Faith & Freedom

Benjamin Hart

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"Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death!"

At the age of 31, John Hancock, Boston's wealthiest merchant, was the most wanted man in America by British authorities. He was the chief financier of the Sons of Liberty. He paid for their leaflets and banners, as well as for food and drink for demonstrations at the Liberty Tree. In British eyes he was dangerous.

The new Commissioners of the Customs, Joseph Harrison and Benjamin Hallowell, seized on an opportunity to arrest Hancock, who was sailing around Boston Harbor in his sloop Liberty in open defiance of British authority. Hancock was charged, falsely, with smugghng. He was, however, rescued by a Boston mob, who managed to catch Harrison and Hallowell and beat them to battered pulps. Poor Harrison was dragged through the streets by his hair. Adams and Otis were alarmed by the mob's brutal behavior, and worked frantically to bring the crowd under control. Harrison and Hallowell were released, and promptly retired from customs enforcement. The British authorities subsequently abandoned their case against Hancock, as they saw the throngs gather in the streets. At this point General Thomas Gage began to figure prominently in American affairs. He would be the future commander of the British cause against America. The British government, he wrote from New York, "cannot act with too much vigor" against the Patriots of Massachusetts. Let's ‘squash this spirit at a blow," said Gage, who sent two regiments of redcoats to Boston.

"If an army should be sent to reduce us to slavery, we will put our lives in our hands and cry to the Judge of the earth," editorialized The Boston Gazette, in response to the news. "Behold how they come to cast us out of this possession which Thou hast given us to inherit. Help us Lord, our God, for we rest on Thee."

On March 5, 1770, Parliament repealed the Townsend taxes as ineffective - the same day that a very nasty confrontation took place between English redcoats and Boston civilians. There was continuous tension between the townspeople and the occupying military. "Lobsterbacks" was a favorite insult directed at the redcoats, who were constantly the targets of thrown rocks, sticks, and snowballs.

On the evening of March 5, a gang of youths gathered around the customs office and began hurling snowballs and ice at a guard. Words were shouted back and forth, when about 20 soldiers arrived to protect their beleaguered colleague. A violent scuffle took place, and suddenly a soldier named Montgomery, who had been hit with a club, fired a round from his musket. The shot missed, but another soldier, named Kilroy, shot his gun and put a gaping hole in the chest of Sam Gray. Other shots rang out and two bullets hit and killed Crispus Attucks, a large black man. More shots were fired, and when the smoke cleared three townspeople lay dead in the street; two others were fatally wounded.

Massachusetts would never forget this episode, which came to be known as the Boston Massacre, a label probably invented by Samuel Adams to describe what he called the brutal slaying of peaceful citizens by the agents of tyranny. The halls of America raged with shrill screams for justice, and the Sons of Liberty circulated a deluge of literature on the incident, con demning Britain's occupation of Boston and the "licentious" behavior of its troops. The army was forced to withdraw from Boston in the face of mounting active resistance. As Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson put it: "Government is at an end and in the hands of the people."

A number of historians have suggested that the Boston Massacre was a minor event, made significant by propagandists such as Samuel Adams who blew the episode out of all proportion to serve his own political purposes. Mter all, only five people were killed, hardly a massacre. That Adams took advantage of the incident as an illustration of oppressive British policy to foment discontent is not in dispute. But people were also sincerely outraged by British behavior. That troops from a foreign land would occupy a major city, in effect declare martial law, and then kill five civilians would cause a hue and cry anywhere, particu larly among a people who had a tradition of self-rule.

Indeed, William Pitt, then an aged member of the House of Lords, agreed, saying British colonial policy from the start in America was badly flawed. "I love the Americans because they love their liberty, and I love them for the noble efforts they made in the last war," Pitt told the House of Lords. "I think the idea of drawing money from them by taxes was ill-judged. Trade is your object with them, and they should be encouraged; those millions who keep you, who are the industrious hive employed, should be encouraged."

As Prime Minister, William Pitt was perhaps the most successful empire-builder of all time. His strategy, especially where America was concerned, was to permit as much autonomy as possible for the colonies, and to protect them with British military might. Pitt understood that happy colonists are good for Britain and, indeed, good for civilization. He believed they ought to be trading partners, not serfs to be exploited. British policy, in his view, should focus on making the sea lanes safe for trade so all could prosper, rather than rousing the populace against Parliament by shooting civilians for throwing snowballs. William Pitt was revered at least as much in America as in England. But Pitt was old, had lost influence, and England was under a new administration, that of Lord North, George III's henchman. North believed in crushing colonial industrial competition, and then teaching the Americans a lesson when they objected.

In 1772, Samuel Adams announced at a Boston town meeting the formation of a Committee of Correspondence, which would supplement the activities of the Sons of Liberty. Essential to revolt was establishing lines of communication, which could bring order and effectiveness to what, until then, had been primarily spontaneous mob uprisings. Each colony was to circulate news to the committees of the other colonies. These committees proved remarkably effective in binding the revolutionary leaders together in a common cause, and helped form the nucleus of a shadow government. Boston initiated the first committee, under the leadership of Adams, Otis, Hancock, and 18 others, and passed a resolution stating that the aim of the Correspondence Committee was to defend "the rights of colonists, and of this province in particular, as men, as Christians, and as subjects; to communicate and publish the same to the several towns in this province and the world as to the sense of this town ... also requesting each town a free communication of their sentiments on this subject."

The series of events leading to independence began with the financial disintegration of the East India Tea Company, which was suffering from amazingly inept and corrupt management as well as the boycott organized by the Sons of Liberty, which cut off the American market. The dissolution of the East India Tea Company (a government monopoly) would be a serious blow to England's fiscal situation, which had grown shaky because of the burdens of running an empire.

England sought to remedy the situation by putting America's tea companies out of business with a tea tax, a remnant of the Townsend duties, from which the East India Company would be exempt. Thus the East India Company could easily undercut American tea company prices. As usual, the law was designed to hit the Eastern Seaboard hardest, where tea was a most important export. From the newspapers, pulpits, and printing presses came screams of anguish. The Committees of Correspondence immediately began circulating literature denouncing the "illegal monopoly."

If Parliament can ruin our tea industry, why could it not legislate other monopolies and assume control of all our industries, eventually putting England in a position of being able to determine when we could eat? Such were the concerns expressed in the streams of editorials, broadsides, and leaflets. The Tea Act helped merchants to see the long-term threat to American liberties posed by acquiescing to even a single law that was not in the general interest of all the people.

On November 3, 1773, Sons of Liberty members met at the Liberty Tree, and then with a crowd of 500 marched on agents of the East India Company. "The people are greatly affronted," said Patriot leader Joseph Warren. "Out with them!" the mob yelled, and in every city mobs shouted the same refrain: "Out with them! Out with them!" Delaware River pilots were warned by notices circulated by the Committees of Correspondence that anyone transporting tea into Philadelphia would be "tarred and feathered." The colonies, however, all looked to Massachusetts for leadership and courage. A Philadelphia letter, printed in Boston, said, "All we fear is that you will shrink at Boston. May God give you virtue enough to save the liberties of your country." Boston did not shrink in fear. Indeed, "Massachusetts Bay has raised a higher spirit than I have ever seen before," wrote Governor Hutchinson.

On December 16, 8,000 people assembled at the Old South Church in Boston. A leaflet circulated by the Committee of Correspondence had called people to action, announcing: "Friends! Brethren! Countrymen! that worst of plagues, the detested TEA . . . is now arrived in this harbor. The hour of destruction or manly opposition to the machinations of tyranny stares you in the face." "This meeting," said Samuel Adams, "can do nothing more than save the country," and the war whoops and shouting "became tremendous," according to one account. The city was bold and united in its contempt for British authority, and it was resolved at the meeting that no British tea would ever make it to shore.

The story is well known. That evening, a mob, disguised as Indians, banded together in parties of 50, rowed out to where three ships were anchored, boarded them, seized the tea and tossed it into the ocean. Thousands of pounds worth of the hated commodity were destroyed.

The Boston Tea Party was a new milestone in America's journey toward independence. It was not like the disorganized rioting that brought on the Boston Massacre. The tea party was carefully orchestrated by Adams and his fellow Patriots. No blood was shed, but the ideological point had been made: there would be no taxation without representation. John Adams was out of town for the occasion, but recorded his feelings about the evening in his journal: "Last night," he wrote, "three cargos of Bohea Tea were emptied into the sea. This is the most magnificent moment of all. There is a dignity, a majesty, a sublimity, in this last effort of the Patriots that I greatly admire . . . This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I can't but consider it as an epoch of history."

Once again, William Pitt urged restraint: "I fear the bond between us and America will be cut off forever. Devoted England will then have seen her best days, which nothing can restore again." And Edmund Burke, in his famous speech, admonished the House of Commons to "revert to your old principles" and "leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. . . Leave the Americans as they anciently stood . . . Let the memory of all actions in contradiction to that good old mode, on both sides, be extinguished forever. Be content to bind America by laws of trade . . . Do not burden them with taxes; you were not used to do so from the beginning." But King George III was enraged, and ignored the wise counsel of Burke and Pitt.

Parliament passed, and King George signed, a series of bills that came to be known as the "Intolerable Acts," the most severe of which was the Boston Port Bill, which closed Boston Harbor to all commercial ships through naval blockade. In addition, the Quartering Act enabled British troops to commandeer civilian homes, food, and possessions for their own purposes. Also passed was the Massachusetts Government Act, which made council positions Crown appointments, rather than elected by the local population. Judges on the colony's Supreme Court would also be appointed by the King. Meetings could be held only with the governor's permission and juries were to be selected by the governor, thus ensuring composition favorable to British aims. As if this was not enough, Parliament asserted the right to abolish at will all rights and liberties protected in the Massachusetts charter. Other ominous laws were also passed during this period, but these were bad enough.

Additional troops were dispatched to see that the laws were enforced, bringing the total in Boston to six regiments. The closing of Boston's port to commercial ships raised the greatest indignation, because it was clear that the intent was to starve the colony into submission. To quote the Whig statesman Edmund Burke again: "The rending of the means of subsistence of a whole city upon the King's private pleasure . . . was without precedent, and of a most dangerous example."

The British military controlled Boston, but the Committees of Correspondence dominated the countryside. Committees of Correspondence formed in virtually every New England town, and had control of almost all the local organs of government. They dominated the town assemblies and pulpits, and controlled the newspapers. Fiery sermons from Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists roused the people to action. By the fall of 1774, the Committees of Correspondence had isolated the British authorities in Boston, and Massachusetts was virtually self-governing.

The same spirit manifested itself in other New England colonies. The Connecticut assembly appointed a day for humiliation and prayer, and resolved to begin amassing stores of ammunition. Providence, Rhode Island, recommended the assembling of an intercontinental congress to determine actions to be taken against the British, as did New York, which formed a Committee of Correspondence, and on May 16, 1774 issued a handbill with the following call to action: "In a word, let all our merchants unite as one man; let them strive against this division in this crisis of jeopardy; let them show themselves worthy of that divine appellation, ‘the fathers of their country.' And let not the ministers of the Gospel neglect their duty; let them remember the example of the Apostles, who embraced every opportunity to testify to their zeal for the civil and religious liberties of mankind; and while they teach men to consider their oppressors as ‘the rod of God in anger, and the staff of his indignation,' let them not fail to excite and encourage them to hope of His interposition in their behalf, while they humble themselves by fasting and prayer, and are in use of all proper means for deliverance."

Southern journals abounded with accounts of the success of Massachusetts in opposing the Port Act. Virginia, in a resolution drafted by Thomas Jefferson, appointed June 1, the date the Port Act was to take effect, a "day of fasting and prayer," and asked that all the oppressed people of America ‘'invoke the divine interposition" to give the American people "one heart and one mind" to oppose all transgressions against American rights.

From all over British America, supplies of relief poured into Massachusetts. Virginia sent 8,600 bushels of wheat and corn and George Washington immediately donated 50 pounds (about $5,000 in 1988), his initial contribution to the cause. "We take pleasure in transmitting to you . . . a few cattle, with a small sum of money," said a letter from Durham, New Hampshire. Patriots in every town walked door to-door to collect offerings for the beleaguered victims of the Port Act. We are "ready to march in the van and sprinkle the American altars with our hearts and blood," the town of Brooklyn, Connecticut, in a letter drafted by Israel Putnam, told the people of Boston. "You are held up as a spectacle to the whole world. All Christendom is longing to see the event of the American contest." And Boston showed its appreciation in a circular letter, directed in particular to the people of New Jersey, dated August 22, 1774: "The Christian sympathy and generosity of our friends through the continent cannot fail to inspire the inhabitants of this town with patience, resignation, and firmness, while we trust in the Supreme Ruler of the universe, that He will graciously hear our cries, and in His time free us from our present bondage, and make us rejoice in His great salvation."

All the committees favored a Continental Congress, which convened in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774, in Carpenter's Hall. Fifty-five delegates represented 12 of the 13 colonies. Only Georgia was absent, but promised to abide by the decisions of her "sister colonies." It was the most illustrious group of American men ever to meet in one place and included: the learned lawyer John Jay from New York; William Livingston from New Jersey; John Adams and his cousin Samuel Adams from Massachusetts; Roger Sherman from Connecticut; John Dickinson from Pennsylvania; John Rutledge and Christopher Gradsden from South Carolina; the Presbyterian minister Dr. John Witherspoon of New Jersey; and from Virginia, Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, and George Washington, who, said Henry, "unquestionably is the greatest man of them all." Thomas Jefferson failed in his bid to become a delegate.

The Adamses, of Puritan heritage, made a special effort to ease the minds of Episcopalians of Virginia who worried about the radical Protestants of the North. They suggested that an Episcopalian open the Congress with a prayer. The Reverend Jacob Duche, whom Samuel Adams described as a man of piety and virtue, delivered several prayers and then read the 35th Psalm:1

"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 mine help. Draw out also the spear, and stop the way against them that persecute me: say unto my soul, I am thy salvation. Let them be confounded and put to shame that seek after my soul: let them be turned back and brought to confusion that devise my hurt. Let them be as chaff before the wind: and let the angel of the Lord chase them . . . Lord, how long wilt thou look on? Rescue my soul from their destructions . . . I will give Thee thanks in the great congregation: I will praise Thee among much people. Let not them that are mine enemies wrongfully rejoice over me: neither let them wink with the eye that hate me without a cause. For they speak not peace: But they devise deceitful matters against them that are quiet in the land . . . O Lord, be not far from me. Stir up thyself, and awake to my judgment, even unto my cause, my God and my Lord. Judge me, O Lord my God, according to thy righteousness; and let them not rejoice over me. Let them not say in their hearts . . We have swallowed him up . . . Let the Lord be magnified, which hath pleasure in the prosperity of His servant. And my tongue shall speak of thy righteousness and of thy praise all the day long."

That evening, word came that the British had commenced the bombardment of Boston. In addition, the great rider Paul Revere had galloped into Philadelphia with the news that a convention of the towns around Boston had passed the sensational Suffolk Resolves, written by Joseph Warren, which began: "Whereas the power but not the justice, the vengeance but not the wisdom of Great Britain, which of old persecuted, scourged, and exiled our fugitive parents from their native shores, now pursues us, their guiltless children, with unrelenting severity: And whereas this, then savage and uncultivated desert was purchased by the toil and treasure, or acquired by the blood and valor of these our venerable progenitors; to us that bequeathed the dear bought inheritance, to our care and protection that consigned it, and the most sacred obligation are upon us to transmit this glorious purchase, unfettered by power, unclogged with shackles, to our innocent and beloved offspring. On the for titude, on the wisdom and on the exertions of this important day, is suspended the fate of this new world, and of unborn millions."

In addition to declaring the Intolerable Acts unconstitutional and void, Suffolk County, which includes Boston, resolved to make Massachusetts a free state, recommended economic sanctions against the British, and advised the formation of an armed militia, led by officers who have been "judged of sufficient capacity for that purpose, and who have evidenced themselves the inflexible friends to the rights of the people." But, the resolves were careful to warn against following the lead of colonial enthusiasts, rioters, and "unthinking persons to commit outrage upon private property; we would heartily recommend to all persons of this community not to engage in routs, riots, or licen tious attacks upon the properties of any person whatsoever, as being subversive of all order and government; but a steady, manly, uniform, and persevering opposition, to convince our enemies, that in a contest so important, in a cause so solemn, our conduct shall be as to merit the approbation of the wise, and the admiration of the brave and free of every age and every country."

Joseph Warren and the people of Massachusetts understood that in a revolution that is trying to make constitutional points on the protection of liberties, private property must be sacrosanct. It is on private property that all other freedoms rest. For if the government can seize one's home, money, or possessions, the individual has no means of resisting the whims of kings, ministers, courtiers, or other agents of the state. And what point is there in overthrowing a tyrannical government if the result is that mobs of rioters commit the same crimes? Warren in Massachusetts and the Continental Congress in Philadelphia had the difficult task of raising the people's indignation against the King and his government, while simultaneously keeping that indignation in check so that society would not degenerate into chaos. The Suffolk Resolves went a long way toward solving this problem by agreeing to submit to the authority of the Continental Congress. Thus a giant step had been taken in the creation of a new nation, as the delegates in Philadelphia voted overwhelmingly to approve the Suffolk Resolves.

On October 14, the Continental Congress issued a Declaration of Rights, similar to the English Declaration in that it enumerated specific colonial grievances against the Crown and Parliament. "Whereas, since the close of the last war, the British Parliament, claiming a power, of right, to bind the people of America by statutes in all cases whatsoever," the Declaration began, and went on to proclaim the Intolerable Acts as "impolitic, unjust, cruel, as well as unconstitutional, and most dangerous and destructive of American rights." It also complained of the dissolving of American assemblies "when they attempted to deliberate on grievances," denounced the imposition of taxes without the consent of the colonies, and expressed opposition to "the extended jurisdiction of the courts of admiralty." We, said the Declaration, "are entitled to life, liberty and property," and "have never ceded any sovereign power whatever." As a consequence of England's tyrannical behavior, the Continental Congress has taken the necessary steps to defend America's "religion, laws, and liberties."

On October 20, 52 delegates formed an Association of the United Colonies under these words: "We do for ourselves, and the inhabitants of the several colonies whom we represent, firmly agree and associate under the sacred ties of virtue, honor, and love of country." They considered this to be a compact for the defense of American freedoms, "a league of the continent, which first expressed the sovereign will of a free nation in America." The Puritan influence in this document was clear, as the delegates pledged themselves to "encourage frugality, economy and industry, and . . . discountenance and discourage every species and extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibition of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments." But these prohibitions were also practical. The nation was effectively at war, was in a life and death struggle with the greatest empire on earth. Success would depend on the ability of the American people to keep their attentions fixed on the task at hand. The delegates understood very well that liberty has a price, that a people which is immodest, extravagant, and frivolous will not remain free for long.

When word of the Suffolk Resolves and of the proceedings of the Continental Congress reached England, the attorney general immediately denounced the conclaves as treasonous. But William Pitt in the House of Lords and Edmund Burke in the House of Commons thought differently and advised an immediate policy of reconciliation with the colonies. Although their words fell upon deaf ears, their speeches are so powerful and so prophetic that any account of this period must contain some of the more poignant excerpts.

Pitt, the elder statesman, spoke in dramatic fashion before Parliament in January 1775. He praised the "papers transmitted to us from America," for their "decency, firmness and wisdom . . In all my reading and observation - and it has been my favorite study - I have read Thucydides, and have studied and admired the master states of the world - that for solidity of reasoning, force of sagacity, and wisdom of conclusion, under such complication of difficult circumstances, no nation or body of men can stand in preference to the general Congress at Philadelphia." The people of America, "who prefer poverty with liberty to gilded chains and sordid affluence," will "die in defense of their rights as men." America, Pitt said, had allied itself with "God and nature" on principles that are immutable, eternal -fixed as the firmament in heaven." Pitt asked England to swallow its pride: "With a dignity becoming your exalted situation, make the first advances to concord, to peace and happiness." All attempts to establish a tyranny over such a people had failed. There is "not time to be lost . . . Nay, while I am now speaking the decisive blow may be struck."

Pitt's speech was perhaps superceded in eloquence when the great writer, orator, and statesman Edmund Burke, one month later, delivered his most famous address on reconciliation with the colonies. Burke spoke of the folly of Britain trying to subject a distant continent of almost three million colonists by force.

"Those who wield the thunder of the state may have more confidence in the efficacy of arms," he said. In reality, though, force is "a feeble instrument for preserving a people so numerous, so active, so growing, so spirited as this . . . It may subdue for a moment; but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again: and a nation is not governed which is perpetually to be conquered." Moreover, said Burke, "Terror is not always the effect of force, and an armament is not a victory. If you do not succeed, you are without resource: for conciliation failing, force remains; but, force failing, no further hope of reconciliation is left . . . A fierce spirit of liberty has grown up. It has grown with the growth of people in your colonies, and increased with the increase of their wealth.. . Perhaps a more smooth and accommodating spirit of freedom in them would be more acceptable to us. Perhaps ideas of liberty might be desired more reconcilable with an arbitrary and boundless authority. Perhaps we might wish the colonists to be persuaded that their liberty is more secure when held in a trust for them by us. . . than with any part of it in their own hands." Not likely, concluded Burke: for "an Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery." The question, he said, "is not whether you have a right to render your people miserable, but whether it is not in your interest to make them happy."

But Burke spoke to empty benches. Parliament passed the Restraining Act forbidding the four colonies of New England from trading with any other nation but England. Four more regiments were then dispatched to Boston under the command of General Gage, who was instructed to hunt down the leaders of the Massachusetts rebellion and arrest them as traitors.

On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry stood up in Virginia's House of Burgess and sounded an American battle cry: "There is no room for hope," he said. "If we wish to be free, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!. . .Three million people, armed with the holy cause of liberty and in such a country, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. We shall not fight alone. God presides over the destinies of nations, and will raise up friends for us. The battle is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. . . Is life so dear, or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"

The American War for Independence had begun.

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Published by the Christian Defense Fund.
© Copyright 1997 by the Christian Defense Fund. All rights reserved.

© Copyright 1988, Benjamin Hart