Military history


After Virtue

Thus we are sowing the Seeds of Ignorance, Corruption, and Injustice, in the fairest Field of Liberty ever appeared upon Earth, even in the first attempts to cultivate it.


Back in the spring, John Adams had on several occasions outlined the political steps the Continental Congress should take in order to manage the movement toward American independence responsibly. His primary concern had been to create a stable political platform of confederated states before launching the movement for American independence.

The central flaw in this wholly logical scheme—apart from the assumption that a political earthquake could be managed—was the belief that you could set the stage for an independent government before you knew for sure that there would be an independent America to govern. After the decisive vote of July 2 provided that assurance, the delegates then decided to proceed without pause to address the ambitious political agenda that Adams had outlined earlier, albeit in a different order than he had envisioned.

If only in retrospect, it was a preposterously presumptive decision, surely a measure of the free-flowing confidence that accompanied the resounding triumph on the independence question. For the Continental Congress was proposing to draft a new constitution for the former United Colonies, now the United States, and at the same time to define the foreign policy goals of whatever government was created, all this to be accomplished by two committees in a matter of weeks in late July and early August.

The revolutionary fires were obviously burning brightly, warming up “the spirit of ’76” to a fever pitch that defied any prudent assessment of the possible. In fact, the political questions the Continental Congress proposed to resolve so quickly would continue to haunt and befuddle the infant American republic for the next decade and beyond and would not reach resolution until the Constitutional Convention, and even then only tentatively.1

Moreover, these daunting political conversations would occur in the shadow of the looming British invasion at New York, which had been designed, and then artfully organized, to deliver a crushing blow to the American rebellion before it got off the ground, thereby rendering all the deliberations in Philadelphia irrelevant. Given the escalating size of the two armies gathering on the waters and islands of New York, and given the “all-in” mentality of both sides, the apparent nonchalance of the Continental Congress is striking. While the British ministry regarded the military outcome at New York as decisive, the delegates in Philadelphia viewed the political agenda of an independent America as a priority not to be halted or hampered by worries about what would transpire on thebattlefields of Long Island and Manhattan.

Part of the overconfidence was rooted in some combination of ignorance and misguided faith in Washington’s ability to best Howe in New York, as he had done in Boston. Except perhaps for Adams, whose role as chair of the Board of War and Ordnance made him privy to more accurate intelligence, most delegates believed that “swarming militia” had enhanced Washington’s army to nearly double the size of Howe’s. “Washington’s numbers are greatly increased, but we do not know them exactly,” Jefferson wrote a Virginia relative. “I imagine he must have from 30 to 35,000 by this time.” In fact he had about half that number, of which 20 percent were sick and “unfit for duty.” Jefferson noted in passing that British ships had demonstrated their ability to navigate past American batteries on the Hudson, but he did not realize the tactical implications of British naval supremacy. “I imagine that General Washington, finding he cannot prevent their going up the river,” he observed with confidence, “will prepare to amuse them wherever they shall go,” not recognizing that without a navy, Washington was tactically incapable of amusing anyone. Even after the full British force, absent the Hessians, had arrived on Staten Island, totaling 25,000 troops, Jefferson was reporting to Virginia correspondents that “the enemy there is not more than 8 or 10,000 strong.”2

By and large, then, the view from Philadelphia was that Washington had the situation well in hand in New York, which he clearly did not, and that the Continental Army had been sufficiently reinforced by militia to possess comfortable numerical superiority over Howe’s army, when in fact the exact opposite was true. One wild rumor had Washington commanding a force of more than 60,000.3

Another optimistic train of thought circulating within the Continental Congress had more far-reaching implications than any rough estimate of Washington’s and Howe’s armies. After returning from a tour of the eastern states, the Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry reported to Adams that, by his reckoning, there were 111,000 militia armed and ready to fight from New Jersey northward, “a force sufficient to repulse the Enemy if he were 40,000 strong at New York and Canada.” Even if Washington suffered a catastrophic defeat, even if his entire army was destroyed or captured in New York, a virtually bottomless supply of men was available to take their place. In response to British pretensions of invincibility based on the supremacy of their army and navy, an American sense of invincibility was now emerging, based on the manpower potential of the American population.4

From the British perspective, a decisive victory in New York, then the union of Howe’s and Burgoyne’s armies along the Hudson, would end the war. From the American perspective, no single defeat would prove decisive until the entire American population had been subjugated, an outcome no imaginable British army could possibly achieve. As Franklin put it: “If the Enemy is beaten, it will probably be decisive for them; for they can hardly produce another Armament for another Campaign. But our growing Country can bear considerable Loses, and recover them, so that a Defeat on our part will not by any means occasion our giving up the Cause.”5

Franklin’s formulation reflected his values as a long-standing student of American demography, whose Observations on the Increase of Mankind (1751) had predicted—accurately, it turned out—that the American population was doubling every twenty to twenty-five years, over twice as fast as the population of Great Britain. In a century or so, Franklin observed with that ever-present twinkle in his eye, the capital of the British Empire would probably have moved to somewhere in Pennsylvania. But the more immediate implication of his demographic perspective—one could see overtones of this idea in Paine’s Common Sense as well—was that the American and British armies were merely the military projections of two different societies and populations. Whatever advantage the British enjoyed as a consequence of their superior army and navy was offset, and would eventually be overcome, by the size and supremacy of America’s exploding population. Whether they knew it or not, the Howe brothers were on a fool’s errand.

But even within the optimistic framework of this emerging American perspective, the outcome at New York remained crucial. A humiliating British defeat would be vastly preferable, because it would mean a short war. A calamitous American defeat obviously would be painful, because it would mean a long war. A hard-earned British victory along Bunker Hill lines—the most likely conclusion, in Washington’s opinion—would mean something in between. Whatever the result, the delegates in Philadelphia believed the American Revolution should continue to move forward politically regardless of the military outcome in New York. For them that meant deciding what a government of the United States should look like, even while the armies squared off.

IN LATE JULY and early August, the Continental Congress put itself into committee-of-the-whole posture in order to debate the recommendations of a large, thirteen-man committee, chaired by John Dickinson, charged with providing the framework for an American government that would replace the Continental Congress. For over a year, the congress had been functioning as a provisional government, with broad emergency powers that were implicitly justified by the dire circumstances of the ongoing if undeclared war and the looming prospects of secession from the British Empire. A more permanent central government was obviously necessary once independence was declared, so on June 12 the congress had appointed delegates from each of the colonies to a committee that would provide the political architecture for that new government, if and when independence was declared. The committee met off and on for a month, then submitted what was called the Dickinson Draft on July 12. No record of the committee’s deliberations exists, because none was kept.6

But some glimpse of the issues at stake is preserved in the correspondence between delegates at the time. Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire apprised a colleague that the conversations within the committee were edgy: “As it is a very important business, and some difficulties have arisen, I fear it will take some time before it will be finally settled.” Edward Rutledge of South Carolina hinted at the core difficulty, objecting to “the idea of destroying all Provincial Distinctions and making every thing … bend to what they call the good of the whole.” There was obviously a deep disagreement among delegates over how powerful the new central government should be.7

The charge of the committee was to draw up “Articles of Confederation,” suggesting a voluntary alliance of sovereign states. The Continental Congress had been created in 1774 as just such a confederation, and the constitutional arguments made against Parliament’s authority had identified the colonial assemblies as the sanctioned voice of popular opinion, thereby locating sovereignty in the respective colonial (soon state) governments.

But over the past fifteen months, the Continental Congress had been functioning as a sovereign national government, adopting emergency powers to raise an army, orchestrate a collective response to British military and political policies, and put a common face on the thirteen separate colonies. This quasi-national status, to be sure, had been achieved pragmatically, on the run, in response to the mounting British challenges currently embodied in all those ships and soldiers commanded by the Howe brothers.

Clearly, a faction within the committee wanted the new American confederation to build on the embryonic union created in the imperial crisis and establish a central government sufficiently empowered to provide the political foundation for an emerging nation rather than a mere clearinghouse for thirteen separate sovereignties that would presumably each go their own way after the war was won.

The Dickinson Draft is difficult to interpret, even to comprehend, because it represents a series of accommodations between delegates with fundamentally different visions of postrevolutionary America. The very term confederation, as mentioned, implied a loose alliance of sovereign states. But then Article 2 referred to former colonies that “unite themselves into one Body politic.” Article 3 seemed to suggest that each state was sovereign over its own internal affairs, reserving “to itself the sole and exclusive regulation and Government of its internal Police,” but then added the qualifying clause “in all Matters that shall not interfere with the Articles of Confederation.”8

The Dickinson Draft placed one unqualified restriction on the congress, namely that it could never impose any taxes or duties on the states. The new congress, in short, could not become an American version of Parliament, a principle that clearly reflected the core grievance of the colonies over the past decade. But Article 19 provided a long list of powers the congress could exercise, most of them related to foreign policy, and taken together they suggested a central government that was a good deal more than the passive plaything of the states.9

No official record of the debate over the Dickinson Draft was kept, but both Adams and Jefferson took notes that were preserved in their private papers. These provide a snapshot of the rivalries swirling among the different states and regions. Such deep disagreements had been suppressed until now in order to sustain a united front against the British ministry and on behalf of a common commitment to that elevated ideal simply called “The Cause.” But if the core meaning of “The Cause” was American independence, once all the former colonies embraced that goal, the different interests of the new states rose to the surface in a dramatic display of conflicting assumptions about the meaning of “the United States” after independence was won. The chorus quite quickly became a cacophony.

There were, in effect, three fundamental disagreements: first, a sectional split between northern and southern states over slavery; second, a division between large and small states over representation; and third, an argument between proponents for a confederation of sovereign states and advocates for a more consolidated national union. All the political and constitutional questions that would bedevil the emerging American republic until the Civil War were thrown onto the agenda for the first time. For five days in late July and early August 1776, the Continental Congress engaged in spirited debates that proved to be a preview of coming attractions in American history.

Although slavery was too explosive an issue to be addressed directly, it was also too embedded in the economy of the southern states to avoid altogether. The forbidden subject came up in the debate over Article 12 in the Dickinson Draft, which proposed that “the expenses for the war and the general welfare shall be defrayed out of a Common Treasury, which shall be supplied by the several colonies in proportion to the Number of Inhabitants of every Age, Sex and Quality, except Indians.” An argument then ensued over how to count “Inhabitants,” which quickly became an argument over slaves: Were they persons or property?10

The southern delegates insisted that slaves were like horses and sheep and therefore should not be counted as “Inhabitants.” Franklin countered that, the last time he looked, slaves did not behave like sheep: “Sheep will never make any insurrections.” This bit of humor was not appreciated by the South Carolina delegation, which then proceeded to issue the ultimate threat: if slaves were defined as persons rather than as property, “there is an End of the Confederation.” Sensing a southern secession movement, Samuel Chase of Maryland urged all delegates to calm down, then proposed that the term “white” be inserted before “inhabitants” in order to appease his southern brethren. But Chase’s proposed amendment only provoked outrage from northern delegates, including Adams, who accused South Carolina of trying to avoid its fair share of the tax burden to finance the war. In a thoroughly sectional vote, Chase’s amendment was defeated.11

Since any resolution of the matter would risk a sectional split at the very moment when a united front against Great Britain was utterly essential, the delegates simply tabled it. It was resolved, if that is the correct term, in 1783, when the Confederation Congress voted to count slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and representation, an awkward compromise that was subsequently adopted at the Constitutional Convention.

The question of representation in the new government generated an equally spirited and divisive debate as the argument over slavery, though the split was not sectional but rather between large and small states. In the Continental Congress, each colony had one vote, no matter how large its population. And Article 18 of the Dickinson Draft recommended a continuation of the one-vote-per-state principle.12

But when the Dickinson Draft came before the full congress, delegates from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts launched a frontal assault on state-based representation, arguing that population should determine the electoral power of the respective delegations. Franklin was most outspoken on the issue, warning that any new government based on equal representation by state “will never last long,” because the disproportionate political power of the smaller states defied the economic realities. It was, Franklin argued, a simple matter of justice: “Let the smaller Colonies give equal Money and Men, and then have an equal Vote.”13

Advocates for proportional representation also wanted the new confederation to build on the intercolonial alliance against British imperialism forged during the past year. Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania put it most provocatively: “We are now a new Nation … We are dependent on each other—not totally independent states.” As Rush described it, Americans were now united in common cause as a single people. Only a representative government based on population could reflect this new reality. Thinking as Virginians or Rhode Islanders was passé. The new name for the government, “the United States,” needed to become a singular rather than plural noun.14

Delegates from the smaller states found Rush’s national vision a political nightmare that exchanged the despotic power of Parliament for a domestic version of the same leviathan. Roger Sherman of Connecticut warned that his constituents would never surrender their liberties to some distant government that did not share their values. Coming together to oppose the British invasion was one thing, but Sherman described “the United States” as a plural noun, and any national ethos was a pipe dream that defied state-based loyalties, which were as far as most Americans were prepared to go. Though there was such a thing as “The Cause,” there was no such thing as “We, the people of the United States.”15

Because voting in the Continental Congress remained state-based, Sherman and the other small-state delegates knew that they could carry the day despite opposition by such powerful opponents as Franklin and Adams. And they did.

The latent disagreements about the powers of the new central government rose to the surface most menacingly in the debate about jurisdiction over the ill-defined western borders of the states. Several states cited colonial charters that placed their western borders at the Mississippi, or even more preposterously in Virginia’s case, at the Pacific. A consensus in the congress held that these extravagant claims were based on charters that had been drafted before anyone realized the size of the North American continent. But there was no consensus on the question of whether the states or the new central government possessed the authority to decide the matter. And the landed states like Virginia and the landless states like Maryland were seriously split over how the matter should be resolved.16

Jefferson was under pressure from his colleagues back in Virginia to resist any encroachment on the Old Dominion’s right to interpret her own charter claims. His main strategy was to defend Virginia’s jurisdiction but assure delegates behind the scenes that “no Virginian intended to go to the South Seas,” which was apparently a reference to the Pacific. Edward Pendleton, overseeing the Virginia Convention in Williamsburg, urged Jefferson to drag out the debate, then noted ominously that “perhaps while you are reading this, nay indeed while I am writing it, it may be decided by the sword at New York whether we shall have any land left to dispose of.”17

In hindsight, the failure to achieve any consensus on the shape and powers of the new American government was eminently predictable. Knowing as we do that enormous political and constitutional controversies over the overlapping questions of sovereignty andslavery would define the history of the emerging American republic for the next eighty-five years, we recognize that the conviction that these problems could be solved rather easily in a few weeks of earnest effort during the summer of 1776 was unrealistic in the extreme. Lacking such hindsight, however, most delegates in the Continental Congress expressed deep disappointment in their failure, coming as it did on the heels of the triumphant vote on American independence.

Adams was especially distraught to discover that unanimity about independence should be followed by total disagreement about what an independent American government might look like. “Thus we are sowing the Seeds of Ignorance, Corruption, and Injustice,” he lamented, “in the fairest Field of Liberty ever appeared upon Earth, even in the first attempts to cultivate it.” Two conclusions seemed to be clear: first, Americans were united, or at least mostly united, in opposition to the policies of the British ministry; second, they were divided along regional and state lines once their common enemy was taken out of the equation. They knew what they were against, but did not know what they were for.18

Adams had been extremely adroit at managing the delegates in the Continental Congress between advocates of reconciliation and proponents of independence in 1775 and 1776. Now, however, the divisions within the congress had become more complicated and cut in several directions. Moreover, the political adrenaline that had energized their collective response to British policy had run its course. Winning the war, of course, remained a common goal. Beyond that, however, the colonists had no agreed-upon political agenda, several competing versions of how an independent American republic should be configured, and some skepticism about whether any union of the states should continue after the war was won. In his capacity as de facto secretary of war, Adams’s chief job was to prevent these emerging sectional and state divisions from undermining the military alliance. On the very eve of the battle in New York, he got a glimpse of just how difficult that job had become. Beyond independence, Americans had no consensus on what being an American meant.

The exposure of the deep differences that had lain latent beneath the surface since the outbreak of hostilities at Lexington and Concord fifteen months earlier moved the American Revolution into a new phase. The idealistic, quasi-religious political mentality suggested by elevated expressions like “The Cause,” and moralistic references to the superiority of American virtue as contrasted with British corruption, had provided a rhetorical platform on which the different and disparate state and regional interests could congregate as a self-proclaimed collective. Like Joseph Warren at Bunker Hill, patriots were prepared to sacrifice everything—in Jefferson’s lyrical rendering, “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor”—on behalf of a higher goal.

The exalted and almost operatic character of this mentality was heartfelt but unsustainable. It was like the honeymoon phase of a marriage, blissfully romantic but of short duration. The divisive debates in midsummer 1776 marked the end of virtue and the beginning of interest as the dominant influence in shaping debates in the Continental Congress. To be sure, the Howe brothers had to be defeated and American independence won. But after that, nothing was clear. And everything would have to be negotiated.

AMID THESE DISPIRITING political developments came one expected and unqualified success. A committee charged with defining the contours of an American foreign policy, most urgently to explore a Franco-American alliance that would give the wartime government an invaluable European partner, delivered its report on July 18. The committee had delegated the task to Adams, who single-handedly wrote the report, which was titled “A Plan of Treaties.” Unlike the Dickinson Draft, which was an incoherent expression of differing opinions, the Plan of Treaties spoke clearly and with a singular voice. Almost inadvertently, it defined the framework for American foreign policy that remained in place for over a century.19

The first thirteen articles of the plan described the terms of a wholly commercial treaty “between the most Serene and mighty Prince, Lewis the Sixteenth, the most Christian King, His Heirs and Successors, and the United States of America.” Adams adopted the courtly language of European diplomacy in its most affected style, presumably to demonstrate that the upstart American government knew how to play the European diplomatic game. In effect, France was being invited to recognize the freshly created United States, and both countries would eliminate all import duties and tariffs in order to foster a more robust commercial connection.20

The Plan of Treaties explicitly rejected any diplomatic or military alliance with France. At least in retrospect, this seems strange, knowing as we do that French military assistance was utterly essential in winning the war for independence. But in July 1776 Adams and the other delegates in Philadelphia did not believe that French troops and treasure would be necessary to defeat Great Britain. Confidence in the prowess of the Continental Army and in a virtually bottomless supply of manpower had yet to be exposed as wishful thinking.21

Articles 8 and 9 of the plan underlined the chief reason why any military alliance with France posed potential problems, for they prohibited any French claims to territory on the North American continent. A military alliance that put French troops on American soil ran the risk that, once here, they would never leave. Adams was fully aware of France’s desire to recover some portion of its lost American empire, and he wanted to foreclose that possibility.22

Two years later, when the military situation on the ground looked more problematic, Adams was dispatched to Paris to negotiate the very diplomatic and military alliance that the Plan of Treaties sought to avoid. (Franklin, in fact, had already negotiated theFranco-American alliance before Adams arrived.) Concern about French imperial ambitions on the North American continent, especially Canada, would not dissolve until the last French ship and soldier sailed home.

The truly visionary contribution of the Plan of Treaties, to which the Franco-American alliance of 1778 was the unavoidable exception, was that the lodestar of American foreign policy for the foreseeable future would be neutrality. All treaties, most especially with any of the European powers, would be exclusively commercial in character, with no binding diplomatic or military commitments. The Plan of Treaties was the first formulation of a neutral and isolationist posture subsequently enshrined in Washington’sFarewell Address (1796). This centerpiece of American foreign policy remained in place until World War I and was not officially abandoned until after World War II.

The debate over the Plan of Treaties went as smoothly as the debate over the Dickinson Draft went badly. The Continental Congress adopted it on September 17 with only a few minor revisions. Its passage created a rather anomalous situation, namely that this new entity called the United States had a reasonably clear vision of how it wished to interact within the world of nations, but lacked anything like a consensus on whether it was a nation itself.23

ANY HISTORICAL RECONSTRUCTION of the crowded political agenda of the Continental Congress in midsummer 1776 inevitably imposes an ex post facto sense of coherence that the delegates at the time, doing their best to manage events that were coming at them from multiple angles and at very high velocity, did not share. They were trying to orchestrate a revolution, which almost by definition generated a sense of collective trauma that defied any semblance of coherence and control. If we wish to recover the psychological context of the major players in Philadelphia, we need to abandon our hindsight omniscience and capture their mentality as they negotiated the unknown.

In Jefferson’s case, the editorial changes made in his draft of the Declaration preoccupied him more than the debates over the Dickinson Draft and the direction of American foreign policy. He devoted considerable energy to making copies of his unedited version of the document, restoring the sections deleted by the congress, placing their revisions in the margins so as to differentiate his language from the published version circulating throughout the country. He then sent these copies to friends in Virginia, complaining that the congress had diluted the purity of his message, suggesting that all the revisions were defacements designed to appease the faint of heart, who still harbored hopes of reconciliation with Great Britain. This was not really true—the revisions were intended to clarify rather than compromise—but Jefferson’s wounded pride required a more compelling rationale than thin skin.24

His obsession with preserving his original language eventually waned, but it never completely disappeared. Near the end of his life, he went back to this moment in his autobiography and reiterated his sense of being badly treated by the congress. At the time, he came off as a rather self-absorbed young man, though his early recognition that the language of the Declaration mattered a great deal proved to be prescient.25

If his head was focused on defending his own words, his heart was at Monticello, where he himself desperately wanted to be. “I am sorry that the situation of my domestic affairs renders it indispensably necessary that I should solicit the substitution of some other person here,” he explained to Edmund Pendleton back in Williamsburg, adding that “the delicacy of the house will not require me to enter minutely into the private causes which render this necessary.” These “private causes” surely referred to his wife’s health.Martha Jefferson was pregnant and, in fact, on the verge of suffering a miscarriage. “For God’s sake, for your country’s sake, and for my sake,” he wrote to Richard Henry Lee, “I am under a sacred obligation to go home.” Ironically, if his plea to be replaced in the Virginia delegation had been promptly answered, he would not have been present to sign the Declaration on August 2, thereby tarnishing his lasting reputation as its author.26

If his correspondence is any indication, Jefferson was more interested in the debates over the Virginia constitution occurring at Williamsburg than in the political debates at Philadelphia. He had sent his own draft constitution to Pendleton, who was chairing the Virginia Convention, and was especially concerned that the right of suffrage be extended to “all who had a permanent intention of living in the country.” When rumors began to circulate in Williamsburg that he harbored radical ideas about the inherent wisdom of “the people,” Jefferson was quick to point out that he opposed the direct election of senators in his draft constitution. “I have ever observed,” he wrote Pendleton, “that a choice by the people themselves is not generally distinguished for its wisdom. The first secretion from them is usually crude and heterogeneous.”27

Another libelous rumor suggesting that he had no stomach for tough-minded politics against Indian tribes allied with the British produced a spirited response that he would subsequently act on a quarter century later as president: “Nothing will reduce those wretches so soon as pushing the war into the heart of their country. But I would not stop there. I would never cease pursuing them while one of them remained on this side of the Mississippi.” He obviously cared most about his reputation back home within the Tidewater elite and did not wish to be regarded as a romantic idealist.28

Finally, like all the delegates in the congress, Jefferson received regular updates on the military situation in New York. The new information made him more aware of the discrepancy in troop strength between the British and American armies, but he remained confident that the last-minute arrival of militia would even the odds. “Washington discovers a confidence, which he usually does only on high ground,” he reported to Pendleton. “He says his men are in high spirits. Those ordered to Long Island went with the eagerness of men going to a dance.” Military matters did not command the fullest attention of his formidable intellectual energies, and he accepted at face value the patriotic propaganda issuing from Washington’s headquarters.29

ADAMS HAD A wholly different temperament and a range of responsibilities within the congress that did not allow him the luxury of indulging his personal feelings. If Jefferson preferred to levitate above the waves of political and military challenges roiling through the Continental Congress after independence was declared, Adams was predisposed to dive into them all at once. In the debates on the Dickinson Draft, he favored a more unified American confederation. His leadership in drafting the Plan of Treaties, as we have seen, charted the future course for American foreign policy. On every political issue, he was both prepared and pugnacious, a one-man volcano ready to overwhelm his opponents in a lava flow of words. His stature in the congress was equal to Franklin’s, who also had his enemies, and his responsibilities were second to none. Working eighteen hours a day, he came across to his colleagues as the indefatigable and inexhaustible revolutionary spirit, running a marathon at the pace of a sprinter.

Most demanding were his duties as chair of the Board of War and Ordnance, for they made him the pivotal connection between the Continental Congress and the Continental Army. He was burdened with a cascade of specific requests. Washington needed thirty thousand flints for muskets, then an additional five tons of gunpowder; promotion decisions for senior officers created bruised egos that he had to soothe; militia units from Massachusetts originally ordered to the northern front on Lake Champlain had to be diverted to bolster Washington’s army in New York.30

Beyond managing these pressing if nettlesome details, Adams was literally forced by his position as the civilian most responsible for military affairs to engage with the larger strategic issues. Both Joseph Reed and Nathanael Greene wrote him to warn that confidence that the militia would bolster the fighting strength of the Continental Army was misplaced, arguing that the militia were untested amateurs whose numbers did not translate on equal terms with British or Hessian professionals on the battlefield. Reed and Greene urged larger bounties to recruit more soldiers with longer enlistments into the Continental Army.31

Adams agreed with their assessment but apprised them that political opinion in the congress was resolutely opposed to the creation of a large standing army. “I am convince that Time alone, will persuade Us to this measure,” he explained. “And in the mean Time We shall be forced to depend upon temporary calls upon Militia.” More than anyone else in the congress, Adams recognized that the current model of a relatively small Continental Army, supplemented at each engagement with a surge of militia from surrounding states, was risky. Just how risky was about to be discovered on Long Island and Manhattan.32

But he could not afford to focus exclusively on the looming battle in New York. For example, a congressional hearing on the failed campaigns against Quebec became a search for scapegoats. Adams concluded that the debacle at Quebec was the result of several uncontrollable factors, chiefly bad weather and a virulent smallpox epidemic. More significantly, he came to regard the entire Canadian campaign as delusional, a misguided use of America’s limited military resources based on the presumption that Canada was somehow destined to become part of the United States.33

He ordered General Horatio Gates, recently appointed commander of what was being called the Northern Army, to abandon the Canadian campaign and consolidate his position farther south on Lake Champlain. “We are very anxious, for you and your Army,” he wrote Gates, “as well as for the General [Washington] and his at New York.” Then he added a highly revealing insight: “We expect some bold Strokes from the Enemy, but I don’t believe that Howe and Burgoyne will unite their forces this year.”34

Adams clearly grasped the central goal of British strategy, which was to isolate New England by capturing the Hudson corridor in a two-pronged campaign, with Howe’s larger force coming up from New York and General John Burgoyne’s 7,000 troops coming down through Lake Champlain. While Washington contested Howe’s capture of New York, Adams wanted Gates to forget Canada and focus on stopping Burgoyne’s march down the Hudson Valley. More than any other delegate in Philadelphia, he had a panoramic perspective of the entire American theater.

No one was juggling more political and military responsibilities than Adams. No one else recognized the all-or-nothing character of this decisive moment or raised his pulse to match the impossible demands of that moment. He was the revolutionary spirit incarnate, and despite a lengthy career of considerable achievement, this was his finest hour.

But, like Jefferson, Adams found his overcrowded mind diverted by personal distractions about his family. As we have seen, in mid-July he had learned that his wife, Abigail, and their four young children were undergoing inoculation for smallpox in Boston. Abigail’s descriptions of their eleven-year-old daughter, Nabby, nearly brought him to tears. “She has about a thousand pustules as large a great Green Pea,” and could neither stand nor sit without pain. Then word arrived that Charles, the younger son, had caught the smallpox “in the natural way,” meaning by contagion rather than inoculation, and was “in delirium for 48 hours,” on the edge of death.35

Adams felt that he was failing in his role as a husband and father in order to fulfill his role as an American statesman and patriot. “It is not possible for me to describe … my Feelings on this occasion,” he wrote Abigail. “I shall feel like a Savage to be here, while my whole Family is sick at Boston.” But despite the temptations to head for home, he was like a soldier who could not leave his post. “My Sweet Babe Charles, is never out of my Thoughts—Gracious Heaven preserve him,” he wrote to Abigail, but then concluded that “the two Armies are very near each other, at Long Island.”36

IF JEFFERSON WAS disposed to levitate above the political struggles within congress, and if Adams preferred to embed himself in them all at once, Franklin brought his own distinctive mix of floating engagement to the task. In any meeting he was always the most famous man in the room—an internationally acclaimed scientist, a renowned essayist and wit, the senior statesman par excellence. “I am glad to find that notwithstanding your Countrymen have had so many good slices of you those forty years past,” James Bowdoin wrote Franklin with a wink, “there’s enough of you to afford them good Picking Still.… They still expect to feast upon you, and to feast as usual most deliciously.”37

Though he was a latecomer to the cause of independence who had worked tirelessly in London to effect a reconciliation, his conversion was as complete as it was sudden. He was convinced that the decision by George III and the British ministry to, in effect, declare war on the American colonies would go down as the biggest blunder in the history of British statecraft, and he had apprised Richard Howe of that conviction. It was a measure of Franklin’s prestige that Lord Richard, instead of feeling insulted, attempted to sustain the friendship. He hoped that “the dishonour to which you deem me exposed by my military situation in this country has effected no change in your sentiments of personal regard towards me; so shall no difference in political points alter my desire of proving how much I am your sincere and obedient humble servant.” Franklin wrote back to reiterate his view that Howe’s hopes for a reconciliation with America and with him were illusions. But he chose not to send the letter. He conveyed the impression of a prophet who knew which way history was headed. And if you were on the wrong side, as Howe clearly was, no sentimental attachment could bridge the gap between the two political camps.38

Franklin applied the same rigorous standard to his own son, William, an illegitimate child whom he had raised as a full-fledged member of his family. William Franklin had been appointed the royal governor of New Jersey, then sided with Great Britain when the Anglo-American argument widened into a war. He was arrested as a dangerous Tory in the spring of 1776 and was eventually sent to Connecticut for safekeeping. William’s wife, Elizabeth, wrote to Franklin, begging him to intercede and have William paroled to New Jersey so they could be together. “Consider my Dear and Honored Sir,” she wrote, “that I am now pleading the Cause of your Son, and my beloved Husband.” Franklin did not respond. His son had chosen sides and would have to live with the consequences. At this fateful moment, political commitments were thicker than blood.39

On the more controversial issues about the future American government raised by the Dickinson Draft, Franklin was a staunch advocate for proportional representation and therefore a neonationalist who thought that an independent America should become more than a confederation of sovereign states. But he was not willing to insist on the proportionality principle in the face of united opposition from the smaller states. Just as he thought that history was on the American side in the war for independence, he thought that time would prove a state-based confederation inadequate to the task of governance. If that political fruit had to ripen before it could be picked, so be it. If you knew how the journey was going to end, you could afford to be patient along the path.40

The same combination of prescience and patience shaped his response to the drafting of the Pennsylvania constitution. Like Jefferson, he took a personal interest in the framing of his own state’s constitution. But unlike Jefferson, Franklin enjoyed the advantage of proximity—the Pennsylvania Convention was meeting in Philadelphia, indeed in the same building as the Continental Congress.

In meetings with Pennsylvania delegates on August 13 and 15, he lent his considerable weight to two of the most distinctive and conspicuously democratic provisions of the Pennsylvania constitution, namely the insistence on a bill of rights and the creation of a one-house legislature to be elected by a citizenry that included artisans as well as property owners, thereby giving Pennsylvania the most egalitarian government in the United States. But he let others take the lead in the debates and receive the credit when the final draft was ratified. His suggested revisions were almost entirely stylistic. Given his prestige, his most important contribution was being present to lend legitimacy to the enterprise. In both the Pennsylvania Convention and the Continental Congress, Franklin was an invaluable trophy, more revered and renowned at this stage than Washington; he was the Delphic Oracle of the American Revolution.41

It was a role that Franklin took to instinctively, since he was a genius at sensing what the political imperatives of the moment required. In this instance, they required a sagacious pose, embodying the conviction that the cause of American independence had providential winds at its back. They also required him to become involved in the political debates at a higher altitude that preserved and protected his special status by not being drawn into damaging arguments. This made him an intriguing combination of Adams’s omnipresence and Jefferson’s distancing. He was a singular figure.

But even Franklin, who believed the British course was doomed, recognized that the military outcome in New York would determine whether the eventual American victory would occur quickly—obviously the preferred conclusion—or slowly, in a more drawn-out war that Great Britain would eventually abandon. He lacked the full flow of information that Adams enjoyed about troop strength and the doubts about the fighting prowess of the militia, but one informant serving in the batteries along the Hudson assured him that the British invasion would be repulsed: “Every circumstance here is cheerful and if our Enemies dare attack, they will undoubtedly procure themselves a severe drubbing.” Franklin did not believe that a defeat in New York would kill the American cause, but neither did he believe that patriotic estimates of the odds were reliable. He was confident that America would win the war but uncertain that the Continental Army would win the battle for New York. “While I am writing,” he told Horatio Gates on August 28, “comes an account that the armies were engaged on Long Island, the event unknown, which throws us into anxious suspense. God grant success.” As it turned out, God was not listening.42

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