The second continental congress.
few hours after the surrender of Ticonderoga
Chap. XXXIV} 1775. May 10.
the second continental congress met at Philadelphia
There among the delegates, appeared Franklin
and Samuel Adams
; John Adams
, and Washington
, and Richard Henry Lee
; soon joined by Patrick Henry
, and by George Clinton
, and Jay
's college friend, the younger Robert R. Livingston
, of New York.
Whom did they represent?
and what were their functions?
They were committees from twelve colonies, deputed to consult on measures of conciliation, with no means of resistance to oppression beyond a voluntary agreement for the suspension of importations from Great Britain
They formed no confederacy; they were not an executive government; they were not even a legislative body.
They owed the use of a hall for their sessions to the courtesy of the carpenters of the city; there was not a foot of land on which they had the right to execute their decisions; and they had not one civil officer
to carry out
their commands, nor the power to appoint one.
Chap. XXXIV.} 1775. May 10.
was one soldier enlisted, nor one officer commissioned in their name.
They had no treasury; and neither authority to lay a tax, nor to borrow money.
They had been elected, in part at least, by tumultuary assemblies, or bodies which had no recognised legal existence; they were intrusted with no powers but those of counsel; most of them were held back by explicit or implied instructions; and they represented nothing more solid than the unformed opinion of an unformed people.
Yet they were encountered by the king's refusal to act as a mediator, the decision of parliament to enforce its authority, and the actual outbreak of civil war. The waters had risen; the old roads were obliterated; and they must strike out a new path for themselves and for the continent.
The exigency demanded the instant formation of one great commonwealth and the declaration of independence
. ‘They are in rebellion,’ said Edmund Burke
; ‘and have done so much as to necessitate them to do a great deal more.’
Independence had long been the desire of Samuel Adams
, and was already the reluctant choice of Franklin
, and of John Adams
, from a conviction that it could not ultimately be avoided.
But its immediate declaration was not possible.
American law was the growth of necessity, not of the wisdom of individuals.
It was not an acquisition from abroad; it was begotten from the American
mind, of which it was a natural and inevitable, but also a slow and gradual development.
It is truly the child of the people, an emanation from its will.
The sublime thought that there existed a united nation, was yet to spring into being, to liberate the public
spirit from allegiance to the past, and summon it to
Chap. XXXIV.} 1775.
the creation of a state.
But before this could be well done, the new directing intelligence must represent the sum of the intelligence of twelve or thirteen provinces, inhabited by men not of English ancestry only, but intermixt with French
, still more with Swedes, and yet more with Dutch
and Germans; a state of society where Quakers, who held it wickedness to fight, stood over against Calvinists, whose religious creed encouraged resistance to tyranny; where freeholders, whose pride in their liberties and confidence in their power to defend the fields which their own hands had subdued, were checked by merchants whose treasures were afloat, and who feared a war as the foreshadowing of their own bankruptcy.
might have come to a result with a short time for reflection; but congress must respect masses of men, composed of planters and small manufacturers, of artisans and farmers; one-fifth of whom had for their mother tongue some other language than the English
Nor were they only of different nationalities.
They were not exclusively Protestant; and those who were Protestants, professed the most different religious creeds.
To all these congress must have regard; and wait for the just solution from a sentiment superior to race and language, planted by God in the heart of mankind.
The American constitution came from the whole people, and expresses a community of its thought and will.
The nation proceeded not after the manner of inventors of mechanisms, but like the divine architect; its work is self-made; and is neither a copy of any thing past, nor a product of external force, but an unfolding of its own internal nature.
were persuaded that they were
Chap. XXXIV.} 1775.
set apart for the increase and diffusion of civil and religious liberty; chosen to pass through blessings and through trials, through struggles and through joy, to the glorious fulfilment of their great duty of establishing freedom in the new world, and setting up an example to the old. But by the side of this creative impulse, the love of the mother country lay deeply seated in that immense majority who were the descendants of British ancestry, and this love was strongest in thepart of the country where the col lision had begun.
The attachment was moreover justified; for the best part of their culture was derived from England
, which had bestowed on them milder,. more tolerant, and more equal governments, than the distant colonies of other European
powers had ever known.
When congress met, it was as hard to say of its members as of their constituents, whether they were most swayed by regard for the country from which the majority of them sprung, or by the sense of oppression.
The parent land which they loved was an ideal England
, preserving as its essential character, through all accidents of time and every despotic tendency of a transient ministry, the unchanging attachment to liberty.
Of such an England they cherished the language, the laws, and the people; and they would not be persuaded that independence of her was become the only security for the preservation of their own inherited rights.
In this divided state of their affections, the unpreparedness of the country for war, and the imperfection of the powers with which they were intrusted, devotedness to the old relations
weighed against the call of freedom to the new. The
Chap. XXXIV.} 1775.
conservative feeling still maintained its energy, and forbade any change, except where a change was demanded by instant necessity.
They came together thus undecided, and they long remained undecided.
They struggled against every forward movement, and made none but by compulsion.
Not by foresight, nor by the preconceived purpose of themselves or their constituents, but by the natural succession of inevitable events, it became their office to cement a union and constitute a nation.
The British troops from Boston
had invaded the country, had wasted stores which were the property of the province, had burned and destroyed private property, had shed innocent blood; the people of Massachusetts
had justly risen in arms, accepted aid from the neighboring colonies, and besieged the British
At once, on the eleventh, the considera-
tion of the report of the agents of congress on their petition to the king, gave way to the more interesting and more important narrative of the events of the nineteenth of April, and their consequences.
The members listened with sympathy, and their approval of the conduct of Massachusetts
But as that province, without directly asking the continent to adopt the army which she had assembled, entreated direction and assistance; and as the answer might involve an ultimate declaration of independence
, as well as the immediate use of the credit and resources of all the colonies, the subject was reserved for careful deliberation in a committee of the whole.
On the thirteenth, Lyman Hall presented himself
as a delegate for the parish of St.
Chap. XXXIV.} 1775. May 13.
John's, and was gladly admitted with the right to vote, except when the question should be taken by colonies.
The first important decision of congress related to New York.
The city and county on the fifteenth
asked how to conduct themselves with regard to the regiments which were known to be under orders to that place; and with the sanction of Jay
and his colleagues, they were instructed, not to oppose the landing of the troops, but not to suffer them to erect fortifications; to act on the defensive, but to repel force by force, in case it should become necessary for the protection of the inhabitants and their property.
When Edmund Burke
heard of this advice, he expressed surprise at the scrupulous timidity which could suffer the king's forces to possess themselves of the most important post in America
But in the want of an effective military organization, of artillery, and ammunition, no means existed to prevent the disembarkation of British regiments.
The city was at the mercy of the power which commanded the water; and which, on any sudden conflict, could have sent an army into its streets, and have driven the patriots from their homes.
But the advice of the continental congress was pregnant with embarrassments, for it recognised the existing royal government of New York, and tolerated its governor and all naval and military officers, contractors, and Indian agents, in the peaceful discharge of their usual functions.
The rule was laid down for the province, before its own congress could come together; and when they assembled, they could
but conform to it. All parties seemed tacitly to agree to
a truce, which was to adjourn the employment of force.
Towards the royal government the colonists manifested courteous respect; avoiding every decision which should specially invite attack or make reconciliation impossible.
They allowed the British vessel of war, ‘the Asia
,’ to be supplied with provisions; but adopted measures of restraint in the intercourse between the ship and the shore.
They disapproved the act of the people in seizing the king's arms.
To Guy Johnson
, the superintendent of the Indians, they offered protection, if he and the Indians under his superintendency would promise neutrality.
They sent to Massachusetts
their warmest wishes in the great cause of American liberty, and made it their first object ‘to withstand the encroachments of ministerial tyranny;’ but they, at the same time, ‘labored for the restoration of harmony between the colonies and the parent state,’ and were willing to defer decisive action till every opportunity for the recovery of peace by an accommodation should have been exhausted.
In this manner the aristocratic portion of the friends of American rights in the province exercised a controlling influence.
They stood before God and the world free from the responsibility of war, having done every thing to avoid it, except to surrender their rights.
Of all the provinces, New York was in its acts the most measured; consistently reluctant to believe in the fatal necessity of war, but determined if necessary to defy the worst, for the preservation of liberty; confident that in the hour of need, its forbearance and moderation would secure the union of its people.
These were the considerations which swayed the
continental congress in the policy which it dictated to New York.
They also induced John Jay
of that colony to make the motion in congress for a second petition to the king.