trenton, and you cannot imagine my joy on being told that of the 1,950 Hessians engaged in the fight, but 345 escaped.
"There were just 1,605 killed, and I cannot sufficiently commend your prudence in sending an exact list of the dead to my minister in London. This precaution was the more necessary, as the report sent to the English ministry does not give but 1,455 dead. This would make 483,450 florins instead of 643,500 which I am entitled to demand under our convention. You will comprehend the prejudice which such an error would work in my finances, and I do not doubt you will take the necessary pains to prove that Lord North's list is false and yours correct.
"The court of London objects that there were a hundred wounded who ought not to be included in the list, nor paid for as dead; but I trust you will not overlook my instructions to you on quitting Cassel, and that you will not have tried by human succor to recall the life of the unfortunates whose days could not be lengthened but by the loss of a leg or an arm. That would be making them a pernicious present, and I am sure they would rather die than live in a condition no longer fit for my service. I do not mean by this that you should assassinate them; we should be humane, my dear Baron, but you may insinuate to the surgeons with entire propriety that a crippled man is a reproach to their profession, and that there is no wiser course than to let every one of them die when he ceases to be fit to fight.
"I am about to send to you some new recruits. Don't economize them. Remember glory before all things. Glory is true wealth. There is nothing degrades the soldier like the love of money. He must care only for honour and reputation, but this reputation must be acquired in the midst of dangers. A battle gained without costing the conqueror any blood is an inglorious success, while the conquered cover themselves with glory by perishing with their arms in their hands. Do you remember that of the 300 Lacedaemonians who defended the defile of Thermopylae, not one returned? How happy should I be could I say the same of my brave Hessians!
"It is true that their king, Leonidas, perished with them: but things have changed, and it is no longer the custom for princes of the empire to go and fight in America for a cause with which they have no concern. And besides, to whom should they pay the thirty guineas per man if I did not stay in Europe to receive them? Then, it is necessary also that I be ready to sent recruits to replace the men you lose. For this purpose I must return to Hesse. It is true, grown men are becoming scarce there, but I will send you boys. Besides, the scarcer the commodity the higher the price. I am assured that the women and little girls have begun to till our lands, and they get on not badly.
"You did right to send back to Europe that Dr. Crumerus who was so successful in curing dysentery. Don't bother with a man who is subject to looseness of the bowels. That disease makes bad soldiers. One coward will do more mischief in an engagement than ten brave men will do good. Better that they burst in their barracks than fly in a battle, and tarnish the glory of our arms. Besides, you know that they pay me as killed for all who die from disease, and I don't get a farthing for runaways.
"My trip to Italy, which has cost me enormously, makes it desirable that there should be a great mortality among them. You will therefore promise promotion to all who expose themselves; you will exhort them to seek glory in the midst of dangers; you will say to Major Maundorff that I am not at all content with his saving the 345 men who escaped the massacre of Trenton. Through the whole campaign he has not had ten men killed in consequence of his orders.
"Finally, let it be your principal object to prolong the war and avoid a decisive engagement on either side, for I have made arrangements for a grand Italian opera, and I do not wish to be obliged to give it up. Meantime I pray God, my dear Baron de Hohendorf, to have you in his holy and gracious keeping."