The Declaration of Independence Its History Chapter 3 1776See also: The Declaration of Independence: Its History Chapter 1 1774
The Declaration of Independence: Its History Chapter 2, 1775
SEVENTEEN HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-SIX
JANUARY 3, 1776, gave being to the new army at Cambridge. Washington — whose life Robert Morris, six months later, declared “the most valuable in America” —hoisted the Union flag, in compliment to the united Colonies. On the 30th, he writes thence to the President of Congress: “The clouds thicken fast; where they will burst, I know not; but we should be armed at all points.”
This was always Washington’s appeal. At no time, so far as we know, did he waste his powers, or invite the refusal of his constant and necessary demands upon Congress, by urging upon it or any of its members a declaration of independence.
To Joseph Reed, however, Washington, in 1776, openly expressed his opinions. On January 31st, he writes: “A few more of such flaming arguments, as were exhibited at Falmouth and Norfolk, added to the sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning contained in the pamphlet ‘Common Sense,’ will not leave numbers at a loss to decide upon the propriety of a separation “; on February 10th, though his situation, as described by himself, had “been such, that I have been obliged to use art to conceal it from my own officers “: “With respect to myself, I have never entertained an idea of an accommodation, since I heard of the measures, which were adopted in consequence of the Bunker’s Hill fight. The King’s speech has confirmed the sentiments I entertained upon the news of that affair; and, if every man was of my mind, the ministers of Great Britain should know . . . that, if nothing else could satisfy a tyrant and his diabolical ministry, we are determined to shake off all connexions with a state so unjust and unnatural. This I would tell them, not under covert, but in words as clear as the sun in its meridian brightness”; and, on April 15th: “I am exceedingly concerned to hear of the divisions and parties, which prevail with you, and in the southern colonies, on the score of independence. These are the shelves we have to avoid or our bark will split and tumble to pieces . . . Nothing but disunion can hurt our cause.”
Indeed, William Palfray (evidently) writes from New York to Samuel Adams, May 24th: “As it may be of some importance to you to know General W’s Sentiments respecting the grand point of American independence I think my duty to acquaint you that I have heard him converse several times lately on the Subject, and delivered it as his opinion that a reconciliation with Great Britain is impracticable impolitic, and would be in the highest degree detrimental to the true Interests of America — That when he first took the Command of the Army he abhorr’d the Idea of independence but is now fully convinced nothing else will save us —”
Two days before the birth of the new army, we find the Assembly of New Hampshire “establishing a form of Government, to continue during the present unhappy and unnatural contest with Great Britain; protesting and declaring, that we never sought to throw off our dependence upon Great Britain . . . and that we shall rejoice if such a reconciliation . . . can be effected, as shall be approved by the Continental Congress, in whose prudence and wisdom we confide.”
Massachusetts, on the contrary, on the 18th of the same month (January), fully empowered her Delegates (Hancock, the Adamses, Paine and Elbridge Gerry), “with the Delegates from the other American Colonies, to concert, direct, and order such further measures as shall to them appear best calculated for the recovery and establishment of American rights and liberties ” — words which might be implied to include the power to join in a declaration of independence, though they evidently were not so intended and, as we shall see, were not so construed.
John Adams, who had left Congress, on leave of absence, December 9, 1775,and Gerry, who was elected for the first time on the 18th (of January, 1776), proceeded together to Philadelphia and took their seats on February 9th.
Adams, in his Autobiography, tells us: “Mr. Samuel Adams, Mr. Gerry and myself now composed a majority of the Massachusetts delegation, and we were no longer vexed or enfeebled by divisions among ourselves, or by indecision or indolence.”
At another place in his Autobiography, — indistinctly intermingling his views following his return with those of the preceding Fall, from his return after the adjournment on August 1st to his departure on the leave of absence — he says: “At the appointed time [Wednesday, September 5, 1775], we returned to Philadelphia, and Congress were reassembled . . . almost every day I had something to say about advising the States to institute governments, to express my total despair of any good from . . . any of those things which were called conciliatory measures. I constantly insisted . . . that we should be driven to the necessity of declaring ourselves independent States, and that we ought now to be employed in preparing a plan of confederation for the Colonies and treaties . . . together with a declaration of independence; that these three measures, independence, confederation, and negotiations with foreign powers, particularly France, ought to go hand in hand, and be adopted all together; that foreign powers could not be expected to acknowledge us till we had acknowledged ourselves, and taken our station among them as a sovereign power and independent nation . . . Some gentlemen doubted of the sentiments of France; thought she would frown upon us as rebels, and be afraid to countenance the example. I replied to those gentlemen, that I apprehended they had not attended to the relative situation of France and England; that it was the unquestionable interest of France that the . . . Colonies should be independent . . . When I first made these observations in Congress, I never saw a greater impression made upon that assembly or any other. Attention and approbation were marked upon every countenance. Several gentlemen came to me afterwards, to thank me for that speech, particularly Mr. Caesar Rodney, of Delaware, and Mr. Duane, of New York. I remember these two gentlemen in particular, because both of them said that I had considered the subject of foreign connections more maturely than any man they had ever heard in America . . . These and such as these, were my constant and daily topics, sometimes of reasoning and no doubt often of declamation, from the meeting of Congress in the autumn of 1775, through the whole winter and spring of 1776. Many motions were made, and after tedious discussions, lost. I received little assistance from my colleagues in all these contests; three of them were either inclined to lean towards Mr. Dickinson’s system, or at least chose to be silent, and the fourth [Samuel Adams evidently] spoke but rarely in Congress, and never entered into any extensive arguments, though, when he did speak, his sentiments were clear and pertinent and neatly expressed. Mr. Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia, Mr. Sherman, of Connecticut, and Mr. Gadsden, of South Carolina, were always on my side, and Mr. Chase, of Maryland, when he did speak at all, was always powerful, and generally with us. Mr. Johnson, of Maryland, was the most frequent speaker from that State, and, while he remained with us, was inclined to Mr. Dickinson for some time, but ere long he and all his State came cordially into our system.”
Gerry writes, to James Warren, March 26th: “You are desirous of knowing what capital measures are proposed in congress. I refer you to . . . what is done concerning privateering . . . This will not in itself satisfy you, and / hope nothing will, short of a determination of America to hold her rank in the creation, and give law to herself. I doubt not this will soon take place … I sincerely wish you would originate instructions, expressed with decency and firmness — your own style — and give your sentiments as a court in favour of independency. I am certain it would turn many doubtful minds, and produce a reversal of the contrary instructions adopted by some assemblies. Some timid minds are terrified at the word independence. If you think caution in this respect good policy, change the name. America has gone such lengths she cannot recede, and I am convinced a few weeks or months at furthest will convince her of the fact, but the fruit must have time to ripen in some of the other colonies . . ,”
Samuel Adams (who, not long before, had been “indisposed” in Baltimore, “so as to be obliged to keep my Chamber ten days, I was unable to travel with my Friends”; and to whom, on February 12th, his wife had written: “I Received your affectionate Letter by Fesenton and thank you for your Kind Concern for My health and Safety. I beg you Would not give yourself any pain on our being so Near the Camp, the place I am in is so situated that if the Regulars should Even take prospect hill … I should be able to Make an Escape — as I am Within a few stones Cast of a Back Road Which Leads to the Most Retired part of Newtown …PS I beg you to Excuse the very poor Writing as My paper is Bad and my pen made with scissors — I should be glad … if you should not come down soon you would Write me Word Who to apply to for some Money for I am low in Cash and Everything is very dear”) writes, April 3d, to Dr. Samuel Cooper: “Is not America already independent? Why then not declare it? . . . Can Nations at War be said to be dependent either upon the other? I ask then again, why not declare for Independence? Because say some, it will forever shut the Door of Reconciliation … By such a Reconciliation she would not only in the most shameful Manner acknowledge the Tyranny, but most wickedly, as far as would be in her Power, prevent her Posterity from ever hereafter resisting it.”
His words of the 15th to Joseph Hawley are equally forcible: “I am perfectly satisfied with the Reasons you offer to show the Necessity of a public & explicit Declaration of Independency. — I cannot conceive what good Reason can be assigned against it. Will it widen the Breach? This would be a strange Question after we have raised Armies and fought Battles with the British Troops, set up an American Navy … It cannot surely after all this be imagined that we consider ourselves or mean to be considered by others in any State but that of Independence But moderate Whigs are disgusted with our mentioning the Word! Sensible Tories are better Politicians. — They know, that no foreign Power can consistently yield Comfort to Rebels, or enter into any kind of Treaty with these Colonies till they declare themselves free and independent . . . moderate Gentlemen are flattering themselves with the prospect of Reconciliation . . .”
The letter to Hawley was followed by one the next day to Warren: “The only alternative is independence or slavery . . . One of our moderate, prudent Whigs would be startled at what I now write . . . they would continue the conflict a century. There are such moderate men here, but their principles are daily growing out of fashion. The child Independence is now struggling for birth. I trust that in a short time it will be brought forth, and in spite of Pharaoh, all America will hail the dignified stranger.” On the last day of April, he writes —again to Cooper: “I am to acknowledge the Receipt of your Favor of the 18th Instant by the Post—The Ideas of Independence spread far and wide among the Colonies — Many of the leading Men see the absurdity of supposing that Allegiance is due to a Sovereign who has already thrown us out of his Protection — South Carolina has lately assumed a new Government—The Convention of North Carolina have unanimously agreed to do the same . . . Virginia whose Convention is to meet on the third of next month will follow the lead — The Body of the People of Maryland are firm — Some of the principal Members of their Convention, I am inclined to believe, are timid and lukewarm . . . The lower Counties in Delaware are a small People but well affected to the Common Cause—In this populous and wealthy Colony [Pennsylvania] political Parties run high—The News papers are full of the Matter but I think I may assure you that Common Sense, prevails among the people . . . The Jerseys are agitating the great Question—It is with them rather a Matter of Prudence whether to determine till some others have done it before them . . . their Sentiments & Manners are I believe similar to those of N England—I forbear to say anything of New York, for I confess I am not able to form any opinion of them . . . I think they are at least as unenlightened in the Nature and Importance of our political Disputes as any one of the united Colonies—I have not mentioned our little Sister Georgia; but I believe she is as warmly engaged in the Cause as any of us, & will do as much as can be reasonably expected of her I was very solicitous the last Fall to have Governments set up by the people in every Colony . . . When this is done, and I am inclined to think it will be soon, the Colonies will feel their Independence … I am disappointed, but I bear it tolerably well . . . There has been much to do to confirm doubting Friends & fortify the Timid . . . The Boston Port bill suddenly wrought a Union of the Colonies which could not be brought about by the Industry of years in reasoning on the Necessity of it for the Common Safety . . . The burning of Norfolk & the Hostilities committed in North Carolina have kindled the Resentment of our Southern Brethren who once thought their Eastern Friends hot headed & rash . . . There is a Reason that wd induce one even to wish for the speedy Arrival of the British Troops that are expected at the Southward— I think our friends are well prepared for them & one Battle would do more towards a Declaration of Independency than a long chain of conclusive Arguments in a provincial Convention or the Continental Congress—” The sentiments meanwhile of some of the constituents themselves, in the Commonwealth, and the result (evidently) of Gerry’s letter of March 26th to Warren also have come down to us:
On the 18th and 20th of February, Hawley thus declares to Gerry: “I have read the pamphlet, entitled, ‘Common Sense, addressed to the Inhabitants of America,’ and every sentiment has sunk into my well-prepared heart …””… if we resolve on independence, what will hinder but that we may instantly commence a trade not only with Holland, France, and Spain, but with all the world? . . . Pray consider this matter with regard to Canada and the Dutch of New-York. Will they ever join with us heartily, who, in order to do it, must sacrifice their trade . . . Whereas, the moment that we resolve on independence, trade will be free for them — for the one to France and the other to Holland . . . Independence, in short, is the only way to union and harmony, to vigor and dispatch in business; our eye will be single, and our whole body full of light; anything short of it will, as appears to me, be our destruction, infallible destruction, and that speedily.”
On March 26th, Edmund Quincy writes to his daughter, Mrs. Dorothy Hancock: “”May we deserve a Continuance of the Protection of Heaven & may there be soon an Accommodation or Separation of yeYounger from ye Older States; the Last I expect will be the necessary Effect of unnatural Treatment we have received — The voice of the people in these [Northern] Colonies seems almost universally in favor of independency as far as I can perceive … It is my real Opinion y’ set time is come wherein Providence has appointed the Flourishing States to withdraw themselves from ye Control of all other . . .”
On the 1st of the next month, Hawley, at Watertown, urges Samuel Adams as he had previously urged Gerry: “Give me leave to tell you that an immediate explicit and ye firmest Confederation and Proclamation of Independence may be more necessary than you are aware — unless it Shall be done and declared very soon — Infinite jealousies will arise in the breasts of the People and when they begin to spring up they will increase amazingly . . . All will be in confusion if independence is not declared immediately [.]”
On the 28th of April, John Adams writes to his wife: “You tell me our jurors refuse to serve, because the writs are issued in the King’s name “; and, on the 29th, a letter from Boston says: “Common Sense, like a ray of revelation, has come in seasonably to clear our doubts, and to fix our choice.”
Another letter of the same month, to John Adams, from J. Winthrop, at Watertown, says: “I hope Common Sense is in as high estimation at the Southward as with us. Tis universally admired here. If the Congress should adopt the Sentiments of it, it would give the greatest satisfaction to our people.”
On May 1st, Hawley writes to Gerry: “The Tories dread a declaration of Independence, and a course of conduct on that plan, more than death. They console themselves with a belief that the Southern Colonies will not accede to it. My hand and heart are full of it. There will be no abiding union without it.”
On the 13th, Cooper replies, from Boston, to the second letter of Samuel Adams to him: “I am much oblig’d to you for your Favor 30th Apr. which I receiv’d by the Post the Evening before last, and am glad to find Affairs are in so good a Train in the Southern Colonies; In New England the Voice is almost universal for Independence . . . Our General Court is dissolved [?]— Before this took place, the House pass’d a Vote to consult their Constituents, whether they would instruct their future Representatives to move the Continental Congress for Independence — I can only assure you of the Substance of the Vote; the Form of it was not clearly related to me. The House sent up this Vote to the Council for their Concurrence — The Propriety of this was doubted by some, who did not think the Council could properly act on such an affair. It was however done, and the Council negativ’d the Vote. Mr Cushing among others was against it. He said that it would embarrass the Congress — that we ought to wait till they mov’d the Question to us — that it would prejudice the other Colonies against us — and that you had wrote to some Body here, that things with you were going on slowly and surely, and any Kind of Eagerness in us upon this Question would do Hurt. Others said that the Congress might not choose to move such a Point to their Constituents tho they might be very glad to know their minds upon it — that it was beginning at the right End for the Constituents to instruct their Delegates at Congress, & not wait for their asking Instructions from their Constituents — that the Question had been long thought of & agitated thro the Colonies, & it was now high Time to come to some Determination upon it; otherwise our artful Enemies might sew the Seeds of Dissention among us to the great Prejudice if not Ruin of the common Cause. The House, tho they would have been glad of the Concurrence of the Council in this Matter, have determin’d to proceed without them; and Instructions will go from all Parts on this Head; and it seems, by Appearances thro the Continent, you will not be able to defer a great While your Decision on this grand Question.—”
On the 17th, Hawley, at Northampton, writes another urgent letter to Samuel Adams.
On the 20th, B. Hichborn writes to John Adams, from Boston: “The principal political topic of Conversation is Independence — & I think the people almost una voce [with one voice], are wishing for its immediate Declaration— we are often checked by real or fictitious accounts from the Southward, of a contrary disposition in a large Majority of the People there— Some opinions say the Continental Congress will, others that they will not make such a Declaration, without consulting their Constituents — can’t we be relieved from this uncertainty?”
On the 22d, Hawley, at Springfield, writes to Samuel Adams: “Before this You have rec’d the Account of the routing of the continental forces before Quebec — Will your Congress now delay for a Moment the most explicit declaration of independence [?]”
On June 1st, Winthrop — speaking of what is considered later — writes again to John Adams: “I have often wondered, that so much difficulty should be raised about declaring independence, when we have actually got the thing itself … I now perceive you were in these sentiments long ago. But they are very opposite to the inveterate prejudices and long-established systems of many others. It must be a work of time to eradicate these prejudices. And perhaps it may be best to accomplish this great affair by slow and almost imperceptible steps, and not per saltum [By a leap or bound], by one violent exertion. The late Resolve of May 15 comes very near it.”
On the next day, Hawley, at Watertown, writes to Gerry: “I do not mean that Confederations and a Declaration of Independence Should be made without a good prospect of its taking in all the Colonies — We are ripe for it here — But as nothing Short of it can Save us, if a Clear Vote can be Obtain for it in Congress, will it not do to risk it? I imagine that it will take everywhere.”
Indeed, on June 13th (Thursday), Hawley writes, to Gerry: “You cannot declare Independence too soon . . . When the present House here called last week, for the instructions of the several towns touching Independency, agreeable to the recommendation of the last House . . . it appeared that about two-thirds of the towns in the Colony had met, and all instructed in the affirmative, and generally returned to be unanimous. As to the other towns, the accounts of their Members were, either that they were about to meet, or that they had not received the notice, as it was given only in the newspapers. Whereupon, the House immediately ordered the unnotified towns to be notified by handbills, and in a short time undoubtedly we shall have returns from all; and it is almost certain that the returns will be universally to support the Congress, with their lives and fortunes, in case of a declaration of Independence.”
Before (January 4th) any of these letters was written and even before Common Sense appeared, General Greene, then at “Camp on Prospect-Hill”, wrote to Ward: “Permit me, then, to recommend from the sincerity of my heart, ready at all times to bleed in my country’s cause, a declaration of independence; and call upon the world, and the great God who governs it, to witness the necessity, propriety, and rectitude thereof.”
What Ward replied, if anything, we do not know; but John Adams writes of him, August 18th: “My friend [James] Warren, the late Governour Ward, and Mr. Gadsden, are three characters in which I have seen the most generous disdain of every spice and species of [selfish design] . . . The two last had not great abilities, but they had pure hearts. Yet they had less influence than many others, who had neither so considerable parts, nor any share at all of their purity of intention.” Indeed, “Gov’r Ward . . . died last night of the Small Pox” as shown by the Diary of Richard Smith for March 26th, over two months before the question of declaring independence came (directly) before Congress.
As early as Ward’s death, the trend of events, however, was being felt by some of the members of that body — among them Gerry, as we have seen by his (first) letter to Warren, asking Warren to originate instructions, written on the very day on which Ward died; and Hopkins, the remaining Delegate, very naturally, therefore, communicated — April 8th — with Governor Nicholas Cooke, making certain “queries concerning dependence or independence.”
The General Assembly (of Rhode Island) accordingly, on May 4th, elected William Ellery a to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Ward and, at the same time, instructed her Delegates “to consult and advise with the Delegates of the said [other] Colonies in Congress upon the most proper measures . . . to secure the said Colonies their rights and liberties . . . whether by entering into treaties … or by such other prudent and effectual ways and means as shall be devised and agreed upon . . .”
Of these instructions, Washington was immediately notified, by Cooke, by letter of the 6th; and, on the 7th, writing from Providence, Cooke replied to Hopkins’ letter, as follows: “I am to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 8th inst., which I laid before the General Assembly, who appointed a committee to take it into consideration and prepare instructions to the delegates. Dependency is a word of so equivocal a meaning, and hath been used for such ill purposes, and independency, with many honest and ignorant people carrying the idea of eternal warfare, the committee thought it best to avoid making use of either of them. The instructions you will receive herewith, passed both houses nemine contradicente [of one mind; without dissent]. I enclose an act discharging the inhabitants of the Colony from allegiance to the British King . . . The first mentioned act, after being debated, was carried in the lower house almost unanimously, there being upward of sixty members present, and but six votes against it. Towards the close of the session, a vote passed the lower house for taking the sense of the inhabitants at large upon the question of independency. The upper house were of the opinion that although a very great majority of the Colony were perfectly ripe for such a question, yet, upon its being canvassed, several towns would vote against it, and that the appearance of disunion would be injurious to the common cause, and represented to the lower house that it was very probable the subject would be discussed in Congress, before it would be possible to take the sense of the Colony in the proposed way and transmit it to the delegates, in which case, they would be laid under the necessity of waiting for the sentiments of their constituents, and of course the Colony would lose its voice, and the delegates when they should receive a copy of the act renouncing allegiance, and of the instructions, could not possibly entertain a doubt of the sense of the General Assembly; upon which the subject was dropped.”
The “upper house” seems to have been correct in their judgment; for Hopkins, in his answering letter — dated May 15th — to Cooke, says: “Your favour of the 7 th May I have received, and the papers enclosed in it. I observe that you have avoided giving me a direct answer to my queries concerning dependence or independence. However, the copy of the act of Assembly which you have sent me, together with our instructions, leave me little room to doubt what is the opinion of the Colony I came from. I suppose it will not be long before Congress will throw off all connection, as well in name as in substance, with Great Britain, as one thing after another seems gradually to lead them to such a step . . .”
The General Assembly of Connecticut, sitting at Hartford,—Trumbull and Williams being present-— resolved, June 14th, ” that the Delegates … be, and they are hereby, instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United American Colonies free and independent States . . .”
This was just a week after the resolution of May 15th of the Convention of Virginia to the same effect appeared in The Connecticut Gazette; and the Universal Intelligencer, published in New London, and after a Delegate of Virginia, as we shall see, had so proposed to Congress.
The Provincial Congress of New Jersey, sitting at New Brunswick, — Abraham Clark and John Hart evidently being present but seemingly none of her Delegates — instructed her Delegates, March 2d: “You must be sensible that this Congress are extremely destitute of the means of information, compared with your body, and, of course, unable to point out any certain line of conduct for you to pursue. Your deliberations must no doubt be formed upon the measures of the British Ministry, which are uncertain, extraordinary, and new almost every week. We, therefore, only request that you would join in the general voice of the United Colonies, and pursue such measures as you may judge most beneficial for the publick good of all the Colonies.”
Her Delegates at this time were William Livingston, Richard Smith, De Hart, Jonathan D. Sergeant and John Cooper.
Sergeant writes to John Adams, April 6th: “I arrived here [doubtless Princeton] last evening in a very indifferent State of Health & shall return or not return [to Philadelphia] according as I have Reason to believe 1 may be more useful here or there … My Head aches & my Heart aches. I tremble for the Timidity of our Counsels. —”
Five days later, certainly at Princeton, he tells Adams: “The Jersey Delegates (will You believe it) are not in the sweetest Disposition with one another. Mr D’Hart has gone home with an avowed Determination not to return without General Livingston & at the same Time has declared that he will offer himself as a Candidate for the Provincial Convention thinking that a more important Post, in order that he may control the mad Fellows who now compose that Body. — He has signified the dangerous Disposition of Mr Smyth & another of his Colleagues; and all the great & the mighty ones in the Colony are preparing to make their last Stand against the Principles of levelling which prevails in it. Mr Smith’s Health it seems will not admit of his Attendance, at least not very steadily. — In the mean Time I have engaged to return whenever called upon by General Livingston & Mr D’Hart; but rather believe they will not call upon me, tho I have wrote to them requesting it, in Order that the colony may not be unrepresented; — tho I fear it will be misrepresented if we attend.30 Whether to return without them is a matter of some Doubt with me, especially since I have been told that some very pious People are circulating a Rumour that I left Congress in Disgust at the Doctrines of Independency which are now advanced. — Whether I may not do more good at home considering all things I am at a Loss to determine. — If my Colleagues should go into the Provincial Convention I should be glad to meet them there; and I know the old Leven of Unrighteousness will strive hard to poison that Body by pushing in every Creature that can lisp against Independence, which in other Words, in my Opinion, is every Creature who would wish to give up the Quarrel. In Congress, if I am to be alone, it will avail little; if with my Colleagues less still . . . From this State of the Case I should be much obliged by your Opinion . . . onSunday I must determine one Way or the other if possible … P. S. . . . The grand Difficulty here is that People seem to expect Congress should take the first Step by declaring Independence, as they phrase it . . . I declare boldly to People Congress will not declare Independence in Form; they are independent; every Act is that of Independence and all we have to do is to establish Order & Government in each Colony that we may support them in it. — Could not this idea be substituted in the place of Independence in the Controversy, which, as it is treated, is no determinate Object, — brings Nothing to an Issue. —”
May 20th, he writes (also from Princeton to Adams): “I wrote You soon after I arrived here . . . Ever since I have seen the Inside of Congress I have trembled. Nothing short of a radical Change in the Councils of our Middle Colonies can, I am persuaded, by any Means save us . . . Next Week is our Election. I wish I may obtain a Seat in the Convention; but am not over sanguine in my Hopes tho I believe I could easily accomplish it by going out of my present County into the one I came from. However am in Hopes they will chuse good Men there. After the Election I expect to pay You a Visit for a short time; but am determined that I will not continue to attend [in Congress] along with my present Colleagues any longer than I can avoid. At present, several little Circumstances will form an excuse for my being absent.”
This letter (of May 20th), as shown by its superscription, was delivered to Adams by “Favour of Dr Witherspoon”, who had, himself, three days before it was written, delivered at Princeton a sermon on “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men” in which he said: “. . . for these colonies to depend wholly upon the legislature of Great Britain, would be like many other oppressive connexions, injury to the master, and ruin to the slave … If on account of their distance and ignorance of our situation, they could not conduct their own quarrel with propriety for one year, how can they give direction and vigour to every department of our civil constitutions, from age to age? There are fixed bounds to every human thing. When the branches of a tree grow very large and weighty, they fall off from the trunk. The sharpest sword will not pierce when it cannot reach. And there is a certain distance from the seat of government where an attempt to rule will either produce tyranny and helpless subjection, or provoke resistance and effect a separation.”
Samuel Adams’ letter of April 30th has given us some idea of the feeling that prevailed in Pennsylvania.
On the day this letter was written, Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer also writes from Philadelphia, to Charles Carroll: “To-morrow will determine the question of Dependence or Independence, in this city, by the election of four additional members of Assembly … It is expected” this contest will not end without blows”; and, on the next day, George Read, also from Philadelphia, to his wife, at Wilmington: “I flatter myself that I shall see you on Saturday next. Last Saturday the Congress sat, and I could not be absent . . . This day is their election for additional members of Assembly. Great strife is expected. Their fixed candidates are not known. One side talk of Thomas Willing, Andrew Allen, Alexander Wilcox, and Samuel Howell, against independency; the other, Daniel Roberdeau, George Clymer, Mark Kuhl, and a fourth I don’t recollect; but it is thought other persons would be put up.”
The election is thus described by Marshall: “This has been one of the sharpest contests, yet peacable, that has been for a number of years … I think it may be said with propriety that the Quakers, Papists, Church, Allen family, with all the proprietary party, were never seemingly so happily united . . .”
The resolve of Congress of May 15th, recommending, as we shall see, the adoption, where not already existing, of proper “government”, however, changed the face of affairs. Indeed, as Bancroft aptly expresses it, “The blow which proceeded from John Adams felled the proprietary authority in Pennsylvania and Maryland to the ground . . .”
On the evening of the very day on which Congress took this decisive action, Marshall, “Past seven, went and met a large number of persons at the Philosophical, by appointment (Col. McKean in the chair), where was debated the resolve of Congress . . .”
On the 16th also, he went, “At four, to the Philosophical Hall, to meet a number of persons … It was concluded to call a convention with speed; to protest against the present Assembly’s doing any business in their House until the sense of the Province was taken in that Convention to be called, &c, with the mode and manner of doing these several things by or on next Second Day.”
The next day, John Adams writes to his wife: “I have this morning heard Mr. Duffield, upon the signs of the times. He ran a parallel between the case of Israel and that of America, and between the conduct of Pharaoh and that of George. Jealousy, that the Israelites would throw off the government of Egypt, made him issue his edict, that the midwives should cast the children into the river; and the other edict, that the men should make a large revenue of bricks without straw. He concluded that the course of events indicated strongly the design of Providence that we should be separated from Great Britain, &c.”
On the 18th, Marshall writes, “A request was brought to this Committee, from a large company of the City and Liberties, that a general call be made of the inhabitants of the City and Liberties, to meet next Monday at nine o’clock forenoon at the State House, in order to take the sense of the people respecting the resolve of Congress of the Fifteenth instant, the which, after debate, was agreed to, only five dissenting voices.”
The meeting occurred at the appointed time, in the State House yard, where, Marshall, who was present, tells us, “it was computed, Four thousand people were met, notwithstanding the rain, and then, sundry resolves were passed unanimously except one, and there was one dissenting voice, to wit, Isaac Gray. Near twelve, all was completed quietly and peaceably . . . Went to Committee Room at Philosophical Hall, where were confirmed the resolves at the State House, and directions, with proper persons appointed to go with the said resolves to the different counties.”
On the very day of this meeting (May 20th), Gerry writes: “In this Colony (Pennsylvania) the spirit of the people is great, if a judgment is to be formed by appearances. They are well convinced of the injury their Assembly has done to the Continent, by their instructions to their Delegates. It was these instructions which induced the Middle Colonies, and some of the Southern, to backward every measure which had the appearance of Independency. To them is owing the delay of Congress in agitating questions of the greatest importance, which long ere now must have terminated in a separation from Great Britain . . .”
Bartlett, in a letter to Langdon, speaks of the occasion thus: “May 21” yesterday the City met, agreeable to notification in the field before the State House, a stage being erected for the Moderator (Col. Roberdeau) and the Chief speakers M’ Mc- Kean &c.— I am told they unanimously voted that the present House of Assembly are not Competent to Changing the form of gov’t and have given orders for Calling a Convention. Pennsylvania Assembly was to meet yesterday. I fear some Convulsions in the Colony, the infamous instructions given by the Assembly to their Delegates which they at their last meeting refused to alter is the Cause of their losing the Confidence of the people.”
The Assembly had in fact met — “above stairs” in the building where Congress sat — on the 20th, and the protest “of the inhabitants of the City and Liberties of Philadelphia, in behalf of ourselves and others” was presented to the Speaker on that day; but it was not read in the Assembly until the 22d, and was then ordered to lie on the table.
This protest set forth that, as understood by Bartlett, the Assembly was not empowered to form a government and that an application would be made to the Committee of Inspection and Observation of the City and Liberties of Philadelphia to call a conference. Indeed, as we have seen, the conference had already been called when the protest was read.
The Assembly then adjourned to 3 o’clock in the afternoon, when they resolved that Andrew Allen, George Clymer, Alexander Wilcocks, Isaac Pearson and George Ross ” be a committee to take into consideration the said Resolve of Congress, and the Preamble thereto; and to draw up a Memorial from this House … requesting an explanation, in such terms as will admit of no doubt, whether the Assemblies and Conventions now subsisting in the several Colonies are or are not the bodies to whom the consideration of continuing the old, or adopting new Governments, is referred . . .”
On the same day — and, as would seem, before the Assembly met at 3 o’clock and appointed this committee —, a number “of those called moderate men”, as Marshall entitles them, prepared and began to circulate a remonstrance against the protest, stating that the subscribers to the remonstrance had never authorized the protest and that the desires of the majority of the people did not justify it. This was not formally presented to the Assembly, however, as we shall see, until the 29th.
On the day following (the 23d), an address of the Committee of Inspection and Observation for the County of Philadelphia, signed by William Hamilton, as chairman, was presented to the Assembly and read. This asked “that you will most religiously adhere to the Instructions given to our Delegates in Congress.”
The Committee of Inspection and Observation of the City and Liberties was at once aroused. On the 24th, they themselves determined upon a memorial to Congress, which stated ” That, in consequence of a request of a large majority of the inhabitants … of Philadelphia, on the 20th instant, the Committee have issued letters … for calling a conference of the Committees of the Province, in order to collect the sense of the inhabitants . . . That they have heard with great surprise that the Assembly . . . are about to present a Memorial to your honourable body, in consequence of a Remonstrance delivered to them . . . That the said Remonstrance has been obtained by unfair representations and indefatigable industry; and is signed chiefly by those people who hold Offices under the Crown . . . That . . . the present Assembly . . . was not chosen, nor is it invested with powers, to carry the said resolve [of Congress of May 15th] into execution. That a majority of the present Assembly do not possess the confidence of the people . . .” This memorial — signed by McKean, as chairman— was presented (to Congress) on the 25th.
Meanwhile, the Assembly, however, either knew not what to do or was unwilling to take any action whatever. Nor did they act even on the 28th, when the memorial of the Committee of Inspection and Observation of the City and Liberties to Congress was read, or when, later in the day, a petition from “a number of the freemen and inhabitants of the County of Cumberland, was presented to the House, and read,” but simply ordered them to lie on the table. The people of Cumberland County petitioned “this honourable House that the last Instructions which it gave to the Delegates . . . wherein they are enjoined not to consent to any step which may cause or lead to a separation from Great Britain, may be withdrawn.” Indeed, on the 29th (except to read the remonstrance — then presented — and to order it to lie on the table), 30th and 31st, nothing was done; and, on the 1st, 3d and 4th of June, there was no quorum.
On the 5th of June, however, the resolution of Virginia of May 15th was read; and then, at last, a committee — Dickinson, Robert Morris, Joseph Reed, Clymer, Wilcocks, Pearson and Thomas Smith — was appointed to prepare a draft of instructions to the Delegates in Congress. They reported, on the 6th, “an essay for the purpose; which was read by order, and referred to further consideration.” On the 7th, “the House resumed the consideration of the Instructions to the Delegates . . . And, after a debate of a considerable length, adjourned to three o’clock in the afternoon.” At the appointed time, they “resumed consideration of the Instructions, and, having made some progress therein, adjourned to nine o’clock tomorrow morning.”
Maryland charged her Delegates, January 11th, that, “should any proposition be happily made by the Crown or Parliament, that may lead to or lay a rational and probable ground for reconciliation, you use your utmost endeavours to cultivate and improve it into a happy settlement and lasting amity . . . We further instruct you, that you do not, without the previous knowledge and approbation of the Convention . . . assent to any proposition to declare the Colonies independent . . . unless, in your judgments … it shall be thought absolutely necessary for the preservation of the liberties of the United Colonies; and should a majority of the Colonies in Congress, against such your judgment, resolve to declare these Colonies independent . . . then we instruct you immediately to call the Convention . . . and repair thereto with such proposition and resolve, and lay the same before the said Convention for their consideration; and this Convention will not hold this Province bound by such majority in Congress, until the Representative body of the Province, in Convention, assent thereto.”
Nor was this enough. On the 18th, the Convention entered a declaration on their journal wherein they avowed that they ” never did, nor do entertain any views or desires of independency.”
Indeed, as late as May 15th — the very day, as we have seen and shall more particularly see, when Virginia instructed her Delegates to propose to Congress to declare independence—, the Convention (of Maryland) took into consideration a resolution (adopted on the 21st) which declared that “this Convention is firmly persuaded that a reunion with Great Britain on constitutional principles would most effectively secure the rights and liberties, and increase the strength and promote the happiness of the whole empire . . . the said Deputies are bound and directed to govern themselves by the instructions given to them by this convention in its session in December last, in the same manner as if the said instructions were particularly repeated.”
Of the same mind doubtless was the Council of Safety; for they say, in a letter to the Delegates, on June 8th—when they must have known of the resolution of Virginia: “The intelligence with regard to 7000 men rising and declaring for independence is without foundation; we take it to be news from some incendiary . . .”
A few of the leading men, however, of Maryland held different views or were wavering. On January 30th, Alexander writes, from Philadelphia to the Council of Safety: “the Instructions of the Convention are come to Hand, but not as yet laid before Congress. I am much pleased with them, they entirely coincide with my Judgment & that Line of Conduct which I have determined to persue, the Farmer and some others to whom in Confidence they were shewn, say they breath that Spirit, which ought to govern all publick Bodies, Firmness tempered with Moderation.” On February 27th, however, he writes from the same place to the same body: “. . . with me every Idea of Reconciliation is precluded by the conduct of Grt Britain, & the only alternative, absolute slavery or Independency, the latter I have often reprobated both in public & private, but am now almost convinced the Measure is right & can be justified by necessity.”Indeed, Chase writes, to John Adams from Saint Johns, April 20th: “[Qy] In my Judgment You have no alternative between Independency and Slavery, and what American can hesitate in the Choice! but don’t harangue about it, act as if We were.” Stone writes, from Philadelphia to Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, four days later: “Mr Johnson wrote to you yesterday. If the Commissioners do not arrive shortly and conduct themselves with great candor and uprightness to effect a reconciliation, a separation will most undoubtedly take place … I wish to conduct affairs so that a just & honorable reconciliation should take place, or that we should be pretty unanimous in a resolution to fight it out for Independance, the proper way to effect this is not to move too quick, but then we must take care to do everything which is necessary for our Security and Defence, not suffer ourselves to be lulled or wheedled by any deceptions declarations or givings out. You know my hearty wishes for Peace upon terms of Security and Justice to America. But war, any thing is preferable to a surrender of our rights … I shall set out on Saturday or Sunday next to meet my wife.”
It also is interesting to note that The Maryland Journal, and the Baltimore Advertiser contained, in its issue of May 22d, the following: “Serious QUESTIONS addressed to the advocates for DEPENDANCE upon the crown of Britain . . . Are not the advocates for INDEPENDANCE the only true friends to the principles of the British constitution? … Is not RECONCILIATION an untrodden path ; for where can we find an instance of a people’s returning to their allegiance to a tyrant, after he had violated every political and moral obligation to them? … Is not Independance a trodden path? Did not the United Provinces, and the Cantons of Switzerland, establish their liberty by declaring themselves INDEPENDANT, the one of the Court of Spain, the other of the House of Austria ?”
“In January 1776,” writes John Adams to John Taylor, April 9, 1814, “six months before the declaration of independence, M- Wythe of Virginia passed an evening with me at my chambers. In the course of conversation upon the necessity of Independence Mr Withe, observ[ed] . . . that the greatest obstacle in the way of a declaration of it, was the difficulty of agreeing upon a government for our future regulation . . .” General Charles Lee writes, to Washington, from Stamford, on the 24th of the same month (January, 1776): “Have you seen the pamphlets Common Sense? I never saw such a masterly, irresistible performance. It will, if I mistake not, in concurrence with the transcendent folly and wickedness of the Ministry, give the coup-de-grace to Great Britain. In short, I own myself convinced, by the arguments, of the necessity of separation.”
On the 4th of February, Adam Stephen writes to R. H. Lee from Berkeley: “Indeed my affection is not only cooled, but I begin to be inveterate, and it is impossible that I can ever again have any attachment to the Mother Country.” On the 16th, General Charles Lee writes from New York to Rush: “Your Common Sense is an admirable performance, but such is the timidity and nonsense of the greater part of the Community that I question much the effects were it not so happily seconded by the violence and insanity of the Ministry which must cram down your throats independence in spite of the squeamishness of your stomachs. It strikes me that reconciliation and return to your former state of dependence is as much a Chimera as an incorporation with the Mongolian Tartars —” On the 20th, a member of the Convention (of Virginia) says: “Some people among us seem alarmed at the name of Independence, while they support measures, and propose plans, that comprehend all the spirit of it . . . Whenever I have been an advocate for dependence, I have felt a conscious want of publick virtue . . .”
A letter from Williamsburg dated March 5th tells us: “The Tories and tools of Administration are constantly crying out that Congress is aiming at independence . . .”
On the 1st of April, Washington — still at Cambridge — writes, to Joseph Reed: “My countrymen I know, from their form of government, and steady attachment heretofore to royalty will come reluctantly into the idea of independence, but time and persecution bring many wonderful things to pass; and by private letters, which I have lately received from Virginia, I find ‘Common Sense’ is working a powerful change there in the minds of many men.” On the 2d, John Lee writes from Essex City to R. H. Lee: “Independence is now the topic here, and I think I am not mistaken when I say, it will (if not already) be very soon a Favourite Child.” Three days later, General Charles Lee, now at Williamsburg, in a letter also to R. H. Lee, says: “Pendleton is certainly naturally a Man of sense, but I can assure you that the other night in a conversation I had with him on the subject of independence He talkd or rather stammer’d nonsense that would have disgraced the lips of an old Midwife Drunk with bohea Tea and gin — Bland says that the Author of common sense is a blockhead and ignoramus for that He has grossly mistaken the nature of the Theocracy — If you coud be spard from the Congress, Your presence might infuse vigor and wisdom [here] … for Gods sake why do you dandle in the Congress so strangely, why do you not at once declare yourselves a seperate independant State? . . . I wish you woud kuff Doctor Rush for not writing—I expect and insist upon it —” John Page writes from the same city to Jefferson on the same day: “For God’s sake declare the Colonies independant, at once, & save us from ruin —” He writes again on the 12th to R. H. Lee: “I think almost every man, except the Treasurer [Robert Carter Nicholas], is willing to declare for Independency … I would to God you could be here at its next Convention. It would be happy for us if you [the Delegates] could be all spared on that occasion; if you could, I make no doubt you might easily prevail in the Convention to declare for Independency, and to establish a form of Government.” On the same day, “A. B.”—also at Williamsburg — writes to Alexander Pardie: “The independence of the Colonies daily becomes more and more a topick of very anxious disquisition.” A third letter of the 12th, from Petersburg, says: “In my way through Virginia, I found the inhabitants warm for independence. . . indeed, I hear nothing praised but Common Sense and Independence.” On the 20th”, William Aylett writes to R. H. Lee from King William: “The people of this County almost unanimously cry aloud for Independence.” Two days later, John Augustine Washington writes to the same gentleman from “Liberty Hall”: “I had the pleasure to receive your letter of the 8th April . . . You mention that you have opened the ports to all the world but enemies, but that you are apprehensive this will not do without our promising our aid to any such power as should get involved in a war with Great Britain from attempting to trade with us. I am clearly of opinion that unless we declare openly for Independency there is no chance for foreign aid . . .”
We have also the action of the Committee of Charlotte County, on the 23d — a month before Boston instructed her representatives —, and that of the freeholders of James City, on the 24th. The former (the chairman and 15 members being present) instructed their Delegates to the Convention “to push to the utmost a war offensive and defensive, until you are certified that such proposals of peace are made to our General Congress as shall by them be judged just and friendly. And because the advantages of a trade will better enable us to pay the taxes, and procure the necessaries for carrying on a war, and in our present circumstances this cannot be had without a Declaration of Independence; therefore, if no such proposals of peace shall be made … we give it you in charge, to use your best endeavours that the Delegates which are sent to the General Congress be instructed immediately to cast off the British yoke …” The latter, coming together at Allen’s Ordinary, declared to theirs that they desired them, ” (provided no just and honourable terms are offered by the king,) to exert your utmost abilities, in the next Convention, towards dissolving the connection between America and Great Britain, totally, finally, and irrevocably.”
Even more directly in line with the action soon to be taken by the Convention are the instructions of Buckingham County, though we do not know their date. These “recommend to, and instruct you, as far as your voices will contribute, to cause a total and final separation from Great Britain to take place as soon as possible; or, as we conceive this great point will not come within your immediate province, that, as far as in your power, you cause such instructions to be given to the Delegates from this Colony to the Continental Congress …”
The position of R. H. Lee — soon to be the mover of the resolution — and the position of Jefferson — soon to be the author of the Declaration — and the sentiments of the people of the “upper counties “, as well as the views of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a brother of R. H. Lee, are given later.
The growth of the sentiment in Virginia was being felt even in Philadelphia. On May 1st, Gerry writes to Warren: “Virginia is always to be depended upon; and so fine a spirit prevails among them that, unless you send some of your cool patriots among them, they may be for declaring Independency before Congress is ready.” On the 20th, he says: “I enclose you a Virginia paper, just come in, by which you will see the spirit of another County in that Colony, exhibited in their instructions for Independency.”
Gerry’s later letter (as well as the instructions just given) calls to mind, however, a communication from Landon Carter to Washington, dated “Sabine Hall”, May 9th: “I need only tell you of one definition that I heard of Independency; It was expected to be a form of Government, that by being independt of the rich men every man would then be able to do as he pleasd. And it was with this expectation they sent the men they did [to the Convention], in hopes they would plan such a form. One of the deligates I heard exclaim against that Patrolling laws, because a poor man was made to pay for keeping a rich mans Slaves in order. I shamed the fool so much for that he slunk away; but he got elected by it. Another actually in a most seditious manner, resisted the draughting the militia by lot, to be ready for any immediate local emergency; and he got first returned that way. When we usd [to be] Legislators, such rascals would have been found out; but now, it is not to be supposd, that a dog will eat a dog. I know who I am writing to, and therefore I am not quite so confin’d in my expression, for a more decent language could not explain my meaning so well. And from hence it is that our independency is to arise! Papers it seems are every where circulating about for poor ignorant Creatures to sign, as directions to their delegates to endeavour at an independency. In vain do we ask to let it be explain’d what is design’d by it! If the form of government is to Preserve Justice, Order, Peace and freedom I believe there are few who would refuse; but when these only modes of Social happiness, are left so much concealed, or not toucht upon in the least, what sensible creatures ought to trust an ignorant representative to do what he pleases, under a notion of leaving his Constituents independant?”
Three days before (May 6th) this letter was written, “45 members of the House of Burgesses met at the Capitol [in Williamsburg], pursuant to their last adjournment ; but it being their opinion, that the people could not now be legally represented according to the ancient constitution, which has been subverted by the king, lords, and commons of Great Britain, and consequently dissolved, they unanimously dissolved themselves accordingly. The same day the General Convention of Delegates from the counties and corporations in this colony met at the Capitol . . . Edmund Pendleton was elected President.”
Besides Pendleton, among those present were William Aylett, Bland, Archibald Cary, Dudley Digges, William Fleming, Henry, Richard Lee, Thomas Ludwell Lee, James Madison, George Mason, Nelson, Robert Carter Nicholas, Edmund Randolph, Meriwether Smith and John Augustine Washington. Page appeared on a committee on the 15th.
On the 11th, John Augustine Washington writes, to R. H. Lee: “I hardly think that the grand question will come on before Tuesday next, as this day will be chiefly taken up with the Norfolk business, and on Monday the House is generally thin. When it does there will be much altercation, but I believe no danger but that we shall determine upon taking up Government, but whether they may be so explicit as I could wish in their Instructions to our Delegates I cannot determine, but hope there is no great danger.”
As he anticipated, the Convention, on the 14th, resolved itself into a committee of the whole to take into consideration the state of the Colony.
Edmund Randolph writes: “When the disposition of the people as exhibited by their representatives could not be mistaken, Henry had full indulgence of his own private judgment, and he concerted with Nelson that he (Nelson) should introduce the question of independence, and that Henry should enforce it. Nelson affected nothing of oratory, except what ardent feelings might inspire, and characteristic of himself, he had no fears of his own with which to temporize, and supposing that others ought to have none, he passed over the probabilities of foreign aid, stepped lightly on the difficulties of procuring military stores and the inexperience of officers and soldiers, but pressed a declaration of independence, upon what with him were incontrovertible grounds ; that we were oppressed, had humbly supplicated a redress of grievances which had been refused with insult; and that to return from battle against the sovereign with the cordiality of subjects was absurd. It was expected that a declaration of independence would certainly be passed, and for obvious reasons Mr. Henry seemed allotted to crown his political conduct with this supreme stroke. And yet for a considerable time he talked of the subject as being critical, but without committing himself by a pointed avowal in its favor or a pointed repudiation of it. He thought that a course which put at stake the lives and fortunes of the people should appear to be their own act, and that he ought not to place upon the responsibility of his eloquence, a revolution of which the people might be wearied after the present stimulus should cease to operate. But after some time he appeared in an element for which he was born. To cut the knot which calm prudence was puzzled to untie was worthy of the magnificence of his genius. He entered into no subtlety of reasoning, but was aroused by the now apparent spirit of the people. As a pillar of fire, which notwithstanding the darkness of the prospect would conduct to the promised land, he inflamed, and was followed by the convention.
On the 15th, the committee of the whole, of which Cary was chairman, reported and the Convention (112 members being present) unanimously adopted a resolution which should immortalize the Colony:
Forasmuch as all the endeavours of the United Colonies, by the most decent representations and petitions to the King and Parliament of Great Britain, to restore peace and security to America under the British Government, and a reunion with that people upon just and liberal terms, instead of a redress of grievances, have produced, from an imperious and vindictive Administration, increased insult, oppression, and a vigorous attempt to effect our total destruction : — By a late act all these Colonies are declared to be in rebellion, and out of the protection of the British Crown, our properties subjected to confiscation, our people, when captivated, compelled to join in the murder and plunder of their relations and countrymen, and all former rapine and oppression of Americans declared legal and just; fleets and armies are raised, and the aid of foreign troops engaged to assist these destructive purposes; the King’s representative in this Colony hath not only withheld all the power of Government from operating for our safety, but, having retired on board an armed ship, is carrying on a piratical and savage war against us, tempting our slaves by every artifice to resort to him, and training and employing them against their masters … In this state of extreme danger, we have no alternative left but an abject submission to the will of those overbearing tyrants, or a total separation from the Crown and Government of Great Britain, inviting and exerting all the strength of America for defence, and forming alliances with foreign Powers for commerce and aid in war . . . Wherefore, appealing to the Searcher of hearts for the sincerity of former declarations expressing our desire to preserve the connection with that nation, and that we are driven from that inclination by their wicked councils, and the eternal law of self-preservation:
That the Delegates appointed to represent this Colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent States, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the Crown or Parliament of Great Britain ; and that they give the assent of this Colony to such declaration, and to whatever measures may be thought proper and necessary by the Congress for forming foreign alliances, and a Confederation of the Colonies, at such time and in the manner as to them shall seem best:
“In consequence of the above resolution, universally regarded as the only door which will lead to safety and prosperity,” says a newspaper report of the time, “some gentlemen made a handsome collection for the purpose of treating the soldiery, who next day were paraded in Waller’s grove, before Brigadier-General Lewis, attended by the Committee of Safety, members of the General Convention, the inhabitants of this city, &c. &c. The resolution read aloud to the army, the following toasts were given, each of them accompanied by a discharge of the artillery and small arms, and the acclamations of all present. 1. The American independent states. 2. The Grand Congress of the United States, and their respective legislatures. 3. General Washington and victory to the American arms. The UNION FLAG of the American states waived upon the Capitol during the whole of this ceremony, which being ended, the soldiers partook of the refreshment prepared for them by the affection of their countrymen, and the evening concluded with illuminations M and other demonstrations of joy; every one seemed pleased that the domination of Great Britain was now at an end . . .”
Nelson immediately left for Philadelphia to lay the resolution before Congress, which was done, May 27th.
Washington was in Philadelphia at the time — having arrived at 2 o’clock on the afternoon of the 23d —and was delighted.
The progress of events in North Carolina is scarcely less interesting.
Hooper writes, to James Iredell from Philadelphia, January 6th: ” Yes, Britain, it is the criterion of effect our total destruction : — By a late act all these Colonies are declared to be in rebellion, and out of the protection of the British Crown, our properties subjected to confiscation, our people, when captivated, compelled to join in the murder and plunder of their relations and countrymen, and all former rapine and oppression of Americans declared legal and just; fleets and armies are raised, and the aid of foreign troops engaged to assist these destructive purposes; the King’s representative in this Colony hath not only withheld all the power of Government from operating for our safety, but, having retired on board an armed ship, is carrying on a piratical and savage war against us, tempting our slaves by every artifice to resort to him, and training and employing them against their masters … In this state of extreme danger, we have no alternative left but an abject submission to the will of those overbearing tyrants, or a total separation from the Crown and Government of Great Britain, inviting and exerting all the strength of America for defence, and forming alliances with foreign Powers for commerce and aid in war . . . Wherefore, appealing to the Searcher of hearts for the sincerity of former declarations expressing our desire to preserve the connection with that nation, and that we are driven from that inclination by their wicked councils, and the eternal law of self-preservation:
Hewes writes, to Samuel Johnston from the same city, February 11th (and 13th) and 20th and March 1st: “Our friend Hooper has taken an opportunity when he could be best spared from Congress to fly to the Camp at Cambridge to see his Mother, who has lately got out of Boston, he has been gone about Ten days . . . Late last night I received a Letter from him dated New York the 6th; he seems greatly alarmed at the intelligence he had received there . . . The anxiety of my worthy friend for the safety, honour & happiness of our province and for his dearest connections there I imagine has induced him to paint things in the strongest colours to me … I have furnished myself with a good musket & Bayonet, and when I can no longer be usefull in Council I hope I shall be willing to take the field . . . The 13th . . . The only pamphlet88 that has been published here for a long time I now send you; it is a Curiosity; we have not put up any to go by the Waggon, not knowing how you might relish independency. The author is not known; some say Doctor Franklin had a hand in it, he denies it.” “This will be delivered to you by James Thompson and John Crowley who have charge of the Waggon, Horses and sundry Articles that make up the Load … I mentioned to you in my last express that we had not sent any copies of the Pamphlet entitled Common Sense but finding Brother Penn had a fondness for them have agreed some should be sent, the Council can Judge of the propriety of distributing them, let me know your opinion on that head, the Roads being very bad I was advised to put five horses to the Waggon I hope they will all be delivered safe to you . . . John Crowley who is the driver is recommended to me as a man very carefull of Horses and used to the business of driving a Waggon, he can neither read or write and his old master says should not be trusted with money, both the men are to have 3s? day and all expenses born, if they return here, pay them no more money than Just to bear their expenses, they are to be in pay till they arive here provided they come directly back[.]” “We shall send off another Waggon in a day or two with what Powder the new Waggon left, also drums & Colours for your third Regiment . . . N. B. The new Waggon went off eight days ago. I hear it is now no further than Wilmington. That one of the best Horses cut one of his hind feet very much with his shoe and cannot proceed. I have this day sent a carefull person down to purchase another Horse and bring the lame one back if it should be found necessary.”
On the day following the postscript to the first letter, Penn writes, also from Philadelphia, to Thomas Person: “The consequence of making alliances is perhaps a total separation with Britain and without something of that sort we may not be able to provide what is necessary for our defence. My first wish is that America may be free; the second that we may be restored to peace and harmony with Britain upon Just and proper terms. If you find it necessary that the convention should meet sooner than May let us know of it as I wish to return at that time. I have been very sick for two or three days but am getting well again … I send you a pamphlet called ‘Common Sense,’ published here abt a month ago.”
Another letter of Hooper, written to Johnston, March 13th, after Hooper’s return from Boston (to Philadelphia), still more clearly outlines his position. It says: “I most earnestly wish peace and reconciliation upon terms honorable to America. Heaven forbid that I should submit to any other.”
These letters, as appear, all were written at Philadelphia.
A little over a month later (April 15th), as shown by the proceedings of the Provincial Congress of North Carolina, sitting at Halifax, Hooper and Penn, ” Delegates of the Continental Congress and Members of this House, appeared [there], subscribed the Test and took their seats.”
On the 17th (of April), Penn writes (from Halifax), to John Adams: “After a tedious Journey, occasioned] by bad roads and wet weather I arrived here in good health, as I came through Virginia I found the inhabitants desirous to be Independent from Britain . . . North Carolina by far exceeds them occasioned by the great fatigue trouble and danger the People here have undergone, for some time past . . . All regard or fondness for the King or the nation of Britain is gone, a total separation is what they want. Independance is the word most used . . . the Convention have tried to get the opinion of the People at large. I am told that in many Counties there were not one dissenting voice.”
A similar statement is found in a letter from Thomas Ludwell Lee to R. H. Lee, dated Williamsburg, Va., four days earlier: “Gen. Howe, in a letter received yesterday from Halifax . . . says . . . ‘Independence seems to be the word; I know not a dissenting voice.'”
Indeed, ten days before Hooper and Penn arrived at Halifax, Johnston writes from that place to Iredell, his brother-in-law: “Our wagons arrived yesterday with about 2500 pounds of powder, and drums, and colors, for the troops. I have likewise a letter from Hewes of the 20th of last month, but no news except what you have in the newspapers. He seems in despair of a reconciliation; no Commissioners were appointed the 25th of December, and the Parliament was then prorogued to the 20th of January. All our people here are up for independence”; and, three days before they arrived (April 12th), the Provincial Congress, of which Johnston was President, resolved: “That the Delegates … be empowered to concur with the Delegates of the other Colonies in declaring Independency . . .”
Johnston writes, again to Iredell, on the 13th: “The House, in consequence of some very important intelligence received last night, have agreed to impower their delegates at Philadelphia to concur with the other Colonies in entering into foreign alliances, an independence on Great Britain. I cannot be more particular — this is wrote in [Provincial] Congress.”
The new instructions were laid before Congress, May 27th—at the same time, as shown by the Journal, that the instructions (of May 15th) of Virginia were presented to that body.
It is interesting to note that Hewes had written, to Johnston, on the 16th (of May): “I have had the honor to receive your several favours of the 10th, 13th, & 17th ultimo enclosing sundry resolutions of your [Provincial] Congress. I took the earliest opportunity to lay those papers before Congress .. .”
Iredell, afterwards an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, however, under date of June, 1776, is said to have written a pamphlet which is believed to have circulated quite widely in manuscript form among the leading men of North Carolina and which said: “I avoid the unhappy subject of the day, independency. There was a time very lately, within my recollection, when neither myself nor any person I knew, could hear the name but with horror. I know it is a favorite argument against us, and that on which the proceedings of Parliament are most plausibly founded, that this has been our aim since the beginning, and all other attempts were a cloak and disguise to this particular one. If this supposition had been well founded, and a desire of redressing the grievances we complained of had been entertained by government, they might immediately, by granting these, have detected and disappointed the other, or covered us with eternal disgrace, if we avowed it. But it is sufficient to say, our professions have been all solemnly to the contrary; we have never taken any one step which really indicated such a view; its suggestion has no more foundation than mere suspicion, which might countenance any falsehood whatever, and every man in America knows that this is one of the most egregious falsehoods ever any people were duped with. But so it was. This error they have been captivated with, and it has lead them, as well as us, to the brink of destruction. Its consequences are now only to be deplored, not, I fear, to be remedied. I may venture to say, the dread, or the pretended dread, of this evil, has almost produced it. The suspicion, though so ill founded, has been, previously, the parent of all the violent acts that now irritate the minds of the Americans. Some are inflamed enough to wish for independence, and all are reduced to so unhappy a condition as to dread at last that they shall be compelled in their own defence to embrace it. I confess myself of the latter number, in exclusion of the former. I am convinced America is in no such a situation as to entitle her to consider it as a just object of ambition, and I have no idea of people forming constitutions from revenge. A just and constitutional connection with Great Britain (if such could be obtained) I still think, in spite of every provocation, would be happier for America, for a considerable time to come, than absolute independence. No man can disdain, more than I do, the uniform and cruel violence of our oppressors’ conduct. But I make a distinction between the ministry, and even the Parliament, and the people of England. These last I do not consider as accessory in all the oppressions we have sustained. Many, I have no doubt, are great criminals, but more, I am persuaded, are deceived by false and wicked information. Great things have been attempted in our defence. But the misfortune is, the inadequacy of the representation, and the corruption so universal, leave little to the real voice of the people. If it is said that these causes may always give us such a Ministry and Parliament, I answer, that I form no idea of any reconciliation but where we shall have full security that even these can do us no essential injury, unless we conspire to it ourselves. In political affairs we are not always at liberty to choose what is best in the abstract, but what may be found so in practice. I can see no establishment in America, no turn to its affairs, that is likely to arise of a happier nature than such a re-union. But if a re-union is not practicable but upon terms of dishonor, if one essential point is required as a sacrifice to obtain it, I should spurn at the idea as scandalous and disgraceful; and in such an event or on any occasion whatever, if independency should become necessary to our safety, I should not hesitate an instant in giving my assent to it.”
The last instructions of the Provincial Congress of South Carolina before the adoption of the Declaration are dated March 23d and declare: “That the Delegates … or a majority of such of them as shall at any time be present in . . . Congress, or any one of the said Delegates, if no more than one shall be present, be . . . authorized, and empowered … to concert, agree to, and execute, every measure which they or he, together with a majority of the Continental Congress, shall judge necessary, for the defence, security, interest, or welfare of this Colony in particular, and of America in general.”
These instructions, like those of Massachusetts, of course, might be construed to imply a power to join in a declaration of independence; but they — much less doubtless than those of the Commonwealth — evidently were not so intended to be construed. Indeed, the government formed a few days later was expressly declared to be formed to exist only “until an accommodation of the unhappy differences between Great Britain and America can be obtained, (an event which, though traduced and treated as Rebels, we still earnestly desire,)”; and when, previously, on the 10th of February, Laurens, of the committee charged with drafting a proposed form of government, had made his report, a debate, says John Drayton, had occurred as follows: “Col. Gadsden ([having arrived from Philadelphia on the evening of the 8th and] having brought the first copy of Paine’s pamphlet entitled ‘Common Sense? &c.) boldly declared himself, not only in favour of the form of government; but, for the absolute Independence of America. This last sentiment, came like an explosion of thunder upon the members of Congress; as the resolution of the Continental Congress, upon which, the report for a form of government was grounded, had by no means led them to anticipate so decisive a step; neither had the majority of the members at that time, any thoughts of aspiring at independence. A distinguished member in particular, declared he abhorred the idea; and that he was willing to ride post, by day and night, to Philadelphia, in order to assist, in re-uniting Great Britain and America: and another called the author of Common Sense.
Then the few, who wished for independence, thought Col. Gadsden imprudent in thus suddenly declaring for it; when, the house was unprepared for considering a matter of such great importance.”
Among the people at large, by April, however, there would seem to have been more than a few who favored independence; for, on April 12th, a gentleman writes from Petersburg, Va.: “I spent last evening with Mr. _____, from South-Carolina. He tells me that the people there have no expectation of ever being reconciled with Britain again but only as a foreign State”: and we know that David Ramsay (evidently the historian), as early as February 14th, writes, from Charleston to Rush: “Who is the author of common sense? I can scarce refrain from adoring the venerable man He deserves a statue of Gold.”
Indeed, on April 23d — the day of the instructions of Charlotte County, Va.—, the Chief Justice, at the opening of the courts in Charleston, charged the grand jury thus: “The law of the land authorizes me to declare, and it is my duty to declare the law, that George the Third, king of Great Britain, has abdicated the government, that he has no authority over us, and we owe no obedience to him . . . True reconcilement never can exist between Great Britain and America, the latter being in subjection to the former. The Almighty created America to be independent of Britain; to refuse our labors in this divine work, is to refuse to be a great, a free, a pious, and a happy people!” It was a declaration of independence!
Georgia instructed her Delegates, April 5th: “Our remote situation [impels us to] . . . decline giving any particular instructions . . . We . . . shall rely upon your patriotism, abilities, firmness, and integrity, to propose, join, and concur, in all such measures as you shall think calculated for the common good, and to oppose such as shall appear destructive.”
Thus North Carolina was the first to authorize (April 12th) her Delegates “to concur with the Delegates of the other colonies in declaring Independency” — the word itself being used; and thus Virginia was the first to authorize (May 15th) her Delegates “to propose [to Congress] … to declare the United Colonies free and independent States . . .”
One of the strongest factors in bringing about the change of feeling in the Colonies was Common Sense.
John Adams, in his Autobiography, under date of “September, 1775”, says: “In the course of this winter appeared a phenomenon in Philadelphia, a disastrous meteor, I mean Thomas Paine. He came from England, and got into such company as would converse with him, and ran about picking up what information he could concerning our affairs, and finding the great question was concerning independence, he gleaned from those he saw the common-place arguments, such as the necessity of independence some time or other; the peculiar fitness at this time; the justice of it; the provocation to it; our ability to maintain it, &c. &c. Dr. Rush put him upon writing on the subject, furnished him with the arguments which had been urged in Congress a hundred times, and gave him his title of ‘Common Sense.’ In the latter part of the winter, or early in the spring, he came out with his pamphlet. The arguments in favor of independence I liked very well . . . [They were] clearly written, and contained a tolerable summary of the arguments which I had been repeating again and again in Congress for nine months. But I am bold to say there is not a fact nor a reason stated in it, which had not been frequently urged in Congress . . . It has been a general opinion that this pamphlet was of great importance in the Revolution. I doubted it at the time, and have doubted it to this day. It probably converted some to the doctrine of independence, and gave others an excuse for declaring in favor of it. But these would all have followed Congress with zeal; and on the other hand it excited many writers against it, particularly ‘Plain Truth,’ who contributed very largely to fortify and inflame the party against independence, and finally lost us the Allens, Penns, and many other persons of weight in the community . . .”
Bartlett writes to Langdon from Philadelphia, February 19, 1776: “The pamphlet Common Sense has already had three editions in this City; in the last there is an Appendix and large additions; it has also been reprinted at New York; by the best information it has had a great effect on the minds of many here and to the Southward [.]”
Common Sense says:
I challenge the warmest advocate for reconciliation, to show a single advantage that this continent can reap by being connected with Great Britain . . .
But the injuries and disadvantages we sustain by that connection are without number … It is the true interest of America to steer clear of European contentions, which she never can do while, by her dependance on Britain, she is made the makeweight in the scale of British politics.
. . . Everything that is right or natural pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ’tis time to part . . .
Though I would carefully avoid giving unnecessary offense, yet I am inclined to believe, that all those who espouse the doctrine of reconciliation may be included within the following descriptions:
Interested men, who are not to be trusted; weak men, who cannot see; prejudiced men, who will not see; and a certain set of moderate men who think better of the European world than it deserves; and this last class, by an ill-judged deliberation, will be the cause of more calamities to this continent than all the other three . . .
. . . bring the doctrine of reconciliation to the touchstone of nature, and then tell me whether you can hereafter love, honor, and faithfully serve the power that hath carried fire and sword into your land . . .
. . . Reconciliation is now a fallacious dream. Nature hath deserted the connection, and art cannot supply her place . . .
I am not induced by motives of pride, party, or resentment to espouse the doctrine of separation and independence; I am clearly, positively, and conscientiously persuaded that it is the true interest of this continent to be so; that everything short of that is mere patchwork; that it can afford no lasting felicity, — that it is leaving the sword to our children, and shrinking back at a time, when a little more, a little further, would have rendered this continent the glory of the earth . . .
. . . No man was a warmer wisher for reconciliation than myself before the fatal nineteenth of April, 1775 . . .
Ye that tell us of harmony and reconciliation, can ye restore to us the time that is passed? Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence? Neither can ye reconcile Britain and America. The last chord now is broken; the people of England are presenting addresses against us. There are injuries which nature cannot forgive; she would cease to be nature if she did. As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress . . .
Another very important factor was the Act declaring the Colonists out of the King’s protection.
As early as December 21, 1775, a gentleman, writing from London of this “bill which has now passed both Houses of Parliament, and will, in a few days, receive the royal assent,” and which treated “the Colonies as enemies,” says: “They cannot be enemies and subjects at the same time . . . The publick begins to conceive that these measures will sever America forever from this country. The Ministry are so conscious of it, that they have hired Dean Tucker to soften the business, by persuading the people that it will be no loss.”
Francis Lightfoot Lee writes, from Philadelphia to “my dear friend” Landon Carter, “Favor’d by Mr Howe”, March 18th (1776): “Before this I suppose you have rec’d a copy of Common sense which I sent you some time ago, if not I now send a parcel to Col Taylor of whome you may have one Our late King & his Parliament having declared us Rebels & Enemies confiscated our property as far as they were likely to lay hands on it have effectually decided the question for us, whether or no[t] we shall be independent all we have now to do is to endeavour to reconcile ourselves to the state it has pleased Providence to put us into and indeed upon taking a near & full look at the thing it does not frighten so much as when view’d at a distance. I can’t think we shall be injured by having a free trade with all the world instead of its being confined to one place whose riches might always be used to our ruin nor does it appear to me that we shall suffer any disadvantage by having our Legislatures uncontrolled by a power so far removed from us that our circumstances can’t be known whose interests is often directly contrary to ours and over which we have no manner of controul indeed great part of that power being at present lodged in the hands of a most gracious Prince whose tender mercies we have often experienced; it must wring the heart of all good men to part but I hope we shall have Christian fortitude enough to bear with partience & even cheerfulness the decrees of a really most gracious King. The danger of Anarchy & confusion I think altogether Chimerical [wildly fanciful; highly unrealistic] the good behaviors of the Americans with no Government at all proves them very capable of good Government. But my dear Col. I am so fond of peace that I wish to see an end of these distractions upon terms that will secure America from future outrages but from all our intelligence I really despair. There is such an inveteracy in the & his advisers that we need not expect any other alternative than slavery or separation is it not prudent therefore to fit our minds to the state that is inevitable. Virginia it seems is considered at home as most liable to deception & seduction & therefore the Commissioners are to bend their chief force that way backed by a considerable detachment of the Army. I hope it will turn to the honor of my Country as it will afford a opportunity for showing their Virtue & good sense. Col Taylor has news—I wrote yesterday to my friend Col R Carter . . . Gen’l Lee who has the Southern Command . . . [has] some thought of passing thro Richmond, best respects to Sabin Hall[.]”
John Adams, in a letter to Gates, dated Philadelphia, March 23d, writes: “I know not whether you have seen the Act of Parliament call’d the restraining Act, or prohibitory Act, or piratical Act, or plundering Act, or Act of Independency, for by all these titles is it called. — I think the most apposite is the Act of Independency, for King Lords and Commons have united in sundering this Country and that I think forever. — It is a compleat Dismemberment of the British Empire.— It throws thirteen Colonies out of the Royal Protection, levels all Distinctions and makes us independent in Spite of all our Supplications and Entreaties. — It may be fortunate that the Act of Independency should come from the British Parliament, rather than the American Congress: But it is very odd that Americans should hesitate at accepting such a Gift from them — However, my dear Friend Gates, all our Misfortunes arise from a single Source, the Reluctance of the southern Colonies to Republican Government . . . each Colony should establish its own Government, and then a League should be formed, between them all.”
Indeed, so strong was the feeling in the Colonies following and because of this Act that the promised coming of the so-called “peace commissioners “, with the hope of probable reconciliation thus held out, was all that deterred very many from taking a bold stand for an immediate declaration.
Joseph Reed writes, from Philadelphia to Washington, March 3d : ” . . . there is a strange reluctance in the minds of many to cut the knot which ties us to Great Britain, particularly in this colony and to the southward. Though no man of understanding expects any good from the commissioners, yet they are for waiting to hear their proposals before they declare off”, and, March 15th: “We every Moment expect to hear of these Gentry’s Arrival … A little Time will show what we are to expect from the new Project. In my Part I can see nothing to be hoped from it but it has laid fast hold of some here & made its Impression on the Congress. It is said the Virginians are so alarmed with the Idea of Independence that they have sent Mr Braxton [He arrived, February 23d] on Purpose to turn the Vote of that Colony, if any Question on that Subject should come before Congress. To tell you the Truth my dear Sir, I am infinitely more afraid of these Commissioners than their Generals & Armies—If their Propositions are plausible & Behaviour artful I am apprehensive they will divide us — There is so much Suspicion in Congress & so much Party on this Subject, that very little more Fuel is required to kindle the Flame. It is high Time for the Colonies to begin a gradual Change of Delegates — private Pique, Prejudice & Suspicion will make its Way into the Breasts of even good Men sitting long in such a Council as ours, & whenever that is the Case their Deliberations will be disturbed & the publick Interest of course suffer . . . Mr Deane of Connecticut is gone to Europe his Errand may be guessed tho little is said about it.—”
Duane writes, to R. R. Livingston from Philadelphia, March 20th: ” . . . my friend Chase . . . has promised me to call on you at Clermont. He will with pleasure communicate every thing worth your knowledge. You will find that his usual warmth is not abated and that though closely attached to his friends he still keeps the start of them in his political system. The social intercourse which was formed amongst the Delegates of the five middle Colonies and North Carolina has suffered no diminution, and I am persuaded they would all combine to give you pleasure . . . When I first wrote to you I expected soon to have visited my family a happiness of which I have too long been deprived! But such is the critical state of my dear native country, and so slender has been our own representation that I could not reconcile it to my ideas of the important trust of which I partake. Whether we shall be reconciled to Great Britain or separated from her perhaps forever? is a question which a few weeks may probably decide; and on which the happiness of millions may depend. I wish for peace if it can be accompanied by liberty and safety. I expect little from the justice and less from the generosity of administration; but I am not without hopes that the interest of Great Britain will compel her ministers to offer us reasonable terms. I am unwilling that while Commissioners are daily looked for, we should by any irrevocable measure tie up our hands, and put it out of our power to terminate this destructive war. I do not think this line of conduct incompatible with the most vigorous efforts for our defence in the ensuing campaign. — I believe it to be agreeable to the sense of our constituents which would alone be decisive with me.— under these impressions, I wait for the expected propositions with painful anxiety. If they should prove oppressive or frivolous we will be at no loss to form a judgment of the consequences.”
The effect upon Robert Morris is shown by a letter from him of April 6th, from Philadelphia to Gates: “Where the plague are these Commissioners, if they are to come what is it that detains them; It is time we shou’d be on a Certainty & know positively whether the Liberties of America can be established & secured by reconciliation, or whether we must totally renounce Connection with Great Britain & fight our way to a total Independence. Whilst we Continue thus firmly United amongst ourselves there’s no doubt but either of these points may be carried, but it seems to me, We shall quarrel about which of these roads is best to pursue unless the Commissioners appear soon and lead us into the first path, therefore I wish them to come, dreading nothing so much as even an appearance of division amongst ourselves—”
We have already seen a letter from Stone, of April 24th.
Meanwhile, as already shown by Reed’s letter, the struggle in Congress had become more bitter: so much so that it extended to the different members of a delegation.
John Adams, in his Autobiography, under date of February 29th, says: “. . . [Harrison] seemed to be set up in opposition to Mr. Richard Henry Lee. Jealousies and divisions appeared among the delegates of no State more remarkably than among those of Virginia . . . I asked the reason; for Mr. Lee appeared a scholar, a gentleman, a man of uncommon eloquence, and an agreeable man. Mr. Wythe said . . . this was all true, but Mr. Lee had, when he was very young, and when he first came into the House of Burgesses, moved and urged on an inquiry into the state of the treasury, which was found deficient in large sums, which had been lent by the treasurer to many of the most influential families of the country, who found themselves exposed, and had never forgiven Mr. Lee . . . These feelings among the Virginia delegates were a great injury to us. Mr. Samuel Adams and myself were very intimate with Mr. Lee, and he agreed perfectly with us in the great system of our policy, and by his means we kept a majority of the delegates of Virginia with us. But Harrison, Pendleton, and some others showed their jealousy of this intimacy plainly enough at times. Harrison consequently courted Mr. Hancock and some other of our colleagues, but we had now a majority, and gave ourselves no trouble about their little intrigues.”
He tells us (in his Autobiography) also that he had been appointed (October 28, 1775) Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Judicature of his Colony and: “I soon found [after the return to Congress on February 9, 1776], there was a whispering among the partisans in opposition to independence, that I was interested; that I held an office under the new government of Massachusetts; that I was afraid of losing it, if we did not declare independence; and that I consequently ought not to be attended to. This they circulated so successfully, that they got it insinuated among the members of the legislature in Maryland, where their friends were powerful enough to give an instruction to their delegates in Congress, warning them against listening to the advice of interested persons, and manifestly pointing me out to the understanding of every one . . . These chuckles I was informed of, and witnessed for many weeks, and at length they broke out in a very extraordinary manner. When I had been speaking one day on the subject of independence, or the institution of governments, which I always considered as the same thing, a gentleman of great fortune and high rank rose and said, he should move, that no person who held any office under a new government should be admitted to vote on any such question, as they were interested persons … I rose from my seat with great coolness and deliberation . . . and said: ‘. . . I will second the gentleman’s motion, and I recommend it to the honorable gentleman to second another which I should make, namely, that no gentleman who holds any office under the old or present government should be admitted to vote on any such question, as they are interested persons.’ The moment when this was pronounced, it flew like an electric stroke through every countenance in the room, for the gentleman who made the motion held as high an office under the old government as I did under the new, and many other members present held offices under the royal government . . . This whole scene was a comedy to Charles Thomson, whose countenance was in raptures all the time. When all was over, he told me he had been highly delighted with it, because he had been witness to many of their conversations, in which they had endeavored to excite and propagate prejudices against me . . .
He says that in May there were continued altercations in Congress over General Wooster, Commodore Hopkins and a Mr. Wrixon and that “These three consumed an immense quantity of time, and kept up the passions of the parties to a great height. One design was to divert us from our main object.”
The “main object” was a declaration of independence or its equivalent.
As early as January 9th, as shown by the Diary of Richard Smith: “Wilson moved and was strongly supported that the Congress may expressly declare to their Constituents and the World their present Intentions respecting an Independency, observing that the Kings Speech directly charged Us with that Design, he was opposed but Friday was fixed for going into that Affair. Several Members said that if a Foreign Force shall be sent here, they are willing to declare the Colonies in a State of Independent Sovereignty.”
Of this motion, Samuel Adams writes, to John Adams, who, as we have seen, was then on leave of absence: “The Motion alarmed me — I thought Congress had already been explicit enough and was apprehensive that we might get ourselves on dangerous Ground — Some of us prevailed so far as to have the Matter postponed, but could not prevent the assigning a Day to consider it — I may perhaps have been wrong in opposing this Motion, and I ought the rather to suspect it, because the Majority of your Colony as well as of the Congress were of a different Mind[.]”
The Diary of Richard Smith shows also (under the following dates): “[January 24th] most of the Day was spent on a Proposal to address the People of America our Constituents deducing the Controversy ab Initio [fromthe beginning] and informing them of our Transactions and of the present State of Affairs, much was said about Independency and the Mode and Propriety of stating our Dependance on the King, a Com[mittee] was appointed to draw the Address.” “[February 13th] Wilson brought in the Draught of an Address to our Constituents which was very long, badly written and full against Independency [.]” “[February 16th] Wythe also offered Propositions whereof the first was that the Colonies have a Right to contract Alliances with Foreign Powers, an Objection being offered that this was Independency there ensued much Argument upon that Ground . . .” “[February 21st] Wm. Livingston moved that the Thanks of the Congress be given to Dr Smith for his Oration on Gen. Montgomery and that he be desired to make it public, this was objected to for several Reasons the chief was that the Dr declared the Sentiments of the Congress to continue in a Dependency on Grt Britain which Doctrine this Congress cannot now approve, Principal Speakers for the Motion Duane, Wilson, Willing, against it Chase, John Adams, Wythe E Rutledge, Wolcott, Sherman at length Mr Livingston withdrew his Motion.” “[February 29th] 4 Hours were spent in Grand Com[mittee] on Trade without any Conclusion . . . the Points now agitated were the Expediency and Probability of contracting foreign Commercial Alliances and chiefly with France and Spain, and the Advantages and Disadvantages of attempting to carry on Trade in our present Circumstances, much was said about declaring our Independency on Grt Britain when it appeared that 5 or 6 Colonies have instructed their Delegates not to agree to an Independency till they, the Principals are consulted . . .”
Wythe, during the discussions, sometime before March 1st, as shown by John Adams’ debates, declared: “If we should offer our trade to the Court of France, would they take notice of it any more than if Bristol or Liverpool should offer theirs, while we profess to be subjects? No. We must declare ourselves a free people.”
Reed writes, from Philadelphia, to Pettit, March 3d: “I look upon separation from the Mother Country as a certain event, though we are not yet so familiarized to the idea as thoroughly to approve it . . . The Congress are paving the way to a Declaration of Independence, but I believe will not make it until the minds of the people are better prepared for it than as yet they are.”
The important entries on the subject in the Diary of Richard Smith during this month are as follows: “[March 9th] Instructions for the Commissioners] going to Canada . . . took up 3 or 4 Hours . . . that Part recommend’g to them [to] form a Constitution and Government for themselves without Limitation [of] Time which Jay and others said was an Independency and there was much Argument on this Ground[.]” “[March 22d] Wythe reported the Preamble about Privateering, he and Lee moved an Amend! wherein the King was made the Author of our Miseries instead of the Ministry, it was opposed on Supposition that this was effectually severing the King from Us forever and ably debated for 4 Hours when Maryland interposed its Veto and put it off till Tomorrow, Chief Speakers for the Amendment Lee, Chase, Sergeant, Harrison, against it Jay, Wilson, Johnson.”
On the 23d (of March), John Adams, in his letter to Gates, writes: “I agree with you, that in Politicks the Middle Way is none at all . . . We have hitherto conducted half a War, acted upon the Line of Defence &c &c — But you will see by tomorrows Paper, that for the future We are likely to wage three Quarters of a War. — The Continental Ships of War, and Provincial Ships of War, and Letters of Mark and Privateers are permitted to cruise upon British Property, wherever found on the Ocean. This is not Independency you know, nothing like it. If a Post or two more, should bring you unlimited latitude of Trade to all Nations, and a polite Invitation to all nations, to trade with you, take care that you don’t call it, or think it Independency. No such Matter — Independency is an Hobgoblin, of so frightful Mein, that it would throw a delicate Person into Fits to look it in the Face.”
On April 12th, he sends an epistle to his wife in which we read: “The ports are opened wide enough at last, and privateers are allowed to prey upon British trade. This is not independency, you know. What is? Why, government in every colony, a confederation among them all, and treaties with foreign nations to acknowledge us a sovereign State, and all that.”
A letter from him dated two days later says: “As to declarations of independency, be patient. Read our privateering laws and our commercial laws. What signifies a word?”
Had the telegraph then threaded the country as now, he would already have known, by the morning of the 13th, that, while he was writing his wife, North Carolina was, as we have seen, empowering her “Delegates . . . to concur with the Delegates of the other Colonies in declaring Independency . . .”
Less than a month later (May 10th), Congress took into consideration and adopted a resolution ” brought before the Committee of the whole house, in concert between” R. H. Lee and John Adams, which the latter considered “an epocha, a decisive event.”
The words of the resolution, as given in the Journal, were: “That it be recommended to the respective Assemblies and conventions of the united colonies where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs have been hitherto established to adopt such government as shall in the opinion of the representatives of the people best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular and America in general.”
John Adams, Edward Rutledge and R. H. Lee were chosen a committee to prepare a preamble. Their report was agreed to on the 15th, and it was then ordered that both the resolution and the preamble be published. The preamble, as shown by the Journal, declared: “Whereas his Britannic Majesty in conjunction with the lords and commons of great Britain has by a late act of Parliament excluded the inhabitants of these united colonies from the protection of his crown And whereas no answer whatever to the humble petitions of the colonies for redress of grievances & reconciliation with great Britain has been or is likely to be given . . . And whereas … it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed . . .”
Two days later, John Adams writes to his wife: “When I consider the great events which are passed, and those greater which are rapidly advancing, and that I may have been instrumental in touching some springs and turning some small wheels, which have had and will have such effects, I feel an awe upon my mind which is not easily described. Great Britain has at last driven America to the last step: a complete separation from her; a total, absolute independence, not only of her Parliament, but of her Crown, for such is the amount of the resolve of the 15th.” In his Autobiography, he says: “Mr. Duane called it to me, a machine for the fabrication of independence. I said, smiling, I thought it was independence itself, but we must have it with more formality yet.” “It was indeed, on all hands, considered by men of understanding as equivalent to a declaration of independence, though a formal declaration of it was still opposed by Mr. Dickinson and his party.”
Gerry, on the 20th, says, to Warren: “It appears to me that the eyes of every unbeliever are now open; that all are sensible of the perfidy of Great Britain, and are convinced there is no medium between unqualified submission and actual Independency. The Colonies are determined on the latter. A final declaration is approaching with great rapidity. Amidst all our difficulties, you would be highly diverted to see the situation of our ‘moderate gentlemen.’ . . . They are coming over to us . . .”
Indeed, while these letters were travelling northward, Nelson, as we have seen, was on his way to Philadelphia with the resolution of the Convention of Virginia instructing her Delegates to propose to Congress to declare independence. These instructions, as well as those of North Carolina, as we have seen, were laid before Congress on the 27th.
On the 31st, Gerry writes to Joseph Palmer : “The Conviction which ye late Measures of Administration have brought to ye Minds of doubting Persons has such an Effect, that I think yc Colonies cannot long remain an independent depending People, but that they will declare themselves as their Interest & Safety have long required, entirely separated from ye prostituted Government of Grt Britain. Upon this Subject I have wrote to our Friend Col: Orne & beg leave to refer you thereto — The principal object of our attention at this important Time I think should be ye Manufacturing Arms, Lead & Cloathing, & obtaining Flints, for I suppose since ye Measures adopted by North Carolina and Virginia that there cannot remain a Doubt with our Assembly of ye propriety of declaring for Independency and therefore that our Tho’ts will be mostly directed to ye Means for supporting it.”
John Adams also felt at once that the goal was near. “It has ever appeared to me “, he writes to Henry, June 3d, “that the natural course and order of things was this; for every colony to institute a government; for all the colonies to confederate, and define the limits of the continental Constitution; then to declare the colonies a sovereign state, or a number of confederated states; and last of all, to form treaties with foreign powers. But I fear we cannot proceed systematically, and that we shall be obliged to declare ourselves independent States, before we confederate, and indeed before all the colonies have established their governments. It is now pretty clear that all these measures will follow one another in a rapid succession, and it may not perhaps be of much importance which is done first.”
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