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

The second Congress was filled with moderate minded men who would not believe the time had come when that decision had to be made–men who were bound to sign themselves British-Americans till the last possible moment, many of whom could not now have told whether in the end they would sign themselves Britons or Americans. Surely, they said, we need not make the decision yet. We have the best of reasons for knowing that Britain will not press matters to extremities. Can we not handle the olive branch and the sword as well as Lord North? A little fighting, to convince ministers that we can’t be frightened, and all will be well. We shall have been neither rebels nor slaves. The second Congress was full of men who were, as yet, “Neither-Nor.”

There was Joseph Galloway, once more elected to represent Pennsylvania, ready to do what he could to keep Congress from hasty action, hoping for the best yet rather expecting the worst, discreetly retiring, at an early date, within the ranks of the British loyalists. John Alsop, the “soft, sweet” man, was also there, active enough in his mild way until the very last–until the Declaration of Independence, as he said, “closed the last door to reconciliation.” There, too, was James Duane, with never so great need of his “surveying eye” to enable him to size up the situation. He is more discreet than any one, and sits quietly in his seat, on those days when he finds it convenient to attend, which is not too often–especially after November, at which time he moved his effects to Duanesborough, and so very soon disappears from sight, except perhaps vicariously in the person of his servant, James Brattle, whom we see flitting obscurely from Philadelphia to New York conveying secret information to Governor Tryon. John Jay, the hard-reading young lawyer, who favored Mr. Galloway’s plan but in the end signed the Association–here he is again, edging his way carefully along, watching his step, crossing no bridges beforehand, well over indeed before he seems aware of any gulf to be crossed. And here is the famous Pennsylvania Farmer, leader of all moderate men, John Dickinson; only too well aware of the gulf opening up before him, fervently praying that it may close again of its own accord. Mr. Dickinson has no mind for anything but conciliation, to obtain which he will go the length of donning a Colonel’s uniform, or at least a Colonel’s title, perfecting himself and his neighbors in the manual of arms against the day when the King would graciously listen to the loyal and humble petition of the Congress.

Mr. Dickinson, staking all on the petition, was distressed at the rash talk that went on out of doors; and in this respect, no one distressed him more than his old friend, John Adams, who thought and said that a petition was a waste of time and who was all for the most vigorous measures (such, doubtless, as Demosthenes might have counseled),–the seizure of all crown officers, the formation of state governments, the raising of an army, and negotiations for obtaining the assistance of France. When Mr. Dickinson, having marshaled his followers from the middle colonies and South Carolina, got his petition before the Congress, John Adams, as a matter of course, made “an opposition to it in as long a speech as I commonly made…in answer to all the arguments that had been urged.” And Adams relates in his “Diary” how, being shortly called out of Congress Hall, he was followed by Mr. Dickinson, who broke out upon him in great anger. “What is the reason, Mr. Adams, that you New-England men oppose our measures of reconciliation? There now is Sullivan, in a long harangue, following you in a determined opposition to our petition to the King. Look ye! If you don’t concur with us in our pacific system, I and a number of us will break off from you in New England, and we will carry on the opposition by ourselves in our own way.” At that moment it chanced that John Adams was “in a very happy temper” (which was not always the case), and so, he says, was able to reply very coolly. “Mr. Dickinson, there are many things that I can very cheerfully sacrifice to harmony, and even to unanimity; but I am not to be threatened into an express adoption or approbation of measures which my judgment reprobates. Congress must judge, and if they pronounce against me, I must submit, as, if they determine against you, you ought to acquiesce.”

The Congress did decide. It decided to adopt Mr. Dickinson’s petition; and to this measure John Adams submitted. But the Congress also decided to raise a Continental army to assist Massachusetts in driving the British forces out of Boston, of which army it appointed, as Commander-in-Chief, George Washington, Esq.; and in justification of these measures it published a “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms”:

“Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable …. Fortified with these animating reflections, we… declare that…the arms we have been compelled by our enemies to as same, we will…employ for the preservation of our liberties, being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than live as slaves …. We have not raised armies with ambitious designs of separating from Great Britain …. We shall lay them down when hostilities shall cease on the part of the aggressors… With an humble confidence in the mercies of the supreme and impartial Judge and Ruler of the Universe, we…implore his divine goodness to protect us happily through this great conflict, to dispose our adversaries to reconciliation on reasonable terms, and thereby to relieve the empire from the calamities of civil war.”

In these measures Mr. Dickinson acquiesced, as John Adams had submitted to the petition. The “perfect” union which was thus attained was nevertheless a union of wills rather than of opinions; and on July 24, 1775, in a letter to James Warren, John Adams gave a frank account of the state of mind to which the perfect union had reduced him:

“In confidence, I am determined to write freely to you this time. A certain great Fortune and piddling Genius, whose Fame has been trumpeted so loudly, has given a silly Cast to our whole Doings. We are between Hawk and Buzzard. We ought to have had in our Hands a month ago the whole Legislative, executive, and judicial of the whole Continent, and have completely modeled a Constitution; to have raised a naval Power, and opened our Ports wide; to have arrested every Friend of Government on the Continent and held them as Hostages for the poor Victims of Boston, and then opened the Door as wide as possible for Peace and Reconciliation. After that they might have petitioned, and negotiated, and addressed, etc., if they would. Is all this extravagant? Is it wild? Is it not the soundest Policy?”

It seems that Mr. Adams would have presented the sword boldly, keeping the olive branch carefully concealed behind his back. His letter, intercepted by the British Government, and printed about the time when Mr. Dickinson’s petition vas received in London, did nothing to make the union in America more perfect, or to facilitate the opening of that refractory “Door…for Peace and Reconciliation.”

The truth is that John Adams no longer believed in the possibility of opening this door, even by the tiniest crack; and even those who still had faith in the petition as a means to that end found it somewhat difficult to keep their faith alive during the weary month of October while they waited for the King’s reply. Mr. Chase, although he had “not absolutely discarded every glimpse of a hope of reconciliation,” admitted that the prospect was gloomy.” Mr. Zubly assured Congress that he “did hope for a reconciliation and that this winter may bring it”; and he added, as if justifying himself against sceptical shrugs of shoulders, “I may enjoy my hopes for reconciliation; others may enjoy theirs that none will take place.” It might almost seem that the idea of reconciliation, in this October of 1775, was a vanishing image to be enjoyed retrospectively rather than anything substantial to build upon for the future. This it was, perhaps, that gave especial point to Mr. Zubly’s oft-repeated assertion that Congress must speedily obtain one of two things–“a reconciliation with Great Britain, or the means of carrying on the war.”

Reconciliation OR war! This was surely a new antithesis. Had not arms been taken up for the purpose precisely of disposing their adversaries “to reconciliation on reasonable terms”? Does Mr. Zubly mean to say then that war is an alternative to reconciliation–an alternative which will lead the colonies away from compromise towards that which all have professed not to desire? Is Mr. Zubly hinting at independence even before the King has replied to the petition? No. This is not what Mr. Zubly meant. What he had in the back of his mind, and what the Congress was coming to have in the back of its mind, if one may judge from the abbreviated notes which John Adams took of the debates in the fall of 1775, was that if the colonies could not obtain reconciliation by means of the non-intercourse measures very soon–this very winter as Mr. Zubly hoped–they would have to rely for reconciliation upon a vigorous prosecution of the war; in which case the non-intercourse measures were likely to prove an obstacle rather than an advantage, since they would make it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain the “means of carrying on the war.”

The non-intercourse measures had been designed to obtain conciliation by forcing Great Britain to make concessions; but if Great Britain would make no concessions, then the non-intercourse measures, by destroying the trade and prosperity of the colonies, would have no other effect than to bring about conciliation by forcing the colonies to make concessions themselves. This was not the kind of conciliation that any one wanted; and so the real antithesis which now confronted Congress was between war and non-intercourse. Mr. Livingston put the situation clearly when he said: “We are between hawk and buzzard; we puzzle ourselves between the commercial and warlike opposition.”

Through long debates Congress puzzled itself over the difficult task of maintaining the Association and of obtaining the means for carrying on the war. Doubtless a simple way out would be for Congress to allow so much exportation only as might be necessary to pay for arms and ammunition; and still not so simple either, since it would at once excite many jealousies. “To get powder,” Mr. Jay observed, “we keep a secret law that produce may be exported. Then come the wrangles among the people. A vessel is seen loading–a fellow runs to the committee.” Well, it could not be helped; let the fellow run to the committee, and let the committee reassure him–that was the business of the committee; and so the Congress authorized the several colonies to export as much “produce, except horned cattle, sheep, hogs, and poultry, as they may deem necessary for the importation of arms, ammunition, sulphur, and saltpetre.” Thus powder might be obtained.

Nevertheless, war could not live by powder alone. The imponderable moral factors had to be considered, chief of which was the popular support or opposition which Congress and the army might count upon under certain circumstances. No doubt people were patriotic and wished to maintain their rights; but no doubt people would be more patriotic and more enthusiastic and practically active in their support of both Congress and the army, if they were reasonably prosperous and contented than if they were not. Self-denying ordinances were, by their very nature, of temporary and limited efficacy; and it was pertinent to inquire how long the people would be content with the total stoppage of trade and the decay of business which was becoming every day more marked. “We can live on acorns; but will we?” It would perhaps be prudent not to expect “more virtue…from our people than any people ever had”; it would be prudent “not to put virtue to too severe a test, …lest we wear it out.” And it might well be asked what would wear it out and “disunite us more than the decay of all business? The people will feel, and will say, that Congress tax them and oppress them more than Parliament.” If the people were to be asked to fight for their rights, they must at all hazards not be allowed to say that Congress oppressed them more than Parliament!

For the moment all this was no more than a confession that the Association, originally designed as a finely chiseled stepping-stone to reconciliation, was likely to prove a stumbling-block unless the King graciously extended his royal hand to give a hearty lift. It presently appeared that the King refused to extend his hand. October 31, 1775, information reached America that Richard Penn and Arthur Lee, having presented the petition to Lord Dartmouth, were informed that the King would not receive them, and furthermore that no answer would be returned to the Congress. Ignoring the petition was to exhibit only one degree more of contempt for that carefully prepared document than the Congress had shown for Lord North’s Resolution on Conciliation; and now that the olive branch had been spurned on both sides, it was a little difficult to see how either side could possibly refuse the sword.

That the colonies would refuse the sword was not very likely; but, as if to make a refusal impossible, the British Government, on December 22, 1775, decided to thrust the sword into their hands. This at all events was thought by many men to be the effect of the Prohibitory Act, which declared the colonies outside the protection of the Crown, and which, for the purpose of reducing them to submission, laid an embargo upon all their trade and proclaimed their ports in a state of blockade.

“I know not [John Adams wrote] whether you have seen the Act of Parliament called the Restraining Act or Prohibitory Act, or Piratical Act, or Act of Independency–for by all these titles is it called. I think the most apposite is the Act of Independency; the King, Lords, and Commons have united in sundering this country from that, I think, forever. It is a complete dismemberment of the British Empire. It throws thirteen colonies out of the royal protection, and makes us independent in spite of supplications and entreaties. It may be fortunate that the act of Independency should come from the British Parliament rather than from the American Congress; but it is very odd that Americans should hesitate at accepting such a gift from them.”

The majority of those who refused to accept it–and the number was large–retired, with saddened hearts for the most part, into the ranks of the British Loyalists; only a few, with John Dickinson at their head, could still visualize the vanishing image of reconciliation. Whether the Prohibitory Act made reconciliation impossible or not, one thing at all events it made clear: if Britain was bent on forcing the colonies to submit by ruining their trade, it could scarcely be good policy for the colonies to help her do it; of which the reasonable conclusion seemed to be that, since the Parliament wished to close the ports of America to the world, Congress would do well to open them to the world. On February 16, 1776, Congress accordingly took into “consideration the propriety of opening the ports.” To declare the ports open to the world was no doubt easily done; but the main thing after all was to carry on trade with the world; and this was not so easy since British naval vessels were there to prevent it. “We can’t carry on a beneficial trade, as our enemies will take our ships”; so Mr. Sherman said, and of this he thought the obvious inference was that “a treaty with a foreign power is necessary, before we open our trade, to protect it.

“A treaty with a foreign power”–Mr. Wythe also mentioned this as a possible way of reviving the trade of the colonies; but a treaty with a foreign power was easier conceived of than made, and Mr. Wythe thought “other things are to be considered before we adopt such a measure.” In considering these “other things,” Mr. Wythe asked and answered the fundamental question: “In what character shall we treat?–as subjects of Great Britain–as rebels?…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.” Thus it appeared that the character of British subjects, no less than the Association, was a stumblingblock in the way of obtaining “the means of carrying on the war.” The sword, as an instrument for maintaining rights, could after all not be effectively wielded by America so long as her hand was shackled by even the half-broken ties of a professed allegiance to Britain. Therefore, when the Congress, on the 6th of April, opened the ports of the colonies to the world, the Declaration of Independence was a foregone conclusion.

The idea of independence, for many months past, had hovered like a disembodied hope or menace about the entrance ways of controversy. A few clear-sighted men, such as John Adams and Samuel Seabury, had so long contemplated the idea without blinking that it had taken on familiar form and substance. But the great majority had steadily refused to consider it, except as a possible alternative not needing for the present to be embraced. All these moderate, middle-of-the-way men had now to bring this idea into the focus of attention, for the great illusion that Britain would not push matters to extremities was rapidly dissolving, and the time was come when it was no longer possible for any man to be a British-American and when every man must decide whether it was better to be an American even at the price of rebellion or a Briton even at the price of submission. It is true that many never made up their minds on this point, being quite content to swear allegiance to whichever cause, according to time or place, happened to be in the ascendant. But of all those thinking men whose minds could be made up to stay, perhaps a third–this is the estimate of John Adams–joined the ranks of the British Loyalists; while the rest, with more or less reluctance, gave their support, little or great, to the cause of independence.

When one has made, with whatever reluctance, an irrevocable decision, it is doubtless well to become adjusted to it as rapidly as possible; and this he can best do by thinking of the decision as a wise one–the only one, in fact, which a sensible person could have made. Thus it was that the idea of independence, embraced by most men with reluctance as a last resort and a necessary evil, rapidly lost, in proportion as it seemed necessary, its character of evil, took on the character of the highest wisdom, and so came to be regarded as a predestined event which all honest patriots must rejoice in having had a hand in bringing about.

This change in the point of view would doubtless have been made in any case; but in rapidly investing the idea of independence with the shining virtues of an absolute good to be embraced joyously, a great influence must be ascribed to the little pamphlet entitled “Common Sense”, written by a man then known to good patriots as Thomas Paine, and printed in January, 1776. Intrinsically considered, “Common Sense” was indeed no great performance. The matter, thin at best, was neither profoundly nor subtly reasoned; the manner could hardly be described by even the most complacent critic as humane or engaging. Yet “Common Sense” had its brief hour of fame. Its good fortune was to come at the psychological moment; and being everywhere read during the months from January to July, 1776, it was precisely suited to convince men, not so much that they ought to declare independence, as that they ought to declare it gladly, ought to cast off lightly their former false and mawkish affection for the “mother country” and once for all to make an end of backward yearning looks over the shoulder at this burning Sodom.

To a militant patriot like Thomas Paine it was profoundly humiliating to recall that for ten years past Americans had professed themselves “humble and loyal subjects” and “dutiful children,” yielding to none in “admiration” for the “excellent British Constitution,” desiring only to live and die as free citizens under the protecting wing of the mother country. Recalling all this sickening sentimentalism, Mr. Paine uttered a loud and ringing BOSH! Let us clear our minds of cant, he said in effect, and ask ourselves what is the nature of government in general and of the famous British Constitution in particular. Like the Abbe Sieyes, Mr. Paine had completely mastered the science of government, which was in fact extremely simple. Men form societies, he said, to satisfy their wants, and then find that governments have to be established to restrain their wickedness; and therefore, since government is obviously a necessary evil, that government is best which is simplest.