The Revolutionary Period in America (2)

Henry Jones Ford
CHAPTER XVIII (2) Start of Section

In New York State Tories were so numerous that in some counties Whigs were hard to find. In New Jersey the Tories were strong enough to wage war upon the Whigs, and to perpetrate dreadful outrages. In parts of North Carolina the Tories so far outnumbered the Whigs as to ravage their estates long before any British troops entered the State. General Green estimated that some thousands had been killed in South Carolina in fighting between the Whigs and the Tories, and he declared that "if a stop cannot be soon put to these massacres, the country will be depopulated." Some twenty-nine or thirty regiments or battalions of American Loyalists were regularly organized, armed and officered. In an address to the King from American Loyalists presented in 1779 it was declared that their countrymen then in his Majesty's army "exceeded in number the troops enlisted [by Congress] to oppose them." At the time of Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown a part of his army was composed of native Americans, and failing to obtain special terms for them in the articles of capitulation, he availed himself of the privilege of sending a ship northerly without molestation, to convey away the most noted of them. Sabine computes that the number of American Loyalists who took up arms for the British could not have been less than twenty thousand.

With such sharp division of sentiment among the colonists it was clearly a factor of inestimable importance that there existed what Galloway designates as the "union of Presbyterian force." It supplied a systematic influence that in the circumstances was probably decisive. The forensic leadership of American resistance was mainly supplied by the older settled portions of the colonies in which the governing class was of English origin, but it could not have been successful without such organized popular support as was supplied through the Ulster settlements in the colonies.

The most dispassionate and balanced account of the Revolutionary War is that contained in Lecky's History of England in the Eighteenth Century. The great English historian repeatedly calls attention to the direct connection between Ulster emigration to America and the successful vigor of American resistance. The Scotch-Irish were no more forward in protests against British policy than the mass of the population during the period of agitation and controversy before the fighting began. They met in their frontier settlements and passed resolutions, but that was what the colonists were doing all over the country; and they were apparently following in the wake of an agitation started by the seaboard cities, which naturally made common cause with Boston, since if that port might be closed by the British Parliament any other port might be made to suffer likewise. It was, however, rather remarkable that an issue of such a character should have roused frontier settlements as it did. and secured the prompt adherence of the leading men. The bill closing the port of Boston went into operation June 1, 1774. A meeting held at Carlisle, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, July 12, was presided over by John Montgomery, of Irish nativity. The resolutions adopted were of the usual tenor at the meetings of this period, condemning the proceedings of the British Ministry and favoring the united action of the colonies to obtain redress of grievances. Three deputies were chosen to a provincial convention and among them was James Wilson, born in Scotland, who became a member of the Continental Congress, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was an active and influential member of the constitutional convention of 1787, and eventually a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. The other deputies, both born in Ireland, were William Irwin, who became a general, and Robert Magaw, who became a colonel, in the army of the Revolution.

The historian Bancroft notes as a striking coincidence that on the day on which Lord Chatham was making his peace proposals to the House of Lords, January 20, 1775, the people of a remote frontier settlement, "beyond the Alleghenies, where the Watanga and the forks of the Holston flow to the Tennessee" were meeting to make formal protest against British policy. They were, says Bancroft, "most of them, Presbyterians of Scotch-Irish descent." They passed resolutions in favor of united action and appointed a Committee of Safety.

The American revolt began as a movement to enforce redress of grievances. Imputations that the movement aimed at independence were resented as libels rendering their utterers liable to be called to account by the local Committee of Safety. It was not until the news came, early in May, 1776, that the British Government was using Hanoverian and Hessian soldiers, that the opposition to independence succumbed. In the struggle to commit Congress to that decisive step the Scotch-Irish influence was active and effective, but in this respect the truth of history has been somewhat obscured by a vehement controversy that has gone on about a document known as the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. The legend is that at a meeting of settlers, mainly Scotch-Irish, in Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, N. C., on May 20, 1775, resolutions were adopted renouncing all allegiance to the British Crown and declaring the American people to be free and independent. The document was first brought to public notice in 1819 and its authenticity while energetically asserted has been strongly impugned. Those interested in the details will find a complete record in William Henry Hoyt's work with that subject title. Even were the Mecklenburg Declaration authentic it would possess merely antiquarian interest rather than historical importance for no recognition of such action or mark of its influence appears in the records of the times. There is however recorded action taken by a Mecklenburg County Convention on May 81, 1775, which is of such signal importance as marking the beginning of American independence that it is given in its entirety in Appendix F.

These resolutions practically constitute a state of political independence. Crown authority is annulled, provincial authority under the direction of Congress is substituted, and it is declared that no other authority is in existence. Such language asserts independence, and the resolutions then go on to make provision for giving practical effect to the decision by arranging for the collection of taxes, the administration of justice and the public defense. Resolutions providing for organized opposition to British policy were abundant at this period, but the Mecklenburg County Convention was the first to announce independence. The leaders in the meeting were Thomas Polk, an ancestor of President Polk; Abraham Alexander and Ephraim Brevard, and the movement derived its strength from the Scotch-Irish settlers while the opposition came from other elements of the community. Governor Martin, the royalist Governor of the Province, in a dispatch of August 28, 1775, to the home Government, mentions that "a considerable body of Germans, settled in the County of Mecklenburg," had forwarded to him "a loyal declaration against the very extraordinary and traitorous resolves of the Committee of that County." The Mecklenburg Resolves were not only the first to make a virtual declaration of independence but they also indicated the course that had to be followed to attain independence, namely, the setting up of a system of government independent of Crown authority. The institutions of colonial government were rooted in Crown authority, and they served as intrenchments for the opposition to independence. As a matter of fact it became necessary to revolutionize colonial government before the Declaration of Independence could be carried through Congress. The Mecklenburg Resolves were the first step in this direction, and proclaimed a policy that nearly a year later was adopted by Congress. On May 10, 1776, Congress voted:

"That it be recommended to the respective assemblies and conventions of the United Colonies, where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs has been hitherto established, to adopt such government as shall in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular and America in general."

This action was completed on May 15 by the adoption of a preamble which pursues the some line of argument adopted in the Mecklenburg Resolves, namely, that since the American colonists had been excluded from the protection of the Crown "it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said Crown should be totally suppressed." The language differs; the argument is the same.

At the time Congress took this decisive step delegates from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware and Maryland were under instructions to vote against independence. Pennsylvania was the keystone of the conservative opposition. The action of Congress on May 15 marks the beginning of the movement that overthrew the colonial charter and substituted State government. In this struggle Scotch-Irish influence was strongly manifested. A petition from Cumberland County was presented to the Assembly on May 22, requesting the withdrawal of the instructions given to the Congressional delegates. On May 25 the City Committee of Philadelphia issued a call for a conference of County Committees with a view to holding a convention to reconstitute the Government. The call was signed by Thomas McKean, chairman. He was born at Londonderry, Pa., March 19, 1734, the son of William and Laetitia (Finney) McKean, both natives of Ireland. Thomas McKean was a leader of the Whig party in the Pennsylvania Assembly. He became a member in 1765 and was reelected consecutively for seventeen years. At the time when as chairman of the City Committee he started the movement for a convention to remodel the State Government the Assembly, based upon an inequitable apportionment and chosen by narrowly limited suffrage, was controlled by the conservatives. The Quakers had issued an address expressing "abhorrence of all such writings and measures as evidence a desire and design to break off the happy connection we have hitherto enjoyed with the kingdom of Great Britain." The County Committee of Philadelphia opposed any change in the existing status. The western counties had sent Whig representatives to the Assembly. The city of Philadelphia, which had four members, had elected three Conservatives and one Whig, after a close contest. The Assembly was strongly disinclined to rescind its instructions against independence. Threats were made to Congress that if it made a declaration of independence the delegates from the middle colonies could retire and possibly those colonies might secede from the Union. But the Congressional leaders were now assured of popular support and the movement for independence steadily advanced.

At this juncture Joseph Reed threw his influence in favor of rescinding. He was born, August 27, 1741, at Trenton. New Jersey, of Scotch-Irish ancestry, his grandfather emigrating from Carrickfergus. The family were well to do, and Joseph received a thorough education. He was graduated at Princeton, after which he studied law under Richard Stockton of New Jersey and was admitted to the bar in 1763. He went to London to complete his legal studies, and from December, 1763, to the spring of 1765 was a student in the Middle Temple. Returning to America he settled in Philadelphia to practice his profession. When the news arrived in May, 1774, of the bill closing the ports of Boston, Reed in conjunction with the Scotch-Irishman, Charles Thomson, and Thomas Mifflin, of Quaker ancestry, issued a call for a massmeeting of protest. From that time on he was active and prominent as a champion of colonial rights.