Sunday, June 24, 2018

Episode 050: Britain Prepares for War

Over the summer and fall of 1774, Prime Minister North’s Ministry watched the Coercive Acts unite the colonies and bring at least Massachusetts into an open state of rebellion.  It seemed clear to everyone, that one way or another, open war would begin in the spring.

British Elections of 1774

As colonial discontent grew, Prime Minister North decided it was time to hold a general election in Britain.  Under the law at the time, Parliament could sit for up to seven years without an election.  The most recent one had been six years earlier in 1768.  The King could dissolve Parliament at any time, and usually relied on the Prime Minister for advice on when to do so.  North decided it would be better to get the election out of the way before a shooting war began in the colonies.  Holding elections a year early would also catch the opposition off guard and hopefully give North’s Tory allies an advantage at the polls.

Elections in this era were far different than we think of elections today.  For starters, only adult male property owners could vote.  In 18th Century Britain, before the rise of the middle class, very few people actually owned real property.  Almost everyone rented their home and land from a local lord.  Records are sketchy, but probably only about 5% of the population had the right to vote in elections.

1774 Elections in Shaftesbury (from Dorset Life)
For that 5%, another important consideration was the fact that the private ballot did not exist.  A voter had to register his vote in public.  If you lived in a region where a local lord held not only political power, but also economic and social power, you would feel a great deal of pressure to support him or risk suffering his wrath in ways that might affect your own business or standing in the community.

Election districts varied greatly in size.  The government did not regularly reapportion districts, meaning that some which had grown considerably in the last century or two might have many thousands of constituents, while other had only a handful.  For example, Lord North had 18 eligible voters in his district.  He invited them all over for dinner on the night before the elections and they obligingly returned him to Parliament.

Voting took place over October and November 1774, with each local district setting its own election day.  Holding elections early seemed to go well for the North Ministry.  Although members did not define themselves as members of a political party as strictly as they do today, North was generally considered a Tory leader.  His members won over 60% of the seats.  Former Prime Minister Rockingham led the opposition.  One effect of the election was a drop in moderate members.  Radical Whigs tended to pick up seats in many of the larger cities and industrial areas.  Conservative Tories tended to elect representatives who were ready to take a stronger hand with the colonies and use force to teach them their place in the empire.  So even if North might have been persuaded to take a more conciliatory approach, his members were encouraging him to take a much more militant stand.

No Reinforcements for Gage

Just before elections began, North began to receive letters from Gage back in Boston discussing the Colony’s refusal to accept the Coercive Acts.  Gage had lost control of the colony and following the September Powder Alarms (see Episode 46) was holed up in a defensive posture in Boston. The ministry received his letters calling for 20,000 reinforcements.  This was a very different message that Gage had told them a few months earlier when the ministry had appointed him Governor.  Back then, he had indicated that a firm hand over a few trouble makers would end this nonsense.  Now Gage seemed to be saying that all of New England was prepared for open rebellion.

North and the King both relied on former Governor Hutchinson for a better understanding of the situation.  Hutchinson continued to tell them that the people were simply following a few trouble makers like Samuel Adams.  Taking a firm hand with the leadership would bring the rest of the colony to heel.  That sounded more like the historic precedent that British leaders understood, and even with what Gage himself was saying before he left for Boston. Peasants did not revolt.  Local leaders whipped them into a revolt.  Taking out those local leaders would send the peasants scattering back to their farms.  They simply did not appreciate that New England farmers were dedicated to the idea that Britain should not tax them, not to any particular leader.

Lord North (from Wikimedia)
With that in mind, North seemed to think that Gen. Gage was simply being too cautious.  He was afraid to take decisive action.  Let’s face it, colonies were supposed to benefit Britain.  Soldiers were expensive.  Paying to ship 20,000 soldiers to the colonies, who seemed to be all talk with little action beyond some property destruction, would be a waste of resources.  At the time there were only about 12,000 soldiers in all of Britain.  Such a force would require months of recruitment and training even if the leadership wanted to incur the huge costs.  It certainly was not the sort of expensive project North wanted to announce in the middle of an election. Gage needed to suck it up and deal with this problem with the resources he had, as he said he could six months earlier.

Admiral Graves, commanding the Naval force in Boston, also requested more ships.  While he could block the port of Boston, he needed a much larger force to prevent smuggling up and down the east coast.  He had only 19 ships to maintain the blockade as well as monitor all merchant sailing activity.

The admiralty in London had its own concerns.  King Louis XVI had just taken the throne in France.  Intelligence indicated the new King was rebuilding his naval forces.  Britain would have to be ready to suppress any challenge to its authority on the sea.  It needed its navy nearby.  Graves received three more ships, along with 600 marines available for actions on land.

Even after news that the French economy was so weak that they could not consider starting another war, North decided not to send more military to the colonies.  He reduced the size of the navy, trying to save money and reduce debt.

News of Colonial Arms Buildup

In October, the government received additional disturbing news.  Colonies were buying arms and ammunition in massive amounts.  North got news that colonial ships in Amsterdam were buying all the guns and ammunition that they could find.  This needed to stop.

The King issued an order banning the shipment of all arms and ammunition to the colonies.  British merchants could not sell them and the British navy would search and seize any vessels carrying arms or ammunition from the continent to America.

This would not be easy to enforce though.  Spanish, French and, Dutch merchants could continue to ship arms to their colonies in the West Indies. From there, American smugglers could continue to buy what they needed and sneak them into the colonies.

News of Suffolk Resolves and Continental Congress

By late October, word arrived in London of the Suffolk resolves.  Members of Parliament were in their home districts, still completing the elections.  Lord Dartmouth received the resolves, noting that, if true, the colonies “have already declared war against us.”  As much as the Massachusetts patriots thought they were flirting with the line on treason, officials in London quickly decided that they had easily crossed that line.

Dartmouth had been corresponding with Joseph Galloway, a delegate at the First Continental Congress, trying to see if that body might serve to negotiate a settlement agreeable to all sides.  After word reached London that the Congress had ratified the Suffolk Resolves (see Episode 47), any hope of reconciliation seemed gone.  Now as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the shock of violence from the powder alarms and news of the Coercive acts forced Congress to support the resolves as a means of solidarity.  But clearly the majority of delegates were not ready for such an open break with London.

Lord Dartmouth (from Wikimedia)
 That, however, is the way many in London took the news.  Not only was Massachusetts in open revolt, the rest of the colonies seemed prepared to back them in open rebellion.  Confirmation of this view arrived with Jefferson’s Summary View of the Rights of British America. A southerner also agreed with the radical New Englanders that colonists could simply ignore acts of Parliament.

Officials awaited Gage’s assessment of the rapidly changing situation.  His letters following the Powder Alarm did not arrive until late November, traveling on a very slow ship.  When they arrived, they only frustrated the leadership.  Gage informed the ministry that his troops could not control the colony outside of Boston.  He suggested suspending the Coercive Acts to placate the colony, at least temporarily.  His letters said nothing about the state of the colonies outside of Massachusetts.

Both the King and Lord North found Gage’s assessment of the situation inadequate and his proposal to suspend the Coercive Acts absurd.  The King had no authority to suspend an act of Parliament.  It was his duty to enforce the law.  Officials began to think that Gage simply was not up to the job.  He had talked tough in London about restoring order.  Now he was hiding in Boston, afraid to have his thousands of soldiers stand up to a bunch of civilians.

The King also agreed that the time for war was at hand: “Blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent.”  Lord North agreed.  Dartmouth also accepted the idea that military suppression was the most likely option.

When the King opened the new Parliament on November 30, 1774, he deplored what he called Massachusetts’ “resistance to the law” and called for firm measures to restore British authority.  As always, he left the details to Parliament.

By late December or early January 1775, the Ministry received confirmation that Massachusetts had in fact set up its own separate government in the Provincial Congress and that it was preparing for war.  It also received the resolves of the Continental Congress, which indicated that the other colonies would keep solidarity with Massachusetts and support its resistance to the Coercive Acts.

Peace Negotiations Fail

Over the winter, Gage sent Col. Richard Prescott to confer with the ministry, discuss military and political options, and answer their questions about the situation in the colonies.  Also arriving in London were several loyalists fleeing the mob actions in Massachusetts as well as Josiah Quincy, who hoped to work out a peace deal.  Benjamin Franklin, still in London but on the outs with just about everyone, attempted to put out feelers for a peace deal via his friendship with Caroline Howe, the sister of Admiral Richard Howe and General William Howe, both Whig members of Parliament and well respected officers.  The parties remained so far apart at the outset though, that they could not even agree on a basis to start serious peace negotiations.

Lord Dartmouth considered the option of sending a peace delegation to America, but Lord North showed little interest.  The new Parliament was not in the mood for negotiations.  That could come after they reminded the colonies who had the power and who had to submit. North focused on preparing for war in the spring.

British Support for War

The notion that the colonies needed some harsh treatment to compel them to remember their place in the empire was not limited to Parliament.  The voting public had just supported the Tories in large part because of North’s tough policies.  A few months after the election, Samuel Johnson published Taxation No Tyranny in response to the petitions and declarations from the First Continental Congress and others.  It was published in several parts in newspapers in early 1775 and also became a popular pamphlet.
Samuel Johnson (from Wikimedia)

His work is most famous for the line pointing out the hypocrisy of the colonists who demand freedom as a fundamental right while owning slaves: “how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”  His lengthy discussion goes into much more detail about how the colonies must always be subject to the will of Parliament for all things, including taxation.  Colonial charters are authorization by the British government, but are also subject to amendment and alteration by the government.  Colonists have virtual representation in Parliament.  The fact that they chose to to move to a colony where they don’t have a direct representative was their choice, trading the vote for economic gain.

Colonists receive protection from the empire and profit from the British mercantile system.  So if they benefit from the British government, they must also accept the British taxes that support that government.  The British government needs to man up and stop making excuses for why it cannot enforce British law on British colonies.  If you want to understand the Tory position on the eve of war.  I really recommend reading this document.

The Peace Wing in Parliament Fails

Despite the overwhelming support for war, the Whig minority still attempted to salvage a peace.  They probably knew that their efforts would fail.  But they wanted to be on record with an alternative.  Sooner or later, they believed, North’s provocations would blow up into an expensive and bloody war with the colonies.  The Whigs wanted to be able to say “I told you so” and be prepared to put forth a government to make peace with the colonies when the time came.

In January, Lord Chatham, the former William Pitt proposed again to repeal the tea tax and agree to remove all British soldiers from the North American Colonies.  Pitt, who had recovered from his earlier illness that had led to his removal as Prime Minister, praised the Continental Congress for its fight against tyranny.  Edmund Burke also rose in favor of the bill, pointing out that while Britain likely could use force to suppress this rebellion, it would only be a temporary fix.  Britain would have to spend more and more resources trying to control the colonies militarily.  In the long run, that would be far more expensive than working out a compromise that would maintain an economically profitable trade with the colonies.  Despite his efforts, Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the plan.

Dartmouth’s Dispatch

By this time, many of the hawks in the ministry were questioning not only Gen. Gage’s competence but whether Sec. of State Dartmouth was too weak to keep the colonies in line.  Faced with increasingly desperate reports from Massachusetts and pressure to Act, Dartmouth sent a secret dispatch to Gage on January 27, 1775.  Weather problems prevented Gage from receiving the dispatch until April 15.

Dartmouth told Gage, you are not getting thousands of more reinforcements.  Yes, it sounds like you have lots of angry colonists but they are not an army.  They are a rabble without real military organization.  You have a professional army of nearly 4000 at your command.  If it turns out you need more after making an effort, we can talk about that later.  But soldiers are expensive and we don’t want to incur costs that we don’t think necessary.

It sounds like you are sitting around doing nothing, while the colonists arm themselves, train their militia, and refuse to comply with the law.  That needs to stop.

You should be able to control a large mob with the troops you already have.  Now show some backbone and get out there and enforce the law.  Specifically, we want you to arrest the leaders who are stirring up trouble, disarm the civilians, and prevent mobs from interfering with legal trade.  If necessary, you already have authority to declare martial law

Dartmouth did give Gage a little wiggle room, saying he had some discretion because he was the one on the ground seeing things as they are.  The message, though, was clear.  Gage had the necessary resources to put down this rebellion.  From the view of everyone in London, he needed to start making an effort to do that.

Restraining Act and Conciliatory Proposition

Even while war loomed though, North continued to seek a legislative solution.  In February 1775, North proposed to laws to Parliament: again opting for a carrot and stick approach.  In response to the Continental Congress’ decision to end all trade with Britain, Ireland, and the British West Indies, North’s Restraining Act (aka Prohibitory Act) prohibited the colonies from all trade with anyone other than Britain, Ireland and the West Indies.  In other words, if you are not going to trade with us, you are not going to trade with anyone.  The Act also banned fishing off the banks of Newfoundland, which was a big source of revenue for many New Englanders.

At the same time, North also proposed the Conciliatory Proposition.  In his view, the colonies seemed to have this insane phobia over Parliament taxing them.  The colonies did not object to all taxes, as the colonial governments continued to tax and collect from their own citizens without objection.  At the same time, Lord North seemed to have changed his attitude since the Tea Tax fiasco.  Now he did not care so much how he got money from the colonies, as long as he could get money to support the empire.  Therefore, his Conciliatory Proposition offered the colonies the authority to tax themselves, as long as they raised whatever funds Parliament needed from them.  In other words, the colonies would raise the money however they liked, but would make contributions to support the government and military needs from which they benefitted.

It’s hard to say whether such a compromise might have found acceptance in an earlier time under different circumstances.  But this was too little, too late.  After it became clear that the proposals would become law, Benjamin Franklin at long last packed his bags and headed home to Pennsylvania.  Josiah Quincy, Jr. likewise, gave up all hope of a political compromise and headed back to Massachusetts.  Unfortunately for Quincy, he would die on his return trip.

Everyone seemed convinced that fighting would begin in the spring.  The only questions were exactly when, where, and who would start it.

Next Week, Patriots open fire on British Soldiers in New Hampshire.

Next Episode 51: The Portsmouth Alarm

Previous Episode 49: The Provincial Congress of Massachusetts

Visit the American Revolution Podcast ( for free downloads of all podcast episodes.

Further Reading:

Web Sites

History of Parliament online, elections:

Josiah Quincy's discussion with Lord North:

The Restraining Act of 1775:

Johnson, Samuel Taxation no Tyranny:

Burke, Edmund Speech on conciliation with America, March 22 1775,

Parliamentary Debate on the Conciliatory Proposition:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Donne, W. Bodham (ed) The Correspondence of King George the Third with Lord North from 1768 to 1783, Vol. 1,  London: John Murray, 1867.

Great Britain. Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts The Manuscripts of the Earl of Dartmouth, Vol. 2, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1887.

Grego, Joseph A History Of Parliamentary Elections And Electioneering, London: Chatto & Windus, 1892.

Laprade, William (ed) Parliamentary Papers of John Robinson, 1774-1784, London: Offices of the Society, 1922.

Lucas, Reginald Lord North, second earl of Guilford, 1732-1792, Vol. 2, London: Arthur Humphreys, 1913.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press 1943 (Based on date, I am not sure about the copyright status of this book.  Since it may get pulled, I have also included a link to Amazon below).

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

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

Bunker, Nick An Empire on the Edge, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Daughan, George C. Lexington and Concord: The Battle Heard Round the World, New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 2018.

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press (1943) (also available as a free eBook, see above).

Raphael, Ray & Marie The Spirit of ‘74: How the American Revolution Began, New York: The New Press, 2015.

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 1, New York: McGraw-Hill 1976.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Episode 049: Provincial Congress of Massachusetts

Last week, we looked at the Continental Congress, which took place in Philadelphia in September and October 1774.  While leading patriots were away in Philadelphia trying to get the entire continent on board for the struggle, others remained in Massachusetts continuing the struggle against Gen. Gage in Boston.

Worcester Calls for Independent Government

As I discussed a few episodes back, Massachusetts jurisdictions outside of Boston had forced their courts and other government offices to close.  They did this to protest appointments under the Massachusetts Government Act, one of the hated Coercive Acts.  On October 4, about a month after the powder alarms pushed the British army into a defensive posture in Boston, the people of Worcester took a further step. They instructed their delegate to the upcoming Provincial Congress, that unless the Coercive Act changes to the colonial charter were repealed, that they considered themselves absolved of any obligations under the Charter.  Their delegate should work to create a new government based on the will of the people.  In other words, they were ready to remove the old government completely and create a new one. That is about as close to a declaration of independence that you can get without explicitly saying so.

Gage Fails to Open a Session

Even so, many in the colony were not ready to overthrow the government and create a new one.  They were still hoping for a compromise.  The exact nature of the Provincial Congress, which the Suffolk Resolves had called to start on October 11, was still a matter of dispute.  Some thought it should simply be a colony-wide meeting to present the people’s concerns to the Governor, or perhaps officials in London.  Others saw it as completely replacing the old colonial legislature, which the Governor called into session beginning on October 5.

Journals of the Provincial Congress
(from Internet Archive)
Gov. Gage made that question easier for the radicals when, on September 28, he called off the new session of the Assembly before it could even begin.  The Assembly had been scheduled to meet in Salem again.  That town now fell outside of Gage’s control.  He could have moved the session to Boston, or marched out to Salem with a military guard to open the session, but I suppose he saw little point.  The elected members would simply try to pass what he viewed as unconstitutional measures and force him to dissolve the session.  What would be the point?

The Assembly ignored Gage’s call to cancel the session and met in Salem on October 5 anyway.  They made of point of waiting around all day for the Governor and Council to show up.  At the end of the day, they declared that they had met their obligation under the Charter, but that the Governor and Council had not.  With no working government in the colony, the members declared they were free to create a new one.  The next day, the assembled legislators declared themselves a Provincial Congress and further declared they would meet on October 11 in Concord, as Suffolk and other counties had requested in their earlier Resolves.

When the 90 members of the old Assembly met in Concord, they found that various jurisdictions had sent more than 200 other representatives to the new Provincial Congress.  Because Concord was too small a town to host such a large group, they decided to move once again, this time to Cambridge.  The Provincial Congress set up in Cambridge, just across the Charles River from the British regulars occupying Boston.

Gage, however, made no effort to prevent them from meeting or much of anything else.  He had decided that he could do nothing without many more reinforcements.  He seemed happy to let the locals provide more proof of their treason, which could be used against them when his army reconquered the colony in the spring.

Provincial Congress

Mass. Charter of 1691
(from James Cummins)
With the delegation of many top radical leaders still attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the Provincial Congress elected John Hancock as its President.  It soon became clear that the Boston delegates were among the most conservative there.  There was little support for Worcester’s idea of declaring all colonial governments null and void.  The radicals demanded that the government move back to the colony’s original 1629 Charter, which allowed the people of the colony to elect both their legislature and governor.  The 1691 Charter, in effect for over 70 years, allowed for the elected legislature and governor appointed by the King.  Warren and the moderates thought abolishing the 1691 Charter went too far.  They simply wanted to go back to the way things were the year before, simply get rid of Parliament’s sixth month old Coercive Acts.

In the end, they decided to table the entire question of authority.  Answering that question the wrong way was a good way to get accused of treason.  A leader might then find himself snatched up by the army, and tossed on a ship.  He could then have a stay in the Tower of London, and possibly lose his head.  So the Congress simply put aside the question of authority for their actions, and just started acting.

Rather than pass laws, they passed recommendations.  Everyone understood of course, that the recommendations were mandatory.  Failure to follow them would lead to some sort of formal or informal punishment.

Building an Army

The real question they needed to tackle was how to build an army that would be capable of protecting the colony from what almost certainly looked like a coming invasion by British regulars at some point.  Local militia needed training, logistical support, supplies, and organization, all without looking like they were committing treason by taking up arms against the Crown.

Radicals representatives from the western part of the colony did not seem terribly concerned about accusations of treason.  They moved for an immediate armed invasion of Boston.  Others moved that they should at least call for a civilian evacuation of the city and an assessment of property in the city so that if it came to violence, they could reimburse civilians for losses.

Delegates from Boston and the surrounding area, put the brakes on these efforts.  Sure, we want to fight for our rights, but burning down all our homes and properties is not where we want to go on our first step.  And while we’re at it, let’s stop and consider the consequences of firing on British Regulars.

Even if they did not favor an immediate invasion of Boston, the delegates did have a consensus to build up their military readiness. On October 20, the Congress created a committee to consider the colony’s military requirements.  Many had already been giving this serious thought, because less than a week later, the committee returned with a shopping list of over £20,000 worth of arms and munitions, including 20 canon, 4 mortars, and 5000 small arms.

Two days later, the Congress authorized the purchase of all such items.  Where they were going to find the money for all that was still an open question.  They were trying to collect taxes from the people, but until then hopefully some vendors would sell to them on credit.

Artemas Ward

Congress also appointed several Generals to command the new army they were creating.  Artemas Ward became the commander of the new army in the making.  Ward had been a justice of the peace in Shrewsbury and a representative to the colonial assembly for many years. He had also served as a lieutenant colonel in the militia during the French and Indian War.  He had been present and Gen. Abercrombie’s failed attempt to storm Fort Ticonderoga back in 1758.  His military service had been respectable if not distinguished.  Even so, he never even commanded a full regiment in combat.

Artemas Ward
(from Wikimedia)
Ward made full Colonel in the peacetime militia, until in 1766, Gov. Bernard revoked his Commission.  Bernard did not like Ward’s opposition to the Stamp Act.  If this ended Ward’s military experience for the time being, it solidified his reputation as a reliable patriot. He continued to serve in the colonial legislature, even serving on the Governor’s Council.  Gov. Bernard had vetoed his selection to Council, but his successor, Gov. Hutchinson allowed him to serve.  Ward remained a committed Patriot, refusing to take his seat on the Court when the Government Act protests began.  He served as a member of the Provincial Congress until his appointment as the army’s new Commander in Chief.

The reality was that Massachusetts did not have experienced general officers to choose from.  Militia regiments in combat tended to server under British officers in the regular army.  The Congress initially selected Ward’s former commander William Preble, but he had to decline for health reasons.  Other militia leaders like John Hancock had never even seen combat.  Ward seemed to be capable officer and his loyalty to the cause was beyond question, so he got the job.


Delegates also proposed the creation of a standing army to challenge the British regulars. Again a majority rejected this proposal for multiple reasons: they had no money to pay such an army, raising such an army could be seens as a direct provocation to Gage and an act of treason, and having a standing army in time of peace was one of the things they had been protesting for years.  Since there was no war, there should not be a standing army.

Minuteman statue
Lexington, MA
(from Wikimedia)
Instead, they Congress called on the militia to form their most dedicated members into units that could be called upon on a minute’s notice.  They would have their guns, ammunition and equipment ready to go at all times.  This group became known as the minutemen.  The Congress expected that they could put together an army of 15,000 or so using minuteman volunteers from around the colony.

They adopted the same approach as several localities had done for their militia, the enlisted men for each company would vote for their own officers.  The company officers would then select the officers to lead the regiment.  The Congress also put in place recommended schedules for all militia drill.  The big advantage that regulars traditionally had over militia was that militia were typically ill trained and unable to execute field maneuvers without panicking and running.  Putting the militia on a schedule of heavy training for months would help to remove this disadvantage.

Committee of Safety

Congress also created a committee of safety to provide oversight and coordination for the provincial militia.  The committee could organize the deployment and safekeeping of weapons, ammunition and other supplies in order to prevent capture in regular army raids.  Because they had no standing army to provide logistics, supplies, strategic planning, intelligence, etc. the committee of safety took charge of those responsibilities.

British cartoon of Militia Meeting (from Boston Tea Party Ship)
Appointed to the committee of safety, was another Boston Doctor named Benjamin Church.  I might as well introduce him now, as he becomes important to the story very soon.  Dr. Church came from an old Massachusetts family.  His Great Grandfather, also named Benjamin Church led militia soldiers in King Phillip’s War, as well as King William’s War and Queen Anne’s War.  The Doctor’s father had been a respected Boston merchant.  Dr. Church had been a prominent patriot for many years, though his role became downplayed later for reasons we will discuss soon.  He performed the autopsy on Crispus Attucks after the Boston Massacre.  He gave a public oration on an anniversary of the Boston Massacre.  He was a member of the Sons of Liberty and regularly wrote newspaper articles and other works on behalf of the Patriot cause.  As a result, he had become a trusted and respected leader of the cause.

Church and the rest of the committee of safety worked to organize the 15,000 man army in waiting, organized 19 artillery units, and set up a wide range of military plans in preparation of the expected conflict with the British Regulars.

Gage in Occupied Boston

As the people of Massachusetts developed their own government and prepared to go to war against the old one. Gov. Gage remained in Boston, making his own plans to handle the insurgency.  After the September 1774 Powder Alarm, Gage realized he did not have the firepower to suppress this on his own.  He sent word to London to send 20,000 regulars, called in closer reinforcements from other colonies, and built up the defenses in Boston.  He continued to add more men, artillery, and defensive barriers at Boston Neck in order to prevent any invasion.

Gen. Thomas Gage
(from Wikimedia)
At the same time, he did everything he could not to provoke another incident.  He refused to arrest any of the leaders of the rebellion.  Even when the Provincial Congress met in Cambridge, he refused to take any action other than to respond to several messages from Congress telling them that their meeting was illegal.  Colonists were free to come and go from Boston without fear of arrest.  He even allowed Joseph Warren to lead the 1775 commemoration of the Boston Massacre in town.

He cracked down hard on his own soldiers.  Punishing them for any harassment of civilians or any other abuses of his standing army that the patriots might use to whip up further public opinion against his government.  Locals regularly provoked the soldiers who knew they would be punished if they attempted to stand up for themselves and fight back.  Gage’s officers and men came to think he acted too cautiously and began referring to him as Granny Gage.

Life for the soldiers in Boston was miserable.  Dozens of them died from disease.  More died from drinking related deaths.  Soldiers were underpaid, underfed, and treated with contempt by their officers.  Some soldiers sold their weapons to locals, though doing so could subject them to terrible punishments.  One received 500 lashes.  Many wanted to desert.  Patriots encouraged this, offering them money, clothes, and even land for soldiers who wished to leave.  Gage had to increase the guard around Boston, mostly to catch deserters.  The army celebrated Christmas 1774 by attending a firing squad of an attempted deserter.  Merry Christmas!

Gage even suggested that the ministry suspend the Coercive Acts.  They united the people and the colonies against British rule.  Suspending them, at least temporarily, would calm and divide the opposition enough to give him time to reassert control.

Even so, Gage was not naive enough to think this would be settled peaceably.  His efforts were the equivalent of saying “nice doggy” to a barking animal until he could find a large enough stick to attack.  Gage realized he was in over his head, facing tens of thousands of angry heavily armed colonists with only about 3000 men of his own. 

While awaiting reinforcements, Gage began to develop a spy ring to keep track of what the colonists were doing, where they were hiding military stores, and how best to get to them.  He sent his officers out in civilian clothing to map the best routes to towns where colonists were storing their weapons and supplies.  He knew that Salem, Worcester, and Concord were key storage depots.  He also discovered rather quickly that the locals were hyper-vigilant to his activities.  Several of his officers on intelligence gathering missions were followed or harassed.  Some had to alter their return routes to avoid capture by angry mobs.  Gage quickly realized nothing he did remained a secret for very long.

His men succeeded in developing good maps to key towns, including Worcester and Concord.  On one visit to Concord, while meeting with a local Tory, someone delivered a death threat.  The local man agreed to accompany the officers back to Boston, in part for his own safety.  On the way to Concord, the officers noted that the most direct road had many curves and hills that made for numerous potential ambush sites.  The Tory showed them on their return trip a better route, only slightly longer, that went through Lexington.  These men returned with the maps they had drawn to help Gage develop his plans for any spring actions.

Dr. Benjamin Church
(from Wikimedia)
Gage also developed a spy ring among the locals. There were may loyalists in the Massachusetts countryside who were smart enough to keep quiet or lie about their loyalties.  Others just wanted the money.  Around this time sources indicate that the British offered Samuel Adams a payment of £1000 per year for the rest of his life if he would switch sides and support the British. Adams, of course, turned down this offer.  But there were others who did accept the money.  Gage soon developed a network of spies, many of them paid, to provide him with intelligence on patriot plans and activities.

One of his best placed spies was none other than Dr. Benjamin Church.  Some time over the winter of 1774-75, Church began providing Gage with detailed information about the actions of the Provincial Congress, the exact amount of military stores on hand and on order, as well as the locations of much of the colonists’ arms and equipment.  Since Church was privy to all of the patriots’ most sensitive military information, Gage had an open book into all of the planning and preparation on the patriot side.

Why Church would suddenly choose to work against the patriots is a matter of debate.  Many patriots dismissed his treason as simple greed.  He had a mistress that cost him a great deal of money and got paid to keep her in style.  Sadly, it does seem like money played an important role in his decision to work as a spy.  At the time though, Massachusetts was not really independent, so calling it treason may be a little harsh.  Perhaps Church was worried that the British would crush this little rebellion and that he as a leader of the patriot cause for many years would end up losing everything, perhaps even his head.  Providing Gage with intelligence gave him an insurance policy in case the British won.  Whatever the motive or motives, betraying your friends and neighbors for personal gain cannot be seen as the behavior of a decent human being.  By just about any definition, Church is a dirt bag.

Church’s work though, combined with Gages other spies and his use of officers to get the lay of the land gave him time to develop a strategy for a spring offensive once he received his needed reinforcements.  Gage envisioned an overwhelming use of force to awe the provincials back into submission.

Next week, the British government in London prepares to suppress this rebellion with military force.

Next Episode 50: Britain Prepares for War

Previous Episode 48: The First Continental Congress

Visit the American Revolution Podcast ( for free downloads of all podcast episodes.

Further Reading:

Web sites: 

Worcester 1774:

Raphael, Ray "The True Start of the American Revolution" Journal of American Revolution, 2013:

Gen. Artemas Ward:

More on Artemas Ward:


Cain, Alexander "The Loyalist Guides of Lexington and Concord" Journal of the American Revolution, 2016:

Benjamin Church:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

French, Allen General Gage's Informers, New York: Greenwood Press, 1968 (loan only).

Lincoln, William (ed) The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838.

Martyn, Charles The Life of Artemas Ward, the first commander-in-chief of the American Revolution, Boston: Artemas Ward, 1921.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press 1943 (Based on date, I am not sure about the copyright status of this book.  Since it may get pulled, I have also included a link to Amazon below).

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

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

Bunker, Nick An Empire on the Edge, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Carp, Benjamin Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Daughan, George C. Lexington and Concord: The Battle Heard Round the World, New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 2018.

Jones, E. Alfred The Loyalists of Massachusetts, Their Memorials, Petitions, and Claims, London: Clearfield Company, 1930.

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press (1943) (also available as a free eBook, see above).

Raphael, Ray & Marie The Spirit of ‘74: How the American Revolution Began, New York: The New Press, 2015.

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 1, New York: McGraw-Hill 1976.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Episode 048: The First Continental Congress

During the fall of 1774, at the same time the colonists in Massachusetts were taking military and political control of the colony, colonial leaders headed to Philadelphia to see if the could coordinate a peaceful, yet effective response to the Coercive Acts.

Travel to Congress

In Episode 45, I discussed how in June 1774 Samuel Adams had gotten the Massachusetts Assembly to call for the Congress.  After, Gage closed Boston Harbor and moved the legislature to Salem, Adams locked the assembly doors, passed the resolution calling for a Continental Congress in September.   The legislature appointed himself, his cousin John Adams, Speaker Thomas Cushing, Robert Treat Paine, and James Bowdoin to the delegation that would attend.  He did this all while the Governor’s representative was screaming outside the locked doors that the assembly was dissolved and all of this was illegal.

First Continental Congress (from US Capitol)
Even so, the invitation went out to the other colonies.  Most them had also called for some similar sort of meeting, if only to avoid any immediate and devastating economic boycott of Britain.  I’m not going to go through the list of all the 55 delegates.  The men represented 12 of the colonies, only Georgia failed to send a delegation from the colonies that eventually became States.  Many of the men were already well known Patriots.  George Washington and Patrick Henry came with the Virginia delegation.  John Dickinson attended with the Pennsylvania delegation.  Many others attended not to create a united opposition, but to prevent radicals from committing their colonies to some crazy scheme.  Many of them ended up on the loyalist side once war began.

Quite a few of the delegates arrived early, allowing them to chat with other colonial delegations and get to know each other in an informal setting, such as dinner or a night of drinking at a tavern.

Setting up Congress

Carpenters Hall
(from Wikimedia)
On September 5, 1774, Congress convened and got to action.  Before getting to the debate, they settled a few preliminary matters.  First, they had to settle on where they would meet.  The 44 delegates present on the first day met at City Tavern.  That was great for informal meetings, but not to host the Congress.  They considered using the State House, the same building we today call Independence Hall.  They decided against it though.  Using the colony’s legislative building might imply they were taking government power without the consent of the Crown.  In the end, they decided on a smaller hall a few blocks away.  Carpenters Hall was a relatively newly built structure for local artisans to use.  The delegates decided it would meet their needs.

Delegates took their seats and got to business.  They elected Peyton Randolph of Virginia to serve as President of the Congress.  They decided each colony would get one vote regardless of size.  A majority of each delegation would determine how that colony would vote.  Finally, on September 7, they prepared to turn to the issue which had brought them together, how to respond to the Coercive Acts.

News of War

Just as delegates were getting down to business a messenger brought news from Boston that the British army had fired artillery on Boston, killing six.  This news was not true.  It was only a rumor based on the British powderhouse raid on Salem I discussed two weeks ago in Episode 46.  But it took a few days for the true story to arrive.

Duché leads opening prayer (from Weebly)
Just after receiving the news, the Congress opened its session with a prayer from local Anglican minister Reverend Jacob Duché of Christ Church.  Even the selection of the reverend was a political test of sorts.  The New England delegations were made up of Congregationalists, and not part of the Church of England.  By selecting an Anglican chaplain, they showed that they were willing to retain some ties with the old country and will the Anglican delegate in the central and southern colonies.

Still thinking regulars had just killed colonists in Massachusetts, the delegates began to debate as if open war had already begun.

On September 16, Paul Revere arrived with more details about the crisis in Massachusetts.  Delegates learned that the people had essentially shut down all government operations in Massachusetts outside of military-occupied Boston.  Blood had not been spilled, but a military standoff made clear that it would if neither side backed down.

Suffolk Resolves

Revere also brought with him the Suffolk Resolves that I discussed last week.  The Congress published and unanimously approved the resolves.  I find it amazing that the Congress would approve such a radical document given some of the moderate and downright loyalist members sitting in the Congress.  Part of this may have been that Congress had thought for over a week that the British had fired on Boston and killed civilians.  Even after they discovered that was not true, the news of the Powder Alarm left an impression with many that a shooting war could break out at any time.  The other colonies felt that Massachusetts was getting a raw deal.  Even if they were not ready to sacrifice all in a fight with Britain, the Congress seemed to admire the courage of Massachusetts to stand against their oppressor in such a bold and open way.

Richard Henry Lee
(from Wikimedia)
Part of the effectiveness of the radicals in Congress was in their strategy.  Many of the moderates and conservatives from New York and Pennsylvania prepared to take on the New Englanders directly, assuming they would call for radical action.  The moderates would counter that they had gotten themselves into this mess through their own actions and that moderation and compromise would lead to a better resolution.

The New Englanders, however, remained relatively silent in the debate.  They left the radical argument to southerners, men like Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry of Virginia, as well as Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina.  These men did not call on the Congress to help their own colonies, they acted out of principle to help their New England comrades.  This was designed to guilt the middle colonies into expressing support as well.

Several of the southern delegates proposed sending soldiers to Massachusetts, and calling on the citizens of Boston to abandon the city so that a colonial force could assault the military garrison occupying the town.  The delegates defeated this proposal, but after doing so, supporting the Suffolk Resolves seemed like the more moderate approach.  As a result, moderate and conservative leaders felt compelled to go along.

The Galloway Plan

Some moderates did try to develop a better long term solution to the ongoing fights between Britain and her colonies.  Joseph Galloway from Pennsylvania had long been an advocate for having Parliament grant the colonies some representation in Parliament.  This, he argued would end the fight over taxation without representation.  Years ago, some members of Parliament seemed amenable to such an idea.  The radicals, however, had long rejected such a plan.  A small minority in Parliament would do nothing to prevent Parliament from taxing the colonies with impunity and against their interests.  One would have to look no further than Scotland where members made up less than 10% of the Parliament, which routinely passed laws against Scottish interests.

Joseph Galloway (from Wikimedia)
At Congress, Galloway did not make an argument for Colonial representation in Parliament.  He knew that was a losing battle.  Instead Galloway proposed the creation of a Grand Council of colonies.  This council would be made up of representatives from all the colonies, much like the current Congress, and would have authority to veto any Parliamentary laws affecting the colonies.

The radicals saw the Galloway plan as a danger to their agenda of getting a united colonial effort to boycott Britain and force Parliament to back down fully.  They wanted Parliament to recognize the sovereignty of colonial legislatures, not create another layer of bureaucracy to control those legislatures.

In the end, the delegates tabled Galloway’s plan and even expunged all references to its debate in the Congressional Journal.  They simply did not want such a plan to become a distraction.

No Independence

Despite the shift toward more radical ideas, it does not seem that anyone in Congress was considering independence.  At least no one said it out loud.  Virginia delegate George Washington heard rumors that the Massachusetts delegation was seeking independence.  He spoke directly with the delegation.  John Adams told him there was some talk of independence among some of the country radicals, probably the source of the rumors Washington had heard.  The leadership though, had absolutely no wish to move in that direction.  Washington later reported this conversation in a letter to a friend.  He noted that no one was considering independence and that “no such thing is desired by any thinking man in all North America.”

Declaration of Rights and Grievances

If the moderates had hoped to use the Congress to slow down the radical opposition to Parliament, they were sorely disappointed.  Events in Massachusetts allowed the radical position to control the agenda in Congress.

Over the next few weeks, Congress integrated many of the proposals set forth in the Suffolk Resolves into a new document spelling out the consensus view of the Congress.  They also drew heavily from a document entitled A Summary View of the Rights of British America submitted by a Virginian named Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson was not a delegate, but was a member of the Virginia legislature.  His work seemed to resonate with many members of the Congress.  On October 17 Congress issued and approved its Declaration of Rights and Grievances.  The Summary view and the Declaration are worth reading these in full at the links above.  But I will summarize the Declaration of Rights and Grievances:

Summary View pamphlet, sent to members
of the First Continental Congress
(from Declaration Project)
The Declaration first challenged the Parliament’s authority in the Declaratory Act to pass any laws for the colonies in all cases whatsoever.  It challenged Parliament’s authority to impose duties for the purpose of raising revenue, objected to the American board of Customs Commissioners, and the use of admiralty courts.  It also objected to making colonial officials dependent on the Crown for their salaries, for keeping standing armies in the colonies in times of peace, and for threatening to transport colonists accused of treason to England for trial.

Next, the declaration turned to the Coercive Acts, calling the Port Act, the Government Act, the Justice Act, and the Quebec act “impolitic, unjust, and cruel, as well as unconstitutional, and most dangerous and destructive of American rights.”  It also objected to Colonial Governors regularly dissolving elected assemblies which were attempting to discuss grievances or draft petitions to resolve disputes peacefully and according to law.

Because of these actions the Congress held it appropriate to declare following:

First, like all men, they had a right to “life, liberty, and property,” an expression of fundamental rights coined by John Locke a century earlier.  Second, that as their ancestors had emigrated from England, they have the same rights and liberties as the subjects still living in England.  Third, that emigrating from England or being a descendant of an emigrant did not forfeit or lose such rights.

Fourth, a fundamental English liberty is the right to representation in the legislature.  English colonists could not properly be represented in Parliament, and therefore had authority to maintain their own colonial legislatures.  These local legislatures had full authority over taxes and local laws, with only the King having authority to veto legislation, just as the king could veto acts of  Parliament.  Not mentioned was the fact that the King had not vetoed a bill in almost 70 years.  In other words, colonial laws would, in almost all cases, be final for the colonies, just as Parliament’s laws were in England.  The Congress did recognize Parliament’s right to regulate external trade and to control foreign policy for the Empire.

Payton Randolph
Fifth, the Congress demanded recognition of the common law right to trial by jury in the locality where a crime was committed.  Also sixth the right to benefit from the laws of England as they existed when their colonies were first established.  Seventh, they further held the rights established in their colonial charters or in laws passed by their colonial legislatures.

Eighth, they retained the right to assemble, consider grievances, and petition the King.  Ninth, keeping standing armies in a colony in time of peace without the consent of the colonial legislature is illegal.  Tenth, legislative power by an appointed council was unconstitutional.  Not only had Parliament just made this change in Massachusetts, but several other colonies had long lived under appointed councils.  Therefore, they backed off a bit and said they were only concerned about changes made since the end of the French and Indian war.  They then listed the specific acts of Parliament they found objectionable.

In light of these wrongs, the Declaration agreed to a non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreement, with an association to enforce such rules.  The Congress also agreed to prepare a public address for the people of Great Britain and America, as well as a petition to the King consistent with the Declaration.

The Continental Association

The most controversial proposal to come out of the Congress was the creation of the Continental Association.  Effective December 1, the Congress agreed that the Colonies should stop all imports from and exports to Britain, Ireland and the West Indies (in other words the British colonies in the Caribbean).  They also included a non-consumption clause, agreeing not to consume any such products.  This meant that smugglers who had violated the import agreement would have no market to sell their goods anywhere in the colonies.

John Dickinson
(from American History Central)
The articles also completely banned any participation in the international slave trade, though it did nothing to prevent the internal sale and purchase of slaves in and among the colonies.  No one was thinking about this being a first step toward emancipation.  Rather, there were too many slaves in the colonies.  This was reducing the price of slaves by more than the slave owners liked.  The ban was also part of the larger effort to shut down trans-Atlantic trade on everything.

Delegates also pledged to use “Frugality, Economy, and Industry” to limit extravagances that had led them to be indebted to Britain.  It discouraged any horse racing, cock fights, plays, etc.  It even asked mourners at funerals to cut back on traditions that required purchase of goods from Britain.

The southern colonies balked at some of this.  And it had nothing to do with the slave trade ban.  Virginia and South Carolina were particularly concerned about the ban on all exports.  Both colonial economies were almost completely dependent on exports of cash crops, tobacco for Virginia, and indigo and rice for South Carolina.  Even a cut back on imports and extravagances would not save many rich planters from bankruptcy if they could not service their debts by selling their cash crops.

In the end, Congress compromised, calling for the ban on exports to begin a year later, in September 1775 if Britain had not yet repealed the Coercive Acts by then.  Even with that, delegates could only convince South Carolina to go along by allowing the continued export of rice permanently.

Unlike earlier merchants agreement, the Congress created an ongoing Association to observe trade throughout the colonies and report anyone violating the terms of the Association.  Many conservatives both in the Congress and in the population generally objected to the terms.  They noted that colonial legislatures objected to Parliament legislating on their behalf.  Why then, they asked, was it ok for this quasi-legal Continental Congress to legislate on behalf of colonial legislatures?

Many though, supported the action.  If the British closed the Port of Boston to all trade, the other colonies had to stand in solidarity with the people of Boston.  Surely London could not handle a complete cessation of trade with her colonies for long.  She would have to back down and respect colonial rights.

Petitioning the King

Petition to the King
Congress’ final product for the year was the Petition. A committee headed by Richard Henry Lee, and thought to be drafted primarily by John Dickinson, modeled the Petition on the Declaration of Rights and Grievances that they had approved a week earlier.  It largely spelled out the same sentiments, primarily requesting that the coercive acts be repealed.  But it began and ended with praise for the king and humble language, and an expression of loyalty. Basically, it was a request to undo all the laws and rules relating to colonial trade and taxes since the end of the Seven Years War, which coincidentally was about the same time George III became King.  Congress received the petition on October 25, made a few changes and gave final approval the following day.  It ordered the final document shipped to King George.

Lord North received the Petition in December on behalf of the King.  Parliament had refused even to receive earlier petitions that had questioned Parliament’s authority to pass laws for the colonies.  Despite that this petition similarly denied that right, North found it respectful enough to allow Parliament to receive it.  Still, he did not make it available to Parliament until late January.  He simply laid it before Parliament with other newspapers and information about events in the colonies without any effort to debate it or respond to it.  Leaders in London ended up paying far more attention to the Declaration and other reports printed in newspapers.

Let’s do this again next year.

On October 26, 1774, the same day Congress gave final approval to its petition it wrapped up its work, allowing the delegates to return home after nearly two months in session.  Before leaving the delegates agreed to meet again for a second congress the following spring, May 1775.  By then Britain would have had time to react to the petition and to back down and resolve all these problems.

Next week, Massachusetts sets up a Provincial Congress that is completely independent of Britain.

Next Episode 49: The Provincial Congress of Massachusetts

Previous Episode 47: The Suffolk Resolves

Visit the American Revolution Podcast ( for free downloads of all podcast episodes.

Further Reading:

Web sites: 

Declaration of Rights and Grievances (full text):

First Continental Congress Petition to the King (full text):

Wolf, Edwin “The Authorship of the 1774 Address to the King Restudied” The William and Mary Quarterly, 1965, pp. 189-224: (free to read online with registration).

Cecere, Michael “The First Continentental Congress responds to the Coercive Acts” Journal of the American Revolution, 2014:

The Continental Association:

Articles of Association:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

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

Boucher, Jonathan, A letter from a Virginian: to the members of the Congress to be held at Philadelphia, on the first of September, 1774, (Supposedly written by John Adams, 1774).

Gray, Harrison, A few remarks upon some of the votes and resolutions of the Continental Congress: held at Philadelphia in September, and the Provincial Congress, held at Cambridge in November 1774, Boston? 1775 (loyalist pamphlet by the Treasurer of Massachusetts).

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press 1943 (Based on date, I am not sure about the copyright status of this book.  Since it may get pulled, I have also included a link to Amazon below).

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.

Bunker, Nick An Empire on the Edge, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Carp, Benjamin Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Daughan, George C. Lexington and Concord: The Battle Heard Round the World, New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 2018.

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press (1943) (also available as a free eBook, see above).

Raphael, Ray & Marie The Spirit of ‘74: How the American Revolution Began, New York: The New Press, 2015.

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 1, New York: McGraw-Hill 1976.