Unlikely allies, p.7

Unlikely Allies, page 7


Unlikely Allies

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  Hartford, August 1774-May 1775

  Even the August heat could not dampen their excitement. The Massachusetts delegation to the First Continental Congress paraded into the Hartford town common with carriages, horses, and colonial militia cheered by a throng of well-wishers. The delegates included John Adams, his cousin Sam, Elbridge Gerry, Robert Treat Paine, and Thomas Cushing. Sam Adams led the procession, looking uncomfortably overdressed for the weather in a bright red coat, fancy silver-buckled shoes, and a new powdered wig topped by a stylish hat. The delegates were dusty and perspiring after their long ride under a broiling sun. They stopped off on their way to Philadelphia to meet with the Connecticut colony’s leaders. Silas Deane, who was a member of the Connecticut delegation to Congress, rode four miles to Hartford to greet them, along with his twenty-one-year-old stepson, Samuel Webb. While Adams and the others had heard of Deane from his work as the secretary to the Connecticut Committee of Correspondence, they had never met.

  Five years had passed since Deane was first elected to the Wethersfield Committee of Correspondence. Since then, the rising wave of resistance to British rule drew him deeper into politics. He was now a member of the Connecticut General Assembly and secretary to the Connecticut Committee of Correspondence. His practical experience as a merchant, his legal acumen, and his spirited work coordinating the boycott of British imports impressed many, not just in Connecticut, but throughout New England. Though Deane initially resisted British rule as an interference with his own business, over time he recognized that more was at stake than mere commercial interests. The brutality of the British military occupation of Boston and the general corruption of the British administration convinced Deane that liberty itself was jeopardized. Perhaps Deane was too quick to rush to judgment, but he concluded earlier than most Americans that only independence from Britain could preserve those rights cherished by Englishmen. He may also have been motivated in part by the commercial opportunities of opening trade with other European countries—trade that was restricted by Britain.

  After the British Parliament adopted a set of laws known as the “Coercive Acts” to punish Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party, the colonies agreed to send representatives to Philadelphia to discuss the growing crisis with England. The Connecticut Assembly appointed Deane and two Superior Court judges, Eliphalet Dyer and Roger Sherman, to represent them in Philadelphia.

  From their first meeting in Hartford, John Adams was impressed by Deane’s keen intellect and his strong commitment to supporting Massachusetts in its struggle. Superficially, the two men had much in common: Adams was just three years older than Deane and had grown up in a small New England farming village, much like Deane. Adams’s ancestors, like Deane’s, were part of the Puritan wave that arrived from England in the 1600s. Adams attended Harvard College, and, like Deane, he had thought seriously of becoming a minister and supported himself as a schoolteacher before he became an attorney. But while Adams had made a career as a practicing attorney outside Boston, Deane had abandoned law practice for a much more lucrative career as a merchant.

  Yet, it was surprising how easily they got along, considering their different temperaments. Deane was convivial and easygoing. He possessed a warm, open personality; he did not expect or demand much of others and was forgiving to a fault. People liked him. Although he was generally modest and plainspoken, his one vanity was his taste for elegance and fashion. By contrast, Adams was more reflective, sober, and pedantic. He paid little attention to his appearance, though his ego was legendary. He would not suffer fools, or anyone else who disagreed with him. He was obstinate and rigid to the point that it was difficult for other delegates to work with him. In his own words, Adams was “obnoxious, suspected and unpopular.”

  After their first meeting Adams described Deane to Abigail as his “brother.” Deane’s sunny personality and natural enthusiasm were infectious, even to a man as somber and serious-minded as Adams. Deane exuded optimism. He was effusive to the point that he could not resist the temptation for overstatement. He extolled the Continental Congress as “the grandest and most important assembly ever held in America.” Congress’s decisions, Deane predicted, would be compared to “the laws of the Medes and Persians.”

  The next day the Massachusetts delegates rode out to Wethersfield to visit Deane again before heading on their way. He welcomed them warmly, and Deane’s wife, Elizabeth, served punch, wine, and coffee in their spacious sitting room. To Adams, Deane’s elegant home must have seemed ostentatious. As the summer evening cooled, Deane walked the men across the yellowed town commons to the newly constructed whitewashed Congregational meetinghouse. They climbed the narrow, twisting staircase to the top of the steeple and looked out over verdant rolling hills and ripening orchards on both sides of the Connecticut River. Even John Adams was moved by the majesty of the Connecticut River valley. He marveled that it was “the most grand and beautifull Prospect in the World, at least that I ever saw.” Deane had business to finish up and could not leave with the Massachusetts delegates that evening, but he was brimming with anticipation as he watched the proud procession march off toward Middletown.

  A week later, on Monday morning, August 22, Deane began the long journey by carriage to Philadelphia with his stepson Samuel. Deane had never been outside Connecticut, and he was thrilled by the chance to meet political leaders from the other colonies and visit far-off cities he had only read and heard about. They were accompanied by a parade of well-wishers who marched twelve miles south with them, as far as Middletown. Deane rode in relative comfort in his plush coach known as a “leathern conveniency,” but the days were hot and the roads were rutted and dusty.

  In New Haven, Deane met up with his fellow delegate Eliphalet Dyer from Windham County. Dyer had graduated Yale College twenty years before Deane and practiced law before becoming a judge on the Superior Court. Dyer was a well-respected judge, but he was notoriously loquacious; certainly, spending days traveling with such a man would test Deane’s patience. In Fairfield they picked up Judge Roger Sherman. Sherman was one of the leading political figures in New Haven, which competed with Hartford as the cultural and economic center of the colony. He was known for being prickly. In the Connecticut General Assembly, Deane had supported someone else as a delegate to Congress, and Sherman was still smarting from Deane’s opposition. By Thursday evening, the three Connecticut representatives reached New York City, dirty and exhausted. They found a room for the three of them at Robert Hull’s Tavern on lower Broadway at the sign of the bunch of grapes. Though Hull welcomed the delegates from Connecticut and Massachusetts, he remained a Loyalist throughout the Revolution.

  Deane was stunned by the size and wealth of New York City, with its more than twenty thousand inhabitants, thousands of wood-frame and redbrick buildings, and three hundred stores. Hartford was a small provincial town by comparison. That evening the three delegates were escorted to the stock exchange in lower Manhattan, where the leading merchants of New York hosted all the delegates on their way to Philadelphia. After dinner each man introduced himself and congratulated the others on their appointment. Then they passed around a glass of wine for each to sip. “The glass had circulated just long enough to raise the spirits of every one to that nice point which is above disguise or suspicion,” Deane later noted. He “saw that it was an excellent opportunity to know their real situation.” He later assured his wife, Elizabeth, that he had remained sober while “sharing in the jovial entertainment.” Ever the convivial storyteller, Deane mixed easily with his colleagues. He began quietly sounding out the others on the question of independence. Deane “found many favorable to the cause and willing to go any length.”

  The cramped conditions in the tavern required that Deane share a bed with his fellow delegate Judge Sherman. The judge’s loud snoring kept Deane up all night, although he was too polite to mention it to Sherman. Deane thought Sherman was an odd man—stern-faced, socially inept, and inflexible. Sixteen years older than Deane, Sherman was
born in Newton, Massachusetts, ten miles west of Boston. His father was a farmer , and as a child, Sherman had been apprenticed to a cobbler. Sherman’s family moved to New Milford, in western Connecticut, on the New York border. Despite a lack of formal education, he possessed a commanding knowledge of Scripture, and he was as prolific as he was devout—after his first wife died, leaving him with seven children, he had eight more children with his second wife. At forty, Sherman moved to New Haven, where, like Deane, he would own a shop. The religious differences in New Haven between traditional Congregationalists (“Old Lights”) and the new evangelicals (“New Lights”) divided neighbors. Sherman was originally an establishment Old Light, but his business and political interests drew him toward the more overtly religious New Lights. In time, he became treasurer of Yale College and was elected to numerous positions in New Haven County, including justice of the peace, county judge, member of the upper and lower houses of the General Assembly, and judge of the Superior Court.

  On Sunday evening, as the weather cooled, Deane prepared to cross the Hudson by ferry, but Sherman insisted that the three delegates should not travel on the Sabbath. Obliging Sherman, Deane waited until Monday morning to make the forty-mile trip, with the result that he was forced to drive under a “scorching sun.” This incident irritated Deane, whose religious convictions were tempered by practicality. He had no patience for what he termed “religious canting.” Deane began to regret that Sherman had joined him. Though “Mr. Sherman is clever in private,” Deane observed, “he is as badly calculated to appear in such company as a chestnut burr is for an eyestone.” Other delegates, including Adams, shared his view that Sherman was difficult.

  Sherman probably felt just as uncomfortable with Deane, who did not hide his wealth or intellect. Sherman thought Deane was ambitious, prideful, and showy. Deane was disrespectful toward Sherman’s religiosity and failed to show appropriate deference for the judge’s seniority. Deane’s gregarious personality struck Sherman as superficial and pushy. The emerging tension between these two men would have profound and far-reaching consequences.

  DEANE WAS EXHILARATED and awestruck arriving in Philadelphia as a member of the Congress. “We are in high spirits,” he reported to Elizabeth, “when the eyes of millions are upon us, and consider posterity is interested in our conduct.” At the opening session, Deane wore a fashionable new suit he purchased in New York City. He considered his fellow delegates men of “firmness, sensibility, spirit, and thorough knowledge of the interests of America.” Deane gushed that the minister’s invocation offered at the opening session of Congress “was worth riding one hundred miles to hear; even Quakers shed tears.”

  By 1774, Philadelphia was the world’s second-largest English-speaking city after London, and had grown rapidly over the previous decade. Despite the insufferable summer heat, the clamor of carriages on cobblestones, and the filth that lined the streets, the city shimmered with prosperity. The outdoor stalls ran about twelve-hundred feet down Market Street and were crowded with commodities. Packed side by side were horses and cattle, earthenware and stockings. Though there was a large assortment of dry goods, everything in Philadelphia was expensive, and there was less fresh produce, fowl, and fish than what he could find in Hartford. On the whole, Deane thought that the inhabitants were haughty. They “think nothing is right but what is in this city and province,” and “they look on me mad when I tell them that I have seen more good pasture, clover, meadow, oxen, and cows, in a circle of three miles in Connecticut, than is here to be met within thirty.” Yet, he found the people of Philadelphia “really extremely civil, and vastly industrious; in both of these I think they must take rank.”

  For nearly two months, September through October of 1774, the Continental Congress debated how to respond to the Coercive Acts that Britain had adopted in 1774 to punish Massachusetts after the Boston Tea Party. These acts had closed the port of Boston, restricted trade, and abolished representative government in the Massachusetts colony. Most delegates were not yet willing to support independence. Deane understood at the outset that it would take time to win over a consensus for independence, but his excitement soon soured into impatience. He could not deny his disappointment when, at the end of October, all that Congress could agree to were a “Declaration and Resolves” appealing to the king and Parliament to repeal the Coercive Acts and calling on the colonies to raise militias and enforce the colonial boycott against British imports. Though most delegates agreed that Britain had abused its colonies, the majority hoped that it was not too late for the damage to be undone; war was not inevitable. The delegates remained loyal subjects of King George III. Congress was merely asking George III to protect his faithful subjects against a corrupt and brutish Parliament. Deane returned to Hartford dejected and somewhat embittered by the outcome of the Congress. The only reason for optimism was that the delegates had agreed to reconvene to discuss further measures if Britain did not redress their grievances by May 1775.

  George III was incensed by Congress’s Declaration and Resolves. In the king’s eyes, the British had expended a huge sum for the defense of these ungrateful colonies, and, after repeated efforts to raise revenues from the Americans, Parliament had lifted most of the offending tariffs and taxes. Now the Continental Congress had the audacity to ask for more concessions. George III was convinced that the only thing the colonies would understand was the firm hand of the mother country. Instead of addressing Congress’s grievances, the king declared that the colony of Massachusetts, which had been at the center of the storm, was in open rebellion, and he authorized military measures to suppress the uprising.

  In response, the colonial assemblies agreed to call a Second Continental Congress beginning May 10, 1775, to discuss the future of relations with Great Britain. The Connecticut Assembly again chose Deane, Sherman, and Dyer as their representatives. Even before Deane left Connecticut for the long journey back to Philadelphia, events took a dramatic turn.

  ON THURSDAY, April 20, 1775, Thomas Shelton, a merchant from Hartford, arrived breathless at Deane’s door with a letter from Joseph Palmor, a member of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety. The address was scrawled in a hurried hand, “To S. Deane, Wether-field.” Deane turned it over and cracked open the seal. Palmor wished to inform Deane, as a member of the Committee on Correspondence, that early the previous morning, regular British troops had fired on a number of colonists at Lexington and killed six of them. The British forces were continuing their march toward Concord.

  Deane was stunned. How had the Bostonians responded? Where would the troops go next? Had anyone alerted the Assembly? Deane called a town meeting for that night to prepare Wethersfield against a British attack on the Connecticut colony, and then he rushed to Hartford to notify the leaders of the General Assembly.

  Deane later learned that the British general Gage, who was occupying Boston, had ordered 700 soldiers to capture a cache of arms in Concord. As the redcoats approached Lexington, scouts alerted the militia. While rebel leaders like Samuel Adams and John Hancock fled for their lives, a small contingent of the militia confronted the redcoats on Lexington Green. The British marched on to Concord to seize the arms depot. As news of the fighting spread around Boston, hundreds more patriots grabbed their guns and rushed to attack. By day’s end, nearly 300 British regulars and 100 militiamen had been killed or wounded. Though the British military commanders viewed the confrontation as a riot, rather than an uprising, to most New Englanders, the British troop movements were a provocation. Within days nearly 10,000 colonists volunteered for their state militias in what some called a “rage militaire.” The bloody confrontations at Lexington and Concord demonstrated that the British were determined to keep arms from the rebels. Unable to manufacture or import guns or gunpowder in any significant quantities, the rebels were compelled to seize their armaments from British armories.

  One of the most potent stores of British arms was at Fort Ticonderoga. Ticonderoga was once known as the “gateway to the Co
ntinent.” The fort sat at a strategic point at the base of Lake Champlain just north of Lake George and the Hudson River. An army invading from Canada would pass this point to reach the Hudson and New York City. The fort was a massive stone-and-wood fortress situated high above the lake. It was originally built by the French in a star formation with thick walls surrounded by heavy earthworks. The earthworks were covered by tall timbers with sharpened branches protruding out against any invader. Within its two-story stone walls, impenetrable to cannon fire, was an armory packed with gunpowder. When the British general Jeffrey Amherst captured the fort from the French in 1759, Fort Ticonderoga assumed almost mythic proportions in the public mind, embodying the invincibility of the British military.

  By 1775, the reality of the fortress was quite different. After the French had withdrawn from Quebec in 1763, the crown saw little use for the fortress. The British stationed only a token number of men there to guard supplies. For more than a decade the British neglected the fort. Ticonderoga crumbled from disrepair. “I beg leave to inform you,” the fort’s commandant had reported to London months earlier, “that the commissary’s room is fallen in.” Yet Parliament refused to appropriate any money for repair. The ditches surrounding the once-mighty fort were filled with foul-smelling garbage. The filthy, ruinous fort offered scarcely any protection from the elements, let alone from an invading army. It squatted over a barren plain commanding a view of mountains stripped bare of forest with no sign of human or animal life as far as the horizon.

  On the Thursday following the battles at Lexington and Concord, Benedict Arnold, a captain in the Connecticut Militia’s Foot-guards, was on his way to defend Boston with a small contingent of men from New Haven. Captain Arnold was a striking-looking soldier with gun-metal gray eyes, a Roman nose, and a strong chin. Thirty-four years of age, he owned an apothecary in New Haven and sold medical books to Yale students on the side. He was a casual friend of Deane’s, and he possessed a dazzling mind, a genius for military tactics, and insatiable ambition. On the road, he encountered Samuel Parsons, a colonel in the Connecticut Militia and a member of the Connecticut Assembly. Parsons, just returning from business in Massachusetts, was headed to an urgent meeting in Hartford in response to Concord and Lexington. They discussed recent events in Boston, and Parsons expressed his anxiety over the need for more arms. Arnold mentioned that he had heard that the great cannons of Ticonderoga were guarded only by a token force and might be vulnerable to capture by the patriots. Colonel Parsons was intrigued and hurried to Hartford to discuss this possibility with Connecticut’s leaders.

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