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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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Most who had attended the First Continental Congress now sat in the Second, where they were joined by several fresh faces. For instance, Hancock, who had escaped capture at Lexington thanks to Paul Revere’s timely warning, was now a member of the Massachusetts delegation. Sixty-nineyear- old Benjamin Franklin, who had just returned to Philadelphia after a decade in London, had been named a delegate from Pennsylvania. Gone were those from the First Continental Congress who refused to countenance a war against Britain, prompting Richard Henry Lee of Virginia to observe that a “perfect unanimity” existed in the Second Continental Congress, at least on the war issue.

John Adams concurred that a “military Spirit” that was “truly amazing” had seized the land. Militiamen were “as thick as Bees,” he said, marching and drilling everywhere, including in the steamy streets outside the Pennsylvania State House where Congress met. His cousin, Samuel Adams, believed an equally militant spirit gripped Congress and that every member was committed to “the Defence and Support of American Liberty.” The Adams cousins soon discovered, however, that while all in Congress supported the war, sentiment for severing ties with Britain was strong only in New England and Virginia. Reconciliationists prevailed everywhere else.

John Adams counseled patience. “We must Suffer People to take their own Way,” he asserted in June 1775, even though that path might not be the “Speedyest and Surest.” He understood that to push too hard for independence was to risk driving conservative Americans back into Britain’s arms. Thus, for most of 1775, the pro-independence faction never spoke openly of a break with Britain. Adams likened America to that of “a large Fleet sailing under Convoy. The fleetest Sailors must wait for the dullest and slowest.” For the foreseeable future, he lamented, “Progress must be slow.”

But Adams was confident that those who favored reconciliation would be driven inexorably toward independence. In time, he believed, they would discover that London would never give in to America’s demands. Furthermore, he expected that war would transform the colonists’ deep-seated love for Britain into enmity, necessitating a final break.

Reconciliationists were strongest in the Middle Atlantic colonies (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware) and in South Carolina, all of which had long since been drawn into the economic web of the Atlantic world. Before the war, the products of the backcountry—furs, hides and lumber—as well as grain, had moved through New York and Philadelphia to markets in the Caribbean and England. Charleston exported indigo and rice. In return, English-manufactured goods entered the colonies through these ports. Business had flourished during most of the 18th century; in recent years Philadelphia’s merchants had routinely enjoyed annual profits of more than 10 percent.

The great merchants in Philadelphia and New York, who constituted a powerful political force, had other compelling reasons for remaining within the empire. Many relied upon credit supplied by English bankers. The protection afforded to transatlantic trade by the Royal Navy minimized insurance and other overhead costs. Independence, Philadelphia merchant Thomas Clifford asserted in 1775, would “assuredly prove unprofitable.” The “advantages of security and stability,” said another, “lie with . . . remaining in the empire.”

And there was fear of the unknown. Some in Congress spoke of a break with Britain as a “leap in the dark,” while others likened it to being cast adrift on “an UnknownOcean.” To be sure, many things could miscarry should America try to go it alone. After all, its army was composed of untried soldiers led, for the most part, by inexperienced officers. It possessed neither a navy nor allies and lacked the funds to wage a lengthy conflict. The most immediate danger was that the fledgling nation might lose a war for independence. Such a defeat could unleash a series of dire consequences that, the reconciliationists believed, might be avoided only if the colonies, even in the midst of war, were to negotiate a settlement before breaking absolutely with Britain. The reconciliationists held that it was still possible to reach a middle ground; this view seemed, to men such as John Adams, a naive delusion. Finally, the anti-independence faction argued, losing the war might well result in retaliation, including the loss of liberties the colonists had long enjoyed.

Even victory could have drawbacks. Many felt independence could be won only with foreign assistance, which raised the specter of American dependence on a European superpower, most likely autocratic and Roman Catholic France. But Adams believed that fear of anarchy accounted for most conservative opposition to independence. More than anything, said Adams, it rendered “Independency . . . an Hobgoblin, of so frightfull Mein” to the reconciliationists.

Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson soon emerged as the leader of those who sought rapprochement with Britain. Dickinson, who was 43 in 1775, had been raised on plantations in Maryland and Delaware. One of the few supporters of the war to have actually lived in England, where he had gone to study law, in London, he had not been impressed by what he found there. The English, he concluded, were intemperate and immoral; their political system was hopelessly corrupt and run by diabolical mediocrities. Returning to Philadelphia to practice law in 1757, he was soon drawn to politics.

Tall and thin, Dickinson was urbane, articulate and somewhat prickly. A patrician accustomed to having his way, he could be quick-tempered with those who opposed him. He had once brawled with a political adversary and challenged him to a duel. Early in the Second Continental Congress, following an incendiary speech by Adams, Dickinson pursued him into the State House yard and, in a venomous outburst, as recounted by Adams, demanded: “What is the reason, Mr. Adams, that you New Englandmen oppose our Measures of Reconciliation. . . . Look Ye,” he threatened, “If you dont concur with Us, in our pacific System, I, and a Number of Us, will break off from you . . . and We will carry on the Opposition by ourselves in our own Way.” Adams was infuriated by Dickinson’s invective: the two never spoke again.

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