The Second Continental Congress - The American Revolution
independence declaration british americans whig colonies loyalists jefferson john adams
Agitation for Independence. As the Americans came to know both victory and defeat, agitation grew rapidly for a final break with Britain. Secret discussion flared into the open with the publication of Thomas Paine's Common Sense on January 10, 1776. Distributed by the tens of thousands, the pamphlet argued: Everything that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, TIS TIME TO PART.' Yet, the Whig organizers of the revolution moved toward this final step cautiously, and only after considered efforts at restoration of peace within the empire. On July 6, 1775, the Second Continental Congress, explaining the American resort to arms, pleaded: ". . . we mean not to dissolve that union which has so long and so happily subsisted between us, and which we sincerely wish to see restored." Two days later, the same Congress sent the Olive Branch Petition to the king assuring him of their continued loyalty and requesting royal aid in obtaining relief from unjust treatment. The king's response was to declare the colonies in a state of rebellion.
Nevertheless, as late as November 1775, the Pennsylvania Assembly enjoined its delegates to the Continental Congress to "dissent from and utterly reject any propositions . . . that may cause or lead to a separation from our mother country or a change of the form of this government." But Thomas Jefferson had privately concluded in the same month that "We want neither inducement nor power, to declare and assert a separation. It is will alone which is wanting, and that is growing apace, under the fostering hand of our King."
The Triumph of the Whigs. The victory at Boston had assured Americans that they could defend their independence. With this assurance Congress began to act positively, authorizing both privateer action upon British commerce and an embargo upon British products (February 1776). Silas Deane was instructed to enter into negotiations with the French minister Vergennes for aid and to assure him "that there was a great appearance that the colonies would come to a total separation." In April, American ports were thrown open to all ships except those of Great Britain. Simultaneously, radical forces gained control of all but the middle colonies. South Carolina, in its new constitution, implied that the royal tie had been abrogated by the king's aggression; North Carolina and Rhode Island instructed their congressional delegates to vote for independence. Early in May, Massachusetts began to sound out the trend of its town meetings on the prospect of independence. And Virginia, following the lead of Edmund Pendleton, an outspoken Whig, voted on May 15 to call on Congress for a declaration of independence. Only the hesitancy of the middle colonies prevented an immediate declaration of this kind. The pressure upon the Continental Congress became nearly irresistible. As John Adams expressed it, "Every post and every day rolls in upon us Independence like a torrent."
The Declaration Of Independence
Following the instructions of his state, Richard Henry Lee, on June 7, 1776, introduced resolutions calling for independence, the conclusion of foreign alliances, and the founding of a confederation. The extent of revolutionary sentiment was manifested when only a handful of delegates, led by James Wilson, John Dickinson, Edward Rutledge, and Robert Livingston, opposed immediate independence. They argued that "the people of the middle colonies . . . were not yet ripe for bidding adieu to British connection" though "they were fast ripening" for a final break. The advocates of independence argued cogently that the real issue was "whether we should declare a fact that already exists." A de facto condition demanded a de jure legitimacy.
The Composition of the Declaration of Independence. Opposition crumbled at the end of June when a pro-independence delegation from New Jersey replaced the colony's earlier representatives. The Congress had delayed formal discussion of Lee's resolutions for three weeks; now a committee, consisting of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman, was authorized to draw up a Declaration of Independence. On June 28, the finished document was put before the Congress. Although it had been altered verbally by Franklin and Adams, and substantively by the removal in committee of an attack upon slavery and the slave trade, it was largely the work of Thomas Jefferson. As to its objective, Jefferson himself recalled: . . . the object of the Declaration of Independence [was] not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we were compelled to take.
The Declaration gained ready assent because, as Jefferson said, it proved "to be an expression of the American mind." After less than three days of debate, it was unanimously approved. Only an absent New York delegation failed to vote on July 4. And thus independence came.
WHIGS, LOYALISTS, AND THE INDIFFERENT As John Adams pointed out, few of the men who decided on independence in 1776 expected the Declaration to "ward off calamities from this country." They expected to endure a bloody conflict. The Americans, having made their declaration, now had to make it stick, under circumstances that tested the stanchest patriot, for the unanimity expressed in the Continental Congress reflected, at best, the opinion of no more than a bare majority of the American population. Very probably, it was the expression of a minority.
Divided Loyalties. "If I were called upon to calculate the divisions among the people of America I should say that fully one-third were averse to the revolution," wrote John Adams many years later. "An opposite third conceived a hatred of the English and gave themselves up to an enthusiastic gratitude to France." As for the remainder, "The middle third, comprising principally the yeomanry, the soundest part of the nation, and always averse to war, were rather lukewarm both to England and France; and sometimes stragglers from them, and sometimes the whole body, united with the first or last third, according to circumstance." The portrait is one of divided loyalties, further complicated by numerous class conflicts that followed no national pattern but varied within individual states.
Whig and Tory. It is not possible to explain these conflicts by assigning to the colonial gentry or yeomanry either Whig or Tory sentiments. In New York the gentry, though far from united, remained loyal to England, while those of Virginia were passionate exponents of revolution. In North Carolina the upcountry yeomen, still smarting from the defeat of the Regulator movement, supported the Crown, while the low-country planters embraced revolution. Anglicans were loyalists; Congregationalists stood for revolution. When Quakers clung to the Crown, the Scots-Irish frontiersmen of Pennsylvania, resentful of Quaker dominance, swore by revolution. In New York, where a goodly proportion of the small farmers allied themselves with the gentry against revolution, the British remained in substantial control for most of the war. In the lower South, South Carolina had a much higher proportion of loyalists than Virginia.
The Tories and War Atrocities. The true scope of loyalist sentiment throughout the colonies is probably best illustrated by two facts: during the war no less than 75,000 Americans in a population of two million fled either to Canada or to Britain; and at no time were the Americans able to put more then 25,000 men into the field (while even these were often badly supplied). At the same time, no less than 30,000 loyalists served for varying lengths of time in the British army. Though the loyalists were ready to fight and did provide considerable assistance to the British in the Carolinas, around New York City, and along the frontier, the British never fully exploited this potential source of manpower. As the war gained momentum, loyalists caught by the revolutionaries were subjected to a variety of punishments - tar and feathers, whipping, fines, confiscation of property, banishment, and even death. They reciprocated with comparable savagery, especially along the frontier, where Tories led Indians to massacre Whig frontiersmen. The longer the war continued, the more brutal and raw it became. Somewhere between seven and eight thousand Americans, more than the number killed in battle, perished from disease and hunger on British prison ships anchored in the waters about New York. And every atrocity made reconciliation more remote and the demand for independence more insistent. The behavior of both loyalist and Whig in the developing conflict guaranteed that the losers would be compelled to accept a punitive peace. For the Whigs there would be no benevolent Britain to turn to if the war were lost; they soon realized that their fortunes and lives hung in the balance.