previous next

Chapter 49:

The king and the second petition of congress.

August, September, in Europe. November in America—1775.

The zeal of Richard Penn appeared from his
Chap. XLIX.} 1775. Aug.
celerity. Four days after the petition to the king had been adopted by congress, he sailed from Philadelphia on his mission. He arrived in Bristol on the thirteenth of August, and made such speed that he was the next day in London. Joint proprietary of the opulent and rapidly increasing colony of Pennsylvania, of which he for a time was governor, long a resident in America, intimately acquainted with many of its leading statesmen, the chosen suppliant from its united delegates, an Englishman of a loyalty above impeachment or suspicion, he singularly merited the confidence of the government. But not one of the ministers waited on him, or sent for him, or even asked him, through subordinates, one single question about the state of the colonies. The king, on whose decision neither the petition nor its bearer had the slightest [131] influence, would not see him. ‘The king and his
Chap. XLIX.} 1775. Aug.
cabinet,’ said Suffolk, ‘are determined to listen to nothing from the illegal congress, to treat with the colonies only one by one, and in no event to recognise them in any form of association.’

‘The Americans,’ reasoned Sandwich, ‘will soon grow weary, and Great Britain will subject them by her arms.’ Haldimand, who had just arrived, owned that ‘nothing but force would bring the Americans to reason.’ Resolvedly blind to consequences, George the Third scorned dissimulation, and eagerly ‘showed his determination,’ such were his words, ‘to prosecute his measures, and force the deluded Americans into submission.’ He chid Lord North for ‘the delay in framing a proclamation declaring the Americans rebels, and forbidding all intercourse with them.’ He was happier than his minister; he had no misgivings that he could be in the wrong, or could want power to enforce his will. The colonists who pleaded their rights against the unlimited supremacy of the king in parliament, were to him false to the crown and the constitution, to religion, loyalty, and the law; in his eyes, to crush their spirit and punish their disobedience was a duty and a merit. In the indulgence of his anger he sought to impose an authority which the colonists never could endure, and which promised no advantage to Britain. The navigation acts, of which it already began to be seen that the total repeal would not diminish British trade, were not questioned; the view of a revenue from America had dissolved; the unwise change in the charter of Massachusetts weakened the influence of the crown by irritating the people; the most perfeet [132] success in reducing the American colonies to un-

Chap. XLIX.} 1775. Aug.
conditional submission, would have stained the glory of a nation whose great name was due to the freedom of its people, and would, moreover, have been dangerous, if not fatal, to her own liberties. Yet the word of the king would be irrevocable; for to what power in England could the colonies look for interposition in their behalf? Not to the landed aristocracy, which would not suffer the authority of parliament to be questioned; not to the electors, for they had just chosen a parliament, and thus exhausted their power of mediation; not to the city of Bristol, which bounded its political liberality by its commercial interests; not to the city of London, for with the unprincipled Wilkes as its Lord Mayor, it could offer no support beyond a noisy remonstrance; not to the public opinion of England, for though it really preferred that the colonies should be tolerably governed, it never showed forbearance when the imperial supremacy of England was assailed.

Conscious that his will was unrestrained, the king made his decision without a moment's hesitation in conformity with his own nature; and he wished the world to know that his will could not change. To render retreat impossible, on the twenty third of August, two days after receiving a copy of the petition of congress, he made a proclamation for suppressing rebellion and sedition. It set forth, that many of his subjects in the colonies had proceeded to open and avowed rebellion, by arraying themselves to withstand the execution of the law, and traitorously levying war against him; but its menaces were chiefly directed against men in England. ‘There is reason,’ [133] so ran its words, ‘to apprehend that such rebellion

Chap. XLIX.} 1775. Aug.
hath been much promoted and encouraged by the traitorous correspondence, counsels, and comfort of divers wicked and desperate persons within our realm;’ not only all the officers civil and military, but all subjects of the realm, were therefore called upon to disclose all traitorous conspiracies, and to transmit to one of the secretaries of state ‘full information of all persons who should be found carrying on correspondence with, or in any manner or degree aiding or abetting the persons now in open arms and rebellion against the government within any of the colonies in North America, in order to bring to condign punishment the authors, perpetrators, and abettors of such traitorous designs.’

This proclamation, aimed at Chatham, Camden, Barre, and their friends, and at the boldest of the Rockingham party, even more than against the Americans, was read without the customary ceremonies at the Royal Exchange, where it was received with a general hiss. The ministry could no longer retrace their steps without resigning their places; war was menaced against the remnant of a popular party in England. As to the colonies, the king would perish rather than consent to repeal the alterations in the charter of Massachusetts, or yield the absolute authority of parliament.

The progress of these discussions was closely watched by the agents of France. Its ambassador, just after Penn's arrival, wrote of the king and his ministers to Vergennes: ‘These people appear to me in a delirium; that there can be no conciliation we have now the certainty;’ ‘Rochford even [134] assures me once more, that it is determined to burn

Chap. XLIX.} 1775. Aug.
the town of Boston, and in the coming spring to transfer the seat of operations to New York. You may be sure the plan of these people is, by devastations to force back America fifty years if they cannot subdue it.’ Vergennes had already said: ‘The cabinet of the king of England may wish to make North America a desert, but there all its power will be stranded; if ever the English troops quit the borders of the sea, it will be easy to prevent their return.’

Vergennes could not persuade himself that the British government should refuse conciliation, when nothing was demanded but the revocation of acts posterior to 1763; and in his incredulity he demanded of the ambassador a revision of his opinion. ‘I persist,’ answered De Guines, ‘in thinking negotiations impossible. The parties differ on the form and on the substance as widely as white and black. An English ministry in a case like this can yield nothing, for according to the custom of the country it must follow out its plan or resign. The only sensible course would be to change the administration. The king of England is as obstinate and as feeble as Charles the First, and every day he makes his task more difficult and more dangerous.’ Vergennes gave up his doubts,

saying: ‘The king's proclamation against the Americans changes my views altogether; that proclamation cuts off the possibility of retreat; America or the ministers themselves must succumb.’

In a few weeks the proclamation reached the col-

onies at several ports. Abigail Smith, the wife of John Adams, was at the time in their home near the [135] foot of Penn Hill, charged with the sole care of their
Chap. XLIX.} 1775. Nov.
little brood of children; managing their farm; keeping house with frugality, though opening her doors to the houseless and giving with good will a part of her scant portion to the poor; seeking work for her own hands, and ever busily occupied, now at the spinning wheel, now making amends for having never been sent to school by learning French, though with the aid of books alone. Since the departure of her husband for congress, the arrow of death had sped near her by day, and the pestilence that walks in darkness had entered her humble mansion; she herself was still weak after a violent illness; her house was a hospital in every part; and such was the distress of the neighborhood, she could hardly find a well person to assist in looking after the sick. Her youngest son had been rescued from the grave by her nursing; her own mother had been taken away, and, after the austere manner of her forefathers, buried without prayer. Woe followed woe, and one affliction trod on the heels of another. Winter was hurrying on; during the day family affairs took off her attention, but her long evenings, broken by the sound of the storm on the ocean, or the enemy's artillery at Boston, were lonesome and melancholy. Ever in the silent night ruminating on the love and tenderness of her departed parent, she needed the consolation of her husband's presence; but when, in November, she read the king's proclamation, she willingly gave up her nearest friend exclusively to his perilous duties, and sent him her cheering message: ‘This intelligence will make a plain path for you, though a dangerous one; I could not join to-day in the petitions of our worthy pastor for a reconciliation [136] between our no longer parent state, but tyrant
Chap. XLIX.} 1775. Nov.
state, and these colonies. Let us separate; they are unworthy to be our brethren. Let us renounce them; and, instead of supplications, as formerly, for their prosperity and happiness, let us beseech the Almighty to blast their counsels, and bring to nought all their devices.’

Her voice was the voice of New England. Under the general powers of commander, Washington, who had hired vessels, manned them with sea captains and sailors from his camp, and sent them to take vessels laden with soldiers or stores for the British army, now urged on congress the appointment of prize courts for the condemnation of prizes; the legislature of Massachusetts, without waiting for further authority, of themselves, in an act drawn by Elbridge Gerry to encourage the fitting out of armed vessels, instituted such tribunals.

‘The king's silly proclamation will put an end to petitioning,’ wrote James Warren, the speaker, to Samuel Adams; ‘movements worthy of your august body are expected; a declaration of independence, and treaties with foreign powers.’

Hawley was the first to discern through the darkness the coming national government of the republic, even while it still lay far below the horizon; and he wrote from Watertown to Samuel Adams: ‘The eyes of all the continent are fastened on your body, to see whether you act with firmness and intrepidity, with the spirit and dispatch which our situation calls for; it is time for your body to fix on periodical annual elections—nay, to form into a parliament of two houses.’ [137]

The first day of November brought to the gen-

Chap. XLIX.} 1775. Nov
eral congress the king's proclamation, and definite rumors that the colonies were threatened with more ships of war and British troops, and Russians, Hanoverians, and Hessians. The burning of Falmouth was also known. The majority saw that the last hope of conciliation was gone; and while they waited for instructions from their several constituencies before declaring independence, they instantly acted upon the petitions of the colonies that wished to institute governments of their own. On the second in committee, on the third in the house, it was resolved: ‘That it be recommended to the provincial convention of New Hampshire, to call a full and free representation of the people, and that the representatives, if they think it necessary, establish such a form of government, as, in their judgment, will best produce the happiness of the people, and most effectually secure peace and good order in the province, during the continuance of the present dispute between Great Britain and the colonies.’ On the fourth the same advice was extended to South Carolina. Here was, indeed, the daybreak of revolution; two peoples were summoned to come together and create governments with a single view to their own happiness. A limit seemed to be set to the duration of the new system; but it was already the conviction of the majority that the dispute between Great Britain and the colonies could end only in a separation; so that the men of New Hampshire and of South Carolina were virtually instructed to give the example of assuming power for all future time.

The revolution plainly portended danger to the [138] proprietary government of Pennsylvania. The legis-

Chap. XLIX.} 1775. Nov.
lature of that colony was in session; it continued to require all its members to take and subscribe the old qualification appointed by law, which included the promise of allegiance to George the Third; so that Franklin, though elected for Philadelphia through the Irish and the Presbyterians, would never take his seat. Dickinson had been returned for the county by an almost unanimous vote; supported by patriots who still confided in his integrity, by loyalists who looked upon him as their last hope, by the Quakers who knew his regard for peace, by the proprietary party, whose cause he had always espoused. Now was the crisis of his fame. That body, on the fourth, elected nine delegates to the continental congress. Of these one was too ill to serve; of the rest, Franklin stood alone as the unhesitating champion of independence; the majority remained to the last its unyielding opponents. It was known that, two days before the king issued his proclamation, his secretary of state had received from Richard Penn a copy of the second petition of congress; and that Penn and Arthur Lee, who had pressed earnestly to obtain an answer, had been told that ‘as his majesty did not receive it on the throne, no answer would be given.’ The proclamation included Dickinson among the ‘dangerous and designing men,’ rebels and traitors, whom the civil and military officers were ordered to ‘bring to justice;’ but with the bad logic of wounded vanity he shut his mind against the meaning of the facts; and on the ninth he reported and carried these instructions to the Pennsylvania delegates: ‘We direct that you exert your utmost endeavors to agree upon [139] and recommend such measures as you shall judge to
Chap. XLIX.} 1775. Nov.
afford the best prospect of obtaining redress of American grievances, and restoring that union and harmony between Great Britain and the colonies, so essential to the welfare and happiness of both countries. Though the oppressive measures of the British parliament and administration have compelled us to resist their violence by force of arms, yet we strictly enjoin you, that you, in behalf of this colony, dissent from and utterly reject any propositions, should such be made, that may cause or lead to a separation from our mother country, or a change of the form of this government.’

The assembly which adopted these instructions sat always with closed doors, and did not even allow the names of the voters on the division to be recorded in their journal. Their act was in every way mischievous in its consequences: nothing could have been devised more completely in the interest of the British ministry, whose accusation that there existed in the continental congress a party for independence on insufficient grounds, appeared to be confirmed by high authority; it was also an intimation to the powers of the European continent, that the colonies were incurably divided. The influence of the measure was wide; Delaware was naturally swayed by the example of its more powerful neighbor; the party of the proprietary in Maryland took courage; in a few weeks the assembly of New Jersey, in like manner, held back the delegates of that province by an equally stringent declaration. Thus for five or six months the assembly of Pennsylvania blocked the way to effective measures, sowing broadcast the seeds [140] of domestic discord, and preparing for Dickinson a

Chap. XLIX.} 1775. Nov.
life of regrets. Had it done no more than express its opposition to independence, a convention of the people would have soon been called, and the proprietary government suspended. To prevent this by a sufficiently plausible appearance of patriotism, it approved the military association of all who had no scruples about bearing arms, adopted rules for the volunteer battalions, and before its adjournment appropriated eighty thousand pounds in provincial paper money to defray the expenses of a military preparation. The insincerity of the concessions was perceived; extreme discontent led the more determined to expose through the press the trimming of the assembly; and Franklin encouraged Thomas Paine, an emigrant from England of the previous year, who was the master of a singularly lucid and attractive style, to write an appeal to the people of America in favor of independence.

Moreover the assembly in asserting the inviolability of the proprietary form of government, which had originally emanated from a king, placed itself in opposition to the principle of John Rutledge, John Adams, and the continental congress, that ‘the people are the source and original of all power.’ That principle had just been applied on the memorial of New Hampshire with no more than one dissenting vote. Yet the men of that day had been born and educated as subjects of a king; to them the house of Hanover was a symbol of religious toleration, the British constitution another word for the security of liberty and property under a representative government. They were not yet enemies of monarchy; they had as [141] yet turned away from considering whether well or-

Chap. XLIX.} 1775. Nov.
ganized civil institutions could be framed for wide territories without a king; and in the very moment of resistance they longed to escape the necessity of a revolution. Zubly, a delegate from Georgia, a Swiss by birth, declared in his place ‘a republic to be little better than a government of devils,’ shuddered at the idea of a separation from Great Britain as fraught with greater evils than had yet been suffered, and fled from congress to seek shelter under the authority of the crown; but the courage of John Adams, whose sagacity had so soon been vindicated by events, rose with the approach of danger; he dared to present to himself the problem of the system, best suited to the colonies in the sudden emergency; and guided by nature and experience, looked for the essential elements of government behind its forms. He studied the principles of the British constitution not merely in the history of England, but as purified and reproduced in the governments of New England, and as analyzed and reflected in the writings of Montesquieu. ‘A legislative, an executive, and a judicial power comprehended the whole of what he meant and understood by government;’ and as the only secret to be discovered was how to derive these powers directly from the people, he persuaded himself and succeeded in persuading others, that, by the aid of a convention, ‘a single month was sufficient, without the least convulsion or even animosity, to accomplish a total revolution in the government of a colony.’

The continental congress perceived the wisdom of a declaration of independence; but they acquiesced in the necessity of postponing its consideration, till [142] there should be a better hope of unanimity. They

Chap. XLIX.} 1775. Nov.
became more resolute, more thorough, and more active; they recalled their absent members; they welcomed the trophies of victory sent by Montgomery from the Northern army. In September they had appointed a secret committee to import gunpowder, field pieces, and arms; now, without as yet opening the commerce of the continent by a general act, they empowered that committee to export provisions or produce to the foreign West Indies at the risk of the continent, in order to purchase the materials of war. They did not authorize letters of reprisal against British property on the high seas; but in November they adopted ‘rules for the government of the American navy;’ directed the enlistment of two battalions of marines; authorized the inhabitants of the colonies to seize all ships employed as carriers for the British fleet or army; and sanctioned tribunals instituted in the separate colonies to confiscate their cargoes. The captures already made under the authority of Washington they confirmed. To meet the further expenses of the war, they voted bills of credit to the amount of three millions more.

A motion by Chase of Maryland to send envoys to France with conditional instructions did not prevail; but on the twenty ninth of November Harrison, Franklin, Johnson, Dickinson, and Jay were appointed a secret ‘committee for the sole purpose of corresponding with friends in Great Britain, Ireland, and other parts of the world;’ and funds were set aside ‘for the payment of such agents as they might send on this service.’ ‘It is an immense misfortune [143] to the whole empire,’ wrote Jefferson to a

Chap. XLIX.} 1775. Nov.
refugee, ‘to have a king of such a disposition at such a time. We are told, and every thing proves it true, that he is the bitterest enemy we have; his minister is able, and that satisfies me that ignorance or wickedness somewhere controls him. Our petitions told him, that from our king there was but one appeal. The admonition was despised, and that appeal forced on us. After colonies have drawn the sword, there is but one step more they can take. That step is now pressed upon us by the measures adopted, as if they were afraid we would not take it. There is not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do; but, by the God that made me, I will cease to exist, before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British parliament propose; and in this I speak the sentiments of America.’ But Dickinson still soothed himself with the belief, that the petition of his drafting had not been rejected, and that proofs of a conciliatory disposition would be manifested in the king's speech at the opening of the session of parliament.

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.
1775 AD (15)
November (12)
August (5)
September (3)
4th (2)
1763 AD (1)
November 29th (1)
November 1st (1)
August 23rd (1)
August 13th (1)
2nd (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: