Sunday, December 16, 2018

Episode 075: Continental Congress, Autumn 1775

Today, I want to turn our attention back to the Continental Congress as they got back to work in September, 1775.  I last covered Continental Congress in Episode 68, as they wrapped up their summer session and sent the Olive Branch Petition to the King.  Congress had planned to restart on September 5, but had to wait another week for a quorum.  Part of this may have been the result of the Independence hurricane I mentioned a few weeks ago.  It had battered the southern colonies and dumped rain on the central colonies for several days, making travel difficult.

Georgia finally sent a full delegation to Congress for this session.  It was the last colony to send a full delegation.  A few other delegates also joined and left for the new session, the most notable being Patrick Henry who returned to Virginia serve as commander in chief of Virginia’s military.

Peyton Randolph
(from Wikimedia)
Also, Peyton Randolph of Virginia returned to Congress.  Many expected that he would once again assume the Presidency that John Hancock had taken when he left.  But Hancock refused to step down.  He believed he was elected after Randolph left and had no obligation to give up the chair..  Randolph took his seat with the rest of the delegates, but the incident particularly annoyed the Massachusetts delegation.  They were still trying everything they could to make nice with the other colonies. The Presidency was meaningless in terms of power and was mostly a position of honor.  Hancock was potentially generating hard feelings over a stupid title.

On the other hand, Hancock was still annoyed with his delegation for not making him Commander of the Continental Army.  We was not about to give up another prestigious position so that John Adams could curry favor with others.  In the end, he probably should have stepped down.  Randolph died suddenly in October and Hancock probably would have been re-elected again anyway.

Committees For Everyone

The fall session of Congress involved quite a bit of executive style work.  Since the colonies had no chief executive or executive branch, Congress had to run all the day to day functions of government, which at this point was mostly running the army.

Congress formed dozens of committees where delegates worked on various projects.  Some committees only lasted a few weeks, to draft a declaration or petition.  Other committees became standing committees to deal with financing the army, or setting up international diplomacy.  Over the entire life of the Continental Congress, members formed literally thousands of committees to deal with all problems large and small.  In 1775 alone, Congress created about 60 committees simply dealing with military issues.

It was over the course of this fall session that most members accepted that the fight would not be resolved any time soon.  Washington’s army was not going to crush the British garrison at Boston in a quick and decisive blow.  Congress received word from London that the King had refused to accept the Olive Branch Petition and went firmly on record that he supported the positions of his ministry and of Parliament generally.  They also received the King’s Proclamation that the colonies were in full rebellion and that Britain would respond militarily, not with more political negotiations.  As a result, delegates spent much of the fall gearing up for a longer term war.  Committees would oversee what clearly had become a long term conflict.

One committee in Congress dealt only with the letters and reports arriving from Washington on a daily basis.  The new general saw part of his job as being an agent for Congress with the army.  He kept Congress fully informed about the state of his army, efforts to improve it, and continual requests for more supplies.

Another key committee was the Secret Committee in charge of procuring arms and ammunition for the army.  Because much of what this Committee did was considered what we could call today classified military secrets, it operated without full input from the whole Congress, and more and more began to serve effectively as a Department of War.  The immediate need was for thousands of small arms, dozens of cannon, and tons of desperately needed gunpowder.

Benjamin Harrison
Congress created a three man Committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Lynch, and Benjamin Harrison to travel to Cambridge to meet with Washington and inspect the new Continental Army.  They would arrive at the army for their inspection in October.  Generally, the review went well and gave the delegates a better perspective on the military problems that Washington was facing.

The Committee spent a few weeks with the army, going over a whole range of issues, from discussions on how to attack Boston, to supply and logistics issues, military discipline, and recruiting.  Congress would act on many of the committee recommendations when they a returned to Philadelphia.

Some of the discussions centered around whether to allow Indians and blacks into the army.  Both were already there.  Many black New Englanders had joined the provisional armies before Washington even arrived.  Also, members of the Penobscot, Stockbridge, and St. John’s Indian tribes had sent warriors to join the militia following Lexington and Concord.  These tribes had long and close relationships with the New England colonists and had treaties agreeing to protect each other.

In the end, Washington and the Committee agreed to accept the Indians into the Continental Army but not any blacks, either slave or free.  Armed blacks was a big concern, particularly for southern delegates.  In September, South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge had proposed a resolution for Washington to immediately discharge all blacks from the Continental Army.  After some debate, Congress rejected the proposal, probably in part because they wanted Washington’s input before acting on it.

Now, after discussions, they agreed at least not to recruit more blacks, though it seems that they did not kick out existing black soldiers already serving in integrated units.  A month or two later, Washington seems to have reversed the decision to ban new black recruits anyway, probably due to the desperate need for soldiers.  I know that when the army moved to New York in the summer of 1776, several people commented on mixed race units.  So whether officially or unofficially, there were at least some African Americans serving alongside whites in defense of the patriot cause.

Officially though, despite the desperate need for soldiers for the following year, and despite the fact that the British were actively recruiting blacks for loyalist regiments, the ban on black soldiers remained in place for over a year.  Many southern delegates did not want the war to become about freeing their slaves.  They also did not want blacks fighting as soldiers to make an issue of emancipation at some later time.

Creating the Navy and Marines

In October, Congress turned its attention to the navy.  The patriots did not yet have a navy, but had decided that they needed one.  Rhode Island, which had already converted several ships to military use, and was using them to harass British shipping in New England, had instructed its delegates to get Congress thinking about a navy.  Even if the colonies could not dominate the seas, they could make life difficult for transport ships and capture supplies from the enemy.

John Langdon
(from American History)
One of the first naval committees, made up of three New Englanders, John Adams, John Langdon, and Silas Deane, tried to come up with a plan to address an immediate need.  Two British supply ships were headed to Boston full of arms and ammunition.  They wanted to figure out a plan to capture these ships.  The immediate plan called for arming existing merchant vessels for an attack.

The committee authorized the purchase and arming of two ships for this use, as well as the commission of a third ship.  Congress approved these actions on October 13, 1775, which the US Navy now recognizes as its birthday.  Congress also authorized raising two battalions of marines to serve aboard these ships.  Initially, they planned to draw a marine corps out of the army.  After further consideration though, they decided on November 10, to form new Marine Corps regiments in Philadelphia.  The US Marines now recognize that date as the birthday of the Marine Corps.  But these acts were really ad hoc decisions to deal with an immediate problem.  The issue made clearer the need to have a real permanent navy with armed ships ready to go and actively patrolling the coast.

Consideration of a Navy had been delayed until now because Congress hoped that the dispute would be resolved quickly.  Building ships could take many months before they would be ready.  Until people accepted that this fight might take years, there was no point in starting such a project.  Also, Britain had the most powerful navy in the world.  Many questioned whether there was any point in even trying to challenge Britain on the ocean.  By the end of October, Congress established a permanent committee to consider the development of a real navy.

By November, the Congress adopted rules for the regulation of a Colonial Navy and authorized the acquisition of thirteen more ships to defend the coastline.  A fleet would take time and money, but now that it appeared the war could go on for years, the colonists would have to do something to challenge British control of the seas.

New Wartime Measures

In early fall, Congress turned its attention to loyalists and royal government officials still in the colonies.  On October 6, delegates passed a resolution calling for the arrest of all loyalists considered dangerous to "the liberties of America."  This essentially created open season on any colonists who did not express support for the patriot cause, though it was mostly directed at loyalists who were actively recruiting regiments to fight for the King, or at Governors still trying to get colonies to reject the rule of provincial congresses.  Local colonies distributed various loyalty oaths that proclaimed loyalty to the colony or the patriot cause, not the King.

Congress banned the export of any produce or livestock from the colonies, except those to be used for the purchase of military supplies.  On November 7, Congress added to the Articles of War.  One was to add the death penalty for holding “treacherous correspondence” or giving intelligence to the enemy.  That was apparently a direct response to the Benjamin Church incident in September, that I discussed in Episode 73.

Other new rules dealt with problems facing the new army.  Officers found guilty of fraud or embezzlement could forfeit all pay and be cashiered from the army.  Soldiers could be demoted or flogged.  Dismissal for officers and floggings for soldiers were also applied to being drunk on duty, falling asleep on duty, or leaving one’s post.

Officers dismissed for cowardice would have their names published in their local hometown newspapers.  Anyone deserting to the enemy or fomenting mutiny or sedition could face the death penalty.  It established other penalties for plundering property while in battle, showing cowardice before the enemy, leaving camp without permission, or disobeying the orders of a superior officer.

All of these new rules were based on experience, many of them recommended by Washington himself to deal with problems he faced with his new army.

Creating a Southern Army

Fighting in Virginia and the Carolinas in the fall of 1775 also drew Congress’ attention. It also began to receive reports that London was planning to send an army to pacify the southern colonies.

It seemed unfair to have a whole Continental Army in New England and New York fighting the war, while leaving the southern colonies to fend for themselves.  Congress began taking steps to organize the state militaries in the south under Continental control, and also to pay the soldiers there with more Continental currency.

Calling for State Conventions

As I mentioned, by late fall, almost all the colonies had tossed out the royal governments.  Now they were unclear how they should proceed.  New Hampshire and South Carolina instructed their delegates to ask Congress how they should govern the colonies now that they had overthrown British control.

After some debate, Congress recommended forming State conventions so that the people could decide for themselves what form of government to create. This was a really big deal.  Although Congress had already approved Massachusetts setting up an independent government, that was because the colony was already in open warfare with its governor.  Many delegates still clung to the hope that this was temporary, that they could find a political compromise and that even Massachusetts would return to its traditional government.

John Adams
(from Boston Athenæum)
By this time though, other colonies sought Congressional legitimacy for their independent governments.  Congressional approval of governments completely independent of the Crown was essentially declaring independence.  That was the goal officials in London accused them of seeking and which most delegates still vehemently denied wanting.  The debate, therefore, was rather contentious.

During the debates, John Adams began to refer to the local entities as states rather than colonies.  Although Congress approved setting up independent governments, it was not yet ready to adopt Adams’ proposal to call them states.  Although Adams and most of New England had accepted by now that independence had to be the ultimate goal, and the other side in London also pronounced in no uncertain terms that the patriots clearly were headed toward independence, the majority of the Continental congress was not yet ready to admit that point.

Even so, Congress told the colonies to hold conventions so that  the people could approve the form of government they wanted, at least until they could resume normal relations within the British Empire.  This went well beyond having Massachusetts operate a government under an earlier version of its Royal Charter.  Congress now approved of creating an entirely new and independent government based only on what the people of that colony wanted.   In other words, Congress approved a huge step toward independence, but still didn’t want to admit it explicitly.

Creating a Diplomatic Corps

Around this same time, Congress started considering another important step toward becoming an independent state.  It started to think about opening diplomatic relations with other countries. Congress desperately needed to trade with other countries, if only to get the supplies necessary to continue the war.  Americans did not have enough industry, at least not at the scale needed, to create powder, mine lead for balls, manufacture muskets and cannons, or make a great many other things the army needed. Colonies had always purchased such items from Britain, which was now disinclined to make such sales.  While they got by raiding British transports and knocking over the occasional unguarded stash, they needed a more reliable source of munitions and other supplies.

A few delegates also recognized that allies might distract Britain from suppressing the rebellion in America.  An alliance that caused other European powers to go to war with Britain could work to America’s advantage.

As I mentioned in Episode 71, France had sent an agent named Bonvouloir to meet with Congress quietly and see what France could do to make Britain’s life more miserable.  Bonvouloir met discreetly with Benjamin Franklin and other delegates at Carpenter’s Hall.  While he would not admit to being there in any official capacity, he did indicate that France may be of assistance in providing much needed munitions as well as engineering experts needed for fort construction and other military defenses.
Benjamin Franklin
(from Wikimedia)

 His meetings helped Congress appreciate that some countries in Europe might be willing to assist America in its fight. Already France seemed to be helping quietly.  Though it officially respected Britain’s ban on anyone in Europe selling munitions to the colonies. The French colony of St. Domingo (in the modern Dominican Republic) had sold 30 tons of gunpowder in late summer.  In November, the Governor of Jamaica reported to London that the French in Hispaniola (modern Haiti) had imported record amounts of munitions, which seemed to be disappearing into the holds of American merchant vessels.

In late November Congress established  a Committee of Secret Correspondence to contact various countries in Europe and figure out who might be interested in providing assistance.  A few weeks later, it appropriated $3000 to send American diplomats to Europe to see if they could work with European powers interested in supporting the American struggle against Britain.

Diplomacy with the Indians

Congress also expressed concern about how the Indians might ally themselves.  William Johnson, who had been the British Indian agent for decades had died in 1774. His nephew Guy Johnson had taken his place.  Johnson had a home in upstate New York and held a good working relationship with the Iroquois Confederation.  In early 1775 he had been forced to flee to Canada, where Gen. Gage ordered him to organize the Indians to assist with the attack on the rebels in Massachusetts.  Johnson had not yet made much progress, but if he could get a united Indian force to rise against the rebels, it would be a big problem.

To help counter this, Congress employed Samuel Kirkland, a missionary who already lived in upstate New York with the Iroquois.  Congress hoped to use Kirkland to convince the Iroquois to maintain neutrality in what was becoming a full blown war between Britain and the colonies.  Kirkland would have only mixed success, but would keep at least some of the Iroquois from siding with the British.

More Money

Congress had pretty much burned through the $2 million in had printed for the war so far.  With all the new expenses, on November 29, Congress authorized the printing of another $3 million worth of continental currency, technically still bills of credit which would be repaid in real money as some point, somehow.

Within a few days, they would send $500,000 of that new money to Washington for use in getting his soldiers to reenlist for the coming year.  Congress owed several months’ back pay, plus wanted to offer bonuses for reenlistment.  Much of the rest of the money would go toward the new navy, the southern army, and a host of other government expenses.

Congress also reached out to the colonies to see about them starting to kick in and pay off these mounting debts.  But for a group of colonies that started this war because they did not want to pay off war debts accrued in London, many would show the same reluctance to pay war expenses accrued in Philadelphia.

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Next Episode 76: Arnold's March to Quebec

Previous Episode 74: Occupied Boston, 1775

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Further Reading


Continental Navy:

Birth of the US Navy:

Tun Tavern: Birthplace of Marines:

Fabry, Merril “How the U.S. Marine Corps Was Founded Twice” Time Magazine, Nov. 10, 2015:

Secret Committee:

Samuel Kirkland and the Oneida Indians, by Melancthon Woolsey Stryker
Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association Vol. 14 (1915), pp. 101-107.

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. 3, Sept. 21-Dec. 30, 1775 Washington: US Gov’t Printing Office 1905.

Lothrop, Samuel Kirkland Life of Samuel Kirkland, Missionary to the Indians, Boston: Charles C. Little, 1847.

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.

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

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

Montross, Lynn The Reluctant Rebels, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950

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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