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The Rocky Road to Revolution

While most members of Congress sought a negotiated settlement with England, independence advocates bided their time

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Dickinson had a distinguished record. In 1765 he had served in the Stamp Act Congress convened to protest that measure. Two years later, he published his cogent and illuminating Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, America’s most popular political tract before 1776, which assumed that Parliament, though possessed of the right to regulate trade, lacked authority to tax the colonists. That was the very stand taken by 1774’s First Continental Congress, and a constitutional settlement along those lines—not independence—was what the reconciliationists hoped to achieve through war. Dickinson charged that London had launched an “inexpressibly cruel War.” Its “Sword is opening our Veins,” he said, compelling Americans to fight for their freedom.

But he also warned that a war for independence would be interminable. British prime minister Lord Frederick North had pledged an implacable fight to maintain “every Advantage” that Britain derived from its control of the colonies. Before any war for independence ended, Dickinson prophesied, Americans would have “tasted deeply of that bitter Cup called the Fortunes of War.” Not only would they have to “wade throSeas of Blood,” but in due course, hostilities would bring on massive unemployment within the maritime trades, heinous cruelties along the frontier, slave insurrections in the South and the relentless spread of disease from armies to civilians. And even in the unlikely event independence was achieved, Dickinson argued, yet another catastrophe might well lie in store: France and Spain would destroy the infant United States. In contrast, a war for reconciliation would be short-lived. Confronted with “a bloody & tedious Contest attended with Injury to their Trade,” Lord North’s government would collapse. Its successor would be compelled to accept Congress’ terms: American “Dependence & Subordination” on the Crown, but with it a recognition from London that Parliament’s only power over the colonies was the regulation of American trade.

Given Dickinson’s position as a longtime foe of Parliamentary taxation, it was only to be expected that he would emerge as a leader in Congress. Adams’ rise, however, was a different story. When he became leader of the independence forces—what one contemporary observer, Dr. Benjamin Rush, described as the “first man in the House”—many were caught by surprise. Before his election to Congress in 1774, Adams was largely inexperienced in public life. He had served only one term in the Massachusetts assembly and had not even headed the Massachusetts delegation at the First Congress—cousin Sam had assumed that responsibility.

Forty years old in 1775, John Adams had grown up on a small farm just south of Boston, where his father moonlighted as a shoemaker to earn the money to send his oldest son to Harvard. Like Dickinson, Adams had practiced law, and also like him, had advanced rapidly. Within a dozen years of opening his law office, Adams maintained the heaviest caseload of any attorney in Boston. Unlike Dickinson, Adams was initially wary of the American protest against British policies, believing that the ministry had simply erred in its actions and might be expected to mend its ways. He had been converted to open support of the popular cause only in 1773.

Adams came to keenly desire a leadership role, but feared that his physical limitations—he was portly and balding—and irascible manner would frustrate his ambitions. Furthermore, he was no jovial backslapper. Gruff and argumentative, he was maladroit when it came to talking about what he regarded as the favorite topics of men: dogs, horses and women. Nevertheless, those who penetrated his churlish exterior discovered a good-natured, self-effacing and exceptionally bright individual. And he possessed the skills needed to be an effective legislator. He was tireless, a skilled debater, an incisive, if not flamboyant, orator and a trenchant thinker. He quickly won a reputation as the Congressional authority on diplomacy and political theory. His colleagues found him to be unfailingly well prepared, prudent, honest and trustworthy—in short, just the man to follow in this high-stakes endeavor.

The first issue to truly divide the Second Continental Congress arose early on. In May 1775, as it considered the creation of the Continental Army, Dickinson insisted on petitioning the king with what he characterized as a “Measure of Peace.” Adams privately branded it a “Measure of Imbecility” and raged that some delegates, at least those from the mercantile colonies of New York and Pennsylvania, were “selfish and avaricious.” For those congressman, he charged, “a ship [was] dearer than” the lives of Continental soldiers. In October 1774, the First Continental Congress had petitioned the monarch; Adams feared that to do so again was to risk appearing weak. Franklin concurred. “It is a true old saying,” he remarked, “that make yourselves sheep and the wolves will eat you.”

Nevertheless, the independence faction wanted no confrontation with Dickinson’s at this crucial juncture of the war, and the Olive Branch Petition, as the peace measure was known, was approved, though only after a contentious debate over its wording. Richard Penn, a former governor of Pennsylvania, carried it to England. Franklin advised a London friend, a director of the Bank of England, that this was Britain’s last hope for preventing “a total Separation” by the colonies. To another friend in England he wrote: “If you flatter yourselves with beating us into submission, you know neither the [American] people nor the country.”

At about the same time, Congress created a committee to draft a “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms.” Among others, it appointed Jefferson, who had only recently joined the Virginia delegation, and Dickinson to the committee. Jefferson, who enjoyed a reputation as a facile writer, was asked to draft the document. With views similar to Adams’, he produced a paper that reiterated the charges of British tyranny and harshly cataloged the ministry’s “avowed course of murder and devastation.” Dickinson was appalled. He feared that such a provocative statement would make a measured response to the Olive Branch Petition impossible. He demanded, and obtained, an opportunity to tone down Jefferson’s draft. Dickinson’s softer proclamation stipulated that “we mean not to dissolve that Union” with Britain. It was adopted in July 1775.

The reconciliationists held sway through the summer of 1775, but as hostilities unfolded and Congress was required to prosecute the war, their hold gradually weakened. By the end of 1775, Congress had issued a Continental currency, drawn up regulations applying to all militia, created a Continental post office and taken control of Indian relations. Feeling “a little of the Seafaring Inclination,” as Adams put it, Congress also established an American navy and two battalions of marines. It regulated American trade, assumed responsibility for the enforcement of the embargo of British commerce, attempted to resolve intercolonial territorial disputes and even acted as the national judiciary, hearing appeals from state courts in cases that involved the seizure of British ships.

Congress additionally began to conduct foreign policy. It created a Secret Committee to contract for arms imports and a Committee of Secret Correspondence to establish contact with “our friends” throughout the world. In March 1776, Congress dispatched one of its own, Silas Deane of Connecticut, to Versailles to pursue talks with the French government. In fact, if not in name, the Second Continental Congress had become the government of an autonomous union of American provinces.

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