The Life of John Adams, by Charles Henry Adams
Editors Note: This is Volume 1 of the 10 Volume “The Works of John Adams”, (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). The author, Charles Henry Adams is John Adams grandson. The copyright for the original text is in the Public Domain because its copyright has expired. The font, formatting, and spelling modernizations of this version of The Works of John Adams, as well as all other Americanist Library and Founders Corner selections are, unless otherwise specified, Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell.
Entrance Into Public Life—the Congress of 1774—services From That Time Until the Declaration of Independence.
During the passage of the events described in the last chapter, in which the executive and judicial powers of the colony had been brought to a stand, and Hutchinson, the head of the loyalist party, had, in despair, determined to abandon the struggle, the British ministry was engaged in maturing new plans to overcome the resistance of Massachusetts. Lord North, no longer indulging in the sanguine anticipations of an early return to peace by the voluntary submission of the colonists, was now to become the exponent of the royal indignation. In this indignation the people of Great Britain much more largely shared after the news arrived of the general rejection of the tea. And it was most particularly directed against the town of Boston, because Boston had marked her proceedings with the most aggravated form of resistance. The chastisement for these offences was defined by the minister, through the introduction into Parliament, in quick succession, of the three bills, which shut up the port of Boston, which, under the name of regulation, annihilated the charter of the colony, and which transferred the jurisdiction over cases of riot and tumult to the courts of the mother country. Simultaneously with the passage of these minatory acts, came the preparation of a military force deemed adequate to enforce them. The executive authority, no longer entrusted to men in civil life, was vested in General Gage, an officer high in the ranks of the regular army, at the same time that his command was extended by the transfer of more regiments to Massachusetts. Eleven in number were concentrated at last, but instead of being ready for immediate use, they were many months in collecting at Boston. The policy now was, by the presence of an overawing force, to give, in all the essential parts of the government, such a preponderance to the known partisans of the British authority, that its ordinary functions could be performed by them without the possibility of effective interruption; but it was feebly executed. Had the parties in the colony been in any way equally divided, the scheme might possibly have succeeded. The ministry all along acted under impressions that they were so, which had been spread over Great Britain by dependents in America interested to make them believe it. In point of fact, the new system, having no such basis, resolved itself simply into an attempt to impose a government, without an adequate power to make it obeyed. The charter of William and Mary was, indeed, set aside, but martial law had not yet the force at hand to put what it pleased in its place.
Mr. Adams had steadily adhered to his profession as long as it was open to him. Even in the case of the destruction of the tea, which decided the fate of future events, although evidently cognizant of the intent, he preferred to be ignorant of every detail, so that, in case the participators should be drawn into the courts, he might serve them with more freedom. In politics, he had been, with the single exception of one year’s service in the legislature, solely the counsellor, whilst others acted. Throughout the controversies, involving questions of natural or common or provincial law, which had been carried on between 1770 and 1774, his learning and talents had been relied upon to sustain the patriot view. But he continued fixed to his practice. The arrival of General Gage materially changed this attitude. The blow which had shut up the courts, had rebounded upon him. Then came the closing of the port of Boston, and the other acts, to complete the general disorder, and to inspire no hope of an early return to a better state of things. His occupation was gone, and with it his best means of living. The labors of twenty years were in jeopardy on the one side, whilst on the other a gloomy vista was opening of dangers and sufferings to be incurred as a penalty for perseverance in opposition. The little town with whose fortunes he had identified himself, which had struggled through a century and a half of various fortunes with unabated fortitude, and resolute though slow success, was threatened with depopulation, unless it bent to the storm; and the province itself seemed to have before it no alternative between servile submission to the royal commands, and the quixotic project of war against the gigantic powers of the British empire. Surely, this was a prospect sad enough to depress the most hopeful spirit and to shake the strongest nerves. Yet Mr. Adams was neither rashly exalted nor unduly discouraged under these difficulties. That he fully understood their nature, is made certain by his own pen. Musing upon the unwonted leisure, which had been thus imposed upon him, he sat down and wrote to his wife, then at Braintree, the following description of his state of mind.
“Boston, 12 May, 1774.
“My own infirmities, the account of the return of yours, and the public news, coming all together, have put my philosophy to the trial.
“We live, my dear soul, in an age of trial. What will be the consequence, I know not. The town of Boston, for aught I can see, must suffer martyrdom. It must expire. And our principal consolation is, that it dies in a noble cause—the cause of truth, of virtue, of liberty, and of humanity, and that it will probably have a glorious resurrection to greater wealth, splendor, and power than ever.
“Let me know what is best for us to do. It is expensive keeping a family here, and there is no prospect of any business in my way in this town this whole summer. I don’t receive a shilling a week. We must contrive as many ways as we can to save expenses; for we may have calls to contribute very largely, in proportion to our circumstances, to prevent other very honest worthy people from suffering for want, besides our own loss in point of business and profit.
“Don’t imagine, from all this, that I am in the dumps. Far otherwise; I can truly say that I have felt more spirits and activity since the arrival of this news than I have done for years. I look upon this as the last effort of Lord North’s despair, and he will as surely be defeated in it as he was in the project of the tea.”
This letter presents a new instance of that peculiar habit of Mr. Adams’s mind, of living in the future, which manifested itself so early in the letter to Nathan Webb, and which continued to mark him throughout his career. He measured the present difficulties with a calm, appreciative eye. He saw the full extent of the hazard both to his country and himself; but so far from shaking his firm resolve and unfaltering trust, it only nerved him with added power to go through the trial, whatever it might be, to the end he saw in the distance, a certain triumph. This feeling remained unchanged in all the vicissitudes of the subsequent contest.
Yet Mr. Adams, now in his thirty-ninth year, had hitherto been only a private man, honored with few marks of the confidence of his fellow-citizens. Indeed, he had rather sought to avoid than to win them. But the same necessity which had already prompted the patriot leaders to have recourse to him in counsel, now impelled them to an effort to bring him more decidedly upon the field of action. The first sign of this was in the attempt of the House of Representatives, at their meeting in the last week of May, to place him in the council of General Gage, an attempt which that officer immediately rendered vain by his negative. It was one of Gage’s last acts under the old constitutional forms. Soon afterwards, despairing of his ability to control that body, whilst yet protected by the charter, he adjourned it until the 7th of June, just a week after the new acts of parliament were to go into operation, under which it was prescribed to meet, not at Boston, but in Salem. For a moment he thought the blow decisive, and he wrote to Lord Dartmouth his conviction that the opposition were staggered. However true this might have been of some, it was not true of Samuel Adams and Joseph Hawley, the main springs of the patriot movements. The brief period that intervened was spent in the most sedulous secret efforts to meet the great emergency; so that when the House assembled again, according to the order, at Salem, they matured their plans of organization and their resolutions, needing but few days to inspire most of the members with the proper energy to carry them out. Those few days were granted by the incautious confidence of the governor. Just as he was taking measures to repair his error, on the seventeenth of June, a day memorable in the annals of Massachusetts for more than one event, the signal for action was given in the House by a motion, that the doorkeeper keep the doors closed against all passage in or out. Immediately, one hundred and twenty-nine members being present, resolutions were presented, among other things, approving of a meeting of what were designated as committees from the several colonies of America, at Philadelphia, on the 1st of September, “to consult upon wise and proper measures to be recommended to all the colonies for the recovery and establishment of their just rights and liberties, civil and religious, and the restoration of union and harmony between the two countries, most ardently desired by all good men,” and nominating James Bowdoin, Thomas Cushing, Samuel Adams, John Adams, and Robert Treat Paine, to serve as the committee in behalf of Massachusetts. These resolutions, embodying many other points not necessary to be mentioned in this connection, were taken up for immediate decision. The surprise was complete, and the stroke seemed to be decisive.
But there was, nevertheless, a moment of danger. A few spies were in the camp. One of them evaded the vigilance of the doorkeeper, and communicated the tidings to General Gage. Quick as he heard them, that officer dispatched the secretary to the House with a message, dissolving the assembly. He got there in good season, but the door was locked, and the messenger would not open it without the order of the House. The secretary then directed him to acquaint the speaker that he was charged with a message from the governor. The speaker received the notice, and announced it to the House. The House gravely confirmed their order, that no one be admitted. Meantime a few idlers and several members had gathered on the steps in front of the locked door, and in their presence the secretary, having received the House’s answer, proceeded to read aloud the message and the proclamation, dispersing the assembly. Nothing daunted by this outside fulmination, the body steadily persisted in passing through all the forms necessary to make their act complete. The final division upon the adoption of the resolutions stood one hundred and seventeen in the affirmative, twelve in the negative. The members then separated, just as if they had received the message in due form. With them passed away the last provincial assembly that ever acted under the royal authority in Massachusetts.
Thus it happened that John Adams was thrown forward upon the new theatre of continental politics. The committee of five had not been selected without great care, and the members of it closely represented the various interests of the colony. Mr. Bowdoin was of the few, favored by fortune above the average of the community, who had decidedly embraced the patriot cause. Mr. Cushing was a type of the commercial class on the seaboard. John Adams and Robert Treat Paine answered for the professional and educated men, whilst Samuel Adams stood as the personification of the religious and political spirit of the majority, and an index of their policy. To the disinclination felt by Joseph Hawley to prominence in active service was the selection of John Adams probably due. His sagacious mind had, some time before, perceived the value of the qualities of his younger friend, in any great emergency, and this had prompted earlier efforts to bring him into the public service. There is reason to suppose that he now urged his nomination in lieu of accepting a place which would undoubtedly have been his own, if he had wished it. Similar impressions secured the coöperation of Samuel Adams, with the addition of a personal desire for an assistant and counsellor in his colleague and kinsman. John Adams himself seems to have had little part in the matter. Whilst the choice was making, he was in Boston, presiding over a large meeting of the citizens convened at Faneuil Hall, to consult upon the measures proper to be taken in view of the parliamentary edict which annihilated their trade, and the means of subsistence of the greater number. Attendance upon such meetings had not been his wont, neither had the popular action always been exactly what he approved when he was present,1 but the object of this call was one to which no true heart could fail to respond. The question fell little short of devising a way to save the poor from starvation. Assistance was to be afforded, or the gravest difficulties were likely to ensue. Relief had been solicited from without. The communication of the response thus far made to these applications was one of the objects of the meeting. Letters, which had been sent in all directions, in and out of the province, by the committee of correspondence, soliciting relief, and such answers as had been received, were there read. The tenor of the latter was encouraging, but not decisive. The prospect was not without its deep shadows. Yet the brave Bostonians, nothing daunted, with but a single dissenting voice, adopted the following resolution:—
“Voted, that the committee of correspondence be enjoined forthwith to write to all the other colonies, acquainting them that we are not idle; that we are deliberating upon the steps to be taken on the present exigencies of our public affairs; that our brethren, the landed interest of this province, with an unexampled spirit and unanimity, are entering into a nonconsumption agreement; and that we are waiting, with anxious expectation, for the result of a continental congress, whose meeting we impatiently desire, in whose wisdom and firmness we can confide, and in whose determination we shall cheerfully acquiesce.”
Thus it was that the people of this purely commercial town put every thing at stake on this issue, and threw themselves upon the sympathies of their brethren everywhere, who had not yet become to a like extent involved in the struggle. To them alone resistance one inch further was a question of life and death. The deep anxiety with which they must have looked to the probabilities of success in the grand attempt at combination now set in motion, through which was to come their only chance of salvation, may readily be imagined. And if such was the general feeling, how much must he have felt its pressure, who was giving to the proceedings his official approbation! Upon him, as one of the selected delegates, was the duty falling of attempting to guide the counsels of that congress from which they expected so much. Upon him, as unquestionably the ablest advocate of the number, would devolve a great share of the task of presenting their cause. And upon him would recoil much of the discredit which might follow any failure to gain for it the desired favor. To the magnitude of this responsibility his eyes were fully open. His “Diary” here comes in to show his inmost meditations, divided between fears of his own fitness for the emergency, projects to recommend for adoption, and apprehensions of an adverse result. “I wander alone and ponder,” he says; “I muse, I mope, I ruminate. I am often in reveries and brown studies. The objects before me are too grand and multifarious for my comprehension. We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in genius, in education, in travel, in fortune, in every thing. I feel unutterable anxiety. God grant us wisdom and fortitude! Should the opposition be suppressed, should this country submit, what infamy and ruin! God forbid! Death, in any form, is less terrible.”
This was not the impulse of a more insurgent, who plunges into violent opposition to established government without counting the cost or measuring the consequences of his acts. The professional life of Mr. Adams had been cut off at the very moment when the labors of years were returning to him the most richly the long expected reward. And, instead of it, a field was opening for which his capacity was yet untried, a field, too, in which not the wisest or most gifted man can predict success to his efforts from appearances even the most promising. Worst of all, to a sensitive and honest mind, there was the chance of failure in the cause, with its sequence of ruin, not to him alone, but to all that was most dear to him. Perhaps he might himself be brought as a malefactor to the block.1 There may be those who, in sunny times, can form out of pledges of devotion to freedom a safe and honorable road to fame and fortune, but their merit is of a passive sort if contrasted with the prospect of Massachusetts in 1774, when the thunders of Britain were rolling heavily over the devoted heads of the Boston people, and when a step further in advance seemed like tempting Providence to speed the fatal bolt.
The 1st of September had been designated as the day of meeting of the proposed congress. The interval was passed by Mr. Adams in a professional circuit to the eastern part of the province, which now makes the State of Maine. At this time commences the regular confidential correspondence with his wife, a woman who shared in his anxieties and seconded his noblest aspirations, which was steadily kept up through all the long and various separations consequent upon his public life. Whilst he was writing to his political friends for the best results of their reflections upon the wisest course to be taken in the present public emergency, to her he communicated more particularly his personal solicitude. To Joseph Hawley, he enlarged on the necessity which made him a politician against his will. “Politics are an ordeal path among redhot ploughshares. Who, then, would be a politician, for the pleasure of running about barefoot among them? Yet somebody must.” But to his wife, he complained of his professional absence from the county of Suffolk, because he lost a chance of fitting himself better for his new duties. “If I was there, I could converse with the gentlemen who are bound with me for Philadelphia. I could turn the course of my reading and studies to such subjects of law and politics and commerce as may come in play at the congress. I might be polishing up my old reading in law and history, that I might appear with less indecency before a variety of gentlemen, whose education, travels, experience, family, fortune, and every thing will give them a vast superiority to me, and, I fear, even to some of my companions.” This does not look as if he needed the kindly hint given him by his friend Hawley, in one of the most remarkable letters of that day,1 not to fall into the error imputed “to the Massachusetts gentlemen, and especially of the town of Boston,” of assuming big and haughty airs, and affecting to dictate and take the lead in continental measures. This impression was propagated by their own tories, it seems, in order to create a prejudice against the delegates beforehand, and increase the difficulties in their way.
Of the issue of the congress, Mr. Adams was not sanguine. In another letter to his wife, he said:—
“I must prepare for a journey to Philadelphia. A long journey, indeed! But if the length of the journey was all, it would be no burden. But the consideration of what is to be done is of great weight. Great things are wanted to be done, and little things only, I fear, can be done. I dread the thought of the congress’s falling short of the expectations of the continent, but especially of the people of the province.
“Vapors, avaunt! I will do my duty, and leave the event. If I have the approbation of my own mind, whether applauded or censured, blessed or cursed by the world, I will not be unhappy.”
He complained that his circuit yielded him less profit than ever before, and, as a consequence, they must be more frugal.
“I must entreat you, my dear partner in all the joys and sorrows, prosperity and adversity of my life, to take a part with me in the struggle. I pray God for your health, and entreat you to rouse your whole attention to the family, the stock, the farm, the dairy. Let every article of expense, which can possibly be spared, be retrenched. Keep the hands attentive to their business, and let the most prudent measures of every kind be adopted and pursued with alacrity and spirit.”
In the midst of these anxieties, public and private, the time approached for his departure. He reached home from the circuit about the middle of July, and on the 10th of the next month set off, with all the delegates elected, excepting James Bowdoin, on their way through Connecticut to New York. The journey was an ovation.1 On all sides committees and clubs of the patriots crowded to escort them from town to town, and to receive them as public guests. A good idea of the scene may be gathered from Mr. Adams’s account of it in his “Diary.” Yet, underneath all this cordiality lay anxieties and distrust of the event, thicker and thicker sown the further they went. Mr. Adams’s presaging mind saw already that, as a remedy to the difficulties they labored under, the congress would fail. To his colleague, Samuel Adams, he might say, in confidence: “I suppose we must go to Philadelphia, and enter into non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreements. But they will be of no avail. We shall have to resist by force.”1 But this language would have been highly dangerous to any prospect of union, if it had been indulged in by either of them at New York or Philadelphia, whilst John Dickinson was writing to Josiah Quincy, Jr., a strong caution against “breaking the line of opposition” in Massachusetts. Alexander McDougal warned them, at New York, that episcopal and aristocratic prejudices were already in arms to keep out what was designated as the “levelling spirit” of New England. And Philip Livingston was not courteous enough to repress, in their presence, the manifestation of his own sympathy with those apprehensions. Arrived in New Jersey, they found the spirit pretty high at Princeton, the scene of Dr. Witherspoon’s labors, but they were told to be wary as they drew nearer to Philadelphia. Five miles from that city, at Frankford, they were welcomed by a considerable number of persons who had come out ostensibly to do them honor, but really in part to apprise them exactly of the suspicions afloat respecting them. The cry among the vacillating and the timid was, that the Massachusetts men were aiming at nothing short of independence. Even the calm spirit of Washington had been troubled by it; nor was it quieted until after a long and free interchange of sentiment with the delegates. The effect of all this was to inspire them with great prudence. They talked so moderately that the dashing and careless bravado of some of the delegates from Virginia and Carolina took the wind entirely out of their sails. “What is the king’s promise?” asked young Edward Rutledge. “I should have no regard to his word. It is not worth any thing.” Harrison gave, as a toast: “A constitutional death to Lords Bute, Mansfield, and North!” In comparison with the high tone of these men, Joseph Reed remarked that the New England men seemed mere milksops.11 Yet the sequel showed that the latter were not the first to tire on the way!
In truth, the attitude of the Massachusetts delegates was at this moment quite peculiar. The specific object of the assembly, to which they had come, was consultation. On the part of all the other colonies this was, comparatively, an easy task. They were yet exempt from the immediate signs of Great Britain’s indignation. They were at liberty to promise as much or as little as they pleased; or they might, if they chose, leave Massachusetts alone, to serve as the scapegoat of the sins of the whole continent. They had not yet been sinners beyond the hope of pardon. But to her, it was help, or we sink. She was, in fact, a suppliant to have her cause made the common cause. Her delegates were bound to convince their associates that their own safety, that precious flower, could be plucked only out of the nettle of her danger; that, although the armed hand now rested on her alone, it would inevitably spread over all English America, if all did not unite their strength to remove it. This task was rendered the more difficult from the great uncertainty whether even that union would effect the object, or serve further than to bring down a common ruin. “We have a delicate course to steer,” Mr. Adams wrote to his wife, “between too much activity and too much insensibility, in our critical, interested situation. I flatter myself, however, that we shall conduct our embassy in such a manner as to merit the approbation of our country. It has taken us much time to get acquainted with the tempers, views, characters, and designs of persons, and to let them into the circumstances of our province.” Yet of one thing at least the delegates were sure, and that was of the sympathy of all.
In the midst of these anxieties, as often happens in the affairs of men,2 an event over which the delegates could have no control did more to help them than all their labors. Out of some preparations made by General Gage to secure his position by fortifying Boston neck, a rumor had been widely spread, until it reached Philadelphia, that he had cruelly turned his cannon upon the unoffending citizens, and devoted them to an indiscriminate slaughter. The indignation which this wild tale created overcame what was left of hesitation. Mr. Adams describes it to his wife in his usual vigorous style.
“When the horrid news was brought here of the bombardment of Boston, which made us completely miserable for two days, we saw proofs of the sympathy and the resolution of the continent. War! war! war! was the cry; and it was pronounced in a tone which would have done honor to the oratory of a Briton or a Roman. If it had proved true, you would have heard the thunder of an American congress.”
The contradiction of the story came in time to restore the excited men to calmness, but it did not place them just where they were before. The strong resolutions transmitted by the county of Suffolk, including Boston, had been received with favor, and responded to by votes, the tenor of which certainly encouraged the people to resist by force, if it did not absolutely pledge support. “This day,” says Mr. Adams, in his “Diary” of the 17th of September, “convinced me that America will support the Massachusetts, or perish with her.” “I saw the tears gush into the eyes of the old, grave, pacific Quakers of Pennsylvania,” he tells his wife. With great unanimity the voice went forth that the poor people of Boston were to be encouraged to persevere, and pecuniary contributions were to be made for their relief, until the united efforts of North America could avail to bring round a change in the policy of Britain, with better men for ministers and wiser measures. The ship was moving steadily, but, after all, it was going rather slowly for the eager expectation of Massachusetts. “Fifty gentlemen meeting together, all strangers, are not acquainted with each other’s language, ideas, views, designs. They are, therefore, jealous of each other, fearful, timid, skittish.” “The art and address of ambassadors from a dozen belligerent powers of Europe, nay, of a conclave of cardinals at the election of a pope, or of the princes in Germany at the choice of an emperor, would not exceed the specimens we have seen. Yet the congress all profess the same political principles! They all profess to consider our province as suffering in the common cause; and, indeed, they seem to feel for us as if for themselves.”
Great care was necessary to avoid stopping the movement by showing too great ardor to promote it. “We have had numberless prejudices to remove here. We have been obliged to act with great delicacy and caution. We have been obliged to keep ourselves out of sight, and to feel pulses and sound the depths; to insinuate our sentiments, designs, and desires by means of other persons; sometimes of one province and sometimes of another.” Such are some of the revelations made by Mr. Adams to his friends at home, at the time. “Patience, forbearance, long-suffering, are the lessons taught here for our province, and, at the same time, absolute and open resistance to the new government. I wish I could convince gentlemen of the danger or impracticability of this as fully as I believe it myself.” After all, the best which they could hope to obtain would not be adequate to their wants. “I may venture to tell you that I believe we shall agree to non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation, but not to commence so soon as I could wish. Indeed, all this would be insufficient for your purpose. A more adequate support and relief should be adopted. But I tremble for fear we should fail of obtaining it.”
To his friend, General Palmer, who had presided at the meeting which had passed the Suffolk resolves already alluded to, and who was now a representative from his own town in the provincial congress, he explained the prevailing opinions in the following letter:—
Philadelphia, 26 September, 1774.
“Before this reaches you, the sense of congress concerning your wisdom, fortitude, and temperance in the Massachusetts in general, and the county of Suffolk in particular, will be public in our country. It is the universal sense here, that the Massachusetts acts and the Murder acts ought not to be submitted to. But then, when you ask the question, what is to be done, they answer: ‘Stand still. Bear with patience. If you come to a rupture with the troops, all is lost.’ Resuming the first charter, absolute independency, &c., are ideas which startle people here.
“It seems to be the general opinion here, that it is practicable for us in the Massachusetts to live wholly without a legislature and courts of justice, as long as will be necessary to obtain relief. If it is practicable, the general opinion is that we ought to bear it. The commencement of hostilities is exceedingly dreaded here. It is thought that an attack upon the troops, even though it should prove successful and triumphant, would certainly involve the whole continent in a war. It is generally thought here, that the minister would rejoice at a rupture in Boston, because that would furnish him with an excuse to the people at home, and unite them with him in an opinion of the necessity of pushing hostilities against us. On the contrary, the delegates here, and other persons from various parts are unanimously very sanguine that if Boston and the Massachusetts can possibly steer a middle course between obedience to the acts and open hostilities with the troops, the exertions of the colonies will procure a total change of measures and full redress for us. However, my friend, I cannot at this distance pretend to judge. We must leave it all to your superior wisdom.
“What you propose, of holding out some proposal which shall show our willingness to pay for our protection at sea, is a subject often mentioned in private conversation here. Many gentlemen have pursued the thought and digested their plans; but what is to be the fate of them, I cannot say. It is my opinion, Sir, that we do our full proportion towards the protection of the empire, and towards the support of the naval power. To the support of the standing army, we ought never to contribute voluntarily.
“A gentleman put into my hands, a few days ago, a plan for offering to raise two hundred thousand pounds sterling annually, to appropriate it to the maintenance of a ship of war. But is not this surrendering our liberty? I have not time, however, to discuss these questions at present. I pray God to direct, assist, and protect you and all our friends, amidst the dangers that surround you.”
Great care was taken, at the time, to impress the country with the belief that the members of this body were perfectly agreed in all their deliberations; and the secrecy in which the proceedings were kept contributed to favor the idea. In point of fact, there was a general harmony in feeling, though not in opinion. The probability of reconciliation was cherished by the greater number, who yet were far from according as to the means which might be effective to produce it. One portion relied upon the respectful, yet manly and eloquent, reasoning of their remonstrances, to soften the stony hearts of king, ministers, and parliament, whilst another trusted more to the effect upon their fears of ruin to the national interests from the refusal further to trade. Others had no faith in either motive, but were willing to make the experiment in order to satisfy their friends. Yet, whatever the diversities of sentiment, the paramount idea, which kept all the passions within a clearly defined circle, was the absolute necessity of union. The fear of hazarding that, equally stimulated the timid and restrained the bold. All felt that the cause of Massachusetts involved the liberties of every other colony, but all did not see alike the urgency of engaging in active measures for her support. To this hesitation it became indispensable that the more ardent of the number should defer. They cheerfully sacrificed their own strong, and as it proved just views of the crisis, and gave their assent to expedients, however insufficient in their eyes, only because they could not fail to see that, at this cost alone, were they to arrive at the general conviction of their futility, and a subsequent coöperation in a more decided system. Hence it happened that, notwithstanding the diversity in reasoning upon abstract principles, which undoubtedly prevailed, the delegates were not separated in the results of their deliberations. Joseph Galloway and James Duane signed the non-importation and non-exportation agreement, even though they regarded it as going too far, whilst Samuel and John Adams signed it too, though they thought it scarcely moving at all. Between these extremes lay the body of members who honestly believed, with Richard Henry Lee, that it would prove a complete remedy for all the troubles within three months. The consequence was substantial union, whilst to the people outside, the moral effect was that of extraordinary harmony in the policy of resistance. This accelerated that consolidation of all sections of opposition, which proved of the greatest value in the passage through the more critical periods of the struggle.
In truth, this assembly was one of the most remarkable events of the Revolution. Selected, apparently, with great care, it comprised a very large part of the best abilities then to be found in the colonies. New and untried in the affairs of the world on any great scale, without opportunities to learn either by study or experience the art of government, homogeneous only in language and origin, it is certainly matter of surprise that in the steps they took, and the declarations of policy they placed before the world, they should have displayed so many of the highest qualities of statesmanship. The well known eulogy of Lord Chatham is not exaggerated, and contrasts singularly with the view which must now be taken of the individuals in power, by whom he was at the same moment surrounded at home. Of the list of the signers of the non-importation agreement, a very large proportion were men who proved themselves possessed of more than ordinary qualities, whilst several have earned a reputation which can die only with the decay of all mortal things. Virginia never, in any subsequent stage of her annals, brilliant with great names, shone more than now, when Washington and Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Peyton Randolph, Pendleton, and Bland, came to throw her great weight into this cause. Here was courage blended with prudence, age with youth, eloquence with wisdom, progress with conservatism. South Carolina presented Gadsden, rough, honest, impulsive, and energetic, qualified by the caution of Middleton, and relieved by the more showy rhetoric of the younger Rutledge. New England, strong in good sense, had as an orator only John Adams, but it abounded with intelligence, honesty, and the capacity for grappling with the practical business of life, and its old Puritan temper was absolutely embodied in the person of Samuel Adams. The Middle States, too, though less zealous and determined, and with a smaller proportion of marked men, furnished, in John Jay, purity of character unsurpassed in any times, united with ability, wisdom, and patriotism of the highest grade; and in James Duane, William Livingston, John Dickinson, Samuel Chase, Thomas Johnson, Cæsar Rodney, and Thomas McKean, sincerity of purpose and cautious judgment as well as practical capacity, which would not have discredited the most experienced statesmen of their day. Even Joseph Galloway, though he failed in rising to the level of public spirit which distinguished his associates, was by no means an ordinary man either in mind or character. In many assemblies of later times he would not have found his equal. It is by his deficiency that we are the better enabled to conceive the stature of those with whom he is compared.
In this remarkable congress, however, there was less trial of those higher faculties of the mind, which determine action, than in the assemblies that followed. The main objects to be gained by it were the establishment of one organization to extend over all the colonies, and the just statement to the world of the principles upon which the common cause was to be maintained. In order to secure these, care was to be taken, first, to place in the foreground those colonies which it was vitally important to enlist in the work of identifying the cause of all with the fate of Massachusetts; secondly, to select from the members such as were best qualified to embody in words the trains of thought and feeling most likely to be approved by the largest portion of the country. Yet, in following out this policy, it happened more than once that the zealous outran the pace of their comrades, and were compelled to retrace their steps. Massachusetts was, for obvious reasons, content to remain in the background. But as the committees were organized, to whom was entrusted the preparation of the necessary papers, the results to which they first arrived, seldom proved quite satisfactory to the assembly itself. This was particularly the case with the committee appointed to draw up and report a form of petition to the king. It was composed of five persons, Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry of Virginia, John Adams of Massachusetts, Thomas Johnson, of Maryland, and John Rutledge, of South Carolina, a geographical distribution somewhat oblivious of the middle and most backward colonies, besides containing a majority holding opinions much in advance of the general sentiment.
What is most singular, however, is the obscurity with which the action of this committee has been covered, and the discussions carried on at a later time about the authorship of their final report. Mr. Lee, Mr. Adams, Mr. Henry, each in turn, has been named as the writer of that celebrated paper, when, in fact, neither of them had any thing to do with it. It is now known to have been the work of Mr. John Dickinson.1 But, when the committee was made, he was not even a member of the congress; and the fact is indubitable that a draft had been prepared and reported before he was appointed. Who wrote that draft, and what became of it, has never been positively ascertained. Mr. Adams, when appealed to late in life, both by Mr. Jay and Mr. Jefferson, seemed to have lost all recollection of it. By a single entry in his “Diary,” it appears that he spent the evening of the 11th of October with Mr. Henry, consulting about the matter, and that this gentleman then alluded to the deficiencies of his education, as if in the way of objection to undertake the labor. This, however, is only an inference, and does not prove that he may not have written it. That Mr. Adams himself did not, can scarcely be doubted, for in none of his memoranda of his various productions, early or late, is there the slightest allusion to any paper of the kind. Neither would his interference have been consistent with his well-known policy to enlist leading men from the other colonies, especially from Virginia, by putting them forward as advocates of the cause. Notwithstanding that no traces of it remain among Mr. Lee’s papers,1 the probabilities are strong that the draft was prepared by him, not without some suggestions from the ardent minds of the other two. As a very natural consequence, it proved unacceptable to the temper of the Middle States, in which the hope of reconciliation was yet unshaken. Mr. Dickinson, whose opinions nearest symbolized those of the majority at this moment, describes it as having been written “in language of asperity, very little according with the conciliatory disposition of congress.” After some debate it was, in substance, rejected by returning it to the same committee, reinforced by the addition of Mr. Dickinson. The hint was taken, and the task of framing a new paper imposed by the committee upon the new-comer. He executed it, and his draft was reported to congress on the 24th of October. It was adopted, with some amendments, and signed on the very last day of its session. Thus is the mystery, in a measure, solved. But at this day it would not be without its interest to those who trace the growth of opinions, could the opportunity have been retained to compare the rejected with the accepted work. Which of the two Mr. Adams must have preferred, it is not difficult to conjecture.
There had been, however, another committee organized, upon which the influence of Mr. Adams’s mind is more distinctly visible. This was the large one, embracing about half the congress, charged with the duty of preparing a formal declaration of rights, and a specification of the instances in which they had been violated. Among its members were both the Adamses, John Jay, and James Duane, of New York, R. H. Lee, Pendleton, and Patrick Henry, of Virginia, Galloway, of Pennsylvania, Rodney and McKean, of Delaware, and John Rutledge, of South Carolina; and at its sessions, to accommodate which the congress, for a time, suspended its deliberations, some of the most elaborate discussions were holden that took place. If we may judge of their nature from the meagre specimens left in Mr. Adams’s notes, the neglect to transmit a full record of these seminal principles of a great empire has been a public loss. As usual, he is himself found tracing effects to their ultimate causes. Quite averse to resting the justice of the American claims upon the mere offspring of man’s will, upon the construction put upon an unwritten local law, or upon grants and charters derived from an equivocal sovereignty, he preferred to include an appeal to those general ideas of natural right, so clearly and broadly laid down, not long afterwards, in the Declaration of Independence. For this course, however, Pennsylvania and New York were by no means prepared. After passing through a double alembic of criticism in a sub-committee, of which we know only that Mr. Adams and J. Rutledge were two of the members, and in the grand committee, this point was submitted, on the 22d of September, to the congress itself for its decision, in a report, no copy of which is believed to be extant, although twelve, one for the use of each colony, were ordered to be prepared. Two days afterwards it was determined, against the views of Mr. Adams, that nothing should be said, at that time, of natural rights. This is said to have been caused by the influence of the conservative Virginia members, still anxious to avoid stumbling-blocks in the way of a possible return of good feeling between sovereign and people. So the congress directed that no grievances should be stated, having their origin beyond the acts of Parliament passed since 1763.
But another, and a still more difficult question, sprung up to divide opinions in the committee. This related to the extent to which the authority of Parliament should be conceded. It had been the Gordian knot of the controversy ever since the Stamp Act, from which it must be admitted that there had never been much uniformity in the popular mode of extrication. Whilst some had endeavored to draw a faint and shadowy line of distinction between internal and external taxation, which could never have been practically preserved, others had gone a step further, and denied the power to tax alone, whilst a third class felt disposed, with Gadsden and Samuel Adams, to dispute all authority whatsoever. Between these conflicting views, it seemed next to impossible to find some common position upon which all might equally stand. Mr. Adams, who had been called to ponder much on this subject in the course of the controversy with Governor Hutchinson, and also, several years before that, in drawing up a set of instructions to the Boston representatives, now revived the idea which he had then first presented. This denied the power of legislation in Parliament as a matter of right, and most emphatically the claim of taxation for revenue in any form; but it affirmed a disposition to consent to the necessary operation of such acts as might be intended in good faith to secure a monopoly to the mother country of the commercial advantages of their external trade. John Rutledge seems to have caught at this proposition as a mode of escape from their dilemma. It was put into the form of a resolution, was reported as the fourth of their series, and finally passed the ordeal of the assembly. It now stands in the following words:—
“Resolved, that the foundation of English liberty and of all free government is a right in the people to participate in their legislative council; and as the English colonists are not represented, and from their local and other circumstances cannot be properly represented in the British Parliament, they are entitled to a free and exclusive power of legislation in their several provincial legislatures, where their right of representation can alone be preserved, in all cases of taxation and internal polity, subject only to the negative of their sovereign, in such manner as has been heretofore used and accustomed. But, from the necessity of the case, and a regard to the mutual interests of both countries, we cheerfully consent to the operation of such acts of parliament as are, bonâ fide, restrained to the regulation of our external commerce, for the purpose of securing the commercial advantages of the whole empire to the mother country, and the commercial benefits of its respective members; excluding every idea of taxation, internal or external, for raising a revenue on the subjects in America without their consent.”
What is this but independence? asked Hutchinson, when the idea was presented by the same person six years earlier; and Galloway repeated the question now. It wholly satisfied nobody. Mr. Duane insisted upon moving that congress should admit the authority of Parliament to regulate trade; and it appears that he carried five colonies with him on a division, whilst five only voted against it. Two colonies were neutralized, one of which was Massachusetts herself. Mr. Adams could not even persuade two of his immediate associates to deny this authority; and yet the fourth article of the declaration of rights, as drawn up by him, founding it only upon consent, finally received the sanction of the whole assembly. As viewed at the present day, the main objection to it is, that it conceded too much, rather than too little, to the commercial temper of the age. Happy had it been for Great Britain had she remained satisfied even with these terms, instead of rejecting them with so much disdain. For she would have retained her hold upon the affections of the colonists, whilst she would have sacrificed less than she has since of her own accord surrendered. The monopoly of the colonial trade offered in this resolution is now regarded in England as contrary to the recognized principles of their system, and therefore not to be adhered to. Such are the vicissitudes of opinion, which so often in public affairs tend to diminish confidence in the most vaunted results of the sagacity of mere practical statesmen. By rejecting this proposition, because it savored of colonial independence, she in fact insured the result which she strove to prevent. Whereas, by conceding then what she has now abandoned voluntarily, in adopting the general principles of free trade, she would have woven the chains of mutual dependence from the enjoyment of reciprocal benefits so tightly, that the colonists would have been deterred, for a long time, at least, from aspiring to any thing better than her protection.
This congress continued its sessions a little less than two months. The declared purpose of its meeting was consultation, and the members did not go much beyond their commission. They carefully matured their public papers, explanatory of their motives and objects, and justifying themselves in the resistance thus far made to the new policy of the mother country. To this extent they earned for themselves an enduring reputation for wisdom, patriotism, and statesmanship. Not so with the only act which they performed. Their non-importation, non-exportation, and non-consumption agreement can scarcely be defended on any grounds. It was advocated by the greater number as a measure which would inevitably precipitate Great Britain into bankruptcy, an opinion not uncommon at that time in the mother country, likewise; just as if the foreign trade of any country could extend beyond the surplus of her products, the total loss of which may create great temporary inconvenience to individuals or classes, but can scarcely involve a whole community in ruin. The history of countries like China and Japan proves clearly enough that it is by no means essential to national existence that they should trade with outside nations at all, however promotive this may be of their wealth and prosperity. As a measure of hostility, this act had the double misfortune of forfeiting the character of conciliation, whilst it effected little as a means of offence. On the other hand, the operation of it upon the colonies themselves, then on the eve of a conflict, was most adverse. They absolutely needed the very things from which they were cutting themselves off, in exchange for those of which they had more than enough, and which they could turn to no account in warfare. No people, probably, ever went into a struggle more utterly unprepared with means of attack of every kind, than the Americans, in 1776. The previous two years, which might, by proper foresight, have been improved to some extent in providing them, were thus thrown away by this telum imbelle sine ictu of non-intercourse; and it is scarcely risking a great deal to affirm, that, had it not been for the active interference of France, the contest must, by reason of this very mistake alone, have terminated disastrously to the colonies.
Mr. Adams was not one of those who had the smallest faith in this measure, as an instrument of reconciliation. He would have preferred to limit the pledge to non-exportation, without quite seeing the injurious operation of that. He assented to the whole because others, believing in its efficacy, demanded it, and because he thus sealed a bond of union with them for greater ends in the future. The general result of the meeting had been to relieve his mind of the burden which it bore when he started to attend it. At all events, the main point had been gained. Massachusetts no longer stood exposed alone to all the thunderbolts. Her cause had been made the cause of eleven colonies, at least in substance, if not in form. Although he had failed in obtaining the pledge he solicited, to take up arms in certain contingencies which he saw likely to happen in his own colony, the meeting of a second assembly to concert further joint action, in case the present appeal should prove fruitless of good, promised well as a provision for the future. A skilfully devised plan to paralyze future resistance, offered by Joseph Galloway, which captivated a large number of the more cautious and timid of the assembly, had been defeated, and the author of it unmasked. Above all, and more than all, the foundations of a grand American combination had been laid, and the men upon whom its success would depend had been brought together, had been made to understand and to esteem each other. Thus much, at least, was sure.
But apart from these considerations of public gain, Mr. Adams, who, previous to this time, had scarcely crossed the limits of his own colony, had derived nothing but pleasure from this expedition, and the kind and cordial reception he had everywhere, in private, met with. His “Diary” gives a lively picture of the generous hospitality of the citizens of Philadelphia. His way of life is described in a letter to his wife. “We go to congress at nine, and there we stay, most earnestly engaged in debates upon the most abstruse mysteries of state, until three in the afternoon; then we adjourn, and go to dine with some of the nobles of Pennsylvania at four o’clock, and feast upon ten thousand delicacies, and sit drinking Madeira, Claret, and Burgundy till six or seven, and then go home fatigued to death with business, company, and care. Yet I hold out surprisingly.” It was well, perhaps, for those who had entered a path beset with so many thorns, that its opening should be strewed with a few flowers. Mr. Adams started on his return home upon the 28th of October, and in his “Diary” for that day he thus records it. “Took our departure in a very great rain, from the happy, the peaceful, the elegant, the hospitable and polite city of Philadelphia. It is not very likely that I shall ever see this part of the world again, but I shall ever retain a most grateful, pleasing sense of the many civilities I have received in it; and shall think myself happy to have an opportunity of returning them.”
His return to Massachusetts was not calculated to make the pleasant impressions, thus received, less vivid. For in New York he learned that the proceedings of congress had created a reaction in the popular mind. The non-intercourse was not well received, a fact of which pamphlet writers were industriously making use to effect an alienation from the common cause. Dr. Myles Cooper and Dr. Isaac Wilkins, both of them zealous churchmen, distinguished themselves by interweaving with the most absolute doctrines, adroit and well reasoned appeals to the merchants and farmers against the non-intercourse measures. Among a commercial people such arguments will never fail of gaining hearers. In this instance, they proved so far successful, that the wavering majority in the assembly decided not to ratify the proceedings, not to thank the colonial delegates of the last, nor to elect any others for the next congress; and the better to secure the popular concurrence, they originated certain remonstrating measures of their own, more calculated, as they pretended, to obtain redress of their grievances, and at the same time, to save them in the good graces of the authorities at home.
Luckily for America, those authorities were at this time both deaf and blind, so that this threatening scission was prevented. But this happened afterwards. Mr. Adams as yet saw, in passing through, only the discouraging side of the picture. And when at last he reached his quiet home and family in his native town, he found it was not to get rest from his public cares, nor to return to the labors of his profession. Not many days elapsed before the provincial congress, then sitting at Watertown, summoned him to attend them. This duty, at first temporary, was made permanent by his election soon afterwards to serve in that body as a representative for Braintree. Accordingly, he continued to take an active part in their deliberations until the day of their dissolution. This was on the tenth of December. Two days afterwards a champion of the prerogative entered the lists in the Boston newspapers, whose efforts were soon hailed with so much exultation among the loyal minority, and whose productions, as they successively appeared, were so assiduously circulated, not in New England alone, but likewise in New York and other colonies south, that the popular side began to feel the necessity of some public refutation. Massachusettensis wielded, perhaps, the keenest weapons of controversy of all those used on the British side during the Revolution. Mr. Adams, stimulated the more, perhaps, by the suspicion that it was his old friend, Sewall, who was writing, took up the gauntlet which had thus been thrown down, and the elaborate papers of Novanglus, in the Boston Gazette, were the result. They appeared weekly throughout the winter of 1774 and until cut off by the appeal to that very different species of arbitration first attempted at Lexington and Concord. The substance of them was afterwards collected and published by Almon, in the “Remembrancer,” under the title of “A History of the Dispute with America,” and they have since been twice reprinted prior to their reproduction in the present collection. Their value consists in the strong contemporaneous view they give of the origin of the struggle, and of the policy of Bernard and Hutchinson, which contributed so much to bring it on. No publication of the time compares with them in extent of research into the principles of the ancient law, and in the vigorous application of them to the question at issue. Yet, as literary productions, they partake of the character common to all the author’s writings, always prompted by the immediate necessity, and regardless of the polishing labor, which, when applied to give duration to earnest and deep thoughts, is never thrown away. They want systematic treatment of the subject, and exactness in the style. The language is rather energetic than elegant, and the feeling is more cherished than the rhetoric. In one respect they are particularly important, as they develop the historical argument which was relied upon in the noted controversy with Hutchinson, the only argument, it should be observed, upon which the Revolution itself, at least in Massachusetts, can be logically justified.
So passed the winter. Prior to their adjournment, the provincial congress had elected the four old delegates, and John Hancock, instead of James Bowdoin, to serve in the second continental congress, which had been appointed to meet at Philadelphia in May. The aspect of things was very fast changing. The king had seen Hutchinson, and received from him confirmation of his own impression, that force was the only remedy for the troubles. A new parliament had come together, with a large majority breathing high indignation at what they now declared the insulting contumacy of the colonies. The prime minister, facile, and ever halting behind opportunity, had seemed, indeed, to waver for a moment, by moving a proposition which, had it been sincerely pressed and supported in a right spirit, might perhaps yet have turned the current toward peace; but finding himself exposed to a general burst of disapprobation from his own friends, he excused himself by a subterfuge, which deprived his action of all merit. Divide and conquer, was the motto which he acknowledged, and not union and reconciliation. Concurrently with this singularly inauspicious exposure, came measures of the strongest nature, which were rapidly pressed through against a feeble opposition in both Houses. The cry was not what New York had hoped, for a hearing and for gentle counsels; it was all hot for the transmission of more regiments, at the first sight of which the cowardly faction, miscalled patriots, would run from one end of America to the other. Not such had continued the opinion of General Gage, although before leaving home he had held it as confidently as the most supercilious of his countrymen. An unlucky experiment of this kind, inconsiderately made, had ended by putting the royal cause in a worse condition than ever. The bloodshed at Lexington and Concord had acted like magic upon the passions of the people throughout the continent. It was considered as a proof of the wanton hostility of the government at home, and ominous of their determination to put down all further remonstrance by main force. From one end of the colonies to the other, the spirit of resistance broke forth boldly. Many, everywhere, flew at once to arms. Almost all lost confidence in the return of peace. There had been no adequate provocation for this resort to violence. It was cruel, arbitrary, vindictive. New York, which had swayed so strongly one way in the autumn, now swayed, with equal impetus, to the other side. The hopes of keeping her out of the union, then sanguinely entertained, were no longer to be counted on. All complaints of the action of the first congress were forgotten. A sense of wrong usurped the dominion of every mind.
In the midst of this agitation, Mr. Adams set out once more on his way to Philadelphia. He had taken pains to go over the ground of the skirmish and pursuit, and to gather from those residing near it all the particulars they could furnish. His inference was that the Rubicon was crossed; and, from that time forth, that no logic would avail other than that coming from the cannon’s mouth. Agitated to fever by his reflections, he had not travelled out of the limits of Massachusetts before he began to observe the traces of the electric influence of this event. From Hartford he wrote home, that “he had no doubts now of the union.” “Lord North would be certainly disappointed in his expectation of seducing New York. Dr. Cooper had fled on board of a man-of-war, and the tories were humbled in the dust.” The report made by the council of that colony, not without its bitterness for the blunders to which they imputed the change, clearly shows the extent to which they felt it.1 Arrived at that city, Mr. Adams wrote that “it would take sheets of paper to give a description of the reception the delegates had found there. The militia were all in arms, and almost the whole city out to meet them.” The tories were put to flight as effectually as General Gage’s mandamus counsellors at Boston. “Such a spirit was never seen there.” Yet, although the prospect of a union of the colonies was indeed promising, and the spirit was great, he felt anxious, “because there was always more smoke than fire, more noise than music.” But this uneasiness did not outlast his return to Philadelphia. From there he wrote that his health was not so good as before, and he had harder service. “Our business is more extensive and complicated; more affecting and hazardous; but our unanimity will not be less.”
If things were thus brightened at Philadelphia, the case was otherwise with the family he had left around his domestic hearth. At his cottage, in Braintree, was his wife with four little children, the eldest not ten years old. The male population within a circuit of a hundred miles, roused by the affair at Lexington, was gathered in arms around the town of Boston, whilst General Gage, deterred from distant expeditions by his ill success on that occasion, as well as by the array forming against him, contented himself with gathering what supplies he could from the most accessible places. Braintree, stretching for a long distance on the shore, with its shallow bay well adapted to boat transportation, seemed admirably fitted to invite depredations. Such was the apprehension of the inhabitants nearest the water, that many of them left their homes and removed some distance further inland. In one of Mrs. Adams’s letters to her husband, she speaks of the widow of Josiah Quincy, Jr., become so within ten days, and several of the females of the family, as having taken refuge with her for the night, from an alarm. And, in a later one, she gives so vivid a picture of a scene that had then just taken place, that it well deserves to be handed down as a memorial of these times:—
“Braintree, 24 May, 1775.
“I suppose you have had a formidable account of the alarm we had last Sunday morning. When I rose, about six o’clock, I was told that the drums had been some time beating, and that three alarm-guns were fired; that Weymouth bell had been ringing, and Mr. Weld’s was then ringing. I immediately sent off an express to know the occasion, and found the whole town in confusion. Three sloops and one cutter had come out and dropped anchor just below Great Hill. It was difficult to tell their designs. Some supposed they were coming to Germantown; others, to Weymouth. People, women, children, from the iron works, came flocking down this way. Every woman and child driven off from below my father’s. My father’s family flying; the doctor’s in great distress, as you may well imagine, for my aunt had her bed thrown into a cart, into which she got herself, and ordered the boy to drive her off to Bridgewater, which he did. The report to them was that three hundred had landed, and were upon their march up into town. The alarm flew like lightning, and men from all parts came flocking down, till two thousand were collected.
“But, it seems, their expedition was to Grape Island, for Levett’s hay. There it was impossible to reach them for want of boats. But the sight of so many persons, and the firing at them, prevented their getting more than three tons of hay, though they had carted much more down to the water. At last a lighter was mustered, and a sloop from Hingham, which had six port-holes. Our men eagerly jumped on board, and put off for the island. As soon as the troops perceived it, they decamped. Our people landed upon the island, and in an instant set fire to the hay, which, with the barn, was soon consumed—about eighty tons, it is said. We expect soon to be in continual alarms, till something decisive takes place. . . .
“Our house has been, upon this alarm, the same scene of confusion that it was upon the former. Soldiers coming in for a lodging, for breakfast, for supper, for drink, &c. Sometimes refugees from Boston, tired and fatigued, seek an asylum for a day, a night, a week. You can hardly imagine how we live. Yet,
“To the houseless child of want
Our doors are open still;
And though our portions are but scant,
We give them with good will.”
My best wishes attend you, both for your health and happiness; and that you may be directed into the wisest and best measures for our safety, and the security of our posterity. I wish you were nearer to us. We know not what a day will bring forth, nor what distress one hour may throw us into. Hitherto, I have been able to maintain a calmness and presence of mind; and hope I shall, let the exigency of the time be what it will.”
To a man with the tender sensibilities of Mr. Adams towards the members of his own household, this letter must have been deeply affecting. But he had a just confidence in his wife, a confidence which never wavered so long as she lived; and he also relied upon the protection of the native population, which swarmed at once on any point upon the first rumor of danger. In the mean time he was doing his duty. His mind, as usual, was already far in advance of events, musing on probable results. On the 10th of June, he wrote that the congress had business to keep it through the year. “No assembly ever had a greater number of great objects before them. Provinces, nations, empires, are small things before us. I wish we were good architects.”
Overleaping the conflict, of which the din was just then commencing, he was speculating upon the nature of the edifice about to rise from the surrounding ruins. Yet, in congress, things had advanced scarcely even to the point of irreconcilable hostility to England. The public sentiment of the Middle States had made progress, it is true; but the usual consequence was happening, a secession of the wavering and irresolute, who had, thus far, appeared to keep up pretty well. To acquiesce in further measures of resistance to the British authority was likely to involve the hazard of life and fortune. This was a step further than many had yet contemplated. In all civil convulsions, there is a class of men who put off taking a side as long as they can, for the purpose of saving a chance to solve the interesting question, which will prove the strongest. This naturally leads them to oppose, with all their might, any and every measure likely to precipitate their decision. Already, at the first congress, both the Adamses had been marked by these persons as partisans of extreme, if not treasonable opinions. And the impression was not likely to be less, now that they came back bearing letters from the provincial government of their colony, communicating the particulars of their distressing situation; the latest intelligence, furnished them by their agent in London, of the summary rejection of all the petitions, and the determination to resort to force to put down all further opposition; the details of the action at Lexington and Concord; the measures which had been adopted to organize an army in self-defence; and, upon the back of all, a solicitation to congress for advice and assistance in the great difficulties in which they were involved. Close upon the heels of this application, followed a request from the city and county of New York for instructions how to prepare against the danger, of which tidings had come in advance, of a large accession of British troops. Then came the startling intelligence of the seizure of Ticonderoga, by Ethan Allen, involving the prospect of reprisals in that quarter from Canada. All these events betokened one thing, and one only. That was War. It showed, as if with sunlight, that no other resource was left to escape subjection.
Mr. Adams had, for some time, foreseen this result, though it it is a great mistake to imagine that he had ever acted with an intent to produce or even to accelerate it. To his mind, it had taken the shape of an unavoidable calamity, which might deprive him of all the harvest from a hardly earned professional reputation; a calamity brought on by the evil counsellors who had stimulated the mother country to its aggressive policy, and not by those who, in self-defence, had been driven to resist it. But having once settled the point, that no escape was left with honor, he conceived it the wisest policy to meet the crisis boldly. His plan has been so clearly explained in his “Autobiography,” that it would be superfluous to reproduce it here. Sufficient that it was not less sagacious than comprehensive. His first proposal was, that the armed assemblage actually around Boston, which Massachusetts was endeavoring to organize, should be forthwith adopted by the congress as the army of the United Colonies. It was met on the threshold, by a proposition of John Dickinson, to try one more effort at reconciliation in the form of a last appeal to the magnanimity of George the Third, by another “dutiful and humble petition.” With the experience before him of the fate of the previous experiment, all this appeared to Mr. Adams as the merest drivel, at the expense of much valuable time for preparation. He, therefore, resisted it strenuously. But it availed nothing. Dickinson was yet the master spirit, whose exhortations swayed the middle colonies; so it was determined once more to supplicate the king.
But although Mr. Adams was defeated on the main question, his arguments were not without their effect in procuring important incidental concessions to his views. If the tone of the majority was somewhat irresolute, it was very far from bordering on the abject or servile. Dickinson could only carry his point by agreeing to have it connected with measures providing for the possibility of its failure. On the 26th of May, the resolution, authorizing the preparation of the second petition, was adopted, but it was tied with others, proclaiming the necessity of immediately putting the colonies, and especially New York, now the most threatened, in a state of defence. And the reason given for this was, the great doubt entertained by congress, whether any conciliatory proposal would meet with favor. So encouraging was this deemed by Mr. Adams, that, three days afterwards, he ventured to write home his positive belief that “congress would support the Massachusetts. The military spirit running through the continent was amazing. Colonel Washington appeared every day in his uniform, and, by his great experience and abilities in military matters, was of much service to all.” Washington was ever moderate and taciturn, so that his proceeding might well be regarded as significant. He was as yet commissioned only to deliberate and determine matters in a civil capacity. His dress was his mode of expressing his conviction that the time for another sort of action had arrived; and that he was ready to take his part even in that.
Yet Mr. Adams sometimes doubted. On the 30th, he was not so sanguine as he had been. “Our debates and deliberations,” he wrote to his wife, “are tedious. From nine to four, five, and once near six. Our determinations very slow; I hope, sure. The congress will support us, but in their own way; not precisely in that way which I could wish, but in a better way than we could well expect, considering what a heterogeneous body it is.” But now came more events to press the hesitating into action of some sort. On the last date named, a letter arrived from the Massachusetts convention, which set forth their disorganized condition, and earnestly prayed for “explicit advice respecting the taking up and exercising the powers of civil government.” It went so far even as to declare their readiness to submit to such a general plan as the congress might direct for the colony. It was plain to all that things could not stay as they were a great while; yet the feelings pulled two ways. The members were forced to act, and yet they wanted to wait to hear once more from England, if haply good might come of the bran-new batch of addresses they were preparing to send over. So, concurrently with the reference of the application of Massachusetts to one committee, they organized four others, through which to petition the king, and the people of England, and of Ireland, and of Jamaica; and yet one further committee, ominous enough, to bring in an estimate of the money which it might be necessary to raise.
Then Mr. Adams gave his friend, Colonel Palmer, a hint concerning the difficulties in the way. “The colonies,” he said, “are not yet ripe to assume the whole government, legislative and executive. They dread the introduction of anarchy, as they call it.” He went on to point out the obstacles. “In this province, indeed, in this city, there are three persons, a Mr. W., who is very rich and very timid; the provost of the college,” (Dr. Smith,) “who is supposed to be distracted between a strong passion for lawn sleeves, and a stronger passion for popularity, which is very necessary to support the reputation of his Episcopal college; and one Israel Pemberton, who is at the head of the Quaker interest; these three make an interest here which is lukewarm, but they are all obliged to lie low for the present.” “This day,” added the writer, at the end, “has been spent in debating a manifesto setting forth the causes of our taking arms. There is some spunk in it.” It does not seem to have been adopted just then. But the agitation of it was surely significant of change.
On the 9th of June, the congress, after long debate, and much consultation with her delegates, got so far as to answer the application of Massachusetts for advice, by recommending that “no obedience being due to the act of parliament for altering their charter, nor to any officers who endeavor to subvert that charter, letters should be written to the people in the several towns requesting them to elect representatives to an assembly, who should, in their turn, elect a council, and these two bodies should exercise the powers of government for the time.” Here, again, was a great step forward. But besides asking for advice respecting their government, which had brought this answer, the provincial convention had intimated that, inasmuch as the armed men collecting before Boston, many of them from other colonies, were engaged in the defence of the rights of all America, it might be most advisable for the congress to take the direction of them into their own hands. New York, too, was in a condition which demanded immediate support. Something must be done. In the councils of men, your sternest reasoner is necessity.
Mr. Adams now saw far enough to promise the adoption of ten thousand men in Massachusetts, and five thousand in New York. Each successive day shows the passage of some resolution tending more and more to the inevitable end, until the 15th of June, when congress had got so far as to declare itself ready to assume the army before Boston. But there was yet another necessary step, a most important one, indeed, upon which would depend the value of the whole enterprise to ages yet unborn. The multitude of men, with arms in their hands, assembled around that peninsular town, was but an illdisciplined crowd, liable, at a moment’s warning, to vanish like the mists which sometimes hang over its harbor. If this crowd was ever to be reduced to the semblance of an army, the first thing to do was to select a head whose orders it should learn to obey. In other words, congress must determine who should be the commander-in-chief.
Here, again, it is necessary to turn to the “Autobiography,” to know the share which Mr. Adams had in deciding this most material event in the history of America. Now, that the habits of three quarters of a century have done so much to fuse the feelings of the citizens of the various States into one national mould, it is not easy to measure the full extent of the sacrifice which a Massachusetts man was making in offering the command of the people of New England, some of them tried officers in former wars, to a stranger comparatively unknown, with really but small military experience, and that not of a successful nature, to recommend him. What the verdict of posterity would have been, had this experiment proved unfortunate, may readily be imagined. In the life of Mr. Adams, more than in that of most men, occur instances of this calm but decided assumption of a fearful responsibility in critical moments. But what is still more remarkable is, that they were attended with a uniformly favorable result. The question may fairly be opened, whether this should be ascribed to an overruling good fortune, or to that high species of sagacity, which, combining the knowledge of causes with the probable turn of events, reaches the expected results with as much certainty as is given to mortals in this imperfect state of being. The evidence upon which to base a just decision on this point can be found only by closely following the further development of his career.
On the 17th of June, perhaps at the very time when the infant nation was taking its baptism of blood on the field of Breed’s hill, Mr. Adams was finishing a letter commenced a week before, in which he gave a clear insight into the feelings which prompted him to promote, by all means, the nomination of Washington. He says:—
“I can now inform you, that the congress have made choice of the modest and virtuous, the amiable, generous, and brave George Washington, Esquire, to be general of the American army, and that he is to repair, as soon as possible, to the camp before Boston. This appointment will have a great effect in cementing and securing the union of these colonies. The continent is really in earnest in defending the country. . . .
“I begin to hope we shall not sit all summer. I hope the people of our province will treat the General with all that confidence and affection, that politeness and respect, which is due to one of the most important characters in the world. The liberties of America depend upon him, in a great degree. . . .
“I have found this congress like the last. When we first came together, I found a strong jealousy of us from New England, and the Massachusetts in particular; suspicions entertained of designs of independency, an American republic, presbyterian principles, and twenty other things. Our sentiments were heard in congress with great caution, and seemed to make but little impression. But the longer we sat, the more clearly they saw the necessity of pursuing vigorous measures. It has been so now. Every day we sit, the more we are convinced that the designs against us are hostile and sanguinary, and that nothing but fortitude, vigor, and perseverance can save us.
“But America is a great unwieldy body. Its progress must be slow. It is like a large fleet sailing under convoy. The fleetest sailors must wait for the dullest and slowest. Like a coach and six, the swiftest horses must be slackened, and the slowest quickened, that all may keep an even pace.”
His wife, the confidential friend to whom he wrote of public affairs, whenever he was separated from her, had been deeply agitated during the same day by fearful events, going on so near to her that she could hear the booming of the cannon, and clearly see the conflagration which ensued. She well knew what it boded. The next day, which was Sunday, she sat down, and, yet little acquainted with the issue, tried to write concerning it, and her apprehensions of its consequences. The following letter was the result:—
“The day, perhaps the decisive day, is come, on which the fate of America depends. My bursting heart must find vent at my pen. I have just heard that our dear friend, Dr. Warren, is no more, but fell gloriously fighting for his country, saying: ‘Better to die honorably in the field than ignominiously hang upon the gallows.’ Great is our loss! He has distinguished himself in every engagement, by his courage and fortitude, by animating the soldiers, and leading them on by his own example. A particular account of these dreadful, but, I hope, glorious days, will be transmitted you, no doubt, in the exactest manner.
“ ‘The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but the God of Israel is he that giveth strength and power unto his people. Trust in him at all times, ye people, pour out your hearts before him. God is a refuge for us.’
“Charlestown is laid in ashes. The battle began upon our intrenchments upon Bunker’s Hill, Saturday morning, about three o’clock, and has not ceased yet; and it is now three o’clock, Sabbath afternoon.
“It is expected they will come out over the neck to-night, and a dreadful battle must ensue. Almighty God, cover the heads of our countrymen, and be a shield to our dear friends! How many have fallen, we know not. The constant roar of the cannon is so distressing that we cannot eat, drink, or sleep. May we be supported and sustained in the dreadful conflict! I shall tarry here till it is thought unsafe by my friends, and then I have secured myself a retreat at your brother’s, who has kindly offered me part of his house.
“I cannot compose myself to write any further at present. I will add more as I hear further.
Tuesday Afternoon, (20th.)
“I have been so much agitated that I have not been able to write since Sabbath day. When I say that ten thousand reports are passing, vague and uncertain as the wind, I believe I speak the truth. I am not able to give you any authentic account of last Saturday, but you will not be destitute of intelligence.
“Colonel Palmer has just sent me word that he has an opportunity of conveyance. Incorrect as this scrawl will be, it shall go. I ardently pray that you may be supported through the arduous task you have before you.”
The event of the seventeenth of June dissipated the last shadow of doubt in Mr. Adams’s mind of the necessity of insisting for the future upon the impossibility of reconciliation. He accordingly addressed himself, with spirit, to the work of stimulating congress to take the most decisive measures of preparation for the inevitable conflict. He exerted himself in determining the selection of the other general officers, claiming the second rank for New England in the person of Artemas Ward, but not unwilling to concede the third to Charles Lee, though a stranger and but yesterday an officer in the army of the British king; in maturing the form of commission and the instructions for the commander-in-chief; and, lastly, in super-intending the preparation of the continental bills of credit which were to serve the purposes of money during the earlier stages of the struggle. Not stopping, however, with these details, he was looking, with a statesman’s eye, over the vast field beyond, and mapping out the forms which the new power was to assume in the distant future. In this he was running far in advance of the prevailing opinions around him, among men who were yet engaged in polishing up the last eloquent appeals to the justice and magnanimity of a sovereign upon whom their rhetoric was wholly thrown away. With these persons, who still insisted that reconciliation was within their reach, and who therefore did their best to throw obstacles in the way of all action calculated to diminish the chances of it, it was impossible for Mr. Adams to escape controversy. John Dickinson, who threw all the weight of his influence on the side of delay, was their leader and mouthpiece, and his power over the sentiment of the middle colonies it was difficult to counteract. It was after a day spent in these conflicts, in committee of the whole, that a young man from his own colony called upon Mr. Adams, at his lodgings, and requested as a favor, inasmuch as doubts had been spread at home of his fidelity to the cause, that he might be made the bearer of confidential letters to friends in Massachusetts. Without properly considering the possibilities of interception, Mr. Adams sat down and penned what was uppermost in his mind and feelings. The result he comprised in two notes, one addressed to his wife, and the other to General James Warren, then president of the Provincial Congress.
To Mrs. Adams he said:—
“It is now almost three months since I left you; in every part of which my anxiety about you and the children, as well as our country, has been extreme. The business I have had on my mind has been as great and important as can be intrusted to man, and the difficulty and intricacy of it prodigious. When fifty or sixty men have a constitution to form for a great empire, at the same time that they have a country of fifteen hundred miles’ extent to fortify, millions to arm and train, a naval power to begin, an extensive commerce to regulate, numerous tribes of Indians to negotiate with, a standing army of twenty-seven thousand men to raise, pay, victual, and officer, I really shall pity those fifty or sixty men.”
To this recapitulation of the labors actually going on in congress was attached the following:—
“P. S. I wish I had given you a complete history, from the beginning to the end, of the behavior of my compatriots. No mortal tale can equal it. I will tell you in future, but you shall keep it secret. The fidgets, the whims, the caprice, the vanity, the superstition, the irritability of some of us is enough to—
To General Warren, he unbosomed himself even more fully, as follows:—
“24 July. I am determined to write freely to you this time. A certain great fortune and piddling genius, whose fame has been trumpeted so loudly, has given a silly cast to our whole doings. We are between hawk and buzzard. We ought to have had in our hands, a month ago, the whole legislative, executive, and judicial of the whole continent, and have completely modelled a constitution; to have raised a naval power, and opened all our ports wide; to have arrested every friend of government on the continent, and held them as hostages for the poor victims in Boston; and then opened the door as wide as possible for peace and reconciliation. After this, they might have petitioned, negotiated, addressed, &c., if they would.
“Is all this extravagant? Is it wild? Is it not the soundest policy?
“One piece of news. Seven thousand pounds of powder arrived last night. We shall send you some of it as soon as we can, but you must be patient and frugal. We are lost in the extensiveness of our field of business. We have a continental treasury to establish, a paymaster to choose, and a committee of correspondence, or safety, or accounts, or something, I know not what, that has confounded us all this day.
“Shall I hail you speaker of the House, or counsellor, or what? What kind of an election had you? What sort of magistrates do you intend to make? Will your new legislative or executive feel bold or irresolute? Will your judicial hang, and whip, and fine, and imprison, without scruple? I want to see our distressed country once more, yet I dread the sight of devastation. You observe in your letter the oddity of a great man. He is a queer creature, but you must love his dogs if you love him, and forgive a thousand whims for the sake of the soldier and the scholar.”
These confidential communications were intrusted to Mr. Hichborn, who promised to deliver them safely to their address. But, from a singular want of courage or presence of mind, he suffered them to be taken upon him at Newport, by the British. They were transmitted to Admiral Graves, commander of the squadron, from thence passed into the hands of General Gage, who caused them to be published in Boston, before sending the originals to the government at home. The effect which they produced was quite extraordinary. In Boston, the garrison, consisting of officers who had little better to do, amused themselves in making paraphrases, and otherwise turning them into ridicule. General Gage endeavored to prove from them to Lord Dartmouth the existence of a plan of rebellion long concerted in Massachusetts. The ministry regarded them as betraying the real purposes of the Americans, which shut their ears only the more firmly to the last arguments for reconciliation, carried by Mr. Dickinson through congress, against Mr. Adams’s opposition. What was the gain to be expected by discriminating between classes of opinion in the colonies? There was but one purgation, and that was equally good for all the forms of this disease. It was force. So the petition to the king, borne by the hands of Richard Penn, was not favored even with a sign of recognition. Instead of it came a proclamation, declaring the people of the colonies in a state of rebellion, and forbidding all communication or correspondence with them, on pain of condign punishment.
Thus far the effect upon Mr. Adams, of the publication of these letters, was rather minatory than actually injurious. The case was otherwise when they came to be read in Philadelphia. They at once displayed him as drawing the outlines of an independent state, the great bugbear in the eyes of numbers, who still clung to the hope that the last resort might be avoided. The feeling which denounced his doctrines was, moreover, animated with factitious strength by individual resentment for the strictures on persons, which had been incidentally exposed to the public eye. John Dickinson became a steady enemy for the rest of his life, whilst John Hancock, from this date, began to draw off from his colleagues of New England, and to enter into association with the more conservative members from the southern States. It is stated by more than one witness, that Mr. Adams was avoided in the streets by many as if it were contamination to speak with such a traitor. Even of his friends, several became infected with the general panic, and looked coldly upon him. At no time, and he had repeated trials of the kind, did he stand more in need of all his fortitude and self-control than upon the occasion of this sudden and unlooked for influx upon him of the general disapprobation.
This is, however, anticipating a little of the course of the narrative, which had not yet reached to the adjournment of congress for the month of August. During this recess, Mr. Adams returned home. The session had lasted ever since the 10th of May, and, during the whole period, his labors had been incessant to help organize an army for war. Neither had they been without success. The great point of the adoption of the troops before Boston, by the united colonies, had been gained. Officers had been appointed, from the commander-in-chief downward, whose duty it would be to introduce something like a continental system into the military organization. Money, or at least a representative of it, had been provided to meet the charges of pay and subsistence for the troops, and, in short, all the details of a general combination for defence had been marked out and partially perfected. This was action. But the public papers, which the same assembly issued, with one exception, perhaps, in the declaration of the causes for taking up arms, beyond giving satisfaction to those hesitating and scrupulous persons who desired to be sure that no means of conciliation had been left unattempted, produced little or no effect upon the course of affairs. A few persons might yet be found who cherished the delusion that the people of England did not sympathize with ministers, and that a recall of Lord Chatham to power would be the signal of a pacification by conceding to America her reasonable demands. But they as little knew the indomitable pride of country of that great chief, which would have rallied the whole power of Great Britain to his aid rather than surrender one iota of her sovereignty, as they suspected the facility of Lord North, whom they were holding exclusively responsible for the evils under which they labored, when, as it now appears, he would have consented to make far greater concessions than either monarch or people could be induced to sanction. Time has at last disclosed the truth, that George the Third must be held more responsible than any other man for the American policy. To his bewildered brain and excitable nerves the petition got up by John Dickinson, under the fancy that he was holding out “an olive branch,” looked more like a highwayman’s pistol at his breast, demanding the surrender of the most cherished jewel of his crown.
Mr. Adams voted against the adjournment of congress. To him it was no vacation, for the interval brought with it but a variety of labor. He had been chosen one of the provincial executive council in the maimed form of government, with which Massachusetts, by the advice of congress, was endeavoring to stagger along. And his services were enlisted on the moment of his return, especially in the consultations constantly necessary between the provincial authorities and the new military leaders. Thus passed the month, with little opportunity to enjoy home, the great delight of his life. On the last day of August he started, for the third time, for Philadelphia. In the fashion of travelling of that day, it took him more than a fortnight to reach that city. His views of the changes which had taken place in congress, are given in the following letter to Mrs. Adams:—
Philadelphia, 17 September, 1775.
“I arrived here, in good health, after an agreeable journey, last Wednesday. There had not been members enough to make a House, several colonies being absent, so that I was just in time. The next day, an adequate number appeared, and congress have sat ever since.
“Georgia is now fully represented, and united to the other twelve. Their delegates are Dr. Zubly, a clergyman of the independent persuasion, who has a parish in that colony and a good deal of property. He is a native of Switzerland, is a man of learning and ingenuity. It is said he is master of several languages, Greek, Latin, French, Dutch, and English. In the latter, it is said, he writes tolerably. He is a man of zeal and spirit, as we have already seen upon several occasions. . . .
“Mr. Bullock is another of the Georgian delegates, a sensible man, a planter, I suppose. Mr. Houston is the third, a young lawyer of modesty as well as sense and spirit, which you will say is uncommon. Mr. Jones and Dr. Hall are not yet arrived.
“Mr. Henry is made a general, in Virginia, and therefore could not come. Mr. Pendleton and Colonel Bland excused themselves on account of age and ill health. Messrs. Nelson, Wythe, and Lee1 are chosen and are here in the stead of the other three. Wythe and Lee are inoculated. You shall hear more about them. Although they came in the room of very good men, we have lost nothing by the change, I believe.”
The writer was just entering upon the second moral trial of his life. The day before the above letter was written, Mr. Dickinson had passed him in the street, and had refused to recognize his civil salutation. He noted the fact in his “Diary,” as caused by the arrival of copies of the intercepted letters. The day after, congress organized the first important secret committee of nine members, and each colony of New England was represented upon it but Massachusetts. The letters had done their work of marking out the lines of distinction among the members, which circumstances had been preparing. Governor Ward wrote home to Rhode Island that they had silenced those, who were secretly opposing every decisive measure; but that the moderate friends had caused copies to be sent throughout Pennsylvania, in hopes, by raising the cry of independence, to throw the friends of liberty out of the new assembly. The Adamses, of Massachusetts, and the Lees, of Virginia, were the dangerous minority, who had all along aimed at independency, but whose purposes had never been so openly exposed as now. Mr. Dickinson, Mr. Silas Deane, and Mr. Jay were the exponents of the majority, and during the month of September the construction of the committees, if nothing else, shows, with tolerable clearness, the temper prevailing in the body. But whilst this was going on at Philadelphia, intelligence came from Massachusetts of a nature far more distressing to Mr. Adams. One of those epidemic maladies, which so often follow in the wake of military camps, and always far more fatal than the most severely fought campaign, had broken out around Boston, and spread into the neighboring towns. A brother of his, who had joined the army, had perished a month before. But now came the news that, even as he had passed over his threshold, the destroying angel was making an entrance among his household. The progress of the pestilence may be gathered from the following extracts from his wife’s letters, which came to him in quick succession.
“Since you left me, I have passed through great distress both of body and mind; and whether greater is to be my portion, Heaven only knows. You may remember Isaac was unwell when you went from home. His disorder increased until a violent dysentery was the consequence of his complaints. There was no resting-place in the house for his terrible groans. He continued in this state nearly a week, when his disorder abated, and we have now hopes of his recovery. Two days after he was sick, I was seized in a violent manner. Had I known you were at Watertown, I should have sent Bracket for you. I suffered greatly between my inclination to have you return, and my fear of sending, lest you should be a partaker of the common calamity. After three days, an abatement of my disease relieved me from that anxiety. The next person in the same week was Susy; her we carried home, and hope she will not be very bad. Our little Tommy was the next, and he lies very ill now. Yesterday, Patty was seized. Our house is a hospital in every part, and what with my own weakness, and distress of mind for my family, I have been unhappy enough. And such is the distress of the neighborhood that I can scarcely find a well person to assist me in looking after the sick. So sickly and so mortal a time the oldest man does not remember.”
Of the persons named, Isaac, Susy, and Patty, were servants. Tommy was the youngest son of Mr. Adams. The two elder had been sent out of the house. Only one of the household escaped the sickness. On the 16th she says:—
“Mrs. Randall has lost her daughter, Mrs. Brackett hers, Mr. Thomas Thayer his wife. Two persons, belonging to Boston, have died this week in this parish. I know of eight this week who have been buried in this town.
“The dread upon the minds of people of catching the distemper is almost as great as if it was the smallpox. I have been distressed more than ever I was in my life to procure watchers and to get assistance. We have been four sabbaths without any meeting.
“I sit down, with heavy heart, to write to you. I have had no other since you left me. Woe follows woe, and one affliction treads upon the heels of another. My distress in my own family having in some measure abated, it is excited anew upon that of my dear mother. Her kindness brought her to see me every day when I was ill, and our little Tommy. She has taken the disorder, and lies so bad that we have little hope of her recovery.
“The desolation of war is not so distressing as the havoc made by the pestilence. Some poor parents are mourning the loss of three, four, and five children, and some families are wholly stripped.”
“’Tis allotted me to go from the sick and almost dying bed of one of the best of parents, to my own habitation, where again I behold the same scene, only varied by a remoter connection. In past years small has been my portion of the bitter cup in comparison with many others. But there is now preparing for me, I fear, a large draught thereof. May I be enabled to submit, with patience and resignation, to the rod!”
These are not uncommon distresses, where there is war. There have been countries in which they have prevailed with far greater severity, attended by atrocities of which the mind cannot think without shuddering, for a term of a whole generation of the race. But, in Massachusetts, the dwellers on the seaboard had known nothing of the kind, until this conflict sprung up with the authority that should have protected, but now persecuted them. Mrs. Adams had been particularly exempted from any such sorrows. They came upon her, in her lonely state, with the greater force. On the 1st of October, her mother died. The week after, the female, Patty, who had lingered a month in extreme agony, breathed her last. She made the fourth corpse that was committed to the ground on the 9th of October, in a community of perhaps eight hundred souls. Neither was dysentery the only form of disease prevailing. Fevers were raging among the men away in camp, and throat distemper was attacking the children.
Truly did Mr. Adams observe, in reply: “Fire, sword, pestilence, famine, often keep company, and visit a country in a flock.” He yearned to return, but no moment could have been more unpropitious to such a step. He was a marked man; and a retreat from his post would have been construed as shrinking from the consequences of the exposure of his designs. He was not a person either to qualify or retract language which he held to be true. Besides, it was most important that he should just now show himself the declared advocate of the policy, the private exposition of which had been so abruptly laid before the world. The ideas were only six or eight months in advance of the general sentiment. He saw the necessity of pressing them steadily, and therefore felt bound, if possible, to remain.
There are periods of transition of opinion when the bold utterance of one voice precipitates the expression of the conclusions of many. The lapse of a month now brought with it a good deal of change in America, especially in the middle colonies. The occasion upon which this was decidedly, though privately, manifested to Mr. Adams, remained indelibly stamped upon his memory to his last days. He has recorded it in his “Diary,” but without an allusion to the conversation that took place. It was on the 28th of September, when the congress and the assembly of Pennsylvania, at the invitation of the Committee of Safety of that colony, went on an excursion upon the Delaware, in the new galleys which had just been finished. In a private letter, addressed many years afterwards to Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the party with him on that day, on board of The Bulldog, he called to mind the secret encouragement he received from that company, and the exhortations to persevere. Perhaps he stood in no need of this to do his duty; but the sternest will can find strength in executing its purposes from the praises of the feeblest. The heart of a man has quite as much to do with his perseverance as his head, and that is always touched by the cheering response of his fellow-man.
Not many days elapsed before an opportunity occurred for pressing upon congress one of his favorite measures. On the 3d of October, the delegates of Rhode Island had presented the resolutions of their General Assembly, instructing them to use their influence to procure the establishment of a fleet at the expense of the continent. This naked proposition was at once met with a storm of ridicule, in which Samuel Chase, Dr. Zubly, of Georgia, J. Rutledge, and even one of the Massachusetts delegates, took an active part. With difficulty, its friends procured the consideration of the question to be left open a little while. Two days afterwards it came up in a softened shape, and then it met with more favor. So much is there in legislative bodies in the way of presenting an idea. News had been received from London that two vessels, laden with arms and gunpowder, had sailed for Canada. As these were articles of the first necessity to the cause, a motion for the appointment of a committee of three to prepare a plan to intercept them was well received, and forthwith adopted.
Of this committee the members were all from New England, Mr. Adams being one. They reported, in part, the same day, a recommendation that Massachusetts should be applied to for two armed vessels, that Rhode Island and Connecticut should be requested to add others, and that all these, if obtained, should be placed at the disposal of General Washington, who should fit them out at the continental expense to cruise for, and, if possible, to capture the expected ships. The resolutions, embodying these suggestions, were passed at once. The next day, the committee made a further report, directing the fitting out of two swift sailing vessels for a cruise of three months, and recommending the appointment of a committee of three to prepare estimates and make contracts. This second committee was accordingly appointed. It consisted of Mr. Deane, Mr. Langdon, and Mr. Gadsden. It reported in four days an estimate, which proved unsatisfactory, and was recommitted. The committee reported once more on the 30th, when congress enlarged its powers so far as to authorize the construction of four vessels instead of two, whilst they increased the number of its members to seven, of whom Mr. Adams was the seventh. The committee, thus strengthened, extended their labors not merely to the construction of more ships, but also to the preparation of a system for the regulation of marine captures, as well as of the naval force of the Union. This code was reported on the 23d, and adopted partly on the 25th of November, and wholly on the 28th. It was drawn up by Mr. Adams. It was, in effect, the triumph of the policy which had been almost scouted out of the House, when first presented under the Rhode Island instructions.
In the mean time, Governor Ward, of Rhode Island, wrote home that he had great hopes to carry out the project of an American fleet, because “Dr. Franklin, Colonel Lee, the two Adamses, and many others would support it.”1 Neither was he mistaken. For, on the 11th of December, congress, having been well prepared by the debates on the former proposition, came to a determination to appoint a large committee to devise ways and means for furnishing the colonies with a naval armament. Thus was established the policy of naval defence, a policy of the utmost consequence to the commercial prosperity of any nation. Before this last vote, Mr. Adams had been called home, and he had no special charge of the system afterwards; but to the day of his death, through all the vicissitudes of his career, as well when the navy was made a reproach to him, as when it had won its way, through the war of 1812, to the highest popularity, he never changed his convictions of its fundamental importance in the system of an American statesman.
Another step was taken, at this time, which likewise had its origin in New England. The delegates from New Hampshire presented the instructions from their colony to obtain advice from congress, touching a method of administering justice and the regulation of their civil police. Mr. Adams seized the opportunity thus presented to urge upon congress the duty of recommending to the States that they should at once proceed to institute governments for themselves. The subject was referred, on the 26th of October, to a committee, consisting of Mr. J. Rutledge, Mr. J. Adams, Mr. Ward, Mr. Lee, and Mr. Sherman. These names, of themselves, show how much a little month had done to alter the temper of the majority. The committee reported, on the 2d of November, a recommendation to 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, during the continuance of the present dispute.” These qualifications certainly did not indicate any lack of caution in giving the advice, but yet the advice itself showed the progress the continent was making towards independence. Before this time, nothing approaching to it would have escaped earnest opposition, and probably defeat. Its adoption now was due to the circumstance, that, thirty-six hours before, two ships had got in, bringing the news from England of the king’s supercilious refusal to hold out his hand to receive Dickinson’s darling olive branch, and of his fulmination against the “open and avowed rebellion” in the colonies. It was plain that the bridge was broken behind the wavering. Nothing remained but to advance. Thus it was that a change came over the spirit of the assembly. Governor Ward hurried off the joyful tidings to Rhode Island at once.
“Our counsels,” he said, “have been hitherto too fluctuating; one day, measures for carrying on the war were adopted; the next, nothing must be done that would widen the unhappy breach between Great Britain and the colonies. As these different ideas have prevailed, our conduct has been directed accordingly. . . . Thank God, the happy day, which I have long wished for, is at length arrived; the southern colonies no longer entertain jealousies of the northern; they no longer look back to Great Britain; they are convinced that they have been pursuing a phantom, and that their only safety is a vigorous, determined defence. One of the gentlemen, who has been most sanguine for pacific measures, and very jealous of the New England colonies, addressing me in the style of Brother Rebel, told me he was now ready to join us heartily. ‘We have got,’ says he, ‘a sufficient answer to our petition. I want nothing more; but am ready to declare ourselves independent, send ambassadors,’ &c., and much more, which prudence forbids me to commit to paper. Our resolutions will henceforth be spirited, clear, and decisive. May the Supreme Governor of the universe direct and prosper them!”
In his “Autobiography,” Mr. Adams has given, from recollection, the substance of the reasoning which he was at this time habitually using in justification of the views precipitated before the public in the intercepted letters. It is not necessary to repeat it here. Enough that it was unceasingly pressed, and that it gradually worked its way to favor. The journals of congress, imperfectly as they were kept by the secretary, upon the mistaken theory of recording only the motions adopted, nevertheless give some traces of the growth of his influence, in the more frequent occurrence of his name upon committees. His energy and clearness of mind were found as valuable in maturing the details of measures to be laid before the body, as his readiness and power in debate were effective in its deliberations. His own mind being completely made up, his action partook of the firmness and unity that always follow such a state. He expressed himself fully on this point, in a letter to his wife of the 7th of October.
“The situation of things is so alarming, that it is our duty to prepare our minds and hearts for every event, even the worst. From my earliest entrance into life, I have been engaged in the public cause of America; and, from first to last, I have had upon my mind a strong impression that things would be wrought up to their present crisis. I saw, from the beginning, that the controversy was of such a nature that it never would be settled, and every day convinces me more and more. This has been the source of all the disquietude of my life. It has lain down and risen up with me these twelve years. The thought, that we might be driven to the sad necessity of breaking our connection with Great Britain, exclusive of the carnage and destruction which, it was easy to see, must attend the separation, always gave me a great deal of grief. And even now, I would cheerfully retire from public life forever, renounce all chance for profits or honors from the public, nay, I would cheerfully contribute my little property, to obtain peace and liberty. But all these must go, and my life, too, before I can surrender the right of my country to a free constitution. I dare not consent to it. I should be the most miserable of mortals ever after, whatever honors or emoluments might surround me.”
Towards the close of the year, finding that congress was likely to sit indefinitely, Mr. Adams decided to return home. Besides the personal considerations growing out of the state of his own family, and his exhaustion from constant service, he was moved to this by the necessity of consulting the views of the leading men in the provincial convention in regard to his assumption of the new duties which they had decided to impose upon him. The people had now been more than two years without any administration of justice, and some degree of uneasiness was felt lest the loose habits which necessarily followed this relaxation of the laws should in time become inveterate. Sensible of the insufficient foundation of their authority, the council, in undertaking the reëstablishment of the superior court, had a special reference in the selection of persons to fill the seats of judges, to such as would, from the confidence had in their personal character and learning, predispose the great body of the people to acquiesce. With this view, they raised Mr. Adams over the heads of several of his seniors, both at bench and bar, to the place of chief justice. On his part, after great hesitation, he made up his mind to accept the post. But conscious, at the same time, of the pressure of a divided duty, he felt reluctant to retire from congress before he had established the doctrines to which he was now irrevocably pledged. It is very clear that the tone of Massachusetts, even then, depended upon his kinsman and himself, though but a minority of the delegation. It was for this reason that, in his letter of acceptance, he fixed the close of the session as the time when he should be prepared to assume the office. He wrote thus:—
“As I have ever considered the confidence of the public the more honorable in proportion to the perplexity and danger of the times, so I cannot but esteem this distinguished mark of the approbation of the Honorable Board as a greater obligation than if it had been bestowed at a season of greater ease and security. Whatever discouraging circumstances, therefore, may attend me, in point of health, of fortune, or experience, I dare not refuse to undertake this duty.
“Be pleased, then, to acquaint the Honorable Board, that, as soon as the circumstances of the colonies will admit an adjournment of the congress, I shall return to the Honorable Board, and undertake, to the utmost of my ability, to discharge the momentous duties to which they have seen fit to appoint me.”
Finding that this adjournment would not take place very soon, and imagining that he might better understand the views of the council by personal conference, he determined to return. There were those in congress who scarcely knew whether to call this decision a deliverance or not. A curious proof of it is found in a letter of Mr. Lynch, of South Carolina, to General Washington, written on the day he left Philadelphia. “One of our members sets out to-day for New England,” he says. “Whether his intents be wicked or not, I doubt much. He should be watched.” The person thus suspected had been regularly chosen as a member of the council, so that he took his seat in that board very shortly after he got home. A brief consultation was sufficient to explain what was really wanted of him. His colleagues, though indisposed to draw him from the scene of his present labors, of which they appreciated the importance, wished to fortify their new judicial tribunal with the weight of his personal and professional reputation. Difficult as it seemed to reconcile these two forms of service, they ultimately hit upon this expedient to do it. It was agreed that the court should go on, for a time, without his presence. If no difficulties should occur in the establishment of its authority, then he was to continue his labors in congress so long as he might deem them important to the establishment of the great objects Massachusetts had at heart. To these conditions he seems to have assented. But it being considered essential to prepare for the introduction of the court by some preliminary appeal to the conservative principles of the people, he was charged with the duty of drawing up a paper to be issued by the authorities. The original draft of this paper, in Mr. Adams’s handwriting, remains in the archives of Massachusetts. It seems to have been designed as a comprehensive review of the causes which led to the existing state of things, and an earnest appeal to all classes to unite their exertions to maintain it. It was formally adopted by the Council and the House of Representatives, who ordered it to be read at the opening of every court of judicature, superior and inferior, as well as at the annual town meeting in every town. They likewise recommended to the several ministers of the gospel, throughout the colony, to read it to their congregations immediately after divine service on the sabbath following their receipt of it.
Such being the importance attached to this proclamation, at the time, and not without cause, it is no more than proper that it should find its place here.
BY THE GREAT AND GENERAL COURT OF THE COLONY OF MASSACHUSETTS BAY.
The frailty of human nature, the wants of individuals, and the numerous dangers which surround them through the course of life, have in all ages, and in every country, impelled them to form societies and establish governments.
As the happiness of the people is the sole end of government, so the consent of the people is the only foundation of it, in reason, morality, and the natural fitness of things. And, therefore, every act of government, every exercise of sovereignty, against or without the consent of the people, is injustice, usurpation, and tyranny.
It is a maxim, that in every government there must exist somewhere a supreme, sovereign, absolute, and uncontrollable power; but this power resides always in the body of the people; and it never was, or can be, delegated to one man or a few; the great creator having never given to men a right to vest others with authority over them unlimited either in duration or degree.
When kings, ministers, governors, or legislators, therefore, instead of exercising the powers intrusted with them according to the principles, forms, and proportions stated by the constitution, and established by the original compact, prostitute those powers to the purposes of oppression; to subvert, instead of supporting a free constitution; to destroy, instead of preserving the lives, liberties, and properties of the people; they are no longer to be deemed magistrates vested with a sacred character, but become public enemies, and ought to be resisted.
The administration of Great Britain, despising equally the justice, humanity, and magnanimity of their ancestors, and the rights, liberties, and courage of Americans, have, for a course of years, labored to establish a sovereignty in America, not founded in the consent of the people, but in the mere will of persons a thousand leagues from us, whom we know not, and have endeavored to establish this sovereignty over us, against our consent, in all cases whatsoever.
The colonies, during this period, have recurred to every peaceable resource in a free constitution, by petitions and remonstrances, to obtain justice; which has been not only denied to them, but they have been treated with unexampled indignity and contempt; and, at length, open war of the most atrocious, cruel, and sanguinary kind, has been commenced against them. To this, an open, manly, and successful resistance has hitherto been made. Thirteen colonies are now firmly united in the conduct of this most just and necessary war, under the wise counsels of their congress.
It is the will of Providence, for wise, righteous, and gracious ends, that this colony should have been singled out, by the enemies of America, as the first object both of their envy and their revenge; and after having been made the subject of several merciless and vindictive statutes, one of which was intended to subvert our constitution by charter, is made the seat of war.
No effectual resistance to the system of tyranny prepared for us could be made without either instant recourse to arms, or a temporary suspension of the ordinary powers of government and tribunals of justice; to the last of which evils, in hopes of a speedy reconciliation with Great Britain upon equitable terms, the congress advised us to submit. And mankind has seen a phenomenon without example in the political world, a large and populous colony subsisting in great decency and order for more than a year under such a suspension of government.
But, as our enemies have proceeded to such barbarous extremities, commencing hostilities upon the good people of this colony, and, with unprecedented malice, exerting their power to spread the calamities of fire, sword, and famine through the land, and no reasonable prospect remains of a speedy reconciliation with Great Britain, the congress have resolved:—
“That no obedience being due to the act of parliament for altering the charter of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, nor to a governor or lieutenant-governor, who will not observe the directions of, but endeavor to subvert that charter, the governor and lieutenant-governor of that colony are to be considered as absent, and their offices vacant. And as there is no council there, and inconveniences arising from the suspension of the powers of government are intolerable, especially at a time when General Gage hath actually levied war, and is carrying on hostilities against his majesty’s peaceable and loyal subjects of that colony; that, in order to conform as near as may be to the spirit and substance of the charter, it be recommended to the provincial convention to write letters to the inhabitants of the several places which are entitled to representation in assembly, requesting them to choose such representatives; and that the assembly, when chosen, do elect counsellors; and that such assembly and council exercise the powers of government, until a governor of his majesty’s appointment will consent to govern the colony according to its charter.”
In pursuance of which advice, the good people of this colony have chosen a full and free representation of themselves, who, being convened in assembly, have elected a council; who, as the executive branch of government, have constituted necessary officers through the colony. The present generation, therefore, may be congratulated on the acquisition of a form of government more immediately in all its branches under the influence and control of the people, and therefore, more free and happy than was enjoyed by their ancestors. But as a government so popular can be supported only by universal knowledge and virtue, in the body of the people, it is the duty of all ranks to promote the means of education for the rising generation, as well as true religion, purity of manners, and integrity of life among all orders and degrees.
As an army has become necessary for our defence, and in all free States the civil must provide for and control the military power, the major part of the council have appointed magistrates and courts of justice in every county, whose happiness is so connected with that of the people, that it is difficult to suppose they can abuse their trust. The business of it is to see those laws enforced, which are necessary for the preservation of peace, virtue, and good order. And the Great and General Court expects and requires that all necessary support and assistance be given, and all proper obedience yielded to them; and will deem every person, who shall fail of his duty in this respect towards them, a disturber of the peace of this colony, and deserving of exemplary punishment.
That piety and virtue, which alone can secure the freedom of any people, may be encouraged, and vice and immorality suppressed, the Great and General Court have thought fit to issue this proclamation, commanding and enjoining it upon the good people of this colony, that they lead sober, religious, and peaceable lives, avoiding all blasphemies, contempt of the Holy Scriptures, and of the Lord’s Day, and all other crimes and misdemeanors, all debauchery, profaneness, corruption, venality, all riotous and tumultuous proceedings, and all immoralities whatsoever; and that they decently and reverently attend the public worship of God, at all times acknowledging with gratitude his merciful interposition in their behalf, devoutly confiding in him, as the God of armies, by whose favor and protection alone they may hope for success in their present conflict.
And all judges, justices, sheriffs, grand-jurors, tything-men, and all other civil officers within this colony, are hereby strictly enjoined and commanded that they contribute all in their power, by their advice, exertions, and examples, towards a general reformation of manners, and that they bring to condign punishment every person who shall commit any of the crimes or misdemeanors aforesaid, or that shall be guilty of any immoralities whatsoever; and that they use their utmost endeavors to have the resolves of the congress and the good and wholesome laws of this colony duly carried into execution.
And as the ministers of the gospel, within this colony, have, during the late relaxation of the powers of civil government, exerted themselves for our safety, it is hereby recommended to them still to continue their virtuous labors for the good of the people, inculcating, by their public ministry and private example, the necessity of religion, morality, and good order.
The records of the council, during this visit, show Mr. Adams otherwise consulted, as well as actively employed in different committees to regulate the civil and military concerns of the colony. He was likewise called upon more than once for his advice by the commander-in-chief. A marked instance was in the case of General Lee, who had solicited authority to raise volunteers in Connecticut for the purpose of relieving New York city from the pressure of Tory combinations. Washington, with his habitual prudence, applied himself carefully to consider the extent of his own powers, before he should give a favorable answer. Mr. Adams had been a member of the committee which had framed his commission and instructions. To him, therefore, he naturally turned for information to guide him. The answer which he received was prompt and decisive, and Lee was forthwith dispatched. Again, Mr. Adams was summoned to sit as a member of the council of war, held at head-quarters on the 16th of January, to determine on the proper measures to forward the expedition to Canada, and to hasten the operations before Boston. Meanwhile, the Provincial Convention, by reëlecting him, with great unanimity, to serve as a delegate to the Federal Congress to the end of the year, 1776, signified their approbation of the plan to postpone his assumption of the judicial robes. It was in obedience to this last direction, that he, a fourth time, turned his horse’s head towards Philadelphia. He did it now in company with a colleague newly elected, Elbridge Gerry, destined to prove a faithful and energetic coadjutor during the remainder of the struggle, and a sincere friend so long as he lived.
Previous to departure, however, he felt it proper to pay a visit to head-quarters, an account of which he gave to his wife, as follows:—
“I am determined not to commit a fault, which escaped me the last time I set out for the southward. I waited on General Thomas, at Roxbury, this morning, and then went to Cambridge, where I dined at Colonel Mifflin’s, with the General and lady, and a vast collection of other company, among whom were six or seven sachems and warriors of the French Caghnawaga Indians, with some of their wives and children. A savage feast they made of it, yet were very polite in the Indian style. One of these sachems is an Englishman, a native of this colony, whose name was Williams, captivated in infancy, with his mother, and adopted by some kind squaw. Another, I think, is half French blood.
“I was introduced to them by the General, as one of the grand council fire at Philadelphia, which made them prick up their ears. They came and shook hands with me, and made me low bows and scrapes, &c. In short, I was much pleased with this day’s entertainment. The General is to make them presents in clothes and trinkets. They have visited the lines at Cambridge, and are going to see those at Roxbury.
“To-morrow we mount for the grand council fire, where I shall think often of my little brood at the foot of Penn’s hill.”
The travellers reached their destination early in February. On the 9th of that month Mr. Gerry, in presenting their credentials, also furnished the new instructions under which they were to act. They show another step in the march of events.
“Whereas John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, and Elbridge Gerry, esquires, have been chosen, by joint ballot of the two houses of Assembly, to represent the Colony of Massachusetts Bay in New England, in the American Congress, until the first day of January, ad 1777;
“Resolved, that they, or any one or more of them, are hereby fully empowered, with the delegates from the other American colonies, to concert, direct, and order such further measures as shall to them appear best calculated for the establishment of right and liberty to the American colonies upon a basis permanent and secure, against the power and art of the British administration, and guarded against any future encroachments of their enemies; with power to adjourn to such times and places, as shall appear most conducive to the public safety and advantage.”
Yet, though thus armed by the advancing sentiment of their own colony with this significant authority, to “establish liberty upon a permanent basis in America,” they were not so happy as to find corresponding progress making among the other members. The Middle States, utterly disappointed by the failure of all the applications to Great Britain, and foreseeing the tendency to a complete breach, had fallen into a state of despondency very unfavorable to energetic measures. Added to this, a British emissary, Lord Drummond, affecting to have more authority than he probably possessed, had been laboring, not without some success, to paralyze exertion. Mr. Adams describes this state of things in a letter to his wife, of the 11th of February, among the most remarkable of his productions. The “critical event late in the spring” did not fail to happen.
“There is a deep anxiety, a kind of thoughtful melancholy, and, in some, a lowness of spirits approaching to despondency, prevailing through the southern colonies, at present, very similar to what I have often observed in Boston, particularly on the first news of the port bill, and last year about this time, or a little later, when the bad news arrived which dashed their fond hopes, with which they had deluded themselves through the winter. In this, or a similar condition, we shall remain, I think, until late in the spring, when some critical event will take place, perhaps sooner. But the arbiter of events, the sovereign of the world, only knows which way the torrent will be turned. Judging by experience, by probabilities, and by all appearances, I conclude it will roll on to dominion and glory, though the circumstances and consequences may be bloody.
“In such great changes and commotions, individuals are but atoms. It is scarcely worth while to consider what the consequences will be to us. What will be the effects upon present and future millions, and millions of millions, is a question very interesting to benevolence, natural and Christian. God grant they may, and I firmly believe they will be happy.”
A more particular attempt to define the nature of Mr. Adams’s labors in this, the most important crisis of his life, must now be made. Some light is shed upon them by the letter of Governor Ward, already referred to, dated the 3d of November, about three weeks before the appointment of the secret committee of foreign affairs. In it the writer, rejoicing that the jealousy entertained of the New England colonies was yielding to the pressure of the news from Great Britain, quotes, as a proof of it, a remark made in private to himself by one of the most pacific of the members, that he was at last ready to declare independence, send ambassadors, &c. It thus appears that the two points, which had labored the most in the deliberations previous to this time, were independence, and foreign alliances. That Mr. Adams had been prominent in urging both, there can be no doubt. But no clear traces are found of the manner in which the discussions were introduced or carried on. From his own letters it incidentally appears, that of the two points, he exerted himself much the most strenuously upon the second, and with the most effect upon his hearers. There is reason to suppose that a motion was concerted between him and Samuel Chase, of Maryland, which was designed to authorize the dispatch of ambassadors to France, clothed with certain conditional instructions, the precise character of which is not mentioned. This motion was actually made by Mr. Chase, and it was seconded by Mr. Adams. The exact date of it cannot be traced. In a letter of the latter to the former, written some months later, he alludes to it only as having been made “last fall,” and afterwards “murdered.”1 The probability is that it was introduced soon after his return late in September, and was discussed at intervals through the following month. Some account of the debate is given by Mr. Adams, in a letter of much posterior date, which is valuable as showing the precise attitude he took on this important part of the national policy, and the extent to which he helped to give it the shape it finally assumed. This later evidence, as well as that of his “Autobiography,” so far as it bears on his own opinions, is corroborated by the spirit of his letters written at the time. It is found in a letter to Dr. Rush, dated the 30th of September, 1805, and the material part is that which follows:—
“The truth is, that in consequence of many conversations and consultations between Mr. Chase and me, he made a motion in congress in the fall of this year, 1775, for sending ambassadors to France. I seconded the motion. You know the state of the nerves of congress at that time. Although you was not then a member, you had opportunities enough to have felt the pulse of that body. Whether the effect of the motion resembled the shock of electricity, of mesmerism, or of galvanism, the most exactly, I leave you philosophers to determine; but the grimaces, the agitations and convulsions were very great. Knowing the composition of congress, you will be at no loss to conjecture the parts taken in the debate which ensued, which was very vehement.
“It was a measure which I had long contemplated, and, as I then thought, and have confidently believed from that time to this, well digested.
“The principle of foreign affairs, which I then advocated, has been the invariable guide of my conduct in all situations, as ambassador in France, Holland, and England, and as Vice-President and President of the United States, from that hour to this. . . . . . This principle was, that we should make no treaties of alliance with any European power; that we should consent to none but treaties of commerce; that we should separate ourselves, as far as possible and as long as possible, from all European politics and wars. In discussing the variety of motions which were made as substitutes for Mr. Chase’s, I was remarkably cool, and, for me, unusually eloquent. On no occasion, before or after, did I ever make a greater impression on congress.
“Cæsar Rodney told me I had opened an entire new field to his view, and removed all his difficulties concerning foreign connections.
“Mr. Duane said to me: ‘We all give you great credit for that speech; and we all agree that you have more fully considered and better digested the subject of foreign connections than any man we have heard speak on the subject.’
“Although Mr. Dickinson was then offended with me, on account of an intercepted letter, and never spoke to me personally, yet I was told that he was highly pleased with my sentiments on foreign affairs.
. . . . . . . . . . .
“After all our argumentation, however, we could not carry our motion; but, after twenty subtle projects to get rid of it, the whole terminated in a committee of secret correspondence.”
The object of securing the assistance of France had been in the minds of other members besides Mr. Adams; and some of the patriots, stimulated by the fear that Great Britain would be beforehand with them, had been disposed to appeal at once to the cupidity of that country, by large offers of territory and power in America. Of this number was Patrick Henry.1 The policy of Mr. Adams seems to have been different, and limited exclusively to presenting the inducements of commercial advantage, and the profits attending a practical monopoly of the American trade. He does not appear even to have contemplated asking for direct aid, or embarking in a political alliance in any event.2 His confidence in the ability of America to sustain herself was too great to permit him to consent to any sacrifices, to enlist services that might possibly prove to have been purchased at too dear a rate. He deemed it the wiser course to rely upon other reasoning to obtain his objects, the nature of which it is not difficult to conceive. He had studied history too closely not to have mastered the relations between Great Britain and France for the five preceding centuries. Through all that period, but one judgment could be formed of the causes, which had, almost without an interval, kept those nations alienated from each other. Neither did the fear and the jealousy of each other’s ambition, which had so often broken out in open war, appear to have become in the least softened by the passage of time. On the contrary, it had never been more apparent than at the very last treaty of peace, when the pride of the French had received its severest humiliation. Instead of the dreams of universal empire, so fondly indulged during the brilliant days of the great Louis, they had been forced, by the triumphs of their rivals, not merely to submit to the sacrifice of that American empire they had labored for years to establish, but even to put up with what was harder to bear, the dictatorial temper of the most haughty of British statesmen. Well aware of the nature of this mortification, Mr. Adams saw at once how tempting to France was the opportunity now offered by the condition of the colonies for severe retaliation. It is, therefore, not unlikely that the speeches, which he describes as the most eloquent he ever made, were filled with the speculations which the occasion suggested, and in which his mind had, from his youth, delighted.
Their nature had, indeed, somewhat changed. It was no longer the “turbulent Gallics,” who were in the way of the establishment of the empire he had foreshadowed in his early visions. They had ceased to be formidable, and in their place had come a danger of subjection from the very power in whose interests he was then ardently enlisted. It was the aid of those very Gallics which he was now earnest to invoke against the master, whose obstinacy had led him to play the tyrant. That the assembly he addressed should have listened with attention to his elucidations of these points, is not at all wonderful. To most of the members they must have been novel as well as striking. Doubtless they had their effect in advancing opinion, though not at the pace the speaker desired. There was a lion in the way. All the wavering instinctively felt, that to take this step would be, in the eyes of Britain, the one great sin, for which no subsequent contrition could atone. Not even independence itself would be so bitter an injury as an alliance with her natural enemy. It followed that Mr. Adams made few converts, and the motion failed. Something less militant found more favor. A half-way house seemed better to stop at than taking the journey at once. So a secret committee was established, whose business it should be “to correspond with friends in Great Britain, Ireland, and other parts of the world.” Like a lady’s letter, the important part of this was in the postscript. To people outside it was intentionally left a little equivocal, but the initiated knew that it pointed to France. Yet so fearful were the majority of being precipitated into a gait more rapid than they liked, that they took care not to put on their new committee any of the impetuous men. With the single exception of Dr. Franklin, whose European reputation and connections pointed him out, beyond all controversy, as a suitable member, all the rest were selected from the most cautious and conservative class. The members from New England were wholly excluded, and most emphatically that one who had been the champion of the policy to which it pointed, John Adams.
In free governments, it seldom happens that a person of the boldest and most comprehensive mind will serve the purposes of a political leader for ordinary times. His conclusions are apt to be too far in advance of the ratiocination of those who are expected to follow, to keep the chain of influence perfectly tight. Burke’s character of Charles Townshend happily describes the qualities necessary to attain the highest degree of power over deliberative assemblies, yet the possession of them all may not the less consist, as they did in his case, with a gross deficiency in the higher elements of statesmanship. When no emergency exists, most men will naturally give their ear to him who shall succeed in pleasing them best. It is only the occurrence of some unusual crisis which changes the exigency, and draws attention away from him who knows only how to flatter, to him who is best able to direct. There has been a period in the history of this country when the sarcastic elocution of John Randolph reigned preëminent over the deliberations of the federal representatives; but what mark has Randolph left in his career, that will entitle him to occupy a place among American statesmen? Such a part as his, Mr. Adams could not have played with success at any time of his life. His mind was always overleaping the intermediate processes which absorb so much of the attention of the greater number, in order to revel in the vision of results they are not beginning even to dream of as possible. This peculiarity, visible in him at the age of twenty, may be traced through the dissertation upon the canon and feudal law, into the letters to his wife, and down to the speculations upon the marvellous vicissitudes of Europe, of his later years. It made him for some time, in congress, a teacher with few scholars. Nor is it likely that he would ever have been otherwise, had it not been for the rapid march of events which not only verified the wisdom of his words, but called forth an absolute necessity of relying upon some energy, like his, for guidance in the difficulties besetting the path. Not a single individual of the first congress had, in point of clear vision of the future, placed himself on the level of Joseph Hawley or of either Adams. And even now that the lapse of eighteen months had brought them to see somewhat more nearly alike, there was yet a striking difference in their relative capacity to estimate the magnitude of what was to come. Few yet understood that they were busy in laying the foundations of a great empire. They were too much occupied with present embarrassments, and in devising some scheme whereby to get back to where they formerly stood, to be anxious to meddle with futurity.
In the midst of this state of feeling appeared the celebrated production, called “Common Sense,” which, singularly falling in with the temper of the moment, attained a degree of popularity, and exerted a force, that, from a calm review of its substance, at the present day, it is difficult fully to comprehend. This pamphlet was issued at Philadelphia whilst Mr. Adams was absent at home. Some of the members, who had heard him in congress dilate in something of the same strain, were at first disposed to fix the authorship upon him. But however agreeable to him the imputation of writing such nervous English, he was by no means disposed to share the responsibility of many opinions which it expressed. With his customary penetration, he at once set down the writer as much more competent to destroy than to build up; a judgment fully confirmed in after times. His own mind, on the other hand, having already reached the limit to which he considered the first of the processes useful, was now absorbed in the reflections necessary to execute the second. The substance of this is expressed in the following extract of a letter to his wife, dated the 19th of March, 1776:—
“You ask what is thought of ‘Common Sense.’ Sensible men think there are some whims, some sophisms, some artful addresses to superstitious notions, some keen attempts upon the passions, in this pamphlet. But all agree there is a great deal of good sense delivered in clear, simple, concise, and nervous style. His sentiments of the abilities of America, and of the difficulty of a reconciliation with Great Britain, are generally approved. But his notions and plans of continental government are not much applauded. Indeed, this writer has a better hand in pulling down than building. It has been very generally propagated through the continent that I wrote this pamphlet. But although I could not have written any thing in so manly and striking a style, I flatter myself I should have made a more respectable figure as an architect, if I had undertaken such a work. This writer seems to have very inadequate ideas of what is proper and necessary to be done, in order to form constitutions for single colonies, as well as a great model of union for the whole.”
Of all the colonies, those of the south stood most in need of revising their existing institutions, in order to adapt them to the novel state of things occasioned by the Revolution. They had been founded upon the recognition of an exclusive principle, which, though much modified in its operation by the equalizing tendencies at work in all communities of short date, could not fail steadily to extend its sway with the increase of property and the growth of local and family associations. Virginia, especially, under the legislation which had hitherto prevailed, had been raising into permanency a strong landed aristocracy. Already there existed entails of enormous tracts in the hands of single families, the steady operation of which, in every case, could only be barred by some special interference of the legislature. And, superinduced upon this, a species of villenage was just growing into form, through the subjection, by means of the commercial greediness of Britain, of natives of Africa as serfs to the soil. Thus, to use the words of one of her own historians, “an aristocracy neither of talent, nor learning, nor moral worth, but of landed and slave interest, was fostered.”1 From the special class thus nursed into distinction were drawn the members of the executive council, the judicial officers down to those of the county courts, and even the representatives to the popular branch of the legislature. Under the natural tendency of habits of authority to confirm power, this system became so strong, that portions of it resisted all the influence which Mr. Jefferson exercised in his lifetime, and are by no means annihilated to this day. The course of events at Philadelphia had roused many leading men of that colony to the observation of the obstacles interposed by it to the establishment of popular institutions. Among the number, the most earnest and anxious were Patrick Henry, the Lees, George Wythe, and others of the most decided advocates of independence. They felt the necessity of commencing a reform by going at once to the root of the government itself. Here they were naturally brought into consultation with the delegates from New England, already long familiarized with the working of the most republican system then known in the world. To John Adams, who united to much study of the theory of government at large a thorough acquaintance with the particular forms of his own colony, they frequently recurred for advice. He was not unaware of the nature of the embarrassments in which they were involved, nor without anxiety as to their effect in delaying the general results which he had most at heart. The delegates from Virginia had never been entirely united in their policy, one portion of them always holding back against energetic measures, so that he felt the necessity of doing something to establish the preponderance of the other. A remarkable letter of his, called forth in part by the acts to restrain the trade of the colonies, addressed to General Gates, at this time resident in that colony, explains the matter very clearly.
23 March, 1776.
“I agree with you that, in politics, the middle way is none at all. If we finally fail in this great and glorious contest, it will be by bewildering ourselves in groping after this middle way. We have hitherto conducted half a war; acted upon the line of defence, &c., &c.; but you will see by to-morrow’s paper that, for the future, we are likely to wage three quarters of a war. The continental ships of war, and provincial ships of war, and letters of marque, and privateers, are permitted to cruise on British property, wherever found on the ocean. This is not independency, you know. Nothing like it. If a post or two more should bring you unlimited latitude of trade to all nations, and a polite invitation to all nations to trade with you, take care that you do not call it or think it independency. No such matter. Independency is a hobgoblin of such frightful mien, that it would throw a delicate person into fits to look it in the face.
“I know not whether you have seen the act of parliament, called the restraining act, or piratical act, or plundering act, or act of independency, for by all these titles it is called. I think the most apposite is, the act of independency. For king, lords, and commons have united in sundering this country from that, I think, forever. It is a complete dismemberment of the British empire. It throws thirteen colonies out of the royal protection, levels all distinctions, and makes us independent in spite of our supplications and entreaties. It may be fortunate that the act of independency should come from the British parliament, rather than the American congress; but it is very odd that Americans should hesitate at accepting such a gift from them.
“However, my dear friend Gates, all our misfortunes arise from a single source, the reluctance of the southern colonies to republican government. The success of this war depends on a skilful steerage of the political vessel. The difficulty lies in forming particular constitutions for particular colonies, and a continental constitution for the whole. Each colony should establish its own government, and then a league should be formed between them all. This can be done only on popular principles and axioms, which are so abhorrent to the inclinations of the barons of the south, and the proprietary interests in the Middle States, as well as to that avarice of land which has made on this continent so many votaries to mammon, that I sometimes dread the consequences. However, patience, fortitude, and perseverance, with the help of time, will get us over these obstructions. Thirteen colonies, under such a form of government as Connecticut, or one not quite so popular, leagued together in a faithful confederacy, might bid defiance against all the potentates of Europe, if united against them.”
Impressed by the cogency of these views, as presented by Mr. Adams in frequent conversations at Philadelphia, Richard Henry Lee thought a more extended and beneficial use might be made of them if they could be reduced to writing in a definite plan, and circulated in Virginia prior to the assembling of the body to which it was proposed to intrust the reconstruction of their government. To his solicitation Mr. Adams had yielded, by addressing to him a short letter, comprising the main elements of the system which he most approved. This letter, dated the 15th of November, 1775, is found in another part of this work.1 It was carried to Virginia by Mr. Lee, and circulated among his friends, in manuscript. Copies2 were taken, some of which made their way into the hands of persons still attached to Great Britain, by whom they were sent across the Atlantic, and laid before ministers, as further evidence of the settled policy of the American rebels. But, finding this sketch too brief to convey his full meaning, Mr. Adams responded to other applications, by composing an essay, in the form of a letter to George Wythe, which was committed to the press, under the title of “Thoughts on Government, applicable to the Present State of the American Colonies. In a Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend.”3 This pamphlet was at once forwarded to Virginia, where the proposed convention was about to assemble. It was regarded by the aristocratic party as so dangerous, that an answer was immediately prepared in Philadelphia, and transmitted to Williamsburgh for publication in the Virginia Gazette, on the very day of the meeting. These two essays have not yet entirely lost their interest. They may be regarded as embodying classes of opinions, prevalent in the two leading colonies of North America, on the subject of government, before the Revolution. But the influence of Henry and the Lees, and Mason, and Wythe, and, most of all, of Thomas Jefferson, was decisive in bringing Virginia to renounce the system of an executive and senate for life, and a triennial representation, advocated in the publication at Williamsburgh, and to model her system more nearly in accordance with the republican tendencies of the communities established in the north.1
But it was not to Virginia alone that the speculations of Mr. Adams, at this time, proved useful. North Carolina, her neighbor, was likewise preparing for the transition to an independent State, by introducing the forms necessary to maintain it. The legislature, through the chairman of a committee appointed to project a constitution, Mr. Burke, made an application to him for his advice, which was given in an answer of much the same tenor with the published tract. This answer was not found until the year 1846, when, with the other papers of Governor Burke, it fell into the possession of the Historical Society of that State. It differs only in the language from the pamphlet. A third letter, of the same tenor, came to light in a volume published by John Taylor, of Caroline, in Virginia, in the year 1814. This had been obtained from John Penn, who represented North Carolina in the continental congress. It is not improbable that Mr. Adams wrote others of the same sort, of which he kept no copies, but which may, in course of time, likewise appear. In this way his sentiments were so extensively diffused as materially to guide the public mind in the construction of many of the State constitutions. The immediate effect was particularly visible in those adopted by New York and North Carolina, the last of which remained unchanged for sixty years, and at the time of its amendment, in 1836, was the only one left of the constitutions adopted at the Revolution; and the remoter influence has remained to these times.
It is very true that the outline of the system thus recommended contains the same features, in the main, which are found in the colonial charters of New England, and are in them taken from the constitutional forms of the mother country. Mr. Adams had made them the study of his life, and fully believed that they rested upon general principles of the highest possible value. He had little of the purely scheming temper that has led some of the noblest minds of the world to devise systems of their own, ingenious, and sometimes imposing, but utterly wanting in practical adaptation to the feelings and habits of those for whose use they were intended. He had studied Plato, and Montesquieu, Milton, Locke, and Harrington, quite as profitably to avoid their errors as to heed their counsels. Had it been otherwise, nothing could have been more easy than to have seized the finest opportunity ever yet presented for the introduction of new theories into the social system, to make experiments not less specious than any proposed by them, and quite as visionary. The people, though attached by habit to the old forms, were very open to receive new impressions. Their ideas upon government in general were not a little crude. Mr. Adams did not permit himself to be led astray by any of these temptations. Conservative by temperament and education, he applied his mind to the task of saving whatever experience had proved to be valuable in the British constitutional forms, and cutting off only those portions which were not adapted to the feelings, manners, habits, and principles of a young nation oppressed by no burdens transmitted from a ruder age, and deranged by no abuses, the offspring of barbarous force. The skill with which this was done may be best understood from the result. For it is undeniable that the success of the constitutions, adopted in the respective States, has proved proportionate to the degree of their approximation to the general features of his plan. In Pennsylvania, in which happened the greatest deviation, likewise happened the most serious disorders to the public peace; whilst in that, as well as in other States, a conviction of error led the people in no long time to copy more or less closely the common model. From that day to this, the public sentiment has remained so firmly settled in the United States, that in all the revisions, or creations called for by the rise of new communities, the incidental modifications that have been made, however much they may affect the essence, never change the form.
It is to be particularly noted, however, in speaking of the various letters written by Mr. Adams at this time, that they all agree in one thing, and that is, in viewing the States as nations wholly independent of each other, and needing no bond of union stronger than a single federal assembly of representatives fairly apportioned, with authority sacredly confined to cases of war, trade, disputes between the States, the post-office, and the common territories. This shows that the writer had not yet devoted so much thought to this branch of the subject as it required. At the present day, aided by the light of past experience, it appears palpable enough that, in order to make any assembly of the sort truly important and respected, it is necessary to clothe it with sufficient power to enforce its decrees, and that this, in its turn, involves the necessity of having at command some sources of revenue independent of the will of the constituent bodies. Inattention to this point was the cause of the failure of the experiment of confederation. As yet, Mr. Adams shared the general confidence in the disposition of the respective States to abide by all their engagements in one spirit, however onerous they might become. It was expecting too much regularity from human nature, which only succeeds in educing a tolerably fixed average result from a well-established variety of uncertainties. The failure of any one State had bad effects far beyond its own circle, for it furnished a plausible excuse for the others to do likewise. That republican jealousy which seeks to cut off all power from fear of abuses, sometimes does quite as much harm as if it created a despotism. For it inevitably brings round an unanswerable application of the proverb, to which arbitrary men, the world over, have appealed in justification of every stretch of their sway.
How well Mr. Adams comprehended this, at a later moment, will appear hereafter. It is sufficient now to say that his advice, in the early part of 1776, greatly aided so to shape the social system in the several States that they were able to bear with ease the development that has since been made of it. And, further, it is proper to note this as the date when, having gone as far as he felt it to be necessary in the labor of removing obstacles to independence, he began to direct his attention more closely to the consolidation of a new system, designed before long to be substituted for the old.
Not that the struggle for independence was yet over, however. Far from it. Parties had become pretty distinctly drawn in the congress; and although an impression was gaining, that they must come to it in the end, yet many members viewed with undiminished repugnance any act that might tend to bring it nearer. The notion, that commissioners would yet be sent from Great Britain, bearing up the olive branch which had once been so haughtily trampled under foot, was held out openly by some, and cherished in secret by more. Among these, with various modifications of opinion during the struggle, are to be reckoned most of the delegates of the Middle States, about half of those from the south, and here and there a member from New England. On the opposite side were arrayed a majority of Massachusetts and Virginia, supported by New England and scattering members from other States, but, most of all, by the pressure of the army leaders, and of the popular sentiment condensed by the appeal of “Common Sense.” In the first class may be numbered Harrison and Braxton, of Virginia; Lynch, Middleton, and Edward Rutledge, of South Carolina; Hooper, of North Carolina; Goldsborough and Johnson, of Maryland; Dickinson, Morris, Wilson, and Willing, of Pennsylvania; William Livingston, of New Jersey; Duane, R. R. Livingston, and Jay, of New York. Of the second class were Wythe, Jefferson, and the Lees, of Virginia; Gadsden and John Rutledge, of South Carolina; Chase, of Maryland; McKean and Rodney, of Delaware; Franklin, of Pennsylvania; Sergeant, of New Jersey, and almost all the New England delegates.
Among them, John Adams now began to take the station which his superior powers of debate, his intellectual vigor, his learning, and the earnestness of his will, naturally gave him. Not at all suited to be a chief, when much depends on a spirit of accommodation to the whims or the longings of individuals held together by fleeting considerations of personal or public interest, he was yet eminently qualified to stand forth the exponent of a clear, strong, and noble plan of action in a time of danger, to weld the determined into the wedge of his iron energy, to harden the wavering into the fixedness of his unfaltering purpose, and to shame the cowardly, at least so far as to deter them from disturbing their brethren with their fears. His speeches and exhortations, repeated on every fair opportunity throughout this period, were probably little like the brilliant philosophical speculations of Burke, the offspring of full and matured study, designed not so much to move present auditors, as to remain the delight of numberless generations of the British race, but rather the spontaneous dictation of a mind filled with the reasoning deducible from principles long and firmly rooted, of feelings ardently enlisted in the success of a noble cause, and of an imagination fully awake to the splendors of the ultimate triumph. What doubtless must have added to the effect of this combination was the stimulus of antagonism, which gave its superlative force to the models of ancient oratory, and without which none can ever hope to attain its utmost degree of power over men.
Of the precise nature of these appeals no record remains, for none was ever made. The only notion which can be formed of it must be drawn from an analysis of the elements of the speaker’s character. This would yield a vehement energy regardless of the refinements of rhetoric, a lofty morality, the natural offspring of a heart pure before God, confirmed in its integrity by the training of years, and a lively sensibility, which could summon for the exigency of a great cause the resources of a deeply laid, if not extended, education, as well as the treasures of a vivid fancy. The language which follows the natural outpouring of such a combination of qualities may contain the greatest amount of moral power that can be addressed by one man to the ears of his fellows, but it cannot spread an inch beyond the charmed circle. The same words would never raise the same sensations among new men, in other times and places, however carefully they might be prepared for their admiration.
It is probable that the period embraced between the 9th of February, the day of his return to Philadelphia, and the end of this year, was the most laborious and exciting of Mr. Adams’s long life. Never for a moment does he appear to have lost sight of the magnitude of the work in which he had engaged. He felt, not that three millions of men were to declare their own emancipation, but that a nation was to come into being for a life of centuries. To this end he was for pushing forward at once all the preliminary steps. On the 12th of April he wrote to his wife much in the spirit of his letter to Gates, that the point, then only hoped for, had at last been gained. “The ports are opened wide enough at last, and privateers are allowed to prey upon British trade. This is not independency, you know. What is? Why, government in every colony, a confederation among them all, and treaties with foreign nations to acknowledge us a sovereign State, and all that. When these things will be done, or any of them, time must discover. Perhaps the time is near, perhaps a great way off.” To Patrick Henry he described the natural progress of events which he anticipated. “It has ever appeared to me,” he said, “that the natural course and order of things was this; for every colony to institute a government; for all the colonies to confederate, and define the limits of the continental constitution; then, to declare the colonies a sovereign State, or a number of confederated States; and, last of all, to form treaties with foreign powers. But I fear we cannot proceed systematically, and that we shall be obliged to declare ourselves independent States, before we confederate, and, indeed, before all the colonies have established their governments.” Here was the threefold cord of a system which it was certainly best to have woven evenly together at once, but yet which would not fail in strength, if labor could effect its combination in any way at all.
The manner in which Mr. Adams has himself reviewed the journals of congress during this period, and noted the course of things from day to day, with the obstructions and delays interposed in the way of action, renders it unnecessary here to do more than touch upon the chief results. Two years had effected a union of the colonies for defence, and a consequent military organization so actively engaged in the field to sustain the common cause as to dislodge the British forces from Boston, the spot where the process of compulsory obedience had been commenced. The ports, which had been injudiciously closed under the fallacious notion of forcing Great Britain to choose between concession and national bankruptcy, were now opened wide to trade, and attempts had been made to establish a temporary system of finance. Virginia had led the way in summoning an assembly for the purpose of constituting some permanent form of government, to meet the new emergency. Every thing was tending to independence, but nothing decisive had yet been done. The people of Massachusetts had declared themselves ready, whilst their delegates in Virginia and North Carolina were on the verge of a declaration; but New Hampshire was still divided, and the Middle States presented an almost unbroken front of opposition. The strongest objections came from those delegates who either had no instructions of any kind, or who pleaded positive injunctions to stay their action. New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, rendered uneasy by rumors early in circulation of designs held by some to bring about independence, had given explicit directions that no such propositions should be listened to. And Maryland, not content with general prohibitions, had aimed a blow at John Adams, by calling in question the motives of his action. That colony instructed her delegates to move a self-denying ordinance, which should cut off the possibility of accelerating the apprehended result by influences growing out of the establishment of places of honor and profit under a new state of things. Mr. Adams was known to have accepted the post of chief justice of the revived superior court of Massachusetts. He it was, too, that was understood to be most vehement in pushing the three parts of a plan of independence. Hence the stroke aimed at him, but really intended to paralyze the vital energy of that plan. Its effect in congress seems to have been next to nothing; but it indicated a spirit of resistance in one branch of the confederacy, little auspicious of harmony in its future counsels.
Neither was the prospect of effecting favorable changes particularly cheering. Some delegates were timid, many inclined rather to recede than to go forward, and all averse to an irrevocable breach. Solicitation had been exhausted. The obstacles continued firmly fixed as ever. Nothing remained to be done but to surmount them. An appeal might be made from the representative bodies to the people themselves, and instructions procured, in their turn, for the instructors. After consultation, it seems to have been agreed that this should be done. The labor of the experiment was divided. To Samuel Chase was assigned the task of organizing county meetings in Maryland, which should overawe their respective delegates. He left Philadelphia at once, and proceeded on his errand. The condition of the New Jersey assembly not being considered so unpromising, Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant determined to resign his place in congress that he might repair to Trenton, and act with more efficiency there. With regard to Pennsylvania, the cooperation between the popular leaders of Philadelphia and their friends in congress was direct and easy. The Lees and the Adamses were on the spot, to set in motion whatever measure might be deemed likely to be of use.
Something of this kind, evidently intended to operate in the manner designated, seems to have been prepared by Mr. Adams, but it is uncertain whether it was ever acted upon. In the absence of any record in the journals of congress, which perpetuate only results, it is not possible to determine this point. A draft, in his handwriting, remains, which is deserving of notice in the progressive movements of this time. It runs as follows:—
“Whereas the present state of America and the cruel efforts of our enemies render the most perfect and cordial union of the colonies, and the utmost exertions of their strength necessary for the preservation and establishment of their liberties, therefore,
“Resolved, that it be recommended to the several assemblies and conventions of these United Colonies, who have limited the powers of their delegates in this congress by any express instructions, that they repeal or suspend those instructions for a certain time, that this congress may have power, without any unnecessary obstruction or embarrassment, to concert, direct, and order such further measures as may seem to them necessary for the defence and preservation, support and establishment of right and liberty in these colonies.”
The sameness of this language with that used in the Massachusetts instructions, brought with him on his last return, shows whence Mr. Adams took his foundation. And had the other colonial assemblies been equally prepared to vest the desired discretion in their delegates, there can be no doubt that it would have sufficiently answered the purpose. The difficulty was that some of them were averse to conferring any authority that was likely to hazard an irreparable breach with the mother country; and this aversion was too well fixed to be shaken by fair-spoken supplications. But there was an objection to such a form of resolution beyond and above this. It asked for a temporary suspension of instructions, in order to do acts of an irrevocable character. It was measuring the intelligence of the objectors by a low standard, to suppose them not likely to see the drift of such a proposition, and if they should adopt it without seeing, it was at best gaining the object by a deception. Possibly considerations like these may have led to the laying aside of this in favor of a better measure. The tenacity of the Pennsylvania assembly had been proved a short time before. It was not to be dissolved by solicitation. The minority, representing the popular feeling of the colony, which had been long struggling almost against hope for the adoption of its views, was wellnigh tired out. All began to see that the obstacle lay in the proprietary form of government, which gave a disproportionate share of power to particular classes, and that nothing would avail to remove it which did not strike at once at the root of its authority. Hence they began to look about for something more comprehensive and determinate.
The preparation of such a final measure seems to have been devolved upon John Adams. He brought it forward accordingly, on the sixth day of May, in the shape of a resolution. Whether it was originally in the words ultimately adopted, the journal furnishes no means of ascertaining. All that is known is, that after debate continued until the 9th, it then assumed its last shape. The wavering representatives of one colony asked another day’s delay before taking the question, which was granted. On the 10th, the decision was made, and the resolution passed in these words:—
“Resolved, that it be recommended to the respective assemblies and conventions of the United Colonies, where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs hath been hitherto established, to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.”
Yet, even with this success, the result was not precisely adequate to cover the emergency. It was a recommendation, and nothing more. No necessity existed to notice it, if the assemblies were not so disposed. The Pennsylvanians, for example, could maintain that they had a government quite sufficient for the exigencies of their affairs, and, therefore, that they stood in no need of change. The force of this objection must have made itself felt in the course of the debate, for immediately after the adoption of the measure, a motion was carried to this effect:—
“Resolved, that a committee of three be appointed to prepare a preamble to the foregoing resolution.
“The members chosen, Mr. J. Adams, Mr. Rutledge, and Mr. R. H. Lee.”
This committee reported a draft, on the 13th, which was debated and passed on the 15th. It was in these words:—
“Whereas his Britannic Majesty, in conjunction with the lords and commons of Great Britain, has, by a late act of parliament, excluded the inhabitants of these United Colonies from the protection of his crown; and, whereas, no answer whatever to the humble petitions of the colonies for redress of grievances and reconciliation with Great Britain has been or is likely to be given; but the whole force of that kingdom, aided by foreign mercenaries, is to be exerted for the destruction of the good people of these colonies; and, whereas, it appears absolutely irreconcilable to reason and good conscience for the people of these colonies now to take the oaths and affirmations necessary for the support of any government under the crown of Great Britain, and it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as for the defence of their lives, liberties, and properties against the hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies; therefore, resolved,” &c.
This blow struck home. The next day the active members of the popular party in Philadelphia were called to meet to consider what steps should be taken in consequence of the dissolution of their government, as published that morning. At the same date, Mr. Adams, in writing to his friend, General Palmer, and quoting the preamble almost exactly from memory, added these words: “Yesterday the Gordian knot was cut. If such a resolution had been passed twelve months ago, as it ought to have been, and it was not my fault that it was not, how different would have been our situation! The advantages of such a measure were pointed out very particularly twelve months ago. But then we must petition and negotiate, and the people were not ripe! I believe they were as ripe then as they are now.”
The resistance to this measure continued strenuous even after it was felt to be unavailing. Mr. Duane protested against it, to the last. He called it “a piece of mechanism to work out independence; but he supposed the votes had been numbered, and it must pass.” He did not overrate its importance. The foundation of the British authority had been subverted. The people were now the only source of power.
The seventeenth of May was Sunday. Mr. Adams went to hear the Rev. Mr. Duffield preach upon the signs of the times, who likened the conduct of George the Third to that of Pharaoh to the Israelites, and concluded that Providence intended the liberation of the Americans, as it had done theirs. The auditor returned home, and, writing to his wife, thus followed out the train of ideas occasioned by the discourse.
“Is it not a saying of Moses, ‘Who am I, that I should go in and out before this great people?’ When I consider the great events which are passed, and those greater which are rapidly advancing, and that I may have been instrumental in touching some springs, and turning some small wheels, which have had and will have such effects, I feel an awe upon my mind, which is not easily described. Great Britain has at last driven America to the last step, a complete separation from her; a total, absolute independence, not only of her parliament, but of her crown. For such is the amount of the resolve of the 15th. Confederation among ourselves or alliances with foreign nations are not necessary to a perfect separation from Britain. That is effected by extinguishing all authority under the crown, parliament, and nation, as the resolution for instituting governments has done to all intents and purposes. Confederation will be necessary for our internal concord, and alliances may be so for our external defence.”
But although the stronghold of British authority had been laid in ruins, something was left to do in order to overcome the inertness that follows the abandonment of active opposition. In Pennsylvania, where resistance had been the most dogged, and at which the stroke of the 15th of May had been especially aimed, it was not enough simply to take the strength out of the assembly. A new power was to be created in its place, a power based upon the popular will. This necessity had been foreseen and provided for. Five days after the passage of the preamble, the public meeting was held of the citizens of Philadelphia, at which it was determined to act at once upon its recommendation. The mode selected was an invitation to the people of the different counties in the province to send committees to a conference in Philadelphia, to mature the arrangements for calling a convention of the people. The ball thus set rolling, could no longer be checked in its course. It was in vain that the old assembly manifested a disposition to yield so far as to rescind the obnoxious instructions which had occasioned the trouble. The few of the minority who had long clung to the hope of bringing it at last into line, had been compelled to abandon it. Many members ceased to attend its deliberations, and the body showed signs of incurable languor, the forerunner of speedy dissolution. In the mean while the conference of committees took place on the 18th of June, and the next day they unanimously passed the following vote:—
“Resolved, that the government of this province is not competent to the exigencies of our affairs.”
After that, nothing, of course, was left but to make arrangements to provide, as early as possible, a substitute. Through all the proceedings there is reason to presume that the chief agents were acting in constant consultation with the leading advocates of independence in congress.
Things were now verging on every side to the same point. North Carolina had conferred the necessary powers to vote for independence and foreign alliances as early as the 12th of April. And now came the news from Richard Lee,1 to Mr. Adams, that on the very day of the passage of the significant preamble in congress, the 15th of May, the convention of Virginia had gone a step further, and had instructed their delegates to propose independence. Authority to assent to its natural consequences, a confederation and foreign alliances, followed as a matter of course. On the other hand, the convention of Massachusetts had referred the subject back to the people, to be considered and acted upon at their primary town meetings, and the responses had been for some time coming in unequivocally enough. So decided was the feeling that Joseph Hawley, impatient of the delay, was stimulating the nowise reluctant Gerry to greater exertions. Perceiving these encouraging indications in opposite quarters, the friends of independence now consulted together, and made up their minds that the moment had come for a final demonstration. Resolutions, embracing the three great points, were carefully matured, which it was arranged that Richard Henry Lee, on behalf of the delegates of Virginia, should present, and John Adams should second, for Massachusetts. The movement took place, accordingly, on the 7th of June. It appears on the journal, recorded with the customary caution, as follows:—
“Certain resolutions respecting independency being moved and seconded,—
“Resolved, that the consideration of them be referred till tomorrow morning; and that the members be enjoined to attend punctually at ten o’clock, in order to take the same into their consideration.”
It was well that a measure of so momentous a character should be accompanied with as much of the forms of notice and special assignment as the body could properly give to it.
The record of what passed at the appointed time has come down to us very barren of details. We only know that the resolutions were referred to the committee of the whole, where they were debated with great spirit during that day, Saturday, and again on Monday, the 10th, by which time it had become quite clear that a majority of the colonies were prepared to adopt the first and leading resolution. This majority was composed of the four New England, and three out of the four southern colonies. But it being deemed unadvisable to place this great act upon so narrow a basis, and a prospect being held out of securing a more general concurrence by delaying the decision, a postponement until the first of July was effected by a change of the votes of two colonies. In the mean while, however, as it was thought suitable to accompany the act with an elaborate exposition of the causes which were held to justify it, a committee was ordered to have in charge the preparation of such a paper in season for the adjourned debate.
But it was not on this point alone that the action of the members was in the nature of a foregone conclusion. It is plain that the greater number of those who yet hesitated, were only held back by considerations of expediency from committing themselves openly to what they felt was as inevitable as it was in all respects right and proper. A strong proof of this is to be found in the fact, that on the 11th of June the two great corollaries of the main proposition were taken up and adopted. At the same time that Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston, all but the last named being of the movement, were appointed the committee to prepare a declaration, as mentioned, the congress formally voted a second committee, with powers to prepare and digest a form of confederation to be entered into between the colonies; and yet a third, to mature a plan of treaties to be proposed to foreign powers. In this compass were included all the elements of national sovereignty abroad and at home. The contest of the preceding year had not been conducted without its effect in exalting the merchants, and lawyers, and planters, and mechanics of a new and obscure region, remote from the great centres of civilization, into a body of statesmen alive to the consciousness of a position from which they were to provide new channels for the political instruction of the world.
On the 12th of June, the members were selected to serve on the last named committees. Of the Massachusetts delegates, Samuel Adams was assigned to the first, whilst John Adams was placed on that which related to foreign powers. He was, however, surrounded by men not of his counsels. John Dickinson, Harrison, and Robert Morris constituted a majority of the committee, and hitherto they had not been of the pioneers.
Still another positive measure followed. The journal of the same day records that—
“Congress took into consideration the report of the committee on a war-office; whereupon—
“Resolved, that a committee of congress be appointed by the name of a board of war and ordnance, to consist of five members.”
The members appointed to this committee, the next day, were J. Adams, Sherman, Harrison, Wilson, and E. Rutledge; and Richard Peters was elected secretary. Of the five named, only the first two had been numbered as of the movement; but this distinction was rapidly waning out.
These successive elections sufficiently display the change which was passing over the spirit of the congress. Samuel and John Adams were rapidly advancing in influence. The former was on the committee to prepare a form of confederation. The latter was second on that to report a declaration of independence, the lead, as usual, being given to Virginia; he was likewise on the committee of five, to prepare a plan of treaties with foreign nations, associated with but a single coadjutor in the struggle to arrive at that object, Dr. Franklin; and he was placed at the head of the bureau designed to be the channel through which congress proposed to direct the war. No more decisive testimony to his energy could have been given by that body. A few days before these events, Mr. Adams had written to William Cushing a letter in which he had indulged his fancy in fixing the term of his necessary labors, before he could come and take his place beside his friend on the bench of the superior court.
“Objects,” he said, “of the most stupendous magnitude, and measures in which the lives and liberties of millions yet unborn are intimately interested, are now before us. We are in the very midst of a revolution the most complete, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the history of nations. A few important subjects must be dispatched before I can return to my family. Every colony must be induced to institute a perfect government. All the colonies must confederate together in some solemn bond of union. The congress must declare the colonies free and independent States, and ambassadors must be sent abroad to foreign courts, to solicit their acknowledgment of us as sovereign States, and to form with them, at least with some of them, commercial treaties of friendship and alliance. When these things are once completed, I shall think that I have answered the end of my creation, and sing my nunc dimittis, return to my farm, ride circuits, plead law, or judge causes, just which you please.”
This scarcely brilliant prospect of early release was not much brightened by the superaddition on all the objects specified of the duties of a board of war. What they were to be, was defined at the time it was created. They embraced the keeping an alphabetical and accurate register of the names of all the officers of the army, with their rank and the dates of their commissions; likewise regular accounts of the state and disposition of the troops, to be obtained by returning officers wherever they were stationed; also the keeping exact accounts of all the artillery and other implements of war, and directing the care and preservation of them when not in actual service; the care of forwarding all dispatches from congress to the colonies and armies, and all money designed for this service; the superintendence of the raising and dispatching all the land forces ordered for service; the care and direction of prisoners of war; and, lastly, the preservation, in regular order, of all original letters and papers whatever, received in the course of their business, and the recording of all dispatches and letters sent forth. In other words, congress contemplated the transformation of a delegate from their own body into a war minister, charged, for an indefinite period, with an amount and variety of duties, which in themselves, and separated from every other labor, would task to the utmost the abilities, physical and intellectual, of the strongest man.
In connection with this reduction to system of the conduct of the war, Mr. Adams was the agent in carrying through another measure of importance, not merely in a military, but in a political sense. On the 25th of May, a very large committee, upon which he was placed third, after the Virginia members, Harrison and Lee, had been appointed to confer with Generals Washington, Gates, and Mifflin, and to concert a plan of military operations for the next campaign. This committee reported five days later, and their report was debated in committee of the whole until the 5th of June, when they recommended to the House, among other things, the following resolve:—
“That a committee of five be appointed to consider what is proper to be done with persons giving intelligence to the enemy, or supplying them with provisions.”
This resolution was adopted, and the members chosen were J. Adams, Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Rutledge, Mr. Wilson, and Mr. Livingston.
This, which is called in the journal the committee on spies, reported on the 17th of June. The report was taken up a week later, and without discussion, in committee of the whole, the following resolutions, making a part of it, were adopted:—
“Resolved, that all persons abiding within any of the United Colonies, and deriving protection from the laws of the same, owe allegiance to the said laws, and are members of such colony; and that all persons passing through, visiting, or making a temporary stay in any of the said colonies, being entitled to the protection of the laws during the time of such passage, visitation, or temporary stay, owe, during the same, allegiance thereto.
“That all persons, members of or owing allegiance to any of the United Colonies, as before described, who shall levy war against any of the said colonies within the same, or be adherent to the king of Great Britain, or other enemies of the said colonies, or any of them, within the same, giving to him or them aid and comfort, are guilty of treason against such colony.
“That it be recommended to the legislatures of the several United Colonies to pass laws for punishing, in such manner as to them shall seem fit, such persons before described, as shall be provably attainted of open deed by people of their condition, of any of the treason before described.
“Resolved, that it be recommended to the several legislatures of the United Colonies to pass laws for punishing, in such manner as they shall think fit, persons who shall counterfeit, or aid or abet in counterfeiting, the continental bills of credit, or who shall pass any such bill in payment, knowing the same to be counterfeit.”
The rest of the report was recommitted.
Under the semblance of a provision against spies and informers, here was a clear attribution of all the rights of absolute sovereignty which had belonged only to George the Third, to the new and self-constituted authority of the American people. These resolutions drew a sharp line between all persons who should and all who should not recognize this new authority, subjecting the latter class, whether natives or strangers temporarily present, to the penalties of treason in case they were found adhering to the British king, or to any persons abetting his cause. No chance was left open for the profession of neutrality, for even that was assumed to imply citizenship, and therefore to be embraced within the new jurisdiction. The effect of such a stroke upon all those persons, and they were not a few in the middle colonies, who were inclined to persevere in keeping out of the Union, is obvious. It made them aliens and strangers, and subjected their action to rigid supervision. Thus many were thought likely to become far better reconciled to an immediate declaration of independence, when it had been made clear that no equivocal position could be longer maintained by pushing it off.
The remainder of the history, which terminated in the grand result in congress, may be briefly given. The bulk of opposition now centred in the five middle colonies, and the pillar upon which it leaned was John Dickinson. But under the combined assaults conducted by the leading colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts, it was plain that victory was become a mere question of time. Jonathan D. Sergeant, who had left congress to hasten a change in the counsels of New Jersey, had been so successful in spiriting up the assembly as to be able to write, on the 15th of June to Mr. Adams, that the delegates about to be elected would be on the spot by the 1st of July, the day to which the question had been assigned, and that they would “vote plump.”1 Equally favorable news soon came from Maryland. It was in vain that her convention, under the guidance of some of her delegates in congress, had refused to recognize the necessity of reorganizing her government, as pointed out in the preamble to the resolve of the 15th of May. It was in vain that they had reiterated their instructions to resist independence to the utmost. The volunteered mission of Samuel Chase to the constituents of the recalcitrating delegates proved more than a match for all their stubbornness. By the 28th of June he found his appeals to them, to instruct the instructors, had been crowned with such success as to justify him in dispatching an express from the convention with the gratifying intelligence of a unanimous vote in that body in favor of independence. Thus were two States secured. But Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New York yet remained to move. In the first of these, recourse was had once more to the so called committees of conference, the offspring of the memorable preamble. And here, on the 23d of June, Dr. Benjamin Rush, then a young man, but acting entirely in sympathy and cooperation with the leaders in congress, moved and carried the appointment of a committee to declare the sense of the conference with respect to an independence of the province on the crown of Great Britain. He and James Smith were then joined with Thomas McKean, the chairman of the conference, in a committee, which was ready the next day with a report affirming the willingness of the deputies of the conference to concur in a vote declaring the United Colonies free and independent States. The report was adopted unanimously, was presented to congress on the 25th, and, doubtless, had its effect in determining those delegates of the colony to absent themselves on the final vote, upon whose resistance its adverse decision depended. As the hesitation of Delaware was chiefly owing to the feeling that pervaded the county of Sussex, Mr. Rodney had repaired thither for the purpose of bringing about a favorable change, in which errand the news came that he was laboring with success. The delegates from New York, no longer interposing any active opposition, yet unwilling to assume a responsibility which their constituents had not authorized, preferred to withdraw from participation in the decision.
Such was the state of affairs on the 1st of July, to which day the discussion had been adjourned. There was then little doubt of an affirmative vote on the part of all but four colonies. Yet two causes remained for continuing the debate. The delegates newly elected from New Jersey, though empowered to vote for independence, if they saw fit, were yet anxious, before deciding, to be possessed of the reasoning which had been presented in congress on both sides of the question. In addition to this, John Dickinson was desirous of placing himself so distinctly on the record as to release his name from the awful responsibility which might follow a disastrous issue of the decision. These reasons will account for the reopening of the question, which might otherwise be attributed to the same frivolous personal considerations which have so often, in more peaceful times, served uselessly to delay decisions of deliberative assemblies upon the most important concerns.
There is no record left of this day’s debate. Richard Henry Lee, the mover of the resolution, had been called home. Mr. Jefferson was no speaker. George Wythe was sensible, but not eloquent. Witherspoon was clear, but a little heavy. The debating talent must be admitted to have preponderated on the opposite side. It claimed John Dickinson and James Wilson, of Pennsylvania; Robert R. Livingston, of New York, and Edward Rutledge, of South Carolina; the latter, described by Patrick Henry as the most elegant speaker in the first congress. How many of them took part in this day’s proceedings, it is not possible to say. That Mr. Dickinson did, is certain. The opposition, which was dying away everywhere else, was still a living principle within his breast. Yet it was the resistance of a patriot aiming to avert what he viewed as the greatest dangers for his country, without the alloy of faction or of bad faith. Dickinson had reflected long and deeply on the merits of the controversy; his convictions had thus far carried him along with America, if not boldly, at least honestly; and he had little reason to count upon any mercy from Great Britain from his course, in case victory should declare for her. His action must be resolved into the hesitation of wealthy conservatism at taking an irrevocable step, rather than want of public spirit or of personal courage. He preferred that others should decide this point of independence, even though, as the issue shows, he was fully prepared to bear his share of the danger that would follow persistence in it. This last speech was, therefore, a solemn protest to relieve his conscience, should the darkness come which no reasonable man could deny to be a possible, perhaps a probable consequence of this adventurous plunge. It appears to have been respectfully received, as is usual where the weight of individual character gives authority to opinions even the most unwelcome. And though it wrought no change in the convictions of the majority, it inspired in them a sense of the necessity of some restatement of the affirmative position.
The duty of making it fell naturally upon Mr. Adams, who had long been regarded as the champion of that side, and who was unquestionably the only eloquent man then present to defend it. Of his speech, not a word has been transmitted to posterity. But all the accounts given by persons present agree in representing it as having been in the highest class of oratory. His vigorous mind had been so long fraught with the subject in all its details, and his fifteen months’ labors in congress had given so complete a familiarity with their treatment, that nothing was needed, beyond an occasion, to enlist the earnestness of his nature, and “the numbers came.” A speech, made under such an impulse, may not, when submitted to the cooler examination of a critic in the closet, sustain the reputation earned for it in the delivery, but to a listener it approaches much nearer to the voice of inspiration than more elaborate efforts. The fires of Demosthenes, of Cicero, and of Burke were lighted at the midnight lamp, for the illumination of the world whilst time shall endure. But Chatham, Patrick Henry, Mirabeau, and John Adams will be handed down as great orators mainly by the concurring testimony of those who witnessed the effects they produced. The “deep conceptions and nervous style,” which made Mr. Adams stand forth in the memory of Jefferson, who had the strongest reasons for retaining an indelible impression of the scene, as “the colossus of independence” on the floor of congress, “which,” as he further declares, “gave him a power of thought and expression which moved the members from their seats,” which sent Richard Stockton home, testifying that he was “the atlas of independence,” and the Virginians, never unwilling to give their own citizens the palm, but always susceptible of generous impulses, “to fill every mouth in the ancient dominion with the praises due to the comprehensiveness of his views, the force of his arguments, and the boldness of his patriotism,” will be remembered only by this testimony. Yet great as the impression was upon others, it is very clear that he never looked upon himself as having done much more than usual. In a letter, addressed to Samuel Chase, on the evening after the debate, he speaks of it all as an idle waste of time, for that nothing had been said which had not been hackneyed in that room for six months before. To him the concentration of feeling had been in the struggle whilst the issue was doubtful, and when he was grappling with great odds. Now that it was really over, the difficulties removed, and victory assured, nothing further was called for except a few tricks of fence for the edification of the bystanders, in which he took no satisfaction. To him it was a pageant, and nothing more.
Yet there is one tone left of the passion of that hour, which, even now, comes upon the ear like the dying fall of distant music. It would seem as if the mighty agitation of that boisterous period could not settle away into perfect calm, without reflecting a few of the sparkles that yet crested the subsiding waves. Something like this may be observed in the memorable letter of Mr. Adams to his wife, penned on the 3d of July, after the final vote was taken upon Lee’s resolution of the 7th of June. With much of that spirit of profound speculation, which so greatly distinguishes the writer among the active men of his time, this paper likewise shows the glow not yet entirely departed, which had fired his bosom and his brain in the contest so triumphantly concluded. In this spirit he breaks forth thus:—
“Yesterday, the greatest question was decided which ever was debated in America, and a greater, perhaps, never was, nor will be decided among men. A resolution was passed, without one dissenting colony, ‘that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, and as such they have, and of right ought to have, full power to make war, conclude peace, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which other States may rightfully do.’ You will see, in a few days, a declaration setting forth the causes which have impelled us to this mighty revolution, and the reasons which will justify it in the sight of God and man. A plan of confederation will be taken up in a few days.
“When I look back to the year 1761, and recollect the argument concerning writs of assistance in the superior court, which I have hitherto considered as the commencement of the controversy between Great Britain and America, and run through the whole period, from that time to this, and recollect the series of political events, the chain of causes and effects, I am surprised at the suddenness as well as greatness of this revolution. Britain has been filled with folly, and America with wisdom. At least, this is my judgment. Time must determine. It is the will of Heaven that the two countries should be sundered forever. It may be the will of Heaven that America shall suffer calamities still more wasting, and distresses yet more dreadful. If this is to be the case, it will have this good effect at least; it will inspire us with many virtues which we have not, and correct many errors, follies, and vices, which threaten to disturb, dishonor, and destroy us. The furnace of affliction produces refinement in States as well as individuals. And the new governments we are assuming, in every part, will require a purification from our vices, and an augmentation of our virtues, or they will be no blessings. The people will have unbounded power, and the people are extremely addicted to corruption and venality as well as the great. But I must submit all my hopes and fears to an overruling Providence, in which, unfashionable as the faith may be, I firmly believe.
“Had a declaration of independency been made seven months ago, it would have been attended with many great and glorious effects. We might before this hour have formed alliances with foreign states. We should have mastered Quebec, and been in possession of Canada.
“You will, perhaps, wonder how such a declaration would have influenced our affairs in Canada; but if I could write with freedom, I could easily convince you that it would, and explain to you the manner how. Many gentlemen in high stations and of great influence have been duped by the ministerial bubble of commissioners to treat. And in real, sincere expectation of this event, which they so fondly wished, they have been slow and languid in promoting measures for the reduction of that province. Others there are in the colonies, who really wished that our enterprise in Canada would be defeated, that the colonies might be brought into danger and distress between two fires, and be thus induced to submit. Others really wished to defeat the expedition to Canada, lest the conquest of it should elevate the minds of the people too much to hearken to those terms of reconciliation, which they believed would be offered us. These jarring views, wishes, and designs occasioned an opposition to many salutary measures, which were proposed for the support of that expedition, and caused obstructions, embarrassments, and studied delays, which have finally lost us the province. All these causes, however, in conjunction, would not have disappointed us, if it had not been for a misfortune which could not be foreseen, and, perhaps, could not have been prevented. I mean the prevalence of the smallpox among our troops. This fatal pestilence completed our destruction. It is a frown of Providence upon us, which we ought to lay to heart.
“But, on the other hand, the delay of this declaration to this time has many great advantages attending it. The hopes of reconciliation, which were fondly entertained by multitudes of honest and well-meaning, though weak and mistaken people, have been gradually, and, at last, totally extinguished. Time has been given for the whole people maturely to consider the great question of independence, and to ripen their judgments, dissipate their fears, and allure their hopes, by discussing it in newspapers and pamphlets, by debating it in assemblies, conventions, committees of safety and inspection, in town and county meetings, as well as in private conversations, so that the whole people, in every colony of the thirteen, have now adopted it as their own act. This will cement the Union, and avoid those heats, and perhaps convulsions, which might have been occasioned by such a declaration six months ago.
“But the day is past. The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe 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, forevermore.
“You will think me transported with 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 although we should rue it, which I trust in God we shall not.”
The reference in this letter to the 2d of July, is to the true decision upon independence involved in the adoption of the resolution of the seventh of June. The discussion and vote which followed upon the form of a declaration of the reasons for taking this step, is a separate affair. The committee to whom the task of preparing a suitable paper had been intrusted, had made its report on the 28th of June. Mr. Jefferson, though younger than Mr. Adams and Dr. Franklin, had been placed at its head, not less in deference to the leading position of Virginia than to his well-merited reputation for a matchless felicity in embodying popular ideas. The composition of the paper thus devolved upon him. There is some discrepancy in the accounts of the later proceedings given by the chief actors, which it is hard to reconcile. Mr. Jefferson’s is, that he communicated his draft to Mr. Adams and to Dr. Franklin separately, because they were the two members of whose judgment he wished most to have the benefit; and that all the corrections which they made were those that were visible on the paper in their own handwriting. Mr. Adams’s is, that Mr. Jefferson and he acted as a subcommittee, and reviewed the paper critically, without making or suggesting an alteration. In the face of both these statements remains a copy of the original draft of Mr. Jefferson, in the handwriting of Mr. Adams, taken before the numerous erasures, alterations, and interlineations were made by Mr. Jefferson’s own hand, which appear in the fac-simile published by his grandson. This, at least, shows that the paper was much more changed after it had been submitted to Mr. Adams than either statement would seem to imply.1 For the present purpose, it is enough to know that, as Mr. Jefferson wrote the paper, so the labor of “fighting fearlessly for every word of it,” in the three days’ debate which ensued in congress after it was reported, fell almost exclusively upon Mr. Adams. Mr. Jefferson “thought it his duty to be a passive auditor of the opinions of others,” which he admits to have been expressed “in acrimonious criticisms on some of its parts, that made him writhe a little.” Several passages were altered in deference to the lingering hopes of reconciliation of some, or to the tender consciences of others, but the tenacity of Mr. Adams saved its substance, which will remain to a distant future, to inspire a far more perfect system of liberty than any social community has ever yet, in its practice, carried out. On the fourth of July the Declaration of Independence was approved and signed by all the members present. So far the battle had been fought and won; but the heaviest part of the labor yet remained, which was to make the brave words good by braver deeds.
Neither was it here that the men of the Revolution showed themselves wanting. They well knew the nature of the task they had undertaken, and the extent of the labors and sacrifices required to execute it. Enthusiasts they were in one sense, for nothing truly noble is done in life without that element in greater or less measure. But visionaries they certainly were not. They had in their favor not so much the ability to overcome their adversary by positive victories, as that of endurance under defeat. The rugged will may be broken in small islands, or in cities and their immediate dependencies, where the surface can be measured by a physical force, but it escapes from subjection in the indefinite expanse of a continent. This consideration alone made the Declaration of Independence a reasonable act, without reference to the amount of aid which it might secure from the favor or the rivalry of foreign powers. But there is another and a more important light in which it is to be regarded. It implied powers of self-control and self-government as yet untried. Had the directors of these movements subsequently proved wanting in the art of reconstructing the fabric of society; had the issue been anarchy, and decline in civilization, refinement, and whatever goes to make the human family happy, intelligent, moral, and religious, the failure would have reacted upon the past, and stamped all their professions with folly. Europe and America have, since this period, abounded in examples of this discordance between grand beginnings and paltry endings. To posterity, all those who boldly commence, only to fail at last, appear heavily responsible for the vast amount of misery which their attempt necessarily entails upon their fellow-men. “Man,” says the historian Gibbon, herein following the thought of a practical statesman, Cicero, “man has much more to fear from the passions of his fellow-creatures than from the convulsions of the elements.” It is, therefore, not every one that simply succeeds in lifting from his fellows any yoke, however oppressive, who merits to be remembered as a benefactor; for he may yet become the means of subjecting them to sufferings, from the absence of needful restraint, a thousand times greater than those averted. Another test must be applied by weighing the compensations to his country which follow its sacrifices. “I can see,” said Mr. Adams in the letter already quoted, “that the end is worth all the means.” But with him, those means were but beginning at this moment of victory. The sequel will show that thirteen years, in which he never relaxed his share of exertion, were yet to pass, before he could be said really to have earned the honors his country has been disposed to award him for his services as “the colossus of independence” in their great federal council.
[1 ]It was probably about this time, and in connection with the project of some of the merchants to settle the difficulty by making voluntary contributions to pay for the tea destroyed, that one of these instances occurred, related to the writer by the late John Quincy Adams, as a fact which had often been told to him in his youth. Though resting on tradition alone for its authority, it is too characteristic to be omitted. At the town meeting in question, Thomas Boylston, a wealthy merchant of good standing, but not a favorite, attempted to speak against some proposition which the majority approved. He had not gone far before the popular impatience broke out in efforts to stop him with noise. In the midst of the confusion, John Adams interposed. In brief terms, he expressed his mortification at finding the people indisposed to listen to the expression of a reasonable opinion, given respectfully, in calm language, merely because it differed from their own. He had hoped and expected that Mr. Boylston, from his age, good sense, and experience of life, would receive the attention to which, as a citizen, he was entitled. Instead of this, he had witnessed what he could describe best in the words of Milton:—
“I did but prompt the age to quit their clogs
By the known rules of ancient liberty,
When straight a barbarous noise environs me
Of owls and cuckoos, asses, apes, and dogs.”
As he uttered the last line with great distinctness of emphasis, and with corresponding gestures to those parts of the hall from which the noise had emanated, the boldness of the reproof may readily be conceived. It had its effect to restore the most profound silence, but Mr. Boylston declined to go on with his remarks.
[1 ]“There is one ugly reflection. Brutus and Cassius were conquered and slain, Hampden died in the field, Sidney on the scaffold,” &c.
Letter to James Warren, vol. ix. p. 338.
[1 ]Vol. ix. p. 344.
[1 ]The only time the writer ever incurred the indignation of his grandfather, was by his expression of surprise at the extent of these ceremonies, which he happened to find set forth in high colors in an old newspaper. He was then a boy, and knew no better. But he never forgot the reproof.
[1 ]Pitkin’s Political and Civil History of the United States, vol. i. p. 277.
[1 ]This remark seems to have somewhat puzzled Lord Mahon. It can only be understood by a study of sectional characteristics, and by taking into the account the causes of the unusual self-restraint of the New England men.
[2 ]“A quoi tiennent les choses humaines? Les plus petits ressorts influent sur le destin des empires, et le changent. Tels sont les jeux du hasard, qui se riant de la vaine prudence des mortels, relève les espérances des uns, pour renverser celles des autres.” Such is the moral of the infidel Frederick of Prussia, when the death of the Empress Elizabeth saved his kingdom from annihilation!
[1 ]This is settled by Mr. Dickinson himself in a letter to Dr. Logan, printed in the American Quarterly Review, vol. i. pp. 413-415. Yet it has been ascribed to Mr. Adams by a distinguished person in an historical discourse within a few years!
[1 ]At least such is the fair inference from the course of his biographer, who must be presumed to have fully examined them.
[1 ]See this remarkable document in Force’s American Archives, fourth series, vol. ii. c. 459, 460.
[1 ]Francis Lightfoot Lee.
[1 ]Gammel’s Life of S. Ward, in Sparks’s American Biography, vol. xix. p. 316.
[1 ]See the letter, vol. ix. p. 420.
[1 ]See his letter to J. A., vol. iv. p. 201. Likewise Charles Lee’s letter, replying to his arguments. Sparks’s American Biography, vol. xviii. p. 119.
[2 ]Vol. ix. p. 409.
[1 ]Howison’s History of Virginia, vol. ii. p. 201. This work is written with merit for which the author seems to have received scarcely any reward. Literature is a sickly plant where the sun burns so fiercely that labor is deputed.
[1 ]Vol. iv. pp. 185-187.
[2 ]One instance is casually mentioneentioned by Mr. Hogg, the agent of the transylvania proprietors. Force’s American Archives, 4th series. vol. iv. p. 543.
[3 ]Vol. iv. pp. 193-200.
[1 ]Patrick Henry’s anxiety on this point may be judged by his letter published in this work, vol. iv. p. 202.
[1 ]A delegate from the county of Westmoreland, and not Richard Henry Lee, who was in congress at the time. In the earlier impressions of this work, a mistake was made in printing this letter and the answer to it, of which it is proper here to give notice. See vol. ix. pp. 374-5, 389.
[1 ]Strangely enough, a passage is found in a printed letter of Samuel Adams, dated eleven days after the Declaration of Independence, purporting that “the delegates from New Jersey had not been empowered to give their voice on either side.” A statement so obviously in contradiction to the fact is calculated to excite surprise. But a closer examination of the text justifies the inference that an error was made either in writing or printing, and that New York was meant instead of New Jersey. With this correction, it reads in perfect conformity with well-known facts. Yet this error, however committed, has already misled some later writers. It is corrected in Force’s American Archives. Lee’s Memoir of R. H. Lee, vol. i. p. 182, 183.
[1 ]It is said that a similar copy, in the handwriting of Dr. Franklin, has been discovered in England, and is in the hands of an American gentleman in London.