James Chalmers and “Plain Truth”
It isn’t very difficult to gather from his description that the cultivated Maryland land he talked about was, of course, his own in Kent County that he later called “the best Lands in America.” No one would ever accuse James Chalmers of modesty.
The British West Indies inevitably arose in any discussion of colonial trade. Chalmers wanted very much to convey his own experience concerning this vital link of trade to the British empire. “We are unacquainted with the West India Islands, if we believe that they solely depend on us for provisions and lumber…. I know it will be re-echoed that the West India islands cannot do without America. The contrary is nevertheless true.”
This economic argument is one of Chalmers’s worst miscalculations. Quite simply, he should have known better. For someone who spent so much time in the British West Indies, he seemed to have absolutely no clue of the power the colonies had over the Caribbean islands in terms of trade. When war came, the West Indies were crippled by Britain’s effective blockade of the tropical ports. The loss of trade may have denied money to the colonies, but it also denied timber and other needed supplies to the sugar islands. A preoccupation with the West Indies would make itself known over and over again until the end of Chalmers’s life.
After a few distractions, he moved on to the heart of all loyalist argument: the colonists couldn’t possibly win a war against Great Britain. At every level, England outgunned and outmanned the colonies. On paper, the weakness of the colonies was almost comical. A nonexistent navy, badly disciplined recruits, and a great scarcity of heavy industry to produce arms and ammunition combined to create the picture of a colony of wishful thinkers who didn’t stand a chance once England roused what Shakespeare called “its sleeping sword.”
Then, Chalmers did a curious thing: he spoke of his pride in the army that the colonies had raised. “I am under no doubt, however, that we shall become as famed for martial courage, as any nation ever the sun beheld,” he stated enthusiastically. These are, of course, the same troops who wiped out rank after rank of redcoats on Breed’s Hill in Boston just eight months before. It turned out to be a backhanded compliment because Chalmers felt that a simple desire for liberty wasn’t enough to keep the colonists from losing a war with England. Alone, they didn’t stand a chance. To win, they would have to have a great European power such as France or Spain on their side.
Here, Chalmers made an important and often overlooked observation: he found it illogical for any foreign power to side with the colonists against England, and with good reason. “Can we be so deluded, to expect aid from those princes (France and Spain), which inspiring their subjects with a relish for liberty, might eventually shake their arbitrary thrones…. Can we believe that those princes will offer an example so dangerous to their subjects and colonies…?”
One can’t help but think that if King Louis XVI of France had read this passage of Chalmers’s pamphlet, he might have saved his own life. On this point, Chalmers couldn’t have foretold the future with any greater exactness. France was deluded enough to aid the colonists, the French people were inspired with a relish for liberty, and they did shake the arbitrary throne by relieving the king of his head in the French Revolution.
For his part, Chalmers couldn’t imagine that a country like France would be foolish enough to join the fight. Against the expectations of loyalists and rebels alike, France leapt into the war effort with money, arms, and troops. Victory for England would suddenly become impossible. That conclusion, however, was still years away.
In Plain Truth, Chalmers was blunt about the resolve of England to put down the rebellion. “Can a reasonable being for a moment believe that Great Britain, whose political existence depends on our constitutional obedience, who but yesterday made such prodigious efforts to save us from France, will not exert herself as powerfully to preserve us from our frantic schemes of independency. Can we a moment doubt, that the Sovereign of Great Britain and his ministers, whose glory as well as personal safety depends on our obedience, will not exert every nerve of the British power, to save themselves and us from ruin[?]”
This, of course, was a great sticking point for those colonists who didn’t know which side to join. The revolutionaries talked of their own resolve, but what of England’s? They couldn’t afford to lose the colonies, could they?
Chalmers himself made a surprising admission when he stated, “I see no reason to doubt that Great Britain may not long retain us in constitutional obedience.” Despite her powerful position in the world, Chalmers confessed that “time, the destroyer of human affairs, may indeed end her political life by a gentle decay.” It was a subtle, but definite admission that aligned him far closer to Thomas Paine then he would have liked to admit. For all his posturing, Chalmers was not an Englishman; he was a displaced Scotsman and enterprising colonist. It would take a bitter war, the loss of his lands, and the ruination of his reputation in Maryland to turn Chalmers into an unflinching Englishman in his later years. He ended Plain Truth with a stark, Orwellian statement. The final line, in capital letters, reads:
INDEPENDENCE AND SLAVERY ARE SYNONYMOUS TERMS.
It was an odd pamphlet indeed. Seldom concise, often wandering off on tangents, it reflected one man’s gut reactions. Other loyalists would write on the same subjects with greater eloquence, but all would come after Plain Truth.
Chalmers, however, wasn’t quite ready to put down his pen.
“AT LIBERTY TO SPEAK”
Intended to solidify the arguments of the hastily written original pamphlet, Additions to Plain Truth shows Chalmers a month later and just as angry. He quickly reminded his readers of the “Antichristian tenets” which Paine expressed in Common Sense. Ironically, Chalmers’s fellow citizens reached the same conclusion and declared Paine an atheist. Unfortunately for Chalmers, that wouldn’t happen for another twenty-five years.
After restating old arguments, he reminded his readers of the terrible price of war and attempted to take his readers through the stages of what the war would be like. “Should this war prove unsuccessful on the part of Great Britain, we cannot imagine that it will terminate, e’er many bloody fields are lost and won; I say, it probably will not end in less than 10 years.”
Having presented his thoughts on how long a war would last, he asked his readers if they were ready to drench the colonies in blood. Even more to the point, he wanted to know if the colonists were prepared to die for the “restless ambition” of Thomas Paine. Chalmers viewed such a war to be totally in vain. He believed his fellow citizens were impelled “by their turbulent ambition to anticipate an event which the fullness of time would probably produce without bloodshed.”
Despite his earlier glowing reviews of English authority, even Chalmers came to admit that the colonies were a separate entity. Whig and Tory could see that England was the problem; they just couldn’t agree on the solution. Like most loyalists, Chalmers saw reconciliation as the answer, the only answer.
Although Plain Truth apparently sold without incident in Philadelphia, Chalmers told his readers that Whig officials in New York had a great aversion to Plain Truth and, consequently, a number of copies sent to New York City were seized. He was struck by the sheer irony of the situation. The pamphlet was selling literally under the “immediate eye” of the Continental Congress without trouble, yet his work is confiscated elsewhere. Here he encountered the dark underbelly of the American Revolution. The rebels’ actions showed a double standard that was offensive to Chalmers.
“If such doings are the first fruits of REPUBLICAN LIBERTY? Grant me Heaven, our former mild and limited Government, where the prerogative is ascertained by law, and where every man is at liberty to speak and print his sentiments.”
The question was quite justified. More than many wars in history, this was a struggle of competing ideologies. For the rebels to win their war for independence and the liberty that they deemed so vital, it was necessary to suppress any and all dissent in the colonies. Their message was essentially, “We’re fighting against tyranny and you’ll agree completely with us or else!” It was a bitter pill for loyalists to swallow.
Chalmers concludes Additions to Plain Truth with a final appeal to reason: “Let us remember that reconciliation on generous principles with Great Britain, is our true and only road to permanent happiness. Above all, let us seriously consider, that this [when the Commissioners arrive to treat with the Congress] is the juncture, this the moment, when we may receive everything we can reasonably desire.
I conclude these remarks, by observing, that if they are founded in truth, they will instruct you to keep a good look out, that ye may not be surprized into AMERICAN INDEPENDENCY; without a thorough examination of it, and its consequences.”
Plain Truth would prove a failed document, doomed from the very start. Its first appearance on Robert Bell’s bookshelf occurred within days of one of the rebels’ greatest accomplishments. In Boston, the British had pulled out their occupying forces when they woke up one morning to find a battery of rebel artillery, “borrowed” from Fort Ticonderoga, bearing down on them. Winning a war against the redcoats suddenly seemed possible. Chalmers’ pleas for making peace with England couldn’t have been more ill-timed.
He may not have turned the tide, but Plain Truth was widely read. Just a few weeks after its appearance, a writer calling himself “Cato” spoke favorably of Chalmers in a letter to the people of Pennsylvania published in the Pennsylvania Ledger. Mentioning the recent pamphlet, the writer recommended it “as containing many judicious remarks upon the mischievous tenets and palpable absurdities held forth in the pamphlet so falsely called Common Sense.”
An edition appeared in England as well. In his journal on Monday, June 10, exiled New England loyalist Samuel Curwen noted that he spent all day reading Common Sense and Plain Truth at his London home. Unfortunately, he never gave his opinion of either work.
Throughout the years, though, others have been more than happy to pass judgement on Plain Truth. Historians have often been very unforgiving, calling it everything from “ponderous” and “forgettable” to “atrociously written.” Yes, Chalmers does meander quite a bit in his writing, at times reluctant to come to the point. It should be remembered, though, that this isn’t very unusual in eighteenth century writing. Even John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, possibly the two most articulate men in the colonies, would put many modern readers to sleep with their lengthy discourses on philosophy and religion.
In later years, Plain Truth would fade into utter obscurity. In 1776, however, Chalmers was an influential loyalist. A little more than a year later, he would sit down with General Sir William Howe, commander of British Forces in America. Howe, impressed with his abilities, commissioned him to raise a regiment of Maryland loyalists.
Chalmers must have thought his star was on the rise. What followed, however, were six years of disappointment.
(From the book, Maryland Loyalists in the American Revolution, Tidewater Publishers, Centreville, Maryland. Available at bookstores or directly from the publisher, Cornell Maritime Press, 1-800-638-7641.)
1 – Report of Bureau of Archives, Province of Ontario, 1904, pp. 1164.
2 – The Gentleman’s Magazine, October 1806, p.986.
3 – John W. Jackson. With The British Army in Philadelphia, 104.
4 – Ibid, 11.
5 – Bernard Bailyn. Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, 288-289.
6 – Adams to Jefferson, June 22, 1819. The Adams-Jefferson Letters, 542.
7 – Chalmers, 16-17.
8 – Ibid. 22.
9 – Report of Bureau of Archives, 1165.
10 – James Chalmers, Additions to Plain Truth, 110-112.
11 – Selwyn H. H. Carrington. “The American Revolution and the sugar colonies”, Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, 508-517.
12 – Chalmers, Plain Truth, 27.
13 – Ibid. 29-30.
14 – Ibid. 36.
15 – Chalmers, Additions to Plain Truth, 103-104.
16 – Ibid. 105.
17 – Ibid. 122.
18 – “Cato”, “To the People of Pennsylvania, Letter III,” Pennsylvania Ledger, March 23, 1776, 1.
19 – The Journal of Samuel Curwen, Loyalist, I, 167.