Honour Among Gentlemen

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger

In the middle of nowhere, far from centers of power and gentility, two gentlemen conferred and the results would set off shock waves throughout the globe.  Amid the remote, near wilderness American General Horatio Gates accepted the capitulation of British General John Burgoyne’s trapped army at Saratoga.

Burgoyne’s invading force had come to grief in the realities of harsh, unforgiving terrain and the determination of everyday people who chose to stand and fight.  His humiliation was only eased by the notion that the surrender was termed a “convention”, and through negotiations felt he’d saved some honor, both for his army and himself.  Most notably, Burgoyne’s troops were to be allowed to leave the country, as long as they promised not to take up arms against the United States in the present conflict.

To contemporaries of Gates and Burgoyne, the terms were somewhat lenient, but to many modern observers, they seem astonishingly naïve.  “How”, they wonder, “could anyone realistically expect the British to live up to their word?”

In the world inhabited by individuals like Generals Gates and Burgoyne, the agreement hammered out at Saratoga was based by the assumption that the word of a Gentleman was binding.  General Burgoyne had given his word, and he and his country would abide by it.

For most observers today, such things are laughable and utterly alien to times of total warfare.  Indeed, for some visitors to Saratoga National Historical Park, the only reason to agree to such a convention would be to escape from the rebels’ clutches and resume the fight against such a trusting pack of morons.  But then, individuals who express themselves as such reveal the vast gulf that lies between the 18th Century and our own and show themselves to be anything but “Gentlemen”.

Gentleman is a word that is applied freely today, and is rather debased from its original intention.  It is arguable that some “gentlemen” come closest to being worthy of that appellation only when they enter the “Gentlemen’s Room” in a public lavatory.

During the 18th century to be a “Gentleman” was to a great extent an indication of privilege.  Much of the privilege was based upon birth and family connections, but just as importantly was a set of expected behaviors that anyone wishing to be considered a “Gentleman” needed to observe.  Interestingly, none of this implied monetary wealth; one could be a gentleman and not have two farthings to rub together.  It was a Gentleman’s deportment that set him aside from the common lot.

Being trustworthy was part of the package of being a Gentleman.  One could depend upon the promises, the word of a Gentleman that he would follow through with agreements.  Should he break his word, the Gentleman’s honor (or “honour” in General Burgoyne’s case) and reputation would be irrevocably damaged.

There is very little today that could be an considered t be similar to this notion of a Gentleman’s trustworthiness; perhaps the nearest is a financial credit rating.   An 18th century Gentleman’s reputation was based upon the track record of his behavior; today, a would-be borrower’s is rooted in her/his record of financial responsibility.  Both the Gentleman’s reputation and honor, and a modern borrower’s credit rating are based upon being able to trust the individual to stand by their word.  For 18th Century Gentlemen and a modern borrower, to renege on their word can have dire, very personal results.

When Generals Gates and Burgoyne signed the Convention of Saratoga in 1777, they did so with the understanding that their decisions as Gentlemen would be upheld by themselves and their respective sides in the conflict.  Indeed, the parole signed at Cambridge, Massachusetts has only the names of the officers they, of course were Gentlemen, their troops were not.

There is evidence that the senior British commander in North America, General Sir William Howe would have ignored the terms of the Convention once the British and German troops were back within his control.   Certainly Howe considered himself a Gentleman, but probably was influenced by the British attitude that their opponents were all farmers, tradesmen and mechanics.  Not being Gentlemen, their word couldn’t be trusted.

The Convention of Saratoga fell apart due to some other Gentlemen: the Continental Congress.  Never really happy about General Gates presumption to negotiate a surrender, they embarked on a series of political maneuvers hoping to make the Convention of Saratoga more advantageous to the United States.

General Burgoyne sent a letter to Congress in early 1778, complaining about the various delays that Congress’s actions had caused.  He wrote that “the public faith is broke” and Congress decided that if a major signatory of the Convention felt it was void, well, they would too.  In the name of national survival Congress nullified the Gentlemen’s agreement.


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