American Revolution, John Adams believed, "was effected before
the war commenced: the Revolution was in the minds and hearts of
the people." Adams traced "the radical change in the principles,
opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people" back to
the early 1760s when Parliament, under the leadership of George
Grenville, promulgated a New Imperial Policy. The newness of the
policy consisted in parliament's applying to the colonies as a whole
policies that theretofore had been applied only sporadically and
locally. In so doing, Parliament brought to fruition that which
it most feared and that which the colonies would never have achieved
by themselves: an intercolonial bond of union in opposition to its
as he looked back on the events in which he had played a leading
role, did not suggest that a change of sentiments necessarily entailed
the creation of independent states within a federal union. The direction
of American history up to the Revolutionary 1760s had been, in fact,
toward dominion status for the English continental colonies. It
was only in 1766, when Parliament declared its supremacy over the
colonial legislatures "in all cases whatsoever," that
England began attempting to thwart the colonies' inexorable thrust
toward autonomy. For them to have achieved complete self-governance
within the Empire in the eighteenth century would have been truly
revolutionary. It would have telescoped a century and a half of
the British Empire's history into a moment in time; the dominions
gained autonomy only with the Statute of Westminster of 1931.
to foresee the future, or comprehend the depth of British commitment
to parliamentary supremacy over the Empire, the American patriots
originally entertained no idea of independence. One month before
Lexington, Benjamin Franklin informed William Pitt, Earl of Chatham,
that "he had never heard in any conversation from any person
drunk or sober the least expression of a wish for separation or
hint that such a thing would be advantageous to America." The
men of Lexington and Concord did not confront British troops in
the name of an independent Massachusetts, let alone an independent
United States of America, which term would first appear in the Great
in the early morning of April 19, 1775, was the fighting about?
Had there been a colonial Cronkite to interview him, Captain John
Parker might have said that he and his men fought for liberty, or
the rights of Englishmen — or, more sweepingly, the rights of men.
Or he might have admitted to a sense of relief that at last he was
able to vent his pent-up anger at the tangible symbol of oppression,
the Redcoats, who as a haughty occupying army had for several years
been creating a smoldering resentment among Massachusetts' people.
be 14 months between Lexington and that Second of July when Congress
finally passed the resolution of independence separating America
from the mother country. During this most crucial period, the idea
of reconciliation on American terms slowly gave way to the idea
of independence. Both ideas, however, were but means to the goal
of self-government. Of the two, independence was the more chancy;
it would mean republican government, an eventuality that many theretofore
patriotic Americans would reject. The loyalists included thousands
who had originally opposed parliamentary legislation for the colonies
but who ultimately acquiesced in order to avoid the republican alternative.
hindsight, nothing that would necessarily lead to independence could
be seen in the conflict at Lexington. Independence was the result
of the vicissitudes of was. Ideology, however, did play a role in
the sense that separation from Britain in the eighteenth century
had to mean the demise of monarchy in English America. The task
for such polemicists as Paine and Adams, therefore, was to convince
a doubting public of the viability of republicanism. In this, the
British came to their aid. Britain's every new military action against
America further weakened the reconciliationist position.
the Crown blockaded all colonial shipping, declared the colonies
in a state of rebellion, and declared it treasonous to aid them.
Britain hired German mercenaries to fight in America and emptied
her own jails into her armies; it was appropriate, said George III,
remembering that transportation to America was frequently the lot
of the convicted criminal, to have convicts fight convicts. The
British navy burned Falmouth (now Portsmouth), Maine and Norfolk,
Virginia. Governor Dunmore of Virginia offered freedom to slaves
who would rise against their masters (hardly endearing the planters
to the royal cause). Great battles were fought, most notably the
Battle of Bunker Hill.
As the British
pressed the war upon America, the everyday decisions necessary for
survival (not to speak of the great decision for independence) became
the responsibility of the men of the Second Continental Congress
who met in Philadelphia shortly after Lexington. This Congress formed
the whole of our central government for the next 14 years. Voting
by the sixty delegates was by colony, not by head. The delegates
were bound by instructions from their constituencies, the assemblies
or revolutionary conventions by which they were selected.
Given the extremely
varied complexion of the 13 colonial governments, some of these
separate assembles or conventions were fairly good mirrors of popular
opinion; others were tight oligarchies that reflected little but
the will to remain in power. Some of these constituted bodies were
bitterly divided between the two poles, and of course their constituents
themselves were bitterly divided.
formula for understanding the responses of the various colonies
to the crisis of the day is: those colonies with the more heterogeneous
populations and the growing economies were more likely to abjure
independence; contrariwise, those colonies with relatively homogeneous
populations and declining economies were more inclined to support
that formula differentiates the middle colonies on the one hand
from the New England colonies and Virginia on the other. Heterogeneity
in ethnic background and religion marked the middle colonies: Pennsylvania,
for instance, was one-third Scotch-Irish, one-third German, and
one-third English and other. New York was also ethnically and religiously
divided, while the Delanceys and Livingstons waged their eternal
struggle for control of the very unrepresentative legislature. New
Jersey was split between the west, dependent on Philadelphia, and
the east, dependent on New York. Her people, also, were constantly
involved in interminable disputes over land grants.
social divisions in Pennsylvania and New York brought those colonies
to the brink of civil war. The Carolinas pitched over the brink
into bloody strife. They and Maryland, bitterly divided between
east and west, were also similar to the middle colonies in their
ethnic makeup. They were similar, too, in the general upsurge of
their economies in the 1770s. The leaders of these colonies, particularly
those representing the older elites tenacious of power, saw that
they had prospered within the Empire, and believed that the imperial
connection was needed to keep the lid on the explosive social mix
over which they presided.
possessed the most homogeneous population of colonial America. Virginia,
though ethnically more diversified, experienced at mid-century little
of the divisiveness plaguing her neighbors. Her meandering rivers
cut deep into the west, effect an intra-colonial communication and
unity sadly lacking in the Carolinas and Pennsylvania. New England
and Virginia boasted the oldest representative assemblies in English
America. However, these colonies experienced a steady economic decline
through the Sixties and Seventies. Philadelphia and New York stole
away Boston's one-time commercial preeminence. Two-thirds of Virginia's
planters were in debt to their business representatives in London
economic conditions, however, were not the sole determinants of
the several colonies' attitudes toward the Empire. Personal and
political factors played a role as well. Massachusetts, for example,
had a long tradition of independence from England's imperial sway.
And when England chose to exercise her powers, it was frequently
to detriment of individuals like Sam Adams' father, who lost his
fortune when Parliament in 1742 nullified a land-bank scheme in
which he was involved. Young Sam remained less than charmed with
the imperial connection ever after. As a journalist and the political
boss of Boston, he became the rallying cry for the Americans' assertion
of their rights. His cousin John, a country lawyer deeply imbued
with the Puritan ethic of his forefathers, as early as 1765 could
refer to the Crown officials in his colony as missionaries of ignorance,
foppery, servility and slavery."
were not alone in their personal disenchantment with British governance.
James Otis' father, a powerful leader in southern Massachusetts,
was denied the Chief Justiceship of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
The office fell instead to his political rival Thomas Hutchinson,
who already monopolized many of the colony's public offices. Young
James, like young Sam, would become an early and vocal champion
of American rights.
Down in Virginia,
the conservative old guard was thoroughly discredited as early as
1762, when the colonial treasurer and Speaker of the House, John
Robinson, was caught with his hand in the public till. The young
bloods Arthur and Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson
all thereby enhanced their position in the legislature. But Virginians
of all factions were hot for liberty. The aristocratic Richard Henry
Lee, not unlike John Adams in Massachusetts, could speak as early
as 1765 of England's "infernal crew of hireling Miscreants."
During the Stamp Act crisis, he gave vent to the hope that "America
can find arms as well as Arts to remove the Demon Slavery far from
its borders." And he was not speaking of black slavery.
politics, on the other hand, were dominated by the pro-British Joseph
Galloway. Galloway's idee fixe was that the crown should
take the colony's government out of the hands of its proprietary
rulers, the heirs of William Penn. From his powerful position as
Speaker, Galloway guided the Pennsylvania Assembly in its struggle
with the proprietary family. Pennsylvania sought royalization at
the very time that Massachusetts and Virginia, for example, were
kicking over the traces. Galloway's erstwhile political mentor,
Benjamin Franklin, in England for some 15 years as an agent for
several colonial assemblies, broke with his old pupil on this issue.
He returned home (he was on the high seas on April 19, 1775) to
the Second Continental Congress a flaming patriot — an exception
among the general leadership of the middle colonies.
discredited by the tide of events, sullenly withdrew from Pennsylvania
politics (and ultimately from America to head the loyalists in England),
his mantle descended upon John Dickinson. Dickinson — a wealthy,
conservative lawyer/landholder of Pennsylvania and Delaware — emerged
as the leader of the congressional reconciliationists. He had earlier
attained international fame at the time of the Townshend Acts. In
1767, Parliament had enacted into law Charles Townshend's plan to
impose certain colonial import duties for the purpose of raising
a revenue with which to break the colonial legislatures' power of
the purse. Dickinson then wrote the famous Letters from a Farmer
in Pennsylvania, brilliantly setting forth the colonies' case against
parliamentary taxation. But now after Lexington, Dickinson — a true
son of the middle colonies — pulled back. He opposed separation
and placed his faith in petitioning the Crown; he was the author
of the useless Olive Branch Petition, which the King did not so
much as look at.
With all of
these differing interests to reconcile, it is clear that independence
depended upon two factors. First, there would have to emerge in
Congress a majority independence faction. Second, a popular pro-independence
movement outside Congress would have to bring pressure upon recalcitrant
assemblies to instruct their congressional delegates for independence.
The story of the 14 months from Lexington to the Declaration is
the story of these parallel movements.
In the light
of later American history, members of the radical faction in Congress
made some odd couples. John Adams, who called for bold measures,
found Franklin a pillar of strength; his was, wrote Adams, "a
disposition entirely American
He is a great and good man."
Adams also thought highly of Thomas Jefferson, whom he inveigled
into writing the Great Declaration. Massachusetts and Virginia,
in fact, got along splendidly in this period of our history. Adams
and Lee agreed that the Dickinson plan to petition gave, as Adams
put it, "a silly cast to our whole proceedings." To Adams,
Dickinson was a "piddling genius." Arms, not petitions,
were the proper remedy.
congressional delegation proved a major stumbling block, dominated
as it was by the aristocratic brothers John and Edward Rutledge.
These men represented the colony's wealthy oligarchy, entrenched
in the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, who feared the
democratic threat to their power inherent in the challenge to British
authority. Back-country Carolinians, in fact, so hated the eastern
ruling class that Toryism ultimately found many a willing ally among
the oligarchy. Carolinian turbulence caused the colony's established
leaders to hang back from the precipice of independence.
It has been
suggested that John Adams envisioned, from the beginning of the
Second Continental Congress, a program leading to independence.
If he did, this "Atlas of Independence," as he was called,
must have despaired frequently because of congressional timidity.
"The Congress," he wrote, "is not so much alarmed
as it ought to be. We shall have nothing but deceit, hostility,
fire, famine, pestilence and sword from England. Yet the colonies
like all bodies of men must and will have their way and their humor
and even their whims. You will see a strange oscillation between
love and hatred, between war and peace
" Adams's despair
is understandable in the light of middle colony resolutions that,
as late as January 1776, were claiming that "the reports of
Independency are groundless, that the delegates of this colony are
to bend their utmost endeavors for obtaining a redress of grievances
and for restoring the union between the colonies and Great Britain,
and that the said delegates must utterly reject propositions otherwise."
It is conceivable
that had Britain withdrawn her troops from American soil and retracted
the claim of parliamentary supremacy before the spring of 1776,
the American Revolution would have been consummated sans independence.
But the Crown doggedly pursued its objective of bringing the colonists
to heel by the force of British arms. Franklin foresaw the inevitable
result; he wrote in April 1776,
seems wanting now [for independence] but the "general consent."
The novelty of the thing deters some, the doubts of success others,
the vain hope of reconciliation, many. But our enemies take continually
every proper measure to remove these obstacles, and their endeavors
are attended with success, since every day furnishes us with new
causes of increasing enmity, and new reasons for wishing an eternal
separation, so that there is a rapid increase of the formerly small
party, who were for an independent government.
as Franklin pointed out, placed the conservatives in an untenable
position. For example, the British decision to invade wavering New
York from Canada ultimately helped place New York in the independence
column — although not until July 19, 1776. Even John Dickinson favored
an American pre-emptive strike at Canada, obviously compromising
his reconciliationist stand.
If the British
added to the conservative dilemma, so too did popular pressure,
which everywhere brought influence to bear upon the colonial assemblies
and through them the Congress. Tom Paine's Common Sense,
published in January 1776, provided the torrential logic that swept
all before it, or — to shift metaphors — in the words of Virginia's
Edmund Randolph, Common Sense "put the torch to combustibles."
In three months' time the pamphlet sold 12,000 copies, comparable
to a sale of ten million today. Here was the call to independence
for which the radical leaders had been waiting.
pressed the war upon the Americans, attacking the Carolinas in the
expectation of loyalist support. The American people were increasingly
radicalized by such actions and by the efforts of Paine and others,
but the congressional delegates — particularly from Pennsylvania,
Delaware, South Carolina, Maryland, New York, and New Jersey — still
clung to their increasingly chimerical hopes for reconciliation.
In April, John Adams sardonically opined that "independency
is a hobgoblin, of so frightful a mien, that it would throw a delicate
person into fits to look it in the face." But slowly, Congress
was forced to take actions tantamount to embracing the hobgoblin.
The invasion of Canada was one such action. In March, Congress authorized
the fitting out of armed vessels in a proto-American navy; in April,
Congress threw open America's ports to the trade of the world, with
the exception, of course, of England. In April and May, several
colonial assemblies or conventions instructed their delegates for
In May, Richard
Henry Lee managed a dramatic resolution through Congress: that the
several colonies "where no government sufficient to exigencies
of their affairs have been hitherto established" should adopt
such government as shall "best conduce to the happiness and
safety of their constituents in particular and America in general."
Moderates agreed to the Lee resolution because of the rising threat
of anarchy in several colonies. They were dismayed, however, when
on May 15 John Adams succeeded in affixing to the resolution a dramatic
preamble to the effect that "every kind of authority under
the Crown sould be totally suppressed." The preamble was directed
at the people of Pennsylvania, who took the hint, overthrew the
Assembly, and constituted a new pro-independence revolutionary government,
the most democratic of any of the new governments shortly to be
established. Delaware and New Jersey followed Pennsylvania's lead.
"Every post and every day," Adams crowed, "rolls
in upon us independence like a torrent."
In June, Lee
offered his resolution for independence. One July 1, John Dickinson
made his last stand in a great speech opposing the resolution, a
speech the doughty Adams replied to in perhaps his greatest
moment. The vote was expected to be so close that post riders were
sent that evening eighty miles into Delaware to alert the pro-independence
Delaware delegate Cesar Rodney to the crucial vote the next day.
At the last moment, in a ride more significant that that of Paul
Revere, Rodney arrived to place Delaware in the independence column.
Pennsylvania voted yes by 3 to 2 only because James Wilson changed
his previous reconciliationist stand at the last minute and Dickinson
and Robert Morris boycotted the meeting. South Carolina and Maryland,
pressed by popular feeling at home, agreed to go along with the
majority. By this tactic, the established leadership in those colonies
avoided the Pennsylvania debacle, wherein the establishment went
down with the empire. New York abstained, but nonetheless independence
was voted on July 2, and the great Declaration was accepted two
was jubilant. "Thirteen clocks," he wrote, "were
made to strike together — a perfection of mechanism which no artist,"
he modestly added, "had ever before effected." To Abigail
he wrote, "The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable
epocha in the history of America
It will be celebrated by
succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival
It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games,
sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of
this continent from this time forward forever more." He was
aware, he informed his wife, of the coming toil and trouble, but
"through all the gloom," he wrote, "I can see the
rays of ravishing light and glory."
uncharacteristically impassioned words, erring only on the date
of the annual jubilee — Americans inexplicably memorialize the Declaration
rather than the resolution of independence — John Adams proclaimed
the crucial point at which the American Revolution became the War
for Independence. The vicissitudes of war gave direction to what
had been for 14 months after Lexington the inchoate struggle of
13 colonies for self-determination. The vicissitudes of peace would
set the conditions for the final act of revolution: the creation
of a new instrument of government that would unite the Americans
as one people.
At the time
this article was written, Thomas Wendel was a professor of history
at San Jose State University.