I’m going around saying that the story I tell in Declaration, despite its centrality, is little known. Yet one of the better-known dates, pivotal to the story, is Wednesday, May 15, 1776, when the Congress voted to add a preamble to a resolution it had passed on Friday, May 10. Because John Adams co-sponsored the May 10 resolution, and wrote the preamble that was tacked on its front on May 15, adoption of the preamble was an important moment both in Adams’s emergence as the “colossus of independence” and in the Congress’s movement toward declaring independence. Many founding-father biographers and writers on the Continental Congress have therefore mentioned and even dwelled on that day.
Some have even said that on May 15, America effectively declared independence. Adams certainly liked to think so.
But the context in which the preamble was adopted, and the political work that Adams intended it to do — outside the Congress — has been glossed over, at least in most books for general readers. The inside story, which I try to bring to life in Declaration, raises many issues that certified narratives of events of 1776 have naturally found difficult to cope with. For the Adams preamble isn’t an edifying document, and May 15, though Adams rightly thought of it as “an epoch” in American independence, wasn’t an edifying day.
The realpolitik can be unsettling — but it’s more fun than the whitewashed version. The preamble brought in Monday had been written quickly over the weekend to adjust an unintended effect of the resolution passed the previous Friday. Adams, along with Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, had brought the original resolution into the Congress as part of a secret attempt to overturn the government of Pennsylvania, the Congress’s mighty host, which opposed independence. Pennsylvania controlled the reconciliationist middle-colony bloc, making a declaration of independence impossible. The pro-independence coalition — actually led by Samuel Adams (John was then known mainly as Samuel’s younger second cousin and top operator) — plotted to get the elected government of Pennsylvania thrown out and taken over by pro-independence elements there, thus swinging the keystone colony’s great weight over to independence. As their local allies prepared the working-class committees and militias to take over the province, the Adamses tried to maneuver the Congress into supporting a local uprising against the Pennsylvania assembly.
Hence the May 10 resolution. It proposed that the Congress recommend to those states which, amid the imperial crisis, lacked working governments that they end their old governments and create new ones that would conduce to their happiness. But the real target was Pennsylvania, where the Adamses’ local allies were actually organized and ready to put in a pro-independence government, on the authority only of committees and militias.
On its face the proposed resolution was bizarre. The Continental Congress was not in a position to tell, unsolicited, its member states what to do about their governments. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania had a working representative government in place, committed to American rights (though not to independence), and he knew the Adamses’ were secretly organizing locally against him. In the Congress, he had every reason to object strenuously to the measure as overbearing, illegal, and driven by a hidden Massachusetts agenda against his representative government.
But Dickinson was smart. Instead of arguing, he embraced the resolution, shifting the frame. Since Pennsylvania did have a working government, a veritable model for the colonies that didn’t, he said, the resolution obviously couldn’t apply to it. The Congress then passed the resolution on the understanding that Pennsylvania was exempted. The resolution’s real purpose had been deftly vitiated.
Score one for Dickinson. But then, unwisely, he left town.
So on Monday morning, May 13, with Dickinson gone, in came John Adams with a preamble to the resolution. It wasn’t really a preamble. It re-framed the entire meaning of the resolution. It was far longer than the resolution itself, with John Adams written all over it: hectoring, accusing, piling on. It shoved Pennsylvania back into the scope of the resolution, on a novel technicality, shared with an article that Thomas Paine had meanwhile published in Philadelphia (Forester 4, “To the People”), part of the Adamses’ concerted effort at once to galvanize the street against Dickinson and manuever the Congress against Pennsylvania. Local radical leaders readied themselves to tell the militias, committees, and the street as whole that the Congress, with adoption of the preamble, was about to support them in removing the assembly.
Reconciliationists in the Congress argued desperately — especially James Wilson of Pennsylvania — against overreaching by the Congress and uprising in the streets, but they lacked Dickinson’s finesse, and they’d lost control of the narrative. On May 15, the preamble passed, with many of the Congressmen still not understanding what they were unleashing on their host colony’s elected government. The Pennsylvania State House, where the Congress met in the Pennsylvania assembly’s regular room, was about to become a scene of genuine revolution. All politics is local. …
So maybe May 15 really was, as John Adams liked to say, America’s first independence day. Thanks to him, one of the oldest elected, representative governments in the English-speaking world was set up to be overturned, “extralegally” (a polite term), by an unelected populist militia, to which John Adams wouldn’t have given an inch in Massachusetts. American politics can be — and certainly was in 1776 — a rough business.