Authors: Alfred W. Blumrosen
We had a large collection of lawyers, at table. Mr. Andrew Allen, the attorney general; a Mr. Morris, the prothonotory; Mr. Fisher; Mr. McKean; Mr. Rodney—besides these we had Mr. Reed, Govr. Hopkins, and Governor Ward.
We had much conversation upon the practice of law, in our different provinces, but at last we got swallowed up, in politicks, and the great question of parliamentary jurisdiction. Mr. Allen asks me, from whence do you derive our laws? How do you intitle yourselves to English priviledges? Is not Lord Mansfield on the side of power?
At first he was also impressed with the intellect and wisdom of the delegates from the other colonies. But after some weeks, Adams grew restless at the seemingly endless arguments while Boston remained under occupation.
Adams worried as he arrived in the city after the warning from Rush and others. How would he be received by the delegates? Was he up to the task of representing Massachusetts, both intellectually and with good judgment? When he was appointed, he wrote to Abigail:
This will be an assembly of the wisest men upon the continent, who are Americans in principle, i.e., against the taxation of Americans by authority of Parliament.…I feel myself unequal to the business. A more extensive knowledge of the realm, the colonies, and of commerce, as well as of law and policy, is necessary, than I am a master of.
As he considered Rush’s advice, Adams realized that his skills at legal reasoning and argument would have to be supplemented by caution and indirection.
After all, Rush’s warning was apt—John Adams was spokesman for the colony that had aggravated the British by the contest over taxes in the 1760s, the Boston Tea Party, and the struggle with Governor Hutchinson. If Massachusetts took the lead in organizing the challenge to Britain by seeking independence, other colonies might resent being asked to bail out Massachusetts from a mess of its own making.
Britain blamed Massachusetts, particularly the people of Boston, and especially the Adams cousins, for the disturbances in all the colonies. Adams was concerned that in Philadelphia, Massachusetts would appear to be pleading primarily for help in its own struggle against the mother country.
The delegates knew that Adams had bested Governor Hutchinson after he had lectured the Massachusetts assembly on the nature of the British Empire. Hutchinson had argued that there could be no intermediate position “between the supreme authority of Parliament and the total independence of the colonies.” This belief that sovereignty was an “all or nothing” concept was central to the way Britain ruled the colonies—not by force, but by fostering the belief of the colonists that they were part of the empire.
The Massachusetts assembly, with John Adams’s advice, drew a different conclusion from Hutchinson’s premise. Since there was no original intention by the British to “reduce us to a state of vassalage, the conclusion is that it was their [original] sense that we were thus independent [of Parliament].”
This jousting between a disliked governor and a restive House of Representatives was not far from an assertion of independence.
After only four days in Philadelphia, days filled with dinners and excursions as the delegates became familiar with one another, Adams identified a group of men who reminded him of Massachusetts governors Francis Bernard and Thomas Hutchinson, who had publicly “professed to be Friends of Liberty” until Hutchinson’s letters to British officials urging a reduction in colonial rights were discovered.
Among them were Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania and James Duane of New York. They would pose the greatest challenge to the delegates who sought serious action against the British.
Adams sensed these difficulties when he began to mingle with the delegates. He wrote to his friend William Tudor in mid-September:
We have had numberless prejudices to remove here. We have been obliged to act with great delicacy and caution. We have been obliged to keep ourselves out of sight, and to feel pulses, and sound the depths—to insinuate our sentiments, designs, and desires by means of other persons, sometimes of one province and sometimes of another.
Adams was not alone in his uncertainties about his new colleagues. All of them were “skitterish” during their first weeks together.
For example, Joseph Galloway made a private report to New Jersey governor William Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s son, of a conversation he had with John Rutledge, leader of the South Carolina delegation. The report showed that Galloway and Rutledge withheld information from each other. Galloway did not think that Rutledge was among the supporters of the “Boston Commissioners” who wished for a non-importation agreement and a refusal to pay tea taxes. He explained that in his meeting with:
the elder Rutledge of South Carolina, whose sentiments and mine differ in no one particular so far as I explained myself—and I was reserved in no point save that of a representation in Parliament. He is a gentleman of an amiable character—has look’d into the arguments on both sides more fully than any I have met with, and seems to be aware of all the consequences which may attend rash and imprudent measures.
Galloway did not tell Rutledge of his plan for a joint British-American Parliament and Rutledge concealed from Galloway that he was a staunch supporter of both slavery and independence.
In Philadelphia, each group took the measure of the men with whom they would share power if independence should ever come. They did this during the socializing that occupied most of their dinners taken after morning sessions, often elaborate affairs as Philadelphia hostesses showed the city’s cultivation. John Dickinson invited the delegates to his country estate. He was one of the richest Philadelphians, and was known for his “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” favoring the “no taxation without representation” principle. He had now joined in efforts to find a compromise with Britain.
In those early days, many delegates hesitated to express their views candidly. The Virginians may have brought the basis for revolution with them in their demand for independence from Parliament, but they, too, had to be cautious in how to present it. The threat that someone might make a charge of treason for seeking independence was never far from their minds.
After some days of sounding out each other, John Adams and the Virginians forged a friendship. Adams wrote: “These gentlemen from Virginia appeared to be the most spirited and consistent of any.”
Richard Henry Lee reciprocated his admiration, and thus was formed the “Adams-Lee junto,” an alliance between Virginia and Massachusetts that would be important for years to come.
The initiation of that friendship had come a year earlier when Lee wrote to John Adams to introduce himself. When Adams first met Lee face to face, he wrote: “He is a masterly man.”
Lee’s friendship with and admiration for the spartan qualities of the New Englanders would grow in the years ahead.
The southerners knew that Massachusetts had led the opposition to British taxes of the 1760s with great success. But this movement had dissipated as soon as the taxes were repealed. Some southern delegates may have noted that, under Massachusetts leadership, the northerners appeared to be more concerned with avoiding taxes than with freedom from Britain.
Slavery, although legal, was much less prevalent in the northern colonies and northern attitudes toward slavery were uncertain.
The southerners needed to understand the Massachusetts view of slavery. Southerners would have heard that radical lawyer James Otis’s argument before the Superior Court of Massachusetts in 1760 against “writs of assistance” included an attack on slavery as a violation of natural rights.
In 1764 he wrote: “The colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black.”
Southern leaders would not join with the North to seek revolution without assurance that slavery would be left alone by the newly constituted free country. The southerners were concerned with problems that went far beyond the issues that were to be decided at the First Congress. Their need to protect slavery would continue as events unfolded after the Congress had finished its work.
In this atmosphere, the southerners, faced with the assault of the
case, would seek separation from Britain only with the explicit understanding that slavery would be recognized and protected by the other colonies.
This was the view of Virginia historian Hugh Blair Grigsby, writing in 1855 describing the dominant view of the moderates in the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1776. With reference to slavery, he considered that these men, “however prompt in resisting aggression from without, were cautious in remodeling the domestic policy of the state when a civil war was raging in the land.”
The southerners also tested the views of the delegates. Among the most dogmatic on the necessity for independence was Christopher Gadsden, a major plantation and slave owner in South Carolina. A constant replenishment of slaves was needed there because slaves died young in the malaria-ridden swamps, which they cleared for rice production.
Adams reports that Gadsden was:
violent against allowing to Parliament any power of regulating trade, or allowing that they have any thing to do with us. Power of regulating trade, he says, is power of ruining us—as bad as acknowledging them a supreme legislative in all cases whatsoever. A right of regulating trade is a right of legislation, and a right of legislation in one case, is a right in all.
Adams wrote that he disagreed with Gadsden’s conclusion, but spent considerable time with him, and with Thomas Lynch, also of South Carolina.
After studying John Adams, the southerners decided they had found the man they could trust. Adams was no abolitionist. Long after Adams heard James Otis’s declaration that “all men, white or black” are free born, he wrote:
Not a Quaker in Philadelphia, or Mr. Jefferson of Virginia ever asserted the rights of Negroes in stronger terms. Young as I was, and ignorant as I was, I shuddered at the doctrine he taught; and I have all my lifetime shuddered, and still shudder, at the consequences that may be drawn from such premises. Shall we say that the rights of masters and servants clash, and can be decided only by force? I adore the idea of gradual abolition! But who shall decide how fast or how slowly these abolition shall be made?
In his later life, Adams sounded exactly like his “southern friends” of 1774 when he described his attitude toward slavery:
The turpitude, the inhumanity, the cruelty, and the infamy of the African commerce in slaves has been impressively represented to the public by the highest powers of eloquence, that nothing that I can say would increase the just odium in which it is and ought to be held. Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States. If, however, humanity dictates the duty of adopting the most prudent measures for accomplishing so excellent a purpose, the same humanity requires that we should not inflict severer calamities on the objects of our commiseration than those which they at present endure by reducing them to despair, or the necessity of robbery, plunder, assassination, and massacre, to preserve their lives, some provision for furnishing them employment, or some means of supplying them with the necessary comforts of life. The same humanity requires that we should not by any rash or violent measures expose the lives and property of those of our fellow-citizens who are so unfortunate as to be surrounded with these fellow-creatures, by hereditary descent, or by any other means without their own fault.
This is essentially the position taken in the 1770s by Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and the other Virginians as we saw in Chapter Three.
By agreeing to protect slavery in the new nation Adams would live up to his promise to bring help to Massachusetts. In cementing his relations to Virginia, he supported Peyton Randolph of Virginia for president of the Continental Congress in 1774 and nominated Virginian George Washington to command the Continental Army in 1775.
During the Revolutionary War, Adams effectively buried a letter to Congress relating to a bill to free Negroes in Massachusetts. When the Massachusetts legislature tabled the bill to abolish slavery in the state, Adams was pleased. “We have causes enough of jealousy, discord, and division, and this bill [to free Negroes] will certainly add to the number.” In August, 1776, a New Jersey official proposed a black unit to serve as a home guard, but Adams objected. “Your Negro battalion will never do. S. Carolina would run out of their wits at the least hint of such a measure.”
Historian Henry Wiencek has concluded, “Adams was always concerned over the potential southern response to the use of black troops or emancipation proposals.”
Adams shared the view that Congress should not be asked to pay salaries to boys, old men, Negroes, and others “unsuitable for service.”
Early during the war, at the end of 1775, a congressional delegation from South Carolina and Virginia, along with Ben Franklin, met with civilians from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island and concluded that Negroes, slave or free, should be “rejected altogether” from military service.
Historian Donald Robinson says the primary factor in the decision to reject new black recruits was “the effect such a policy would have in other colonies...not an animus against Negroes, out of a desire for a strong national union in the effort against England.”
The petition of blacks who had served at Bunker Hill and the demands of war caused a change in this policy later in the Revolution, but the policy itself was a reflection of northern acceptance of the southern view concerning blacks.