From Bluecoat to Redcoat, a Turncoat
On September 7, 1774, Jacob Duché C1757 G1760 was asked to give the opening prayer for the First Continental Congress at Carpenters Hall. Having served as professor of oratory for the past 15 years at the College of Philadelphia, where he was a trustee and a former valedictorian of his class, he knew how to move people with words. And as rector of Christ Church, the most prestigious Anglican church in Philadelphia, his words carried considerable weight.
Duché gave Congress what it wanted that day, and then some. He began by imploring the Almighty to “look down in mercy” on “these our American States, who have fled to Thee from the rod of the oppressor and thrown themselves on Thy gracious protection, desiring to be henceforth dependent only on Thee.” He also prayed for the Americans to “defeat the malicious designs of our cruel adversaries; convince them of the unrighteousness of their Cause and … constrain them to drop the weapons of war from their unnerved hands in the day of battle!”
The effect of his words was electric.
“I must confess I never heard a better prayer … with such fervor, such ardor, earnestness and pathos, and in a language so elegant and sublime for America [and] for the Congress,” wrote John Adams in a letter to his wife Abigail. More to the point, “I never saw a greater effect upon an audience.”
Duché was still aboard the Revolutionary bandwagon in July 1776 when the Second Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence. He and the vestry of Christ Church passed a resolution removing all references to King George III, and five days later Congress voted to make him its first official chaplain.
A year of war apparently changed his mind. When General William Howe’s troops marched into Philadelphia on September 26, 1777, Duché prayed aloud for the king at Christ Church. He was promptly arrested and thrown into jail, though quickly released. Three weeks later he would resign as chaplain to Congress, citing the pressure of work and poor health.
But by then he had already written a letter to General George Washington that would change his reputation in the eyes of history forever. Given the incendiary contents, it’s worth quoting at some length.
After saying that “all the world” knew that Washington’s motives for serving his country were “perfectly disinterested,” Duché expressed shocked disbelief at the cause to which he had committed himself and his country: “What then can be the consequence of this rash and violent measure and degeneracy of representation, confusion of councils, blunders without number?” He pooh-poohed the Pennsylvania faction for “the weakness of their understandings, and the violence of their tempers,” and dismissed the other states’ Congressmen as a bunch of “Bankrupts, attorneys,—and men of desperate fortunes,” adding: “Long before they left Philadelphia, their dignity and consequence was gone; what must it be now since their precipitate retreat?” (His one unnamed exception was presumably his brother-in-law and former classmate, Francis Hopkinson: “a man of virtue, dragged reluctantly into their measures, and restrained, by some false ideas of honour, from retreating, after having gone too far.”)
After heaping contempt on the American military effort—“your harbours are blocked up, your cities fall one after another; fortress after fortress, battle after battle is lost … How unequal the contest! How fruitless the expence of blood?”—Duché then made his pitch: “represent to Congress the indispensible necessity of rescinding the hasty and ill-advised declaration of Independency,” and recommend “an immediate cessation of hostilities.” Then appoint some “men of clear and impartial characters, in or out of Congress … to confer with his Majesty’s commissioners” with some “some well-digested constitutional plan.” And since “millions will bless the hero that left the field of war, to decide this most important contest with the weapons of wisdom and humanity,” he added: “Oh! Sir, let no false ideas of worldly honour deter you from engaging in so glorious a task …”
Finally, if Washington couldn’t persuade Congress to negotiate a surrender, Duché suggested that he still had “an infallible recourse” at his disposal: “negociate for your country at the head of your army.” In other words, sell out your country in secret and save your own hide.
Washington promptly turned the letter over to Congress. He then wrote a letter to Hopkinson, who was serving the patriot cause in a number of capacities. (See main story.) Had “any accident have happened to the army entrusted to my command, and had it ever afterwards have appeared that such a letter had been … received by me,” Washington explained, “might it not have been said that I had, in consequence of it, betrayed my country?”
Washington was clearly appalled at having received “so extraordinary a letter” from Duché, “of whom I had entertained the most favorable opinion, and I am still willing to suppose, that it was rather dictated by his fears than by his real sentiments.” But, he told Hopkinson, “I very much doubt whether the great numbers of respectable characters, in the state and army, on whom he has bestowed the most unprovoked and unmerited abuse, will ever … forgive the man, who has artfully endeavored to engage me to sacrifice them to purchase my own safety.”
If Washington was appalled, Hopkinson was apoplectic.
“Words cannot express the Grief and Consternation that wounded my Soul at the Sight of this fatal Performance,” he wrote to Duché. “What Infatuation could influence you to offer to his Excellency an Address fill’d with gross Misrepresentations, illiberal Abuse and sentiments unworthy of a Man of Character? … I could go thro’ this extraordinary letter, and point out to you the Truth distorted in every leading part. But the World will doubtless do this with a Severity that must be Daggers to the Sensibilities of your Heart.”
Apart from the moral failure, Hopkinson warned: “You will find that you have drawn upon you the Resentment of Congress, the resentment of the Army, the resentment of many worthy and noble characters in England whom you know not, and the resentment of your insulted Country …
“You presumptuously advise our worthy General, on whom Millions depend with implicit Confidence, to abandon their dearest Hopes, and with or without the Consent of his Constituents to negotiate for America at the head of his Army. Would not the Blood of the Slain in Battle rise against such Perfidy? …
“I am perfectly disposed to attribute this unfortunate step to the Timidity of your Temper, the weakness of your Nerves, and the undue Influence of those about you,” Hopkinson told his old friend and brother-in-law. “But will the World hold you so excused? Will the Individuals whom you so freely censured and characterized with Contempt have this tenderness for you? I fear not … I pray God to inspire you with some Means of extricating yourself from this embarrassing Difficulty.”
For his own part, Hopkinson said, “I have well considered the Principles on which I took part with my Country and am determined to abide by them to the last Extremity.” Asking Duché to send his love to his mother and sisters in Philadelphia, he concluded: “May God preserve them and you in this Time of Trial.”
Duché fled to England the following year, and when the American army re-entered Philadelphia, his property was confiscated. Hopkinson interceded on behalf of his sister and her children to recoup enough money to pay their passage to London.
The two classmates never saw each other again. —S.H.
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