Sunday, May 15, 2011

May 16, 1776

It was a clever maneuver by John Adams. First, Adams served on the committee of the Continental Congress drafting a resolution recommending that any colonies with "no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs" should "adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general."

Congress passes the mild and reasonable resolution on May 10, 1776. Then Adams served on the committee drafting a preamble for publication with the resolution. Congress passed the preamble on May 15, 1776.

While the resolution recommended new governments only for those colonies without adequate governmental services, the preamble recommended that all crown authority "be totally suppressed" and that all colonies implement government "under the authority of the people of the colonies...."

The implications of the preamble were not lost on Congressman James Duane of New York. Adams wrote in his Diary, May 14, "Mr. Duane called it to me, a machine for the fabrication of independence. I said, smiling, I thought it was independence itself, but we must have it with more formality yet."

In May 1776, however, Duane thought the idea of independence nearly unmentionable. In a May 16 letter to fellow-New Yorker John Jay, Duane wrote, "The Resolution itself first passed and then a Committee was appointed to fit it with a preamble. Compare them with each other and it will probably lead you into Reflections which I dare not point out."

My thanks to Lester J. Cappon for calling attention to the episode. Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson & Abigail & John Adams (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987 [1959]), 336-337 and 337 note 77.

Adams wrote the resolution and preamble, but this did not prevent him from observing on May 15, "This Day the Congress has passed the most important Resolution, that ever was taken in America."

Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789: Vol. 4: January 1-June 4, 1776 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1906), 342, 357, 358.

Paul Herbert Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789: Vol. 4: May-August 1776 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1979), 5.

Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States... 10 vols. (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851)3:5.
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