Reaction to the Continental Congress in Britain



WHEN the British Parliament assembled at the close of November, 1774, the king told them that the Americans were on the verge of rebellion. He assured them that he had given orders for the prompt execution of the laws passed by the late Parliament, and for the restoration of order and good government in the colonies. The Commoners, as usual, prepared an address to the King, when the Opposition proposed an amendment asking his majesty to lay before Parliament all letters, orders, and instructions relating to American affairs, as well as all the intelligence received from the colonies. North opposed the amendment, because it would force the government to take the first step toward reconciliation, and therefore would be inconsistent with the dignity of the crown! The address promised his majesty full support by the Commons in its dealings with the colonies. A debate, in which much bitterness was shown, ensued, when the amendment was rejected by a large majority. In the House of Lords, an address, similar in sentiment, was carried by a large majority. Nine of the peers signed a protest which concluded with these words: "Whatever may be the mischievous designs or inconsiderate temerity which lead others to this desperate course, we wish to be known as persons who have ever disapproved of measures so pernicious in their past effects and future tendencies; and who are not in haste, without inquiry and information, to commit ourselves in declarations which may precipitate our country into all the calamities of a civil war."

Lord North, no doubt sincerely wishing reconciliation, did not regard this triumph as a real victory; on the contrary, he saw interminable trouble ahead. But he had committed himself to the control of the king, and was compelled to do his majesty's bidding or resign; yet he tried to induce the monarch to take some step in the direction of reconciliation. He suggested the propriety of sending a commission of inquiry to America, but the king overruled the proposition, and North acquiesced. The utter subserviency of this minister to the king, in opposition to his own conscience and sense of justice, is well illustrated by North's heartless remark afterward, in which he echoed his master's sentiments: "A rebellion is not to be deprecated on the part of Great Britain; the confiscations it would produce would provide for many friends of government." The ministry consoled themselves with the idea that so many colonies, with such clashing interests, could not long remain united. "It will be easy," said one of them to the French minister in London, "to sow divisions among the delegates to their Congress; they will do nothing but bring ridicule upon themselves by exposing their weakness." This delusion was dispelled before the adjournment of Parliament for the Christmas holidays, by the arrival in England of a record of the proceedings of that Congress. The firmness, moderation, and unanimity of the action of the members greatly surprised the ministry, made the more sensible of them anxious, but only increased the anger of the king, who, in hurried words, as usual, "breathed threatenings and slaughter." The caricaturists had already ridiculed the blusterings of the government, by representing North, whom they nicknamed "Boreas," as viewing the distant colonies through his eye-glass, showing his ignorance of the true state of affairs in America, when he uttered his foolish boast after the Congress had assembled, "I promise to subdue the Americans in three months."

When the proceedings of the Continental Congress reached England, the colonial agents there, and particularly Dr. Franklin, became active in their public promulgations. The president of the Congress had sent them to the agents as a body, with a letter requesting them to lay the petition to the king "into the hands of his majesty," and also to publish it. They were also requested to furnish printed copies of that and the "Address of the people of Great Britain" by the Congress, to "the trading cities and manufacturing towns of the United Kingdom." The Congress had passed a vote of thanks to the friends of the Americans in Parliament, and the agents were requested to convey the resolution to those gentlemen.

Franklin took the task of this seed-sowing chiefly upon himself, for he was now regarded as the representative of the whole continent. The documents were printed and scattered over the kingdom; and Franklin and others traversed the manufacturing towns in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Northumberland, and Durham, and by word of mouth imparted much information and enlightenment on the great questions at issue. The people of those districts were mostly Dissenters, who looked upon the Church of England as a portion of the state, in wielding weapons of oppression. The truths respecting human rights, uttered by Franklin, appealed to their warmest sympathies, and there was much excitement in the north of England. Petitions framed by Franklin, and numerously signed, praying for a repeal of the obnoxious acts, were sent into Parliament and immediately consigned to an inactive committee--"a committee of oblivion," as Burke called them. Ministerial agents were sent in the wake of Franklin and his friends to counteract their influence, and these sent in counter-petitions, also numerously signed, which were promptly acted upon. Petitions from the American colonies, even one from Jamaica, were treated with disdain.

The agents were not permitted to lay the petition of Congress to the king "into his majesty's hands." Franklin presented it to Lord Dartmouth. His lordship laid it before the king, who promised it should be submitted to Parliament, and so the matter rested for awhile. Franklin, meanwhile, had borne a copy of the petition to Hayes, where he was courteously received by Lord Chatham. Among other pointed remarks made by Franklin to Pitt, on that occasion, none seemed to strike his lordship more forcibly than these words: "The army cannot possibly answer any good purpose in Boston, but may do infinite mischief; and no accommodation can properly be proposed and entered into by the Americans, while the bayonet is at their breasts. To have an agreement binding, all force should be withdrawn." Chatham was deeply impressed with the justice of the remark, and he promised Franklin that if his malady would allow, he would be in his place in the House of Lords at the reopening of Parliament, and move the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the troops from Boston. In this measure he thought were involved the hopes of liberty for England.

The scruples of Lord North annoyed the king, and the monarch often rebuked his minister. These scruples had created much opposition to him in the Cabinet, and a clique had determined to procure his dismissal, if he should propose any more lenient measures toward the Americans. North was advised of this conspiracy. The Parliament was to reassemble on the 20th of January; and at a meeting of the Cabinet on the 12th, he saw unmistakable evidence that he must yield his conscience to the king, or throw up the seals of office. A majority of the Cabinet were firm supporters of the royal prerogative, and champions for the supremacy of Parliament. North loved place and its emoluments; so, quieting his conscience, by considering the sacredness of his pledge to the king, he reinstated himself with his fellow-ministers by unbounded good nature on that occasion, and a promise to take the tremendous responsibility of a leader in measures which his judgement assured him would create a civil war. At that meeting it was decided to interdict all commerce with America; and to declare all persons in the colonies, not actively loyal to the crown, to be rebels. By so drawing the line of separation sharply, they hoped to create a permanent antagonism among the people here; but union rather than discord was effected.





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