From Long Island to Princeton

I am wearied almost to death with the retrograde motion of things.
–George Washington


As spring drew on toward summer of the year 1776, more than 50,000 armed men were in motion toward a confrontation in New York. By mid-summer, William Howe would command 32,000 troops, supported by the full power of the fleet under his brother Richard. It was the largest force Britain had ever gathered for an overseas venture. If, as some in London believed, the ministry had been fighting rebellion by half-measures, it would now exert overwhelming force. The ministers were by no means clear about the strategy the Howes ought to employ (or how they should cooperate with Carleton in Canada), but they were agreed on their purpose: to crush the rebellion, once and for all, before the year was out. To confront this host, Washington would gather an army of barely 20,000. Roughly half of these were his “regulars,” the regiments of the Continental Line; the rest were the militiamen called in, as always, to meet the emergency of the hour, amateur soldiers on temporary assignment. About overall strategy, the Continental Congress was no clearer than King George’s government. New York was to be held and the British barred somehow from ascending the Hudson and isolating New England, but how to do so was their commander-in-chief’s problem. Congress would supply Washington with such means as they could in the months ahead and pray for success on the battlefield. Meanwhile, they would try to resolve a deeper question: were they engaging the American people in resistance to misrule or launching a revolution?

In Congress a conservative faction had formed around John Dickinson of Pennsylvania. While the idea of independence was first whispered and then openly debated in Philadelphia, this faction had held its own against John Adams and the radicals. They were not timid men but by their lights true conservatives, trying to hold on to what they believed to be English liberty and a just relationship to king and empire. (Even Washington, up to his eyes in war, could not bring himself to call Howe’s army the “King’s Troops; they were still the “Ministerial Army.”) Nor were they unreasonable men. If independence could be achieved at all, it could very well leave them nothing more than thirteen weak, vaguely allied states, suddenly at the mercy of Spanish and French power. But far from Philadelphia, up and down the colonies, a sea change in the mood of the American people was already underway: only in independence, many were coming to believe, could their liberties be preserved. Redcoats and the hard realities of war had moved some to this conviction. But many more had been persuaded by an incendiary little pamphlet by a newly arrived English exile. The exile was Thomas Paine and the pamphlet, just 47 pages in sum, Common Sense. Paine was not yet forty when he reached American shores in 1774, a dark, unattractive man who carried little with him aside from a long string of petty failures and an abiding bitterness for the inequities of the British system. Such luck as he had enjoyed thus far consisted of his crossing Dr. Franklin’s path in London. Franklin saw something in him, urged him to seek a fresh start in the new world, and recommended him to his son-in-law in Philadelphia. By the eve of revolution, he had made a fair start, becoming editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine at the princely salary of fifty pounds a year. His first response to the opening guns seems to have been chagrin “to have the country set on fire about my ears almost the moment I got into it.” But few men thereafter did as much as he to feed that fire. Throughout the fall of ’75 he worked on a pamphlet in support of the Patriot cause–part argument, part invective, part propaganda–but at the heart of it was a new vision of society based on the natural rights of man. The voice, too, was new to America, a hard-edged, sloganeering style, aimed not at philosophers and statesmen but common folk.

To these, Paine presented on 10 January 1776 the “simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense” of the American cause. At issue was nothing less than “the cause of all mankind.” Indeed, not since Noah’s Flood had mankind seen a fairer chance of shuffling off corrupted government and beginning anew in liberty and justice. The particular corrupted government he had in mind was of course that of King George, but Paine swung his ax at the root of monarchy itself. “Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God,” he declared, “than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.” As for the English monarchy, they could claim no nobler descent than William the Conqueror, “a French bastard, landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself… against the consent of the natives.” If his history lesson was flawed (and it was), no matter: he provoked Americans into asking central questions. By what right did George III claim a continent across the sea? How did a “race of men [come] into the world so exalted above the rest”? Monarchy was, Paine thundered, “the most preposterous invention the Devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry.” This particular monarch, George III, was no more than “a royal brute,” set upon a throne by an accident of birth. Indeed, hereditary kingship must run contrary to nature itself, otherwise it would “not so frequently turn [kingship] into ridicule by giving mankind an Ass for a Lion.” Society in “every state is a blessing,” he explained, “but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.”

This much Paine argued about the nature of man and monarchy. As for the practical relations between Great Britain and the colonies, he posed another question: had the colonies profited more or lost more from their place in the empire? Here Paine drove two sharp points home. First, American prosperity had been the product of American energy and initiative, not British policy, a point that every farmer and shopkeeper was ready to affirm. Indeed, British mercantile law had thwarted American economic energy and shut Americans out of profitable markets, all to enrich England (which was of course the whole point of the mercantile system). Second, far from affording protection to colonial America, they had embroiled the colonies in destructive foreign wars. “Let Britain waive her pretensions to the continent, or the continent throw off her dependence,” he proposed, “and we should be at peace with France and Spain.” It is hard to know whether Paine believed his own rhetoric here, but certainly the Spanish and the French would be eager to see the continent up for grabs once more. If Paine was naive on this point, his readers still saw something reasonable in the way he characterized relations between the “mother country” and the colonies. It was one thing for a powerful nation to take a small island under its maternal protection, “but there was something absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.”

All this was, in sum, reasonable, and much of it biting. But it may be that the best of Common Sense comes when Paine leaves argument and invective behind and soars to visionary heights. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” he wrote. Reconciliation with England was no more than “a fallacious dream.” Indeed, a great destiny was calling Americans to arms and to independence. “Now is the seed-time of continental union, faith and honor… Time hath found us. Time hath found us! O ye that love mankind! Ye that dares oppose not only tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old World is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Europe regards her like a stranger and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.” For Americans steeped in a century of Christian millennialism, Paine had struck a rich and ringing major chord: Providence itself was calling this generation to build a New Jerusalem. Common Sense was quite simply a stunner. By year’s end, some 120,000 copies were in circulation, and as many as a million Americans had read it (that would be something like 90 million today!). A powerful piece, as Edmund Randolph of Virginia plainly saw, “it insinuated itself into the hearts of the people.” It also frankly terrified some of the delegates in Philadelphia. These by no means shared Paine’s belief in the natural goodness of humankind, had no interest in building a utopian asylum, and saw in the pamphlet the seeds of anarchy, not continental union. John Adams, himself ambivalent about Paine’s tract, wrote probably the most balanced account of it at the time in a letter to his wife Abigail: “Sensible men think there are some whims, some sophisms, some artful addresses to superstitious notions, some keen attempts upon the passions…. But all agree there is a great deal of good sense delivered in a clear, simple, concise, and nervous style… But his notions and plans of continental government are not much applauded. Indeed, this writer has a better hand in pulling down than in building up.” There was no point in overthrowing tyranny, he believed, only to usher in anarchy. But the “good sense” of Paine’s tract gave both the people at large and their delegates in Congress a powerful push forward in precisely the direction Adams wanted to go: independence. “Every post and every day,” he wrote to James Warren on 20 May, “rolls in upon us, independence like a torrent.”

This was overstating the case, and he privately admitted as much. While the four New England colonies and the four southern colonies were ready to act, the five middle colonies were “not quite so ripe,” though he hoped “they are very near it.” After a year of fighting, they were in fact a good deal further from independence than Adams hoped. Dickinson remained in firm control of the anti-independence Pennsylvania assembly. In New Jersey, Franklin’s own son William remained in the governor’s mansion in Perth Amboy and intended to reconvene the state’s assembly by royal authority. New York, under the influence of John Jay and Robert R. Livingston, was at least as staunch in its Loyalism. Almost at the same time that John Adams was writing about the torrent of the independence movement, Maryland’s popular assembly voted for “a reunion with Great Britain on constitutional principles.” In Philadelphia, though, Adams was about to get some help with the heavy lifting of the independence effort: first from a friend, then from a foe. The friend and ally was Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. On 10 May he put on the floor a resolution calling on the thirteen states to form new governments and establish new constitutions, in effect throwing the old colonial charters into the dustbin of history. Its passage staggered the anti-independence men. The Pennsylvania assembly had a palace revolution of its own, and soon Tom Paine was in control there. In New Jersey, William Franklin called the assembly back to business, but as soon as that call went out, he found himself arrested by Jersey Whigs as an enemy of liberty and sent into exile in Connecticut.

About the same time, Adams got unlooked-for help from King George himself. Unassailable evidence reached Congress that the king had contracted with an assortment of German princes for 18,000 troops for American service. (Eight thousand of these were already in motion to join Howe in New York.) To those still waffling it was another blow: first redcoats and their Indian allies, now mercenaries. On 7 June the independence men judged that the time was ripe. Richard Henry Lee, following the instructions of the Virginia assembly, rose and resolved “that these United Colonies are, of right ought to be, free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown; and that all political connections between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” For two days debate was fast and furious. The conservative strategy was to delay until tempers cooled. At length Edward Rutledge of South Carolina won a three-week postponement of debate on the measure to give the delegates an opportunity to consult their assemblies. In the meantime, though, Congress would appoint a committee to frame a fuller declaration of independence. John Adams of Massachusetts was called and everyone knew where he stood. Joining him were shrewd, soft-spoken Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania; youthful Thomas Jefferson, Virginia patriot and trained lawyer; Roger Sherman of Connecticut, no fire-eater but an independence man; and finally Robert R. Livingston, New York patrician and the only foe of independence on the committee.

Drafting the declaration fell to Thomas Jefferson in part as a matter of practical politics. Franklin, perhaps the logical choice, was a thinker and writer of authentic power, but also the father of a royal governor recently declared an enemy of liberty. Roger Sherman had no particular gifts as a writer, and Livingston could hardly be expected to draft a document he was prepared to repudiate when it came time to vote. John Adams probably had as sound a grasp as anyone of the political issues involved. Not long before he had written a pamphlet, Thoughts on Government, giving his views on the framing of new state constitutions. But Adams was also blunt-spoken and abrasive in debate and sometimes seemed determined to make as many enemies in Congress as he had in Parliament. (In time to come he would make a bitter enemy in Jefferson.) Nor did Adams have any illusions about himself. Jefferson must write the document, as Adams explained to him with rueful clarity: “Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.” And so it fell to Jefferson in one of those happy accidents of history in which the man and the hour are well met. He was just thirty-three that summer, a tall, raw-boned, red-headed Virginia gentleman. He had spoken only rarely in debate. Adams maintained that he never heard him utter three sentences together, and fellow delegates found themselves straining to hear his tinny, high-pitched voice. But they had quickly come to respect Jefferson’s energy, ability, and discipline in committee work. What they did not realize, though, that this reserved young man was about to become the conceiving spirit of the American nation.