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The reaction of the North Ministry to the destruction of tea in Boston Harbor in 1774 was swift. Aided by British public opinion hostile to the actions of the Bostonians and the desire of King George III to make an example of Massachusetts, Parliament passed the Coercive (or “Intolerable”) Acts: The port of Boston was closed, pending restitution for the water-logged tea; the Massachusetts government was reorganized, removing it from popular control; British officials or soldiers were to be tried outside the colony, to prevent their prosecution by local juries for enforcing customs laws; and a new quartering act was passed to clear the way for support of British troops stationed in the colonies.
In May 1774, General Thomas Gage, appointed acting governor, arrived in Boston with additional British troops and proceeded to implement the Coercive Acts. The colony’s legislature responded by calling for a provincial congress that would govern until “constitutional rule” had been restored. Other colonies rallied to the aid of Boston, shipping supplies overland. The legislature also denounced the Coercive Acts as threats not only to Massachusetts but to the rest of the colonies. Finally, legislators called for a general American congress at which they would air grievances and decide upon a plan of action.
That congress met in Philadelphia in the autumn of 1774, and it soon became clear that, while the anger of delegates over British actions gave colonial radicals considerable leverage, the majority viewed a settlement of the dispute short of American independence as both possible and desirable. By a 6-5 vote, the First Continental Congress defeated a moderate plan that would have given the colonies quasi-independent “dominion” status within the British Empire. The Congress also endorsed a set of radical resolves, demanding repeal of the Coercive Acts; threatened resistance if the British government tried to enforce them; and adopted the Continental Association, a boycott of British goods that eventually cut British imports to the colonies by 97%.
The First Continental Congress also adopted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances containing ideas developed over the past decade. For instance, the Declaration listed thirteen acts (“misdeeds of King and Parliament”) that must be repealed before harmony could be restored; attacked the Coercive Acts; argued that the rights of Britain’s American colonists were secured by both the British constitution and natural law; asserted that the colonies could only be represented in local assemblies, where exclusive powers must reside; and pledged that the colonies would go along with British regulation of external trade, so long as the duties were not taxation.
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Tensions mounted during the winter of 1774-1775, and British attitudes toward the colonies hardened. Parliament cut off trade with every colony except Georgia and New York, the only colonies that had refused formal endorsement of the Continental Association. Moreover, additional troops were dispatched to America, along with a fleet, but arrived only after the outbreak of fighting in the spring of 1775, when General Gage, having learned that large quantities of supplies and arms were stored at the villages of Lexington and Concord, dispatched troops to confiscate them. British troops met resistance from colonial militia, and casualties were 90 Americans and 250 British killed and wounded.
The First Continental Congress had provided that a successor body would hammer out a settlement between the colonies and the mother country. Yet, the Second Continental Congress did not assemble in Philadelphia until May 10, 1775, after the outbreak of hostilities at Lexington and Concord, so its options seemed limited. Over the next year, the Second Continental Congress came to realize that a formal declaration of colonial independence was unavoidable, because Congress already had taken a series of actions usually performed only by formal governments—for example, authorizing American privateers to attack British shipping and opening American ports to trade with all nations except Britain and her subjects.
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During that same period, colonial public opinion grew increasingly favorable to American independence, especially because of the British government’s intransigence. This opinion was solidified following the January 1776 appearance of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense.
On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution calling for colonial independence, and a committee was appointed to draft a formal declaration. Lee’s resolution was adopted on July 2, and the Declaration of Independence, largely drafted by delegate Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, was adopted two days later.
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After mid-July 1774, when news of Parliament’s passage of the Coercive Acts reached Georgia, the situation was very confused. Opinions in the colony were bitterly divided—ominously, even those who opposed British policy could seldom agree among themselves on a unified plan of action. Nevertheless, this division played into the hands of the radicals.
By the summer of 1774, Whigs in the House of Assembly were frustrated at the success of the Governor and Council in preventing them from acting. As a result, legislators began to look outside the system for ways to register their protest. The Assembly was controlled by representatives from Christ Church Parish (Savannah and vicinity), which early assumed leadership of Georgians who came to be called Whigs. Yet, in terms of social position, family background, and wealth, these delegates were almost as much a part of the “colonial establishment” as the Governor and his Council, which suggests that the aims of the Christ Church faction were fairly moderate.
On the other hand, transplanted New England Congregationalists in St. John’s Parish, home of the colony’s second largest port, Sunbury, were as upset by the Governor’s use of executive power as the Christ Church group, but their leaders were blocked from achieving political gains because representatives from Savannah and environs dominated the Assembly. So, the furor aroused by British policies could be used by the St. John’s radicals as a way to achieve two related goals, attacking the royal government and challenging the existing colonial power structure.
In August 1774, at a meeting held in Savannah to protest the Coercive Acts, the St. John’s faction made its first overt move in a power struggle that was to last until the end of the American Revolution. Those present protested British measures as loyal subjects, appealing to the British constitution against the “unconstitutional” actions of the British government. Unsatisfied with this lukewarm response, delegates from St. John’s tried, and failed, to have the meeting authorize sending delegates to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Even the moderate tone of the resolutions adopted at Savannah upset many Georgians who opposed British policy. Feelings were especially strong in outlying parishes, which feared that the tone of the address might cause the British government to refuse to send troops to protect the colony’s frontiers against Indian attacks.
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Governor Wright and his supporters attempted to use the situation to drive a wedge among the colony’s Whigs, organizing a petitioning movement objecting to the actions of the Savannah meeting. Signers of the petition from Savannah included colonial officials and wealthier merchants. Signers from the upper part of St. Paul’s Parish, around Augusta, included several Georgians who would later became prominent in the revolutionary movement, including George Wells, Edward Langworthy, William Few, and Elijah Clarke. These petitions in turn called forth a series of objections published in the Savannah Georgia Gazette.
Meanwhile, angry St. John’s Parish radicals held two meetings, electing their own delegate to the Continental Congress, Lyman Hall, and raising fifty pounds and two hundred barrels of rice for the suffering residents of Boston. Probably because the proceedings at Midway were approved by only four parishes, Hall chose not to go to Philadelphia. And so it was that, when the First Continental Congress met in September 1774, delegates had to “lament Georgia with resentment” because it was the only established mainland colony unrepresented.
In Georgia, when the Continental Congress convened, the Assembly adjourned until mid-November, and Governor Wright, fearing new unrest when word of the Congress’s deliberations reached the colony, used his authority to extend legislative adjournment until mid-January 1775. To counter this, conservative Whigs proposed that a provincial congress be elected, to meet in Savannah in January at the same time as the House of Assembly, an extra-legal maneuver, but, since the provincial congress would meet under the watchful eyes of the Christ Church-dominated Assembly, it hardly posed a threat to the status quo.
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Georgia’s radical Whigs responded by endorsing the election of a provincial congress and urging adoption of the Continental Association before the congress convened, thereby presenting Christ Church conservatives with a fait accompli. St. John’s Parish adopted the Continental Association but refused to attend the provincial congress—St. John’s leaders were content to let the congress serve as a precedent for organized protest outside of the established governmental system, but unwilling to place themselves under domination of the conservatives from Christ Church Parish.
The provincial congress met but delegates represented only five of the colony’s parishes. It adopted the Continental Association, with numerous modifications, elected three men from Christ Church Parish to attend the Continental Congress, and called upon the Assembly to approve its actions. Governor Wright adjourned the Assembly before it could act, the last session of Georgia’s colonial Assembly before the outbreak of fighting. The three men chosen by the provincial congress to represent Georgia in Philadelphia declined to serve because they represented only a minority of the colony’s parishes.
Governor Wright’s actions showed conservative Whigs that the attainment of their goals would be possible only outside the system, where they must deal with the radicals. Radicals from St. John’s Parish promptly sent Lyman Hall to Philadelphia to represent them in the Continental Congress. This move forced the Christ Church faction either to act or be left behind. Wright’s actions and the arrival in Georgia of news of fighting in Massachusetts finally created a colony-wide Whig movement.
When a second provincial congress met in Savannah on July 4, 1775, delegates represented all but two isolated, almost unpopulated parishes. This gathering marked the formation of Georgia’s first revolutionary consensus, an agreement that Governor Wright’s executive authority had to be minimized. There was no consensus, as yet, however, on the long-range goals of the resistance movement.
The Christ Church conservatives dominated the second provincial congress, yet, seeking harmony, agreed to distribute representation more equitably at future meetings and give the right to vote to more citizens, which ultimately worked to the advantage of the radicals. This provincial congress also created a series of general and local committees to direct affairs in different towns and a council of safety to act as a colonial executive body during congress’s recess. These various Whig bodies began, gradually at first but more rapidly later, to usurp the functions of governing Georgia that had once been exercised by Governor Wright, his Council, and the House of Assembly.
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As Georgia’s royal government was being dismantled, the upper-class nature of the revolutionary movement began to change. Radicals sought to increase the “popular” base of their movement, but the “people,” were suspicious even of radical leaders, many themselves upper-class, and who had little in common with them. A single common denominator unified the radical wing of the movement, at least temporarily: “All saw the conservatives as perpetuators of the system from which they had been excluded. . . . [B]reaking the power of the conservatives was to be the goal of the ‘popular party.’” (Jackson, p.8) Nevertheless, until the summer of 1776, when Georgia learned of the Declaration of Independence, radicals had to maintain their alliance of convenience with conservatives to prevent mass defections of conservatives that might bring the revolutionary movement to a halt.
As early as July 1775, Governor Wright had concluded that Georgia was lost to the British cause. For the next six months, however, he was forced to stand by helplessly and watch the growing revolutionary movement strip him of his powers, culminating in January 1776 when, upon the approach of several British ships seeking to procure supplies in Savannah, the council of safety arrested Wright, his Council, and other royal officials. Two days later, those officers were released upon giving their words not to leave Savannah or attempt to communicate with the British.
On the night of February 11, 1776, Wright and several Councilors broke their paroles and fled to the coast, where they boarded a British vessel. The ships did not leave until early March, after they had defeated efforts by Georgia Whigs to prevent them from seizing a number of rice boats anchored in the river outside town. Wright and his associates sailed away with the British, a step that had already occurred in most of the other colonies. Unlike other governors, however, Sir James Wright would one day return and re-establish the colonial regime. Ironically, divisions among Georgia Whigs would help to make this possible.
[End of Part IV]
For those interested in reading more about Georgia History, here are links to my books on the subject:
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)