United States History, Law and Politics

Notes on
The Founding of a Nation
by Merrill Jensen

notes by William P. Meyers

The Founding of a Nation, a History of the American Revolution, 1763-1776 by Merrill Jensen, paperback, 2004 reprint, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, © 1968. Available at Amazon.com: Founding

These not general notes on the book or the history of the period. Rather, they are items of particular interest to me, often related to correcting modern propaganda about the period -- William P. Meyers

page number are in [brackets]

The Virginia Resolutions of May 1765 (against the Stamp Act) were a turning point, but also represented unethical maneuvering. Introduced by Patrick Henry, the were passed by the Virginia legislature with on 39 of its 116 members present. Henry was accused of treason by Speaker John Robinson. Five resolutions passed by votes between 22 to 17 and 20 to 19. The next day the legislature managed to strike the 5th resolution, as Henry had gone home. Essentially they amounted to the right of the people of Virginia to govern themselves, without interference from England, particularly in tax matters. When colonial newspapers printed the resolutions, however, they included 2 even more inflammatory items that had not even been introduced, while failing to note that the fifth had been rescinded. "Henry and his supporters had learned what the popular leaders in other colonies already knew or were soon to learn: never let fact stand in the way of what you want the public to believe." [104-105]

The John Robinson scandal only came to light after he died in May, 1766. Among other things, the former Treasurer and Speaker of the House of Virginia had taken paper money recalled by Virginia that he was supposed to have burned and loaned it to friends. Alluding the scandal and its aftermath, one newspaper published "Prophecy from the East" which included such fine lines as "And it shall come to pass that the principles of judging shall be perverted: men's understanding shall be darkened; For this shall be the Era of Delusion." [204]

Jensen covers British politics of the era in considerable detail, showing how local issues and political factions influenced decisions about colonial policy. He describes how the repeal of the Stamp Act, and consequent loss of funds, led the British government to look to the East India Company for revenue.[219]

The Glorious 92 were the members of the Massachusetts legislature who voted (later) in support of the Circular Letter of February 11, 1768. As originally passed by that legislature, it suggested that the colonies should work together to assert that they could not be taxed by Parliament without their consent. It also mentioned the other many grievances of the time, including the Quartering Act. Toasts were made to the Glorious 92 and to "No. 45", the English politician John Wilkes. [250-257]

"Most Americans opposed the more rigid enforcement of customers regulations . . ." The new customs measures of 1767, part of the Townshend program, became part "of the constant propaganda waged by popular leaders against all British interference in America." Smuggling was an important part of commerce in the colonies, just as it was in England and the rest of the world. Although "Americans blasted away at the new measures as they had at the old. They denounced the admiralty courts as further evidence of British tyranny while producing glowing tributes to trials by jury." But American ship owners and sailors preferred the admiralty courts. They were more efficient. The real enemy became the British Navy. It was more difficult to bribe, and the value of the seizure no longer went to the colonial governor and colony treasury. Instead it went to the crew that made the seizure and to the king's treasury in England. [273-275]

Even with the new laws and customs duties, it cost the British much more to maintain a presence in the colonies than the taxes and duties brought in. Customs payrolls and naval costs exceeded what was collected. "The expense of the army in America, in any one year, was almost as much as the total collections for the whole period." Americans wanted to pay no taxes for the army that protected them against Native American Indians or the navy that protected them against piracy. They wanted a free ride. [332]

The line between mob rule and democracy was sometimes hard draw. New York (and most colonies) had two rival factions, and their mutual conflict often was more bitter than any question about relations with Britain. After the repeal of duties levied by the Townshend act, "popular leaders in every colony wanted to continue non-importation." In New York the merchants decided to end non-importation. "Alexander McDougall and Isaac Sears called a meeting of their own, voted to retain non-importation, and that night paraded the streets hooting and hissing at the doors of would-be importers. This mob was met by another mob led by a future president of the chamber of commerce, and the two had at each other in Wall Street with clubs and canes." The Sear's mob was defeated. [365]

Non-importation of British goods, as an idea and as a practice, varied over time and place, and often support or opposition depended on who had the most to lose. In the spring of 1770 the Boston anti-importation forces held out even as importation resumed in cities like Philadelphia and New York. The supporters suffered little, because they were (mostly) not merchants themselves. "The popular leaders not only had Boston under their control, but they began to inspect towns like Salem and Marblehead," and then tried but were repelled by the people of Newport and Providence, Rhode Island. Rhode Island merchants believe the Boston merchants were cheating. Thomas Hutchinson claimed "that even the merchants who were at first zealous now wanted to end non-importation." [368]

"In North Carolina there was trouble of a different sort. The demand of the backcountry farmers for internal economic and political reforms was crushed by brute force at Alamance Creek in May 1771." A new governor sent from England found that the people had been unjustly treated, so "when the war came, some backcountry men remained loyal to Britain, while others went into the politics of the new state in an attempt to achieve the goals which had been suppressed by armed force only a few short years before." [380]

In Virginia "One economic crisis followed another after 1770. In the spring of 1771, the greatest flood in the colony's history swept down over the tidewater, wiping out plantations and stores, and destroying most of the previous year's tobacco crop. It became impossible to pay debts or to secure new credit." That was followed by a financial panic in Britain in 1772 and 1773, which also affected the colonial economy. [385-386]

Boston Massacre revisited. Throwing doubt on how much the British were at fault. In the end John Adams himself became the defense attorney for the soldiers. The result was an acquittal. [408-409]

When Virginia set up a new standing Committee of Correspondence, the impulse of Henry, Lee, and Jefferson was ascribed to the burning of the Gaspee in June 1772, by Jensen, following the standard practice. But the Somersett decision came down in 1772, and would have made it to these slavers by that time. Which would they care about more, a trial about a smuggler's boat in Rhode Island, or a British decision to free their slaves? [428-431]

"The arrival of copies of the act closing the port of Boston in May 1774, after weeks of rumors that it was on the way, was followed at once by almost simultaneous proposals in various colonies that a congress should meet and decide upon common policies of resistance." [461]

When the first Continental Congress met in 1774 in Philadelphia most of its members had never met in person before. Each a leader in their own colony, they tended to be long-winded, prompting John Adams to call the proceedings "tedious beyond expression." Also "One of the most serious obstacles to common action was the conviction that New Englanders, and especially the Bostonians, were republicans, religious bigots, cheaters during non-importation in 1768-70, and bent upon independence." The Quakers of Philadelphia "had not forgotten that Quakers had once been hanged in Massachusetts. Indeed, a delegation of Baptists from Boston appeared and charged that "the leaders of Massachusetts were denying religious freedom to their fellow citizens while talking about the glories of freedom in general." [487-488]

But there was no shortage of extremists from other colonies at the Congress, and Boston took care to make friends and speak moderately. In choosing a minister to open the meeting with prayer, "Samuel Adams, who for years had been identifying the Church of England with the Whore of Babylon," suggested that Reverend Jacob Duche, Church of England, lead the prayer. [489]

Fake news was not absent. In debating the relative weight the colonies should have, the same problems arose that would lead, when the Constitution was written, to two Senators per state, with a House of Representatives proportional to population. The Congress decided on one vote per colony. "At that point a rumor arrived that British soldiers had killed Americans while seizing powder near Boston and that the British fleet had bombarded Boston for a whole night." The story was believed, until if proved false the next day. [491-492]

The Suffolk Resolves were drafted by Dr. Joseph Warren, adopted by Suffolk County, Massachusetts on September 9, 1774, and delivered to the Congress by Paul Revere. They essentially declared independence, basing Massachusetts' rights on the laws of nature, and urged people to ignore the courts and elect their own militia officers. "The vote for the Suffolk Resolves was an enormous strategic victory for the popular leaders for it committed Congress to their entire program." [495-496]

Congress set up the Association on October 20, 1774. The colonies would stop importations from Britain, Ireland, other British possessions, including tea from India, and slaves. Because this rule would hurt South Carolina worse than New England, it received an exception for exporting rice. As important, citizen committees were set up at every level to enforce the rules. Congress dissolved on October 26, 1774, but not before calling for a second Congress to meet the following May. [505-507]

The Peggy Stewart, carrying 2000 pounds of tea, arrived at Annapolis Maryland on October 14, 1774. Locals struggled over what to do about it. Eventually the vessel owner, with the tea consignees, burned the vessel with the tea. The mob was encouraged. "The common sort seem to think they may now commit any outrage they please; some of them told the merchants yesterday that if they would not sell them goods, they would soon find a way to help themselves." The prices of good were fixed by a committee. In November the Maryland convention "set the percentage of profit a merchant could have." [520-521]

Patrick Henry's speech in 1775 ending "give me liberty or give me death!" was occasioned by a vote on whether to prepare Virginia for war (the vote carried 65 to 60). The speech "was in a large measure the creation of his first biographer," William Wirt, who was not there. [544]

In April 1775 the loyal governor, Dunmore, helped the British seize some gunpowder in Williamsburg. In pleading for the return of the gunpowder, Peyton Randolph said it was needed in case of insurrection, as "some wicked and designing persons have instilled the most diabolical notions into the minds of slaves." [WPM: who had heard of the Somersett decision]. Dunmore soon declared privately that "if anyone threatened him or harmed the naval captains 'he would declare freedom of the slaves and reduce the city of Williamsburg to ashes.'" [547]

In South Carolina in May 1775 it was known that slaves "entertained ideas that the present contest was for obliging us to give them their liberty." [599]

Even as they prepared to fight the British, the colonies and various groups of speculators continued to squabble about land stolen from, or to be stolen from, native American Indian tribes. In May 1775 Congress was advising militias to take only defensive measures. But the very day Congress met, May 10, colonial militias captured Fort Ticonderoga. Connecticut men started the idea, then picked up men from western Massachusetts and Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys. Another group from Connecticut led by Benedict Arnold and his men also joined. Allen and Benedict fought over the command, but the British simply surrendered. "The news of Ticonderoga spread rapidly and threatened to create an intercolonial crisis, for the fort was within the boundaries of New York." Which "had offered a reward of £20 for the capture of Ethan Allen in 1771 and raised the amount to £100 in 1774. This was because New Hampshire and New York had been fighting over land claims, which were unresolved. Jensen lists the many other land disputes between colonies existing at that time. [606-608]

After deciding to keep Ticonderoga armed, Congress declared it would not invade Canada. Twenty-six days later Congress changed its mind and ordered the invasion of Canada [608].

In June, 1775, Congress appointed Generals, George Washington left to command the troops in Massachusetts, and the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought. It recommended that all men aged 16 to 50 enroll in militias. It appointed Benjamin Franklin Postmaster of the colonies, a position he had held under the British. It rejected Lord North's Olive Branch resolution. [617-618]

In 1776 the Congress and ruling class just about lost control of the army they created. "Conditions grew worse. At the end of May, Joseph Warren told Samuel Adams that the soldiers would get completely out of hand, and apparently some had done so." The Provincial Congress in Massachusetts waited to hear from the Continental Congress before officially setting up a state government. The wealthy merchant Elbridge Gerry wrote "The people are fully possessed of their dignity from the frequent delineation of their rights . . . They now rather feel to much their own importance, and it requires great skill to produce such subordination as is necessary." An appeal was sent to Congress describing "alarming symptoms of the abatement of the sense, in the minds of some people, of the sacredness of private property, which is plainly assignable to the want of civil government." [626]

The Congress appointed a "Secret Committee," in charge of war supplies. By 1777 it received $2 million to buy supplies. "Throughout the war there were charges of profiteering and corruption (and they were true) which embittered political life during the war and long after it." [632-633]

The negative attitudes of the British towards Americans are briefly documented. [648]

In June 1775 New York sent a message to their delegates in Congress reminding them that "Contests for liberty, fostered in their infancy by the virtuous and wise, become sources of power to wicked and designing men." [662]

Carter Braxton, among others, was for independence but wanted state governments that were not democratic. "If such a system of government were adopted, it was inevitable that the poor would divide all property equally among themselves." [665]

In Maryland, "By the end of 1775 debtors were refusing to pay debts and freeing other debtors from jails, and armed bands were roaming the colony attacking tax collectors. Most horrifying of all was the fear of a rebellion on the eastern shore, where poor whites and slaves were threatening to combine in an attack on the planters." [693]

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