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Chapter 2:

New York Proposes a general congress.

May, 1774.

New York anticipated the prayer of Boston. Its
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people, who had received the port-act directly from England, felt the wrong to that town, as a wound to themselves, and even the lukewarm kindled with resentment. From the epoch of the stamp-act, their Sons of Liberty, styled by the royalists ‘the Presbyterian junto,’ had kept up a committee of correspondence. Yet Sears, MacDougal, and Lamb, still its principal members, represented the sympathies of the mechanics of the city, more than of the merchants; and they never enjoyed the full confidence of the great landed proprietors who, by the tenure of estates throughout New York, formed a recognised aristocracy. To unite the whole province on the side of liberty, a more comprehensive combination was, therefore, required. The old committee advocated the questionable policy of an immediate suspension of commerce with Britain; but they also proposed—and they were the first to propose—‘a general congress.’ [41] These recommendations they forwarded through Con-
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necticut to Boston, with entreaties to that town to stand firm; and in full confidence of approval, they applied not to New England only, but to Philadelphia, and through Philadelphia to every colony at the South.

Such was the inception of the continental congress of 1774. It was the last achievement of the Sons of Liberty of New York. Their words of cheering to Boston, and their summons to the country, had already gone forth, when, on the evening of the sixteenth of May, they convoked the inhabitants of their city. A sense of the impending change pervaded the meeting and tempered passionate rashness. Some who were in a secret understanding with officers of the crown, sought to evade all decisive measures; the merchants were averse to headlong engagements for suspending trade; the gentry feared, lest the men, who on all former occasions had led the multitude, should preserve the control in the day, which was felt to be near at hand, when an independent people would shape the permanent institutions of a continent. Under a conservative influence, the motion prevailed to supersede the old committee of correspondence by a new one of fifty, and its members were selected by open nomination. The choice included men from all classes. Nearly a third part were of those who followed the British standard to the last; others were lukewarm, unsteady, and blind to the nearness of revolution; others again were enthusiastic Sons of Liberty. The friends to government claimed that the majority was inflexibly loyal; the control fell into the hands of men who, like John [42] Jay, still aimed at reconciling a continued dependence

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on England with the just freedom of the colonies.

Meantime, the port-act was circulated with incredible rapidity. In some places it was printed upon mourning paper with a black border, and cried about the streets as a barbarous murder; in others, it was burned with great solemnity in the presence of vast bodies of the people. On the seventeenth the representatives of Connecticut, with clear perceptions and firm courage, made a declaration of rights. ‘Let us play the man,’ said they, ‘for the cause of our country; and trust the event to Him who orders all events for the best good of His people.’ On the same day, the freemen of the town of Providence, unsolicited from abroad, and after full discussion, voted to promote ‘a congress of the representatives of all the North American colonies.’ Declaring ‘personal liberty an essential part of the natural rights of mankind,’ they also expressed the wish to prohibit the importation of negro slaves, and to set free all negroes born in the colony.

Two days after these spontaneous movements, the people of the city and county of New York assembled to inaugurate their new committee with the formality of public approval. Two parties appeared in array; on the one side men of property, on the other tradesmen and mechanics. Foreboding a revolution, they seemed to contend in advance, whether their future government should be formed upon the basis of property, or on purely popular principles. It was plain that knowledge had penetrated the mass of the people, who were growing accustomed to reason for themselves, and were ready to found a [43] new social order in which they would rule. But on

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that day they chose to follow the wealthier class, if it would but make with them a common cause; and the nomination of the committee was accepted, even with the addition of Isaac Low as its chairman, who was more of a loyalist than a patriot.

The letter from the New York Sons of Liberty had been received in Philadelphia; and when on the nineteenth the messenger from Boston arrived with despatches, he found Charles Thomson, Thomas Mifflin, Joseph Reed and others, ready to call a public meeting on the evening of the next day.

On the morning of the twentieth, the king gave in person his assent to the act which made the British commander-in-chief in America, his army, and the civil officers, no longer amenable to American courts of justice; and also to that which mutilated the charter of Massachusetts, and destroyed the freedom of its town meetings. ‘The law,’ said Garnier, the French minister, ‘must either lead to the complete reduction of the colonies, or clear the way for their independence.’ ‘I wish from the bottom of my heart,’ said the duke of Richmond, during a debate in the house of lords, ‘that the Americans may resist, and get the better of the forces sent against them.’

While the British parliament was conferring on Gage power to take the lives of Bostonians with impunity, the men of Philadelphia were asking each. other, if there remained a hope that the danger would pass by. The Presbyterians, true to their traditions, held it right to war against tyranny; the merchants refused to sacrifice their trade; the Quakers in any event scrupled to use arms; a numerous class, like [44] Reed, cherished the most passionate desire for a

Chap. II.} 1774. May.
reconciliation with the mother country. In the chaos of opinion, the cause of liberty needed wise and intrepid counsellors; but during the absence of Franklin, Pennsylvania fell under the influence of Dickinson. His claims to public respect were indisputable. He was honored for spotless morals, eloquence, and good service in the colonial legislature his writings had endeared him to America as a sincere friend of liberty. Possessed of an ample fortune, it was his pride to call himself a ‘farmer.’ Residing at a country seat which overlooked Philadelphia and the Delaware river, he delighted in study and repose, and was wanting in active vigor of will. Free from personal cowardice, his shrinking sensitiveness bordered on pusillanimity. ‘He had an excellent heart, and the cause of his country lay near it;’ ‘he loved the people of Boston with the tenderness of a brother;’ yet he was more jealous of their zeal than touched by their sorrows. ‘They will have time enough to die,’ were his words on that morning. ‘Let them give the other provinces opportunity to think and resolve. If they expect to drag them by their own violence into mad measures, they will be left to perish by themselves, despised by their enemies, and almost detested by their friends.’ Having matured his scheme in the solitude of his retreat, he received at dinner Thomson, Mifflin, and Reed; who, for the sake of his public cooperation, acquiesced in his delays.

In the evening, about three hundred of the principal citizens of Philadelphia assembled in the Long Room of the City Tavern. The letter from the Sons [45] of Liberty of New York was read aloud, as well

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as the letters from Boston. Two measures were thus brought under discussion; that of New York for a congress; that of Boston for an immediate cessation of trade. The latter proposition was received with loud and general murmurs. Dickinson conciliated the wavering merchants by expressing himself strongly against it; but he was heard with applause as he spoke for a general congress. He insisted, however, on a preliminary petition to his friend, John Penn, the proprietary governor, to call together the legislature of the colony. This request every one knew would be refused. But then, reasoned Mifflin and the ardent politicians, a committee of correspondence, after the model of Boston, must, in consequence of the refusal, be named for the several counties in the province. Delegates will thus be appointed to a general congress, ‘and when the colonies are once united in councils, what may they not effect?’ At an early hour Dickinson retired from the meeting, of which the spirit far exceeded his own; but even the most zealous acknowledged the necessity of deferring to his advice. Accepting, therefore, moderation and prudence as their watchwords, they did little more than coldly resolve, that Boston was suffering in the general cause, and they appointed a committee of intercolonial correspondence, with Dickinson as its chief.

On the next day, Dickinson, with calculating reserve, embodied in a letter to Boston the system which, for the coming year, was to form the policy of America. It proposed a general congress of deputies from the different colonies, who, in firm but dutiful [46] terms, should make to the king a petition of their

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rights. This, he was confident, would be granted through the influence of the wise and good in the mother country; and the most sanguine of his supporters predicted that the very idea of a general congress would compel a change of policy.

In like manner the fifty-one who now represented the city and county of New York, adopted from their predecessors the plan of a continental congress, and to that body they referred all questions relating to commerce; thus postponing the proposal for an immediate suspension of trade, but committing themselves irrevocably to union and resistance. At the same time they invited every county in the colony to make choice of a committee.

The messenger, on his return with the letters from Philadelphia and New York, found the people of Connecticut anxious for a congress, even if it should not at once embrace the colonies south of the Potomac; and their committee wisely entreated Massachusetts to fix the place and time for its meeting.

At Boston, the agents and supporters of the British ministers strove to bend the firmness of its people by holding up to the tradesmen the grim picture of misery and want, while Hutchinson promised to obtain in England a restoration of trade if the town would but pay the first cost of the tea. Before his departure, one hundred and twenty-three merchants and others of Boston clandestinely addressed him, ‘lamenting the loss of so good a governor,’ confessing the propriety of indemnifying the East India company, and appealing to his most benevolent disposition to procure by his representations some [47] speedy relief; but at a full meeting of merchants and

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traders the address was disclaimed. Thirty-three citizens of Marblehead, who signed a similar paper, brought upon themselves the public reprobation of their townsmen. Hutchinson had merited in civil cases the praise of an impartial judge; twenty-four lawyers, including judges of admiralty and attorneys of the crown, subscribed an extravagant panegyric of his general character and conduct; but those who, for learning and integrity, most adorned their profession, withheld their names.

On the other hand, the necessity of a response to the courage of the people, the hearty adhesion of the town of Providence, and the cheering letter from the old committee of New York, animated a majority of the merchants of Boston, and through their example those of the province, to an engagement to cease all importations from England. Confidence prevailed that their brethren, at least as far south as Philadelphia, would embrace the same mode of peaceful resistance. The letter which soon arrived from that city, and which required the people of Massachusetts to retreat from their advanced position, was therefore received with impatience. But Samuel Adams suppressed all murmurs. ‘I am fully of the Farmer's sentiments,’ said he; ‘violence and submission would at this time be equally fatal;’ but he exerted himself the more to promote the immediate suspension of commerce.

The legislature of Massachusetts, on the last Wednesday of May, organised the government for the year by the usual election of councillors; of these, the governor negatived the unparalleled number of [48] thirteen, among them James Bowdoin, Samuel Dex

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ter, William Phillips, and John Adams, than whom the province could not show purer or abler men. The desire of the assembly that he would appoint a fast was refused; ‘for,’ said he to Dartmouth, ‘the request was only to give an opportunity for sedition to flow from the pulpit.’ On Saturday, the twentyeighth, Samuel Adams was on the point of proposing a general congress, when the assembly was unexpectedly prorogued, to meet after ten days, at Salem.

The people of Boston, then the most flourishing commercial town on the continent, never regretted their being the principal object of ministerial vengeance. ‘We shall suffer in a good cause,’ said the thousands who depended on their daily labor for bread; ‘the righteous Being, who takes care of the ravens that cry unto him, will provide for us and ours.’

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