Sunday, February 10, 2019

Episode 083: Continental Congress, Winter 1776

As I mentioned when I last focused on the Continental Congress back in Episode 75, Congress remained in continuous session after returning in September 1775.  Some members would come and go, but since congressional committees were effectively serving as both the legislative and executive branches, members had lots of work to do.

What I may not have made clear earlier was that everything Congress was doing was a secret.  Congress did not meet in open sessions.  From time to time they might make some public pronouncement, such as mourning the death of Gen. Montgomery in Canada, but no one outside of Congress had a good idea what they were doing.

Independence on the Horizon

Like the country at large though, most of Congress seemed to be moving toward acceptance of American independence.  Thomas Paine’s publication of Common Sense sped popular support for independence.  Even so, more conservative patriots in Congress, like John Dickinson, John Jay, James Wilson, and others refused to accept that independence would be the ultimate goal.

James Wilson is not a founding father you hear much about.  He mostly comes up in trivia questions as one of only six men to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  He also would become one of the first Justices to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.  He was a Philadelphia lawyer.  In 1774, during the First Continental Congress, Wilson had published a pamphlet with the exciting title of Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament.  Even at the time, it was not exactly a best seller, largely overshadowed by Thomas Jefferson’s A Summary View of the Rights of British America.

James Wilson (from Wikimedia)
The work did help establish Wilson as a credible legal scholar trying to protect colonial rights.  In the First Continental Congress, Wilson was probably considered a moderate.  By 1776 though, he was a conservative, not because his views changed, but because majority opinion had moved considerably to the left.  Conservatives in 1774 by 1776 were considered Tories and enemies of freedom.  Moderates in 1774 were, by this time, the new conservatives.  They were men like Wilson who still supported fighting against taxation, but were not quite ready to call for independence.

By 1776 though everyone was reading Paine’s Common Sense.  They watched New England and Canada dive into all out war, and they had heard the King’s declaration that the colonies were in rebellion, making clear he was not going to reign in Parliament and settle this dispute peacefully.  Very quickly, the choice was becoming submission or independence.  If you did not jump on the independence bandwagon, you were getting left behind.

In early 1776 Wilson attempted to get on that bandwagon by drafting An Address to the Inhabitants of the Colonies which I admit in the broad scheme of things is pretty forgettable.  It ended with a line about how their second wish would be to continue with Britain, but their first wish was freedom.  In other words, even the conservatives in Congress were reaching the conclusion that if they had to choose between independence and submission, they were willing to go with independence.

Many of the conservatives thought this address would be helpful.  But by the time it circulated through Congress, most thought it did not go far enough.  The independence faction was getting ready to push for an all out call for independence.  In the end, Congress tabled Wilson’s address without a vote and moved on to other things.  Even so, they still did not seem to be debating independence openly in Congress.  The movement still only showed itself in private letters and personal conversations among the delegates.

Peace Negotiation Attempt

The conservatives continued to hope that London would send a Peace Commission to negotiate a reasonable settlement to the crisis.  While this would happen in 1778, it was too little, too late by then.

Instead, in December 1775, Lord Drummond arrived in Philadelphia.  Drummond was a Scottish noble who had settled in New Jersey a few years earlier.  In 1774, he had traveled back to London to discuss possible peace overtures with Lord North.  No one asked him to do it.  He just appointed himself as a peace emissary to see if he could get the two sides talking toward some sort of compromise.

Drummond spoke with Prime Minister North about possible terms to end what was at that time, still just tension between England and the colonies.  Although he had no credentials to speak on behalf of anyone, he did have the most important thing in British government, family connections.  Drummond was a related to then Secretary of State Dartmouth, who helped him to connect with Dartmouth’s step brother, Lord North.

Much of what Drummond’s proposed ended up in the Conciliatory Proposition that Parliament sent to Congress in early 1775 and which I discussed back in Episode 50.  But North had been unwilling to provide any specific protections in that offer.  That, and the fact that it reached Congress after Lexington and Concord, meant it was too little too late.

Drummond did not give up though.  At the end of 1775, he returned to America in hopes of getting Congress to send peace commissioners to London.  Almost immediately the radicals arrested him for being a Tory.  They quickly paroled him on the condition he stay out of public affairs.  Drummond violated that condition by reaching out to some of the more conservative members of Congress, men like James Wilson, John Jay and James Duane, to discuss the idea of peace terms where the colonies would get certain limited protections from internal taxation.

His idea was that colonies would provide some reasonable contribution toward the cost of their military protection but would raise the money themselves, however they liked, and would have some constitutional protection that London could not shake them down for unlimited cash whenever it wanted.  Parliament would retain authority over trade, but would not use that as an excuse to raise cash through customs duties.  Obviously, there were a lot of details left to resolve, but some conservative members of Congress thought it might be the only chance they had to work out a deal instead of continuing a highly destructive war.

In the end, Lord Drummond got a couple of delegates to travel up to New York covertly to get a better idea of whether this really was a genuine back channel overture from North.  Was North trying to negotiate a peaceful solution? or was this just some guy trying to make a name for himself, trying to broker a deal nobody wanted?  At the time, Gen. Henry Clinton was on his way south, planning to retake the Carolinas.  He met with Drummond and other intermediaries on behalf of the delegates.  Clinton, though, was getting ready for war.  He was not even authorized to negotiate any peace settlement.  Clinton suspected they simply wanted to know his war plans or delay his mission and he blew them off.  With that, the Delegates returned to Philadelphia to get on with other matters.

Dunmore though, hopeful that the delegates would agree to go to London, sent a letter to Gen. Howe in Boston asking for safe passage.  He sent the letter to General Washington with the request that he forward it to Howe.  Instead, Washington opened the letter read it, and sent it back to Congress with a note that said he thought Dunmore was attempting to divide the patriot effort and that someone should do something about it.

When Dunmore returned to Philadelphia, he was arrested for violating the terms of his parole. In March, Congress debated sending a delegation to London, but decided against it. Dunmore agreed to leave the colonies and finally was allowed to sail to Bermuda in April.  In the end, nothing came of the attempted peace negotiations, although Drummond will be back for further attempts later in our story.

Blame for Canada

In January and February of 1776, Congress was mostly focused on the prosecution of the war.  The loss of most of the northern army on January 1 at Quebec was the first major defeat for the patriots.  It was hard to blame Gen. Richard Montgomery, who was by this time a national hero after dying in battle.  Similarly, Gen. Benedict Arnold, wounded in battle and struggling to maintain the siege of Quebec had hero status as well.  So, many in Congress looked to blame Gen. Philip Schuyler, commander of the Northern Army and in charge of overall strategy in that theater.

Schuyler had been trying to support the army in Canada, but was also focused on the Indian problem in New York.  British Indian Agent Guy Johnson was gathering up arms and ammunition and trying to convince the Iroquois and neighboring tribes that perhaps they should stop being neutral and help the King put down this rebellion.

Schuyler assembled 3000 NY militia in January, to make a show of strength against the Iroquois.  At the same time, he met with Iroquois leaders to assure them that the militia were not there to attack them.  Rather, they were just going to stop Johnson and the few foolish locals who had joined up with him.  The effort worked.  The militia captured cache of arms and ammunition that Johnson had assembled, and arrested about 100 Scottish Highlanders who were prepared to fight for King and country.  They dispersed anyone considering any organized effort against the patriot movement.  But all this effort also meant that for the month following the loss at Quebec, Schuyler was not giving his full attention to the problems in Canada.

David Wooster
(from Wikimedia)
In Montreal, Gen. David Wooster, got even more frustrated that his pleas for soldiers, guns, and money were falling on deaf ears back in Albany.  Wooster and Schuyler already did not like each other very much, but tried to be professional and work together as best they could.  But when Wooster publicly criticized Schuyler for paroling some Tories who were now causing him trouble back in and around Montreal, Schuyler decided he had had enough.  He dashed off a letter to Congress saying he could not work with Wooster anymore and that one of them had to go.

Before that letter even reached Congress, however, the delegates had come to the same conclusion.  One of them had to go.  Schuyler probably assumed that the junior Wooster would go.  But the delegates decided Schuyler would go.  Well, not actually go.  Congress instructed Schuyler to retain command of New York.  But they gave command of Canada to Gen. Charles Lee.  As you may recall, Lee was third in command of the Continental Army, behind only Artemas Ward and Washington himself.  Lee had been twiddling his thumbs in Cambridge and telling just about anyone who would listen how he could do a much better job than just about anyone anywhere.  Giving him an independent command in Canada, Congress thought, would give Lee a chance to put up or shut up.  The British looked like they would secure Canada within the next few months.  Perhaps Lee could do a better job than Schuyler.  Meanwhile they sent Schuyler from Albany to New York City, where he could prepare for the possible British invasion there.

Then, a few weeks, later, Congress reversed themselves.  Part of the reversal may have been objections raised by the New York Delegation, who saw their General being treated unfairly. I think Washington objected to the changes, though he seems so polite and accommodating in his written correspondence that it’s sometimes hard to tell.  But Washington really wanted Lee in charge of New York City.  He respected Lee’s ability to set up defensive lines and was sure the British would attack there once they left Boston.

So Lee went to New York City and Schuyler stayed in Albany.  However, he did not get Canada back under his command.  Instead, Congress promoted Brigadier General John Thomas to Major General and sent him to command Canada.   Thomas would replace Gen. Wooster, who just about everyone seemed to dislike by this point.  Wooster ended up returning to Connecticut and commanding the local militia.

All of this made very clear that Congress was not going to sit back and let Washington manage the army.  Congress would direct what Generals went where and maintained close control of the army.  Washington, determined not to become the next Cromwell, would make suggestions, or express concerns, but he would always follow Congress’ orders without complaint, even if he had personal misgivings.

Silas Deane Goes to France

To the extent delegates were looking at diplomacy, it was not with Britain.  Rather, they wanted better relations with France.  As I mentioned back in Episodes 71 and 75, France had already sent Bonvouloir to feel out the idea of better relations with the colonies.  Everyone realized that if they were going to defeat Britain militarily, they would need a major European power at least to supply them with guns, ammunition, and other supplies.  Ideally, that other power would go to war with Britain directly and force London to focus on problems beyond the colonies.

France, the age old enemy of Britain, was certainly the most obvious choice in such a plan.  To see if there was a possibility of making this happen, Congress sent its first envoy to Paris.  Of course, it could not be an official envoy.  The colonies were still governed by Britain.  If France recognized an envoy, that would be tantamount to recognizing American independence, which would probably force Britain to declare war on France.

Instead, the envoy would go posing as a private merchant, looking to make deals to buy trade goods to sell to the Indians in America.  Even that, of course, violated British trade laws, but I guess it was good enough cover to argue France was not getting involved directly in the war.

Congress’ first envoy to France was Silas Deane, a delegate from Connecticut.  Dean had been an active member of Connecticut politics for years, and had served as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress.  By all appearances, he was a committed patriot, strongly supporting the attack on Ticonderoga in the spring of 1775, and playing a major role in the creation of the Continental Navy.  He also performed a great deal of behind the scenes work on Committees of Correspondence.

Silas Deane (from Wikimedia)
Sadly for Mr. Deane, he had made some enemies back in Connecticut when he supported Connecticut’s Israel Putnam for major general rather that David Wooster, also from Connecticut.  And I’m becoming more and more convinced that Wooster was a pain in the butt for just about everyone associated with him.  He had lots of political friends in Connecticut, but just about nothing else going for him.  When Wooster only got offered a commission as a mere brigadier general in the Continental Army, he pouted and almost didn’t take it, preferring to remain a major general in the Connecticut militia.  It probably would have been much better for everyone if he had refused the commission.  But he did take it and would prove to be a disaster for the next year before he finally had enough and quit.

Anyway, Deane did not back Wooster, so Wooster’s political friends had Deane recalled from Congress at the end of 1775.  The delegates in Philadelphia valued Deane’s work and did not want to lose him. So they decided he would be a good choice to send to Paris and feel out any possible chances of an alliance, or at least assistance.  Like just about anyone who got a significant appointment during the war, Deane seemed highly underqualified.  He had never been further from his home in Connecticut than his visits to Philadelphia.  He did not speak French and had no real diplomatic experience.

Despite all that, on March 2, 1776, Congress commissioned Deane to go to France.  The Commission itself was rather vague, but Deane’s quiet discussions with other delegates were more specific.

They hoped he would able to purchase, on credit, arms, supplies, and uniforms for a 25,000 man Continental Army.  They gave him $200,000 in paper Continental currency to buy trade goods for Indians that Congress hoped to keep on their side during the war.  They also hoped he could make contact with the French foreign minister, the comte de Vergennes and begin discussions to see if France would recognize American Independence, if they declared independence, and to see if they would consider trade agreements or even an alliance.

Now all of this was a risky venture.  First, Deane had to cross the Atlantic and avoid the British Navy.  He was engaged in treason, meaning the British could have hanged him if they caught him.  Second, there was no guarantee the French might not decide it was to their advantage to stay on Britain’s good side and just turn him over the the British.

Even if none of that happened, Deane acted essentially as a private citizen in France with no diplomatic recognition.  Anything he bought on credit was on his personal credit, meaning he could possibly lose everything he owned and get tossed into debtor’s prison if Congress chose not to back his deals.

Despite the risks, Deane took the job and actually did pretty well at it.  He made contact with the French ministry through back channels and for the second half of 1776 covertly sent a continual stream of supplies to America.  This supply line grew considerably in 1777 and became critical to the war effort.

I don’t want to get into all the details now, but after several years, another envoy Arthur Lee, accused Deane of mismanaging French aid and pocketing some for himself.  Eventually, these charges were proven false, but not until long after Deane had died.  Sadly, he suffered from this damaged reputation even though he performed a critical service for his country.  But that mess is years in the future.  For now, Deane began the covert relationship between France and America that would make France America’s oldest ally.  I will definitely circle back to Deane in future episodes.

More Money

While I’m discussing Congress, I should also mention that in February 1776, Congress authorized the printing of another $4 million in paper currency to finance the war effort.  Everyone continued to question whether this money would ever be worth anything, leading to continued inflation.

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Next Episode 84: Continental Navy Raids the Bahamas

Previous Episode 82: Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge

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Further Reading


Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament, by James Wilson:

An Address to the Inhabitants of the Colonies, by James Wilson:

Failure of a Mission: The Drummond Peace Proposal of 1775, by Milton Klein, Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 4 (1972), pp. 343-380: (free to read online, registration required).

Letter from Thomas Lynch to George Washington, Jan. 16, 1776, discussing Lord Drummond:

Franklin, Benjamin Report to Congress on forces in Canada, Feb, 1776:

Silas Deane embarks on secret mission to France:

Covart, Elizabeth "Silas Deane, Forgotten Patriot" Journal of the American Revolution (2014):

Silas Deane Online Documents:

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.

Journals of the Continental Congress, Vol. 4  Jan. 1 - June 4, 1776, ashington: US Gov’t Printing Office 1904.

Clark, George L. Silas Deane, a Connecticut Leader in the American Revolution, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1913.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 4, Vol 4, Washington, DC: 1837.

Lossing, Benson The Life and Times of Philip Schuyler, Vol 1 and Vol 2, New York: Mason Brothers,1872-73.

StillĂ© Charles,  Beaumarchais and the "lost million". A chapter of the secret history of the American revolution, Philadelphia: self-published, 1890.

Tuckerman, Bayard Life of General Philip Schuyler, 1733-1804, New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 1903.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)

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

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York W.W. Norton & Co. 1975.

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.

Montross, Lynn The Reluctant Rebels, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950 (Book recommendation of the week)

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

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

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