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Advocates for the Cause
In the gathering dusk of December 16, 1773, a mass meeting of “the Body of the People” of Boston waited restlessly for Francis Rotch to return to Old South Church. Only twenty-three years of age, Rotch was a Quaker merchant from Nantucket and a co-owner of the Dartmouth, the first-arrived of the three ships now in harbor bearing East India Company tea. Rotch was more worried about his ship than its cargo, which he did not own. If Boston's protesting citizens forced the ships to sail with the tea unloaded and its duty unpaid, the Dartmouth might be subject to seizure, either by the Royal Navy patrolling just beyond the harbor or by customs officials in England; Rotch might also be liable for the value of his ship's cargo. At the town's order, Rotch had ridden the seven miles from Boston to Governor Thomas Hutchinson's country house at Milton in a final bid to persuade the empire's loyal servant to grant the necessary clearances. On another occasion the two men might have ambled to the shore to admire the peaceful view north to Boston Bay. But Rotch had time only to make one last plea and then return to the capital. As expected, Hutchinson refused to permit the Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver to sail. Once they legally entered the harbor and customs officials registered their cargo, the law required the goods to be offloaded and duties paid within three weeks, or else confiscated.
When Rotch returned to Old South, he told the waiting crowd of the governor's refusal. Within minutes, Samuel Adams, the driving force on the town's Committee of Correspondence, arose to declare that “they had now done all they could for the Salvation of their Country.” Soon shouts erupted from the gallery and door, and many of the five or six thousand attending headed outside. To the sound of mock war whoops and cries of “Boston harbor a tea-pot tonight,” the crowd, some fancifully dressed as Mohawk warriors, descended to Griffin's Wharf, where the tea ships lay docked. A merchant drawn outdoors by the clamor recalled thinking “that the inhabitants of the infernal regions had been let loose,” before returning to his house to finish his own pot of tea. But once the “Mohawks,” numbering fifteen or twenty a vessel, boarded the ships, the crowd watched silently as 340 massive chests of East India Company tea were hauled on deck and whacked open with axes; then the contents were dumped overboard. By 9 p.m. a cargo valued at a hefty nine thousand pounds sterling was weakly brewing in the low-tide waters.
Had the value of the tea not been so dear, the Boston Tea Party might be remembered, if at all, as a minor piece of political theater, with critics hailing the players' costumes as its most noteworthy feature. Americans were heirs to a rich tradition of extralegal political protest_-_effigy burnings and the like_-_which communities mounted when acts of government threatened their basic rights and interests. Some of these popular actions combined symbolic protest with dollops of violence, like the rare tarring and feathering, which left victims painfully burnt. With its gross assault on private property, however, the Tea Party crossed the line between extralegal and illegal, defying the authority of the British government in ways that smearing “Hillsborough paint” on merchants' houses and shops did not.
The ministry of Lord North answered this challenge with a punitive program of parliamentary legislation that made Boston a garrisoned city and Massachusetts a tinderbox of rebellion. But had Boston's protests taken a milder form, or had Hutchinson let the tea ships go, the crisis might have been averted and the Revolution itself delayed, or perhaps even avoided. Just as we speculate whether the guns of August 1914 might never have fired had Archduke Franz Ferdinand's driver not made the wrong turn in Sarajevo on June 28, the Boston Tea Party is one of those events that leaves us to wonder whether history_-_even History_-_might easily have turned out differently.
Sixteen months after Rotch's futile trip, another rider, far better remembered, also set out on horseback from Boston, headed not south to Milton but west toward Lexington and Concord. The purpose of Paul Revere's mission on the fateful night of April 18-19, 1775, was to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that British troops were sortieing from Boston, intent on capturing the two men and seizing provincial munitions. Revere reached Lexington but was snatched by a British patrol before he could continue to Concord. But the alarm was already spreading by word of mouth, and warning shots fired in the night air. “You know the rest,” wrote the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow four score and five years later. First at Lexington, then at Concord, British regulars and colonial militiamen exchanged fire.
For “the fate of a nation” to have been “riding that night” required something more than the bravery and ingenuity Revere and William Dawes showed in slipping out of occupied Boston. In the sixteen months between the Rotch and Revere missions, two developments had altered the underlying structure of American politics, laying a foundation for revolutionary upheaval. First, the British program to punish Boston had produced exactly the opposite of its intended result. Instead of making Massachusetts an object lesson in the costs of defying imperial policy, the British response unified colonial opinion in support of that defiance. Just as important, that unity was no longer a matter of mere opinion or sentiment. On their own, Americans had created a new central political authority in the Continental Congress, which first met at Philadelphia in September 1774 and was set to reconvene in May 1775. Already observers were marveling that its decisions would be like the laws “of the Medes and the Persians, which must not be altered.” As yet that Congress was something less than a national government. But it was already becoming something more than the grand diplomatic assembly that the delegations to the First Continental Congress imagined they were attending.
Beleaguered Massachusetts sent four delegates to that First Continental Congress, and the two best remembered were the distant cousins Samuel and John Adams. The challenge they faced on their diplomatic mission to Philadelphia illustrated a deep uncertainty in the character of the colonial resistance movement. British strategy in Massachusetts presumed that Americans did not constitute a nation and that a decisive show of force in this single irksome province would prevent their becoming one. The Adamses and their colleagues faced a different challenge. Creating an American nation was not their avowed goal. But once the British government responded to the Boston Tea Party as it did, it became essential to ensure that the other colonies would support Massachusetts, “now suffering in the common cause,” and that they do so fully recognizing that war might indeed be the outcome. Their cause and America's, they thought, were one. But in critical respects, Massachusetts was different, and the fact that the British government had selected it for retribution only reinforced its people's notion that history and providence had singled them out for a special role. Was the purpose of the “common cause” to support Massachusetts in its time of peril, or to transcend the explosive situation in that single province in the name of forging a new, larger, and avowedly American community? Massachusetts was where the Revolution began, and to explain why that was so, we have to begin our story there.
For months before the Tea Party, colonists elsewhere had indeed watched events in Massachusetts with a mixture of admiration and alarm. In nearly every other province, the imperial controversies of the late 1760s were a fading memory. That was where most colonists were happy to consign them. It was only natural to hope that a government mindful of the protests of the 1760s would find other ways to persuade Americans to help defray the costs of the empire from which they drew so many benefits. True, every colony had a few radicals who suspected that the new ministry of Lord North harbored more sinister designs. But even these men hardly constituted a cadre of revolutionary agitators anxious to provoke a crisis in order to gain influence or seize power.
Almost everywhere in America, then, the political fevers of the 1760s had broken and subsided. The exception was Massachusetts. There, different conditions prevailed to make politics more volatile and less manageable.
For starters, Massachusetts had an unusually cohesive cluster of political leaders, centered in the capital of Boston but with reliable contacts in outlying towns, who remained suspicious of the secret designs of the British government. The most active and disciplined was Samuel Adams, a man whose only true vocation was politics. None could match Adams for energy, but he had collaborators who shared his views: other activists such as William Cooper, the town clerk, and Thomas Young, the radical physician; and prominent townsmen such as John Hancock, New England's wealthiest merchant; Thomas Cushing, speaker of the Massachusetts house; William Molineux; and Dr. Joseph Warren.
Like the other New England colonies, Massachusetts also had a remarkably homogeneous population. From New York south, the colonial population was an ever-changing blend of the descendants of early settlers and a steady and swelling flow of immigrants_-_free, half-free, and unfree_-_from the British Isles, Germany, and Africa. But most inhabitants of Massachusetts descended from the great Puritan migration of 1630-1642. They retained a deep sense of their colony's history, its foundation in the religious idealism of that first formidable generation of visible saints, and the defiance their forebears had shown toward the despised Stuart kings of the previous century. The religious enthusiasms of that era had cooled by several degrees. But currents of religious revivalism preserved the idea_-_improbable to outsiders_-_that Massachusetts could still play a role in the unfolding of grand providential designs.
In their fabled town meetings, the people of Massachusetts also had a ready mechanism for forging their political views. Elsewhere in America a population dispersed across the landscape had to trek miles to attend county court days or the revelry of an election. In the densely settled communities of Massachusetts, townspeople knew each other all too well. Petty disputes festered for decades, feeding upon an intimacy that nurtured bitter grudges as easily as lasting friendships. (Since the Salem horrors of 1692, though, neighbors no longer accused one another of witchcraft.) Resolving these disputes was one task of the town meeting. In ordinary times its business revolved around electing a small platoon of officials to manage routine affairs, dickering over how much firewood to allot the town minister, or identifying whose pigs were doing the most damage to fields and crops. (In New England, good fences did make better neighbors.) But in extraordinary times the town meeting offered a forum that enabled communities to make up their minds quickly_-_a political infrastructure waiting to be energized.
Massachusetts was different in one other, accidental respect. It had in its governor an exceptionally capable servant of the British Empire, a man who naturally assumed that Britain and Massachusetts shared a common welfare. But Thomas Hutchinson's policies, and his family's monopoly on high offices, made him the object of a vitriolic jealousy unique in the annals of colonial politics, which had seen repeated conflicts between royal governors and their provincial opponents. Hutchinson too descended from the founding generation of the 1630s. One ancestor was the controversial Anne Hutchinson, banished to Rhode Island after claiming divine revelation as a direct source for her radical theology. The governor included an account of her prosecution in the ambitious history of Massachusetts he was writing as an avocation. But the Hutchinsons now worshiped with the Church of England, a natural choice for a family that linked its interests to the empire's. To his detractors, proud of their Puritan heritage, that was another token of betrayal.
These factors began to converge in the fall of 1772, when reports circulated that Hutchinson and other high officials would receive salaries from the civil list of the British Crown. Royal governors were customarily paid by the colonial legislatures, which thereby gained significant leverage over their behavior. Granting Hutchinson a royal salary would make him even less amenable to the influence of the General Court (the legislature) and its constituents in the towns. In protest, Samuel Adams and his circle launched a provocative initiative. With the approval of the town meeting, they organized the Committee of Correspondence and promptly transmitted to other towns the inflammatory resolutions that Boston had adopted condemning the Crown salaries. The towns quickly replied, conveying new denunciatory resolutions approved by their own meetings.
The governor answered this barrage with a salvo of his own. When the General Court met in Boston on January 6, 1773, he used the customary speech opening the session to review the essential principles of the imperial relationship. Hutchinson hoped to bypass his opponents and talk sense to the community at large. Instead he found himself sucked into a contentious debate with the legislature. Newspapers in other colonies reprinted these exchanges, which quickly revived the basic question at the heart of the imperial controversy: were Americans bound to obey the acts of a Parliament to which they sent no members? Hutchinson's rash decision to reopen the issues that had been agitated during the 1760s dismayed his superiors back in London. They had no wish to foment a fresh crisis in American affairs.
Hutchinson had another critic in London: Benjamin Franklin, the most eminent American of the day, Boston's best-known (if long departed) son, retired printer, true scientist, ingenious inventor, and prominent citizen of the international republic of letters. He had lived in London since 1758, acting as agent for the legislature of his adopted colony of Pennsylvania and later for Massachusetts, New Jersey (whose governor was his illegitimate son, William), and Georgia. Franklin loved cosmopolitan London far more than provincial America. He also believed that the continued association of both countries would bring great advantages to each. But the frustration of dealing with British officials, great and small, also left him exasperated with their attitudes toward America and Americans. By June 1773, he thought that the colonies should call a congress to discuss common concerns, including their future relationship to the empire.
Franklin's critical intervention in Massachusetts politics had begun some months earlier. In December 1772 he sent Speaker Cushing a packet containing copies of letters that Hutchinson had written to an unidentified London correspondent. In the slow season of winter crossings, the packet took four months to reach Boston. But once arrived, its explosive contents plunged the province into new turmoil. The letters were full of biting comments about provincial politics and Hutchinson's critics. They also suggested that Americans should gladly accept some reduction in the full range of English liberties in order to enjoy the real benefits of empire. Franklin instructed Cushing to show the letters only to select associates. But inevitably rumors of their contents became common gossip, rendering the restriction pointless. The letters were published in Boston newspapers in mid-June and reprinted elsewhere. The Massachusetts assembly promptly petitioned the Crown to remove Hutchinson and his brother-in-law, Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver, from office. Franklin, as the assembly's agent, submitted the petition to William Legge, Lord Dartmouth, the new secretary of state for America.
Why had Franklin sent these letters? Even before reading Hutchinson's ill-advised speech, he had concluded that the governor's presence in volatile Massachusetts threatened the stability of the empire that Franklin, no less than Hutchinson, wished to preserve. To Franklin it was the governor who was the real provocateur. Destroying his influence and reputation seemed a small price to pay for restoring political calm in Massachusetts and harmony to the empire.
The torrents of invective that followed publication of the letters did not surprise Franklin, the veteran of many a political combat and polemical skirmish of his own. But the consequences were not those he had imagined. The frenzy in Massachusetts restored the ministry's support for the hapless Hutchinson. In the end Franklin fell victim to his own stratagem. In December 1773 he was forced to acknowledge his role in the affair after a duel was fought between the son of the letters' original recipient and another man whom he had wrongly accused of purloining his father's correspondence. A month later Franklin suffered a public humiliation as vicious as the one he had brought on Hutchinson. On January 29, 1774, the day assigned for the Privy Council to consider the petition urging Hutchinson's dismissal, Franklin stood mutely as Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn subjected him to a harsh dressing-down in the hearing room known as the Cockpit. British onlookers chattered and snickered as Wedderburn laid the blame for the disorder in Massachusetts not on Hutchinson, as Franklin once intended, but on Franklin himself. Americans present watched in disgust but marveled at Franklin's stoic demeanor. For the moment Hutchinson retained his governorship, but Franklin lost his lucrative position as deputy postmaster general for North America.
One other consequence of the affair of the letters dwarfed all the others. It steeled Hutchinson to turn enforcement of the Tea Act, passed by Parliament in May 1773, into a confrontation with his opponents. The governor and his family had a personal stake in seeing the act enforced. He owned stock in the East India Company, the giant enterprise that the act was designed to benefit. And his sons, Elisha and Thomas Jr., were among the small group of consignees who would market the tea once it reached America. Once again, the interests of the Hutchinsons and the empire converged.
The Tea Act attracted little attention as it made its way through Parliament in the spring of 1773. Nearing bankruptcy, its warehouses bulging with surplus tea, the East India Company sought help from the government. Lord North responded by granting it a monopoly over the sale of tea legally imported into America. The colonists were still boycotting legal tea because it carried the duty levied by the Townshend Act of 1767. To induce them to comply with the act, the government proposed to lower the duty, making East India Company tea more competitive with the illegal tea that was easily smuggled into the colonies. Skeptical members of Parliament urged North to drop the duty altogether, the better to help the company, but he refused.
For colonial radicals the act offered an unexpected occasion to revive the apparatus of resistance. The old tactics of the 1760s were put back into action, successfully. Crowds marched, burned effigies, and intimidated officials, ship captains, and tea consignees into doing the right thing. The tea ships returned to England, their cargoes still on board.
Only in Boston did the ships' arrival spark an actual crisis. Hutchinson claimed that he initially opposed allowing the tea ships to enter the harbor and thereby trigger the legal requirements of having their cargo registered by the customs commissioners and duties paid. But whatever his misgivings, the fact remained that the ships did moor at Griffin's Wharf, allowing the apparatus of imperial law to swing into play. From this point on, Hutchinson welcomed the test of wills that ensued. With British naval vessels anchored outside Boston, the three ships could depart only if he issued the necessary clearances. This was exactly what he refused to do. Believing he had law on his side and having a personal stake in seeing the tea landed and the duties paid, Hutchinson refused to let the mounting protests sway his judgment. When Francis Rotch begged him to release the ships, Hutchinson curtly replied that “he could not think it his Duty in this Case” to grant the request. In response to the governor's intransigence, the patriot leaders formed their Mohawk war party on the night of December 16.
Hutchinson accepted the confrontation for two reasons, one political, the other personal. For years he had urged correspondents in London to promote a firm and consistent policy toward America. It was not that he wanted Americans to learn to kiss the whip of imperial rule. There was no whip to kiss, and Hutchinson knew that American loyalty could never be coerced. But he did believe that popular respect for the empire would decline if the government did not act consistently or if it forever allowed demagogues to mock its authority.
These were prudent calculations, drawn from years of thoughtful analysis. But by December 1773, prudence and calculation alone no longer controlled Hutchinson's thinking. How could they, after months of vilification had made him the object of suspicion up and down the seaboard? With the law offering an opportunity to force his opponents either to back down or to commit some desperate folly, Hutchinson welcomed confrontation, not only to regain political mastery but for personal vindication and perhaps even revenge. Having served the empire faithfully over the years, Hutchinson now summoned the empire to his own cause.
So the ships lay at anchor, the Mohawks swung their axes, the crowd watched silently, the harbor fish encountered a foreign substance in the dockside waters_-_and the British Empire in North America awaited the crisis on which it would founder. Five months passed before the government's response reached American shores.
Of Hutchinson's many opponents, history remembers three best. One is John Hancock, who placed his beautiful bold signature on the Declaration of Independence barely hours after the University of Oxford awarded the exiled Hutchinson an honorary degree on July 4, 1776. But Hancock's impact on events is difficult to measure, in part because he left few political papers. It is perhaps fitting that he is most remembered not for anything he wrote but for the epochal document he signed.
No such uncertainty colors the historical memory of Hutchinson's two other great foes, Samuel and John Adams. Much of Samuel's correspondence has been lost, and much of what survives blandly masks more than it reveals. Yet his place in the politics of resistance is well established. By the early 1770s he had emerged as the one radical leader most suspicious of British motives and most likely to play an active part in whatever form of resistance proved necessary. John's papers, by contrast, run to volumes yet unpublished and scores of reels of microfilm. Far from revealing too little, they almost divulge too much. For John Adams was a writer whose heart and mind flowed through the quill of his pen, who never used a single well-chosen word when six impetuous synonyms would do just as well. Where Samuel Adams was ultimately eclipsed by the independence movement to which he once seemed indispensable, John Adams was liberated by it, released into that wider world of activity and thought and the very stream of history that the Harvard graduate and Worcester schoolteacher had only imagined he might one day join.
Their descent from a common ancestor formed little part of their connection. Samuel, born in 1722, was older by thirteen years. The son of a prominent Boston brewer, he entered Harvard at the usual age of fourteen. In an era when class rank was assigned upon entrance, not at graduation, and was used to mark social status, not intellectual achievement, Samuel placed sixth among the twenty-three-member class of 1740. Like most young men of that era, he followed the occupation of his father. But in the son's case that notion of vocation had a dual meaning. For the elder Samuel was an active ally of Elisha Cooke, an early pioneer in the line of urban political bosses that later included such legendary figures as Samuel Tweed, James Curley, Erastus Corning, and two Richard Daleys. Though colonial Boston, a town of fewer than twenty thousand, differed from the great nineteenth- and twentieth-century metropolises, a leader of Boston's South End would no doubt recognize, say, a precinct captain from Chicago's South Side as a kindred practitioner of the politician's art.
The elder Adams started his son in commerce, first placing him in a merchant's countinghouse, then staking him a thousand pounds to trade on his own. But the world of trade never engaged Samuel's heart or talents. Temperament and the times conspired to steer Samuel away from commerce and into the political activity he really loved. Nor did the depressed local economy of the 1740s and 1750s make Boston the most promising place to launch into business. With a relatively poor agricultural hinterland and rival ports all along the New England shore, Boston was already lagging behind New York and Philadelphia as a commercial entrepôt. In such a risky environment, the family business might seem a safe port, but after his father's death in 1748, Samuel managed to run the brewery into bankruptcy. A quarter-millennium would pass before the name Samuel Adams again brought a smile to the lips of American tipplers.
Other legacies mattered more to him. From his Calvinist upbringing, Harvard education, and early entrance into politics, Samuel Adams absorbed a set of attitudes and idioms that placed him squarely within the tradition of opposition politics that flourished in colonial America. Adherents of this tradition, which was nurtured in the religious and revolutionary turmoil of seventeenth-century England, were ever alert to the danger of tyranny that lurked whenever the concentrated power of monarchy went unchecked. The Puritan revolutionaries who beheaded Charles I in 1649 acted on the radical Protestant conviction that submission to tyranny was not a Christian duty. The English Whigs who opposed the reigns of Charles II (1660-1685) and his younger brother, James II (1685-1688), bequeathed a similar legacy of political suspicion. After James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Convention Parliament that met during the interregnum adopted the Declaration of Rights, which made acceptance of the principle of parliamentary supremacy a condition of bestowing the throne on James's son-in-law, William of Orange. The principle was confirmed in the Act of Settlement of 1701, which established a line of succession from King William, a childless widower, and his sister-in-law and successor, Queen Anne_-_whose children had predeceased her_-_to the elector of Hanover, a Protestant state in what is now northern Germany.
Hanover remained the true home of the first two Georges who ruled Britain from 1714 to 1760. While it did, the British constitution underwent a major transformation. Beginning with the government of Sir Robert Walpole, the king's ministers of state developed new means and tactics for controlling Parliament. Some relied on the enormous political influence still wielded by the aristocracy, with their networks of dependents and retainers. Others used the revenues and resources that a booming economy placed at the government's disposal to purchase the loyalty of members of Parliament and many of their electors. The use of patronage and influence turned Parliament into a docile body that often debated but rarely challenged ministerial decisions. Though supreme in theory, Parliament was easily managed in practice.
Alarm over these developments was commonly sounded in the coffeehouses and popular journals where public opinion in Georgian Britain was formed. Writers such as John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, authors of the popular Cato's Letters, warned that avaricious ministers were striving to subvert the principles of 1688 and deprive Britons of their precious birthright of liberty. These charges had little political impact in Britain. But in America this literature of opposition attained surprising popularity. Some colonists were attracted to the image of a mother country sinking into corruption and the seductive allure of “luxury,” a loaded word that implied that the refined manners that commercial society was supposed to bring would turn liberty-loving Britons into “effeminate” hedonists. Many of William Hogarth's most popular prints_-_from Gin Lane to A Rake's Progress_-_were morality tales satirizing the vices into which different classes were likely to fall as they pursued these pleasures. But these images and writings also fit colonial politics peculiarly well. For in America, unlike Britain, the constitutional quarrels of the seventeenth century still resonated. There, governors and legislatures continued to skirmish over their respective powers and rights, privileges and duties. The more conscientiously governors tried to enforce their instructions from London, the more easily they could be tarred as agents of the corrupt ministers who were sapping the principles of 1688.
Samuel Adams was one of countless colonial politicians who absorbed these writings and viewed the doings of government through the lens they provided. Like many others, he used this idiom to advance his own political ambitions. With little chance of cracking the circle of imperial patronage, an aspiring provincial politician could better succeed by casting himself as a tribune of popular liberties. But this conclusion suggests that men adopt and adapt views that will best help them pursue their ambitions_-_and it is far from clear that Adams possessed ambition as we define that term, or that if he did, he could ever admit it to himself. Like more modern revolutionaries_-_but without understanding that he was one_-_Adams inhabited his ideology. His identity and his politics fused so completely that he probably did not know where one left off and the other began.
For his younger distant cousin John, by contrast, anxieties about ambition and identity seemed to fester daily. If any of his Puritan ancestors kept diaries, they would have recorded their spiritual travails while they struggled with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and the signs of their own depravity. John's diary and letters contain the odd reflection on religion. But it is life and work, not soul and faith, that animate these writings. John could acknowledge his ambitions all too easily. The hard part was determining which to pursue.
His origins were modest. His father, though respected in Braintree as a church deacon and town selectman, worked a typical fifty-acre farm. Most New England farmers aspired to nothing more than acquiring enough land to ensure that their sons' status would equal their own, enough to form a decent “competence.” But the elder John Adams wanted more for his firstborn namesake. At his insistence John entered Harvard at age fifteen, ranked fourteen out of that year's twenty-four entrants. John's indecision about which profession to pursue was resolved by 1756, when he began reading law. The professional success he began to enjoy in the 1760s relieved him of the fear that his practice might never escape the tedium of debts and trespasses. Marriage to Abigail Smith, daughter of a respected minister, in 1764 provided another source of stability. Well read, with an independent streak of her own, she proved remarkably resourceful in running the family farm as John's legal practice called him away from home.
There were, however, facets of the famous Adams personality that prevented him from ever attaining equanimity. He had a keen eye for observation, which he often cast on colleagues at the bar. Not only did he regularly itemize their strengths and failings; he also constantly measured himself against them. He did this because reputation mattered deeply to him, and not only professional standing, but all the other qualities by which one person judges another. He knew himself too well to think that others always appreciated his ability. He was aware that he was opinionated, that he wore his feelings on his sleeve_-_both sleeves, really_-_and that he spoke too directly and candidly. Above all, he knew that somehow, on some occasion, he aspired to do great things, though what they might be and how he might accomplish them were a mystery. As well read as any American of his era, a compulsive seeker after knowledge, Adams always sensed there must be some larger stage on which he could test and show his abilities.
Samuel Adams was always on the lookout for political recruits, and as John became known in Boston and began to write for the press, Samuel recognized his cousin's talents. There was no need for the veteran politician to convert the ambitious attorney to the cause of colonial rights. In their views of the issues dividing Britain and America, there was nothing to distinguish one Adams from the other. But John was argumentative and academic in a way that Samuel was not. When the older Adams wrote for the press, he restated familiar themes and arch warnings that generations of radical Whig polemicists on either side of the Atlantic had long pronounced. John was a more original and dogged controversialist, eager to prove points, muster evidence, and run legal arguments back to their sources and forward to their conclusions. Samuel wrote occasional pieces that any of his collaborators could have drafted. John's works were the product of an assertive thinker finding his voice as an advocate of colonial rights and the special cause of Massachusetts.
Occasional writing for the press hardly constituted a complete com-mitment to politics, however. Before 1774 Adams measured his political engagements carefully. He had a legal career to advance and a growing family to provide for, and his practice frequently carried him on horseback from one county to another. A diary entry for June 22, 1771, finds Adams in Ipswich “in the usual Labours and Drudgery of Attendance upon Court.” While there he took tea with Justice Edmund Trowbridge, who cautioned him against political enthusiasm much as he might warn another man against strong drink. You'll ruin your health, the judge let Adams know, “if you tire yourself with Business, but especially with Politics.” But “I don't meddle with Politicks, nor think about em,” Adams protested. “'Except, says he, by Writing in the Papers.'_-_I'le be sworn, says I, I have not wrote one Line in a Newspaper these two Years.” In a later age Adams could have posed as a recovering drinker who had been dry for years.
Adams punctuated his diary with ambivalent confessions of his anxieties and ambitions. “What is the End and Purpose of my Studies, Journeys, Labours of all Kinds of Body and Mind, of Tongue and Pen?” he asked on a cold January night in 1768. Whatever plan he settled on, he gloomily concluded, “will neither lead me to Fame, Fortune, Power nor to the Service of my Friends, Clients or Country.” How could they, when the endless cycle of circuit courts forced him into “a rambling, roving, vagrant, vagabond life”? Four years later, with his legal practice flourishing, Adams bought a brick house near the Suffolk County courthouse in Boston and planned to move his family to town. “If I do, I shall come with a fixed Resolution, to meddle not with public Affairs of Town or Province.” He had forgone opportunities for “Money, and Preferment,” Adams complained, lest they tempt him “to forsake the Sentiments of the Friends of this Country.” Yet those same friends “are such Politicians, as to bestow all their Favours upon their professed and declared Enemies.” His disillusionment with politics owed much to his decision to defend the British soldiers charged with perpetrating the Boston Massacre of 1770. When Samuel Adams and Samuel Pemberton asked him to deliver the oration commemorating its third anniversary, John begged off, claiming that he “was desirous to avoid even thinking upon public Affairs.” By accepting, Adams replied, “I should only expose myself to the Lash of ignorant and malignant Tongues on both sides of the Question. Beside that,” he lamely added, “I was too old to make Declamations.”
Yet Adams privately gloried in what he himself described as the “gallant, generous, manly and disinterested” role he played in defending the soldiers, and he regarded himself as one of the few reliable watchmen intent on preserving the colony's traditional liberties. When he and Samuel formed half of “the Boston seat” in the General Court, he was delighted when a former royal governor was heard to scoff, “where the Devil this Brace of Adams's came from, I cant conceive.” Was “it not a pity,” Adams wrote in his diary, “that a Brace of so obscure a Breed, should be the only ones to defend the Household, when the generous Mastiffs, and best blooded Hounds are all hushed to silence by the Bones and Crumbs that are thrown to them?” The master of this better-bred pack was Hutchinson, and the “Sentiment” that bound the brace of Adamses to their lonely path was that Massachusetts had “more to fear” from Hutchinson's evil designs “than from any other Man, nay than from all Men in the World.”
A year later, with that conviction unshaken, John did allow himself to be ensnared in politics, helping to draft the assembly's replies to Hutchinson's ill-advised speech opening the 1773 legislative session. The arrival of the purloined Hutchinson letters agitated him further. “What shall I write?_-_say?_-_do?” Adams asked himself. “Bone of our Bone, born and educated among us!” By the May elections, he was reconciled to his duty, if summoned “to take a Part in public Life,” to “Act a fearless, intrepid, undaunted Part, at all Hazards.” For a time, Adams was spared. The General Court nominated him to a seat on the provincial council, but Hutchinson vetoed his appointment.
There is no evidence that John had any role in organizing the opposition to the Tea Act. But he and the Tea Party's leading planner, Samuel Adams, understood this event identically. John had the final silence of the crowd in mind when he marveled that there was “a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity in this last effort of the Patriots.” They had been “so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible” in this action, “that I cant but consider it as an Epocha in History.” By contrast, “The malicious pleasure with which Hutchinson” and those around him “have stood and looked upon the distresses of the People, and their Struggles to get the Tea back to London, and at last the destruction of it, is amazing,” he wrote. It was “hard to believe Persons so hardened and abandoned” could feel so assured of their own rectitude when their countrymen were risking so much. John even wondered whether Hutchinson and his crowd wanted to see as many “dead Carcasses” as there had been chests of tea “floating in the Harbour.” Then he briefly indulged a lethal fantasy of his own, speculating that “a much less Number of Lives however would remove the Causes of all our Calamities.”
Months had to pass before the colonists would know whether the government had learned its lesson. One could hope for the best and fear the worst. Consistent with his dark view of the sinister forces at work in Britain, Samuel most likely expected the government to pursue a policy of repression. Writing to John Dickinson in early April 1774, he noted that “We [the Bostonians] have borne a double share of ministerial Resentment, in every Period of the Struggle for American Freedom. I hope this is not to be attributed to our having, in general, imprudently acted our Part,” when the real blame lay with Hutchinson and others “whose Importance depended solely upon their blowing up the flame of Contention.” Samuel was already wondering whether the other colonies would rally to Boston's support should the government indeed opt for vengeance. John favored a different conclusion. As late as April 1774 he clung to his long-held opinion “that there is not Spirit enough on Either side to bring the Question to a compleat Decision_-_and that We shall oscilate like a Pendulum and fluctuate like the Ocean, for many Years to come, and never obtain a compleat Redress of American Grievances, nor submit to an absolute Establishment of Parliamentary Authority.” Perhaps, he wrote to his friend James Warren, “Our Children, may see Revolutions, and be concerned and active in effecting them of which we can form no conception.”
Rather than anticipate the crisis that was about to break, John wondered whether he had “patience, and Industry enough to write an History of the Contest between Britain and America.” Like any working historian, he wondered where such a narrative should begin: with the accession to the throne of George III in 1760? Or perhaps the peace treaty of 1763, which had brought “the cession of Canada, Louisiana, and Florida to the English”? He even jotted down a cast of characters whose actions would have to be recounted. With two exceptions_-_Benjamin Franklin and William Lee, the younger son of a prominent Virginia family and now sheriff of London_-_the list consisted entirely of prominent leaders in Britain and Massachusetts. In his mind, Britain and Massachusetts, or even London and Boston, were the protagonists of this history. Had Adams pursued this project, he would have had to bring the other colonies into the story. But in April 1774 the lawyer soon to turn revolutionary was little less provincial than the Worcester schoolteacher of 1756. There was an America out there, its political destiny awaiting discovery, but John Adams was still a stranger to it.
Remarkably for an eighteenth-century government, the ministry of Lord North did have a partial contingency plan in reserve as it pondered its response to the Boston Tea Party. Plans to revise the Massachusetts charter of government had been broached in 1768 and again in 1770 but were shelved both times. Still, a belief persisted that Massachusetts was the great source of the mischief emanating from America. At some point something had to be done to strengthen imperial authority in this quarrelsome province. The chief suggestion was to allow the Crown, rather than the lower house of the assembly, to appoint the council, which operated both as an advisory body to the governor and as an upper legislative chamber. News of the Tea Party justified a more radical approach.
The government responded in a succession of acts that Parliament adopted in the spring of 1774. The first closed the port of Boston until restitution was made for the tea. Next, the Massachusetts Government Act altered the colony's 1691 royal charter by allowing the king to appoint members of the council. It further limited town meetings to an annual session for the sole purpose of electing officers. Then the Administration of Justice Act placed British officials and soldiers accused of murder and other capital offenses beyond the reach of colonial courts, implying that they could engage in violent acts against the colonists with impunity. Last, the Quartering Act provided legal authority to billet royal soldiers, typically drawn from the dregs of British society, in unoccupied houses and other spare buildings. The ministry also recalled Governor Hutchinson to England, there to brief his superiors on American affairs. His acting replacement was to be General Thomas Gage, commander in chief of His Majesty's forces in North America and an early advocate of the policies the government was about to enforce.
These Coercive Acts turned the episodic political controversies of the previous decade into a revolutionary crisis. They did so for three reasons. One was the severity of the collective punishment imposed on all of Boston, not specifically the unknown perpetrators who dumped the tea into the harbor. So harsh a penalty might be legitimate for Ireland or for the Highlands of Scotland, which was subject to the “clearances” that followed the failed Jacobite rising of 1745, when the clans rallied to the standard of Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson of the deposed James II. But Americans were not a conquered nation like the Irish or a suppressed people like the Highlanders; they claimed all the rights of freeborn Englishmen. Second, altering the colony's charter and denying the right of its juries to protect injured citizens threatened the equally fundamental principle that legislatures and juries both existed to prevent the arbitrary exercise of executive power. Third, and most important, in making legislative acts the vehicle for punishing Massachusetts, the government offered its definitive assertion of the reach of parliamentary sovereignty. When Parliament adopted the Declaratory Act back in 1766, affirming its power to govern the colonies “in all cases whatsoever,” that ominous phrase stated only a broad principle, not a plan of action. Now it described a legislative program that evidently knew no limit. What could Parliament not do, Americans asked, not only to Massachusetts, but to any other colony?
British officials hoped that the leaders of other colonies would ask a different question: why should they risk the grave costs of supporting a colony whose provocative politics exceeded the proper bounds of opposition? This was not a foolish calculation. Massachusetts was regarded as an unruly place to govern, the Tea Party had been a wanton destruction of property, and the colony's Puritan character did not sit well with residents of other colonies where religious matters were taken less seriously. By making the costs of defiance so evident, British officials reasonably assumed that other provinces would draw the obvious lessons.
The moral that Americans did draw was not the one the government wanted to teach. Resolutions adopted in local meetings throughout the colonies in the summer of 1774 agreed that the people of Boston and Massachusetts were “now suffering in the common cause” of American liberty. If excesses had occurred there, that was because they had been singled out for special attention, perhaps because Hutchinson had indeed convinced his royal masters that they merited it. This was why Hutchinson's troubles of 1773_-_his debate with the General Court and the affair of his letters_-_mattered so much. They neutralized whatever doubts and criticisms other colonists might voice about the tenor of opposition politics in Massachusetts.
One question remained: what was to be done? Even before news of the Port Act arrived on May 12, Samuel Adams fretted that colonists elsewhere might view Boston as a town ripe for comeuppance. Once word of the act was received, Adams and his collaborators decided to propose an immediate suspension of trade with Britain and the West Indies, where the slaves who produced the lucrative sugar crop depended on American foodstuffs for their sustenance. With the support of a hastily called town meeting, the Committee of Correspondence began writing to other communities and colonies, proposing an embargo to be known as the Solemn League and Covenant. The name carried a significance that many colonists instantly grasped. It was borrowed from a famous agreement of 1643, at the outset of the English Revolution, between the English Puritan opponents of King Charles I and their Scottish Presbyterian allies. At a moment when the Bay Colony desperately needed aid from other provinces, this was an astonishingly bad choice. In New England the beheading of Charles I in 1649 and the ensuing rule of Oliver Cromwell were still recalled with some favor, but elsewhere the turmoil of the 1640s and 1650s remained an object lesson in the dangers of revolution and political excess. If the goal of the Massachusetts radicals was to secure support from moderates in other colonies, the Solemn League of 1643 was the last symbol they should have invoked.
That was not the only miscalculation in Boston's early response to “the vengeful Stroke of the hand of Tyranny.” Boston wanted immediate action, but other communities and colonies preferred consultation first. As the replies of neighboring towns and other colonies revealed, Americans believed that any opposition to London's punitive measures demanded careful consideration and broad support. The stakes were too high for impetuous action, however sorely pressed the Bostonians might be. Within weeks, support rapidly coalesced for another measure, first proposed in Virginia. There the legislature was meeting at Williamsburg when news of the Port Act arrived. Lord Dunmore, the royal governor, dissolved the assembly before it could act, but a rump caucus of members reconvened in the Long Room of Raleigh Tavern and issued a call for an intercolonial Congress.
By early June Samuel Adams had to concede that an immediate boycott had no chance of success. It faced opposition even within Boston and mustered little support elsewhere. When Hutchinson sailed for London on June 1_-_unknowingly into a permanent and sad exile from the native province for which he ever after longed_-_he carried an address of thanks signed by seventy-five prominent citizens. A week later the General Court met at Salem, summoned there by Governor Gage in order to insulate the legislators from the intimidating presence of the Boston crowd. The assembly immediately appointed a committee to consider what the colony should do. Samuel Adams was its chair, but it also included Daniel Leonard, a known loyalist. The patriots on the committee gulled Leonard into thinking they were contemplating moderate measures, and then Robert Treat Paine_-_one of John Adams's great rivals at the bar_-_persuaded Leonard to accompany him to a meeting of the county court at Taunton. In his absence the committee drafted a resolution calling for an intercolonial Congress. When it was reported to the assembly on June 17, another loyalist feigned illness and left to inform Gage of what was happening. The governor quickly sent the provincial secretary to dissolve the assembly. But Samuel Adams had taken the precaution of barring the door, and Thomas Flucker could read his proclamation only “out-of-doors,” while inside, the assembly approved the resolution and elected a delegation to attend the Congress proposed for Philadelphia in early September.
The delegation numbered five: Speaker Thomas Cushing, Paine, the wealthy merchant James Bowdoin, and both Adamses. John had been in Boston when the Port Act arrived. His first reaction was that the town “must suffer Martyrdom: It must expire.” He was quickly caught up in helping to organize relief measures for a bustling port whose economy ground to a halt when the act took effect on June 1. But soon his thoughts moved on to Philadelphia.
For both Adamses, the imminent Congress would fulfill deep aspirations. Samuel's were primarily political. He had been troubled by the ineffective coordination of colonial opposition to British policies since at least 1770, when repeal of the Townshend duties largely unraveled the network of communications that the colonists had forged in the 1760s. Disappointed as he was by the response to the Solemn League and Covenant, Adams was too experienced an organizer to ignore the obvious point: in New England and elsewhere, there was a strong consensus that any response to the assault on Boston had to be reached by common agreement.
John's aspirations were personal as well as political. For twenty years he had yearned for a more prominent theater of activity than the circuit of county courts and greater causes than the routine pleadings he had to argue. Now “a new, and a grand Scene open before me,” he wrote in his diary days after his election. Once again the synonymous images poured out as the old tension between private concerns and public ambitions made itself felt. Congress would be like “the Court of Ariopagus, the Council of the Amphyctions, a Conclave, a Sanhedrim, A Divan, I know not what,” he mused. “A School of Political Prophets I Suppose_-_a Nursery of American Statesmen.” Marooned at a county court at York, he longed to return to Boston to converse with his fellow delegates and be “furbishing up my old Reading in Law and History, that I might appear with less Indecency before a Variety of Gentlemen, whose Educations, Travel, Experience, Family, Fortune, and every Thing will give them a vast Superiority to me.” He professed to be “unequal to this Business,” deficient in his “Knowledge of the realm, the Colonies and of Commerce, as well as of Law and Policy.” He knew nothing “of the Characters which compose the Court of great Britain” nor “of the people who compose the Nation.” An “American Senator” or an “American Statesman” needed just as much knowledge “as was ever necessary for a British, or a Roman Senator, or a British or Roman General.” Yet, as he wrote to his friend James Warren in mid-July, “Our New England Educations, are quite unequal to the Production of Such great Characters.”
Adams protested too much. No American education was adequate to the challenge the Congress would face. No knowledge of Britain offered an obvious solution to the questions and concerns that had brought the empire to this impasse. The Congress was an occasion for decision more than discovery. The knowledge the delegates needed most was exactly what they would have to acquire from one another during their deliberations. How far were they and their constituents prepared to go in support of Massachusetts, in fashioning a definitive statement of colonial rights and grievances, in agreeing upon the tactics to be used to persuade Britain to retreat? It was not lack of knowledge on these points that made Adams feel deficient, but rather the gravity of the decisions to be taken and the risks incurred.
Still, the ease with which Adams did imagine himself as an American statesman or senator, and not merely an envoy from Massachusetts, suggests how far ahead his ambitions were already racing. They sped faster too than the leisurely but politic pace of the delegates' journey to Philadelphia. On a very warm August 10, the Massachusetts members (save for Bowdoin, who chose not to attend) gathered at Cushing's house, boarded a coach-and-four (John had wondered what form of conveyance they would take), and set out for nearby Watertown. There they dined with several score gentlemen who rode out from Boston “and prepared an entertainment for them” at Coolidge's Inn. At 4 p.m., with the “fervent prayers of every man in the company,” the delegation said farewell. “The scene was truly affecting, beyond all description affecting,” John wrote. Similar scenes followed over the next three weeks as they crossed Connecticut, entered New York, were feted in New York City, and then traversed New Jersey before finally reaching Philadelphia on August 29.
Everywhere they received lavish hospitality and expressions of sympathy and support. They were also objects of profound curiosity. As they approached New Haven, an escort party greeted them a good seven miles out. Then upon arriving “all the Bells in Town were sett to ringing, and the People Men, Women and Children, were crouding at the Doors and Windows as if it was to see a Coronation.”
The delegation played the part of curious tourists in turn. In New York their guide was Alexander McDougall, the city's closest counterpart to Samuel Adams. He took them to Battery Point, where the governor's “magnificent” house had burnt only days after the Tea Party (a portent of the 1776 fire that devastated the city). They admired the statue of George III on horseback, “solid Lead, gilded with Gold,” on its high marble pedestal_-_to be pulled down in July 1776, the lead melted for shot. “We then walked up the broad Way,” visited “several Marketts,” and read newspapers at a coffeehouse. John Adams could not avoid noting that “The Streets of this Town are vastly more regular and elegant than Boston,” with its twisting lanes never set straight, “and the Houses are more grand as well as neat.” Local manners left him less impressed. “They talk very loud, very fast, and alltogether,” he complained. “If they ask you a Question, before you can utter 3 Words of your Answer, they will break out upon you, again_-_and talk away.” They spent six days there, then crossed New Jersey_-_“This whole Colony,” Adams wrote, “is a Champaign”_-_visiting the college at Princeton and the “pretty village” of pre-industrial Trenton before arriving at Philadelphia. Once again a large party of dignitaries greeted them. “Dirty, dusty, and fatigued as we were, we could not resist the invitation” to dine at the new City Tavern on Second Street, “the most genteel one in America.”
Beneath these shows of support and convivial bonhomie, there was political work to do. Whenever possible, the Massachusetts delegates sounded out the dignitaries who received them. Some they would see again in Philadelphia: Silas Deane at Hartford, Roger Sherman at New Haven, two New Hampshire delegates at New York hastening on because neither was inoculated against smallpox, four of the New York delegates. They were repeatedly pleased to learn that everyone agreed that their colony was indeed suffering in the common cause. But they were also anxious to correct untoward suspicions, such as the fear that the “Levelling Spirit” of New England might infect the other colonies and the belief that Massachusetts remained a bastion of religious intolerance, as it had been during “our hanging [of_] the Quakers” a century ago.
During the three weeks of their leisurely progress, the situation back home deteriorated. Thomas Gage had come to Boston to rule as a civilian governor, not by martial law, but for all practical purposes he was fast becoming a military ruler whose authority extended as far as the reach of his troops_-_but no farther. A regiment of redcoats was now encamped on the Boston Common, reviving memories of the massacre of 1770, and more troops were expected. To assert authority outside the capital was virtually impossible. Eighteenth-century Boston was still a peninsula, a bulging top-shaped town resting on the thin Boston Neck, its link to Roxbury and Dorchester, and surrounded by the Atlantic and the estuaries of the Charles and Mystic rivers. Eastern Massachusetts was the most densely settled region of North America. Gage's troops could not move undetected, and the colonists could concentrate large numbers of militia on Boston at short notice.
Nor was Gage's political position secure. In August he delivered royal commissions to the new councilors whose appointments were supposed to fortify the empire's hand within the provincial government. But they were quickly subjected to a tactic the colonists had first deployed in 1765. The easiest way to thwart imperial measures, Americans knew, was to bring the pressure of public opinion to bear on those unwise enough to enlist in the cause of tyranny. One would have to be an especially hardy soul to resist the entreaties of hundreds of townspeople gathered at your front door, urging you to renounce the tendered office under pain of being burnt in effigy, tarred and feathered, and shunned_-_not to mention fielding the occasional death threat. These crowds made the councilors an offer they dared not refuse_-_unless they sought refuge among Gage's troops.
Gage began his governorship hopeful that order and reason would prevail. The illusion was short-lived. By late August his discouragement was measured by the descriptive terms that crept into his dispatches: “Phrenzy,” “popular Fury,” “further Extravaganzies,” “the pitch of Enthusiasm,” loaded expressions all. “Civil Government is near it's End,” he wrote to Lord Dartmouth, secretary of state for America, on September 2. His immediate hope was “to avoid any bloody Crisis as long as possible,” he added. “Nothing that is said at present can palliate, Conciliating, Moderation, Reasoning is over, Nothing can be done but by forceable Means.”
In Philadelphia, meanwhile, the Massachusetts delegates were thrown into a round of continuous meetings with other delegations, over dinner at the City Tavern, at coffee, in strolls around town, and at receptions in gentlemen's parlors. Glasses were lifted in numerous patriotic toasts, from calls for colonial union and congressional unanimity to “'a constitutional death to the Lords Bute [once tutor to the king], Mansfield [the chief justice], and North.'” The delegates were naturally anxious to reassure one another of their mutual seriousness. In nearly every case, they were personally meeting their colleagues from other colonies for the first time. Avowing their common political sentiments offered an easy mode of introduction.
Monday, September 5, was the day appointed for the First Continental Congress to convene. The delegates met at City Tavern, strolled a few blocks to the newly constructed Carpenters' Hall, meeting place for one of the city's most numerous class of artisans, and promptly agreed “that this was a good room.” (Modern visitors see a spacious room around which the delegates could easily have spread. But originally the main floor was split into “an excellent Library” and “a convenient Chamber opposite” to it, and the delegates would have found themselves in a more confined and intimate space.) Without further ado, they elected Peyton Randolph, speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses, as their president. The delegates then read their commissions, and that done, elected Charles Thomson of Philadelphia as their secretary. John Adams had already heard Thomson described as “the Saml. Adams of Phyladelphia_-_the life of the Cause of Liberty, they say.” And in fact, back in December 1773, Thomson had taken the initiative of writing an extraordinary letter to the Boston Committee of Correspondence carefully assaying the limits and prospects for American resistance_-_exactly the sort of letter that Samuel himself might have written.
The next obvious step was to set the rules of deliberation. Many of the delegates were veteran legislators, but their experience offered no ready solution for one obvious issue: the rule of voting. Should it be by colony, with each delegation casting a single vote; by “poll,” with each delegate voting as an individual; or by “interests,” which meant proportioning the vote of each colony to its population, wealth, or trade? The last idea was raised by Patrick Henry, the legendary Virginia orator with the common touch, and was quickly challenged by John Adams. To adopt such a rule and then find the information needed to make it work, Adams warned, “will lead us into such a Field of Controversy as will greatly perplex us.” Henry was unconvinced. The stirring speech he gave the next day would still be recalled at another great meeting in Philadelphia thirteen years later. “Fleets and Armies and the present State of Things shew that Government is Dissolved,” Henry declaimed. “We are in a State of Nature” wherein provincial loyalties no longer applied. “I am not a Virginian, but an American.”
This effusion of nationalist sentiment was headily patriotic in one sense and transparently political in another. Henry's obvious motive was to give Virginia and other populous colonies a hefty, if not dominant, say in the Congress's decisions. But the whole point of the Congress was to enable the colonists to speak as Americans, to prove that Massachusetts could not be isolated. The delegates needed to reach decisions less by counting heads than by consensus, which made the rules for voting largely irrelevant. As delegates from the small states liked to say, “their all” was as much at stake as that of their populous neighbors. Every colony had an equal stake in the right decisions, regardless of disparities in population and wealth. Even could they have agreed on the justice of “equal Representation” (what we call “one person, one vote”), the delegates had come “unprepared with Materials to settle that Equality” since they lacked adequate data about population and wealth. That unanswerable objection led Congress to approve a different norm of equality, one that gave each colony one vote.
With that troubling question resolved, Congress proceeded to adopt other rules. But then at 2 p.m. an express message from Boston arrived and plunged the entire city into despair, leading Congress to adjourn hastily while Philadelphia's churches tolled ominously muffled bells. The occasion was a report that British troops and ships “had fired on the People & Town at Boston,” with unknown casualties. On Wednesday morning, another rider confirmed the news. In the Quaker City, Silas Deane wrote to his wife, Elizabeth, “All gather indignation, & every Tongue pronounces Revenge.” Congress had asked the Reverend Jacob Duché to open its next session with a prayer, and the lesson for the day proved “accidently extremely Applicable”: Psalm 35, which begins, “Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me: fight against them that fight against me.” Duché was a minister of the same Church of England whose persecutions had sent the Massachusetts delegates' Puritan ancestors to New England in the 1630s. But that did not stop Samuel Adams, a Calvinist by conviction but ecumenical in politics, from proposing the clergyman. The delegates were deeply moved by Duché's reading and the extempore prayer that followed. (The ability to preach spontaneously was much admired by congregants of all denominations, who had heard too many ministers mumble through sermons the way an Oxford don might lecture on medieval Byzantine scholarship without noticing the audience before him.)
In fact the reports were wrong. There had been no cannonade, no spilling of innocent blood. Gage had merely sent troops to nearby Cambridge and Charlestown to seize arms that the colonists were storing there. The raid was a tactical success and a strategic shock. In response to confused reports, thousands of militia from Massachusetts and even Connecticut mobilized and descended on Boston. Gage now knew that it would be difficult to conduct any military operations outside the capital unless he obtained reinforcements well beyond his current force of three thousand.
In Philadelphia, relief that civil war had not erupted was tempered by the realization that Massachusetts was a tinderbox; a misstep there, by either side, could end any chance for peaceful resolution of the great dispute. The Powder Alarm (as it is known) had a profound effect on Congress. It made all the difference that the provocation had come from Gage. Everyone expressed admiration for the restraint shown by the people of Massachusetts. “By g-d, says one I dont believe there is such a People in the World!” John Adams reported one member exclaiming as he read the reports from Boston, to be echoed by another who marveled that they could be “So cool, So cautious, so prudent, and yet So unalterably determined.” This perception explains why Congress readily endorsed the strongly worded resolutions that the Suffolk County convention had adopted on September 9 and hastily shuttled to Philadelphia. The resolutions were replete with overwrought references to “the vengeance but not the wisdom of Great-Britain,” “the arbitrary will of a licentious minister,” “the parricide which points the dagger to our bosoms,” and the “military executioners” who “thronged” the streets of Boston. The resolves also laid out a program of noncompliance with the existing legal institutions if they attempted to operate under the discredited authority of the Massachusetts Government Act. But careful readers_-_and the delegates read everything carefully_-_would note the language of the twelfth resolution: “we are determined to act merely upon the defensive, so long as such conduct may be vindicated by reason and the principles of self-preservation, but no longer.” The threat was there, but so was the promise of restraint. The idea of limiting militant action to “defensive” measures, as opposed to authorizing offensive acts against British soldiers, was the promise that Congress seized upon by making its hasty approval of the resolutions its first published act.
Yet this invocation of “the principles of self-preservation” carried an ominous connotation. When Thomas Hobbes published his controversial book Leviathan in 1651, he made the right to self-preservation the first law of nature. In his Two Treatises of Government, published four decades later, John Locke extended the idea of self-preservation to embrace a right to revolution_-_“the appeal to heaven”_-_against tyrannical misrule. With each passing week the people of Massachusetts increasingly thought that they were falling into something like the state of nature that Hobbes and Locke had described. The more precise condition was “a dissolution of government” in which legal institutions had lost either the capacity or moral authority to rule. Though the General Court had been summoned to meet at Salem, it was evident that the people would never acknowledge its authority. Juries were refusing to serve, courts were closed, the royal councilors who accepted their commissions had fled to Gage's protection_-_and over all there now lay the grim specter of civil war. In such conditions, a people could claim a natural right to constitute a new government, which was exactly what many in Massachusetts thought they were entitled to do. Perhaps they could resume legal government under their original charter of 1629, which allowed the colony to govern itself without royal interference. Or more boldly still, they might simply create a new government of their own devising.
The members of Congress universally opposed both ideas. There were limits beyond which it was too dangerous to allow Massachusetts to pass. To establish legal government under either of these schemes would be tantamount to renouncing the authority of the Crown as well as Parliament. Once that link was severed, no tie would remain binding the colony to the empire. Massachusetts would somehow have to soldier on, maintaining some improvised semblance of law and order as best it could.
For John and Samuel Adams, these were difficult weeks. Not that they doubted that Congress would do the right thing. Once it endorsed the Suffolk Resolves_-_“one of the happiest days in my life,” John wrote_-_it seemed evident “that America will support the Massachusetts or perish with her.” Their letters home reassured correspondents that the other delegates were united in admiration for the Bay Colony, expressed in meeting after meeting and dinner after dinner. Yet privately the Adamses worried whether some delegates were still suspicious about the true character of their native province. After weeks of hearing “the most figurative Panegyricks upon our Wisdom Fortitude and Temperance,” they still felt they were engaged in an awkward courtship with fifty “Strangers,” all unacquainted “with Each others Language, Ideas, Views, Designs. They are therefore jealous, of each other_-_fearfull, timid, skittish.”
John jotted these sentiments down in a brief note to Abigail on September 25, then evidently thought better of trusting these remarks to an unreliable post. Samuel Adams recorded similar reflections the same day. The colony's old reputation for being “intemperate and rash” had been replaced by a new “character” for being “cool and judicious as well as Spirited and brave.” But there remained “a certain Degree of Jealousy in the Minds of some that we aim at total Independency not only of the Mother Country but of the Colonies too: and that as we are a hardy and brave People we shall in time over run them all.” Baseless as this fear was, “it ought to be attended to.” Unless directly attacked, Massachusetts had to avoid hostilities involving Gage's occupying force. If it was feasible for the colony “to live wholly without a Legislature and Courts of Justice as long as will be necessary to obtain Relief,” John wrote the next day, “the general Opinion is, that We ought to bear it.”
The situation in Massachusetts might have impelled Congress to act with greater urgency. But as one Rhode Island delegate complained, “The Southern Gentlemen have been used to do no Business in afternoon so that We rise about 2 or 3 o'Clock & set no more that Day.” Northern merchants and lawyers were accustomed to long hours in their stores, offices, and studies. Southern planters were more used to spending hours on horseback, trying to coax an honest day's labor from their slaves while setting a good example for the overseers whose own feckless habits could be as aggravating as the slaves' uncanny knack for breaking tools, ignoring instructions, and defying common-sense notions of efficiency.
The easiest decision was to agree upon a plan for a commercial boycott, the favored tactic used against the Stamp Act and the Townshend duties. This new scheme was more ambitious than its predecessors. It would begin on December 1 with a ban on the importation of all goods from Britain and Ireland. Should the British government not offer redress, the next step would be to ban exports to Britain, Ireland, and the West Indies after September 1775. The delegates knew that American commerce was essential to the prosperity of the home islands. Their great hope was that the threat of losing that commerce would outweigh the other calculations (or miscalculations) underlying British policy. They believed they had “friends” to plead their cause, and by jeopardizing the vital interests of merchants and manufacturers and the very lives of Irish linen weavers and the slave gangs of the West Indies, Congress could mobilize the support of influential constituencies. Under such pressure, the government might well relent.
The boycott met with only one noteworthy dissent, from Joseph Galloway, speaker of the Pennsylvania assembly and once a close ally of Benjamin Franklin. Rather than risk the misery a prolonged boycott would bring, Galloway offered a more radical idea. Congress should propose the establishment of an intercolonial assembly to act as “an inferior and distinct branch” of Parliament. This “grand council” would regulate affairs of general concern and, in wartime, pass “bills for granting aid to the crown.” Matters of merely “internal policy” would remain the business of the colonial assemblies.
Although Galloway had not prepared the groundwork for this radical scheme, Congress debated it seriously before tabling it for later discussion. That discussion never took place; instead, Congress expunged any mention of the resolution from its journals. Later, as a loyalist refugee in London, Galloway traced the rejection of his bold initiative to the wiles of Samuel Adams, the leader of a “republican” (meaning anti-monarchical) faction already bent on independence. In Galloway's view, Adams was “a man, who though by no means remarkable for brilliant abilities, yet is equal to most men in popular intrigue, and the management of a faction. He eats little, drinks little, sleeps little, thinks much, and is most decisive and indefatigable in pursuit of his objects.” It was Adams, Galloway alleged, who kept Paul Revere shuttling between Boston and Philadelphia, coordinating events in both places to thwart the prospects for reconciliation.
Samuel Adams might have relished the tribute, but he would have resisted taking credit for the rejection of Galloway's plan. Most delegates had already concluded that Congress should insist that Britain restore the status quo ante_-_that is, the condition under which colonial affairs had been administered in 1763, before the empire launched its first reforms. That strategy was problematic enough, but far less so than the introduction of a wholly new scheme. Congress could have no assurance that such a plan would be favorably received either in the provincial capitals of North America or in London. Nor would it exert any pressure on the British government to relieve the suffering in Boston and restore legal government in Massachusetts.
In the first days of October, thoughts about redress and reconciliation took other forms. One conciliatory gesture came from New York: a proposal that Congress offer to pay for the tea destroyed at Boston while defending the town for its action and insisting that its residents “be instantly relieved” of their suffering. After a number of lengthy speeches, this idea was unanimously rejected. Congress then considered a second proposal, introduced by James Duane of New York, to remind the king that the colonies “have always cheerfully complied with the royal Requisitions for raising Supplies of Men and Money” for “their common defense,” and remained prepared to do so still “in any plan consistent with constitutional Liberty.” When the delegates discussed this proposal on Monday, October 3, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia offered an amendment that gave Duane's motion a radically different thrust. Lee's language baldly stated that there was no longer any need for Britain to station permanent forces in North America, which is “able, willing, and under Providence determined to Protect Defend and Secure itself.” Congress should urge the colonies to take immediate steps to invigorate their militias and make sure that they were “well provided with Ammunition and Proper Arms.” There being no imminent threat from any potential enemy other than Britain, the meaning of this recommendation was transparent. As one South Carolina delegate promptly rejoined, this was tantamount to “a Declaration of Warr, which if intended, no other Measure ought to be taken up.” Patrick Henry replied with an outburst so stirring that Silas Deane scrambled to get his exact language. “Arms are a Resource to which We shall be forced, a Resource afforded Us by God & Nature,” Henry argued, “& why in the Name of both are We to hesitate providing them Now whilst in Our power?”
Lee almost certainly concocted his resolution with the active cooperation of the Adamses. John had previously drafted an even more militant proposal. Without seeking to force or provoke events in Massachusetts, they had concluded that a military confrontation there was likely, and perhaps sooner rather than later. Lee even composed a resolution urging the Bostonians to flee their city and “find a safe asylum among their hospitable Countrymen.”
Congress was unwilling to go that far. It amended Duane's original resolution to affirm that the colonies were prepared to defray “all the necessary expenses of supporting government, and the due administration of Justice”; that the militias, if properly provided for, were adequate to protect the colonies in peace; and that the colonies would happily vote the necessary funds to support additional troops in wartime. It refused to endorse an exodus from Boston, but agreed only that the colonies should recompense its residents if so radical a step became necessary. But to prevent that possibility from arising, Congress also wrote directly to Gage, warning him to halt the fortification and isolation of Boston, lest he risk “the horror of a civil war.”
Samuel Adams was too seasoned a politician to let such little reverses unsettle him. As a former clerk of the Massachusetts assembly, he had learned a few lessons about the inefficiency of collective deliberation. Perhaps because he already knew, in the keep of his own counsel, how the dispute with Britain must end, he could accept decisions that fell short of his own assessment. Patience came less easily to John. With the temperament of a litigator, not a judge, he found it a struggle to tolerate his colleagues' oratorical excesses. Every delegate thought himself “a great Man,” he complained to Abigail, “an orator, a Critick, a statesman” whose voice had to be heard “upon every Question,” and if not in Congress, then during “the perpetual Round of feasting” which had finally grown “tedious” to endure but impossible to shirk. Decision making by consensus, however, is tedious, and that was the course to which Congress was committed.
The delegates had to labor over the precise wording of their various acts, not only because differences in language betokened real differences in policy, but also because they were acutely sensitive to how their statements would be read. They were appealing to multiple audiences: colonists anxious for their guidance, potential supporters in Britain, and, most important, the king and his ministers, who had to be convinced that they faced real opposition. Congress had to persuade beleaguered Massachusetts that it would be supported whatever the peril, while discouraging the other colonies from thinking that it was already bracing for war. Looking across the Atlantic, Congress had to demonstrate that Americans were united in defying the claims of Parliament, yet also sincere in their desire to remain within the empire.
The sharpest test of this balancing act came when Congress completed its Declaration of Rights in mid-October. A single issue provided the one true sticking point. Should the colonies allow Parliament to continue to regulate imperial trade? The delegates knew that American trade was essential to British prosperity. That was why the more optimistic believed that an effective commercial boycott would force the empire to retreat. But they also understood that the trade of a vast empire could not be effectively regulated by a squadron of individual legislatures, each with petty interests to protect. Even if Crown and Parliament agreed that the colonies were competent to manage their “internal police,” some central institution would have to oversee trade among His Majesty's dominions. What institution other than Parliament could do that? But in a political culture that valued the authority of precedent, such a concession had its risks. If Congress agreed that Parliament had a right to regulate trade, it could undermine its claim that Americans could be governed only by laws to which their representatives had freely consented. How could the colonies prevent parliamentary duties levied to regulate trade from being treated as revenue from taxation? How could Congress seek a restoration of the status quo ante of 1763 without acknowledging the authority of all the earlier Navigation Acts that Americans had often evaded but never challenged?
After several days of debate, Congress answered these questions in a way that illustrated just how militant it was prepared to be. As a basis for conciliation, the fourth resolution of the Declaration of Rights proclaimed that Americans would “cheerfully consent” to obey such parliamentary acts as were “restrained” in good faith to securing the “commercial advantages” and “benefits” of a common trading system. “Cheerfully consent” was the key phrase. While the adverb implied that Americans were happy to remain within the empire, the verb declared that they were conceding this point of their own free will. This was the lone conciliatory gesture the delegates were prepared to advance_-_and the only one adopted by a split vote. The other articles of the Declaration of Rights were approved unanimously. Taken together, they constituted more of an ultimatum than a plan of negotiation.
The increasingly restless delegates had other work to complete before they could adjourn. Drafting an address to the king was the most demanding. Consistent with their underlying theory of empire, the delegates balked at submitting their grievances to Parliament or asking that body to repeal its offensive acts. It was the king who would have to take the initiative in urging his ministers and his Parliament to reverse course. Congress was asking George III to play the part that a young Virginia attorney had sketched in drafting instructions for the Virginia delegation. With astounding presumption, Thomas Jefferson wanted Congress to remind the king that “the whole art of government consists in the art of being honest. Only aim to do your duty, and mankind will give you credit where you fail.” Jefferson would have the king remember that “fortune” had placed him “holding the balance of a great, if a well poised empire.” It was his duty to “deal out to all equal and impartial right” and resist favoring the interests of one part of his empire over another.
Congress knew it could not address the throne quite that freely. As if to apologize for Jefferson's bold language, Richard Henry Lee drafted an address that interjected a suitably contrite “may it please Your Majesty” wherever possible. Congress eventually approved an address that was deeply respectful but hardly fawning. It contained the expected declarations of the colonists' “affectionate attachment to your majesty's person, family and government.” But the head that wore the crown would be more likely to note the insult delivered to his ministers. “Those designing and dangerous men, who daringly interposing themselves between your royal person and your faithful subjects,” Congress complained, “have at length compelled us, by the force of accumulated injuries too severe to be any longer tolerable, to disturb your majesty's repose by our complaints.”
Nothing could be better contrived to perturb the royal repose. From boyhood George III had been trained to play the part of constitutional monarch, committed to the principle of parliamentary supremacy. He was hardly likely to abandon his duty as a king-in-Parliament to accept the constitutional whimsies of an upstart Congress in distant provinces he would never see. The king was just as committed to a policy of repression as the evil ministers whom Congress urged him to replace. Many delegates understood this. It was the logic of their theory of empire, rather than knowledge of their sovereign, that led them to place this burden on George. Whether he would graciously answer their petition, as a faithful monarch should, was beside the point. Congress had delivered an ultimatum consistent with its own theory of empire, which insisted that the colonial assemblies were virtually equivalent to Parliament in legislative authority. For a reformed British Empire to survive this crisis, the entire government_-_king, ministers, and Parliament_-_would have to accept this heresy.
The First Continental Congress adjourned on October 26, 1774, after seven weeks of debate and more banquets than the delegates cared to count. The last took place, like the first, at the City Tavern. John Adams spent the next day showing William Tudor, his law clerk, around town. Then, on October 28, the Massachusetts delegates left for home in a downpour, leaving behind “the happy, the peacefull, the elegant, the hospitable City of Phyladelphia”_-_adjectives they could not apply to desolate Boston. Adams doubted that “I shall ever see this Part of the World again, but I shall ever retain a most greatfull, pleasing Sense, of the many Civilities I have received, in it.”
The notion that he might never return is curious. Before adjourning, the delegates had resolved that a second congress would convene at Philadelphia in May. Adams should have recognized that he would be reappointed. It was nearly as naive to assume that Parliament would simply repeal its offensive legislation and restore the status quo ante of 1763. Perhaps Adams felt guilty over the time he had spent away from his family and his affairs, a mood that his impending thirty-ninth birthday on October 30 could have reinforced. Abigail's most recent letter had opened with an unusual salutation to “My Much Loved Friend” and a heartfelt expression of the “fears and apprehensions” that “agitate my bosom.” John would have been loath to contemplate taking another prolonged leave if the situation at home remained so perilous.
Back in Boston, Governor Gage marked Adams's birthday by writing two dispatches to Lord Dartmouth. The first opened with the strange saga of Samuel Dyer, a colonial seaman arrested for urging British soldiers to desert, something they seemed all too willing to do. After being sent to England, then released, Dyer made his way home, bent on revenge. Encountering two officers in the street, he snatched one's “hanger” (sword), slashing its owner, then pulled a pistol, which “missed Fire” twice. After fleeing to Cambridge, Dyer was returned to British custody by colonial officials fearful that his vengeful act exceeded the bounds of legitimate resistance. “He appears to be a vagabond and enthouiastically Mad,” Gage concluded. But then again, it was hard to distinguish Dyer from his countrymen. After five months in Boston, Gage was still astonished “that the Country People could have been raised to such a pitch of Phrenzy as to be ready for any mad attempt they may be put upon.” It was still possible that “The People would cool” in their support for resistance, Gage mused, “was not Means taken to keep up their Enthousiasm.” But for now they seemed “so besotted to one Side” that he had little hope of being able “to convince them of their Errors.”
Beyond popular frenzy, Gage faced three greater problems for which he saw no quick solution. One was the sheer inadequacy of the force he commanded. Three thousand men hemmed up in the “prison of Boston” (as Samuel Adams called it) were too few to restore royal rule to Massachusetts. Nor were significant reinforcements expected for months. Second, Gage understood that the results of the Continental Congress limited his options even further. “Affairs are at such a Pitch thro' a general union of the whole,” he observed, “that I am obliged to use more caution than could otherwise be necessary, least all the Continent should unite in hostile Proceedings against us.” Third, the patriot leaders in Massachusetts had already set up surrogate institutions to circumvent the legal government that Gage nominally headed. A provincial congress had just adjourned, after discussing, it was rumored, the formation of a military force of fifteen thousand, with additional support from “the Neighbouring Provinces.”
Of these developments, Gage had the least to say about the last, which was perhaps the most significant. Congress had balked at allowing Massachusetts to resume legal government. But it did not object to the formation of extralegal institutions_-_bodies that would not be tolerated when government functioned normally, but which became permissible when it did not. Congress had itself summoned similar bodies into existence across the continent by instructing every local community to elect committees of inspection to enforce its boycott of British imports. The delegates did not regard the creation of this Association (as the boycott was called) as a revolutionary act_-_at least not yet. But so it potentially was, because it hastened the flow of power away from legal government to an emerging network of committees and conventions. Every county and township in America would now have its own revolutionary nucleus in place, drawing authority from Congress and local citizens alike. It was a formidable combination, and neither the beleaguered Gage nor any of the other royal governors could do anything to prevent it.
The Massachusetts delegates took nearly two weeks to make their way home. En route they again received “the most pressing Invitations” to dine but did their best to decline in order to return “as fast as possible” to their province and their families. Once home, both Adamses attended the provincial congress that had become the colony's effective, if extralegal, government. After it adjourned on December 10, John probably spent most of the winter at Braintree, where Abigail lived with their family since his departure for Philadelphia. He kept no diary for this period but instead busied himself on a different literary project, drafting a lengthy series of letters, under the pen name “Novanglus,” meant to refute an effective loyalist writer writing as “Massachusettensis.” (Only late in life did he learn that his opponent was the same Daniel Leonard who had been lured away from the General Court just before it elected its delegation to the First Continental Congress.) From his home in Boston, Samuel Adams remained more closely involved with the daily coordination of resistance. Under the instructions of Congress, the British presence had to be tolerated_-_barely_-_and measures taken to ensure that the angry townspeople and their neighbors in nearby communities continued to act “on the defensive” only.
Through the winter, Boston remained an occupied city but not yet a besieged one. On March 6 Samuel Adams sat in the moderator's chair at Old South Meetinghouse as Dr. Joseph Warren gave the annual address commemorating the Boston Massacre. British officers were present, and Adams, expecting them to “take that Occasion to beat up a Breeze,” asked them to take “convenient Seats” so that “they might have no pretence to behave ill, for it is a good Maxim in Politicks as well as War to put & keep the Enemy in the wrong.” Adams did not misjudge. The officers sat quietly while Warren spoke, but after he finished “they began to hiss,” irritating the inhabitants on this solemn occasion, “and Confusion ensued.” The disorder at Old South was only one mark of the tension in the town beyond. Once again the presence of British troops_-_parading, drilling, getting drunk on cheap rum, bearing endless abuse from the townspeople_-_fed the perception that an armed clash was inevitable. The soldiers' morale plummeted. A few drank themselves to death, others deserted, and a handful were executed for attempting to do so.
On the last Sabbath of February, Gage sent a party by sea to Salem, hoping to confiscate munitions and cannon he knew to be stored there. Once landed, the troops were quickly detected, and the alarm sounded as worshipers poured out of church and frantically dragged the cannon into any available hiding place. As defiant colonists obstructed the soldiers in their searches and as militia hurried in from nearby towns, a quick-thinking local minister arranged a sham exercise, allowing the British to pretend to look for the cannon before confessing failure and returning to their ship. Occasionally Gage sortied other troops on similar missions into the nearby countryside, where they met insults but no armed opposition.
In mid-April 1775 Gage finally received fresh instructions from London. His reports had not been read sympathetically. Impatient with their commander's caution and legal scruples, the king and his ministers wanted bolder action: the arrest of resistance leaders and the seizure of colonial munitions. This was not the first time that the British army had been used to impose civil order on unruly populations. It had done so repeatedly in Scotland, Ireland, even in England itself. As a young officer, Gage had fought at Culloden, where the king's army butchered the Scottish clans. Though Gage understood that the American protests were not a replay of the Jacobite rising thirty years earlier, he retained a commander's confidence that disciplined troops could always vanquish a provincial rabble.
Gage set out to implement his orders. Recognizing that the capture of resistance leaders was unlikely, but believing that lessons from previous forays might enable his troops to seize colonial arms, Gage methodically planned a raid on Concord, where large stocks of munitions were known to be held. His preparations were impossible to mask from the colonists, who carefully monitored the activity of British forces. On the fateful night of April 18, 1775, a force of seven hundred soldiers set out for Concord. At Lexington they met a hastily gathered force of American militia loosely deployed on the town green. Shots were fired, and eight Americans died as the others scattered. The British proceeded to Concord. Here the Americans proved better organized, and their fire more accurate. Now it was the British who broke, beginning a long, harried retreat to Boston. When it was over and the exhausted regulars regrouped in Boston to call their roll, they counted nearly 250 casualties, almost thrice those of the colonists with whom they were now assuredly at war.
Four weeks earlier, while the ministry's new instructions were still crossing the Atlantic, the House of Commons heard a far more acute analysis of the deteriorating situation in America than either Gage or his distant superiors ever offered. Its author was Edmund Burke, member of Parliament from Bristol, agent of New York, author of the aesthetic theory of the sublime, a known “friend of America,” and political lieutenant to the Marquess of Rockingham, the king's chief minister when the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766. As London waited to learn how the ministry would respond to Congress, Burke prepared his own proposals for “conciliating” the American crisis, which he presented to the Commons in a speech that ranks high in the annals of political oratory_-_and futility. In November, before the results of the Congress could reach Britain, Lord North had called for fresh elections, and his government now stood secure in its command of both houses of Parliament. Once the news from Philadelphia became known, the lack of any conciliatory gesture from Congress steeled the government to hold to its prior decisions.
It was this fixed adherence to coercion that Burke challenged. The critical passages of his speech offer a brilliant exercise in political sociology, a model of analysis that modern statesmen could well study to their benefit. Burke recognized some provincial differences among Americans. Yet he also grasped the key fact that they were beginning to form a collective people_-_that is, a nation. There were a number of reasons why coercion must fail, Burke argued. Some of these reasons Britons should find flattering. The Americans were their descendants and shared their common ancestors' fierce devotion to their rights and liberties. Religion reinforced this attachment. The Americans were all Protestants, Burke reminded the Commons, and “All Protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent.” But American Protestantism hardly erred on the side of passivity, for “the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion.” True, south of Pennsylvania the Church of England was predominant. Its principles should favor loyalty to empire. But in the southern plantation colonies, a different social fact intervened: the existence of “a vast multitude of slaves.” In such societies, perversely or otherwise, freedom became “a kind of rank or privilege.” There, those who enjoyed it could not understand how elsewhere_-_as in Britain itself_-_an attachment to liberty “may be united with much abject toil, with great misery, with all the exterior of servitude” that enabled the laboring folk of rural and urban England to glory in their birthright of liberty even while a restricted suffrage denied them the formal political rights Americans took for granted. Owning slaves made planters perversely more devoted to preserving the liberty they carelessly stripped from others.
Burke added two other circumstances to the reasons why coercion must fail. One was the deep legalism of a society where William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England was selling as well as it was in England. Gage himself had noted that “all the people in his government are lawyers, or smatterers in law.” This devotion to the law, Burke noted, “renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defence, full of resources.” Reasoning like lawyers, Americans anticipated an evil in principle before its real mischief was felt. “They augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”
Finally there was the critical factor of geography. Government could not expect distant provinces to be as compliant with its decisions as were the home counties. Government at a distance was necessarily weaker, less efficient, more vulnerable to defiance. “Seas roll, and months pass, between the order and the execution; and the want of a speedy explanation of a single point is enough to defeat a whole system.”
To “these six capital sources” of the colonists' fierce attachment to liberty, rooted in the structure of colonial society, Burke added a last acute remark about the revolutionary situation he rightly grasped was emerging throughout America. We had once assumed that “the utmost which the discontented colonists could do, was to disturb authority; we never dreamt they could of themselves supply it; knowing in general what an operose business it is to establish a government absolutely new.” That assumption now lay disproved. A “great province” had gone without legal government for nearly a year. Far from drifting into the disorder that would make solid citizens long for the restoration of law and order, “A new, strange, unexpected face of things appeared. Anarchy is found tolerable.” Once the colonists learned the lesson the empire insisted on teaching them, that they could enjoy “the advantages of order in the midst of a struggle for liberty, such struggles will not henceforward seem so terrible to the settled and sober part of mankind as they had appeared before the trial.” Nor was this insight limited to the flashpoint of Massachusetts. Other “provinces have tried their experiment, as we have ours; and theirs have succeeded.”
A month before Gage faithfully executed his fateful orders, then, Burke already knew why the choice of coercion was a formula for failure. Like most members of the British ruling elite, Burke never thought to pay America an actual visit. Yet he grasped its politics much better than did Gage, who had served there for twenty years. Gage had been with Braddock on the disastrous expedition of 1755, commanded a regiment of light infantry, accepted appointment as His Majesty's commander in chief for North America, and married Margaret Kemble, a wealthy New Jersey heiress related to the powerful DeLancey family of New York. (Her stunning portrait by the American artist John Singleton Copley is also a famous example of the Turkish style of dress indulged by the fashionable.) Her husband did know America well enough to grasp that it could not be ruled in the mode of conquered Ireland or suppressed Scotland. Yet next to Burke's incisive account of the political obstacles to a policy of repression, Gage's belief that he faced a people gripped by an irrational “Enthousiasm” and “Phrenzy” suggests that he saw himself dealing with the zealous converts at a religious revival rather than an alienated population readying itself for revolutionary upheaval.
Burke's speech on conciliation is hardly his best-known political writing. He is better remembered for his later Reflections on the Revolution in France, the work that secured his reputation as a founder of modern political conservatism. Those reflections included an extended discussion of the deep differences between the temperaments of the French and English peoples, and can thus be read as a pioneering if primitive effort to fashion a theory of national character in terms that could not be reduced to simple visual caricatures of the kind that William Hogarth or his artistic heir, James Gillray, would purvey. Burke's earlier reflections on the looming revolution in America confirm that this knack for describing a people's political habits was an integral element of his genius.
There was, however, one significant difference between these two assessments of revolutions in the making. When Burke published his famous Reflections in 1790, he wrote in the idiom of reaction. But as spring came to the capital of empire in 1775, he spoke as a voice of moderation whose wisdom was lost on the king, his ministers, and most members of the Commons, who could not absorb the lessons of this brilliant political analysis.