The Main Players
John Adams: Fiercely intelligent and fiercely opinionated, John Adams took great pride in his reputation as the “Atlas of Independence.” While many of his fellow delegates no doubt admired his commitment to high principle, on many occasions they must have rolled their eyes at his flights into high dudgeon. Adams was an active participant in the Congress from the moment it first convened and stayed around long enough to serve on the drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence. His ideas and emotions were always on display, and, because he was a compulsive correspondent and diarist, he has left us with the most vivid accounts of the events of the forging of American independence.
Samuel Adams: The Massachusetts Tory Peter Oliver believed that if an artist “wished to draw the Picture of the Devil. . . he would get Sam Adams to sit for him.” British officials in the Bay Colony and in London believed that John Adams’s older second cousin was capable of turning “the minds of the vulgar . . . into any course that he might chuse.” When Sam Adams appeared at the First Continental Congress in September, 1774, he surprised the delegates by his somber, logical exegesis on the imperial crisis. The interplay between Sam and John Adams at the Continental Congress had some fascinating twists and turns, with Sam not John, more often recognizing the importance of gently persuading, rather than badgering, the more reluctant colonies to embrace the decision for independence.
John Dickinson: When he took his seat in the Continental Congress as a delegate from Pennsylvania in October of 1774, Dickinson, along with Boston’s Sam Adams, was probably the most well-known defender of American liberty. Dickinson earned that reputation not by his radical activism on the streets of his city, but by the power of his intellect. At the heart of Dickinson’s defense was his devout belief in what he called “the principles of the true English constitution.” It was that devotion to finding a path toward reconciliation with Great Britain that would set Dickinson and John Adams on opposing courses. When George III failed to change his policies, Dickinson continued to plea for conciliation, delivering a heart-rending speech in the Congress on July 1, 1776 opposing independence. Although he voted against independence and refused to sign the Declaration, he remained a steadfast American patriot, joining the Pennsylvania militia as a brigadier general.
Thomas Jefferson: Next to George Washington, there is no actor in the drama of independence more familiar to Americans. But in September 1774, Thomas Jefferson was still a young, relatively little-known member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. He was not one of the key political powers either in America or even in his home colony of Virginia. He was not elected to serve in the First Continental Congress, and only turned up at the Second Continental Congress in June 1775, elected as an alternate, two months after it had convened. The story of how Jefferson, neither an effective orator nor a political heavyweight in a colony replete with prestigious politicians, became the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, is a fascinating combination of intellectual skill, political maneuvering, and fortunate timing.
King George III: He was not the devil or the tyrant that the American revolutionaries of 1776 made him out to be. Nor was he the incompetent, bumbling, and possibly mentally unstable king portrayed in subsequent histories of the American Revolution. The earnest, modestly intelligent, and somewhat shy and insecure twenty-two-year-old George inherited an enormous responsibility at the death of his grandfather, King George II, in October of 1760. Although George II had often been content to leave matters of imperial policy to his chief ministers in Parliament, his grandson played a more active role in attempting to mediate among the oft-conflicting views of his ministers. By December of 1775, as Americans were becoming more emphatic in denying Parliament’s authority over their affairs, the one person whose decisions were capable of producing either reconciliation or revolution was King George III.
Thomas Paine: Born the son of a poor Quaker corset-maker in Thetford, England, Thomas Paine first set foot on American soil on November 30, 1774 (in fact, he may not have actually had his feet on the ground that day, as he was so sickened by the voyage, he had to be carried off his ship and taken to a nearby boardinghouse). With a modest letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin, he soon secured employment as a journeyman writer for The Pennsylvania Magazine. On January 10, 1776, with little in his previous writings to suggest the monumental place he would assume in the history of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine published Common Sense. Paine’s pamphlet would not only accelerate the Americans’ movement toward independence, it would also change the course of history.
George Washington: When Colonel Washington arrived in Philadelphia to attend the First Continental Congress, his fellow delegates immediately flocked to take his measure. His military reputation, as well as his imposing physical presence (he was six feet three), were already becoming the stuff of legend. Washington attended both the First and Second Continental Congresses, appearing at the Second, in the immediate aftermath of the battles of Lexington and Concord, in the full dress uniform of a colonel in the Virginia militia. Had anyone else appeared at a civilian gathering in military uniform, those assembled would have regarded the man so attired either as odd or as pathetically ambitious in his quest for high military appointment. But Washington was Washington, and no one looked askance. The decision of the Congress to appoint Washington commander in chief of the still-unformed Continental Army, though opposed by a few from New England, would mark a decisive step on the road to independence.
Samuel Chase: Although the congressional delegation from Maryland wavered on the question of independence up until near the very end, Samuel Chase had been a militant defender of American rights from the moment of his entry into the First Continental Congress in September of 1774. He was a vigorous advocate of a total boycott on all trade with Great Britain, and, in June of 1776, he returned to Maryland and mobilized the people there in a campaign to persuade the members of that colony’s convention to authorize their delegates to the Congress to vote in favor of independence. His effort was successful, and on the morning of July 2, and after riding 150 miles in two days, he walked into the Congress to announce Maryland’s support of the resolution for independence.
James Duane: A highly successful New York lawyer, Duane was a consistent advocate of “moderation” in the conflict with Great Britain. In spite of opposition from many of the more radical patriots in New York, he was elected a delegate to the First Continental Congress. As a member of the committee on rights, he attempted to narrow the Americans’ claim to autonomy from all British authority, clashing with the two Adamses and Patrick Henry in the process. Although he was not present in the Congress in July of 1776, he did, reluctantly, endorse the decision for independence.
Lord Dunmore: John Murray, the Fourth Earl of Dunmore, was the royal governor of Virginia from September 1771 until he was forced to flee the colony in January of 1776 by an assault from the Virginia militia. Dunmore was a firm, and highly unpopular, defender of British authority in Virginia, and is best known for his notorious proclamation of November 1775 in which he offered freedom to any Virginia slaves who fled their masters to fight on the side of the British.
Benjamin Franklin: When Franklin returned from England in May of 1775 and immediately joined the Pennsylvania delegation to the Second Continental Congress, he was unquestionably the most famous man in America, and also the most famous American in all of Europe. In the Congress he was a strong advocate of inter-colonial union, and he would serve on the committee charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence. Virtually every year of Franklin’s life contains something interesting, but the years leading up to independence are particularly extraordinary, for Franklin’s natural impulses toward diplomacy and compromise were at war with his growing identity as an “American.” Franklin would serve as in important, though not always successful, intermediary between John Adams and John Dickinson.
General Thomas Gage: A British army officer who had fought alongside George Washington during the French and Indian War, Gage served as served as commander of the British forces in North America. In 1774, in the aftermath of the passage by Parliament of the Coercive Acts, he was appointed military governor of Massachusetts. His attempt to confiscate patriot arms and ammunition in the towns of Lexington and Concord led to the battle that started the Revolutionary War. After failing to convince his superiors in London of the magnitude of the American opposition to British policies, Gage was eventually replaced as military governor and commander of British forces in 1775.
Joseph Galloway: The speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly when the First Continental Congress convened in September 1774, Galloway was Franklin’s closest political ally in Pennsylvania during the period of the early 1760s and early 1770s, but the two men would take very different paths in the two years leading to independence. Unlike Franklin, whose public persona was marked by a plain style and good humor, Galloway’s manner—austere, even arrogant—did not win him many friends in the Congress. After the defeat of his proposal for a Plan of Union between the colonies and Great Britain, Galloway became more adamant in opposing any steps that might lead toward independence. When Galloway made the fateful decision to oppose independence and become a Tory, he would provide important, and disastrous, advice to royal officials in London, assuring them that they would be able to recruit a substantial army of American colonists loyal to the Crown in their efforts at putting down the rebellion.
John Hancock: He is, of course, known for his “John Hancock,” his outsized signature at the top of the Declaration of Independence. Succeeding Peyton Randolph of Virginia as president of the Continental Congress in May 1775, Hancock was responsible not only for moderating the discussion in the Congress but also for overseeing the ever more complicated actions of the Congress respecting the American military effort. Hancock’s relationship with his fellow Massachusetts delegates John and Sam Adams was occasionally a bumpy one, for the two Adamses were not convinced of Hancock’s devotion to the cause of independence.
Patrick Henry: The fiery Virginia orator was one of the few members of the First Continental Congress to arrive with independence firmly in mind, declaring, to the alarm of many, that he considered America’s connection with Great Britain dissolved and the colonies now living in “a state of nature.” When he returned to Virginia after the First Congress had adjourned, he would find that he had a price on his head, with the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, denouncing Henry and his “deluded followers” as traitorous rebels. At the time of the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, Henry was back home preparing to become the first governor of the independent Commonwealth of Virginia. Although absent from the Congress for that climactic event, he played in important role in making it possible.
John Jay: A member of one of the wealthiest and most socially prominent families in all of New York, Jay, after attending King’s College (later Columbia University) and then qualifying for the bar, quickly became a leader both in New York’s legal profession and in the city’s social scene. Serving in both the First and Second Continental Congresses, he used his high intelligence and political clout to slow the path toward independence. In the spring and early summer of 1776, Jay was back in New York working tirelessly to persuade his colony’s political leaders to oppose independence. Like his colleague James Duane, however, Jay would ultimately support independence once the Congress had made its decision and, indeed, would become one of the key negotiators of the treaty of peace with Great Britain at the end of the Revolutionary War.
Richard Henry Lee: Often overshadowed by his more famous Virginia counterparts—Jefferson, Washington and Patrick Henry—in the run-up to independence, Lee was Virginia’s most active member of the Continental Congress. John Adams, when he first met Lee in Philadelphia’s City Tavern on September 2, 1774, was much impressed, calling the tall, spare Virginian a “Masterly Man.” Lee would quickly join forces with the New Englanders to push for bold measures in opposing British oppression and, on June 7, 1776, would propose to the Continental Congress the resolution that, when adopted on July 2, set America on th
Lord North: Frederick North, the 2nd Earl of Guilford, more commonly known as Lord North, was the chief minister of King George III from 1770 to 1782. In that position, he attempted to find a path toward reconciliation between the British and American colonial governments, but since he was never willing to yield on the question of the superior authority of king and Parliament over the colonies, those efforts ultimately led nowhere.
John Rutledge and Edward Rutledge: Both members of South Carolina’s wealthy and prestigious Rutledge family had obtained their legal educations at the Inns of Court in London. John Rutledge, the elder of the two brothers, was South Carolina’s most influential politician—eventually earning the imposing, but affectionate, sobriquet of “Dictator John.” His younger brother Edward was just beginning his political career, but after John returned to South Carolina in November of 1775, it would be Edward who would be an important ally of men like John Dickinson in arguing in the Congress for moderation, hoping that some sort of reconciliation with Great Britain could be achieved. Yet when the moment of decision came, Rutledge stood firmly in the patriot camp. Indeed, as leader of the South Carolina delegation, his support of independence was a crucial element in the decision for independence. But his support came with a catch. When Rutledge and his fellow South Carolinians saw the first draft of Jefferson’s Declaration, they quickly spotted the item condemning the slave trade as immoral and contrary to American principles of liberty. That item was, according to Jefferson, “struck out in complaisance” to men like Rutledge, who, far from abolishing the slave trade, wished to expand it.
Roger Sherman: This Connecticut politician was by the testimony of many of his colleagues one of the most physically ungainly specimens ever put on God’s earth. According to John Adams, his manner was “the reverse of grace,” yet in the same breath Adams declared him to be “one of the soundest and strongest pillars of the Revolution.” Jefferson echoed the praise, describing him as “a man who never said a foolish thing in his life.” Sherman, one of the few members of the Continental Congress who started his career in poverty—he was the son of a poor shoemaker who died when Sherman was just a young man. His down-to-earth manner and common-sense approach to the imperial crisis earned him a place alongside Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Robert Livingston on the committee charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence.
The Main Players
The Turning Point
The British Respond and
Benjamin Franklin Pays the Price
George Washington: Commander-in-Chief
America’s Declaration of Independence