restricted access Chapter 2. ‘‘In an Odd State’’: The American Decision to Leave the British Empire
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2 . ‘‘In an Odd State’’ The American Decision to Leave the British Empire Dr. Franklin has been very constant in his Attendance on Congress from the Beginning. . . . He thinks us at present in an odd State, neither in Peace nor War, neither dependent nor independent. But he thinks that We shall soon assume a Character more decisive. —John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 1775 British North America had been turned upside down. At least this was the view from Philadelphia, the city that was emerging as the de facto capital of the Thirteen Colonies, where the Second Continental Congress convened on 10 May 1775. While the delegates of the First Continental Congress had promised to reassemble, if necessary, when they adjourned their ad hoc body the previous October, they could not have imagined how necessary such a meeting would be. The context in which Congress now came together was far more portentous than the previous year’s controversy over the so-called Intolerable Acts had ever been.∞ Weeks before, on the morning of 19 April 1775, a detachment of British regular troops sent by General Thomas Gage from Boston to seize a rumored munitions stockpile of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in Concord had met with armed resistance at village of Lexington. Fighting between the British regulars and the newly formed Massachusetts militia continued during the day as the regulars retreated back to Boston. While commentators would debate for centuries to come who exactly fired the first shot on the Lexington Green, for a majority of British North Americans there was no ambiguity. Provin- 60 Revolutionary Negotiations cials in Massachusetts and beyond perceived the British army—and by extension the king and the ministry—as the aggressors. Militiamen first from all over Massachusetts, and then from the rest of New England and other northern colonies, assembled and began to travel to Boston to support the local population’s resistance. Gage’s troops were trapped on the Boston peninsula as the city was quickly surrounded by provincial forces. A crossroads in the decade-old Imperial Crisis had been reached. The Continental Congress now directed its attention to providing a unified intercolonial response to this novel situation.≤ Among the delegates to Congress who felt the tension—and excitement —of the moment most acutely was Massachusetts’s John Adams. A lawyer of middling background from Braintree, Adams had risen to prominence in the Revolutionary movement in Massachusetts as an attorney in the legal case arising out of the 1770 ‘‘Boston Massacre,’’ but it was Adams’s works as a writer and a legislator that won him his seat in Congress. As author of the Novanglus essays in the Boston Gazette in 1774 and 1775, Adams had articulated one of the more cogent and ringing critiques of the constitutional doctrine of Parliament’s unlimited supremacy over the colonies. However, in the aftermath of Lexington and Concord, Adams began, in private, to move away from one of the bedrock principles that undergirded Novanglus —the notion that the North American colonies and the British metropolis could continue to exist within the same empire.≥ But as Adams contemplated the disintegration of the British Empire and the independence of the colonial provinces of British North America, a host of challenges soon revealed themselves. The colonies’ relationship with the province of Canada; their relations with their American Indian neighbors ; the prospects for commerce (and, of necessity, diplomacy) with the other sovereign powers of Europe; and the potential viability of a union among the sprawling, diverse thirteen colonies of eastern North America— each of these political relationships could, as they continued to develop, shipwreck the colonies’ united resistance to the North ministry’s legislation. Each could then, in turn, handicap an eventual bid for American independence . On 7 June, Adams described to James Warren that there was much discussion in the Continental Congress about ‘‘what we ought to do, with the Canadians and Indians.’’ It was an unsettling question. The Thirteen Colonies were bordered by the province of Quebec to the north and west (under the capacious boundaries authorized by the 1774 Quebec Act) and ‘‘In an Odd State’’ 61 at the same time surrounded by fairly powerful American Indian nations, such as the Iroquois, the Cherokee, and the Creek. Neither the Canadian settler population nor the majority of Native Americans displayed any inclination, in the late spring of 1775, to take a side in the emerging conflict, but the fear that both the Canadians and the Indians could...


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Foreign relations -- 1783-1865.
  • United States -- Foreign relations -- To 1775.
  • Indians of North America -- Government relations -- To 1789.
  • United States -- Foreign relations -- 1775-1783.
  • Indians of North America -- Government relations -- 1789-1869.
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