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The Eve of the Revolution, Chapter VI: Testing the Issue

The die is now cast; the colonies must either submit or triumph.–George III.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among, these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.–Thomas Jefferson.

Two months and ten days after Mr. Hutchinson embarked for England, John Adams, the Hon. Thomas Cushing, Mr. Samuel Adams, and Robert Treat Paine set out “from Boston, from Mr. Cushing’s house, and rode to Coolidge’s, where they dined…with a large company of gentlemen, who went out and prepared an entertainment for them at that place. A most kindly and affectionate meeting we had, and about four in the afternoon we took leave of them, amidst the kindest wishes and fervent prayers of every man in the company for our health and success. The scene was truly affecting, beyond all description affecting.” The four men who in this manner left Boston on the 10th of August, 1774, were bound for Philadelphia to attend the first Continental Congress. Even Samuel Adams, in excellent spirits, a little resplendent and doubtless a little uncomfortable in his new suit and new silk hose, could scarcely have known that they were about to share in one of the decisive events in the history of the modern world.

The calling of the Continental Congress had followed hard upon those recent measures of the British Government which no reasonable man could doubt were designed to reduce the colonies to a state of slavery. In May, 1773, the East India Company, whose privileges in India had just been greatly restricted, was given permission to export tea from its English warehouses directly to America, free of all English customs and excise duties. The three-penny duty in America was indeed retained; but this small tax would not prevent the Company from selling its teas in America at a lower price than other importers, either smugglers or legitimate traders, could afford. It was true the Americans were opposed to the three-penny tax, and they had bound themselves not to import any dutied tea; yet neither the opposition to the tax nor the non-importation agreements entered into had prevented American merchants from importing, during the last three years, about 580,831 pounds of English tea, upon which the duty had been paid without occasioning much comment.

With these facts in mind, hard-headed American merchants, to whom the Company applied for information about the state of the tea trade in the colonies, assured the directors that the Americans drank a great deal of tea, which hitherto had been largely smuggled from Holland; and that, although they were in principle much opposed to the tax, “mankind in general are bound by interest,” and “the Company can afford their teas cheaper than the Americans can smuggle them from foreigners, which puts the success of the design beyond a doubt.”

The hard-headed merchants were doubtless much surprised at the universal outcry which was raised when it became known that the East India Company was preparing to import its teas into the colonies; and yet the strenuous opposition everywhere exhibited rather confirmed than refuted the philosophical reflection that “mankind in general are bound by interest.” Neither the New York and Philadelphia merchants who smuggled tea from Holland, nor the Boston and Charleston merchants who imported dutied tea from England, could see any advantage to them in having this profitable business taken over by the East India Company. Mr. Hancock, for example, was one of the Boston merchants who imported a good deal of dutied tea from England, a fact which was better known then than it has been since; and at Philadelphia John Adams was questioned rather closely about Mr. Hancock’s violation of the non-importation agreement, in reply to which he could only say: “Mr. Hancock, I believe, is justifiable, but I am not certain whether he is strictly so.” Justifiable or not, Mr. Hancock would not wish to see the entire tea trade of America in the hands of the East India Company.

And indeed to whose interest would it be to have an English company granted a monopoly of a thriving branch of American trade? To those, doubtless, who were the consignees of the Company, such as the sons of Thomas Hutchinson, or Mr. Abram Lott of New York. Certainly no private merchant “who is acquainted with the operation of a monopoly…will send out or order tea to America when those who have it at first hand send to the same market.” And therefore, since the Company have the whole supply, America will “ultimately be at their mercy to extort what price they please for their tea. And when they find their success in this article, they will obtain liberty to export their spices, silks, etc.” This was the light in which the matter appeared to the New York Committee of Correspondence.

John Dickinson saw the matter in the same light, a light which his superior abilities enabled him to portray in more lurid colors. The conduct of the East India Company in Asia, he said, “has given ample proof how little they regard the laws of nations, the rights, liberties, or lives of men. They have levied war, excited rebellions, dethroned princes, and sacrificed millions for the sake of gain. The revenues of mighty kingdoms have centered in their coffers. And these not being sufficient to glut their avarice, they have, by the most unparalleled barbarities, extortions, and monopolies, stripped the miserable inhabitants of their property and reduced whole provinces to indigence and ruin…. Thus having drained the sources of that immense wealth…they now, it seems, cast their eyes on America, a new theater, whereon to exercise their talents of rapine, oppression, and cruelty. The monopoly of tea, is, I dare say, but a small part of the plan they have formed to strip us of our property. But thank God we are not Sea Poys, nor Marattas, but British subjects, who are born to liberty, who know its worth, and who prize it high.”

For all of these reasons, therefore–because they were in principle opposed to taxation without consent, and by interest opposed to an English company monopolizing the tea trade, and perhaps because they desired to give a signal demonstration of the fact that they were neither Sea Poys nor Marattas–Americans were willing to resort to the use of force in order to maintain their own rights by depriving the East India Company of its privileges.

When Capt. Curling’s ship arrived in Charleston, the people in that town, assembled to deal with the grave crisis, were somewhat uncertain what to do with the Company’s tea. On the very ship which brought the Company’s tea, there were some chests consigned to private merchants; and certain enthusiastic patriots attending the meeting of citizens affirmed that the importation of dutied tea by private merchants contrary to the non-importation agreement was no less destructive to liberty than the importation of tea by the East India Company. “All this,” it was said, “evinced a desire of not entering hastily into measures.” In the end, the Company’s tea was seized by the Collector and stored in the vaults under the Exchange. At New York and Philadelphia, the Company’s tea ships were required to return to England without landing; and it was only at Boston, where Governor Hutchinson, whose sons had been appointed by the Company as its consignees, refused return clearance papers, that the tea, some 14,000 pounds worth of it, was thrown into the harbor.

Throwing the tea into the harbor raised a sharp sense of resentment in the minds of Britons. The common feeling was that, unless the British Government was prepared to renounce all pretense of governing the colonies, something must be done. There were a few, such as Josiah Tucker, who thought that the thing to do was to give up the colonies; in their opinion, colonies were in any case more of a burden than an advantage, the supposed advantages of colonies being bound up with restrictions on trade, and restrictions on trade being contrary to the natural law by which commerce should be free. But the natural law was only a recent discovery not yet widely accepted in England; and it did not occur to the average Briton that the colonies should be given up. The colonies, he supposed, were English colonies; and he thought the time had come to establish that fact. He had heard that the colonies had grievances. All he knew was that the Government had good-naturedly made concessions for the last ten years; and as for this new grievance about tea, the average Briton made out only that the Americans could buy their tea cheaper than he could himself.

Obviously the time had come for Old England to set the colonies right by showing less concession and more power. Four regiments, as General Gage said, would do the business. The average Briton therefore gave his cordial approval to four “coercive” measures, passed by overwhelming majorities in Parliament, which remodeled the Massachusetts charter, authorized the Governor to transfer to courts in other colonies or to England any cases involving a breach of the peace or the conduct of public officers, provided for quartering troops on the inhabitants, and closed the port of Boston until the East India Company should have been compensated for the loss of its tea. In order to make these measures effective, General Gage, commander of the American forces, was made Governor of Massachussetts. To what extent he would find it necessary to use the military depended upon the Bostonians. “The die is now cast,” the King wrote to Lord North; “the colonies must either submit or triumph.” The King’s judgment was not always good; but it must be conceded that in this instance he had penetrated to the very center of the situation.

Massachusetts, very naturally, wished not to submit, but whether she could triumph without the support of the other colonies was more than doubtful; and it was to obtain this support, to devise if possible a method of resistance agreeable to all, that the Congress was now assembling at Philadelphia. The spirit in which the colonies received the news of the Boston Port Bill augured well for union, for in every colony it was felt that this was a challenge which could not be evaded without giving the lie to ten years of high talk about the inalienable rights of Englishmen. As Charles James Fox said, “all were taught to consider the town of Boston as suffering in the common cause.” This sentiment John Adams found everywhere expressed–found everywhere, as he took his leisurely journey southward, that people were “very firm” in their determination to support Massachusetts against the oppression of the British Government.

In respect to the measures which should be adopted to achieve the end desired, there was not the same unanimity. Mr. Adams, at the age of thirty-eight years, never having been out of New England, kept his eyes very wide open as he entered the foreign colonies of New York and Pennsylvania. In New York he was much impressed with the “elegant country seats,” with the bountiful hospitality, and the lavish way of living. “A more elegant breakfast I never saw”–this was at Mr. Scott’s house–“rich plate, a very large silver coffee-pot, a very large silver tea-pot, napkins of the finest materials, toast, and bread and butter in great perfection,” and then, to top it off, “a plate of beautiful peaches, another of pears, and another of plums, and a musk-melon were placed upon the table.” Nevertheless, in spite of the friendliness shown to him personally, in spite of the sympathy which, abstractly considered, the New Yorkers expressed for the sad state of Boston, Mr. Adams was made to understand that if it came to practical measures for the support of Massachusetts, many diverse currents of opinion and interest would make themselves felt.

New York was “very firm” in the cause, certainly, but “Mr. MacDougall gave a caution to avoid every expression which looked like an allusion to the last appeal. He says there is a powerful party here who are intimidated by fears of a civil war, and they have been induced to acquiesce by assurances that there was no danger, and that a peaceful cessation of commerce would effect relief. Another party, he says, are intimidated lest the leveling spirit of the New England colonies should propagate itself into New York. Another party are instigated by Episcopalian prejudices against New England. Another party are merchants largely concerned in navigation, and therefore afraid of non-importation, nonconsumption, and non-exportation agreements. Another party are those who are looking up to Government for favors.”

These interests were doubtless well enough represented by the New York deputies to the Congress, whom Mr. Adams now saw for the first time. Mr. Jay, it was said, was a good student of the law and a hard worker. Mr. Low, “they say, will profess attachment to the cause of liberty, but his sincerity is doubted.” Mr. Alsop was thought to be of good heart, but unequal, as Mr. Scott affirmed, “to the trust in point of abilities.” Mr. Duane–this was Mr. Adams’s own impression–“has a sly, surveying eye, … very sensible, I think, and very artful.” And finally there was Mr. Livingston, “a downright, straightforward many” who reminded Mr. Adams that Massachusetts had once hung some Quakers, affirmed positively that civil war would follow the renunciation of allegiance to Britain, and threw out vague hints of the Goths and Vandals.

Confiding these matters to his “Diary” and keeping his own opinion, Mr. Adams passed on to Philadelphia. There the Massachusetts men were cordially welcomed, twice over, but straightway cautioned against two gentlemen, one of whom was “Dr. Smith, the Provost of the College, who is looking up to Government for an American Episcopate and a pair of lawn sleeves”–a very soft, polite man, “insinuating, adulating, sensible, learned, insidious, indefatigable,” with art enough, “and refinement upon art, to make impressions even upon Mr. Dickinson and Mr. Reed.” In Pennsylvania, as in every colony, Mr. Adams found, there was a tribe of people “exactly like the tribe, in the Massachusetts, of Hutchinsonian Addressers.” Some of this tribe had managed to elbow their way into the committees of deputies to the Congress, at least from the middle colonies, and probably from South Carolina as well.

The “most spirited and consistent of any” of the deputies were the gentlemen from Virginia, among whom were Mr. Henry and Mr. R. H. Lee, said to be the Demosthenes and the Cicero of America. The latter, Mr. Adams liked much, a “masterly man” who was very strong for the most vigorous measures. But it seemed that even Mr. Lee was strong for vigorous measures only because he was “absolutely certain that the same ship which carries hence the resolutions will bring back the redress.” If he supposed otherwise, he “should be for exceptions.”

From the first day of the Congress it was known that the Massachusetts men were in favor of “vigorous measures;” vigorous measures being understood to mean the adoption of strict non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreements. There were moments when John Adams thought even these measures tame and unheroic: “When Demosthenes (God forgive the vanity of recollecting his example) went ambassador from Athens to the other states of Greece, to excite a confederacy against Phillip, he did not go to propose a Non-Importation or Non-Consumption Agreement….” For all this, the Massachusetts men kept themselves well in the background, knowing that there was much jealousy and some fear of New England leadership and well aware that the recent experience with non-importation agreements had greatly diminished, in the mercantile colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, the enthusiasm for such experiments.

The trouble with non-importation agreements, as Major Hawley had told John Adams, was that “they will not be faithfully observed; that the Congress have no power to enforce obedience to their laws; that they will be like a legislative without an executive. “Did Congress have, or could it assume, authority to compel men to observe its resolutions, to compel them to observe, for example, a non-importation agreement? This was a delicate question upon which opinion was divided. “We have no legal authority,” said Mr. Rutledge, “and obedience to our determinations will only follow the reasonableness, the apparent utility, and necessity of the measures we adopt. We have no coercive or legislative authority.” If this was so, the non-intercourse policy would doubtless prove a broken reed. Massachusetts men were likely to be of another opinion, were likely to agree with Patrick Henry, who armed that “Government is dissolved. Fleets and armies and the present state of things show that government is dissolved. We are in a state of nature, Sir!” If they were indeed in a state of nature, it was perhaps high time that Congress should assume the powers of a government, in which case it might be possible to adopt and to enforce non-intercourse measures. In this gingerly way did the deputies lift the curtain and peer down the road to revolution.

The deputies, like true Britons, contrived to avoid the highly theoretical question of authority, and began straightway to concern themselves with the practical question of whether the Congress, with or without authority, should recommend the adoption of strict non-intercourse agreements. Upon this question, as the chief issue, the deputies were divided into nearly equal groups. Mr. Galloway, Mr. Duane, and Mr. Rutledge were perhaps the leaders of those, probably a majority at first, who were opposed to such vigorous measures, fearing that they were intended as a cloak to cover the essentially revolutionary designs of the shrewd New Englanders. “We have too much reason to suspect that independence is aimed at,” Mr. Low warned the Congress; and Mr. Galloway could see that while the Massachusetts men were in “behavior very modest, yet they are not so much so as not to throw out hints, which like straws and feathers show from which point in the compass the wind comes.” In the early days of the Congress, if we are to believe Mr. Hutchinson, this cold north wind was so much disliked that the New York and New Jersey deputies, “and others,” carried a vote against the adoption of non-intercourse agreements, “agreed to present a petition to the King,” and “expected to break up, when letters arrived from Dr. Franklin which put an end to the petition.”