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"Declaring Our Independence"
28.8 56.6 DSL

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The Declaration of Independence



Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Wealth: The Colonists Strike Back

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"What they were doing was treason!"

Jack is walkin', talkin' history
Jack is walkin', talkin' history
Jack Meredith, a poor actor during the 1770s, takes me back in time. Dressed in elegant breeches and a cloak, he stands outside Carpenter's Hall, meeting place of the 1st Continental Congress, and proclaims:

"But I do think the King of England was slowly going mad." You mean crazy? Why so?

"Well," he explains, "the colonists complained about 'taxation without representation.' So King George told them they could be represented in Parliament - they just needed to travel to London! Now, it takes over six and a half weeks to get there. How are they supposed to participate in Parliament if they're six and a half weeks late? That King... pfft! He just wanted to punish them."

Evidently, the colonists thought so too. On September 5, 1774, 56 delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies met in Philadelphia to discuss how to deal with England. (Do you know which colony was not represented? Hint: I wrote about it as part of my dispatch on "social experiments." They wanted the King to repeal the commercial and trade restrictions he had imposed on the colonies as punishment for the Boston Tea Party and other acts of "insolence" against the Crown.

"And they couldn't very well meet at the Pennsylvania State House, could they?" Oh, really? And why not?

At Carpenter's Hall, colonists met in secret
"Because," Jack says, "it was overrun with British loyalists! They would've been killed for speaking out against the King. That's why they picked Carpenter's Hall. Here, they could meet in secret without fear of punishment."

Sounds like the colonists meant serious business - they came from miles away, determined to make the King see the errors of his way! Intent on fighting injustice, they were convinced and united!

Well... er... not really. Some men (because only men attended the Continental Congress), such as Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, wanted to sever ties with England. Others, like John Jay and Joseph Galloway, preferred to remain loyal to the Crown. Still others weren't sure. In fact, it took these men a long time to agree on anything! A typical meeting might have gone something like this:

Inside Carpenter's Hall
Sam Adams: "OK guys, here's my plan. Let's tell England and that pompous King to take a hike! What's up with all these taxes and restrictions? I say they can kiss my..."

John Jay: "Hold up, Sam. You're talking about ENGLAND! The most powerful nation in the world. You think you can just walk up to the King and tell him to kiss your..."

Patrick Henry: "Dude! Are you chicken or what? Why are you wimping out, man? I thought you were on our side!"

Independence Hall, where the 2nd Continental Congress met
John: "Who're you calling chicken?"

Patrick: "You heard me - chicken, chicken! Co-co-co!"

John: "Well, I'm gonna kick your..."

Joseph Galloway: "You imbeciles! I'm not gonna sit around here watching you two fight about this. I'm outta here!"

And so, the 1st Continental Congress made slow progress. They finally managed to agree on a few key points, namely: the desire for self-government under the British monarchy, and the unconstitutionality of many acts of the British Parliament towards the colonies. They hoped to pressure King George to accept these terms by instituting a trade boycott against England. If the King had agreed, then everyone would have been happy. In truth, most participants of the Congress did not want to secede from England. They just wanted England to back off and stop meddling in their affairs.

When the 1st Continental Congress adjourned on October 26, everyone decided to meet again the following spring if England did not agree to the terms they set. Would England agree?

HA! Fat chance of that happening! King George wasn't having any of that. Years earlier, right after the Boston Tea Party in 1773, the King told his Prime Minister, Lord North. "The die is now cast. The colonies must either submit or triumph." He wanted to teach these pesky colonists a lesson. Besides, how could the colonies possibly fight the most powerful country in the world?

And so in May 1775, the 2nd Continental Congress convened, this time at the State House. Once again, the loyalists and the separatists clashed - some men hoped for reconciliation with England while others sought independence. However, the bloodshed in Lexington and Concord (the first battle between the patriots and British in the Revolutionary War) propelled John Adams, a fervent separatist, to try and win the delegates of the South (who were, for the most part, undecided or loyal to the King) by naming a Southerner as commander of the new Continental army. On June 15, 1775, George Washington, a delegate from Virginia, received that appointment. And the war was on!

From 1775 to 1781, the Continental Congress acted as the official government of the United States. They made laws, levied taxes, implemented a postal service, built roads and fought the Revolutionary War.

So that's it, right?

Not exactly. It turns out that the men fighting the Revolutionary War weren't the same men who participated in the Continental Congress and declared war in the first place. The soldiers were mainly the poor who couldn't buy their way out of the draft, while the members of congress were rich men, linked together in factions and compacts by business and family connections. For instance, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia was connected with the Adams of Massachusetts and the Shippens of Pennsylvania. Delegates from middle and southern colonies were connected with Robert Morris of Pennsylvania through commerce and land speculation.

They helped their own. Morris, the government's superintendent of finance, gave assurances to the people who loaned money to the Continental Congress, and gained the support of military officers by voting half-pay for life for those who stuck to the end. And any man who could afford to "pay" for a substitute did not have to serve in the army. In Boston, this clause led to rioting and shouting, "Tyranny is Tyranny let it come from whom it may." Hmm….

Some people might now be wondering what were the real motives behind the Continental Congress. Why did the moneyed elite come together to protest British measures? What were they risking their lives for?

Well, these guys were making a ton of money trading tobacco, tea and other goods. They had a virtual economic monopoly in the colonies. They were rich and getting richer. But once the British imposed trade restrictions and sanctions on the colonies, their livelihood was threatened. So they rallied together, cried foul and demanded freedom and justice! (How do you think slaves felt about that? And Indians? And women?)

Am I being too hard on the brave patriots? Maybe. But the fact of the matter is, nothing much changed for the vast majority of people living in the US when the elite got together in Philadelphia for the 1st Continental Congress. They weren't represented and therefore, they didn't count.

Am I painting a bleak picture? Maybe. But I like happy endings, so here's one: the rhetoric used by Sam Adams, Patrick Henry and others back in 1775 set an important precedent. Other people would later use the same words they did - freedom, equality, justice, and representation - to demand, and fight for, their rights. African Americans did so during the civil rights movement; so did women; so did gays. The chain of events set in motion by the men of the Continental Congress continues to impact us today. Except that now we are all involved and we all count.


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Teddy - Did a snowball fight start the American Revolution?
Kevin - And justice for all … of the rich and powerful
Teddy - The first day of war is always the longest …
Making a Difference - Sometimes the wrong side of the law is the right place to be