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Chapter 35

MEETING OF THE FIRST CONGRESS--OPENING CEREMONIES--ELOQUENCE OF PATRICK HENRY AND HENRY LEE--DECLARATORY RESOLUTION--BILL OF RIGHTS--STATE PAPERS--CHATHAM'S OPINIONS OF CONGRESS--WASHINGTON'S CORRESPONDENCE WITH CAPT. MACKENZIE--VIEWS WITH RESPECT TO INDEPENDENCE--DEPARTURE OF FAIRFAX FOR ENGLAND.


When the time approached for the meeting of the General Congress at Philadelphia, Washington was joined at Mount Vernon by Patrick Henry and Edmund Pendleton, and they performed the journey together on horseback. It was a noble companionship. Henry was then in the youthful vigor and elasticity of his bounding genius; ardent, acute, fanciful, eloquent. Pendleton, schooled in public life, a veteran in council, with native force of intellect, and habits of deep reflection. Washington, in the meridian of his days, mature in wisdom, comprehensive in mind, sagacious in foresight. Such were the apostles of liberty, repairing on their august pilgrimage to Philadelphia from all parts of the land, to lay the foundations of a mighty empire. Well may we say of that eventful period, "There were giants in those days."

Congress assembled on Monday, the 5th of September, in a large room in Carpenter's Hall. There were fifty-one delegates, representing all the colonies excepting Georgia.

The meeting has been described as "awfully solemn." The most eminent men of the various colonies, were now for the first time brought together; they were known to each other by fame, but were, personally, strangers. The object which had called them together, was of incalculable magnitude. The liberties of no less than three millions of people, with that of all their posterity, were staked on the wisdom and energy of their councils.

[Footnote: Wirt's Life of Patrick Henry, p. 224.]

"It is such an assembly," writes John Adams, who was present, "as never before came together on a sudden, in any part of the world. Here are fortunes, abilities, learning, eloquence, acuteness, equal to any I ever met with in my life. Here is a diversity of religions, educations, manners, interests, such as it would seem impossible to unite in one plan of conduct."

There being an inequality in the number of delegates from the different colonies, a question arose as to the mode of voting; whether by colonies, by the poll, or by interests.

Patrick Henry scouted the idea of sectional distinctions or individual interests. "All America," said he, "is thrown into one mass. Where are your landmarks--your boundaries of colonies? They are all thrown down. The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers and New Englanders, are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American."

[Footnote: J. Adams' Diary.]

After some debate, it was determined that each colony should have but one vote, whatever might be the number of its delegates. The deliberations of the House were to be with closed doors, and nothing but the resolves promulgated, unless by order of the majority.

To give proper dignity and solemnity to the proceedings of the House, it was moved on the following day, that each morning the session should be opened by prayer. To this it was demurred, that as the delegates were of different religious sects, they might not consent to join in the same form of worship.

Upon this, Mr. Samuel Adams arose and said: "He would willingly join in prayer with any gentleman of piety and virtue, whatever might be his cloth, provided he was a friend of his country;" and he moved that the reverend Mr. Duché, of Philadelphia, who answered to that description, might be invited to officiate as chaplain. This was one step towards unanimity of feeling, Mr. Adams being a strong Congregationalist, and Mr. Duché an eminent Episcopalian clergyman. The motion was carried into effect; the invitation was given and accepted.

In the course of the day, a rumor reached Philadelphia that Boston had been cannonaded by the British. It produced a strong sensation; and when Congress met on the following morning (7th), the effect was visible in every countenance. The delegates from the east were greeted with a warmer grasp of the hand by their associates from the south.

The reverend Mr. Duché, according to invitation, appeared in his canonicals, attended by his clerk. The morning service of the Episcopal church was read with great solemnity, the clerk making the responses. The Psalter for the 7th day of the month includes the 35th Psalm, wherein David prays for protection against his enemies. "Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me: fight against them that fight against me.

"Take hold of shield and buckler and stand up for my help.

"Draw out, also, the spear, and stop the way of them that persecute me. Say unto my soul, I am thy salvation," &c., &c.

The imploring words of this psalm, spoke the feelings of all hearts present; but especially of those from New England. John Adams writes in a letter to his wife: "You must remember this was the morning after we heard the horrible rumor of the cannonade of Boston. I never saw a greater effect upon an audience. It seemed as if heaven had ordained that psalm to be read on that morning. After this, Mr. Duché unexpectedly struck out into an extemporary prayer, which filled the bosom of every man present. Episcopalian as he is, Dr. Cooper himself never prayed with such fervor, such ardor, such earnestness and pathos, and in language so eloquent and sublime, for America, for the Congress, for the province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially the town of Boston. It has had an excellent effect upon every body here."

[Footnote: John Adams' Correspondence and Diary.]

It has been remarked that Washington was especially devout on this occasion--kneeling, while others stood up. In this, however, each, no doubt, observed the attitude in prayer to which he was accustomed. Washington knelt, being an Episcopalian.

The rumored attack upon Boston, rendered the service of the day deeply affecting to all present. They were one political family, actuated by one feeling, and sympathizing with the weal and woe of each individual member. The rumor proved to be erroneous; but it had produced a most beneficial effect in calling forth and quickening the spirit of union, so vitally important in that assemblage.

Owing to closed doors, and the want of reporters, no record exists of the discussions and speeches made in the first Congress. Mr. Wirt, speaking from tradition, informs us that a long and deep silence followed the organization of that august body; the members looking round upon each other, individually reluctant to open a business so fearfully momentous. This "deep and deathlike silence" was beginning to become painfully embarrassing, when Patrick Henry arose. He faltered at first, as was his habit; but his exordium was impressive; and as he launched forth into a recital of colonial wrongs he kindled with his subject, until he poured forth one of those eloquent appeals which had so often shaken the House of Burgesses and gained him the fame of being the greatest orator of Virginia. He sat down, according to Mr. Wirt, amidst murmurs of astonishment and applause, and was now admitted, on every hand, to be the first orator of America. He was followed by Richard Henry Lee, who, according to the same writer, charmed the house with a different kind of eloquence, chaste and classical; contrasting, in its cultivated graces, with the wild and grand effusions of Henry. "The superior powers of these great men, however," adds he, "were manifested only in debate, and while general grievances were the topic; when called down from the heights of declamation to that severer test of intellectual excellence, the details of business, they found themselves in a body of cool-headed, reflecting, and most able men, by whom they were, in their turn, completely thrown into the shade."

[Footnote: Wirt's Life of Patrick Henry.]

The first public measure of Congress was a resolution declaratory of their feelings with regard to the recent acts of Parliament, violating the rights of the people of Massachusetts, and of their determination to combine in resisting any force that might attempt to carry those acts into execution.

A committee of two from each province reported a series of resolutions, which were adopted and promulgated by Congress, as a "declaration of colonial rights." In this were enumerated their natural rights to the enjoyment of life, liberty, and property; and their rights as British subjects. Among the latter was participation in legislative councils. This they could not exercise through representatives in Parliament; they claimed, therefore, the power of legislating in their provincial assemblies; consenting, however, to such acts of Parliament as might be essential to the regulation of trade; but excluding all taxation, internal or external, for raising revenue in America.

The common law of England was claimed as a birthright, including the right of trial by a jury of the vicinage; of holding public meetings to consider grievances; and of petitioning the king. The benefits of all such statutes as existed at the time of the colonization were likewise claimed; together with the immunities and privileges granted by royal charters, or secured by provincial laws.

The maintenance of a standing army in any colony in time of peace, without the consent of its legislature, was pronounced contrary to law. The exercise of the legislative power in the colonies by a council appointed during pleasure by the crown, was declared to be unconstitutional, and destructive to the freedom of American legislation.

Then followed a specification of the acts of Parliament, passed during the reign of George III., infringing and violating these rights. These were: the sugar act; the stamp act; the two acts for quartering troops; the tea act; the act suspending the New York legislature; the two acts for the trial in Great Britain of offences committed in America; the Boston port bill; the act for regulating the government of Massachusetts, and the Quebec act.

"To these grievous acts and measures," it was added, "Americans cannot submit; but in hopes their fellow subjects in Great Britain will, on a revision of them, restore us to that state in which both countries found happiness and prosperity, we have, for the present, only resolved to pursue the following peaceable measures:

"1st. To enter into a non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreement, or association.

"2d. To prepare an address to the people of Great Britain, and a memorial to the inhabitants of British America.

"3d. To prepare a loyal address to his majesty."

The above-mentioned association was accordingly formed, and committees were to be appointed in every county, city, and town, to maintain it vigilantly and strictly.

Masterly state papers were issued by Congress in conformity to the resolutions: viz., a petition to the king, drafted by Mr. Dickinson, of Philadelphia; an address to the people of Canada by the same hand, inviting them to join the league of the colonies; another to the people of Great Britain, drafted by John Jay, of New York; and a memorial to the inhabitants of the British colonies by Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia.

[Footnote: See Correspondence and Diary of J. Adams, vols. ii. and ix.]

The Congress remained in session fifty-one days. Every subject, according to Adams, was discussed "with a moderation, an acuteness, and a minuteness equal to that of Queen Elizabeth's privy council."

[Footnote: Letter to William Tudor, 29th Sept., 1774.]

The papers issued by it have deservedly been pronounced masterpieces of practical talent and political wisdom. Chatham, when speaking on the subject in the House of Lords, could not restrain his enthusiasm. "When your lordships," said he, "look at the papers transmitted to us from America; when you consider their decency, firmness, and wisdom, you cannot but respect their cause, and wish to make it your own. For myself, I must declare and avow that, in the master states of the world, I know not the people, or senate, who, in such a complication of difficult circumstances, can stand in preference to the delegates of America assembled in General Congress at Philadelphia."

From the secrecy that enveloped its discussions, we are ignorant of the part taken by Washington in the debates; the similarity of the resolutions, however, in spirit and substance to those of the Fairfax County meeting, in which he presided, and the coincidence of the measures adopted with those therein recommended, show that he had a powerful agency in the whole proceedings of this eventful assembly. Patrick Henry, being asked, on his return home, whom he considered the greatest man in Congress, replied: "If you speak of eloquence, Mr. Rutledge, of South Carolina, is by far the greatest orator; but if you speak of solid information and sound judgment, Colonel Washington is unquestionably the greatest man on that floor."

How thoroughly and zealously he participated in the feelings which actuated Congress in this memorable session, may be gathered from his correspondence with a friend enlisted in the royal cause. This was Captain Robert Mackenzie, who had formerly served under him in his Virginia regiment during the French war, but now held a commission in the regular army, and was stationed among the British troops at Boston.

Mackenzie, in a letter, had spoken with loyal abhorrence of the state of affairs in the "unhappy province" of Massachusetts, and the fixed aim of its inhabitants at "total independence." "The rebellious and numerous meetings of men in arms," said he, "their scandalous and ungenerous attacks upon the best characters in the province, obliging them to save themselves by flight, and their repeated, but feeble threats, to dispossess the troops, have furnished sufficient reasons to General Gage to put the town in a formidable state of defence, about which we are now fully employed, and which will be shortly accomplished to their great mortification."

"Permit me," writes Washington in reply, "with the freedom of a friend (for you know I always esteemed you), to express my sorrow that fortune should place you in a service that must fix curses, to the latest posterity, upon the contrivers, and, if success (which, by the by, is impossible) accompanies it, execrations upon all those who have been instrumental in the execution. ... When you condemn the conduct of the Massachusetts people, you reason from effects, not causes, otherwise you would not wonder at a people, who are every day receiving fresh proofs of a systematic assertion of an arbitrary power, deeply planned to overturn the laws and constitution of their country, and to violate the most essential and valuable rights of mankind, being irritated, and with difficulty restrained, from acts of the greatest violence and intemperance.

"For my own part, I view things in a very different point of light from the one in which you seem to consider them; and though you are led to believe, by venal men, that the people of Massachusetts are rebellious, setting up for independency, and what not, give me leave, my good friend, to tell you that you are abused, grossly abused. ... I think I can announce it as a fact, that it is not the wish or interest of that government, or any other upon this continent, separately or collectively, to set up for independence; but this you may at the same time rely on, that none of them will ever submit to the loss of their valuable rights and privileges, which are essential to the happiness of every free state, and without which, life, liberty, and property, are rendered totally insecure.

"These, sir, being certain consequences, which must naturally result from the late acts of Parliament relative to America in general, and the government of Massachusetts in particular, is it to be wondered at that men who wish to avert the impending blow, should attempt to oppose its progress, or prepare for their defence, if it cannot be averted? Surely I may be allowed to answer in the negative; and give me leave to add, as my opinion, that more blood will be spilled on this occasion, if the ministry are determined to push matters to extremity, than history has ever yet furnished instances of in the annals of North America; and such a vital wound will be given to the peace of this great country, as time itself cannot cure, or eradicate the remembrance of."

In concluding, he repeats his views with respect to independence: "I am well satisfied that no such thing is desired by any thinking man in all North America; on the contrary, that it is the ardent wish of the warmest advocates for liberty, that peace and tranquillity, upon constitutional grounds, may be restored, and the horrors of civil discord prevented."

[Footnote: Sparks. Washington's Writings, vol. ii., p. 899.]

This letter we have considered especially worthy of citation, from its being so full and explicit a declaration of Washington's sentiments and opinions at this critical juncture. His views on the question of independence are particularly noteworthy, from his being at this time in daily and confidential communication with the leaders of the popular movement, and among them with the delegates from Boston. It is evident that the filial feeling still throbbed toward the mother country, and a complete separation from her had not yet entered into the alternatives of her colonial children.

On the breaking up of Congress, Washington hastened back to Mount Vernon, where his presence was more than usually important to the happiness of Mrs. Washington, from the loneliness caused by the recent death of her daughter, and the absence of her son. The cheerfulness of the neighborhood had been diminished of late by the departure of George William Fairfax for England, to take possession of estates which had devolved to him in that kingdom. His estate of Belvoir, so closely allied with that of Mount Vernon by family ties and reciprocal hospitality, was left in charge of a steward, or overseer. Through some accident the house took fire, and was burnt to the ground. It was never rebuilt. The course of political events which swept Washington from his quiet home into the current of public and military life, prevented William Fairfax, who was a royalist, though a liberal one, from returning to his once happy abode, and the hospitable intercommunion of Mount Vernon and Belvoir was at an end for ever.


Washington Irving