The Continental Congress

John Adams calculated that they were “one third Tories, another Whigs, and the rest mongrels”; and he found “Trimmers & Timeservers” upon every side. Fifth columnism was at work, as the patriots soon learned; despite the best efforts of Congress to preserve secrecy, the British government was informed of all its proceedings (Stephen Sayre to Samuel Adams).

The work of the Continental Congress soon demonstrated that the American aristocracy was divided against itself and that this division worked in favor of the triumph of radicalism.

In May 1775, Congress resolved that “these colonies be immediately put into a state of defense”; the Massachusetts militia was taken over by Congress; an army of twenty thousand men was ordered to be raised; and George Washington was appointed to command. Congress directed that paper money be printed and in July 1775 Benjamin Franklin drew up “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union,” which, although too bold to be entered upon the journals of Congress, were openly discussed by the members.

The liberties enjoyed by the colonists prior to 1763, which before Lexington seemed fully ample for American prosperity and happiness, now appeared to many Americans little better than slavery. “Good God,” exclaimed a Virginian, “were we not abject slaves (in 1763)? We wanted but the name. . . . It was not till 1763 that we were openly insulted, and treated as slaves” (Virginia Gazette, Purdie) By returning to 1763 fundamental grievances would be untouched: American trade and manufactures would be cramped by British restrictions; colonial laws would have to be approved by the British government; and Americans would “always be peeled and pillaged” for the benefit of English pensioners and courtiers. Moreover, the sacrifices already made for American liberty would have been in vain if such a poor palliative were accepted as the terms of peace (Principles and Acts of the Revolution). The “blood and treasure” already expended by Americans, exclaimed the radicals, and made reconciliation impossible except upon the colonists’ own terms. Thus the blood of the “precious Sons of Liberty” spilled in the cause of liberty was used to silence the advocates of reconciliation. Now that men were being asked to die, a richer reward than a return to 1763 had to be offered for their sacrifice (American Archives, Fourth Series).

The radicals in the Continental Congress rejoiced that Great Britain’s “unexampled cruelties” now barred the path of compromise. They proposed to gird for war before another blow could be struck. Their program was to open American ports to foreign powers; construct a navy; set up state governments; break off negotiations with Great Britain; seize the Tories and hold them as hostages.

Thus far, the radical policy of relying mainly upon events to bring the issue of independence before the people was fully vindicated. Disillusionment with English liberalism was widespread; “measures short of war” had been discredited; and the United Colonies had undertaken an armed invasion of part of the British Empire. And there were other evidences that Americans were moving steadily in the direction of independence even though they failed to read the signposts.

The Continental Congress was taking long strides in that direction as it strove to prepare the colonies for the inevitable struggle with Great Britain. On July 15, Congress resolved to relax the Association to permit the importation of military supplies; and in September a secret committee was appointed to take charge of the importation of powder and munitions. In August 1775, Congress rejected Lord North’s conciliatory plan. In November, news was received that no answer would be given the “Olive Branch” petition, and the King’s proclamation declaring the American colonies in a state of rebellion reached Philadelphia. Congress responded by creating the Committee of Secret Correspondence, later known as the Committee for Foreign Affairs; and in December authorization was given for the construction of an American navy.

When the American Revolution began, the British supposedly controlled the seas, but the colonial army was still successfully supplied with gunpowder and munitions, as well as cash, from Britain’s enemies. France shipped supplies through Martinique, Spain through Havana and Haiti, but most important were the shipments from Holland’s merchants through the Dutch island of Saint Eustatius. Munitions went to northern ports on the continent, while payment was made with exports of tobacco, indigo, flour, and naval stores from southern ports such as Charleston.

The Andrew Doria, captained by Isaiah Robinson, was under orders to sail to 8rant Eustatius, take aboard supplies for the Continental Army, and deliver a copy of the Declaration of Independence to the governor of the island. Upon the vessel’s arrival, its Grand Union flag flying, saluted Fort Oranje with thirteen guns. The fort’s commanding officer, Abraham Ravene, was reluctant to reply, but by order of Governor Johannes de Graaff, Fort Oranje replied with eleven guns.

This action aroused great furor in the British. The president of St. Kitts, Craister Greathead, denounced de Graaff for the indignity to His Majesty’s colors by the honors paid by Fort Oranje to his rebel subjects.” Greathead also reproached de Graaff for permitting an American ship, the Baltimore Hero, to capture a British ship, the May, off the coast of Statia within days of the Andrew Doria’s arrival, and for furnishing supplies to the colonies. In response to King George’s protests, the Dutch brought de Graaff home for an inquiry by the West India Company. He was able to defend himself, though, and was returned to Saint Eustatius in 1779.

Recognition of another American ship flying the new Grand Union flag preceded the Andrew Doria incident, but with little repercussion. In July 1776 the American sloop-of-war Reprisal, commanded by Captain Lambert Wickes, was approaching the coast of French Martinique. Aboard was William Bingham, who was to arrange for the importation of gunpowder and other military supplies. On arrival, the Reprisal encountered the British sloop-of-war Shark, which upon seeing the Reprisal’s strange American flag, intercepted the vessel. Captain Wickes stood his course and fired at the Shark, which replied with fire of her own. A battle ensued, but it was interrupted when the French fort fired two warning shots at the Shark, forcing it out to sea.

Bingham and Wickes were welcomed by the French, and Wickes was warmly received by the governor, who said he fired at the Shark for challenging the Reprisal in French waters. Bingham was given permission to outfit privateers in Martinique and to bring captured ships into French ports. He spent four years in Martinique, buying military supplies for the Continental Congress as well as conducting business for his own account and for his principals, Willing, Morris, and Company. He earned great wealth for himself and for Robert Morris, a Philadelphia merchant who was appointed superintendent of finance for the war effort.

The success of the Revolution was highly dependent upon the prevalent British opinion that the West Indies were of much greater importance than the American colonies. According to none other than William Pitt, 80 percent of Great Britain’s trading wealth came from the West Indies. The islands meant sugar, and sugar plus slavery meant wealth. And it was sugar that provoked the Americans’ ire early on. The British islands were supposed to have a monopoly on sugar for all of the British Empire. New England used great quantities of molasses for the production of rum, which was a key element in the highly profitable slave and fur trades. The French islands were taking away a lot of the American business with their lower cost sugar in exchange for provisions. British plantation owners – many of whom were influential members of Parliament – persuaded that body to pass the Molasses Act in 1733, putting a 100 percent duty on non-British sugar. This produced early protestations by the colonies of denial of rights without representation in Parliament. Although the act was not enforced and smuggling continued to supply the rum makers with French molasses, it was an early sign of friction between the British and their North American colonies.

With the defeat of the French by the English in the Seven Years’ War, the Treaty of Paris in 1763, among other things, had given Canada to Great Britain and Guadeloupe to France. This was not an easy decision for the British, who had agonizing debates about the question. Some favored taking Guadeloupe, which had been captured in 1759, instead of taking Canada. Once again, the arguments centered on sugar. Was the sugar wealth of Guadeloupe more valuable than the potential market for British goods in Canada? Did Britain have enough sugar islands of its own? Would more-efficient Guadeloupe, which out produced all of the British islands, be undesirable competition to present British owners? The final decision to take Canada was of great import to the Revolution since it had always been assumed that the colonies would remain loyal to Britain for its protection against the feared French Catholic power in Canada. With the French gone, rebellion became more attractive.

British naval and military priorities were often with the West Indies – even in the midst of trying to quell the American Revolution. For example, in 1778 five thousand British troops were transferred from Philadelphia to the islands to protect them against French capture, this while British general Sir Henry Clinton was crying for reinforcements in New York. Worry about the islands also led to the British navy’s failure to adequately blockade the French port of Brest, permitting a French squadron to slip out with Comte de Rochambeau’s army of five thousand troops, which arrived in Newport in 1780. After a remarkable march, these troops played a key role in surrounding Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown; the decisive battle there led to Cornwallis’s surrender.

The other key to the Battle of Yorktown was French admiral Francois-Joseph-Paul de Grasse and his fleet, which arrived August 30, 1781, from the West Indies in time to provide a blockade at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and prevent Cornwallis’s escape. It is possible that British admiral Sir George Rodney could have stopped de Grasse, but Rodney thought it more important for his fleet to stay in the Caribbean to defend the islands, which he felt were under imminent attack. Too, the British fleet under command of Admiral Sir Thomas Graves and Admiral Sir Samuel Hood were late in setting sail from New York to stop de Grasse.

De Grasse returned south, and in January 1782 he landed eight thousand French soldiers who besieged Brimstone Hill Fort on St. Kitts for a month before the less-than-one-thousand British soldiers surrendered on February 12. The British probably would have continued the war in America even after the surrender at Yorktown, but with the loss of St. Kitts and other defeats in the West Indies, she feared for all of her empire. The following year, Britain ended the fighting, and the United States finally won its independence with the signing of the peace treaty on September 3, 1783.

Today, visible on the rugged battlements of Statia’s Fort Oranje is a bronze plaque marking the historic relationship of this tiny island and the United States. It was President Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1939, recognized Statia’s importance in his country’s history by presenting the plaque to its citizens to honor that first signal – the eleven-gun salute by Dutch governor de Graaff to the Andrew Doria – noting that it was “here the sovereignty of the United States of America was first formally acknowledged to a national vessel by a foreign official.”

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