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The pioneer of secession.

The first Advocate of States rights in the Continental Congress.


Thomas Burke, of North Carolina, in 1777.
At a meeting of the Pennsylvania Historical Society held in Philadelphia, on the evening of March 9, 1897, Dr. Herbert Friedenwald delivered an address, in which he gave an account of some newly-discovered information respecting transactions of the Continental Congress. The speaker explained that the material upon which his address was based had been secured from abstracts of debates and letters written by Benjamin Rush and Thomas Burke, of North Carolina. The notes of debates taken by the former had much to say about the relations that had existed between Congress and the individual States, as well as the methods of electing the officers of [82] the army. In discussing the latter subject, mention was made of the remarks of John Adams, when he said, in February, 1777:

‘There are certain principles which follow us through life, and none more certainly than love of the first place. I am sorry to see that it prevails so little in this Assembly, which is disposed to idolize an image which their own hands have made. I speak here of the superstitious veneration which is sometimes paid to General Washington. Although I honor him for his good qualities, yet, in this House, I feel myself his superior. In private life, I shall always acknowledge that he is mine. It becomes us to attend early to the restraining of our army.’

The information that Burke imparts, Dr. Friedenwald said, gives us a knowledge of the discussion over the articles of confederation, the first national Constitution, such as has never before been obtained. Burke took a most active part in framing those articles, and wrote repeated letters to Governor Caswell, of his State, detailing the course of events. They are all of one tone, and show a great jealousy of giving to Congress any powers that could possibly be retained by the States. Early in the history of the framing of the confederation he states that one of its clauses gave to Congress very uncertain jurisdiction. Fearing that, if it were not checked, and immediately, a union of great strength would be formed, he introduced a motion, providing that all those powers not expressly delegated to Congress should be retained by the States. This, at first, aroused much opposition, especially from the learned James Wilson, of Pennsylvania, and from Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia; but, in the end, after much debate, he finally won over every State, except Virginia and New Hampshire, to his views, and the article under consideration was adopted, and never changed.

Burke impressed upon Congress all through his career the necessity for guarding against any encroachment upon the power and dignity of the State, and was an earnest advocate of the instant dismissal of Captain Nicholson, of the Continental army, for having disrespectfully treated the Governor of Maryland.

At one time, when standing out for what he thought were the prerogatives of his State, and desiring that a question under discussion be postponed for a day, he threatened to secede unless his views were agreed to. It was a rule of Congress that any State might, before a vote was taken, have the question postponed for one day, and, after the matter was discussed at length, he informs us, ‘insisting that it was a most violent and arbitrary act of power to put [83] any question at all on this matter; and the others, perceiving the determined resolution of the delegate of North Carolina to withdraw from Congress if any such question should be put, they waived their opposition,’ and he won his point.

The possibility of States combining in Congress in order to carry out repressive legislation against others, occasioned Burke much worry. He thought the most formidable combination would be that of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. ‘The first,’ wrote he, ‘has power sufficient to overawe and consequently to direct the three New England States. The second could equally influence Jersey and Delaware. Virginia would be formidable to her Southern neighbors and Maryland. New York could not resist a combination of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and Maryland must fall a sacrifice to Pennsylvania and Virginia.’ To prevent the possibility of any such events he advocated the sending by the States to the National Congress of the ablest men that could be found within them, thus making election to Congress an incentive to patriotic endeavor. They were to go to the Congress, not for the purpose of looking out for and guarding national interests, but to see that no harm came to the States.

Dr. Friedenwald went on to show what an insight into the inner history of the transactions of the Continental Congress these letters and debates gave, elucidating many points that have hitherto been extremely obscure. Many sidelights were also thrown upon life in Philadelphia and New York during this time, the people of Pennsylvania having often been spoken of in disparaging terms, owing to the high prices that were demanded for all necessaries. Living was extremely expensive, owing to the depreciation of the currency, and when a member of Congress proposed bringing his wife with him to York, he was warned not to do so, as there was not a respectable place in which to lay her head to be found in the town. Food was scarce, excepting beef, and as one of the North Carolina members had a delicate palate, he wrote home asking that he be sent some pickled oysters and dried fish.

In conclusion, the speaker referred in a general way to the value of this new material, emphasizing the fact that there are so few records of the debates of the Continental Congress extant. This made the accounts of the transactions of that body similar to the reports of the proceedings of Congress to-day, where no record is taken of the debates and conferences, but only the completed acts placed before the public.

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