Spy Letters of the American Revolution
The Sir Henry Clinton Collection

 

The Clements LibraryThe Clements Library, founded by Michigan industrialist William L. Clements, a regent and alumnus of the University of Michigan, was opened in 1923 with the gift of Clements' extraordinary Americana collection -- 20,000 volumes of rare books, 2,000 volumes of early newspapers, several hundred maps, and the papers of Lord Shelburne, the British Prime Minister who negotiated the peace ending the Revolutionary War.

Sir Henry Clinton's TrunkThe Sir Henry Clinton (British Army Headquarters) Papers reside at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.  This collection of letters, documents and maps from the British Army Headquarters during the American Revolutionary War is a cornerstone of the Clements Library's prestigious Revolutionary War holdings.  This chest, on display in the Clements Library's main reading room, was used by Sir Henry Clinton to store his personal papers.  When William L. Clements purchased the Sir Henry Clinton collection for the library, the papers were shipped in his original chest.

The Sir Henry Clinton Collection in the Stacks of the Clements LibraryThe Clinton Collection consists of 80 linear feet (approx. 16,500 separate documents) of materials and includes letters and papers received by the British Army Headquarters, letterbook copies of letters sent by Clinton and his staff, warrant books, accounts, and a variety of notes and memoranda.  The collection also contains over 360 maps, many of which are manuscripts, documenting the early settlement of America and the strategic maneuvers of the British Army.  A highlight of the collection is the stream of intelligence reports from British spies posing as part of the Rebel Army, the most important of which are the traitorous letters between the American turncoat, Benedict Arnold, and Sir Henry Clinton and Major John André.

Portrait of Sir Henry ClintonSir Henry Clinton was born into aristocracy in 1738.  His father, Admiral George Clinton, was the younger brother of the Earl of Lincoln and served as the Governor of New York from 1741 to 1751.  Henry's connection assured him a good start in a military career.  He served as aide-de-camp to the Prince of Brunswick in the Seven Years War, distinguishing himself for gallantry and rising quickly to the rank of colonel.  Following the Seven Years War, Clinton received the patronage of two Dukes; he was appointed groom of the bedchamber to the Duke of Gloucester, the King's brother, and attended the Duke of Newcastle, who ensured Clinton's election to Parliament.  However, despite these royal connections and his family's history of wealth, Clinton was constantly plagued by financial troubles and unable to capitalize on his connections.  In February of 1767, Clinton married Miss Harriet Carter and had five children.  Clinton's marriage gained him neither professional or financial prospects, but from all reports he was deeply attached to his wife.  In August 1772, Harriet Clinton died sending Henry into a massive depression which left him unable to conduct his business affairs, he neglected to take his seat in Parliament and shunned his friends and ducal patrons.  It took Clinton almost two years to shake this behavior, his first manifestation of a possibly unstable personality.

In 1775, Clinton was promoted to major general and ordered to service in America suppressing the colonies' rebellion.  Clinton played a major role in the American Revolution along with such British generals as Thomas Gage, John Burgoyne, William Howe and Lord Charles Cornwallis.  However, despite the importance of his military behavior to his professional career, Clinton exhibited more and more unfavorable personality characteristics.  The Clinton Collection contain many examples of Clinton's strange mixture of shyness and willful insistence on his own way.  From the very beginning of the Revolution, Clinton alienated his fellow officers and helped contribute to a very uneasy cooperation between the British military leaders.   Later in 1775, General Gage was recalled and Howe became Commander-in-Chief with Clinton as his second in command.  Yet Clinton's ability to diplomatically interact with his superior and subordinates only continued to worsen.  In 1777 Clinton was knighted by the Crown, although this was probably due more to the comparative inabilities of his contemporaries rather than his few military coups in the American theater.  Eventually Clinton's propensity for extreme caution and self-doubt in his military strategies all but eroded the audacity and gallantry he had exhibited in his earlier campaigns.  As the years past Clinton displayed more aptitude for self-preservation and wary deliberation than for the active pursuit of Washington's forces.  In fact, Clinton reportedly sought permission to resign from the British Army several months before the Yorktown disaster.  In 1781,  Clinton's self-defeating personality coupled with his increasingly ineffective military leadership led in part to the British Army's embarrassing surrender at Yorktown and in May of 1782 Clinton turned his command over to Sir Guy Carleton.

The key to the origin of the Clinton Collection lies in the egotistical and self-doubting dichotomy of Sir Henry Clinton's personality.  Clinton exhibited an almost maniacal fascination with the duplication of any and all correspondence that he wrote and received.  He went so far as to make duplicate copies of all the letters and documents he signed and saved almost every scrap of paper that crossed his path, including such mundane items as the accounts of his personal expenses and dinner receipts.  In addition to personal documents, Clinton accumulated a huge collection of letters, maps and ephemera related to the British Army Headquarters.  Clinton originally amassed this large collection in order to defend any possible repercussions of his military decisions.  His deep distrust of his comrades and his paranoid personality led him to stockpile the British Army papers against the chance of political repercussions for any of his actions.

Upon returning to England after the Yorktown fiasco, Clinton encountered a cool reception by the peerage and public.  He was left to "cool his heels in obscurity and frustration" while others, such as Cornwallis, went on to win new laurels in India and abroad (Willcox, ix).  Clinton devoted the last twelve years of his life to compiling his complete memoirs of the American Rebellion in attempt to vindicate himself at the expense of the British military and government.  According to William L. Willcox, the editor of Sir Henry Clinton's The American Rebellion, this autobiography was his "apologia for a career that failed.  But the failure, in the last analysis, came from a cause that he would have died rather than admit.  His nemesis was himself" (Willcox, xiii).  It is these very personality characteristics that resulted in such a large collection of valuable historical documents remaining unpublished and in the hands of Clinton's family for almost 150 years. It was not until the early 1920s that Miss Frances Clinton, Sir Henry's elderly great-great-granddaughter, finally decided to put the family papers up for sale.  And in 1954, Sir Henry Clinton's autobiography, The American Rebellion, was finally published.

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