Joseph Ellis: 1776, the summer America was born

Pulitzer Prize-winner Joseph Ellis on Washington, Adams and the months when soldiers and statesmen forged America

Published June 16, 2013 1:59PM (EDT)

Excerpted from "Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence"

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 have been instrumental in touching some springs, and turning some small Wheels, which have had and will have such Effects, I feel in Awe upon my Mind, which is not easily described.
-- John Adams to Abigail Adams, 17 May 1776

By the spring of 1776 British and American troops had been killing each other at a robust rate for a full year. While the engagements at Lexington and Concord were mere skirmishes, the battle at Bunker Hill was a bloodbath, especially for the British, who lost over a thousand men, nearly half their attack force. The American dead numbered in the hundreds, a number inflated by the fact that all the wounded left on the field were dispatched with bayonets by British executions squads enraged at the loss of so many of their comrades. Back in London one retired officer was heard to say that a few more victories like this and the British army would be annihilated.

Then, for the next nine months, a congregation of militia units totaling 20,000 troops under the command of General George Washington bottled up a British garrison of 7,000 troops under General William Howe in a marathon staring match called the Boston Siege. The standoff ended in March of 1776, when Washington achieved tactical supremacy by placing artillery on Dorchester Heights, forcing Howe to evacuate the city. Abigail Adams watched the British sail away from nearby Penn’s Hill: “You may count upwards of 100 & 70 sail,” she reported. “They look like a forrest.” By then the motley crew of militia was being referred to as the Continental Army and Washington had become a bona fide war hero.

In addition to these major engagements, the British navy had made several raids on the coastal towns of New England, and an ill-fated expedition of 1,000 American troops led by Benedict Arnold, after hacking its way through the Maine wilderness in the dead of winter, suffered a crushing defeat in the attempt to capture the British stronghold at Quebec. Though most of the military action was restricted to New England and Canada, no reasonable witness could possibly deny that the war for American independence, not yet called the American Revolution, had begun.

But if you widened the lens to include the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the picture became quite blurry and downright strange. For despite the mounting carnage, the official position of the congress remained abiding loyalty to the British Crown. The delegates did not go so far as to deny that the war was happening, but they did embrace the curious claim that George III did not know about it. Those British soldiers sailing away from Boston were not His Majesty’s troops but “ministerial troops,” meaning agents of the British ministry acting without the knowledge of the king.

While everyone in the Continental Congress knew this was a fanciful fabrication, it was an utterly essential fiction that preserved the link between the colonies and the crown and thereby held open the possibility of reconciliation. Thomas Jefferson undoubtedly had these motives in mind when he crafted the following words a few months later: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient reasons; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

One might argue that those wounded American boys who were bayoneted to death on Bunker Hill amounted to something more than light and transient reasons. Washington himself let it be known that, once he learned of those atrocities, he lost all patience with those moderates in the congress who were—it became one of his favorite phrases—“still feeding themselves on the dainty food of reconciliation.”. Though he made a point of reminding all his subordinates that the army took its orders from the Continental Congress—civilian control was one of those articles of faith that required no discussion—Washington did not believe he could send brave young men to their deaths for any cause less than American independence. That was what “The Cause” had come to mean for him and for the army. His civilian superiors down in Philadelphia were straggling behind him on the patriotic path, but Washington simply presumed that, sooner or later, they would catch up.

In the meantime, however, during the final months of 1775 the military and political sides of the American Revolution were not aligned. There were, in effect, two embodiments of American resistance to British imperialism, two epicenters representing the American response to Parliament’s presumption of sovereignty. The Continental Army under Washington’s command regarded American independence as a foregone conclusion, indeed the only justification for its existence. The Continental Congress regarded American independence as a last resort, and moderate members under the leadership of John Dickinson from Pennsylvania continued to describe it as a suicidal act to be avoided at almost any cost.

It was clear at the time, and became only clearer in retrospect, that the obvious strategy of the British government should have been to exploit the gap between these two positions by proposing some reconfiguration of the British Empire that gave the American colonists a measure of control over their domestic affairs in return for a renewed expression of American loyalty to the king. Two years later the British ministry actually proposed just such an arrangement, but by then it was too late. Too many men had died or been maimed for life, too many women had been raped, too many lives had been altered forever. Nothing less than complete American independence would do.

* * *

How had it come to this? A comprehensive historical account would need to spend many pages reviewing the constitutional arguments over the preceding decade that began with the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765. A more succinct distillation of the political history would cast the core of the constitutional argument as a conflict over the question of sovereignty. The seminal argument on the British side was most clearly and forcefully made by the great British jurist, William Blackstone, in his"Commentaries on the Laws of England," (1765), who insisted in his most authoritative tone that there must in every state reside “a supreme, irresistible, absolute, uncontrolled authority, in which the jura summi imperi; or the rights of sovereignty reside.” In the British Empire that supreme authority was Parliament. Once you accepted this argument, it followed logically and necessarily that Parliament possessed the authority to levy taxes and make laws for the American colonies.

The colonists had resisted that constitutional interpretation, resting their case on the semi-sacred Whig principle that no British citizen could be taxed or required to obey any law that was passed without his consent. And since the American colonists were not represented in Parliament, the statues passed by that body were not binding on them, who only needed to obey the laws passed by their own colonial legislatures.

By the early 1770s, then, the argument had reached a logical and legal impasse in which two conflicting views of the British Empire were forced to coexist: the resoundingly imperial view, in which sovereignty resided in Parliament; and the American view, in which consent was the ultimate priority and sovereignty resided in multiple locations, the only common American allegiance being to the king. The British model took its inspiration from European empires of the past, chiefly the Roman Empire. The American model had no precedents in the past, but foreshadowed what, a century later, became the British Commonwealth.

In 1774 the British government decided that this impasse was intolerable, and in response a wanton act of destruction in Boston harbor called the Tea Party decided to impose martial law on Massachusetts. In retrospect, this was the crucial decision, for it transformed a constitutional argument into a military conflict. And it raised to relief the competing visions of a British Empire based on coercion or consensus.

But at the time, that is early in 1775, there were voices on both sides of the Atlantic urging caution, fully aware that they had more to lose than gain by a war, and wholly committed to avoid it at all costs.

On the British side the arguments to change course came from two of the most prominent members of Parliament. In the House of Lords no less a leader than William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, the acknowledged architect of the British victory in the French and Indian War, rose to condemn the decision to militarize the conflict. He recommended the withdrawal of all British troops from Boston, which could only serve as incendiaries for a provocative incident that triggered a war. The British government should then negotiate a political settlement in which “the sacredness of their property remain inviolate and subject to their own consent.” Pitt was arguing that the American colonies were too valuable to lose, and the British government would be well advised to give them everything they were asking for.

Edmund Burke rose in the House of Commons to make many of the same points, though Burke’s emphasis was on the Whig values the American colonists embraced, and the more menacingly coercive values that the British ministry was advocating. As Burke saw it, the Americans had the better part of the argument, and if a war should ensue, they were likely to win. So the essence of political wisdom on the British side was to avoid such a war and the painful consequences it would entail.

Pitt and Burke were two of the most eloquent and respected members of Parliament and, taken together, by early 1775 they were warning the British ministry that it was headed towards a war that was unwise, unnecessary, and probably unwinnable.

There were voices on the other side of the Atlantic also counseling caution and compromise. Within the Continental Congress most of the moderate delegates came from the middle colonies, chiefly Pennsylvania and New York. For at least two reasons this made excellent sense: first, the full wrath of British policy had been directed at Massachusetts, and while the residents of Philadelphia and New York felt obliged to make common cause with their brethren in Boston, that did not translate into a willingness to be carried over the abyss into some brave new world of American independence; second, the population of the middle colonies was more diverse ethnically, politically, and religiously than New England, more a demographic stew in which Germans, Scotch-Irish, and French Huguenots coexisted alongside a Quaker elite to create a social chemistry that put a premium on live-and-let-live toleration.

As a result, the political as well as the seasonal climate was milder southwest of the Hudson. If the lingering vestiges of Calvinism gave New Englanders like Adams a sharp edge, prominent leaders in the middle colonies tended to resemble smooth tones that skipped across the surface of troubled waters. It was no accident that Benjamin Franklin could only become the self-invented paragon of benevolent equanimity after moving from Boston to Philadelphia.

The epitome of this moderate mentality in the Continental Congress was John Dickinson. Physically as well as psychologically, Dickinson was the opposite of Adams: tall and gaunt, with a somewhat ashen complexion and a deliberate demeanor that conveyed the confidence of his social standing within the Quaker elite and his legal training at the Inns of Court in London. His early exposure to the cosmopolitan world of British society had convinced him that the British Empire was a trans-Atlantic family bound together by mutual interests and mutual affections. Unlike Adams, who regarded Parliament’s efforts to impose taxes on the colonies as a systematic plot to enslave them, Dickinson believed these impositions were temporary aberrations, merely another family quarrel, waves that would pass under the ship.

During the early years of the imperial crisis Dickinson was perhaps the most prominent advocate for colonial rights within the empire, chiefly because of a series of pamphlets entitled "Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer" (1768), which argued that Parliament not only lacked the authority to tax the colonists, but also could not regulate trade for the purpose of raising revenue. Alongside Adams, he was generally regarded as the most impressive constitutional thinker on the American side, and his selection as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1774 was a foregone conclusion.

But whereas Adams believed that the denial of Parliament’s authority must inevitably lead to American withdrawal from the British Empire, Dickinson clung to the conviction that there must be some middle course that preserved colonial rights but averted American independence, which he regarded as an extremely dangerous course. The British were certainly not going to permit the colonists to go in peace, which meant a war that the Americans could not hope to win:

We have not yet tasted deeply the bitter Cup called Fortune of War…A bloody battle lost…Disease breaking out among our troops unaccustomed to the Confinement of Encampment... The Danger of Insurrection by Negroes in the Southern Colonies…. Incidential Proposals to disunite….False hopes and selfish Designs may all operate hereafter to our Disadvantage.

This was not an unrealistic vision. (Indeed, everything that Dickinson foresaw came to pass.) There was every reason, then, to find a way out of the impasse short of independence. And so, while Dickinson was resolute in his support of the beleaguered citizens of Massachusetts, to include the raising of money and men for a Continental Army, his fondest hope was for the appointment of a peace commission that would travel to London and negotiate some kind of sensible compromise.

Though such a commission was never appointed, the outline of a Dickinsonian compromise was reasonably clear. The British ministry would recognize the sovereignty of the colonial legislatures over all questions of taxation and legislation. The colonists would voluntarily consent to Parliament’s regulation of trade, not for the purpose of raising a revenue but to assure a privileged commercial relationship between the colonies and Great Britain. The colonists would also profess their loyalty to the king and their desire to remain within the protective canopy of his paternal affection. It was, in effect, a return to the status quo ante that existed in 1763 before the British ministry had attempted to impose its misguided imperial reforms.

As long as the imperial crisis remained a constitutional conflict, the Dickinsonian compromise remained an eminently viable solution, indeed the obvious answer that British statesmen like Burke and Pitt were prepared to embrace. But once the fighting started in April of 1775, and even more so after Bunker Hill, the shift from a constitutional to a military conflict altered the political chemistry forever. Moderates on both sides of the Atlantic were swept to the sidelines, and the obvious compromise became a casualty of war.

Adams found Dickinson’s insistence on reconciliation in this new context both misguided and irritating. “A certain great Fortune and peddling Genius whose Fame has been trumpeted so loudly, has given a silly cast to our whole Doings.” he scoffed in a private letter to a friend. When the British intercepted the letter and then saw to its publication, Adams was embarrassed, though he insisted to friends that the controversy only exposed the futility of Dickinson’s vanishing hopes. For Dickinson’s moderate solution depended entirely on a conciliatory king, and the events of late 1775 and early 1776 had shown conclusively that George III had no interest in playing that role.

* * *

Many years later, when John Adams was asked who deserved the lion’s share of the credit for advancing the agenda towards independence in the Continental Congress, most of the questioners assumed that Adams would make a gesture of modesty, then claim the honor for himself. But he relished surprising them by bestowing the prize on George III. He was undoubtedly referring to the royal proclamation issued in August of 1775, and then the king’s address to both houses of Parliament the following October.

Apparently George III was much shaken by the after-action reports on what was called “the ruinous victory” at Bunker Hill, which convinced him that events in the American colonies had moved past the point where any political settlement short of war was possible. And so he proclaimed the colonists to be in a state of rebellion and no longer under his protection. Then he froze all American assets in Great Britain, closed all British ports to American ships, and urged approval of a massive task force to crush the incipient rebellion with one decisive blow. In addition to 20,000 British regulars, he ordered the recruitment of another 10,000 mercenaries from either Russia or from those German principalities with professional soldiers trained in the highly disciplined tradition of Frederick the Great. When news of this last initiative reached America, Adams could not resist commenting on it with his customary irreverence: “By Intelligence hourly arriving from abroad,” he wrote one friend, “we are more and more confirmed that a Kind of Confederation will be formed among the Crowned Skulls, and Numbskulls of Europe, against Human Nature.”

By the start of the new year, then, George III had single-handedly undermined the reconciliation agenda of the moderate faction in the congress. For the moderates had invested all their hopes in a wise and loving monarch whose paternal affection for his American subjects would eventually bring the war-mongers in the ministry and Parliament to their senses. Now George III had demonstrated that he was perhaps the most ardent advocate for war in the British government. The king had seized the initiative himself, and his advisors promptly lined up behind their sovereign. While the moderates were busy blocking any declaration of American independence from the British Empire, George III had in effect issued his own declaration of independence from them.

The final blow to the prospect of a political accommodation, almost a coup-de-grace given the recent news from London, came in the forum of a fifty-page pamphlet by an anonymous author entitled "Common Sense," which appeared in January of 1776. Both the style and substance of "Common Sense" were true to its title, since it was written in an idiom that was both accessible and electric, replicating the vocabulary of conversations in the taverns and coffee houses by ordinary Americans, where intricate constitutional arguments were replaced with straightforward assertions that “an island cannot rule a continent.” "Common Sense" was also a frontal attack on monarchy itself, poking fun at the ludicrous claim that the king spoke directly to God, describing the royal lineage as a criminal line-up of banditti, dismissing the notion that George III cared a whit about his American subjects as a fairy tale, or perhaps a sentimental dream from which all responsible citizens needed to awake. The timing of "Common Sense" was perfect, for it provided a blanket indictment of British royalty in general and George III in particular just as the news of his plan to launch an enormous invasion began circulating in the American press. Its style, message, and timing combined to make "Common Sense" a sensation that sold 150,000 copies within three months.

The author, it turned out, was a thirty-nine year old Englishman who had taken up residence in Philadelphia only two years earlier named Thomas Paine. Nothing in Paine’s background marked him as a candidate for greatness. He had failed as a shop keeper, husband, and corset maker in Lewes and London, though a closer analysis would reveal that he had internalized a keen sense of British injustice based on his experience as a member of London’s impoverished working class. As for his dazzling prose style, it was like a beautiful woman’s beauty, a God-given gift that was simply there. Since no none had ever heard of Paine, and since John Adams was the most visible and outspoken advocate for American independence, Adams was initially identified as the author of "Common Sense": “I am innocent of it as a Babe,” Adams retorted. “I could not reach the Strength and Brevity of his style. Nor his elegant Simplicity nor his piercing Pathos.”

There were some features of "Common Sense" that Adams found troubling, chiefly Paine’s prescription of a large, single-house legislature as the proper form of government once the colonies had thrown off British rule. Paine struck Adams as “better at tearing down than building up.” But since the colonies were still in the “tearing down” phase of their relationship with George III and the British Empire, "Common Sense" was a highly visible and valuable contribution to the cause. In part because of its influence, by the spring of 1776 support for an American declaration of independence had moved from a minority to a majority position in the congress. What remained unclear was the political opinion in the middle colonies, most especially in the loyalist and moderate strongholds of New York and Pennsylvania.

* * *

The man who, more than anyone else, would shape the answers to those questions was John Adams, who had emerged as the leader of the radical faction in the Continental Congress. He did not look the part. By the time he turned forty-one in 1776 he was already losing his teeth and what remained of his hair. At 5’6” he was shorter than most males of his time, with a torso that his enemies compared to a cannon ball and that eventually led to the label “His Rotundity.” As a young man fresh out of Harvard, he began keeping a diary that made frequent references to the “raging bulls” he felt galloping through his soul. These interior surges periodically took the form of dramatic mood swings that declined but never wholly disappeared after his marriage to Abigail Smith in 1764, leaving an impression among friends and foes alike that he was on occasion slightly out of control. It was no accident that the beau ideal of his political philosophy was balance, since he projected onto the world the conflicting passions he felt inside himself, and regarded government as the balancing mechanism that prevented those factions and furies from spinning out of control.

Adams entered the Continental Congress in 1774 already convinced that Great Britain’s imperial agenda left little room for negotiation or accommodation. The passage of the Coercive Acts (1774), which imposed martial law on Massachusetts, had pushed him over the line towards independence, and once beyond that formidable barrier, he never looked back: “I had passed the Rubicon,” he recalled. “Swim or sink, live or die, survive or perish with my country was my unalterable determination.”

Adams was early to the cause at least in part because he was looking for it. This, after all, was a young man who stood before mirrors practicing Cicero’s oration against Cataline, perfecting his body language and facial expressions to achieve the most dramatic effect. The constitutional crisis with Great Britain represented a providential opportunity to lash his enormous ambitions to a cause larger than himself, and to a calling that would catapult him beyond the provincial horizons of a Boston lawyer to heights that were truly historic. He had been auditioning for the role of American Cicero in the privacy of his own mind for nearly a decade. Now a handful of incompetents in the British ministry, with an able assist from George III, had handed him a script eventually to be entitled “The American Revolution.” He was poised to play a starring role.

From the very start he alienated his moderate colleagues in the Continental Congress by telling them that the centerpiece of their strategy towards Great Britain—reconciliation on the basis of some kind of shared power with Parliament, or some benevolent intervention by the king—was an illusion: “I have reasoned, I have ridiculed, I have fretted and declaimed against this fatal Delusion,” he lamented. “But a Torrent is not to be impedded by Reasoning, nor a Storm allayed by Ridicule.” For the moderates, who in 1774-75 were a substantial majority in the congress, independence meant war with the greatest military power on the planet, which was unthinkable. On the contrary, Adams replied, whatever the consequences might be, independence was inevitable. “We shall be convinced eventually that the cancer is too deeply rooted,” he predicted, “and too far spread to be cured by anything short of cutting it our entirely.” As he put it to Abigail, “We are waiting for a Messiah….who will never come.”

Adams acknowledged that he had made himself obnoxious to many of his colleagues, who regarded him as a one-man bonfire of the vanities. This never troubled Adams, who in his more contrarian moods claimed that his unpopularity provided clinching evidence that his position was principled, because it was obvious that he was not courting popular opinion. His alienation, therefore, was a measure of his integrity. Most frustrating to his opponents, events kept aligning themselves in accord with his predictions—this was why he gave George III so much credit as an indispensable ally—thereby reinforcing his claim to know where history was headed.

Ironically, by the early spring of 1776, when events came his way in waves (i.e. George III’s rejection of political reconciliation in favor of war, the sensational impact of "Common Sense"), Adams began to sound a more cautious note. Despite his bravado denunciation of popularity and his ridicule of moderate delegates as hopelessly naïve, he began to worry that the accelerating pace of the movement for American independence had gotten too far ahead of popular opinion. Paine’s pamphlet had certainly helped the cause on this score, but it was not at all clear that the majority of Americans, especially in the middle colonies, were ready for a break with the crown. The former firebrand became the prudent manager of revolutionary energies, no longer dedicated to speeding up the political process, but instead to slowing it down. The American colonies were “advancing by slow but sure steps, to that mighty Revolution,” on that crucial point he remained confident, but “forced Attempts to accellerate their Motions would be attended with Discontent and perhaps Convulsions.”

Despite his well earned reputation as a flaming radical, Adams now showed his true colors as that rarest of beasts, a conservative revolutionary. While completely committed to secession from the British Empire, there had to be a conspicuous consensus within the American citizenry for the revolution to succeed. And popular opinion needed to “ripen on the vine” before that consensus was convincingly clear. Moreover, the transition from British colonies to American states must occur seamlessly rather than traumatically. “I have ever Thought it the most difficult and dangerous Part of the Business,” he warned, “to contrive some Method for the colonies to glide insensibly from under the old Government, into a peaceable and contented Submission to new ones.” He wanted to orchestrate, if you will, an evolutionary revolution, to control the explosion. His voracious reading of history was not much help, since it showed that no one else who had tried to do this had ever succeeded.

* * *

Adams saw himself as the responsible revolutionary who would defy that historical pattern. In the current context that meant establishing a new political framework for the American colonies before independence was officially declared. Abigail had already anticipated the problem with a series of pointed questions: “If we separate from Great Britain, what code of laws will be established? How shall we be governed so as to retain our liberties? Can any government be free which is not administered by general laws? Who shall frame these laws? Who will give them force and energy?” For unless new political institutions were already in place, Americans ran the risk of escaping the tyranny of the British Empire for a home-grown version of anarchy.

Throughout the spring of 1776, as he allowed the idea of independence to “ripen”. Adams focused his fullest energies on devising the framework of an American government after independence. There was a proper sequence of events that he saw in his mind’s eye that would assure a seamless transition from British rule to a stable American republic: “The colonies should all assume the Powers of Government in all its Branches first,” then, only after each colony had revised its own constitution along republican lines, “they should confederate with each other, and define the Powers of Congress next.” Only after each of these steps had been completed should a public declaration of independence be made. Events were about to make a mockery of this orderly scheme, but it accurately reflected Adams’s deep desire to control the explosive energies released by the repudiation of British authority. Before they leaped, the colonies needed to know where they would land.

The first task, then, was for each colony to revise its own government in accord with republican principles. Because he was regarded as one of the leading constitutional thinkers in the congress, Adams was asked by delegates from three colonies—North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey—to provide his wisdom. Adams drafted three memoranda for that purpose in late March and early April. He then decided to write a fourth draft for publication in order to make his advice available to all the colonies. "Entitled Thoughts on Government," it appeared in the Pennsylvania Packet on April 22.

Though Adams later dismissed "Thoughts" as “a mere sketch” that was “done in haste,” it represented his attempt to propose a thoroughly republicanized version of the English “mixed Constitution.” There would be a tripartite division on the English model of executive, bicameral legislature, and judiciary. But instead of a hereditary monarch there would be an elected governor, and instead of a hereditary House of Lords there would be an elected upper house or senate, a clear statement that political power flowed upward from its primal source in “the people” rather than downward from the king.

He was especially anxious to oppose Thomas Paine’s prescription in "Common Sense" for a huge single-house legislature that purportedly embodied the will of “the people” in its purest form. For Adams “the people” was a more complicated, multi-voiced, hydra-headed thing that needed to be enclosed within different chambers. He regarded Paine’s belief in a harmonious and homogeneous popular collective just as delusional as the belief in a divinely inspired monarch. Lurking within the Adams formulation was an early version of two overlapping principles—checks and balances and separation of powers—that would become core features of the federal Constitution eleven years later.

There were many possible models for a republic, Adams was quick to observe, and the version he proposed in Thoughts ought not be regarded as a cast-in-stone blueprint. Different colonies had different histories and different traditions. Each ought to take from Thoughts what best fit its own political experience, whenever possible producing a republicanized adaptation of the old constitution in order to minimize the sense of change and maximize continuity.

A formal resolution by the congress to implement the Adams proposal for new state constitutions to replace the colonial constitutions sanctioned under the authority of the British Crown was approved on May 12. Adams described it as “the most important resolution that was ever taken in America.” Three days later he added a preface that, in both form and content, made the resolution a giant step towards independence.

The preface began with a list of grievances against the king, emphasizing his rejection of their petitions for redress of grievances, then his decision to assemble “the whole force of that kingdom, aided by foreign mercenaries, to be exerted for the destruction of the good People of these Colonies.” (This was the first time that an official document of the congress had implicated the king as an accomplice in the conflict.) It then followed that all British laws “and every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed” and the people of the United Colonies should fill the void with governments of their own making, “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.”

Adams immediately sensed that something truly historic had just happened. Two days later, on May 17, he wrote Abigail, brimming over with pride that he had just assured himself a page in the history books:

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 the 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.

Over the ensuing years Adams liked to claim that the resolution of May 15 was the real declaration of independence, and Jefferson’s more famous declaration six weeks later was a merely ceremonial afterthought. In effect, the lightning had already struck in May, and the July document was merely a thunderous epilogue. This argument over authorship, over who deserved the credit for carrying the colonies “across the Rubicon,” distorts the complicated context of the political situation that existed in the late spring of 1776. Adams was certainly correct that resolution of May 15 was a major step toward independence, and the fierce debate in the Continental Congress preceding the vote makes it clear that the delegates understood that, with passage of this resolution, there was no turning back. Negative votes by the delegates from New York and Pennsylvania also showed that independence remained controversial within the congress.

If only in retrospect, the political crisis had reached the point of no return. For ten years (1765-75) the American colonists had engaged in a constitutional duel over the powers of Parliament, initially rejecting its authority to tax them, eventually opposing its authority to legislate for them at all. The outbreak of hostilities in the spring of 1775 had altered the political chemistry of the constitutional debate, leaving the connection with the king the last remaining link to the British Empire. Now George III’s hostile and aggressive actions severed that last link, effectively ending any realistic prospect of a negotiated political settlement. Both the resolution of May and the more famous declaration of July, then, were rhetorical responses to a non-negotiable political crisis that had already moved from the diplomatic desks of London and Philadelphia to the battlefield, which turned out to be New York. In April Washington had moved the Continental Army to that location on the presumption, correct as it turned out, that the British invasion would come there. Military events were dictating political decisions.

That said, the resolution of May 15 was distinctive, and different from Jefferson’s later manifesto in one significant sense. For it was not just a rejection of British authority, but also an assertion of the need to create state governments to replace discredited British rule. In that sense, it was an invitation to declare what an independent American republic, or confederation of republics, should look like. Adams was reasonably confident that the former colonies would unite behind the call to independence and draft new state constitutions along the lines he had suggested. Beyond that, however, he was worried that he had lifted the lid on Pandora’s box, and that the most ardent advocates of independence would attempt to implement a truly revolutionary agenda. He could only hold his breath and wait, but he had reasons to fear that the war for independence would actually become the American Revolution.

* * *

 Such fears were well founded, indeed rooted in the very logic of the constitutional arguments that Adams and his fellow patriots had been hurling at Parliament for over a decade. For at its core, the colonists’ argument insisted that all political power was arbitrary and illegitimate unless it enjoyed the consent of the governed, And once consent was established as the non-negotiable essence of any republic worthy of the name, lights began to go on up and down the line, illuminating several dark corners of American society inhabited by groups that could claim, with considerable plausibility, that they were being denied their rights without their consent.

Slavery was the most blatant contradiction of everything the budding American Revolution claimed to stand for. It required Herculean feats of denial not to notice that 20 percent of the American population, about 500,000 souls, were African-Americans, and that fully 90 percent of them were slaves, the vast majority residing south of the Potomac. Adams received several requests to place this glaring anomaly on the agenda of the Continental Congress from petitioners who claimed that failure to address this issue would expose the entire case against British tyranny as fraudulent and hypocritical.

An anonymous petitioner from Virginia put the problem most succinctly: “Is it not incompatible with the glorious Struggle America is making for her own Liberty, to hold in absolute Slavery a Number of Wretches, who will be become the most inveterate Enemies of their present Masters?” Adams received perhaps the most poignant plea from a barely literate Pennsylvanian who styled himself “Humanity”: “What has the negros the afracons don to us that we shud tak them from thar own land and mak them sarve us to the da of thar death….?” God forbit that it shud be so anay longer.”

An even larger disenfranchised group, the entire female population, could neither vote nor own property if they were married. And the chief petitioner for women’s rights was none other than the ever-saucy Abigail Adams. On March 31, 1776, in the midst of a newsy letter that touched on several different topics—the effects of the smallpox epidemic in Boston, the crops she intended to plant in their garden—Abigail unburdened herself in what became one of the most famous “by the ways” in American letters:

And, by the way, in the New Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors….Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to forment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no Voice, or Representation.

This was a petition that Adams could not afford to ignore. He responded in a jocular tone, suggesting that Abigail’s proposal was intended as a playful piece of mischief: “We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems,” he joked, “which would completely subject Us to the Despotism of the Petticoat….” Several volleys went back and forth between Braintree and Philadelphia in which Abigail acknowledged that she was being playful, but was also deadly serious in her insistence that the very arguments her husband was deploying against the arbitrary power of Parliament had profound implications for the status of women in an independent American republic: “But you must remember,” she concluded in her final volley, “that arbitrary Power is like most things that are very hard….and notwithstanding all your wise laws and maxims, we have in in our Power, not only to free ourselves, but to subdue our Masters, and without violence, throw your natural and legal authority at your feet.”

Just two weeks before Abigail launched her broadside on behalf of women’s rights, an editorial appeared in the Pennsylvania Evening Post in which yet another disenfranchised group, the working class artisans and mechanics of Philadelphia, describing themselves as “men who wear LEATHER APRONS,” protested the longstanding property requirement to vote: “Do not mechanics and farmers constitute ninety-nine out of a hundred people of America? If these, by their occupations are to be excluded from having any share in the choice of their rulers or forms of government, would it not be best to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the British Parliament...”

For the past two years a large number of working class residents of Philadelphia had become actively involved in the various revolutionary organizations and committees that seized control of the city government. Not so incidentally, the arrival of Thomas Paine gave this group an eloquent new voice, which took as its clarion call the obvious injustice of the property requirement to vote. For them, citizenship was not a privilege to be enjoyed only by those with landed wealth, but rather a right of every adult male, vested in his person rather than his property.

In April of 1776 Adams received a letter from James Sullivan, a prominent New Hampshire patriot, who was having similar thoughts. Sullivan claimed to be surprised at the conclusion he had reached, but the logic of the American argument against British imperialism carried him to a place that only a few years earlier he would have considered alien territory: “Laws and Government are founded on the Consent of the People...Why a man is supposed to consent to the acts of a Society of which in this respect he is an absolute Excommunicate, none bit a lawyer well Labeled in the feudal Sistem can tell.”

Already reeling from Abigail’s salvo on behalf of women, Adams could only caution Sullivan that his case for broadening the electorate would have catastrophic consequences: “There will be no end to it,” Adams warned, “and every Man, who has not a Farthing, will demand an equal Voice with any other in all Acts of State.” Sullivan could only reply that, yes, it was a strange new world we were creating, but it followed naturally and inevitably from the republican principles Americans claimed to stand for.

Hindsight allows us to see that, in the space of a very few months, the entire liberal agenda for the next century was inserted into the political conversation. It was, in effect, a preview of coming attractions. But for Adams, the most prominent presence in this superheated moment, the all-important item on the current American agenda was independence from Great Britain. And if that failed, all the other political goals became meaningless pipedreams.

Obsessed as he was with controlling the pace of the movement for independence, Adams now feared that the debates about to occur in the separate colonies cum states as they drafted new constitutions would get sidetracked by a more far-reaching political agenda that then made consensus on the core question of independence impossible. The chief threat on this score was slavery, since once it entered the discussion, every state south of the Potomac would have second thoughts about independence. Adams believed that the debate about the kind of republic America wished to become must be postponed until after the war for independence had succeeded. Raising such controversial issues now was like stopping your race horse a few yards from the finish line in order to engage in a debate about the size of the winner’s purse.

But the very resolution of May 15 that made Adams so proud essentially required each of the thirteen colonies to conduct a debate on independence that could easily fall victim to different notions about the future character of an independent American republic. And there was really nothing that Adams could do about it. For there was, in the end, only one way for an aspiring republic to resolve such weighty questions, and that was to surrender control to the people out there in all those towns, villages, and farms. This was not easy for Adams, who harbored no illusions about the preternatural wisdom of the common man. But he really had no choice. The British government had made a top-down decision in the monarchical way to smash the American rebellion with an overwhelming display of military power, currently poised to cross the Atlantic and deliver the decisive blow. The Continental Congress had made a bottom-up decision in the republican way to conduct an open-ended referendum on American independence and what it meant. It was a much messier way of proceeding, but true to the principles the colonists claimed to stand for.

And so as summer approached, all the revolutionary ingredients, like pieces of a puzzle, were falling into place. George Washington had just moved the Continental Army down from Boston to New York, where the British task force was expected to strike. The largest fleet ever to cross the Atlantic was assembling in several British ports under the command of Admiral Richard Howe, older brother of William Howe, who himself was coming down from Halifax with the seven regiments that Abigail Adams had watched sail out of the Boston harbor three months earlier. The legislatures of each colony were gathering to revise their constitutions and register their opinions on independence.

Only John Adams was not in motion, though his thoughts and emotions were racing inside him as he watched the gathering political storm from his post in Philadelphia. On May 14 he was joined by a somewhat obscure delegate from Virginia named Thomas Jefferson, reporting for duty again after tending to his ailing wife at his hilltop estate in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. Though Jefferson did not know it at the time, nor for that matter did anyone else, he was the final piece of the puzzle.

Excerpted from "Revolutionary Summer" by Joseph J. Ellis. Copyright © 2013 by Joseph J. Ellis. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

By Joseph J. Ellis

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