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Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776by William Hogeland
Cold Wind, Warm Election
May 1, 1776
Voters kept arriving on Philadelphia’s western outskirts. At the block of Chestnut Street between Fifth and Sixth streets, outside the door to the Pennsylvania State House, the men kicked up dust, a growing crowd of tricornered hats and winter-beaten coats. Soon they were trading insults and threats. It was Mayday of 1776, bright but cold, with a wind blowing from the Delaware River, and the polls had been open since ten in the morning for what one, a visitor, predicted would be “the warmest election that ever was held in this city.” The voters were choosing a new Pennsylvania government. The vote was expected to be close, the day tense and possibly even violent. The State House itself, assertively symmetrical in high Georgian style, spoke only of grace and stability. Cupolas adorned the bell tower, which drew gazes up and heads back as it pierced the sky. Big mechanical clocks celebrated Pennsylvania’s leadership in science and technology. Words from Leviticus proclaimed liberty. In a light-suffused chamber on the ground floor one of the oldest deliberative bodies on the continent—one of the best respected in the English-speaking world—the Pennsylvania assembly, made laws.
But grace and stability hadn’t been evident lately. The assemblymen had moved upstairs to a committee room. They were lending their regular room to the Continental Congress, a body of delegates representing the various American colonial governments. The body had gathered in Philadelphia in 1774 as the First Continental Congress to mount a formal, intercolonial resistance to trade and police policies of England. Colonial governments objected to those policies for violating liberties that Americans believed they were guaranteed by English law. Yet many colonists, in and out of government, objected to the colonies’ joining in opposition. Some deemed colonial resistance outright sedition. Delegates to the First Congress had fought bitterly over how far and how assertively to protest and resist.
Things had grown dire since then. Delegates to the Second Congress, which convened in Philadelphia in the spring of 1775, were now responsible for operating a poor excuse for a military force, optimistically called the Continental Army, which had actually gone to war against the British Army. The shooting had started in April 1775, when British regiments occupying Boston, Massachusetts, where American resistance had been especially confrontational, marched in formation out of town and into the nearby countryside. At Lexington and Concord, country militias confronted those ranks of crack redcoats and the soldiers were sent running back to Boston, harried by guerilla musketmen. With the British troops shocked and humiliated by defeat, militias from elsewhere in New England, and then from the other colonies, hastened to Massachusetts to aid what became a colonial siege, keeping the British occupiers stuck in Boston. In Philadelphia, the Second Continental Congress gave firm support to Massachusetts by forming the Continental Army. The delegates sent George Washington, a Virginia militia colonel with few qualifications other than charisma and an impressive physique, up to Massachusetts to command the army and manage the siege.
Then, late in March, word had come to Philadelphia that the redcoats had burned their own forts and broken their own cannon, and had sailed their ships out of Boston Harbor. Things hadn’t been entirely quiet since then. British ships had shelled and threatened coastal towns. Lord Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, now operating from a British warship, offered slaves freedom if they’d rise up against their plantation masters. An American expedition to Quebec was in the process of failing. Only a few miles downriver from Philadelphia, two British men-of-war were tacking up and down the bay, patrolling the Delaware’s mouth to stop the city’s trade.
But there had been no invasion. Now that pause was over. The biggest armada in English history was forming, row on row of masts and sails mustering in the harbor at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and transport ships from England, sighted on the high seas, carrying thousands of soldiers, best disciplined in the world, expert at shaking curtains of lead from ranked muskets. Then they would charge, a thicket of blades, to slice bashed-up opponents into piles of gore. British retribution had been a year in the planning. It wouldn’t be mild.
So the voters outside the Pennsylvania State House this cold Mayday had reason to be frightened and testy and ready to push and shove. The question they had to decide today, under pressures they could never have imagined before, was a terrible one:
Reconciliation with England? Or American independence?
Reconciliation had long been the watchword. The war against England was defensive: that was the position of the Continental Congress and the colonial governments it represented, as well as a fervent belief of many Americans, even patriots. Taking up arms had been justified, after years of Parliament’s abuse, by British troops’ outright military aggression in Massachusetts. The war was supposed to make England see reason and bring Parliament to terms that would restore American liberties. Many colonists, including outspoken American resisters, referred to England as “home” and considered themselves loyal inhabitants of a glorious nation and great empire. They sought nothing more from the war than a quick conclusion and a just reconciliation with the mother country.
But some Americans had a different desire, and it was shocking: American independence. The idea had hardly been spoken aloud until recently. Its boldest adherents were from Massachusetts, which had always taken extreme positions against England; certain well-connected Virginians supported independence, too. In every colonial government and in the Continental Congress, the “reconciliationists” opposed the “independents” with force. Reconciliationists condemned declaring independence as a mad, doomed scheme of Massachusetts extremists.
No colony had been more committed to achieving reconciliation with England than Pennsylvania. And Pennsylvania made its opposition to independence decisive. Already called the keystone, rich and big, the Congress’s host, it was the most influential of the colonies. Philadelphia’s port on the Delaware dominated American trade, and the city was considered the second most important and elegant in the empire. A geographical position between New England and the South made Pennsylvania not only economically powerful but also militarily strategic, capable of fatally dividing Massachusetts from Virginia. And Pennsylvania held political sway over Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, and New York, which formed a solid middle-colony bloc for reconciliation. Those colonies instructed their delegates in the Congress to pursue peace with England and to vote against any measure that might so much as hint at an American declaration of independence. Thanks to Pennsylvania’s leadership, no effort in the Congress to push for independence could succeed.
But all that might change today. The Pennsylvania assembly was scheduled to begin its new session on May 20 in the temporary committee room upstairs. This election was for new Pennsylvania assemblymen, and a ticket of assembly candidates had announced their support for American independence. If those independence candidates could win a majority in the Pennsylvania assembly, the colony would reverse its policy for reconciliation almost overnight. The assembly would vote to change instructions to Pennsylvania’s delegates in the Congress. So great was Pennsylvania’s influence that an independence assembly elected here today could swing the whole Congress toward declaring independence and making the war a revolutionary one.
Hence the ugly mood. American independence or reconciliation with England? In an election that might determine Americans’ fate, there was no middle ground. The Continental Congress had taken an unaccustomed weekday recess, giving over the ground floor of the State House to receiving and recording Philadelphians’ ballots. Up and down the coast, people on both sides of the question awaited the results with fear and hope. As Pennsylvania went today, so must go the country, and the country was so passionately divided, and the contest in Pennsylvania so close, that nobody could confidently predict the outcome.
Samuel Adams of Boston was not to be seen at the polls that Mayday. He’d done more than he hoped anyone would ever know to push the Pennsylvania election toward American independence. He made it his business to be anywhere but at the center of what he inspired.
He roomed with his second cousin John Adams near the Delaware River’s loud docks. He’d arrived in the spring of 1775, shortly after the shooting war had broken out at Lexington and Concord, entering Philadelphia in dour triumph. Muffled churchbells tolled to show the colonies’ support for his suffering Massachusetts. Most visitors were overwhelmed by the size, stink, and hustle of the busiest port in America and second-most-sophisticated city in the empire. Some marveled at the broad avenues on a rational grid. Not Samuel Adams. He found little to remark on and nothing to admire or approve in Philadelphia, in the province of Pennsylvania itself, or in the middle colonies as a whole. He’d been called out of his New England country, and out of Boston’s narrow alleys and turning streets, by a duty to make things like today’s election go a certain way. Where he saw frippery and pusillanimity, a saving change must come.
Of what was called middling height (fairly short) and middling build (somewhat stocky), at fifty-three Adams was past middle age, and physical vigor had never been the source of his success. He was shaken by an intermittent, full-body tremor that sometimes made him unable to write. He dressed not just plainly but shabbily. He hadn’t even learned to ride until recently, and then only at the insistence of cousin John, his top deputy, thirteen years younger. John thought nobody as important as Samuel should go horseless and that riding improved health. After some help in mounting, Samuel managed to stay on top all the way from Massachusetts to Philadelphia, enduring the burning and soreness that the saddle would cause any new rider, especially one his age. The Adamses had some flannel drawers made along the way to cushion the seat, and by the time they arrived in town, the younger Adams was confounded. The servants had been whispering that the elder Adams was the better rider.
Samuel Adams had will. And he had a calling. From his earliest days in back-room Boston politics he’d been working against royal elements in government and Parliamentary involvement in Massachusetts trade. For more than ten years he’d been openly harassing royal governors. In the Massachusetts legislature, he authored bills against British trade acts and petitions dissenting from the governors’ enforcement efforts. In the newspapers, under many pen names, he extolled liberty and made vicious attacks both on royal administrators and on citizens who seemed weak in the patriot cause. In taverns, political clubs, and the Boston town meeting he made civic virtue identical with crowds’ fierce street protests. In correspondence with officials in other colonies he fostered intercolonial resistance.
Samuel Adams had pushed Massachusetts toward the shooting at Lexington and Concord, and now he’d gone all the way. England was a irredeemable tyrant, he said, not to be bargained with. A complete break offered the only hope for virtue in Massachusetts and throughout America.
That was treason. The British called Adams a “Machiavel of chaos,” among other things. They would hang him if they could, and his cousin John, too.
He had an official role in Philadelphia as a member of the Massachusetts delegation to the Continental Congress. Unofficially he was that delegation’s boss, or tried his best to be. But his ultimate purpose, in defiance of the hangman, of Pennsylvania, of Congress, of his own delegation, and of anyone else, was to turn the war of defense into a war of offense, and turn America independent.
So he badly wanted pro-independence assemblymen elected in keystone Pennsylvania today. But he never took anything for granted. “We cannot make events,” he’d advised an ally the night before this election. John Adams had a finer ear for a joke than his cousin, a bitterer one, too, and he might have laughed aloud: Who had ever been more audacious in making events than Samuel Adams? Samuel meant it. He didn’t, in fact, make events. He improved on them. At home in Boston he could fix an election. Here he’d done all he could.
For all of his terrible urgency, Samuel Adams always seemed to remain in faith that the chance for irresistible action would soon reveal itself.
At the polls, violence broke out at about two that afternoon, when a man named Joseph Swift became irate at the presence of so many immigrants.
Before and after marking their ballots and handing them in at the Chestnut Street windows, voters came into the yard behind the State House, a high-walled expanse set with tall trees. Pale new leaves caught the wind while far below, the “independents” and the “reconciliationists” formed knots, glaring and gossiping and rubbing up against each other.
The immigrants who infuriated Joseph Swift were Germans. As a bloc they were known to favor independence. Not that Swift was a loyalist. Hated in most colonies, loyalists had fled to England or Canada or substantially lowered their profiles. Swift was a Pennsylvania patriot, a man about town of old stock, on the board of the biggest hospital and on the vestry of Christ Church, which was more than a century old and whose new steeple made it the tallest structure in the colonies. Men like him supported the Continental Congress and the Continental Army. They were risking their security and possibly their lives to restore liberties. The Germans—“Dutch,” most Pennsylvanians called them—clung to a guttural language, strange food, and incomprehensible newspapers. Why should they be allowed to swing Pennsylvania toward Massachusetts madness, American independence?
In the yard, Swift got the Germans’ attention and told them that, except for what he implied was the ludicrous technicality of their naturalization, they had no right to vote in Pennsylvania. (Immigrants from the mother country were natural by blood.) He drove the point home: Dutch had no more right to vote, he said for all to hear, than Negroes did. Or, he added, Indians.
Philadelphia’s Germans had a well-deserved reputation for toughness. This bunch moved in on Swift. If he’d expected help, he’d made an error. Others in the crowd gathered to watch. As the Germans began pushing Swift around, his friends couldn’t step in. Swift’s bigotry might cause a full-scale riot. The independents, poll-watching and electioneering in the yard, would run through the streets to broadcast it and bring out more of their vote. Swift’s friends started falling all over themselves apologizing to the Germans. The Germans turned on them, too.
In the brawl, Swift managed to shake himself free of the yard and run down Chestnut Street, Germans in pursuit. He fled along the walk against the route of voters, eastward toward the Delaware, arriving at the mansion of one of the city’s wealthiest merchants. Breathless and shaken, Swift was taken in. His pursuers were left in the street.
The independents back at the State House took heart from that fracas. Their hope soared at about 6 P.M., when the sheriff closed the State House door with voters still arriving. Voting was concluded for the day, the sheriff shouted. It would resume at nine the next morning. But less genteel voters couldn’t take time off during the workday. They had to vote before nine and after six. Closing the polls seemed to disenfranchise them. The voters started haranguing the sheriff. They demanded that the election continue. They refused to disperse.
The sheriff threw the door open. People flowed in. To the satisfaction of the independents, voting resumed on the authority of the voters themselves. Late that night, when at last the independents went to bed, they had reason to think they would awaken to a new day for America.
The election results told a different story.
On May 2, when the results started coming in, it became clear that voters had rejected the new ticket. They’d returned to the Pennsylvania assembly a majority of establishment lawmakers whose purpose was to ensure that Pennsylvania’s delegates in the Continental Congress blocked any move for American independence.
The majority had spoken. Reconciliationists up and down the coast could look forward to an end of Boston extremism. The war would remain defensive, legitimate, restoring old rights and keeping America within the empire.
Samuel Adams had other ideas.
© 2010 William Hogeland
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