James Chalmers and “Plain Truth”
A Loyalist Answers Thomas Paine
There can be no doubt about it. The saga of the First Battalion of Maryland Loyalists is most definitely one of the untold stories of the American Revolution. This cannot be emphasized enough.
In fact, they are one of the least documented, most overlooked Royal Provincial regiments to serve king and country. Now, all that may change. These tragic people, shipwrecked on their way to Fredericton in 1783, may finally find their niche in history.
This group of individuals collectively had some of the worst luck of the entire war. Forced from their homes on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, they fled to British-occupied Philadelphia. Commissioned on October 14, 1777, the First Battalion of Maryland Loyalists left with the British when they evacuated the city in June of 1778. While the British rear guard clashed with Washington’s army in the Battle of Monmouth a short time later, the Marylanders were a full day’s march away. No military glory awaited them in this endeavor. As part of the advance guard, they had little to do except wait for the rear guard to finish battling the rebels and catch up.
After a short stint on Long Island, they were shipped off to Pensacola, Florida to fight the Spanish (and small pox). After a five-week siege by Spanish forces in the spring of 1781, the British and Provincial regiments at Fort George were forced to surrender. Despite being hopelessly outnumbered, the fort had held out much longer than expected due partly to the heroic defiance of the untested Maryland and Pennsylvania Loyalist units. The Marylanders had even executed a successful bayonet charge on one of the Spanish redoubts. This brief encounter would be their last taste of battle.
Shipped back to New York, they uneventfully sat out the rest of the war. As with most loyalists, the United States offered no place for them and they were forced to pack up and leave for Nova Scotia. When their transport ship shipped out for Saint John in September of 1783, less than one hundred of the original three hundred members of the regiment were aboard. The rest had died of small pox or deserted.
Bad luck, however, just wouldn’t go away. The transport ship struck a reef near the shore of Nova Scotia. Half the Maryland Loyalists and their families drowned. The survivors were brought to Saint John, without clothing, blankets, or weapons — hardly a promising way to face the approaching Canadian winter.
The tiny group of fifty Marylanders received their land grants (known as Block 1) along the Northern shore of the St. John River. Some, like Captain Caleb Jones, apparently did quite well for themselves. The former county sheriff of Somerset County, Maryland was quite successful in acquiring property. Within four years, he purchased several adjoining lots from the men who had been soldiers in his company.
As with many loyalists, aspects of the Maryland loyalists’ story have been lost forever. Fortunately, there are exceptions. The loyal Marylanders had one prolific writer among them: Lieutenant Colonel James Chalmers, who spent a large part of the war trying to convince British Commander in Chief Sir Henry Clinton to adopt his plan to defeat the Revolution.
The chapter excerpt presented here, “James Chalmers and Plain Truth” remembers one loyalist’s forgotten stand against the inevitable tide of revolution.
JAMES CHALMERS and PLAIN TRUTH
In January and February of 1776, Philadelphia, not New England, was the epicenter of the conflict with Great Britain. Despite bloodshed at Lexington and Concord and terrible losses at Bunker Hill, tories and a few moderate whigs hoped in vain for a last-minute reconciliation with the mother country.
The motives for wanting such a miracle were naturally divided along party lines. The tories sought an end to the conflict before armed resistance spread throughout the colonies; some whigs, on the other hand, felt they had flexed their muscles enough to show they were serious about not submitting to England’s arbitrary rule of the colonies. The consequences of resistance, however, were to go beyond what most colonists and Britons expected. Rebellion was about to become revolution, largely because of a simple pamphlet. On Wednesday, January 10, 1776, the words of a virtually unknown English dissident would change the world forever.
Who Wrote “Plain Truth?”
Over the years, “Plain Truth” has been erroneously attributed to everyone from William Smith to Alexander Hamilton and Joseph Galloway. There is, however, more than enough evidence to show that Chalmers was “Candidus.” Letters reveal he gave British commander Sir Henry Clinton a copy of his pamphlet “Plain Truth.” Also, in his memorial to the British Audit Office in 1784 he mentions that he wrote “Plain Truth”; and he quotes from his own pamphlet in a 1796 pamphlet which attacks his old adversary, Thomas Paine.
— Chris New
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was like a lightning bolt in the colonies. Its message was simple: Britain had no right to govern America, the Monarchy system itself was basically corrupt, and Americans would be much better off on their own. His arguments certainly struck a chord. The French and Indian War of the 1750s had shown the colonists just how far they had drifted from their English counterparts in nearly every aspect of politics and culture. England saw colonists as crude and uneducated, while the English were seen as drunk with power and subservient to a monarchy that had no meaning to the average colonist, who pretty much lived by his own rules.
Not everyone, though, read Paine’s work and nodded with approval. Hard-core loyalists were realizing that they had been blindsided by a powerful piece of propaganda. Anxious to put out the fires that Common Sense was igniting, they attempted to strike back. One of the very first to do so was a gentleman of means from the colony of Maryland — a planter named James Chalmers.
“THIS WORTHY CHARACTER”
Chalmers’s life is something of a mystery. His early years, pieced together from what he told the British government after the war, revealed the story of a man of ambition. Born in Scotland in 1727, he went to the British West Indies when he was thirteen years old. His profession there for the next twenty years is unclear. One thing we know for sure is that he made a lot of money.
In 1760, Chalmers arrived in Maryland with several black slaves and a hefty 10,000 British pounds in his purse. This substantial sum made it easy for him to become a farmer and landowner of great standing on the Eastern Shore. Before long, he owned several thousand acres around Chestertown in Kent County. His wealth gave him influence, which he spent a lifetime trying to exert.
Some time in 1775, he appears to have been offered a regiment in the rebel service. This isn’t as peculiar as it sounds. The conflict still centered around resistance, not revolution. Chalmers, however, turned down the offer and requests to attend rebel committees. By his own admission, he armed his family in Chestertown, Maryland and prepared to “repell force by force.”
“Well-bred and well-informed,” despite “the strong peculiarities of his temper, manner, address, and diction,” Chalmers is further described as “a sound disciplinarian, resolute, strict, and humane.” When war came, this well-read but irritable Scotsman had had enough. Surrounding himself with wealthy Eastern Shore loyalists, Chalmers was to become Lieutenant Colonel of the First Battalion of Maryland Loyalists a little over a year after writing Plain Truth, his famous rebuttal to Common Sense.
Nestled in a building on south Third Street beside Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church was Philadelphia’s most popular bookstore. Robert Bell’s shop carried books on the arts, sciences, languages, history, biography, divinity, law, voyages, travels, poetry, plays, novels and virtually anything else the well-read eighteenth-century gentleman might care to read. Bell also published pamphlets, and Chalmers was only too anxious to see his thoughts appear in the best bookshop in town. Chalmers must have enjoyed the ironic fact that it was Robert Bell who had published the first edition of Common Sense.
On Saturday, March 16, an advertisement first appeared in The Pennsylvania Ledger, a local newspaper which favored loyalist views. For three shillings, interested citizens could purchase Plain Truth; addressed to the Inhabitants of America. Written under the name “Candidus,” James Chalmers launched an all-out assault on Paine’s work. In the space of seventy pages, he resorted to everything he could think of to tear down Common Sense. For those who just couldn’t get enough of the Maryland loyalist’s writings, Additions to Plain Truth appeared on April 10 for only one shilling.
Unfortunately for Chalmers, he had done precisely the wrong thing.
While Paine had written in the plainest language possible in order to reach the common man with his argument, Chalmers took the high road with a strong emphasis on literary references and history through the ages. A semiliterate blacksmith who could muddle his way through Common Sense must have looked at Plain Truth and shrugged his shoulders. Many educated and learned men were already loyalists. It was the “great unwashed” who needed convincing that England was still their sovereign.
Chalmers, by his admission, chose to write Plain Truth after waiting week upon week for someone to respond with anger to Common Sense. None did. New York’s Constitutional Gazette called Paine’s work “a wonderful production,” while others were equally complimentary. Sensing great opposition, the Kent County planter boldly took the initiative.
No time was wasted as he called Paine a “political quack” and took offense at the man’s attack upon the English constitution. “With all its imperfections [the English constitution] is, and ever will be, the pride and envy of mankind.” This was a safe argument in March of 1776. The Declaration of Independence, which so elegantly expressed the dissatisfied American point of view, did not yet exist. The rebellion itself was being propelled mostly by a few loud orators from New England. No one, of course, had suggested how colonists could come up with something better than England’s system of laws. Loyalists like Chalmers were banking on the hope that they never would.
A ripe target in Plain Truth was Paine’s love of democracy. Few now realize that the word “democracy” didn’t have a particularly appealing ring to it in the eighteenth century. Even radical John Adams, a man who was pushing hard for independence, was nervous about Paine’s brand of unregulated democracy. It “was so democratical, without any restraint or even an attempt at any equilibrium or counterpoise, that it must produce confusion and every evil work,” he once wrote. Later in life, he declared, “What a poor ignorant, Malicious, short-sighted, Crapulous Mass, is Tom Pains Common Sense.” For one fleeting moment, Chalmers and John Adams actually agreed on something.
Adams may have been a radical but he was no one’s fool. He knew any new government would have to be run by politicians and not by mob leaders. To many Whigs and Tories alike, democracy for its own sake didn’t seem like an especially good idea. Historically, democracies had come and gone, a fact that Chalmers doesn’t hesitate to point out.
“The demogogues to seduce the people into their criminal designs ever hold up democracy to them…. If we examine the republics of Greece and Rome, we ever find them in a state of war domestic or foreign…. Apian’s history of the civil wars of Rome, contains the most frightful picture of massacres…. that ever were presented to the world.”
Mistrustful of France and her intentions, Chalmers was compelled to remind his readers of the great debt owed England by the colonies. Citing William Penn and the Pennsylvania Quakers as settlers who brought “toleration, industry, and permanent credit” to the colonies, Chalmers says England took proper notice. “The people of England, encouraged by the extension of their laws and commerce to those colonies, powerfully assisted our merchants and planters, insomuch, that our settlements increased rapidly…. It may be affirmed, that from this period, until the present unhappy hour; no part of human kind, ever experienced more perfect felicity. Voltaire indeed says, that if ever the Golden Age existed, it was in Pennsylvania.”
Chalmers was on firm ground with this argument and he knew it. By the time of the revolution, the American colonies were about the best place in the world to live. Opportunity was everywhere, land on the frontier was for the taking (or stealing as the case may be) and taxes were almost nonexistent in comparison to what the inhabitants of England were forced to pay. Best of all, the heavy-handed authority of King George and Parliament was diffused by several thousand miles of ocean.
At this point, he mentions the French and Indian War only in passing by saying, “In the hour of our distress, we called aloud on Great Britain for assistance, nor was she deaf to our cries.” This strong sense of obligation to England for defeating France is curiously understated by Chalmers. It may have been a matter he considered so obvious that it didn’t require special attention.
To dispel Paine’s hints that England and the rest of Europe were becoming dependent on American wheat, Chalmers sardonically asserts, “I believe the Europeans did eat before our merchants exported our grain.” Citing a drought in Poland and the Ukraine as the cause of the sudden increase in exports, Chalmers denies that “this momentary commerce” had much effect on the colonies. As proof, he says, “the most fertile and delectable wheat country in America, bounded by Chesapeak-bay,” is terribly underdeveloped. Lack of manpower, industry, and wealth were the prime culprits. He implies that those industrious few who cultivated the land in this area had done quite well for themselves.