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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
The Continental Congress and its Doings
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[While the people of the American colonies were so bitterly resisting Parliamentary oppression, their representatives in the Continental Congress were feeling their way, by slow and cautious steps, towards that decisive measure, the declaration of American independence. Their action was as important as that of the soldiery who were fighting for liberty in the field, and a condensed statement of it is here requisite. We extract some illustrative notes of the doings of the successive American Congresses, from 1774 to 1776, from Edmund Ollier's "History of the United States," an impartially-written work by an English author.]

Monday, the 5th of September, 1774, was a great and important day in the annals of English America. It was the day on which the Congress of the United Provinces met in solemn session at Philadelphia. The members deputed by the several colonies had been arriving for some days, and they greeted one another with enthusiasm as the vanguard of liberty in the young Western world.. The representatives of the provinces were resolved to discuss their wrongs in a freely-elected Parliament of their own. They were in no mood to pay homage either to the English throne or to the English legislature, and they set to work without delay to organize a chamber for the efficient consideration of every subject bearing on the political well-being of their widely-separated, but still in some respects homogeneous, communities. The first meeting took place in a tavern, and it was determined to accept the offer of the carpenters of Philadelphia, who placed their spacious hall at the disposal of the delegates. The number of members was at least fifty-five, including such men as George Washington, Samuel and John Adams, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and others of high repute, if not of equal renown; and the colonies represented were eleven..

The resolution with respect to the voting power of each colony was arrived at on the second day of the meeting, when Patrick Henry, speaking on behalf of Virginia, drew forth in long array the many injuries inflicted on America by the action of the English Parliament. His speech was the first utterance of the Congress after its organization.. The magnificent oratory of Patrick Henry breathed, or rather flashed, a spirit of life into the dead assemblage [which had before sat in embarrassed silence].. British oppression, he said, had made one nation of the several colonies, so that he no longer considered himself a Virginian, but an American. Many contradictory opinions were expressed; but in the end the matter was settled in the way indicated by Henry [namely, to consider the colonies as a federation of independent States, with democratical representation, each State to have a voice in accordance with the numbers of its population]..

The Continental Congress sat eight weeks. On the 26th of October it was dissolved, after having recommended the appointment of a similar assembly, to meet on the 10th of May following unless a redress of grievances had been obtained ere then; and, to further the creation of this second Congress, it was recommended that all the colonies should elect deputies as soon as possible. Thus ended a most important experiment in American legislation. That experiment must be regarded as one of the great turning-points in the history of the United States. The assembling of a Congress representing most of the colonies was a plain assertion of national existence, and foreshadowed the nature of the independent government which was clearly coming on. The scattered forces of Anglo-American life were concentrated in a great assembly which embodied the will of many distinct communities. The old divisions and jealousies were to some extent healed; a country was slowly forming itself out of the chaos of discordant settlements.. As Patrick Henry observed, the oppression of the English government had effaced the boundaries of the several States, and a common pressure on the freedom and well-being of all had compacted the diffused and straggling life of the colonies into an intense and indivisible force. The debates in Congress had proved, on a grander scale than had yet been seen, that the Americans possessed a large amount of debating power, and the genius of statesmanship in no stinted measure. Chatham himself -- an authority not easily to be surpassed -- declared that the delegates assembled at Philadelphia were, in solidity of reasoning, force of sagacity, and wisdom of conduct, second to no human assembly of which history has preserved the memorial. Sweeping and facile statements of this character were very much in the taste of the eighteenth century, but in this particular instance the compliment involved no great exaggeration.

[Yet the petition of the Congress to the king, presented by Franklin and the agents of Massachusetts, proved futile. "The king remained firm in his policy of simple and unrelieved coercion." Efforts were made in favor of conciliatory measures, but George III. was not to be moved from his resolve to force the colonists into submission to his will. The proposition to remove the troops was negatived, reinforcements were ordered, and General Gage was subsequently invested with almost dictatorial powers. In the Congress of 1775, which met after the war had actually broken out, much timidity was displayed, though many of the bold spirits of the preceding Congress were present.]

Franklin, who was by this time back at Philadelphia, was again directing his attention to the more effective confederation of the colonies. Reverting in some measure to his Albany scheme of 1754, he submitted to Congress a plan for uniting the colonies in one nation. Each colony was to have its own Parliament, and the right to amend its own laws and constitution whenever it pleased; and the Federal government was to attend to affairs of national importance, and to govern the waste lands. Congress was to consist of but one legislative body, to be chosen annually, and one of its committees was to wield the executive power. . Some members of Congress, however, were far in advance of the collective sentiment. John Adams, in particular, was for at once establishing a constitution and a general government. . When Congress adjourned on the 1st of August, nothing had been settled in principle; yet a great many steps had been taken which made it all the less likely that the quarrel would be compromised,-- all the more probable that a violent separation would take place. .

The Continental Congress reassembled on the 13th of September; but the spirit of hesitation which had perplexed its counsels before still continued in an unabated degree. Dickinson, of Pennsylvania, exercised a great influence over the deliberations of the Federal body, and his love of moderation was carried, in the opinion of the more extreme, to the point of timidity.

The king's proclamation, denouncing the American malcontents as rebels, and requiring all loyal subjects to transmit information of traitorous designs to one of the secretaries of state, reached the New World a few weeks after its publication in England, which was on the 23d of August. It was received in New England with anger and derision, and deepened the resolve of all the popular leaders to declare the independence of the country. .

It was the 1st of November when the proclamation became known to the Continental Congress at Philadelphia. Abandoning their mood of hesitation, the delegates now resolved to act on the petitions of those provinces which desired to institute governments of their own. Wentworth, the governor of New Hampshire, having left his post, the people of that colony requested of Congress that they might be allowed to provide for the administration of their affairs, which had fallen into extreme disorder; and the prayer was granted. South Carolina was permitted to act in the same way. In both cases, the new governments were to exist only during the continuance of the dispute between Great Britain and her American possessions; but it must by this time have been almost universally perceived that the approaching struggle could eventuate in nothing but the entire independence of America or its complete subjugation.

[The Pennsylvania Assembly still preserved an attitude of loyalty to the king. Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland followed the example of Pennsylvania. In New York much loyalty was professed. The strong seats of rebellious sentiment were New England and Virginia, and some of the more southern provinces. Franklin, who had broken with the Pennsylvania Assembly and declined to take the seat to which he had been elected, now stimulated Thomas Paine, who had come to America at his suggestion, to the writing of those vigorous democratic pamphlets which did so much towards inspiring the people with patriotic sentiments.]

As the Pennsylvania legislature hesitated, the Continental Congress grew more determined and resolute. It empowered a secret committee to import gunpowder, field-pieces, and small-arms, and to export provisions and produce to the foreign West Indies in exchange for these materials of war. It adopted rules for the government of the American navy, which as yet had scarcely an existence except in design; directed the enlistment of two battalions of marines; authorized the colonists to seize all ships employed as carriers for the British fleet or army; and sanctioned tribunals for the confiscation of their cargoes. It was proposed by a Maryland delegate--who certainly went far beyond the feeling generally prevalent in his province--that envoys should be sent to France, with conditional instructions; but the motion was rejected. Nevertheless Harrison, Franklin, Johnson, Dickinson, and Jay were appointed a secret committee for corresponding with any persons in Great Britain, Ireland, and other parts of the world, who might be favorable to the American cause; and funds were appropriated for the payment of agents. These were all acts practically establishing an independent government, though the absolute declaration of independence was still delayed. The leaders of the popular party had already declared that the people are the source and origin of power; and this doctrine grew in favor with all who supported colonial rights. .

In December the Continental Congress determined to build thirteen ships of war and to establish a naval department. . This was another and very important step towards the creation of a national government totally distinct from that of the parent state. Still another was the opening of negotiations with foreign powers. . Towards the end of the year, De Bonvouloir, the emissary of Vergennes [of France], arrived in Philadelphia, and had several conferences with Franklin and the other members of the secret committee. The result of these interviews was that the Frenchman gave the committee to understand, without making an exact promise to that effect, that his king would aid them on certain conditions; and that the committee made it very clear to the Frenchman that they would be glad of such aid in the furtherance of their designs, though they still kept up the farce of pretending that they were even yet indisposed to sever their connection with England and with the English crown. .

By the 1st of January, 1776, Washington had, by extraordinary exertions, got together a new Continental army in front of Boston,--an army of less than ten thousand men, ill appointed, and not well disciplined. . With the new year an emblematical banner was unfurled over the troops. It displayed thirteen alternate red and white stripes (indicative of the thirteen united colonies), and in the corner the red and white crosses of St. George and St. Andrew on a blue ground. The desire for complete independence was expressed with a more undisguised frankness, and Washington openly declared his opinion that it was a necessity of the time.

[This feeling was strongly aided by Thomas Paine's treatise, named "Common Sense" by Dr. Rush of Philadelphia, and expressing in clear and forcible statement the most radical democratic opinions.]

However disputable some of Paine's arguments may have been, they were admirably calculated to produce a powerful effect in America, and to influence in the desired direction many who might still be inclined, from whatever cause, to hang back. Some, however, were a little alarmed at the boldness of the proposals, and Wilson, of Pennsylvania, moved in Congress for the appointment of a committee to explain to their constituents and to the world the present intentions of the colonial representatives respecting independence. In opposition to this suggestion, Samuel Adams insisted that Congress had already been explicit enough; but Wilson carried his motion. . Congress was timid about taking so extreme a step as a declaration of independence, but was none the less advancing cautiously towards that end. . The state of war was perfect; independence was all but complete. The United Colonies wanted but little to convert them into the United States.

[Meanwhile, France and Spain, while avowedly friendly to England, covertly wished to injure her, and appropriated a sum of money amounting to nearly a million dollars for the purchase of military stores to be secretly transmitted to America. Turgot, the French minister of finance, advocated entire freedom of trade, and this suggestion was taken up by Congress and debated on the 16th of February. On the 6th of April it was resolved "that the commerce of the thirteen United Colonies should be thrown open to all nations, excepting the subjects of Great Britain. Henceforth there were to be no custom-houses; exports and imports were to be alike free from all restrictions and from all taxation."

Commissioners were sent to Canada, to endeavor to bring that province into union of sentiment with the other colonies,--an effort which failed through the failure of the invading army. Privateering was authorized, and quickly became active. The king was described in a Congressional resolution as having "rejected their petitions with scorn and contempt." Among other acts, it was resolved that thereafter no slaves should be imported into the United Colonies.]

Independence was close at hand; but a further period of doubt, of hesitation, and of distracted counsels had yet to be passed through. During the debate on the proposal to authorize privateering, Franklin had openly avowed his opinion that the measure ought to be preceded by a declaration of war against Great Britain as a foreign power. But to the majority this seemed to be moving too fast, though only a small number of enthusiasts continued to believe in the possibility of the old political conditions being restored. . Samuel Adams, in particular, denounced the policy of delay. "Is not America," he asked in Congress, "already independent? Why not, then, declare it?" No foreign power, he argued, could consistently yield comfort to rebels, or enter into any kind of treaty with the insurgent colonies, until they had separated themselves from Great Britain. . It was with perfect truth that Samuel Adams spoke of America as practically independent. To throw off its allegiance in terms was the most honest, and probably by this time the most politic, course which the colonists could pursue.

[The Southern colonies had now become as extreme in their views as the Northern. South Carolina adopted its famous rattlesnake flag, ordered Sullivan's Island to be fortified, and on March 21 adopted a constitution which created two legislative bodies and the other essentials of government. John Rutledge delivered vigorously-radical addresses. North Carolina went still further, and on the 12th of April empowered her representatives to vote for independence. South Carolina followed this lead on the 23d of April, Chief-Justice Drayton declaring that the government of the province was independent of that of Great Britain. Rhode Island, on the 4th of May, passed an act freeing its people from allegiance to the king. John Adams's resolution, offered a year before, to empower any of the colonies to create a constitution for itself, was passed on the 10th of May. On the 6th of this month the House of Burgesses of Virginia declared that their ancient constitution had been subverted, and dissolved the Assembly. It was immediately succeeded by a convention which declared that Virginia had no alternative left but an abject submission or a complete separation. The country was therefore, from that time forward, to govern itself, form foreign alliances, and promote a confederation of the colonies. Patrick Henry, James Madison, and George Mason were the leading members of a committee appointed to prepare a declaration of rights and a plan of government. Of the act introduced by this committee, and passed, we give the leading sentiments.]

"All men are by nature equally free, and have inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity: namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. All power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them. Government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit and security of the people, nation, or community; and whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such a manner as shall be judged most conducive to the common weal. Public services not being descendible, neither ought the offices of magistrate, legislator, or judge to be hereditary. . All men having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, or attachment to, the community, have the right of suffrage, and cannot be taxed or deprived of their property for public uses without their own consent or that of their representatives so elected, nor bound by any law to which they have not in like manner assented for the public good. . No man ought to be deprived of liberty, except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers; and the ancient trial by jury ought to be held sacred. . A well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free state; standing armies in times of peace should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to the civil power. . No free government can be preserved but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles. Religion can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and, therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of it, according to the dictates of conscience; and it is the natural duty of all to practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other."

[This important declaration of principles, with John Adams's resolution tending to a separation from Great Britain, had a powerful effect on the Pennsylvania Assembly, which receded from its position of loyalty to the crown and on the 6th of June sent more liberal instructions to its delegates in Congress.]

On the very next day, Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia, in the name and with the special authority of that province, submitted to Congress a set of resolutions affirming that the United Colonies were, and of right ought to be, free and independent states; that they were absolved from all allegiance to the British crown; that all political connection between them and Great Britain was, and ought to be, totally dissolved; that it was expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign alliances; and that a plan of confederation should be prepared, and transmitted to the respective colonies for their consideration and approbation. The questions then raised were first considered on the 8th. The speeches were resumed on the 10th, and it was then resolved, after further discussion, to postpone the debate for three weeks, and in the mean time to appoint a committee which should draw up a declaration in harmony with what had been proposed.

[Virginia followed her declaration of principles by the formation of a constitution, which was a virtual declaration of independence. Connecticut and Delaware quickly followed, and New Hampshire, on June 15, resolved that the Thirteen United Colonies should be declared a free and independent state. Massachusetts declared in favor of complete separation from Great Britain. New York required more caution, on account of the approach of the British fleet yet it, too, declared for separation. Somewhat similar action was taken in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.]

All these local movements prepared the way for the great act of the Continental Congress which was to make the 4th of July, 1776, one of the most memorable dates in the history of the world. . The question of declaring the complete independence of the colonies [moved by Richard Henry Lee] was resumed on the 1st of July, when about fifty-one delegates appeared in their places. By this time the opinion in favor of separation was nearly unanimous. . Before the great business of the day came on, a letter was read from Washington, giving a very bad account of his forces at New York. The accumulated disasters of the invading army in Canada were also known; and news had been received of the threatening movement of Parker and Clinton against Charleston, but not of its defeat. The prospects of the infant republic, whose birth was about to be formally announced to the world, were, therefore, far from encouraging; yet the faith of those daring statesmen in the force and vitality of their idea was sufficient to triumph over all discouragements and all adverse fortunes.

[The first speaker was John Adams, who had seconded Lee's resolution, and who recapitulated the arguments in favor of a declaration of independence. He was replied to by Dickinson, of Pennsylvania, who, though patriotic, thought the movement injudicious. A long and impassioned debate followed, after which action was postponed till the following day. On putting the resolution to vote, it was passed by a majority of the delegates of all the colonies, with the exception of New York, which had lacked time to express its wishes. The sanction of New York was given a week afterwards.]

John Adams, writing to his wife at Boston, on the 3d of July, to communicate to her the grand event in which he had acted so important a part, hailed that second day of July, 1776, as the most memorable epoch in the history of America. "I am apt to believe," he said, "that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, for evermore. You will think me transported by enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil, and blood, and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this declaration and support and defend these states. Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means, and that posterity will triumph in that day's transaction, even though we should rue it, which I trust in God we shall not.". .

The committee for drawing up the Declaration of Independence had intrusted that task to Thomas Jefferson, who, though at that time only thirty-three years of age,--between seven and eight years younger than John Adams, and a mere juvenile as compared with Franklin, both of whom were on the committee,--was chosen for a work of great difficulty and importance, because he was held to possess a singular felicity in the expression of popular ideas (as evinced in previous state papers), and because he represented the province of Virginia, the oldest of the Anglo-American colonies. Jefferson, having produced the required document, reported it to the House on the 28th of June, when it was read, and ordered to lie on the table. After the conclusion of the debate on the resolution of independence on the 2d of July, the Declaration was passed under review. During the remainder of that day and the two next, this remarkable production was very closely considered and shifted, and several alterations were made in it.

[Several changes had been made in the original draft by the committee, though just what they were is not known. The principal changes made by Congress were the omission of those sentences which reflected upon the English people, and the striking out of a clause which severely reprobated the slave-trade.]

The debate on the proposed Declaration came to a termination on the evening of the 4th of July. The document was then reported by the committee, agreed to by the House, and signed by every member present, except Dickinson.

[The signature of New York was not given till several days later, and a New Hampshire member, Matthew Thornton, was permitted to append his signature on November 4 four months after the signing.]

It will not at this day be denied by many, even on the English side of the Atlantic, that the Declaration was a work of greater power, that it had a large basis of truth, that it appealed, in noble and strenuous language, to the very highest principles of political right and virtue. Its crowning glory is that it did this in no utopian spirit, in no mood of wild and vindictive change, but with decorum, with dignity, with tenderness, and with sense. Englishmen, who regret the quarrel out of which this supreme act of renunciation arose, may yet reflect, with a just satisfaction and no ungenerous pride, that the root of all these principles is to be found in the traditions of a thousand years of English political life. Jefferson did but apply to novel circumstances the general ideas of popular freedom which had long been illustrated in the old country. George III. had endeavored to introduce into the administration of affairs a species of German absolutism, distasteful alike to Englishmen at home and to their descendants in America. The Declaration of Independence was the final reply of Americans to the ill-judged and ignorant attempt. Its effect on Europe was immense. It helped, in a very considerable degree, to make the French Revolution; it even influenced England. Doubtless it is an exaggeration to say that, but for the success of the Americans, England would have been enslaved. . But the example of America strengthened the liberal party in the mother-country, and guaranteed the certainty of reform. This is why the great production of Jefferson should have as much interest for English as for American minds. .

Undoubtedly, no more important act has ever been performed. From that day forward--from that memorable 4th of July, 1776--the Republic of English America assumed a distinct and tangible existence. The United Colonies became the United States. George III. was formally deposed in thirteen provinces of his empire, and some millions of his subjects became foreigners. A new chapter in the annals of the human race had been opened, and it was as yet too early to forecast with any certainty whether that chapter was to be mainly characterized by weal or woe.

Edmund Ollier

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