previous next

Chapter 65:

The Virginia proposition of independence.

May—June, 1776.

while Virginia communicated to her sister col-
Chap. LXV.} 1776. May.
onies her instruction to her delegates in congress to propose independence, Washington at New York freely and repeatedly delivered his opinion: ‘A reconciliation with Great Britain is impracticable and would be in the highest degree detrimental to the true interest of America; when I first took the command of the army, I abhorred the idea of independence; but I am now fully convinced that nothing else will save us.’ The preamble and the resolves of congress, adopted at Philadelphia on the same day with the Virginia instructions at Williamsburg, were in themselves the act of a self-determining political body. The blow which proceeded from John Adams, felled the proprietary authority in Pennsylvania and Maryland to the ground. Maryland, more happy than her neighbor, kept her ranks unbroken, for she had intrusted the direction of the revolution to a convention [385] whose decrees were received as indisputably the voice
Chap. LXV.} 1776. May.
of her whole people. She had dispensed with oaths for the support of the government under the crown; but she resolved that it was not necessary to suppress totally the exercise of every kind of office derived from the king; and in her new instructions to her delegates in congress she mixed with her pledges of support to the common cause the lingering wish for a reunion with Great Britain. Meanwhile the governor was required to leave the province; and the only powers actually in being were the deputies in congress, the council of safety, and the convention.

In Pennsylvania, the preamble, which was published on the morning of the sixteenth, was cited by the popular party as a dissolution of the proprietary government and a direction to institute a new one under the authority of the people. On the next day, which was kept as a national fast, George Duffield, the minister of the third Presbyterian church in Philadelphia, with John Adams for a listener, drew a parallel between George the Third and Pharaoh, and inferred that the same providence of God which had rescued the Israelites, intended to free the Americans. On the twenty fourth a town meeting of more than four thousand men was held in the state-house yard, to confront the instructions of the assembly against independence with the vote of the continental congress against ‘oaths of allegiance and the exercise of any kind of authority under the crown.’ It was called to order by John Bayard, the chairman of the committee of inspection for the county of Philadelphia, a patriot of singular purity of character and disinterestedness, personally brave, pensive, earnest, and [386] devout; it selected for its president Daniel Roberdau;

Chap. LXV.} 1776. May.
and it voted unanimously, that the instructions withdrew the province from the happy union with the other colonies; that the present assembly was not elected for the purpose of forming a new government; and, with but one dissentient voice, it further voted that the house of assembly, not having the authority of the people for that purpose, could not proceed to form a new government without usurpation. As a consequence, the committee of the city and liberties of Philadelphia was directed to summon a conference of the committees of every county in the province, to make arrangements for a constituent convention, which should be chosen by the people.

Thus was prepared the fall of the proprietary charter of Pennsylvania. Any agreement which the governor would accept could be no better than a collusion, for by the very nature of his office and his interests, he could not stand out against the British ministry, however much they might be in the wrong. The members of the assembly, by taking the oath or affirmation of allegiance, had plainly incapacitated themselves for reforming the government. Besides: the resolve in congress, which dispensed in all cases with that oath, was interpreted as conferring the rights of electors on the Germans, who had not yet been naturalized; so that the assembly appeared now to represent not the people, but a wrongfully limited constituency.

It was unhappy for the colony that Dickinson and his friends refused to place themselves at the head of the popular movement for a convention; for it left the principle of independence in Pennsylvania to be [387] established by a domestic political party, springing

Chap. LXV.} 1776. May.
spontaneously from the ranks of the people, and struggling against an active social influence, a numerous religious organization, and the traditional governing classes.

The assembly stood adjourned to the twentieth; on the morning of the twenty second a quorum appeared, and as a first concession to the continental congress, the newly elected members were not required to swear allegiance to the king. The protest of the inhabitants of the city and liberties against their powers to carry the resolve of congress into execution, was presented, read, and laid on the table; but no other notice was taken of it. The resolve itself was got out of the way by the appointment of a committee to ask of the continental congress an explanation of its purpose. The proposal to sanction the naturalization of foreigners without requiring oaths of allegiance to the king, was, in like manner, put to sleep by a reference to a committee, composed of those who had most earnestly contested the wishes of the Germans. The assembly seemed to have no purpose, unless to gain time and wait. The constitution was the watchword of the conservative members; union that of the revolutionists; one party represented old established interests, another saw no hope but from independence and a firm confederation; between these two stood Dickinson, whose central position was the hiding place of the irresolute.

On the twenty third an address, claiming to proceed from the committee of inspection for the county of Philadelphia, and bearing the name of William Hamilton as chairman, asked the assembly to ‘adhere [388] religiously to its instructions against independence,

Chap. LXV.} 1776. May.
and to oppose altering the least part of their invaluable constitution.’ The next day the committee of inspection of the city of Philadelphia came together with Mackean as chairman, and addressed a memorial directly to the continental congress, setting forth, that the assembly did not possess the confidence of the people, nor truly represent the province; that among its members were men who held offices under the crown of Great Britain, and who had been dragged into compliance with most of the recommendations of congress only from the fear of being superseded by a convention; that measures had now been taken to assemble a convention of the people by men whose constituents were fighting men, and were determined to support the union of the province with the other colonies at every hazard.

The members of the assembly became uneasy: in

the first days of June no quorum appeared; on the fifth the proceedings of Virginia, directing her delegates to propose independence, were read in the house. No answer was returned; but a petition from Cumberland county, asking that the instructions to the delegates of Pennsylvania might be withdrawn, was read a second time, and a committee of seven was appointed to bring in new instructions. Of its members, among whom were Dickinson, Morris, Reed, Clymer, and one or two loyalists, all but Clymer were, for the present, opposed to independence.

The instructions of Pennsylvania, which they reported on the sixth, conceded that the revolutionists were in the right; ‘that all hopes of a reconciliation, on reasonable terms, were extinguished;’ and nevertheless, [389] with a full knowledge that the king would

Chap. LXV.} 1776. June.
not yield, they expressed their ardent desire for an end of the civil war; while they expressly sanctioned a confederation, and ‘treaties with foreign kingdoms and states,’ they neither advised nor forbade a declaration of independence, trusting to ‘the ability, prudence, and integrity’ of their delegates. Now the opinion of the majority of those delegates was notorious; but to remove even a possibility of uncertainty, on the seventh of June, before the question on the new instructions was taken, Dickinson, in the assembly, made a speech, in which he pledged his word to Allen, who was the proprietary chief-justice of the province, and to the whole house, that he and the majority of the delegates would continue to vote against independence.

On that same day, and perhaps while Dickinson was speaking in the Pennsylvania assembly, Richard Henry Lee, in the name and with the special authority of Virginia, proposed: ‘That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved; that it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign alliances; and that a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective colonies for their consideration and approbation.’ The resolutions were seconded by John Adams; and ‘the members were enjoined to attend punctually the next day at ten o'clock, in order to take them into their consideration.’ [390]

At nine in the morning of the eighth of June, the

Chap. LXV.} 1776. June.
assembly of Pennsylvania resumed the consideration of its new instructions, and adopted them by a vote of thirty one against twelve. The disingenuous measure proved the end of that body; once only did it again bring together a quorum of its members. The moderate and the timid, lending their aid to the proprietary party, had put themselves in the wrong both theoretically and practically; at once conceding the impossibility of reconciliation, and, by their indecision, entailing on Pennsylvania years of distraction and bitter strife.

At ten on the same day congress entered into the consideration of Richard Henry Lee's resolve, and the long debate which ensued was the most copious and the most animated ever held on the subject. The argument on the part of its opponents was sustained by Robert Livingston of New York, by Wilson, Dickinson, and Edward Rutledge. They made no objection to a confederacy, and to sending a project of a treaty by proper persons to France; but they contended that a declaration of independence would place America in the power of the British, with whom she was to negotiate; give her enemy notice to counteract her intentions before she had taken steps to carry them into execution; and expose her to ridicule in the eyes of foreign powers by prematurely attempting to bring them into an alliance. Edward Rutledge said privately, ‘that it required the impudence of a New Englander, for them in their disjointed state to propose a treaty to a nation now at peace; that no reason could be assigned for pressing into this measure but the reason of every madman, a show of spirit.’ Wilson avowed [391] that the removal of the restriction on his vote by the

Chap. LXV.} 1776 June.
Pennsylvania assembly on that morning, did not change his view of his obligation to resist independence. On the other hand, John Adams defended the proposed measures as ‘objects of the most stupendous magnitude, in which the lives and liberties of millions yet unborn were intimately interested;’ as the consummation ‘of a revolution, the most complete, unexpected, and remarkable, of any in the history of nations.’ The power of all New England, Virginia, and Georgia was put forth on the same side; and the discussion was kept up till seven in the evening. A majority of the colonies, including North Carolina, appeared to be unalterably fixed in favor of an immediate declaration of independence; but the vote on the question was postponed till Monday.

On the day of rest which intervened, Keith, the British minister at the court of Vienna, obtained an audience of Joseph the Second, and afterwards of the empress Maria Theresa. The emperor referred to the proclamation which the joint sovereigns had issued, most strictly prohibiting all commerce between their subjects in the Low Countries and the rebel colonies in America, and went on to say: ‘I am very sorry for the difficulties which have arisen to distress the king's government; the cause in which he is engaged, is in fact the cause of all sovereigns, for they have a joint interest in the maintenance of a just subordination and obedience to law, in all the monarchies which surround them; I saw with pleasure the vigorous exertions of the national strength, which he is now employing to bring his rebellious subjects to a speedy submission, and I most sincerely wish success to those [392] measures.’ The empress queen, in her turn, expressed

Chap. LXV.} 1776. June.
a very hearty desire to see obedience and tranquillity restored to every quarter of the British dominions.

When the congress met on Monday, Edward Rutledge, without much expectation of success, moved that the question should be postponed three weeks, while in the mean time the plan of a confederation and of a treaty might be matured. The whole day until seven in the evening was consumed in the discussion. The desire of attaining a perfect unanimity and the reasonableness of allowing time for the delegates of the central colonies to consult their constituents, induced seven colonies against five to assent to the delay, but with the further condition, that, to prevent any loss of time, a committee should in the meanwhile prepare a declaration in harmony with the proposed resolution. On the next day, Jefferson, John Adams, Franklin, Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston were chosen by ballot to prepare the declaration; and it fell to Jefferson to write it, both because he represented Virginia from which the proposition had gone forth, and because he had been elected by the largest number of votes.

On the twelfth the office of digesting the form of a confederation to be entered into between the colonies, was referred to a committee of one member from each colony; and as if the subject had not been of transcendant importance, the appointment of the committee was left to the presiding officer. Among those whom Hancock selected are found the names of Samuel Adams, Dickinson, and Edward Rutledge: it could have been wished that the two Adamses had changed places, though probably the result would at [393] that time have been the same; no one man had done

Chap LXV.} 1776 June.
so much to bring about independence as the elder Adams; but his skill in constructing governments, not his knowledge of the principles of freedom, was less remarkable than that of his younger kinsman. In the committee, Dickinson, who, as an opponent of independence, could promote only a temporary constitution, assumed the task of drafting the great charter of union.

The preparation of a plan of treaties with foreign powers, was intrusted by ballot to Dickinson, Franklin, John Adams, Harrison, and Robert Morris; and between John Adams and Dickinson there was no difference of opinion that the scheme to be proposed should be confined to commerce, without any grant of exclusive privileges and without any entanglement of a political connection or alliance.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1776 AD (10)
June, 1776 AD (1)
June 8th (1)
June 7th (1)
June (1)
24th (1)
23rd (1)
16th (1)
12th (1)
6th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: