Reluctant Revolutionaries of the American Republic
Written by Gabriel Rench on January 3, 2018
“In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” – Thomas Jefferson
“I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.” – Benjamin Franklin
He was a prize catch. Henry Laurens was just off the coast of Newfoundland when the British cruiser Vestal chased and intercepted his lone rebel packet, the Mercury. Fearing the worst, he emptied all the diplomatic papers from his trunk, stuffed them into a leather bag weighted with shot, and threw the heavy bundle overboard. Unfortunately, he failed to deflate the air within the bag–so it floated, was sighted by an alert sailor on the Vestal, and subsequently was hooked on board.
On thus discovering both the identity of the Mercury’s prominent passenger and his intended mission, the commander of the Vestal had the small packet boarded and Laurens was arrested.
It was September 3, 1780. The rebellion of England’s American colonies was now in its fourth year. And the war was not going particularly well for the mother country. Although the rebels could boast precious few actual field victories, they were a stubborn and elusive lot. They were poorly equipped, under-financed, and lacked even a modicum of formal military training, yet they continued to harass supply lines, out-maneuver troop placements, and evade naval blockades.
The morale of His Majesty’s troops was at an all-time low. The distance from home combined with the constant frustration at arms had taken a bitter toll. The war, never particularly popular before, was now stirring a near mutinous restlessness among the conscripts.
The commander of the Vestal was hopeful that the capture of Laurens might actually afford the royal cause the advantage it now so sorely needed. He was, after all, one of the most important leaders of the revolution and its fledgling government.
A wealthy merchant from South Carolina, he was a member of the first provincial convention in Charleston in 1775. The next year he was elected vice-president of the sovereign state under its new constitution and was chosen to serve as a representative in the continental congress in Philadelphia. He was so highly regarded by his fellow delegates there that when John Hancock resigned his position as president, they unanimously elected Laurens to succeed him on November 1, 1777.
His tenure as the fourth president of the newly independent United States was predictably tumultuous. Besides all the difficulties of trying to mobilize the tiny confederated nation for war against impossible odds, supply the widely dispersed continental army, hold together the fractious congress, and secure international recognition for the rebel cause, he also had to deal with the acrimonious conflict between his commander-in-chief, George Washington, and the temperamental General Thomas Conway. But somehow he was able to do it all–with amazing success. Furiously outspoken, unflaggingly ambitious, and decisively brilliant, his obvious leadership abilities won him the admiration of the American patriots–and the enmity of the court at Westminster.
At the end of his distinguished term he was appointed to supervene John Adams as the legate to the Dutch government at the Hague. And it was to that assignment that he was traveling when he was captured.
The commander of the Vestal delivered Laurens to his superiors at home amidst a flurry of publicity and fanfare. The London papers trumpeted the news with all the gaudy gossip of a palace coup. They displayed the worst qualities of journalism: all its paralysis of thought, all its monotony of chatter, all its sham culture and shoddy jingoism, all its perpetual readiness to cover any vulgarity of the present with any sentimentalism of the past. One of the papers declared that the rebel cause had at last been “dealt its death blow.” Another predicted that American resistance would likely “collapse within the month.” More prudent press observers, while admitting the vital significance of the former president to the colonial cause, cautioned that his captivity might only serve to “stiffen their resistance.”
Whatever the American reaction might prove to be, it was clear that the English reaction was profound. Though he has been “thoughtfully neglected” in our own day–as the esteemed Southern man-of-letters M.E. Bradford was wont to say–his greatness was certainly recognized in his own day.
Laurens was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Steeped in English history and in the blood of many of its leading participants, the infamous fortress on the Thames had dominated the London skyline ever since William the Conqueror built it to repress his unwilling Saxon subjects. It had thus served for centuries as the scene of state and private violence, of torture, murder, and execution.
Although he had been a life-long churchman, Laurens was not particularly known for his piety–quite unlike his close friends Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams. But cut off from the noisy forgetfulness of public life, he resolved his faith into what he called a “God-fearing, Bible-reading, hymn-singing passion for permanent things.” Each day he was allowed to attend private services in the St. Peter-ad-Vincula chapel. Within the precincts of the vast Tower compound, to the northwest, the little sanctuary was built by Henry VIII on the site of a previous chapel in 1519. In it were buried his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and his fifth, Catherine Howard, both of whom he had beheaded on the Tower Green a few yards away. Also killed there, and buried ignominiously below the chapel floor paving, were the old Countess of Salisbury, Lady Jane Grey, the Elizabethan Earl of Essex, the rebel Duke of Monmouth, and a host of others. The associations of the place make it rather oppressive, even today; old terrors and miseries seem to hang in the air. But Laurens found “an unspeakable comfort” there. Although he would be released at the end of the war–exchanged for Lord Cornwallis following the surrender at Yorktown as a part of the negotiated cease-fire arrangement–he maintained to the end of his life that it was in that “dismal, haunting chapel” that he found “genuine release.”
Though he was no less irascible in his resistance to English rule, no less belligerent in his revolutionary insurgency, and no less antithetic in his sedition against tyranny, he was far more pensive, far more judicious, and far more principled. Years later he would summarize his new “Christian vision” for “social involvement” as the “natural outworking of covenantal responsibility.”
Laurens had come to believe that good government is essentially a matter of character apart from merely external, mechanical, legal, or political stratagem. Knowing what is right and what is wrong is not nearly so difficult as doing what is right and not doing what is wrong. Orthodoxy is a far simpler matter than orthopraxy.
Thus, Laurens asserted that the solution to grave societal problems, the antidote to endemic cultural pathogens, and the counter-weight to brazen political tyrannies, is to be found first and foremost in the hearts and minds of men, not in the promises and plans of programs. In other words, he was anything but a radical revolutionary. Amazingly, his time in the Tower had only reinforced his resilient conservatism—a fact that became all the more evident in the years afterward when he became a leader in the Anti-Federalist movement.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of America’s revolutionary period was that its chief protagonists were, like Laurens, not particularly revolutionary. From Samuel Adams and John Hancock to Richard Henry Lee and George Washington, from James Iredell and Patrick Henry to Samuel Chase and John Dickinson the leaders of the American cause were profoundly conservative. They were loathe to indulge in any kind of radicalism that might erupt into violence–rhetorical, political, or martial. For the most part they were the faithful sons of colonial gentry. They were devoted to conventional Whig principles: the rule of law, noblesse oblige, unswerving honor, squirey superintendence, and the maintenance of corporate order. They believed in a tranquil and settled society free of the raucous upsets and tumults of agitation, activism, and unrest.
Their reticence to squabble with the crown was obvious to even the most casual observer. The colonials exhausted every recourse to law before they even thought to resort to armed resistance. For more than a decade they sent innumerable appeals, suits, and petitions to both parliament and king. Even after American blood had been spilled, they refrained from impulsive insurrection.
It took more than the Boston Massacre, more than Lexington and Concord, more than Bunker Hill, more than Falmouth, and more than Ticonderoga to provoke the patriots to commit themselves to forceful secession. Even as late as the first week of July 1776, there was no solid consensus among the members of the Continental Congress that “such an extreme as full-scale revolt,” as John Dickinson dubbed it, was necessary. That week, the “Declaration of Independence” drafted by a committee composed of Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, John Adams, and the young Thomas Jefferson, was defeated twice before it was diffidently adopted–and even then the cautious delegates managed to keep its pronouncements secret for four more days.
The patriots were, at best, reluctant revolutionaries. Why then did they rebel? What could possibly have so overcome their native conservatism? It was their traditionalism–their commitment to those lasting things that transcend the ever-shifting tides of situation and circumstance–that finally drove them to arms. They fought against king and motherland in order to preserve that which king and motherland represented.
According to John Adams, in his manifesto The Rule of Law and the Rule of Men, it is the “duty of all men” to “protect the integrity of liberty” whenever the “laws of God,” the “laws of the land,” and the “laws of the common inheritance” are “profligately violated.” Justice demands, he argued, “a defense of the gracious endowments of Providence to mankind,” including “life, liberty, and property.” To deny this duty is to insure the reduction of “the whole of society” to the “bonds of servility.”
Patrick Henry agreed asserting that it was only a “grave responsibility” which the leaders held to “God and countrymen” that could possibly compel the peace-loving people of America to fight. The combined tyranny of economic mercantilism–the politicalization of matters of commerce–and legislative despotism–the politicalization of matters of conscience–had insured that “an appeal to arms and the God of Hosts” was “all that was left” to the patriots.
According to John Hancock, the Americans had been “denied representation” in either “the taxing authorities of parliament or of the trade boards.” In addition, their colonial charters had been “subverted or even abrogated,” their “citizenship rights” according to English common law had been “violated,” and their “freedom of religious practice” and “moral witness” had been “curtailed.” Thus, rule of the colonies had become “arbitrary and capricious;” it had become “supra-legal;” it had become “intolerable.” Under such circumstances “a holy duty” demanded “a holy response.”
The emerging consensus among American patriots–that ideological and political encroachments upon the whole of society could not be any longer ignored–was confirmed in American pulpits. The very conservative colonial pastors certainly did not set out to “stir up strife or political tumult at the cost of the proclamation of the Gospel” as Charles Lane of Savannah put it. On the other hand, “The Gospel naturally mitigates against lawless tyranny, in whatever form it may take,” said Ebenezer Smith of Lowell. Indeed, as Charles Turner of Duxbury asserted, “The Scriptures cannot be rightfully expounded without explaining them in a manner friendly to the cause of freedom.”
Thus, “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” was a favorite pastoral text–as were “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” and “Take away your exactions from my people,’ saith the Lord God.”
The churches of America were generally agreed that “where political tyranny begins true government ends,” as Samuel West of Dartmouth declared, “and the good Christian must needs be certain to oppose such lawless encroachments, however bland or bold.”
It was not the Enlightenment rhetoric of firebrands like Thomas Paine or Benjamin Rush that drove men from hearth and home to battlefield. It was the certainty that God had called them to an inescapable accountability. It was the conviction that they were covenantally honor-bound to uphold the standard of impartial justice and broadcast the blessings of liberty afar. It was the firm conviction that politics was not to consume the whole of their lives.
In the end, the reluctant revolutionaries were forced to arms by a recognition of the fact that “resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”
Thus was America’s great experiment in liberty begun. “Is life so dear,” asked Patrick Henry, “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.”