“Danger they say makes people valiant,” Abigail Adams to John, July 5th 1775
It is a point of pride in the United States that our independence was paid for in blood. Freedom, it seems, is almost always bought and sold at the highest price. We make a point to recognize that cost every summer on the day of our separation. I’m talking of course about August 23rd, 1775. The day King George III of Great Britain declared his American colonies to be in “open and avowed rebellion” in his Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition. The colonies, he said were “traitorously preparing, ordering and levying war against us” while being “misled by dangerous and ill designing men, and forgetting the allegiance which they owe to the power that has protected and supported them.” One month earlier on July 8th, the “still faithful colonists” of the Second Continental Congress sent an Olive Branch Petition to the King, appealing to his “magnanimity and benevolence.” This petition was written just a few weeks after the bloody and intimate Battle of Bunker Hill in Charlestown just outside Boston where the death toll reached over one thousand.
No one knew better of the carnage than the delegates from Massachusetts. John Adams had left his wife Abigail and four children in Braintree just fifteen miles from the city of Boston to attend the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The “constant roar” of the cannon fire at Bunker Hill was “so distressing that we cannot eat, drink or sleep,” wrote Abigail to her husband, giving him the first details of the battle. It was also from Abigail that John learned of the death of “our dear friend” Dr. Joseph Warren. Warren was one of the earliest leaders of the patriot movement in Boston. All the Massachusetts delegation knew Warren personally, either as a close friend or as their family physician. While covering the retreat of the Massachusetts militia at Bunker Hill Warren was shot just below his left eye killing him instantly. The British troops, having recognized his body, ravaged his corpse with their bayonets, stripped him of his clothes and personal belongings, including his bible. Abigail insisted, she was “stressed, but not dismayed” and urged John not to “be distressed about me.” However it was no secret to those sympathetic to the patriot cause that they were at the mercy of fate. “In case of real danger,” John wrote Abigail. “Fly to the woods.” For the New England delegation, the war was very personal.
The Continental Congress had elected Colonel George Washington of Virginia to lead the colonial militia staving off British troops around Boston however they were still very reluctant to fully adopt a military solution to the conflict. John Dickinson from Pennsylvania served as the bulwark of the opposition to the New England faction. “What is the reason, Mr. Adams,” demanded Dickinson. “That you New England men oppose our measure of reconciliation?” Dickinson was stalwart in his beliefs. His dedication to peace with the mother country, led him to believe that “if you don’t concur with us in our pacific system, I, and a number of us, will break off with you in New England and we will carry on the opposition by ourselves in our own way.” Both Dickinson’s mother and wife were devout Quakers, a loyalty to which Adams believed kept him from making more decisive decisions. “If I had such a mother and such a wife I believe I would have shot myself,” he would later say. Despite his frustration, Adams did not doubt Dickinson’s motivations or intentions. He has “an excellent heart” and “the cause of his country lies near it,” however given what he had personally witnessed and experienced, Adams felt Dickinson and the conservative faction of Congress were being naïve. Dickinson was clinging to an old relationship, one too tarnished in blood and smoke to return to what it once was. To the delegates of Massachusetts, the question of war or peaceful reconciliation had already been decided in the “ashes” of Charlestown. “Powder and artillery,” John disclaimed privately. “Are the most efficacious, sure and infallible conciliatory measures we can adopt.” The only question was when would the rest of Congress realize it. “We are between hawk and buzzard,” wrote Adams
These opinions of some colonies which are founded I think in their wishes and passions, their hopes and fears, rather than in reason and evidence will give a whimsical cast to the proceedings of this Congress. You will see a strange oscillation between love and hatred, between war and peace – Preparations for war and negotiations for peace. We must have a petition to the King and a delicate proposal of negotiations, etc. This negotiation I dread like death: But it must be proposed. We can’t avoid it. Discord and disunion would be the certain effect of a resolute refusal to petition and negotiate.
Despite the very vocal contrarian opinion of John Adams he was resigned to act with his colleagues in acquiesce. The Olive Branch Petition would be sent. When it arrived at the King’s feet, he refused to even read it. Instead he issued his proclamation on August 23rd “to bring the traitors to justice.” The King had not only declared the independence of the American colonies but had also united them in resistance by collectively addressing them. Once the proclamation reached Philadelphia, along with outside pressure from both outside sources such as Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, the debate in Congress began to change. “As to the king, we had been bound to him by allegiance, but that this bond was now dissolved by his assent to the late act of parliament,” wrote Jefferson of the debates. “The question was not whether, by a declaration of independence, we should make ourselves what we are not; but whether we should declare a fact which already exists.” The New England faction (now including more than just New England) argued that a declaration of American independence would basically be redundant. Although the crown had delivered a nearly fatal blow to Congress’ conservatives, progress towards separation was still slow. Dickinson insisted peaceful reconciliation was still possible though arguing for such a strategy was proving more difficult. By the King’s own decree, dissent was now not only considered unpatriotic but treasonous. As far as Great Britain was concerned, Dickinson and Adams were one in the same. Although a vote on independence would surely get a majority Adams knew the colonies must put up a united front, or be destined to ruin. Declaring independence must be unanimous; all “thirteen clocks were made to strike together.” When the vote finally came on that other most celebrated day of July 2nd, 1776 (although Adams would insist the vote came on July 4th in his later years) only New York abstained. Just as Adams had submitted to the will of Congress less than a year before, Dickinson would do the same when it came to independence, however he would not turn out for the vote. They both understood that if something was to be done it is to done together. Upon signing the declaration Ben Franklin had supposedly said: “We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” Adams was more optimistic than most. “I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these states,” he wrote to Abigail. “Yet through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means.” Despite being more confident than some of his colleagues Adams was much less certain of what that freedom would bring, or if it would even last. “You will never know, how much it cost the present generation, to preserve your freedom!” he would later lament. “I hope you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in heaven, that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.”
Liberty, said Justice Learned Hand is the only cause that is not sure it is right, but that doesn’t mean it should be incapable of making decisions. Debate does not weaken democracy but strengthens it. King George’s proclamation shows that history has a habit of making decisions for us and common enemies often form true alliances. It is up to us to recognize that new reality when it arrives and act decisively in accordance with what is successful but also right. Most importantly unity in such decisions is paramount. Recalling past glory or entertaining delusions serves no greater purpose when Clio calls. The men and women of ‘76 understood this when they declared independence and so did many other Americans in subsequent generations. Their prudence and self-awareness led to the creation of a republic whose potential out reaches that of any nation. In todays political atmosphere this is something that should be understood. Otherwise we will most assuredly all hang separately.
- Hawk and Buzzard. John Adams to James Warren, July 24th, 1775
- The Battle of Bunker Hill. Abigail Adams to John Adams, June 18th, 1775
- Notes of Proceedings in the Continental Congress, 7 June–1 August 1776 https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0160
- Thirteen Clocks. John Adams to Mr. Niles 1818 - https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-6854
- Toil and Blood. John to Abigail Adams, July 3rd, 1776 https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17760703jasecond
- Pains to preserve it. John to Abigail Adams, April 26th 1777
- John Adams by David McCullough
- “Between war and peace” Letters of Members of Continental Congress, Volume 1. By Edmund Cody Burnett, 1921. John Adams to James Warrren, 1775