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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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Back in November 1775, word had arrived that George III had branded the colonists rebels and traitors and had contemptuously refused to accept the Olive Branch Petition. Two months later, the full text of the king’s speech to Parliament reached Philadelphia. In it the monarch unsparingly assailed those colonists who supported hostilities, charging that they were part of a “wicked” and “desperate conspiracy.” In addition, he revealed his intention to obtain foreign mercenaries to help suppress the rebellion. Hancock, by now president of Congress, wryly remarked that the Crown’s actions “don’t look like a Reconciliation.” John Adams gleefully noted that Dickinson “sinks . . . in the public opinion.” Indeed, evidence was mounting that the mood of the country was changing. Already, by the summer of 1775, when Congress began authorizing the colonies to create their own governments, supplanting those chartered by the Crown, it had taken its most radical step since the creation of the army. Dickinson and his principal ally, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, fought back. In January 1776 they proposed that Congress adopt yet another “humble & dutiful Petition” disclaiming independence to the king. This time Congress refused. Some members, such as Samuel Adams, had begun to see the reconciliationists as “Tools of a Tyrant.”

Yet Congress still remained unwilling to declare independence. Had a vote been taken in early January 1776, the measure would likely have failed. On the 17th of that month, however, word reached Philadelphia of a devastating military setback, the young army’s first. The news was instrumental in propelling Congress on its final journey toward independence.

As washington’s army besieged British regulars in Boston during the summer of 1775, Congress had authorized an invasion of lightly defended Canada in order to defeat British forces there. It was a troubled campaign from the start, and on December 31 disaster struck. An attack on Quebec was repulsed; 500 men, half of America’s invading army, were lost: 100 were killed or wounded and another 400 taken prisoner. So much for any expectation of a short-lived war. Overnight, many in Congress came to believe that no victory would ever be possible without foreign assistance; all understood that no aid from any outside power would be forthcoming so long as America fought for the “purpose of repairing the breach [with Britain],” as Thomas Paine had observed in his incendiary pamphlet Common Sense, published in January 1776.

Soon after the debacle at Quebec, John Adams observed that there now existed “no Prospect, no Probability, no Possibility” of reconciliation. Late in February came still more stunning news. Congress learned that Parliament had enacted the American Prohibitory Act, shutting down all trade with the colonies and permitting seizure of colonial vessels. John Adams called the law “a Gift” to the pro-independence party. Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee concurred, saying that it severed the last ties with the mother country. It was “curious,” he stated, that Congress yet hesitated to declare independence when London had already “put the two Countries asunder.”

As spring foliage burst forth in Philadelphia in 1776, ever larger numbers of Americans were coming round to independence. The “Sighing after Independence” in Massachusetts, said James Warren, speaker of the colony’s House of Representatives, had become nearly “Universal.” By mid- May every Southern colony had authorized its delegates to vote for breaking off ties with Britain.

Within Congress, emotions ran high. “I cannot conceive what good Reason can be assignd against [independence],” Samuel Adams railed in mid-April. He exclaimed that the “Salvation of the Country depends on its being done speedily. I am anxious to have it done.” John Adams maintained that had independence been declared months earlier, America’s armies would already possess French arms. Elbridge Gerry, a Massachusetts delegate, complained that “timid Minds are terrified at the Word Independency,” while Franklin deplored those who clutched at the “vain Hope of Reconciliation.” As for General Washington, he said he believed that Congress had “long, & ardently sought for reconciliation upon honourable terms,” only to be rebuffed at every turn. He had long been of the opinion that “all Connexions with a State So unjust” should be broken.

Still, the reconciliationists held out, encouraged by a passage in the Prohibitory Act that authorized the monarch to appoint commissioners to grant pardons and to receive the grievances of colonists. Dickinson and his followers viewed the appointees as peace commissioners and held out hope that they were being sent to resolve differences. Many in Congress refused to budge until they learned just what the envoys had to offer. John Adams disdainfully predicted that this was “a Bubble” and a misbegotten “Messiah that will never come.” Samuel Adams said that he was “disgusted” both with the “King & his Junto,” who spoke of peace while making “the most destructive Plans,” and with the reconciliationists who were willing to be “Slaves” to “a Nation so lost to all Sense of Liberty and Virtue.” In May, as American newspapers published the text of Britain’s treaties with several German principalities, authorizing the hiring of mercenaries, outrage toward the Crown skyrocketed. Many were now convinced, as Richard Henry Lee said, that the action proved Britain was bent “upon the absolute conquest and subduction of N. America.” Nearly simultaneously, word arrived of yet more calamities in Canada. Congress had dispatched reinforcements following the failed attack in December, but smallpox and desertions soon thinned their ranks. With the arrival of British reinforcements in May, the American army commenced a long, slow retreat that lasted until mid-June. Now, said Lee, it “is not choice then but necessity that calls for Independence, as the only means by which a foreign Alliance can be obtained.”

One final matter helped the slowest sailors in Congress catch up with the swiftest. Month after month had passed with no sign of the so-called peace commissioners. Then, in the spring, it was learned that, although some commissioners had been named, they had been ordered not to treat with Congress. That proved a final blow; all but the most ardent reconciliationists were persuaded that the king’s envoys were coming for the sole purpose of dividing American opinion and derailing the war effort.

With the tide so turned, in mid-May, Congress declared that “every kind of authority under the . . . Crown should be totally suppressed” and instructed each colony to adopt a new government suitable for providing for the “happiness and safety of their constituents and . . . America in general.” John Adams, who called this the “last Step,” believed this was tantamount to a declaration of independence. Even Maryland’s Thomas Stone, a foe of separation, disconsolately allowed that the “Dye is cast. The fatal Stab is given to any future Connection between this Country & Britain.” Only a formal declaration of independence remained, and that could not now be long in coming.

On June 7, three weeks after Congress urged changes in the provincial governments, Lee introduced a motion for independence: “Resolved, 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.”

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