Sunday, October 28, 2018

Episode 068: Congress' Olive Branch Petition

We last left the Continental Congress a few weeks ago, having authorized the Continental Army and appointing its top commanders.  Having shipped Washington and company off to war, Congress continued with its work overseeing prosecution of the war.

Organizing the Army

On June 27, 1775, Congress reversed its position on having Allen and Arnold retreat to the south of Lake Champlain. Instead it authorized them to go on the offensive invade Canada.  Three days later, Congress formally adopted Articles  of War for the new Continental Army.  The articles were pretty standard, banning bad behavior or desertion, and requiring officers and men to obey their superiors- stuff like that. Congress also authorized attempts to form alliances with Indian Nations, in order to prevent them from allying with the British.

Around this same time, Congress received and condemned Parliament’s Restraining Acts barring the colonies from engaging in any trade with anyone outside the Empire.  In short, Congress was getting everything onto a war setting with Britain.

Olive Branch Petition

Even so, many delegates still hoped to end the war peacefully through negotiation.  On July 5th, Congress adopted yet another petition to the King, known to history as the Olive Branch Petition.  This was primarily the work of Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson, though Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, John Rutledge and Thomas Johnson also served on the drafting committee.  No one from New England served on the committee.  Several sources indicate that Thomas Jefferson drafted the original version of the petition.  I have found no basis for this assertion.  Jefferson did not sit on the draft committee, did not even arrive in Congress until several weeks after the draft committee had formed. When he did arrive, he immediately set to work drafting the Declaration on Taking up Arms, that I will discuss next.  It seems that some books are confusing the drafting of these two documents.

Olive Branch Petition Signature Page (from Wikimedia)
While Dickinson had earned patriot street cred for his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, years earlier, Dickinson still clung to the idea that the colonies could remain attached to the mother country if only Britain would allow the colonies to control their own internal taxes.  Dickinson’s views were still pretty radical back in 1767, when he penned the Letters.  Now, even though his views remained the same, he sounded almost like a Tory.

The petition itself avoided a long laundry list of the Parliament’s objectionable acts over the years.  It stayed short and to the point.  Things between Britain and the colonies had gotten crazy and now full scale war has started.  This was the result of all the terrible stuff ministers were doing in the King’s name.  It then humbly requested that the King use his authority to tell his ministers to respect the rights of the colonies and stop all this nonsense so everyone could get back to running an effective empire full of loyal thriving subjects.

The petition still clung to the fiction that the King really was on the side of the colonies, and that the pesky Parliament or corrupt members of the ministry had somehow tricked the King into letting them deprive the colonies of their sacred rights.  The petition implored the King to step in and settle everything by supporting the patriot view on taxes and individual rights.

John Dickinson
(from Wikimedia)
It’s not clear to me if anyone really believed that the King was being duped by his ministers.  In truth, clinging to that fiction helped maintain their own fiction that they were not engaged in treason.  It also gave British authorities a way to step in a create a negotiated settlement in such a way that would not cause the King to lose face.

The petition itself only highlighted the divide in Congress between those who accepted they were at war and those who still clinged a hope to negotiate a compromise.  The New England delegates considered the petition a waste of time.  John Adams and Dickinson got into such a dispute over the petition that they stopped speaking to each other.

Despite the disagreement, Adams and just about everyone else in Congress signed the petition.  It did not commit them to anything and simply demanded the King gave them their rights.  It evinced no view that the colonists would ever compromise on the issue of taxation or their right to create their own colonial legislation within their colonies.  Even if many delegates considered it a waste of time, there was no use in creating bad blood with the moderates over a refusal to sign it.

To the Inhabitants of Great Britain

Along with the petition, Congress included an Address to the Inhabitants of Great Britain, drafted by Richard Henry Lee, Robert Livingston, and Edmund Pendleton.  The King had refused even to receive the petition of the First Continental Congress.  Probably anticipating that the King might treat its new petition similarly, Congress hoped the address would help build popular support for their cause in Britain itself.  In the past, British commercial interests had effectively lobbied Parliament to abandon taxes and other colonial policies that had caused problems.  Some in Congress hoped perhaps they could get local dissenters in Britain to help further the cause of the American colonies.

Like the petition, the address made clear that the colonies were not seeking independence.  Rather they sought to return to the way things were between Britain and the colonies in the early 1760’s.  It noted that colonists were denied fundamental power to legislate for themselves or have basic due process protection.  The Coercive Acts and the military occupation of Boston were only making the relationship worse.  Parliament’s valid trade laws over the colonies profited Britain enough to justify the military and administrative costs that the British government incurred.  Imposing additional taxes would only destroy what was already a highly profitable system for both sides.  Congress clearly aimed this address at the commercial interests in England that it hoped would side with the colonies against Parliament.

Congress sent the petition and the address off to London in the care of Richard Penn of Pennsylvania.  It then moved on to other business.

Adams Letter

If the petition and address were not already a futile exercise, John Adams helped to make sure they were.  Although Adams signed the petition in an attempt at colonial solidarily, he saw it as a danger.  He feared the King might agree to the petition, bring an end to the hostilities, then let Parliament continue on taxing and restricting colonial rights.  Adams had decided the time was right for independence, though he was not proclaiming that very loudly yet.  He did not want to scare off the moderates.

John Adam
(from Journal of Am. Rev.)
Adams wrote a letter to Massachusetts President James Warren.  It discussed his frustration with debate over these documents when they really should be fighting a war.  He expressed his hope that the King would reject the petition.   He called the petition a “measure of imbecility” and called Dickinson a man with a “great Fortune and piddling Genius” who was wasting Congress’ time with silly distractions when they would be better focusing on writing a Constitution.  Someone stole Adams’ letter in transit and a Tory newspaper in Boston published it.

This revealed to all that at least some in Congress were not really serious about pursuing a negotiated peace.  It also helped to solidify the animosity between Adams and Dickinson, and confirmed the view of many in Congress that Adams was uncompromising, and kind of a jerk.

Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms

The day after approving the Olive Branch Petition, Congress turned to approval of its Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms.  Congress drafted the declaration at the request of General Washington.  The original committee consisted of John Rutledge, William Livingston, John Jay, Thomas Johnson and Benjamin Franklin.  The committee had almost the same makeup as the one for the Olive Branch Petition, except for the addition of Livingston and the absence of Dickinson. Rutledge worked as primary author of the first draft, which Congress rejected.  We don’t have a surviving copy of that draft, so it is unclear what Congress disliked.  To fix the problem, Congress  added two more delegates to the draft committee: John Dickinson, and a newcomer Thomas Jefferson.  Again, no one from New England sat on this committee.

Thomas Jefferson
(from Wikimedia)
Thomas Jefferson had just arrived in Congress to replace Peyton Randolph who had returned to Virginia.  Jefferson already had a good reputation as a writer, based primarily on A Summary View of the Rights of British America, which Jefferson had written the year before while still serving in the House of Burgesses.  The First Continental Congress relied on that document as they were drafting their Declaration of Rights and Grievances.  Beyond that, Jefferson was a relative unknown.  He had served as a minor member of the Virginia House for a few years, but had not done much to make himself known.  Jefferson also was not from a particularly prominent family in Virginia.  He owned an inland estate, away from the wealthier tidewater region.  His mother came from the more prominent Randolph family.  And whatever his social standing, Jefferson had a reputation as a good writer and dedicated patriot.

With that in mind, Congress added him to the drafting committee.  Jefferson based his first draft largely on his Summary View.  I am guessing he borrowed liberally since he reported his first draft of the 13 page document the next day.  There is no existing copy of this first draft, but many delegates found it much too combative.  Jefferson spelled out many of the atrocities and infringements on American liberty that led to the current state of war against Britain and the colonies.

Jefferson submitted his draft to the Committee.  Dickinson began picking it apart, finding the language far too strident and combative for his liking.  Eventually, the Committee got tired of arguing and told Dickinson to go work on Jefferson’s draft and bring it back to the Committee later.  Dickinson made substantial changes to the language, softening its down, and making explicitly clear that Congress was not seeking independence, only the protection of its long held rights.  Jefferson later noted that Dickinson only kept the last few paragraphs of his original draft.  In fact, Dickinson kept Jefferson’s general outline and some language throughout, but definitely made substantial changes to most of it.

The final document, in the end, received nearly universal approval in Congress.  Even John Adams spoke approvingly of it.  Congress printed copies to be distributed throughout the colonies, and to be read to the soldiers in the Continental Army.

Address to the Six Nations

In preparing to go to war, Congress concerned itself with one other major source of power, the Native American population.  The Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy had favored the British over the French in the wars of the prior 100 years.  Generally, though, they preferred to remain neutral.  Now, with Britain and the colonies going to war with one another, Congress hoped to encourage the Indians to stick to that neutrality.

Congress’ address to the Iroquois was simple.  They outlined the basics of the colonies’ dispute with England and suggested the Iroquois simply stay out of it.  Congress feared British agents would stir up the Indians to fight against the rebellion.  Congress simply wanted to make sure that did not happen.  The Address to the Six Nations sought to open a dialogue with the Iroquois to ensure they would stay out of any fighting.

Expanding Minutemen

With the petition, addresses, and declarations complete, Congress turned to some more practical measures, at least as Adams saw it, toward prosecuting the war.  Washington was by this time, hard at work trying to create an effective Continental Army.  Already Congress was struggling with how they were going to support that huge standing army that needed food, clothing, supplies, and ammunition.

Franklin, Adams,and
Jefferson (from Smithsonian)
Congress further realized that fighting would almost certainly spread well beyond Boston, and could envelope all of North America.  There was no way they could afford to expand the Continental Army to defend the entire continent.  Congress decided to follow the Massachusetts example.  On July 18th, Congress approved a call to form minuteman units in all of the colonies.  Essentially they were putting the militia on high alert everywhere so that they could respond to an British attack or invasion anywhere.  Minutemen would drill regularly and be ready to act as needed.

In some sense, Congress was playing catch up here.  Most colonies had already put their militia on high alert.  Even Pennsylvania, which did not have a tradition of citizen militia, had formed a militia army months earlier and had been drilling and preparing its forces for a potential fight.

Running an Army

Congress also quickly found itself overwhelmed and unsure how to control the new Continental Army.  They had reasonable confidence in George Washington their new Commander in Chief, and a former delegate.  But the fear of standing armies and their threat to civilian rule pervaded their thoughts.  Without an executive branch, Congress had to maintain its own civilian oversight of the army.

It retained all authority to commission officers. While Washington might make recommendations, Congress often appointed leaders that Washington did not want.  It frequently made choices, not on military ability, but to ensure fair representation of each colony, or to provide benefits to friends and relatives.  Many successful field officers like Benedict Arnold, quickly realized that battlefield victories did not lead to advancement.  Armchair officers in Philadelphia, who could get the ear of a powerful delegate, had a much better chance of promotion.  As a result, Arnold remained a colonel while men in Philadelphia received appointments as generals.

Even generals grumbled about some appointments. Maj. Gen. Lee still wanted to be Commander in Chief.  Gen. Heath became the superior of Gen. Thomas, even though Thomas had been Heath’s superior in the Massachusetts Provincial Army.  But for the most part, this grumbling remained limited to letters to friends.  Everyone wanted civilian control to work.  Officers could not be seen publicly seeking more power for themselves.

Benjamin Church
(from Wikimedia)
Aside from appointing officers, Congress actively involved itself in the day to day affairs of the army.  It expected regular reports from Washington.  Many other officers liberally corresponded with delegates in Congress on a wide range of military issues.  Congress set up committees to deal with a variety of ongoing military matters.

Congress also created a formal medical department for the army.  Clearly if there was fighting, the soldiers would need medical care.  As I mentioned last week, Dr. Benjamin Church became the first Surgeon General.

Congress made clear from the beginning that it would not simply create an army and set it loose.  Even placing congressional delegates among its top generals was not enough.  The history of Cromwell, who started as a member of Parliament and ended up taking control of Britain and tossing out Parliament, remained in the minds of many delegates.  They wanted to keep the army on a short leash, ensuring that it would always remain loyal to Congress and accept the continuing authority of civilian leadership over the army.

Post Office

Congress hoped to improve communications in the colonies.  The unofficial committees of correspondence had proven useful.  But there needed to be a better system for sending messages around the continent, especially now that there was no British oversight of a postal system.  Fortunately for America, the man in Britain who had worked on an American postal system for many years was none other than Benjamin Franklin.

He has lost that post a year earlier after the Ministry exposed his revelations of Gov. Hutchinson’s letters to the patriots in Boston.  But Franklin well understood the existing system and could continue to manage it.  Congress made Franklin the new Postmaster General for the continent.  Franklin would collect a $1000 salary and not do a whole lot more with the job.  He remained a delegate to the Continental Congress, which still took up most of his time.  He appointed several local postmasters and hired his son-in-law, Richard Bache, as his assistant.  The following year, Bache would take over for Franklin as Postmaster General.

Articles of Confederation Proposed

Late in July, Franklin also began circulating ideas for Articles of Confederation.  The Continental Congress really had no legal authority for its existence or anything it was doing.  It needed a set of rules, guiding principles, and restrictions on its power if it wanted to continue.  Franklin had been pushing for this sort of confederation for decades, going back to his support for the Albany Plan in 1754.  His proposed articles called for making the Continental Congress a permanent body to promote common issues of defense, safety, and welfare.  It also called on colonies to make payments to Congress based on their population.

Although Franklin circulated the idea, the moderates in Congress recoiled at the prospect.  Supporting such a measure could be seen as supporting a permanent independent government to replace Britain.  Members were not ready to go that far yet.  As a result, though delegates discussed the matter, they decided not to have any formal vote in this session.  Congress would continue to run on an ad-hoc basis.

Conciliatory Proposition Rejected

The final issue on Congress’ agenda that summer was Lord North’s Conciliatory Proposition.  You may recall back in February, Lord North sent a proposition to the various colonies to end all colonial taxes by Parliament.  Instead, Parliament would issue a demand for money to each colony and allow the local legislature to raise the money however they wanted.

Now this proposal had gone to the various royal governments in each colony.  The Ministry did not acknowledge the Continental Congress, nor any of the provincial congresses that had taken control.  All of the colonies had pretty universally rejected the idea of giving Parliament a blank check to demand as much money as it wanted, whenever it wanted, for any purpose it wanted.  That just seemed like a bad idea to everyone.  Even moderates like Dickinson could not support this idea.

So, the Second Continental Congress took it upon itself to reject the Conciliatory Proposition and send the response back to Lord North on behalf of all the colonies.  Congress had decided any peace would be on its own terms, not that of anyone in London.

Two days later, on August 2, 1775, Congress adjourned for the remainder of the summer, planning to resume work on September 5th.

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Next Episode 69: The South Joins the War

Previous Episode 67: Washington Takes Command

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Further Reading


Continental Congress  Articles of War (full text):

The Olive Branch Petition:

Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms & Appeal to the Inhabitants of Great Britain (full text):

More discussion on the drafting of the Declaration on Taking up Arms:

Jefferson and Dickinson Drafts of the Declaration on Taking up Arms:

Address of Congress to the Six Nations

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Journals of Congress, Vol 1, (contains minutes of First Continental Congress and first year of the Second Continental Congress.

Journals of the Continental Congress, Vol. 2 May 10-Sept. 20, 1775 Washington: US Gov’t Printing Office 1905.

Chinard, Gilbert Thomas Jefferson: The Apostle of Americanism, Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1944 (originally published 1929).

Dickinson, John The Political Writings of John Dickinson, Wilmington: Bonsol and Niles, 1801.

Morse, John T. John Adams, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912 (original 1889).

Stillé, Charles The Life and Times of John Dickinson, Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1891.

Van Doren, Carl Benjamin Franklin, New York: Viking Press, 1938.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)

Beck, Derek, Igniting the American Revolution 1773-1775, Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, 2015.

Beeman, Richard R. Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776, New York: Basic Books, 2013.

Isaacson, Walter Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2003.

McCullough, David John Adams, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2001 (book recommendation of the week).

Meacham, John Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, New York: Random House, 2012.

Morgan, Edmund Benjamin Franklin, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Peterson, Merrill (ed) The Portable Thomas Jefferson, New York: Penguin Books, 1975.

Phillips, Kevin 1775: A Good Year for Revolution,  New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

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