History of the United States, Volume 4: 1774-1776

Author: George Bancroft

Chapter 27:
The People of Every American Colony Demand Independence,
June-July 1776

AMERICAN independence was not an act of sudden passion, nor the work of one man or one assembly. It had been discussed in every part of the country by farmers and merchants, by mechanics and planters, by the fishermen and the backwoodsmen; in town-meetings and from the pulpit; at social gatherings and around the camp fires; in newspapers and in pamphlets; in county conventions and conferences of committees; in colonial congresses and assemblies. The decision was put off only to ascertain the voice of the people. Virginia, having uttered her will, and communicated it to her sister colonies, proceeded, as though independence had been proclaimed, to form her constitution. More counsellors waited on her assembly than they took notice of: they were aided in their deliberations by the teachings of the law-givers of Greece; by the line of magistrates who had framed the Roman code; by those who had written best in English on government and public freedom. They passed by monarchy and hereditary aristocracy as unessential forms, and looked for the self-subsistent elements of liberty.

The principles of the Virginia declaration of rights remained to her people as a perpetual possession, and a pledge of progress in more tranquil days; but for the moment internal reforms were postponed. The elective franchise was not extended, nor was anything done to abolish slavery beyond the prohibition of the slave-trade. The king of England possessed the crown by birth and for life; the chief executive of Virginia owed his place to an election by the general assembly, and retained it for one year. The king was intrusted with a veto power, limited within Britain, extravagant and even retrospective in the colonies; the recollection that "by an inhuman use of his negative he had refused them permission to exclude negroes by law" misled the Virginians to withold the veto power from the governor of their own choice.

The governor, like the king, had at his side a privy council; and, in the construction of this body of eight men, the desire for some permanent element of government is conspicuous. Braxton, in the scheme which he forwarded from congress, would have had the governor continue in authority during good behavior, the council of state during life. But Patrick Henry, Mason, and the other chief members of the convention, did not share this dread of the power of the people; and nothing more was conceded than that two only of the eight councillors should be triennially changed, so that the body would be completely renewed once in the course of twelve years. The governor, with their advice, had the appointment of militia officers and of justices of the peace; but the general assembly by joint ballot elected the treasurer, the judges, and the officers of the higher courts. The general assembly, like the British parliament, consisted of two branches, an annual house of delegates and a senate of twenty-four members, to be chosen from as many districts, and to be renewed one fourth in each year.

The convention recognised the territorial rights of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas, and the limit set by the peace of 1763; otherwise it claimed jurisdiction over all the region, granted by the second charter of King James I. The privilege of purchasing Indian titles was reserved to the state; but a right of pre-emption was secured to actual settlers on unappropriated lands.

In framing the constitution, George Mason was aided by Richard Henry Lee and George Wythe; a form of government, sent by Jefferson, arrived too late; but his draft of a preamble was adopted. Virginia became a republic. The convention, having on the twenty-ninth of June unanimously adopted the constitution, transformed itself into a temporary general assembly, and made choice by ballot of a governor and a privy council. Patrick Henry became the chief magistrate in the commonwealth which, he said, had just formed "a system of government wisely calculated to secure equal liberty," and to take a principal part in a war "involving the lasting happiness of a great proportion of the human species." "If George III.," wrote Fox, "should for a moment compare himself to Patrick Henry, how humiliated he must be!"

On the fourteenth of June, Connecticut, urged by the invitation and example of Virginia, instructed its delegates in favor of independence, foreign alliances, and a permanent union of the colonies; but the plan of confederation was not to go into effect till it should receive the assent of the several legislatures. That Puritan commonwealth, which had in fact enjoyed a republican government more than a hundred years, then first conducted its administration in its own name.

On the same day and the next the Delaware assembly, at the instance of Mackean, unanimously approved the resolution of congress of the fifteenth of May, overturned the proprietary government within her borders, substituted her own name on all occasions for that of the king, and gave to her delegates new instructions which left them at Uberty to vote respecting independence according to their judgment.

On the fifteenth the council and assembly of New Hampshire, in reply to a letter from Bartlett and Whipple, their delegates in congress, unanimously voted in favor of "declaring the thirteen united colonies a free and independent state; and solemnly pledged their faith and honor to support the measure with their lives and fortunes."

On the first day of May 1776, Joseph Hawley wrote to Elbridge Gerry in congress: "There will be no abiding union without a declaration of independence and a course of conduct on that plan. My hand and heart are full of it. Will a government stand on recommendations It is idle to suppose so. Nay, without a real continental government, people will, by and by, sooner than you may be aware of, call for their old constitutions as they did in England after Cromwell’s death. For God’s sake let there be a full revolution, or all has been done in vain. Independence and a well-planned continental government will save us." The assembly of Massachusetts advised the people in their town-meetings to instruct their representatives on the question; and a very great majority of the towns, all that were heard from, declared for it unanimously.

The choice of all New England was spontaneous and Undoubted. Its extended line of sea-coast, with safe and convenient harbors, defied the menace of a blockade; its comparatively compact population gave it a sense of security against the return of the enemy.

Far different was the position of New York, which was the first of the large central colonies to mark out irrevocably her line of conduct. Devoted to commerce, she possessed but one seaport, and, if that great mart should fall into the hands of the British, she must, for the time, resign all maritime intercourse with the world. The danger was close at hand, distinctly perceived, and inevitable. On the twenty-fourth of May the vote of the continental congress, recommending the establishment of a new government, was referred to John Morin Scott, Haring, Remsen, Lewis, Jay, Cuyler, and Broome; three days later Remsen reported from the committee that the right of creating civil government is, and ought to be, in the people, and that the old form of government was dissolved. On the thirty-first resolutions were proposed by Scott, Jay, and Haring, ordering elections for deputies, with ample powers to institute a government which should continue in force until a future peace with Great Britain. But early in June the New York congress had to pass upon the Virginia proposition of independence. This was the moment that showed the firmness and the purity of Jay; the darker the hour, the more ready he was to cheer; the greater the danger, the more promptly he stepped forward to dude. He had insisted on a second petition to the king, with no latent weakness of purpose. The hope of obtaining redress was gone; he could now, with perfect peace of mind, give free scope to his convictions and sense of duty. Believing that the provincial congress then in session had not been vested with power to dissolve the connection with Great Britain, he held it necessary first to consult the people themselves. For this end, on the eleventh of June, the New York congress, on his motion, called upon the freeholders and electors of the colony to confer on the deputies whom they were about to choose full powers of administering government, framing a constitution, and deciding the great question of independence.

In this manner the unanimity of New York was insured; her decision remained no longer in doubt, though it could not be formally announced till after the election of its convention. It was taken in the presence of extreme danger, against which they knew that no adequate preparations could be made. Bands of savages hovered on the inland frontier of the province; the army of Canada was flying before disease and want and a vastly superior force; an irresistible fleet was approaching the harbor of its chief city; and a veteran army, computed by no one at less than thirty thousand men, was almost in sight. Little had been done by congress to re-enforce Washington except to pass votes ordering out large numbers of militia from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey, and still again more militia under the name of the flying camps of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland; and none of these were to be engaged beyond December. Congress had not yet authorized the employment of men for three years or for the war; nor did it do so till near the end of June, when it was too late for success in enlistments; the feeble army then under Washington’s command was, by the conditions of its existence, to melt away in the autumn and coming winter.

Moreover, Tryon, ever unscrupulous and indefatigable, from on board the Duchess of Gordon, secretly sought through the royalist mayor of the city of New York and others to prepare a body of conspirators, who should raise an insurrection in aid of Howe on his arrival, blow up the American magazines, gain possession of the guns, and seize Washington and his principal officers. Some of the inferior agents were suspected of having intended to procure Washington’s death. There were full proofs that the plan against his army was prosecuted with the utmost diligence; but it was discovered before it was matured. It is certain that two or three of his own guard were partners in the scheme of treachery; and one of them, after conviction, before a court-martial, was hanged. It was the first military execution of the revolution. This discovery of danger from hidden foes made no change in the conduct of the commander-in-chief.

The provincial congress of New Jersey, which came fresh from the people with ample powers and organized itself in the evening of the eleventh of June, was opened with prayer by John Witherspoon, an eloquent Scottish minister of great ability, learning, and liberality; ready to dash into pieces all images of false gods. Born near Edinburgh, trained up at its university, in 1768 he removed to Princeton, to become the successor of Jonathan Edwards, Davis, and Finley, as president of its college. A combatant of skepticism and the narrow philosophy of the materialists, he was deputed by Somerset county to take part in applying his noble theories to the construction of a civil government.

The body of which he was a member was instructed to prepare for the defence of the colony against the powerful enemy whose arrival was hourly expected; next, to decide the question of independence; and, lastly, to form and establish a constitution. They promptly resolved to reenforce the army of New York with thirty-three hundred of the militia. William Franklin, the last royalist governor, still lingered at Perth Amboy; and, in the hope of dividing public opinion by the semblance of a regular constitutional government, he had, by proclamation, called a meeting of the general assembly for the twentieth of June. The convention, on the fourteenth, voted that his proclamation ought not to be heeded; the next day he was arrested; and, as he refused to give his parole, was kept under guard till he could be removed to Connecticut. On the twenty-second it was resolved, by a vote of fifty-four against three, "that a government be formed for regulating the internal police of the colony, pursuant to the recommendation of the continental congress;" and in that congress five friends to independence were elected to represent New Jersey. As the constitution, drafted by a committee of which Jacob Green, Presbyterian minister of Hanover, was the chairman, was reported before independence had been declared, a clause provided for the contingency of a reconciliation; otherwise this charter from the people was to remain firm and inviolable. Its principles were: a legislative power intrusted to two separate houses; a governor annually chosen by the legislature, and possessing a casting vote in one branch of the legislature; judges to be appointed by the legislature for seven years and for five years; the elective franchise to be exercised by all inhabitants of full age who had been residents for twelve months and possessed fifty pounds proclamation money. No Protestant could be denied any rights or franchises on account of his religious principles; and to every person within the colony were guaranteed the right to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and an immunity from all tithes or church rates, except in conformity to his own engagements.

On the eighteenth of June the committees of Philadelphia and of the several counties of Pennsylvania met at Carpenters’ Hall in a provincial conference. Their duty was imperative, and yet necessarily the occasion of a bitter domestic fend. The old proprietary government, in an existence of more than ninety years, had won the admiration of the wise throughout the world by its respect for religious and civil liberty, had kept itself free from the suspicion of having instigated or approved the obnoxious measures of the British Ministry, and had maintained the attitude of a mediator between parliament and America. When the obstinacy of the king left no room for reconciliation, it came naturally to its end. Such of the members of the assembly as remained in their places confessed in a formal vote their "despair" of again bringing together a quorum; and when, according to the charter, they could only have kept their body alive by adjourning from day to day, they made an illegal adjournment to a day nearly two months later than that appointed for the vote of congress on independence, leaving measures of defence unattended to. The adjournment was an abdication; and the people prepared promptly and somewhat roughly to supersede the expiring system. Nor were the proposed changes restricted only to forms: a fierce demand broke out for an immediate extension of the right of suffrage to those "whom," it was held, "the resolve of congress had now rendered electors."

The provincial conference was composed of men who had hitherto not been concerned in the government. Thomas Mackean was chosen its president. On the nineteenth, one hundred and four members being present, the resolution of congress of the fifteenth of May was read twice, and unanimously approved; the present government of the colony was condemned as incompetent, and a new one was ordered to be formed on the authority of the people only. Every other colony had shunned the mixture of questions of internal reform with the question of the relation to Great Britain; but here a petition was read from Germans, praying that all associators who were taxable might vote. In the election to the assembly, the possession of fifty pounds proclamation money had been required as the qualification of a voter both in the city under its charter and in the counties, and the foreign born must further have been naturalized under a law which required an oath of allegiance to the British king; the conference reviving the simple provision of "the Great Law" of December 1682 endowed every tax-payer with the right to vote for members of the constituent convention. No more did poverty or place of birth disfranchise free citizens in Pennsylvania.

While in this manner the divisions arising from differences in national origin and in wealth were thrown down, the conference, at the instance of Christopher Marshall who had been educated among the Friends and had left the society because he held it right to draw the sword in defence of civil liberty, resolved that the members elected to the convention should be required to declare their faith in God the Father, Christ his eternal Son, the Holy Spirit, and the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. The pure-minded mystic did not perceive that he was justifying an inquisition by the civil authority into the free action of the soul, and a punishment for departing in belief from the established faith of the state.

It had not been the intention of the conference to perform administrative acts; yet, to repair the grievous neglect of the assembly, they ordered a flying camp of six thousand men to be called out, in conformity to the vote of the continental congress.

One thing more remained: on the afternoon of the twenty-fourth, on the report of a committee composed of Mackean, Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, and James Smith of York county, the members of the conference, giving their voices one by one with unanimity, pronounced in behalf of themselves and their constituents their willingness to concur in a vote of congress declaring the united colonies to be free and independent states; and an authenticated copy of the vote was, by Mackean, their president, delivered directly to congress.

Wiser were the people of Maryland, for they acted with moderation and unanimity, from a sense of right, and from sympathy with their sister colonies. In May and the early part of June the people, in county meetings, renounced the hope of reconciliation; listening to their voices, the committee of safety called a convention; and that body, assembling on the twenty-first of June, placed itself in the closest relations with its constituents. On the request of any one delegate, the yeas and nays might be taken and entered in its journal; its debates and proceedings were public. Its measures for calling militia into active service were prompt and efficient. On the afternoon of the day on which Moultrie repelled the British squadron from Charleston it concurred with Virginia on the subject of independence, a confederation, treaties with foreign powers, and the reservation of the internal government of each colony to its own people; and five days later, while the continental congress was still considering the form of its declaration of independence, it directed the election of a new convention, to create a government by the sole authority of its people.


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Chicago: George Bancroft, "Chapter 27: The People of Every American Colony Demand Independence, June-July 1776," History of the United States, Volume 4: 1774-1776 in George Bancroft, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, 6 Vols. (New York: Harper & Bros, 1882), Pp.426-434 Original Sources, accessed September 30, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LJBHVYA8IQQZAKG.

MLA: Bancroft, George. "Chapter 27: The People of Every American Colony Demand Independence, June-July 1776." History of the United States, Volume 4: 1774-1776, in George Bancroft, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, 6 Vols. (New York: Harper & Bros, 1882), Pp.426-434, Original Sources. 30 Sep. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LJBHVYA8IQQZAKG.

Harvard: Bancroft, G, 'Chapter 27: The People of Every American Colony Demand Independence, June-July 1776' in History of the United States, Volume 4: 1774-1776. cited in , George Bancroft, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, 6 Vols. (New York: Harper & Bros, 1882), Pp.426-434. Original Sources, retrieved 30 September 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LJBHVYA8IQQZAKG.