The thought of independence in the minds of the colonists was of surprisingly slow growth. The feeling of dependence on the mother-country and of loyalty to the king was deep-rooted and died hard. Even union, which was a pre-requisite to a successful struggle for independence, came slowly. The old New England Confederation, in 1643-84, between Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven, for defence against Indians, Dutch, and French, ended without ever having manifested the slightest vigor.
In the latter half of the seventeenth century Virginia had alliances with some sister colonies for protection against Indians; but there was no call for a general congress until the French and Indian attack on Schenectady, in 1690, during King William's War. Representatives from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Plymouth met that year at New York; letters came from Virginia, Maryland, and Rhode Island. But no permanent union was proposed here, nor at any of the similar meetings, seven at least, which occurred between 1690 and 1750.
The Albany Convention, which met in 1754 to prepare for the French and Indian War, adopted a plan for union presented by Franklin, providing for a president-general appointed and supported by the Crown, and for a grand council of delegates elected triennially by the colonies according to population, and empowered, within limits, to lay taxes and make laws for the common interest of English America. Franklin believed that the adoption of this scheme would have postponed the Revolution a century. But, as it gave so much power to the king, it was rejected by the people in every colony.
Even after English oppression and the diligent agency of committees of correspondence had brought union, and delegates from the colonies had met again and again in Congress, the thought of breaking away from the mother-land was strange to the minds of nearly all. The instructions to the delegates to the first Congress, in September, 1774, gave no suggestion of independence. On the contrary, colony after colony urged its representatives to seek the restoration of "harmony and union" with England. This Congress branded as "calumny" the charge that it wished "independency." Washington wrote, from the Congress, that independence was then not "desired by any thinking man in America."
[Illustration: Flag, a pine tree below "AN APPEAL TO HEAVEN".] Pine Tree Flag of Massachusetts.
[Illustration: Flag, a rattlesnake above "DON'T TREAD ON ME".] Rattlesnake Flag of South Carolina.
The feeling was much the same in 1775. Pennsylvania "strictly" commanded her representatives to dissent from any "proposition that may lead to separation." Maryland gave similar instructions in January, 1776. Independence was neither the avowed nor the conscious object in defending Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775. Washington's commission as commander-in-chief, two days later, gave no hint of it. And the New Hampshire legislature so late as December 25, 1775, in the very act of framing a new state government, "totally disavowed" all such aim. In the fall of 1775 Congress declared that it had "not raised armies with the ambitious design of separation from Great Britain."
The swift change which, a little more than six months later, made the Declaration of Independence possible and even popular, has never yet been fully explained. In May, 1775, John Adams had been cautioned by the Philadelphia Sons of Liberty not to utter the word independence. "It is as unpopular," they said, in "Pennsylvania and all the Middle and Southern States as the Stamp Act itself." Early in 1776 this same great man wrote that there was hardly a newspaper in America but openly advocated independence. In the spring of 1776 the conservative Washington declared, "Reconciliation is impracticable. Nothing but independence will save us." Statesmen began to see that longer delay was dangerous, that permanent union turned upon independence, and that, without a government of their own, people would by and by demand back their old constitution, as the English did after Cromwell's death. "The country is not only ripe for independence," said Witherspoon, of New Jersey, debating in Congress, "but is in danger of becoming rotten for lack of it."
Colony after colony now came rapidly into line. Massachusetts gave instructions to her delegates in Congress, virtually favoring independence, in January, 1776. Georgia did the same in February, South Carolina in March. Express authority to "concur in independency" came first from North Carolina, April 12th, and the following May 31st Mecklenburg County in that State explicitly declared its independence of England. On May 1st Massachusetts began to disuse the king's name in public instruments. May 4th, Rhode Island renounced allegiance almost in terms. On May 15th brave old Virginia ordered her delegates in Congress to bite right into the sour apple and propose independence. Connecticut, New Hampshire, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania took action in the same direction during the following month.
[Illustration: Flag; thirteen stripes, with the English cross and diagonal cross in the upper left corner.] Union Flag. The first recognized Continental Standard, raised for the first time January 2,1776.
The king's brutal attitude had much to do with this sudden change. The colonists had nursed the belief that the king was misled by his ministers. A last petition, couched in respectful terms, was drawn up by Congress in the summer of 1775, and sent to England. Out of respect to the feelings of good John Dickinson, of Pennsylvania, who still clung to England, this address was tempered with a submissiveness which offended many members. On its being read, Dickinson remarked that but one word in it displeased him, the word "Congress;" to which Colonel Ben Harrison, of Virginia, retorted that but one word in it pleased him, and that "Congress" was precisely the word.
The appeal was idle. The king's only answer was a violent proclamation denouncing the Americans as rebels. It was learned at the same time that he was preparing to place Indians, negroes, and German mercenaries in arms against them. The truth was forced upon the most reluctant, that the root of England's obduracy was in the king personally, and that further supplications were useless. The surprising success of the colonial arms, the shedding of blood at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill--all which, remember, antedated the Declaration--the increase and the ravages of the royal army and navy in America, were all efficient in urging the colonists to break utterly and forever from the mother-country.
The behavior of the Gaspe officers in Narragansett Bay, their illegal seizures, plundering expeditions on shore, and wanton manners in stopping and searching boats, illustrate the spirit of the king's hirelings in America at this time. At last the Rhode Islanders could endure it no longer. Early on the morning of June 9, 1772, Captain Abraham Whipple, with a few boatloads of trusty aides, dropped down the river from Providence to what is now called Gaspe Point, six or seven miles below the city, where the offending craft had run aground the previous evening in giving chase to the Newport-Providence packet-boat, and after a spirited fight mastered the Gaspe's company, put them on shore, and burned the ship. There would be much propriety in dating the Revolution from this daring act.
Nor was this the only case of Rhode Island's forwardness in the struggle. December 5, 1774, her General Assembly ordered Colonel Nightingale to remove to Providence all the cannon and ammunition of Fort George, except three guns, and this was done before the end of the next day. More than forty cannon, with much powder and shot, were thus husbanded for service to come. News of this was carried to New Hampshire, and resulted in the capture of Fort William and Mary at New Castle, December 14, 1774, which some have referred to as the opening act of the Revolution. This deed was accomplished by fourteen men from Durham, who entered the fort at night when the officers were at a ball in Portsmouth. The powder which they captured is said to have done duty at Bunker Hill.
Most potent of all as a cause of the resolution to separate was Thomas Paine's pamphlet, "Common Sense," published in January, 1776, and circulated widely throughout the colonies. Its lucid style, its homely way of putting things, and its appeals to Scripture must have given it at any rate a strong hold upon the masses of the people. It was doubly and trebly triumphant from the fact that it voiced, in clear, bold terms, a long-growing popular conviction of the propriety of independence, stronger than men had dared to admit even to themselves.
[Illustration: Portrait.] Thomas Paine.
On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia, rose in Congress, and, in obedience to the command of his State, moved a resolution "that the united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States." John Adams seconded the motion. It led to great debate, which evinced that New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and South Carolina were not yet quite ready for so radical a step. Postponement was therefore had till July 1st, a committee meantime being appointed to draft a declaration.
On July 2d, after further long debate, participated in by John Adams, Dickinson, Wilson, and many other of the ablest men in Congress, not all, even now, favorable to the measure, the famous Declaration of Independence was adopted by vote of all the colonies but New York, whose representatives abstained from voting for lack of sufficiently definite instructions. We celebrate July 4th because on that day the document was authenticated by the signatures of the President and Secretary of Congress, and published, Not until August 2d had all the representatives affixed their names. Ellery stood at the secretary's side as the various delegates signed, and declares that he saw only dauntless resolution in every eye. "Now we must hang together," said Franklin, "or we shall hang separately."
The honor of writing the Declaration belongs to Thomas Jefferson, of Virginia, who was to play so prominent a part in the early political history of the United States. At this time he was thirty-three years old. He was by profession a lawyer, of elegant tastes, well read in literature, deeply versed in political history and philosophy. He was chosen to draft the instrument chiefly because of the great ability of other state papers from his pen. It is said that he consulted no books during the composition, but wrote from the overflowing fulness of his mind.
It is an interesting inquiry how far the language of the document was determined by utterances of a like kind already put forth by towns and counties. There had been many of these, and much discussion has occurred upon the question which of them was first. Perhaps the honor belongs to the town of Sheffield, Mass., which so early as January 12, 1773, proclaimed the grievances and the rights of the colonies, among these the right of self-government. Mendon, in the same State, in the same year passed resolutions containing three fundamental propositions of the great Declaration itself: that all men have an equal right to life and liberty, that this right is inalienable, and that government must originate in the free consent of the people. It is worthy of note that the only important change made by Congress in what Jefferson had prepared was the striking out, in deference to South Carolina and Georgia, of a clause reflecting on slavery.
Copies of the immortal paper were carried post-haste up and down the land, and Congress's bold deed was everywhere hailed with enthusiastic demonstrations of joy. The stand for independence wrought powerfully for good, both at home and abroad. At home it assisted vacillating minds to a decision, as well as bound all the colonies more firmly together by committing them irreconcilably to an aggressive policy. Abroad it tended to lift the colonies out of the position of rebels and to gain them recognition among the nations of the earth.
Let us now inquire into the political character of these bodies of people which this Declaration by their delegates had erected into "free and independent States."
Five colonies had adopted constitutions, revolutionary of course, before the decisive manifesto. There was urgent need for such action. The few remaining fragments of royal governments were powerless and decadent. Anarchy was threatening everywhere. Some of the royal governors had fled. In South Carolina the judges refused to act. In other places, as western Massachusetts, they had been forcibly prevented from acting. In most of the colonies only small parts of the old assemblies could be gotten together.
New Hampshire led off with a new constitution in January, 1776. South Carolina followed in March. By the close of the year nearly all the colonies had established governments of their own. New York and Georgia did not formally adopt new constitutions until the next year. In Massachusetts a popular assembly assumed legislative and executive powers from July, 1775, till 1780, when a new constitution went into force. Connecticut and Rhode Island, as we have seen already, continued to use their royal charters--the former till 1818, the latter till 1842.
Nowhere was the general framework of government greatly changed by independence. The governors were of course now elected by the people, and they suffered some diminution of power. Legislatures were composed of two houses, both elective, no hereditary legislators being recognized. All the States still had Sunday laws; most of them had religious tests. In South Carolina only members of a church could vote. In New Jersey an office-holder must profess belief in the faith of some Protestant sect. Pennsylvania required members of the legislature to avow faith in God, a future state, and the inspiration of the Scriptures. The new Massachusetts constitution provided that laws against plays, extravagance in dress, diet, etc., should be passed. Property qualifications continued to limit suffrage. Virginia and Georgia changed their land laws, abolishing entails and primogeniture.
The sole momentous novelty was that everyone of the new constitutions proceeded upon the theory of popular sovereignty. The new governments derived their authority solely and directly from the people. And this authority, too, was not surrendered to the government, but simply--and this only in part--intrusted to it as the temporary agent of the sovereign people, who remained throughout the exclusive source of political power.
The new instruments of government were necessarily faulty and imperfect. All have since been amended, and several entirely remodelled. But they rescued the colonies from impending anarchy and carried them safely through the throes of the Revolution.