The Eve of the Revolution, Chapter VI: Testing the Issue

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The deputies, like true Britons, contrived to avoid the highly theoretical question of authority, and began straightway to concern themselves with the practical question of whether the Congress, with or without authority, should recommend the adoption of strict non-intercourse agreements. Upon this question, as the chief issue, the deputies were divided into nearly equal groups. Mr. Galloway, Mr. Duane, and Mr. Rutledge were perhaps the leaders of those, probably a majority at first, who were opposed to such vigorous measures, fearing that they were intended as a cloak to cover the essentially revolutionary designs of the shrewd New Englanders. “We have too much reason to suspect that independence is aimed at,” Mr. Low warned the Congress; and Mr. Galloway could see that while the Massachusetts men were in “behavior very modest, yet they are not so much so as not to throw out hints, which like straws and feathers show from which point in the compass the wind comes.” In the early days of the Congress, if we are to believe Mr. Hutchinson, this cold north wind was so much disliked that the New York and New Jersey deputies, “and others,” carried a vote against the adoption of non-intercourse agreements, “agreed to present a petition to the King,” and “expected to break up, when letters arrived from Dr. Franklin which put an end to the petition.”

The Journals of the Congress do not record any vote of this kind; but a number of things are known to have occurred in the Congress which the Journals do not record. On September 17, the famous “Suffolk Resolves” were laid before the deputies for their approval. The resolutions had been adopted by a county convention in Massachusetts, and in substance they recommended to the people of Massachusetts to form a government independent of that of which General Gage was the Governor, urged them meanwhile to arm themselves in their own defense, and assured them that “no obedience is due from this province to either or any part” of the Coercive Acts. These were indeed “vigorous measures”; and when the resolutions came before Congress, “long and warm debates ensued between the parties,” Mr. Galloway afterwards remembered; and he says that when the vote to approve them was finally carried, “two of the dissenting members presumed to offer their protest to it in writing which was negatived,” and when they then insisted that the “tender of the protest and the negative should be entered on the minutes, this was also rejected.”

Later in the month, September 28, Mr. Galloway introduced his famous plan for a “British-American Parliament” as a method for permanent reconciliation. The motion to enter the plan on the minutes and to refer it for further consideration gave rise to “long and warm debates,” the motion being carried by a majority of one colony; but subsequently, probably on October 21, it was voted to expunge the plan, together with all resolutions referring to it, from the minutes. Nothing, as Benjamin Franklin wrote from England, could so encourage the British Government to persist in its oppressive policy as the knowledge that dissensions existed in the Congress; and since these dissensions did unfortunately exist, there was a widespread feeling that it would be the part of wisdom to conceal them as much as possible.

No doubt a majority of the deputies, when they first read the Suffolk Resolutions, were amazed that the rash New Englanders should venture to pledge themselves so frankly to rebellion. Certainly no one who thought himself a loyal subject of King George could even contemplate rebellion; but, on the other hand, to leave Massachusetts in the lurch after so much talk of union and the maintenance of American rights would make loyal Americans look a little ridiculous. That would be to show themselves lambs as soon as Britons had shown themselves lions, which was precisely what their enemies in England boasted they would do. Confronted by this difficult dilemma, moderate men without decided opinions began to fix their attention less upon the exact nature of the measures they were asked to support, and more upon the probable effect of such measures upon the British Government. It might be true, and all reports from England seemed to point that way, that the British Government was only brandishing the sword in terrorem, to see whether the Americans would not run at once to cover; in which case it would be wiser for all loyal subjects to pledge themselves even to rebellion, the prospect being so very good that Britain would quickly sheathe its sword and present instead the olive branch, saying, “This is what I intended to offer.” Therefore, rather than leave Massachusetts in the lurch and so give the lie to the boasted unity of the colonies, many moderate and loyal subjects voted to approve the Suffolk Resolutions, which they thought very rash and ill-advised measures.

Whatever differences still prevailed, if indeed practical men could hold out after the accomplished fact, might be bridged and compromised by adopting those petitions and addresses which the timid thought sufficient and at the same time by subscribing to and “recommending” those non-intercourse agreements which the bolder sort thought essential.

This compromise was in fact effected. The Congress unanimously adopted the moderate addresses which Lord Chatham afterwards praised for their masterly exposition of true constitutional principles; but it likewise adopted, also unanimously, a series of resolutions known as the Association, to which the deputies subscribed their names. By signing the Association, the deputies bound themselves, and recommended the people in all the colonies to bind themselves, not to import, after December 1, 1774, any commodities from Great Britain or Ireland, or molasses, syrups, sugars, and coffee from the British plantations, or East India Company tea from any place, or wines from Madeira, or foreign indigo; not to consume, after March 1, 1775, any of these commodities; and not to export, after September 10, 1775, any commodities whatever to Great Britain, Ireland, or the West Indies, “except rice to Europe.” It was further recommended that a committee be formed in each city, town, and county, whose business it should be to observe the conduct of all persons, those who refused to sign the Association as well as those who signed it, and to publish the names of all persons who did not observe the agreements there entered into, “to the end that all such foes of the rights of British-America may be publicly known and universally condemned as the enemies of American liberty”; and it was likewise recommended that the committees should inspect the customs entries frequently, that they should seize all goods imported contrary to the recommendation of the Association and reship them, or, if the owner preferred, sell them at public auction, the owner to be recompensed for the first costs, the profits, if any, to be devoted to relieving the people of Boston.

Having thus adopted a Petition to the King, a Memorial to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies, and an Address to the People of Great Britain, and having recommended a certain line of conduct to be followed by all loyal Americans, the first Continental Congress adjourned. It had assumed no “coercive or legislative authority”; obedience to its determinations would doubtless depend, as Mr. Rutledge had said, upon “the reasonableness, the apparent utility and necessity” of its recommendations.

“There can be no doubt,” the Earl of Dartmouth is reported to have said, “that every one who had signed the Association was guilty of treason.” The Earl of Dartmouth was not counted one of the enemies of America; and if this was his opinion of the action of the first Continental Congress, Lord North’s supporters in Parliament, a great majority since the recent elections, were not likely to take a more favorable view of it. Nevertheless, when the American question came up for consideration in the winter of 1776, “conciliation” was a word frequently heard on all sides, and even corrupt ministers were understood to be dallying with schemes of accommodation. In January and February great men were sending agents, and even coming themselves, to Dr. Franklin to learn what in his opinion the colonies would be satisfied with. Lord Chatham, as might be guessed, was meditating a plan. On the 29th of January, he came to Craven Street and showed it to Franklin, who made notes upon it, and later went out to Hayes, two hours’ ride from London, where he remained for four hours listening to the easy flow of the Great Commoner’s eloquence without being able to get any of his own ideas presented.

Fortified by the presence if not by the advice of Franklin, Lord Chatham laid his plan before Parliament on the 1st of February. He would have an explicit declaration of the dependence of the colonies on the Crown and Parliament in all matters of trade and an equally explicit declaration that no tag should be imposed upon the colonies without their consent; and when the Congress at Philadelphia should have acknowledged the supremacy of the Crown and Parliament and should have made a free and perpetual grant of revenue, then he would have all the obnoxious acts passed since 1764, and especially the Coercive Acts, totally repealed. Lord Sandwich, in a warm speech, moved to reject these proposals at once; and when the vote was taken it was found that 61 noble lords were in favor of rejecting them at once, while only 31 were opposed to so doing.

Lord North was perhaps less opposed to reconciliation than other noble lords were. A few days later Franklin was approached by Admiral Howe, who was understood to know the First Minister’s mind, to learn whether he might not suggest something for the Government to go upon. The venerable Friend of the Human Race was willing enough to set down on paper some “Hints” which Admiral Howe might think advisable to show to ministers. It happened, however, that the “Hints” went far beyond anything the Government had in mind. Ministers would perhaps be willing to repeal the Tea Act and the Boston Port Bill; but they felt strongly that the act regulating the Massachusetts charter must stand as “an example of the power of Parliament.” Franklin, on the other hand, was certain that “while Parliament claims the right of altering American constitutions at pleasure, there can be no agreement.” Since the parties were so far apart, it seemed useless to continue the informal negotiation, and on February 20, Lord North laid before Parliament his own plan for effecting an accommodation.

Perhaps, after all, it was not his own plan; for Lord North, much inclined to regard himself as the King’s minister, was likely to subordinate his wishes to those of his master. King George III, at all events, had his own ideas on conciliation. “I am a friend to holding out the olive branch,” he wrote in February, “yet I believe that, when vigorous measures appear to be the only means, the colonies will submit.” Knowing the King’s ideas, as well as those of Dr. Franklin, Lord North accordingly introduced into Parliament the Resolution on Conciliation, which provided that when any colony should make provision “for contributing their proportion to the common defense, …and for the support of the civil government, and the administration of justice in such province, …it will be proper, …for so long as such provision shall be made, …to forbear, in respect of such province, …to levy any Duty, Tax, or Assessment, …except… for the regulation of commerce.” The minister’s resolution, although by most of his supporters thought to be useless, was adopted by a vote of 274 to 88.

It was not the intention of the Government to hold out the olive branch by itself. Lord North, and perhaps the King also, hoped the colonies would accept it; but by all maxims of politics an olive branch was more likely to be accepted if the shining sword was presented at the same time as the only alternative. As early as the 10th of February, Lord North had introduced into Parliament a bill, finally passed March 30, “to restrain the trade and commerce” of the New England colonies to “Great Britain, Ireland, and the British islands in the West Indies,” and to exclude these colonies from “carrying on any fishery on the banks of Newfoundland,” it being “highly unfit that the inhabitants of the said provinces…should enjoy the same privileges of trade…to which his Majesty’s faithful and obedient subjects are entitled.” The provisions of this act were extended to the other colonies in April; and meantime measures were taken to strengthen the naval forces.

The first certain information that Lord North had extended the olive branch reached New York April 24, 1775, two weeks before the day fixed for the meeting of the second Continental Congress. Important changes had taken place since the first Congress, six months earlier, had sent forth its resolutions. In every colony there was a sufficient number of patriots who saw “the reasonableness, the apparent utility, and necessity” of forming the committees which the Association recommended; and these committees everywhere, with a marked degree of success, immediately set about convincing their neighbors of the utility and necessity of signing the non-importation agreement, or at least of observing it even if they were not disposed to sign it. To deny the reasonableness of the Association was now indeed much more difficult than it would have been before the Congress assembled; for the Congress, having published certain resolutions unanimously entered into, had come to be the symbol of America united in defense of its rights; and what American, if indeed one might call him such, would wish to be thought disloyal to America or an enemy of its liberties? It required a degree of assurance for any man to set up his individual judgment against the deliberate and united judgment of the chosen representatives of all the colonies; and that must be indeed a very subtle mind which could draw the distinction between an enemy of liberty and a friend of liberty who was unwilling to observe the Association.

Some such subtle minds there were–a considerable number in most colonies who declared themselves friends of liberty but not of the Association, loyal to America but not to the Congress. One of these was Samuel Seabury, an Episcopalian clergyman living in Westchester County, New York, a vigorous, downright man, who at once expressed his sentiments in a forcible and logical manner, and with much sarcastic humor, in a series of pamphlets which were widely read and much commended by those who found in them their own views so effectively expressed. This Westchester Farmer–for so he signed himself–proclaimed that he had always been, and was still, a friend of liberty in general and of American liberty in particular. The late British measures he thought unwise and il-liberal, and he had hoped that the Congress would be able to obtain redress, and perhaps even to effect a permanent reconciliation. But, these hopes were seen to be vain from the day when the Congress approved the Suffolk Resolutions and, instead of adopting Mr. Galloway’s plan, adopted the Association. For no sane man could doubt that, under the thin disguise of “recommendations,” Congress had assumed the powers of government and counseled rebellion. The obvious conclusion from this was that, if one could not be a loyal American without submitting to Congress, then it was impossible to be at the same time a loyal American and a loyal British subject.

But, if the problem were rightly considered, Mr. Seabury thought one might be loyal to America in the best sense without supporting Congress; for, apart from any question of legality, the Association was highly inexpedient, inasmuch as non-importation would injure America more than it injured England, and, for this reason if for no others, it would be found impossible to “bully and frighten the supreme government of the nation.” Yet all this was beside the main point, which was that the action of Congress, whether expedient or not, was illegal. It was illegal because it authorized the committees to enforce the Association upon all alike, upon those who never agreed to observe it as well as upon those who did; and these committees, as everyone knew, were so enforcing it and were “imposing penalties upon those who have presumed to violate it.” The Congress talked loudly of the tyranny of the British Government. Tyranny! Good Heavens! Was any tyranny worse than that of self-constituted committees which, in the name of liberty, were daily conducting the most hateful inquisition into the private affairs of free British subjects? “Will you choose such committees? Will you submit to them should they be chosen by the weak, foolish, turbulent part of the…people? I will not. No. If I must be enslaved, let it be by a KING at least, and not by a parcel of upstart, lawless committeemen.”

The Massachusetts men were meanwhile showing no disposition to submit to the King. In that colony a Provincial Congress, organized at Salem in October, 1774, and afterwards removed to Cambridge, had assumed all powers of government in spite of General Gage and contrary to the provisions of the act by which Parliament had presumed to remodel the Massachusetts charter. Outside of Boston at least, the allegiance of the people was freely given to this extra-legal government; and under its direction the towns began to prepare for defense by organizing the militia and procuring and storing arms and ammunition.

To destroy such stores of ammunition seemed to General Gage quite the most obvious of his duties; and Colonel Smith was accordingly ordered to proceed to the little village of Concord, some eighteen miles northwest of Boston, and destroy the magazines which were known to be collected there. The night of the 18th of April was the time fixed for this expedition; and in the evening of that day patriots in Boston noted with alarm that bodies of troops were moving towards the waterside. Dr. Joseph Warren, knowing or easily guessing the destination of the troops, at once despatched William Dawes, and later in the evening Paul Revere also, to Lexington and Concord to spread the alarm. As the little army of Colonel Smith–a thousand men, more or less–left Boston and marched up into the country, church bells and the booming of cannon announced their coming. Day was breaking when the British troops approached the town of Lexington; and there on the green they could see, in the early morning light, perhaps half a hundred men standing in military array–fifty against a thousand! The British rushed forward with huzzas, in the midst of which shots were heard; and when the little band of minutemen was dispersed eight of the fifty lay dead upon the village green.

The battle of Lexington was begun, but it was not yet finished. Pushing on to Concord, the thousand disciplined British regulars captured and destroyed the military stores collected there. This was easily done; but the return from Concord to Lexington, and from Lexington to Cambridge, proved a disastrous retreat. The British found indeed no minutemen drawn up in military array to block their path; but they found themselves subject to the deadly fire of men concealed behind the trees and rocks and clumps of shrubs that everywhere conveniently lined the open road. With this method of warfare, not learned in books, the British were unfamiliar. Discipline was but a handicap; and the fifteen hundred soldiers that General Gage sent out to Lexington to rescue Colonel Smith served only to make the disaster greater in the end. When the retreating army finally reached the shelter of Cambridge, it had lost, in killed and wounded, 247 men; while the Americans, of whom it had been confidently asserted in England that they would not stand against British regulars, had lost but 88.

The courier announcing the news of Lexington passed through New York on the 23d of April. Twenty-four hours later, during the height of the excitement occasioned by that event, intelligence arrived from England that Parliament had approved Lord North’s Resolution on Conciliation. For extending the olive branch, the time was inauspicious; and when the second Continental Congress assembled, two weeks later, on the 10th of May, men were everywhere wrathfully declaring that the blood shed at Lexington made allegiance to Britain forever impossible.

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