The Philadelphia Coup of 1776

US-flag-13-stars-Betsy_RossThe common narrative in the United States surrounding the Declaration of Independence is that everyone was so appalled by the British crackdown in Massachusetts and the lives lost at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 that all the leaders (and the majority of the populations) of the other colonies were swept up in a united front demanding the rejection of British rule (over a year later).

In reality, it was far more complicated than that. Many of the people were largely apathetic toward the whole matter one way or the other. But among those who were politically engaged, there was nowhere close to unity on the issue between the thirteen colonies (and that doesn’t even get into all the other British colonies in North America that flat-out refused to entertain the idea of joining even a conference to discuss recent events).

The lack of support for independence was so strong in coastal Georgia, for example, that the state’s leaders tried to un-sign from the Declaration of Independence and re-join the British Empire during the war. By war’s end, even after the Battle of Yorktown, the Province of Georgia was fully re-occupied by the British until it was handed over by the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris that formally accepted U.S. independence. New York City, similarly, was fairly solidly in support of continued British rule (to protect its trade interests and keep the other colonies from controlling its internal affairs) and also remained in British control until handed over by the treaty.

In certain colonies, such as Massachusetts, the local assemblies were suspended by the British or replaced by puppet governments, and they lacked local support — often to the point of having none of the laws followed by anyone. So in those cases, it’s fair to consider the self-proclaimed “Patriot” assemblies to be the more legitimate governments of those colonies for the purposes of declaring independence. But in other colonies, such as New York, the patriot faction was so deep in the minority that even the real local governments representing popular opinion were never going to go along with plans for independence. This being inconvenient, New York patriots simply formed their own assembly when the real assembly refused to send delegates to the Continental Congress.

That’s a bit iffy, to say the least, but it’s nowhere near as questionable as the decision by the Second Continental Congress to take matters into their own hands to impose the same on the Province of Pennsylvania. The elected local government there was insufficiently supportive of the position of a majority of the rest of the provincial delegations meeting at the Continental Congress, so those other states simply voted to “totally suppress” the government of Pennsylvania, to allow themselves to move ahead with plans for an official Declaration of Independence.

Despite every effort made by the political moderates to pacify the radicals in the province, the differences between the two groups widened. Things came to a head in the spring of 1776. The moderates won the first battle, when on May 1, 1776, they retained their majority in the Assembly elections; the Assembly was outmaneuvered by the radicals, however, when they successfully persuaded the Continental Congress to resolve, by a margin of six colonies to four, that all governments deriving their authority from the Crown should be “totally suppressed.” This resolution, which sealed the fate of British authority in the United States, effectively undermined the Charter and Assembly of Pennsylvania.

No longer restrained by moderate Whigs and spurred on by the Continental Congress’ May 15 recommendation for all states to establish a government capable of safeguarding the general welfare, Pennsylvania’s supporters of independence met to take steps to form a new government and to draft new instructions for the Pennsylvania delegation. The Assembly, showered by petitions in the days that followed, was not given much time to respond. Five days later, on May 20, over four thousand Philadelphians gathered for a meeting in a soaking rain in the State House yard to voice their approval for the resolution of Congress. Not only did the citizens — led by Thomas McKean — approve of the dissolution of the imperial connection, but also they called for a special constitutional convention to bring a new state government into being. To be expected the Provincial Assembly, then meeting in Philadelphia, was denied any role in the formation of a new government. With no role to play, and with the “Conference of Committees” getting ready to convene in Philadelphia, the Assembly voted itself out of existence. The events of May 20, as one contemporary observer noted, “had given the ‘coup de Grace to the King’s authority’ in Pennsylvania.”

The elected government of the people of Pennsylvania was simply suspended by a 6-4 vote by ten of the other colonies present at the Continental Congress because it was inconvenient. Not even half of the eventual thirteen states agreed to the action, yet it occurred anyway.

So rather than the Declaration being born in a flurry of patriotic unity across 13 disparate colonies, the real story is that the “patriot” movement shouted down, replaced, or removed anyone who disagreed with them until they had a sufficient coalition to move ahead with the rebellion and a formal declaration of independence.

It really puts a whole new light on the American mythology of all 13 colonies angrily overcoming their differences to sign a document defiantly throwing off the British government, when you realize the pro-independence faction achieved it by coercion and outright coups.

Bill Humphrey

About Bill Humphrey

Bill Humphrey is the primary host of WVUD's Arsenal For Democracy talk radio show and a local elected official.
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