Empire of Liberty: The Spirit Of ’76

Excerpt from Douglas Oswald’s “Annotated History of the American Revolution”, University of Michigan Press, 1932.

Whereas the First Continental Congress had convened in Philadelphia to discuss Parliament’s passing of the Intolerable Acts and only featured twelve of the North American colonies, the Second Continental Congress had a much wider scope. The initial trigger for the Second Congress stemmed from the failure of the First. The First Congress had made plans to convene again if the Crown rejected their petition to end the Intolerable Acts. When King George III rejected the petition, plans immediately began for colonial delegates to meet once more in Philadelphia the following year.

 

The Second Congress began as scheduled on May 10, 1775. By this time the Revolutionary War was already underway with the opening salvos being fired at Lexington and Concord. Once the Congress convened, colonial delegates determined it would coordinate and lead the war effort. In the weeks between the efforts had largely been unorganized and many colonies were still unsure about throwing their weight into an organized full-fledged rebellion. On June 18, 1775 the Congress created the Continental Army, initially comprised of militia forces in Massachusetts, and appointed the Virginian George Washington, a veteran of the French and Indian War, as its commander. July saw two major events that changed the course of the Congress and the war. On July 8, the Congress extended a formal Olive Branch Petition to London as a final attempt at making peace. While ultimately this peace overture went nowhere it did act as an ultimatum to the Crown and essentially ensured a protracted war of independence would be fought. Even more important, the events of July 18 changed the course of the war. On that day, the twin delegations from Quebec and Nova Scotia arrived in Philadelphia and were welcomed with open arms. On July 23 the delegation from St. John’s Island [1] arrived. It took the colonial leadership of Newfoundland an additional month to commit to the war but their delegation arrived in Philadelphia on August 19, completing the entry of the Canadian colonies into the rebellion.

 

Even more surprising than this development was the sudden and extremely unexpected arrival of three representatives from the Bahamas on July 20. From the arrival of the Bahamanians to the October 28 arrival of a two man delegation from the Cayman Islands, the entirety of the British Caribbean sent representation to the Congress. The only British possessions in North America to remain loyal were Bermuda, East and West Florida, taken after the French and Indian War, and the Bay Islands off the coast of Central America. These lightly populated possessions had little in common with the continental colonies or the Caribbean trading islands. They were more concerned with military defense and illicit activities relating to harassing and profiting off of New Spain.

 

Emboldened by these developments, Congress sent ambassadors to France and Spain, ordered American ports reopened in direct violation of the Navigation Acts, began printing paper money, taking loans and generally financing and defending its suddenly vast territorial holdings.

 

Of course the rapid activities of the Congress and the speed with which the rebellion was spreading raised numerous questions and concerns. While patriotic fervor and spirit was high, many average Americans had to ask where the authority the delegates were acting with was coming from. Appointment of delegates varied widely. Most came from popular conventions and colonial assemblies. Many of these conventions and assemblies were hastily assembled, possibly violated their own customs of procedure, and maintained questionable representation of the public at-large. True to their time, there were no black or mestizo delegates, nor any women. All were protestant save for several Catholics among the French-speaking Quebecois delegation. The youngest delegate was Edward Rutledge of South Carolina who was 25 years old. All owned at least some land and many owned slaves.

 

Few of the delegates had any right to surrender the authority of their appointing conventions and assemblies to the Congress and none of the assemblies and conventions had any right to cede power to the Congress in the first place. Where several delegations came from remains a mystery to this day. For example, Henry Black represented the tiny island colony of Anguilla in Philadelphia and by all accounts represented them well. He arrived the same day as the delegations from St. Christopher, Barbuda, Antigua and the Virgin Islands as all shared the same ship to Philadelphia. Black claimed his authority derived from a colonial assembly of land owning representatives but no record exists of any pre-revolution assembly on Anguilla. Furthermore, Black had a dubious reputation on the island and owed many powerful people considerable sums. Why even an unrecorded assembly would vote to send him to Philadelphia is unknown. Whether Black simply jumped on-board a ship to Philadelphia and claimed his title or was sent there with some actual authority is a mystery. What is known, is that he represented Anguilla throughout the war, is highly spoken of in historical record and would go on to serve Anguilla for ten more years as its first independent state governor and then again in the House of Representatives. In early 1776 efforts from the increasingly pro-independence Congress were made to revise the rules binding delegates to finding a peaceful solution with England. In May, Congress passed a resolution recommending that any colony lacking a revolutionary government create one as soon as possible. The first official state constitution was ratified by New Hampshire in January of 1776. Throughout the spring and summer of 1776 the colonies threw off their colonial power structures and replaced them with state constitutions and state government apparatuses. All of the new states were committed to republicanism and made explicit clarifications in their founding documents that there would be no titles, inherited offices, and other semblances of monarchy. The constitutions themselves varied widely by state. Some laid out heavy property qualifications for voting, creted strong governor positions, and established state religions. Some where quixotic. New Jersey favored property qualifications so strongly that it actually enfranchised some property-owning widows for about 25 years. Grenada provided a right to own slaves, a nod to its sugar plantation economy, but also granted voting rights to property owning women and women whose husbands owned property, an attempt to attract more female settlers to the heavily male island.

 

Questions were being raised among foreign powers as well. The British aristocracy and merchant class had been concerned about the developing situation on the North American east coast but as soon as the wealthy fur-trapping lands of Canada and sugar growing islands of the Caribbean joined the rebellion, a financial panic occurred almost overnight. The Crown spent considerable effort throughout 1775 and 1776 identifying the numerous traitors to the king and confiscating any property that it could. Wealthy planters who lived in England and made their fortune owning sugar plantations from afar lost their sources of income and prestige overnight. France and Spain watched the developing situation with great interest, primarily in hopes of knocking the British down a peg, but also holding hopes of regaining lost territory. Communiques to Paris and Madrid expressed hope from some that France could reestablish control over Quebec or Spain could retake the Floridas. Everyone from loyalists in the colonies themselves to the kings of Europe questioned the economic and political motives of such a vast independence movement. In capitals from St. Petersburg to Lisbon, monarchs questioned if similar rebellions could occur in their empires and spread with such vigor as they had among the British possessions.

 

While politics and legalities played out in Philadelphia and abroad, soldiers continued to clash in the field. After the battles at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts militiamen began securing the countryside and outskirts of Boston. After the Battle of Bunker Hill in July of 1775, British control in that colony was limited to Boston itself. The entrenched British would finally be forced out in the spring of 1776.

 

Throughout the fall of 1775 various royal officials, loyalists and other pre-existing remnants of the colonial order were removed from power. Impressive British garrisons in Canada, reminders of the Crown’s power to the recently conquered French populace, were taken by surprise and without much bloodshed. An organized Continental Army of Canada was created by Congress and its command given to General Guy Carleton, the former royal governor of Quebec. Washington remained the commander-in-chief of the revolutionary armies but the vast distance involved effectively meant they independently commanded their own theaters of war.

 

In April of 1776 the Continental Army of the Caribbean was formed but due to the geography of that region, it’s forces played little role outside of fort defense. On September 28, 1775 Congress formally established the Continental Navy ordering several new ships and commissioning numerous captured Royal Navy ships for service. One of the key military events of 1775 was the coordinated revolutionary tactic whereby when an island revolted from British rule, the ships in its harbor were captured first before capturing governors, judges, tax collectors, and the like. By the end of 1775 the colonials had captured nearly 50 of the roughly 270 Royal Navy vessels operating world wide. These ranged from small sloops to fully rigged men-of-war. Upon learning of the capture of the great Royal Navy base in Halifax without the firing a shot, it is believed Admiral of the Fleet Edward Hawke died of a heart attack. The loss of so many ships to the element of surprise proved to be a move the British were never able to fully recover from. Combined with the rebellion of numerous experienced sailors and not a few officers, the Continental Navy quickly became a force to be reckoned with in its own right.

 

The incredible speed with which events occurred over the course of the year from the summer of 1775 to the summer of 1776 amazed all. The British had been punched in the face but they were regrouping and preparing for a fight. Across the Atlantic the revolutionaries were riding high and many believed the time had come to formalize the successes of the past year. Forming non-colonial governments and states was one thing, but a formal decree of independence and unity was needed.

 

On May 7 the Jamaican delegation formally proposed a resolution calling for a declaration of independence and the creation of a confederation of states. The long awaited resolution set off a firestorm and delegates and colonial conventions scrambled to obtain the necessary authority and support back home to undertake such drastic actions. As the wheels of independence turned a formal strategy emerged. Congress would formally adopt a resolution of independence followed shortly thereafter by a declaration explaining why the colonists undertook the actions. A Model Treaty would also be drafted and then adopted which would establish relations and commerce with other states, an important precursor to forming an alliance with European powers. Lastly, a governing document would be adopted establishing a league among the various independent states allowing them to establish necessary institutions and conduct organized war and foreign relations.

 

Drafting committees were established for the documents. The Model Treaty had a committee of eight working on its structure but its drafting is largely attributed to John Adams. A committee of 20 drafted the Articles of Confederation. Unlike the Model Treaty and the Declaration of Independence, many founding fathers had a heavy hand in drafting the Articles. John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Black, Richard Henry Lee, Hector Theophilus de Cramahé, and Robert Faulk all played key roles in its creation. Lastly, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston comprised the drafting committee for the Declaration of Independence with Jefferson providing the bulk of the initial writing.

 

The first document needed was the Declaration and despite its rushed creation it has proven to be one of the greatest legal documents in human history. By many accounts, Jefferson wrote his first draft with limited available time over the course of three weeks. He formally submitted the document to the Congress on July 4 where it was ordered to “lie on the table”. For four long days Congress haggled and debated each line of Jefferson’s draft. The edits ranged from cleaning up basic grammatical errors to wholesale removal of sections Jefferson believed were key. The overwhelming force of Caribbean planter resistance ensured the removal of sections critical slavery or even merely hinting that slavery had some evils. On July 9 with the draft of the Declaration on the table, the Congress turned its attention to a resolution on independence. The resolution was intensely debated for three days. While the colonials where unanimous in their intent to declare independence, the manner of the declaration was in question. Many of the mainland states desired to formally declare independence and then utilize the Model Treaty to secure foreign alliances to assist in the war effort. The island states and Quebec, along with a formidable faction of mainland delegates, desired to secure a foreign ally first and then formally declare independence.

 

The vote on the committee resolution was chaotic. New York, Newfoundland, Barbados and the Cayman Islands lacked the necessary authority to seek independence so their delegations abstained. South Carolina, Quebec, Dominica, Grenada, Anguilla, St. Christopher, the Bahamas, Nevis, and the Virgin Islands all voted against the resolution. As a result, the resolution narrowly passed 18 yay, 9 nay, 4 abstaining. Having left the Committee of the Whole, the resolution passed to the Congress itself. Having spent three exhausting days debating the resolution and desiring some backdoor dealing to secure unanimity the Congressional vote was delayed a day and on July 13 the Congress once again took up the matter. The abstaining delegations continued to sit the votes out, but the nay votes flipped and the resolution on independence passed 27 yay votes with 4 abstentions. The colonies had officially severed ties with Britain. Congress turned its attention back to the draft of the declaration which remained on the table. Two days of last minute haggling and editing were poured into the document, much to Jefferson’s frustration [2], but ultimately the document was formally approved on July 15, 1776.

 

John Adams remarked that he believed July 13 would become “a great American holiday for years to come”. Unbeknownst to many of the delegates, July 15 would later be celebrated the world over as Independence Day.

 

Americans celebrated the decrees and toasted their success. In one short year the “frontier-folk” of the North American colonies had bested the strongest power in the world. The monarchy had been embarrassed and the Royal Navy’s strength cut by a fifth. With an ocean between them and a head full of steam the colonials could be excused for getting overconfident. But while the United States celebrated, Britain was building new ships and organizing its troops. Summer belonged to the Americans. In the fall, the British would strike back.”

 

———- Author’s Notes ———-

 

[1]: St. John’s Island or the Island of St. John was the original name of Prince Edward Island before it was renamed shortly after the Revolutionary War.

 

[2]: You might wonder why Jefferson would not use one of the Stranger’s rings to influence his cause? Not only will you learn shortly that the Order follows a set of governing rules when utilizing the future technology but the rings themselves can only heavily influence people. It will take more than technology from 400 years in the future to change the will of Caribbean and Southern planters whose economic status and way of life and dependent on the institution of slavery.

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