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Chapter 68:

The people of the United colonies demand Inde-Pendence.

June—July, 1776.

American independence was not an act of sudden
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passion, nor the work of one man or one assembly. It had been discussed in every part of the country by farmers and merchants, by mechanics and planters, by the fishermen along the coast and by the backwoodsmen of the West; in town meetings and from the pulpit; at social gatherings and around the camp fires; in newspapers and in pamphlets; in county conventions and conferences of committees; in colonial congresses and assemblies. The decision was put off only to hear the voice of the people. Virginia having uttered her will, and communicated it to all her sister colonies, proceeded as though independence had been proclaimed, to form her constitution. More counsellors waited on her assembly than they took notice of; they were aided in their deliberations by the teachings of the lawgivers of Greece; by the long line of magistrates who had framed the Roman [435] code; by those who had written best in English on
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government and public freedom; but most of all by the great example of the English constitution, which was an aristocratic republic with a permanent executive. They passed by monarchy and hereditary aristocracy as unessential forms, and looked behind them for the self-subsistent elements of English liberty.

The principles of the Virginia declaration of rights remained to her people as a perpetual possession and a pledge of indefinite progress in happier and more tranquil days; but for the moment internal reforms were postponed; the elective franchise was not extended; nor was anything done to abolish slavery beyond the prohibition of the slave trade. The king of England possessed the crown by birth and for life; the chief executive of Virginia owed his place to an election by the general assembly, and retained it for one year. The king was intrusted with a veto power, limited within Britain, extravagant and even retrospective in the colonies; the recollection that ‘by an inhuman use of his negative he had refused them permission to exclude negroes by law,’ misled the Virginians to withhold the veto power from the governor of their own choice.

The governor like the king had at his side an elective privy council; and in the construction of this body of eight men, the desire of some permanent element of government is conspicuous. Braxton, in the scheme which he forwarded from congress, wishing to come as near as possible to the forms of monarchy, would have had the governor continue in authority during good behavior, the council of state hold their places for life, in order that they might [436] possess all the weight, stability, and dignity due to

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the importance of their office. But Patrick Henry, Mason, and the other chief members of the convention did not share this dread of the power of the people; and nothing more was conceded than that two only of the eight councillors should be triennially changed, so that the whole body was to be renewed only once in the course of twelve years. The governor with their advice had the appointment of militia officers and of justices of the peace; but the general assembly by joint ballot elected the treasurer, the judges, and officers of the higher courts. The general assembly like the British parliament consisted of two branches; an annual house of delegates; and a senate of twenty four members. The state was to be divided into twenty four districts for the choice of senators, of whom one fourth was to be renewed each year.

The convention recognised the territorial rights of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas, and the limit set by the peace of 1763; otherwise it claimed jurisdiction over all the region, granted by the second charter of King James the First. The privilege of purchasing Indian titles was reserved to the public; but by resolves of the convention, a right of pre-emption was secured to actual settlers on unappropriated lands.

In framing the constitution George Mason had a principal part, aided by the active participation of Richard Henry Lee and of George Wythe; a form of government, sent by Jefferson, arrived too late; but his draft of a preamble was adopted; and he was looked to by Wythe to become the author of further reform. The institutions of Virginia then established, like every thing else which is the work of man's hands, [437] were marked by imperfection; yet they called into

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being a republic, of which the ideal sovereignty, representing the unity of all public functions, resided in the collective people. It rose above the horizon in a season of storm, but the surrounding clouds were edged with light. The convention, having on the twenty ninth of June unanimously adopted the constitution, at once transformed itself into a temporary general assembly, and made choice by ballot of a governor and a privy council. For governor the choice fell on Patrick Henry; and on the first day of July, he, who had so lately been a subject of a king and had
been surrounded by fellow-subjects, became the chief magistrate over his fellow-citizens of the commonwealth which, he said, had just formed ‘a system of government, wisely calculated to secure equal liberty,’ and which did not shrink from bearing a principal part in a war ‘involving the lasting happiness of a great proportion of the human species.’

On the fourteenth of June, the Connecticut as-

sembly, urged by the invitation and example of Virginia, instructed its delegates in favor of independence, foreign alliances, and a permanent union of the colonies; but the plan of confederation was not to go into effect till it should receive the assent of the several legislatures. At the same time, the puritan commonwealth, which had enjoyed a republican government more than a hundred years, cast the slough of royalty, and established administrative independence.

On the same day and the next the Delaware assembly, at the instance of Mackean, unanimously approved the resolution of congress of the fifteenth of May, overturned the proprietary government within [438] her borders, substituted her own name on all occasions

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for that of the king, and gave to her delegates new instructions which left them at liberty to vote respecting independence according to their judgment.

On the fifteenth, the council and assembly of New Hampshire, in reply to a letter from Bartlett and Whipple, their delegates in congress, unanimously voted in favor of ‘declaring the Thirteen United Colonies a free and independent state; and solemnly pledged their faith and honor to support the measure with their lives and fortunes.’

Massachusetts took the opinion of its people in their town meetings; and all that had been heard from declared for independence. The choice of New England was spontaneous and undoubted. Its extended line of seacoast, winding round deep inlets and projecting headlands, and rent with safe and convenient harbors, defied the menaces of a blockade; and except that the harbor of Newport was coveted by the British as a shelter for their fleet, the uninviting ruggedness of its soil and its comparatively compact population gave it a sense of security against the return of the enemy whom they had once effectually driven away.

Far different was the position of New York, which was the first of the large central colonies to mark out

irrevocably her system. Devoted to commerce, she yet possessed but one seaport on the main, and if that great mart should fall into the hands of the British, she must for the indefinite time of its occupation, resign all maritime intercourse with other colonies and with the world. The danger was not vague and distant; it was close at hand, distinctly known, and inevitable. [439] On the twenty fourth of May, the vote of
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the continental congress of the fifteenth recommending the establishment of a new government, was referred to John Morin Scott, Haring, Remsen, Lewis, Jay, Cuyler, and Broome; three days later, Remsen reported from the committee, that the right of creating civil government is and ought to be in the people, and that the old form of government was dissolved; accordingly, on the thirty first, resolutions were proposed by Scott, Jay, and Haring, ordering elections for deputies, with ample powers to institute a government which should continue in force until a future peace with Great Britain. But early in June the New York congress had to pass upon the Virginia proposition of independence. This was the
moment that showed the firmness and the purity of Jay; the darker the hour, the more he stood ready to cheer; the greater the danger, the more promptly he stepped forward to guide. He had insisted on the doubtful measure of a second petition to the king with no latent weakness of purpose or cowardice of heart. The hope of obtaining redress was gone; he could now, with perfect peace of mind, give free scope to the earnestness of his convictions. Though it had been necessary for him to perish as a martyr, he could not and he would not swerve from his sense of duty. Joining a scrupulous obedience to his idea of right with inflexibility of purpose, he could not admit that the provincial congress then in session had been vested with power to dissolve the connection with Great Britain, and he therefore held it necessary first to consult the people themselves. For this end, on the eleventh of June, the New York congress, on [440] his motion, called upon the freeholders and electors
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of the colony to confer on the deputies whom they were about to choose, full powers of administering government, framing a constitution, and deciding the great question of independence.

In this manner the unanimity of New York was ensured; her decision did not remain a moment longer in doubt; though it could not be formally announced till after the election of its convention. It was taken in the presence of extreme danger, against which there was no hope that adequate preparations would be made. Bands of savages hovered on the extended inland frontier of the province; the army, which was to have protected her on the side of Canada, was flying before disease and want and a vastly superior force; an irresistible fleet was approaching the harbor of her chief city, and a veteran army of overwhelming strength, computed by no one at less than thirty thousand, was almost in sight. The whole number of rank and file in Washington's army, present and fit for duty, was on the morning of the twelfth of June but six thousand seven hundred and forty nine; with four hundred men in a continental regiment of artillery, and one single provincial company of artillery, raised probably through the zeal of Alexander Hamilton, who, though not yet twenty years old, had after an examination been judged qualified to command it, and had in March been appointed its captain. Of the infantry many were without arms; one regiment had only ninety seven firelocks and seven bayonets; others were in nearly as bad a state, and no one was well armed. In numbers the regiments from the east were deficient from twenty to fifty; and few as the men were, [441] the term of the enlistment of every one of them would

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arrive in a few months. Little had been done by congress to reinforce Washington except to pass votes, ordering out large numbers of militia from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey; and still again more militia under the name of the flying camps of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland; and none of these were to be engaged beyond December. Congress had not yet authorized the employment of men for three years or for the war; nor did it do so till near the end of June, when it was too late for any success in enlistments; the feeble army, then under Washington's command, was by the conditions of its existence to melt away in the autumn and coming winter.

Moreover a secret plot was fostered by Tryon, who ever unscrupulous and indefatigable, from on board the Duchess of Gordon, sought through the royalist mayor of the city of New York and others to prepare a body of conspirators, who should raise an insurrection in aid of Howe on his arrival, blow up the magazines, gain possession of the guns, and seize Washington and his principal officers. Some of the inferior agents were suspected of having intended to procure Washington's death. There were full proofs that the plan against his army was prosecuted with the utmost diligence; but it was discovered before it was matured. It is certain that two or three of his own guard were partners in the scheme of treachery; and one of them, after conviction before a court martial, was hanged. It was the first military execution of the revolution. This discovery of danger from secret foes, made no change in the conduct of the commander [442] in chief; he placed his trust ‘in the protection of an

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all-wise and beneficent Being;’ and knew no fear.

The new provincial congress of New Jersey, which came fresh from the people with ample powers, and organized itself in the evening of the eleventh of June, was opened with prayer by John Witherspoon, an eloquent Scottish minister of the same faith with John Knox; a man of great ability, learning, and liberality, ready to dash into pieces all images of false gods. Born near Edinburgh, trained up at its university, in 1768 he removed to Princeton, to become the successor of Jonathan Edwards, Davies, and Finley, as president of its college. A combatant of scepticism and the narrow philosophy of the materialists, he was deputed by Somerset county to take part in applying his noble theories to the construction of a civil government.

The body of which he was a member was instructed to prepare for the defence of the colony against an enemy, whose arrival was hourly expected with force enough to lay waste its villages and drench its plains in blood; next, to decide the question of independence; and lastly, to form and establish a constitution. They promptly resolved to reinforce the army of New York, with three thousand three hundred of the militia. William Franklin, the last royalist governor, still lingered at Perth Amboy; and in the hope of dividing public opinion by the semblance of a regular constitutional government, he had, by proclamation, called a meeting of the general assembly for the twentieth of June. The convention, on the fourteenth, voted that his proclamation ought not to be heeded; the next day he was arrested; as he refused [443] to give his parole, he was kept under guard till

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he could be removed to Connecticut. On the twenty second it was resolved by a vote of fifty four against three, ‘that a government be formed for regulating the internal police of the colony, pursuant to the recommendation of the continental congress;’ and in that congress five friends to independence were then elected to represent New Jersey. As the constitution was reported before independence had been declared, a clause provided for the contingency of a reconciliation; otherwise this charter from the people was to remain firm and inviolable. Its principles were, a legislative power intrusted to two separate houses; a governor annually chosen by the legislature, and possessing only a casting vote in one branch of the legislature; judges to be appointed by the legislature for seven years and for five years; the elective franchise to be exercised by all inhabitants of full age, who had been residents for twelve months, and possessed fifty pounds proclamation money. No Protestant could be denied any rights or franchises on account of his religious principles; and to every person within the colony were guaranteed the right to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and an immunity from all tithes or church rates, except in conformity to his own engagements.

On the eighteenth of June the committee of Philadelphia and of the several counties of Pennsylvania met at Carpenters' Hall in a provincial conference. The duty which they had to perform was imperative, and yet necessarily the occasion of a bitter domestic feud. The old proprietary government, in an existence of more than ninety years, had won the admiration [444] of the wise throughout the world by its respect

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for religious and civil liberty, had kept itself free from the suspicion of having instigated or approved the obnoxious measures of the British ministry, and had maintained the attitude of a mediator between parliament and America. When the obstinacy of the king left no room for reconciliation, its career was run, and it came naturally to its end. Such of the members of the assembly as remained in their places, confessed in a formal vote their ‘despair’ of again bringing together a quorum; and when, according to the charter, they could only have kept their body alive by adjourning from day to day, they made an illegal adjournment to a day nearly two months later than that appointed for the vote of congress on independence, leaving the measures of defence unattended to. The adjournment was an abdication; and the people prepared promptly and somewhat roughly to supersede the expiring system. Nor were the proposed changes restricted only to forms; a fierce demand broke out for an immediate extension of the right of suffrage to those ‘whom,’ it was held, ‘the resolve of congress had now rendered electors.’

The provincial conference was necessarily composed of men who had hitherto not been concerned in the government; the old members of the assembly were most of them bound by their opinions and all of them by their oaths to keep aloof; Franklin, who, by never taking his place in that body, had preserved his freedom, would not place himself glaringly in contrast with his colleagues, and stayed away; while Reed, observing ‘that the province would be in the summer a great scene of party and contention,’ withdrew [445] to the army, in which Washington had procured him

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the high office of adjutant-general.

On the eighteenth Thomas Mackean was chosen president of the conference. On the nineteenth, one hundred and four members being present, the resolution of congress of the fifteenth of May was read twice, and after mature consideration was unanimously approved; the present government of the colony was condemned as incompetent; and a new one was ordered to be formed on the authority of the people only. Every other colony had shunned the mixture of questions of internal reform with the question of the relation to Great Britain; but here, a petition was read from Germans, praying that all associators who were taxable might vote. In the old election to the assembly the possession of fifty pounds proclamation money was required as the qualification of a voter, both in the city under its charter and in the counties; and the foreign born must further have been naturalized under alaw which required an oath of allegiance to the British king: the conference revived the simple provision of ‘the Great Law’ of December 1682, and endowed every taxpayer with the right to vote for members of the constituent convention. So neither poverty nor place of birth any more disabled freemen; in Pennsylvania liberty claimed for the builders of her house the rich and the poor, the German, the Scot, the Englishman, the Irishman, as well as the native. Thus the Germans were incorporated into the people, and made one with them; the emigrants who spoke the language of Lessing and Kant, became equal members of the new city of humanity. [446]

While in this manner the divisions of nationalities

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were broken in pieces, the conference, at the instance of Christopher Marshall, who had been educated among the Friends and had left the society, because he held it right to draw the sword in defence of civil liberty, resolved that the members elected to the convention should be required to declare their faith in God the Father, Christ his eternal Son, and the Holy Spirit; and in the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. For this interference he was much censured; but the pure minded mystic would not perceive that he was justifying the exclusiveness of the Catholic and the Anglican church.

It had not been the intention of the conference to perform administrative acts; yet to repair the grievous neglect of the assembly, they ordered a flying camp of six thousand men to be called out, in conformity to the vote of the continental congress.

One thing more remained; on the afternoon of the twenty fourth, on the report of a committee composed of Mackean, Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, and James Smith of York county, the conference, with perfect unanimity, all its members giving their voices one by one, pronounced in behalf of themselves and their constituents their willingness to concur in a vote of congress, declaring the United Colonies to be free and independent states; and a copy of their vote, having been signed at the table, was, by Mackean, the president, delivered directly to congress.

Far happier were the people of Maryland, for they acted with moderation and unanimity; their counsels sprung from a sense of right and from sym pathy with their sister colonies, especially Virginia. [447] Chase, now the foremost civilian in Maryland, the

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ablest of their delegates in the continental congress, a friend to law not less than to liberty, ever attracted towards the lovers of established government, had always, on the question of independence, kept ahead of men who otherwise agreed with him. Guided by his clear understanding and vehement will, the patriots of all classes, the most eager and the laggards, joined hands. In May and the early part of June, the people, in county meetings, renounced the hope of reconciliation; listening to their voices, the committee of safety called a convention; and that body, assembling on the twenty first of June, placed itself in the closest relations with its constituents. On the request of any one delegate, the yeas and nays might be taken and entered in its journal; its debates and proceedings were public. Its measures for calling its militia into active service were prompt and efficient. On the afternoon of the day on which Moultrie repelled the British squadron from Charleston, it concurred with Virginia on the subject of independence, a confederation, treaties with foreign powers, and the reservation of the internal government of each colony to its own people; and five days later, while the continental congress was still considering the form of its
declaration of independence, it directed the election of a new convention to create a government by the authority of the people only.

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