July 01, 1776
The Consequences involvd in the Motion now lying before You are of such Magnitude, that I tremble under the oppressive Honor of sharing in its Determination. I feel Myself unequal to the Burthen assigned Me. I believe, I had almost said, I rejoice, that the Time is approaching, when I shall be relieved from its Weight. (While the Trust remains with Me, I must discharge the Duties of it, as well as I can—and I hope I shall be the more favorably heard, as I am convincd, that I shall hold such Language, as will sacrifise my private Emolument to general Interests.) My Conduct, this Day, I expect will give the finishing Blow to my once too great, and, my Integrity considered now too diminish’d Popularity. It will be my Lott to know, that I had rather vote away the Enjoyment of that dazzling display, that pleasing Possession, than the Blood and Happiness of my Countrymen—too fortunate, amidst their Calamities, if I prove a Truth known in Heaven, that I had rather they should hate Me, than that I should hurt them. I might indeed, practise an artful, an advantageous Reserve upon this Occasion. But thinking as I do on the Subject of Debate, Silence would be guilt. I despise its Arts, I detest its Advantages. I must speak, tho I should lose my Life, tho I should lose the Affections of my Country. Happy at present, however, I shall esteem Myself, if I can so far rise to the Height of this great argument as to offer to this Honorable Assembly in a full & clear Manner, those Reasons, that have so invariably fix’d my own Opinion.
It was a Custom in a wise and virtuous State, to preface Propositions in Council, with a Prayer, that they might redound to the public Benefit. I beg Leave to imitate the laudable Example—And I do most humbly implore Almighty God, with whom dwells Wisdom itself, so to enlighten the Members of this House, that their Decision may be such as will best promote the Liberty Safety and Prosperity of these Colonies—and for Myself, that his Divine Goodness may be graciously pleased to enable Me, to speak the Precepts of Sound Policy on the important Question that now engages our Attention.
Sir, Gentlemen of very distinguished Abilities and Knowledge differ widely in their Sentiments upon the Point now agitated. They all agree, that the utmost Prudence is required in forming our Decisions, But immediately disagree in their Notion of that Prudence. Some cautiously insist, that We ought to obtain that previous Information which we are likely quickly to obtain, and to make those previous Establishments that are acknowledged to be necessary. Others strenuously assert, that tho regularly such Information & Establishment ought to precede the Measure proposed, yet, confiding in our Fortune more boldly than Caesar himself, we ought to brave the Storm in a Skiff made of Paper.
In all such Cases, where every Argument is adorn’d with an Eloquence that may please and yet mislead, it seems to me the proper method of discovering the right Path, to enquire, which of the parties is probably, the most warm’d by Passion. Other Circumstances being equal or nearly equal, that Consideration would have Influence with Me. I fear the Virtue of Americans. Resentment of the Injuries offered to their Country, may irritate them to Counsels & to Actions that may be detrimental to the Cause, they would dye to advance.
What advantages could it be claimed would follow from the adoption of this resolution? 1 It might animate the People. 2 It would Convince foreign Powers of our Strength & Unanimity & we would receive their aid in consequence thereof. As to the 1st point—it is Unnecessary. The preservation of Life, Liberty & Property is a sufficient Motive to animate the People. The General Spirit of America is animated.
As to the 2d foreign Powers will not rely on Words.
The Event of the Campaign will be the best Evidence of our strength and unanimity. This Properly the first Campaign. Who has received Intelligence that such a Proof of our Strength & daring Spirit will be agreeable to France—? What must She expect from a People that begin their Empire in so high a stile, when on the Point of being invaded by the whole Power of Great Britain aided by formidable afor[?] aid—unconnected with foreign Powers—She & Spain must Perceive the immediate Danger of their Colonies lying at our Doors—Their Seat of Empire is in another World—Masserano—Intelligence from Cadiz.
It would be More respectful to act in Conformity to the Views of France. Let us Take advantage of their Pride, let us Give them Reason to believe that We confide in them—that we desire to act in Conjonction with their Policies & Interests. Let us Know how they would regard this Stranger in the States of the World. People are fond of what they have attaind in producing; they Regard it as a Child, A Cement of Affection exists between them. Let us Allow them the Glory of appearing the Vindicators of Liberty. It will please them.
It is treating them with Contempt to act otherwise. Especially after the application made to France. Which by this Time has reach’d them. Bermuda 5 May. Consider the Abilities of the persons sent. What will they think, if now so quickly afterwards without waiting for their Determination, totally slighting their Sentiments on such a prodigious issue, We haughtily pursue our own Measures?
May they not say to Us, Gentlemen, You falsely pretended to consult Us, & disrespectfully proceeded without waiting our Resolution. You must abide the Consequences. We are not ready for a Rupture; You should have negotiated till We were. We will not be hurried by your Impetuosity. We know it is our Interest to support You, But We shall be in no haste about it. Try your own Strength & Resources in which You have such Confidence. We know now You dare not look back. Reconciliation is impossible without declaring independence, now that you have reached the stage you have Yours is the most rash & at the same Time the most contemptible Senate that ever existed on Earth!
Suppose on this Event Great Britain should offer Canada to France & Florida to Spain with an Extension of the old Limits. Would not France & Spain accept them? Gentlemen say the Trade of all america is more valuable to France than Canada. I grant it; but suppose She may get both? If she is politick, & none doubts that, I averr She has the easiest Game to play for attaining both, that ever presented itself to a Nation.
When We have bound ourselves to a stern Quarrel with Great Britain by a Declaration of Independence, France has nothing to do but to hold back & intimidate Great Britain till Canada is put into her Hands, then to intimidate Us into a most disadvantageous Grant of our Trade. It is my firm Opinion these Events will take Place, & arise naturally from our declaring Independance.
As to Aid from foreign Powers: our Declaration can procure Us none during this present Campaign though made today. It is impossible.
Now let us consider, if all the Advantages expected from foreign Powers cannot be attained in a more unexceptional manner. Is there no way of giving Notice of a Nation’s Resolution, than by proclaiming it to all the World? Let Us in the most solemn Manner inform the House of Bourbon, at least France, that We wait only for her Determination to declare our Independence. We must not talk generally of foreign Powers but only of those We expect to favor Us. Let Us assure Spain that We never will give any Assistance to her Colonies. Let France become guarantee For us in arrangements of this Kind.
Besides, first we ought to Establish our governments & take the Regular Form of a State—These preventive Measures will shew Deliberation, Wisdom, Caution & Unanimity.
It is Our Interest to keep Great Britain in the Opinion that We mean Reconciliation as long as possible—…The Wealth of London &c is pour’d into the Treasury. The whole Nation is ardent against Us. We oblige her by our attitude to persevere in Her Spirit. See the last petition of London.
Suppose we shall ruin her. France must rise on her Ruins. Her Ambition. Her Religion. Our Dangers from thence. We shall weep at our We shall be Overwhelm’d with Debt. I Compute that Debt at 6 Millions of Pennsylvania Money a Year.
The War will be carried on with more Severity. The Burning of Towns, the Setting Loose of Indians on our Frontiers, has Not yet been done. Boston might have been burnt though it was not.
What Advantage is to be expected from a Declaration? 1 – The Animating of our Troops? I answer, it is unnecessary. 2 – Union of the Colonies? I answer, this is also unnecessary. It may weaken that Union, when the People find themselves engaged in a cause rendered more cruel by such a Declaration without Prospect of an End to their Calamities, by a Continuation of the War.
People are changeable. In Bitterness of Soul they may complain against our Rashness & ask why We did not apply first to foreign Powers, Why We did not settle Differences among ourselves, why we did not Take Care to secure unsettled Lands for easing their Burthens instead of leaving them to secure unsettled Lands for easing their Burthens instead of leaving them to particular Colonies, Why we did not wait till we were better prepar’d, or till We had made an Experiment of our Strength.
3 – A third advantage to be expected from a Declaration is said to be the Proof it would furnish of our Strength of Spirit. But This is possibly only the first Campaign of the war. France & Spain may be alarm’d & provoked with each other; Masserano was an insult to France. There is Not the least Evidence of her granting Us favorable Terms. Her probable Conditions The Glory of recovering Canada will be enough for her. She will get that & then dictate Terms to Us.
A PARTITION of these Colonies will take Place if Great Britain cant conquer Us. To escape from the protection we have in British rule by declaring independence would be like Destroying a House before We have got another, In Winter, with a small Family; Then asking a Neighbour to take Us in and finding He is unprepared.
4th It is claimed that The Spirit of the Colonies calls for such a Declaration. I Answer, that the spirit of the colonies is Not to be relied on. Not only Treaties with foreign powers but among Ourselves should precede this Declaration. We should know on what Grounds We are to stand with Regard to one another. We ought to settle the issues raised by the Declaration of Virginia about Colonists in their Limits. And, too, The Committee on Confederation dispute almost every Article—Some of Us totally despair of any reasonable Terms of Confederation.
We cannot look back. Men generally sell their Goods to most Advantage when they have several Chapmen. We have but two to rely on. We exclude one by this Declaration without knowing what the other will give.
Great Britain after one or more unsuccessful Campaigns may be induc’d to offer Us such a share of Commerce as would satisfy Us, to appoint Councillors during good Behaviour, to withdraw her armies, to protect our Commerce, Establish our Militias- in short to redress all the Grivances complain’d of in our first Petition. Let Us know, if We can get Terms from France that will be more beneficial than these. If we can, let Us declare Independence. If We cannot, let Us at least withold that Declaration, till We obtain Terms that are tolerable.
We have many Points of the utmost Moment to settle with France- Canada, Acadia and Cape Breton. What will content her? Barbary Pirates, Spain, Portugal? Will she demand an Exclusive Trade as a Compensation, or grant Us Protection against piratical States only for a Share of our Commerce?
When our Enemies are pressing Us so vigorously, When We are in so wretched a State of Preparation, When the Sentiments & Designs of our expected Friends are so unknown to Us, I am alarm’d at this Declaration being so vehemently presented. A worthy Gentleman told us, that people in this House have had different Views for more than a 12 month. This is Amazing after what they have so repeatedly declared in this House & private conceal their Views so dexterously, I should be glad to read a little more in the Doomsday Book of America—Not all—that like the Book of Fate might be too dreadful—I should be glad to know whether in 20 or 30 Years this Commonwealth of Colonies may not be thought too unwieldy, & Hudson’s River be a proper Boundary for a separate Commonwealth to the Northward. I have a strong Impression on my Mind that this will take Place.
Source: J.H. Powell, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, October 1941, pp. 458-481.