The American revolution.

Epoch Third.

America Declares itself independent.



America Declares itself independent.

Chapter 41:

The continental congress in midsummer, 1775.

June 17—July, 1775.

idle refugees in Boston, and even candid British
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officers, condemned Howe's attack on the New England lines as a needless exposure of his troops to carnage. By landing at the Charlestown isthmus, they said, he should have cooped the rebels within the peninsula; or by aid of a musket proof gunboat he should have dislodged the party near the Mystic; and, even at the last, by concentrating his force at the rail fence, he might have taken Prescott in the rear. During the evening and night after the battle, the air trembled with the groans of the wounded, as they were borne over the Charles and through the streets of Boston to hospitals, where they were to waste away from the summer heat and the scarcity of [26] proper food. The fifth regiment suffered most; the
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eighteenth and the fifty ninth, which had long been very weak, were utterly ruined; and, to the end of the war, the courage of the insurgents in this battle of the people, and their skill as marksmen, never wore out of mind. The loss of officers was observed to be disproportionately great; and the gloom in the quarters of the British was deepened by the reflection, that they had fought not against an enemy, but against their fellow-subjects and kindred; not for the promotion of civil or religious freedom, but for the supremacy of one part of the empire over another. Those who, like Abercrombie, died of their wounds, wanted consolation in their last hour, for they had no hope that posterity would mark their graves or cherish their memory.

On the day of the battle, the continental congress elected its four major generals. Of these, the first, from deference to Massachusetts, was Artemas Ward. Notwithstanding his ill health, he answered: ‘I always have been, and am still ready to devote my life in attempting to deliver my native country.’

The American people with ingenuous confidence assumed that Charles Lee,—the son of an English officer, trained up from boyhood for the army,—was, as he represented himself, well versed in the science of war, familiar with active service in America, Portugal, Poland, and Turkey, and altogether a soldier of consummate ability, who had joined their cause from the purest impulses of a generous nature. In England he was better understood. ‘From what I know of him,’ wrote Sir Joseph Yorke, then British minister at the Hague, ‘he is the worst present which could be made to any army.’ [27] He left the standard of his king, because he saw ‘no

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chance of being provided for at home,’ and, as an adventurer, sought ‘employment in any part of the world.’ Venerating England all the while, and holding it ‘wretchedness itself not to be able to herd with the class of men to which he had been accustomed from his infancy,’ he was continually craving intimate relations with British general officers and his old associates. He looked upon the Americans as unworthy of independence, which he never meant they should achieve, and he would have willingly become conspicuous as the instrument to lead them back to their allegiance; but he pursued no consistent plan; and whatever purpose for evil or for good rose in his mind, the eddies of his whims were sure to disturb its course. No position was too high for his conceit; yet he could not steadily pursue intrigues to supplant his superiors. He wrote with vivacity and sometimes with epigrammatic terseness, but never with warmth, for he had no fixed principles, and he loved neither man nor woman. He was subject to ‘spleen and gloomy moods;’ excitable almost to madness; but without depth or persistency; in his passions, alike violent and versatile. He passed for a brave man, but he wanted presence of mind, and in sudden danger he quailed. His mobility, though sometimes mistaken for activity, only disguised his inefficiency. He was poor in council; prodigal of censure; downcast in disaster; after success, claiming honor not his own; fit only to cavil and perplex. He professed to be a freethinker, after the type of his century; but he had only learned of scoffers to deny ‘the God of the Jews,’ curse the clergy, and hate orthodox dissenters. [28] His numerous eccentricities were neither
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exaggerations nor caricatures of any thing American, and in their excess disclosed a morbid mind. Having no fellow feeling with the common people, he wanted capacity to array a nation in arms; and he would have preferred a country of slaves under a lenient master, to a democratic government. His sordid soul had no passion so strong as covetousness; in affluence, he thought his income ‘miserably scanty,’ and he was always seeking to escape spending money even on himself. Claiming to ‘have passed through the higher military ranks in some of the most respect able services of Europe, and to be a major general of five years standing,’ he had waited upon congress with the thought of being chosen commander in chief. Before he would consent to take rank after Ward, whom he despised, he exacted a promise of indemnity on renouncing his half pay; and at the very moment of his accepting employment from a body, which was looking to France for sympathy, he assured his king of his readiness to serve against the natural hereditary enemies of England with the utmost alacrity and zeal. Ever brooding over the risk he ran, he often regretted having hazarded his ‘all’ in the American cause. Such was the man who, in the probable event of Ward's early resignation, was placed next in command to Washington.

New York had been asked to propose the third major general; she had more than one citizen of superior military talent, but her provincial congress which was consulted, limited the choice to those who possessed ‘the gifts of fortune,’ and selected Philip Schuyler. Montgomery hesitated, saying: ‘His consequence [29] in the province makes him a fit subject for

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an important trust; but has he strong nerves? I could wish that point well ascertained with respect to any man so employed.’ Doubts existed in congress, and the vote for him was not unanimous. Born to opulence, accustomed to ease, of a generous, open, and unsuspicious nature, infirm in health, choleric and querulous, Schuyler was ill suited to control undisciplined levies of turbulent freemen; or to pierce the wiles of a crafty foe. Without peculiar fitness for the battle field, he had personal integrity, social consideration, and a rare and almost unique superiority to envy; and his patriotism was so sincere and so ardent, that he willingly used his credit, influence, and wide connections to bring out the resources of his native province. In this kind of service no one equalled him, and neither rude taunts, nor inconsiderate disregard of his rank, nor successful intrigues, could quench his hearty and unpretending zeal.

For the fourth major general, the choice fell upon Israel Putnam, of Connecticut. Wooster and Spencer, of the same colony, stood before him in age and rank; but the skirmish at Noddle's Island had been heralded as a great victory, and the ballot in his favor is recorded as unanimous. Of Massachusetts by birth, at the ripe age of thirty seven he began his career in war with the commission from Connecticut of a second lieutenant, and his service had been chiefly as a ranger. Deficient in the reflective powers, he was also unusually illiterate. His bustling manner and adventurous life had made his village tavern the resort of the patriots of his neighborhood; its keeper their military oracle; but his fame rested on deeds [30] of personal prowess rather than on concerted action;

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and at fifty seven he was too old to be taken from his farm and his stand to command armies, even if he had not always wanted superintending vigilance, controlling energy, and the faculty of combination.

Next to those came Horatio Gates, as adjutant general with the rank of brigadier. His experience adapted him for good service in bringing the army into order; but he was shallow in his natural endowments and in his military culture, yet restless for a higher place, for which he did not possess either the requisite genius for command, or firmness of mind.

The continent took up arms, with only one general officer, who drew to himself the trust and love of the country, with not one of the five next below him fit to succeed to his place.

On the twenty first of June, Thomas Jefferson, then thirty years of age, entered congress, preceded by a brilliant reputation as an elegant writer and a courageous and far-sighted statesman. The next day brought tidings of the Charlestown battle. At the grief for Warren's death, Patrick Henry exclaimed: ‘I am glad of it; a breach on our affections was needed to rouse the country to action.’ Congress proceeded at once to the election of eight brigadiers, of whom all but one were from New England. The first was Seth Pomeroy, a gunsmith of Northampton, the warmhearted veteran of two wars, beloved by all who knew him; but he was seventy years old, and on his perceiving some distrust of his capacity, he retired from the camp before receiving his commission. The second was Richard Montgomery, of New York, seventh from Washington in rank, next to him in [31] merit; an Irishman by birth, well informed as a

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statesman, faultless in private life, a patriot from the heart. He was followed by David Wooster of Connecticut, an upright old man of sixty five, frugal of his means, but lavish of his life; by William Heath, of Roxbury, Massachusetts, a patriot farmer, who held high rank in the trainbands and had read books on the military art; vain, honest, and incompetent; by Joseph Spencer of Connecticut, a man past sixty, a most respectable citizen, but, from inexperience, not qualified for councils of war; by John Thomas, a physician of Kingston, Massachusetts, the best general officer of that colony; by John Sullivan, a lawyer of New Hampshire, always ready to act, but not always thoughtful of what he undertook; not free from defects and foibles; tinctured with vanity and eager to be popular; enterprising, spirited, and able. The last was Nathaniel Greene, of Rhode Island, who, after Washington, had no superior in natural resources, unless it were Montgomery.

At a farewell supper, the members of congress all rose, as they drank a health to ‘the commander in chief of the American army;’ to his thanks, they listened in stillness, for the sense of the difficulties which lay before him suppressed every festal cheer.

‘A kind of destiny has thrown me upon this service;’ thus Washington announced ‘the cutting stroke of his departure’ to his wife, whose miniature he always wore on his breast from the day of his marriage to his death. On the twenty third of June, a day after congress had heard the first rumors of the battle at Charlestown, he was escorted out of Philadelphia by the Massachusetts delegates and many others, with [32] music, officers of militia, and a cavalcade of light

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horse in uniform. ‘I, poor creature,’ said John Adams, as he returned from this ‘pride and pomp of war,’ ‘I, worn out with scribbling for my bread and my liberty, low in spirits and weak in health, must leave others to wear the laurels which I have sown; others to eat the bread which I have earned.’ To his brother, Washington wrote confidingly: ‘I bid adieu to every kind of domestic ease; and embark on a wide ocean, boundless in its prospect, and in which perhaps no safe harbor is to be found.’ He went forth not to eat the bread, still less to wear the honors of others, but to hazard his fame and life in the command of an army which had neither discipline, nor permanency, nor proper arms, nor ammunition, nor funds for its support, nor experienced officers; encouraged only by the hope that, by self-sacrifice, he might unbar the gates of light for mankind.

On Sunday, the twenty fifth, all New York was in motion. Tryon, the royal governor, who had arrived the day before, was to land from the harbor; and Washington, accompanied by Lee and Schuyler, under the escort of the Philadelphia Light Horse, was known to have reached Newark. As the colony of New York had been enjoined by the general congress to respect the king's government, the governor and the general were both entitled to be received with public honors; but the people intervened to mark the distinction. On the news that Washington was to cross the Hudson, the bells were rung, the militia paraded in their gayest trim, and at four o'clock in the afternoon the commander in chief, dressed in a uniform of blue, was received at Lispenard's by the mass of the inhabitants. [33] Drawn in an open carriage by a pair of white

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horses, he was escorted into the city by nine companies of infantry, while multitudes, of all ages and both sexes, bent their eyes on him from the housetops, the windows, and the streets. Night had fallen before Tryon landed. Met by a company which he himself had commissioned, and by a few of the magistrates in military costume, he was attended noiselessly to a house in Broadway, keenly suffering from disappointment. He had expected to find the royalists in the undisputed ascendant; and he saw himself left almost alone, an object of suspicion, liable at any moment to arrest. The false informers of the ministry excused themselves by the suddenness of the ‘change of measures and sentiments;’ but they frankly owned that the province would fall behind none in opposition to the king and parliament. Amazed and dejected at heart, Tryon masked his designs under an air of unconcern, and overflowed with bland professions. Washington, who instantly penetrated his insincerity, and had no scruple about the propriety of seizing him, directed Schuyler to keep a watchful eye on his movements, and wrote a warning to congress; but Schuyler, lulled by words of mildness which concealed the most wary and malignant activity, soon reported confidently, that Tryon ‘would create no trouble.’

On the twenty-sixth, the provincial congress of New York, in their address to Washington, ‘from whose abilities and virtue they were taught to expect security and peace,’ declared an accommodation with the mother country to be the fondest wish of each American soul, in the fullest assurance that, upon such an accommodation, he would cheerfully resign his [34] trust, and become once more a citizen. ‘When we

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assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen,’ answered Washington for himself and his colleagues; but having once drawn the sword, he postponed the thought of private life to the ‘establishment of American liberty on the most firm and solid foundations.’

On the next day the New York congress produced its plan of accommodation. It insisted on the repeal of obnoxious acts; the undisturbed exercise, by the respective colonies, of the powers of internal legislation and taxation, and the free enjoyment of the rights of conscience; it conceded to Great Britain the power to regulate the trade of the whole empire; and, on proper requisitions, promised assistance in the general defence, either from the colonies severally, or through a continental congress under a president appointed by the crown. Transmitting their demands to their delegates, they added: ‘Use every effort for compromising this unhappy quarrel; so that, if our well-meant endeavors shall fail of effect, we may stand unreproachable by our own consciences in the last solemn appeal to the God of battles.’ The spirit of the colony was in harmony with the rest of the continent; but here too, as everywhere else, preparations for resistance had been deferred; no more than four barrels of powder could be found in the city.

While Washington was borne toward Cambridge on the affectionate confidence of the people, congress, which had as yet supported its commander in chief with nothing beyond a commission, was indulging a hope, by one campaign, to dispose the British government to treaty. How to find the ways and means for [35] such a temporary resistance was their great difficulty.

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They represented a fertile and wealthy continent; but even if commerce had not ceased, they possessed no power to lay taxes of any kind. Necessity led, therefore, to the most disastrous of all financial measures; though the country was already languishing under the depreciating paper money of the several colonies, continental bills of credit to the amount of two millions of dollars were authorized, and ‘the twelve confederated colonies’ were pledged for their redemption.

A code for the government of the continental army was adopted. Two more companies of riflemen were asked of Pennsylvania, that the eight from that colony might form a battalion. The Green Mountain Boys, if they would but serve, were allowed the choice of their own officers; and as Carleton ‘was making preparations to invade the colonies, and was instigating the Indian nations to take up the hatchet against them,’ Schuyler, who was directed to repair to Ticonderoga and Crown Point, received authority to take possession of St. John's, Montreal, and any other parts of Canada. To the Indians agents were sent with presents and speeches, ‘to prevent their taking any part in the commotions.’ Alliances with them were forbidden, except where some emissary of the ministry should have concerted with them acts of hostility, or an offensive league.

On the sixth of July, congress set forth the causes

and necessity of taking up arms. After recapitulating the wrongs of America, they asked in words which Edmund Burke ridiculed as the ‘nonsense’ of men wholly ignorant of the state of parties in England: [36]

‘Why should we enumerate our injuries in detail

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By one statute it is declared that parliament can of right make laws to bind us in all cases whatsoever. July What is to defend us against so unlimited a power? Not a single man of those who assume it, is chosen by us; and an American revenue would lighten their own burdens in proportion as they increase ours.’ Lord North's proposition for conciliation they condemned as insidiously designed to divide the colonies, and leave them nothing but ‘the indulgence of raising the prescribed tribute in their own mode.’ After enumerating the hostile acts at Lexington and Concord, Boston, Charlestown, and other places, the seizure of ships, the intercepting of provisions, the attempts to embody Canadians, Indians, and insurgent slaves, they closed their statement in words of their new member, Jefferson: ‘These colonies now feel the complicated calamities of fire, sword, and famine. We are reduced to the alternative of choosing an unconditional submission to irritated ministers, or resistance by force. The latter is our choice. We have counted the cost of this contest, and find nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery. Our cause is just, our union is perfect, our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable. Before God and the world we declare, that the arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will employ for the preservation of our liberties; being, with one mind, resolved to die freemen rather than live slaves. We have not raised armies with designs of separating from Great Britain and establishing independent states. Necessity has not yet driven us into that desperate measure. We [37] exhibit to mankind the spectacle of a people attacked
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by unprovoked enemies, without any imputation or even suspicion of offence. In our own native land, in defence of the freedom that is our birthright, for the protection of our property against violence actually offered, we have taken up arms. We shall lay them down when hostilities shall cease on the part of the aggressors, and all danger of their being renewed shall be removed, and not before.’

So firm a declaration should have been followed by assuming powers of government, opening the ports to every nation, holding the king's officers as hostages and modelling a general constitution. Such was the counsel of John Adams. Franklin also knew that there was no longer a time to negotiate or entreat. In the ashes of Charlestown, along the trenches of Bunker Hill, he saw the footsteps of a revolution that could not be turned back; and to Strahan, the go between through whom he had formerly communicated with Lord North, he wrote on the fifth of July: ‘You are a member of parliament, and one of that majority which has doomed my country to destruction. You have begun to burn our towns, and murder our people. Look upon your hands, they are stained with the blood of your relations! You and I were long friends; you are now my enemy, and I am yours.’ But Franklin did not attempt to overrule the opinions or defy the scruples of his colleagues, and, after earnest debates, congress adopted the proposal of Jay to petition the king once more.

The second petition to the king was drafted by Dickinson, and in these words put forward Duane's proposal for a negotiation to be preceded by a truce: [38] ‘We beseech your majesty to direct some mode by

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which the united applications of your faithful colonists to the throne, in pursuance of their common councils, may be improved into a happy and permanent reconciliation; and that, in the mean time, measures may be taken for preventing the further destruction of the lives of your majesty's subjects, and that such statutes as more immediately distress any of your majesty's colonies may be repealed.’

The colonies, by refusing to treat separately and offering to treat jointly, announced their union, which thus preceded their independence. Yet as the king would not receive a document from congress, the petition was signed by the members individually Dickinson, confident of success, was proud of his work. ‘There is but one word in it which I wish altered,’ said he, ‘and that is—congress.’ ‘It is the only word I wish should remain,’ answered Harrison, of Virginia.

Having thus owned the continuing sovereignty of the king, before whom they presented themselves as beadsmen, the United Colonies, as a nation dealing with a nation, a people speaking to a people, addressed the inhabitants of Great Britain. From English institutions they had derived the principles for which they had taken up arms, and their visions of future greatness were blended with their pride as men of English descent. They spoke, therefore, to Englishmen as to countrymen and brothers, recapitulating their griefs, and plainly setting forth that the repeal of the laws of which they complained, must go before the disbanding of their army, or the renewal of commercial intercourse. [39]

On the same day thanks were addressed to the

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lord mayor, aldermen, and livery of London, for their unsolicited sympathy. ‘North America,’ it was further said, ‘wishes most ardently for a lasting connection with Great Britain on terms of just and equal liberty; less than which generous minds will not offer, nor brave and free ones receive.’

The desire for harmony was so intense, that Richard Penn, a proprietary of Pennsylvania and recently its governor, a most loyal Englishman, bound by the strongest motives of affection and interest to avert American independence, was selected to bear the second petition to the throne. He assumed the trust with alacrity, and on the twelfth of July embarked on his mission. The hope of success grew out of the readiness of the Americans, on the condition of exemption from parliamentary taxation, to bear the restraints on their trade; or, as an alternative, to purchase a freedom of trade like that of Scotland, by taxing themselves towards the payment of the national debt.

From the complacency engendered by delusive confidence, congress was recalled to the necessities of the moment by a letter from Washington.

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