The Internal Revolution

Documents Introduction:
Historians often portray the American Revolution as being a dual revolution: an external revolution to gain independence from Great Britain and an internal one to determine how power would be shifted around within American society. The two revolutions were clearly related. As Americans intensified their critique of British rule, they also began to have serious debates over how elite-led governments at home had contributed to their problems and how to remedy these problems. Those debates touched on many different topics central to governance: who was a citizen? who could vote? who should rule? whose rights and liberties should be protected and how should they be preserved? Different groups of Americans answered those questions in divergent and often conflicting ways, with the responses differing by class, gender, race, and region. What follows are samples of the perspectives of different groups and the questions they raised about power and the Revolution. 

1) The Founding Elite Question Expanding Power to “The People”
2) Ordinary White Men Question the Authority of the Elite
3) Women Question the Great Power Held By Men
4) Enslaved People Question Whether a Free Republic Should Have Slavery

Your goal is to try to understand what different groups of Americans wanted out of the Revolution and to compare and contrast their visions of revolution to get a sense of where there was common ground and where there was conflict. What were the different visions of the Revolution revealed by these documents? Whose visions of revolution were most compatible? Whose were most in conflict?


1) The Founding Elite Question Expanding Power to “The People”:

D1: Alexander Hamilton, New York, To John Jay, New York, Nov, 26., 1775:


Dear Sir

In times of such commotion as the present, while the passions of men are worked up to an uncommon pitch there is great danger of fatal extremes. The same state of the passions which fits the multi­tude, who have not a sufficient stock of reason and knowledge to guide them, for opposition to tyranny and oppression, very naturally leads them to a contempt and disregard of all authority. The due medium is hardly to be found among the more intelligent, it is al­most impossible among the unthinking populace. When the minds of these are loosened from their attachment to ancient establish­ments and courses, they seem to grow giddy and are apt more or less to run into anarchy. These principles, too true in themselves, and confirmed to me both by reading and my own experience, de­serve extremely the attention of those who have the direction of public affairs. In such tempestuous times, it requires the greatest skill in the political pilots to keep men steady and within proper bounds, on which account I am always more or less alarmed at every thing which is done of mere will and pleasure, without any proper au­thority. Irregularities I know are to be expected, but they are never­theless dangerous and ought to be checked by every prudent and moderate mean. From these general maxims, I disapprove of the irruption in question, as serving to cherish a spirit of disorder at a season when men are too prone to it of themselves.

Moreover, New England is very populous and powerful. It is not safe to trust to the virtue of any people. Such proceedings will serve to produce and encourage a spirit of encroachment and arrogance in them. I like not to see potent neighbours indulged in the practice of making inroads at pleasure into this or any other province.

 I am sir with very great Esteem— Your most hum servant

 A. Hamilton

D2: John Adams (of Massachusetts) to James Sullivan, Philadelphia, 26 May, 1776:


It is certain, in theory, that the only moral foundation of go­vernment is the consent of the people. But to what an ex­tent shall we carry this principle? Shall we say that every individual of the community, old and young, male and female, us well as rich and poor, must consent, expressly, to every act of legislation? No, you will say, this is impossible. How, then, does the right arise in the majority to govern the minority, against their will? Whence arises the right of the men to govern the women, without their consent? Whence the right of the old to bind the young, without theirs?

But let us first suppose that the whole community, of every age, rank, sex, and condition, has a right to vote. This com­munity is assembled, A motion is made, and carried by a major­ity of one voice. The minority will not agree to this. Whence arises the right of the majority to govern, and the obligation of the minority to obey ?

From necessity, you will say, because there can be no other rule.

But why exclude women?

You will say, because their delicacy renders them unfit for practice and experience in the great businesses of life, and the hardy enterprises of war, as well as the arduous cares of state. Besides, their attention is so much engaged with the necessary nurture of their children, that nature has made them fittest for domestic cares. And children have not judgment or will of their own. True. But will not these reasons apply to others? Is it not equally true, that men in general, in every society, who are wholly destitute of property, are also too little acquainted with public affairs to form a right judgment, and too dependent upon other men to have a will of their own? If this is a fact, if you give to every man who has no property, a vote, will you not make a fine encouraging provision for corruption, by your fundamental law? Such is the frailty of the human heart, that very few men who have no property, have any judgment of their own. They talk and vote as they are directed by some man of property, who has attached their minds to his interest.

Upon my word, Sir, I have long thought an army a piece of clock-work, and to be governed only by principles and maxims, as fixed as any in mechanics; and, by all that I have read in the history of mankind, and in authors who have speculated upon society and government, I am much inclined to think a government must manage a society in the same manner; and that this is machinery too.

Harrington has shown that power always follows property. This I believe to be as infallible a maxim in politics, as that action and reaction are equal, is in mechanics. Nay, I believe we may advance one step farther, and affirm that the balance of power in a society, accompanies the balance of property in land. The only possible way, then, of preserving the balance of power on the side of equal liberty and public virtue, is to make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society; to make a division of the land into small quantities, so that the multitude may be possessed of landed estates. If the multitude is possessed of the balance of real estate, the multitude will have the balance of power, and in that ease the multitude will take care of the liberty, virtue, and interest of the multi­tude, in all acts of government,

I believe these principles have been felt;, if not understood, in the Massachusetts Bay, from the beginning; and therefore I should think that wisdom and policy would dictate in these times to be very cautions of making alterations. Our people have never been very rigid in scrutinizing into the qualifications of voters, and I presume they will not now begin to be so. But I would not advise them to make any alteration in the laws, at present, respecting the qualifications of voters.

Your idea that those laws which affect the lives and personal liberty of all, or which inflict corporal punishment, afflict those who are not qualified to vote, as well as those who are, is just. But so they do women, as well as men; children, as well as adults.

What reason should there be for excluding a man of twenty years eleven months and twenty-seven days old, from a vote, when you admit one who is twenty-one. The reason is, you must fix upon some period in life, when the understanding and will of men in general, is fit to be trusted by the public. Will not the same reason justify the state in fixing upon some certain quantity of property, as a qualification?

The same reasoning which will induce yon to admit all men who have no property, to vote, with those who have, for those laws which a fleet the person, will prove that you ought to admit women and children; for, generally speaking, women and children have as good judgments, and as independent minds, as those men who are wholly destitute of property; these last being to all intents and purposes as much dependent upon others, who will please to feed, clothe, and employ them, as women are upon their husbands, or children on their parents.

As to your idea of proportioning the votes of men, in money matters, to the property they hold, it is utterly impracticable. There is no possible way of ascertaining, at any one time, how much every man in a community is worth; and if there was, so fluctuating is trade and property, that this state of it would change in half an hour. The property of the whole commu­nity is shifting every hour, and no record can be kept of the changes.

Society can be governed only by general rules. Government cannot accommodate itself to every particular case as it happens, nor to the circumstances of particular persons. It must establish general comprehensive regulations for eases and persons. The only question is, which general rule will accommo­date most cases and most persons.

Depend upon it, Sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end of it. New claims will arise; women will demand a vote; lads from twelve to twenty-one will think their rights not enough attended to; and every man who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to one common level.

D3: John Adams Remembers 1776 and the “Majority of the Great Body of the People”:

Source: The Works of John Adams (1850), Vol 2., 420-421

An Event of the most trifling nature in Appearance, and fit only to excite Laughter, in other Times, struck me into a profound Reverie, if not a fit of Melancholly. I met a Man who had sometimes been my Client, and sometimes I had been against him. He, though a common Horse Jockey, was sometimes in the right, and I had commonly been successful in his favour in our Courts of Law. He was always in the Law, and had been sued in many Actions, at almost every Court. As soon as he saw me, he came up to me, and his first Salutation to me was “Oh! Mr. Adams what great Things have you and your Colleagues done for Us! We can never be gratefull enough to you. There are no Courts of Justice now in this Province, and I hope there never will be another!”…Is this the Object for which I have been contending? said I to myself, for I rode along without any Answer to this Wretch. Are these the Sentiments of such People? And how many of them are there in the Country? Half the Nation for what I know: for half the Nation are Debtors if not more, and these have been in all Countries, the Sentiments of Debtors. If the Power of the Country should get into such hands, and there is great danger that it will, to what purpose have We sacrificed our Time, health and every Thing else? Surely We must guard against this Spirit and these Principles or We shall repent of all our Conduct. However The good Sense and Integrity of the Majority of the great Body of the People, came in to my thoughts for my relief, and the last resource was after all in a good Providence. — How much reason there was for these melancholly reflections, the sub­sequent times have too fully shewn. Opportunities enough had been presented to me to convince me that a very great Portion of the People of America were debtors: but that enormous Gulf of debt to Great , Britain from Virginia and some other States, which have since swallowed up the Harmony of all our Councils, and produced the Tryumph of Principles too nearly resembling those of my Client, was not known to me at that time in a tenth part of its extent. When the Consequences will terminate No Man can say.

D4: Gouverneur Morris, New York, to Thomas Penn, May 10, 1774:


Dear Sir,

You have heard, and you will hear, a great deal about politics, and in the heap of chaff may find some grains of good sense. Believe me, Sir, freedom and religion are only watch words. We have appointed a Committee, or rather we have nominated one. Let me give you the history of it. It is needless to premise, that the lower orders of mankind are more easily led by specious appearances, than those of a more exalted station. This and many similar propositions you know better than your humble servant.

 The troubles in America during Grenville’s administration put our gentry upon this finesse.  They stimulated some daring coxcombs to rouse the mob into an attack upon the bounds of order and decency. These fellows became the Jack Cades of the day, the leaders in all riots, the belwethers of the flock. The reason of the manoeuvre in those, who wished to keep fair with government, and at the same time to receive the incense of popular applause, you will readily perceive.  On the whole, the shepherds were not much to blame in a politic point of view. The belwethers jingled merrily, and roared out liberty, and property, and religion, and a multitude of cant terms, which every one thought he understood, and was egregiously mistaken. For you must know the shepherds kept the dictionary of the day, and like the mysteries of the ancient mythology, it was not for profane eyes or ears. This answered many purposes; the simple flock put themselves entirely under the protection of these most excellent shepherds.

 By and bye behold a great metamorphosis, without the help of Ovid or his divinities, but entirely effectuated by two modern genii, the god of ambition and the goddess of faction. The first of these prompted the shepherds to shear some of their flock, and then, in conjunction with the other, converted the belwethers into shepherds. That we have been in hot water with the British Parliament ever since, every body knows. Consequently these new shepherds had their hands full of employment. The old ones kept themselves least in sight, and a want of confidence in each other was not the least evil which followed. The port of Boston has been shut up. These sheep, simple as they are, cannot be gulled as heretofore. In short, there is no ruling them; and now, to leave the metaphor, the heads of the mobility grow dangerous to the gentry, and how to keep them down is the question. While they correspond with the other colonies, call and dismiss popular assemblies, make resolves to bind the consciences of the rest of mankind, bully poor printers, and exert with full force all their other tribunitial powers, it is impossible to curb them.

 But art sometimes goes farther than force, and therefore to trick them handsomely a committee of patricians was to be nominated, and into their hands was to be committed the majesty of the people, and the highest trust was to be reposed in them by a mandate, that they should take care, quod respublica non capiat injuriam. The tribunes, through want of a good legerdemain in the senatorial order, perceived the finesse, and yesterday I was present at a grand division of the city, and there I beheld my fellow citizens very accurately counting all their chickens, not only before any of them were hatched, but before above one half of the eggs were laid. In short, they fairly contended about the future forms of our government, whether it should be founded upon Aristocratic or Democratic principles.

 I stood in the balcony, and on my right hand were ranged all the people of property, with some few poor dependants, and on the other all the tradesmen, &c., who thought it worth their while to leave daily labor for the good of the country. The spirit of the English Constitution has yet a little influence left, and but a little. The remains of it, however, will give the wealthy people a superiority this time, but would they secure it, they must banish all schoolmasters, and confine all knowledge to themselves. This cannot be. The mob begin to think and to reason.  Poor reptiles! it is with them a vernal morning, they are struggling to cast off their winter’s slough, they bask in the sunshine, and ere noon they will bite, depend upon it. The gentry begin to fear this. Their committee will be appointed, they will deceive the people, and again forfeit a share of their confidence. And if these instances of what with one side is policy, with the other perfidy, shall continue to increase, and become more frequent, farewell aristocracy.  I see, and I see it with fear and trembling, that if the disputes with Britain continue, we shall be under the worst of all possible dominions. We shall be under the domination of a riotous mob.

 It is the interest of all men, therefore, to seek for reunion with the parent state. A safe compact seems in my poor opinion to be now tendered. Internal taxation to be left with ourselves. The right of regulating trade to be vested in Britain, where alone is found the power of protecting it. I trust you will agree with me, that this is the only possible mode of union. Men by nature are free as the air. When they enter into society, there is, there must be, an implied compact, for there never yet was an express one, that a part of this freedom shall be given up for the security of the remainder. But what part? The answer is plain. The least part, considering the circumstances of the society, which constitute what may be called its political necessity. And what does this political necessity require in the present instance? Not that Britain should lay imposts upon us for the support of government, nor for its defence. Not that she should regulate our internal police. These things affect us only. She can have no right to interfere. To these things we ourselves are competent. But can it be said, that we are competent to the regulating of trade? The position is absurd, for this affects every part of the British Empire, every part of the habitable earth. If Great Britain, if Ireland, if America, if all of them, are to make laws of trade, there must be a collision of these different authorities, and then who is to decide the vis major? To recur to this, if possible to be avoided is the greatest of all great absurdities.

 Political necessity therefore requires that this power should be placed in the hands of one part of the empire. Is it a question which part? Let me answer by asking another. Pray which part of the empire protects trade? Which part of the empire receives almost immense sums to guard the rest? And what danger is in the trust? Some men object, that England will draw all the profits of our trade into her coffers. All that she can, undoubtedly. But unless a reasonable compensation for his trouble be left to the merchant here, she destroys the trade, and then she will receive no profit from it.

 If I remember, in one of those kind letters with which you have honored me, you desire my thoughts on matters as they rise. How much pleasure I take in complying with your requests let my present letter convince you. If I am faulty in telling things, which you know better than I do, you must excuse this fault, and a thousand others for which I can make no apology. I am, Sir, &c.

 Gouverneur Morris


2) Ordinary White Men Question the Authority of the Elite:

Across the colonies, the struggles with Great Britain triggered a fierce debate over politics and the tradition of electing men of wealth and standing (“the gentry”) into office. Below are parts of several examples of this challenge, the first set appearing as newspaper editorials and the others as the instructions that ordinary people gave to their representatives demanding that they follow the will of “the people.”.

D5: Pennsylvania Chronicle, Sept. 27, 1770:

On “the people” and politics: it was the “greatest imprudence to elect Men of Enormous Estates” who would only add to their “Power” and “Wealth, which gives them such a superiority over us as to render them our Lords and Masters and us as their most abject Slaves.”

D6: Pennsylvania Packet, Sept. 25, 1775:

The freemen of this Country would have those gentlemen who value themselves so highly on their wealth & possessions, to know that they do not esteem it the sole end of Government to protect the rich & powerful, however obnoxious they be; but that, on the success of the present controversy depends the right of the industrious to the bread he earns by his labour. And they think it of infinitely more consequence to mankind that they should enjoy it undisturbed, than that the rich should riot in luxury; and that therefore no title nor dignity shall hereafter save offenders.

D7: Pennsylvania Evening Post, April 27, 1776:

The essence of liberty consists in our having it in our power to choose our own rulers, and so far as we exercise this power we are truly free, and no farther. Many advantages flow from such a plan of government. The following two have rarely been attended to, but every one will perceive them as soon as mentioned.

A poor man has rarely the honor of speaking to a gentleman on any terms, and never with familiarity but for a few weeks before the election. How many poor men, common men, and mechanics have been made happy within this fortnight by a shake of the hand, a pleasing smile and a little familiar chat with gentlemen, who have not for these seven years past condescended to look at them. Blessed state which brings all so nearly on a level! What a clever man is Mr. —— says my neighbour, how agreeable and familiar! He has no pride at all! He talked as freely to me for half an hour as if he were my neighbour —— there! I wish it were election time always! Thursday next he will lose all knowledge of ——, and pass me in the streets as if he never knew me.

How kind and clever is the man who proposes to be Sheriff, for two months before the election; he knows every body, smiles upon and salutes every body, until the election is over; but then to the end of the year, he has no time to speak to you, he is so engaged in seizing your property by writ of venditioni exponas, and selling your goods at vendue.

Thus the right of annual elections will ever oblige gentlemen to speak to you once a year, who would despise you forever were it not that you can bestow something upon them.

Lying is so vulgar a failing that no gentleman would have any thing to say to it but at elections. Then indeed the greatest gentleman in the city will condescend to lye with the least of us. This year their humility is amazing; for they have stooped to the drudgery of going from house to house to circulate election lyes about division of property. I cannot commend their policy herein, for such poor rascals as I am with [wish?] nothing more. However it shews their willingness to come to a pin, which is such a favor that we ought to be truly thankful for it.

In a word, electioneering and aristocratical pride are incompatible, and if we would have gentlemen ever to come down to our level, we must guard our right of election effectually, and not let the Assembly take it out of our hands. Do you think ever Mr. J—— —— would ever speak to you, if it were not for the May election? Be freemen then, and you will be companions for gentlemen annually.

D8: “To the Several Battalions of Military Associators in the Province of Pennsylvania,” June 22, 1776:

On elections: spoke of how the “great and over-grown rich Men will be improper to be trusted, [for] they will be too apt to be framing Distinctions in Society because they will reap the Benefits of all such Distinctions.”…. “Let no man represent you, therefore, who would be dispose to form any rank above that of Freeman.”

D9: Instructions to the Delegates from Mecklenburg, North Carolina, to the Provincial Congress at Halifax

Gentlemen: You are chosen by the inhabitants of this county to serve them in Congress or General Assembly for one year and they have agreed to the following Instructions which you are to observe with the strictest regard viz.: You are instructed:

  1. That you shall consent to and approve the Declaration of the Continental Congress declaring the thirteen United Colonies free and independent States.
  2. That you shall endeavor to establish a free government under the authority of the people of the State of North Carolina and that the Government be a simple Democracy or as near it as possible.
  3. That in fixing the fundamental principles of Government you shall oppose everything that leans to aristocracy or power in the hands of the rich and chief men exercised to the oppression of the poor.
  4. That you shall endeavor that the form of Government shall set forth a bill of rights containing the rights of the people and of individuals which shall never be infringed in any future time by the law-making power or other derived powers in the State.
  5. That you shall endeavour that the following maxims be substantially acknowledged in the Bills of Rights (viz.):

1st. Political power is of two kinds, one principal and superior, the other derived and inferior.

2d. The principal supreme power is possessed by the people at large, the derived and inferior power by the servants which they employ.

3d. Whatever persons are delegated, chosen, employed and intrusted by the people are their servants and can possess only derived inferior power.

4th. Whatever is constituted and ordained by the principal supreme power can not be altered, suspended or abrogated by any other power, but the same power that ordained may alter, suspend and abrogate its own ordinances.

5th. The rules whereby the inferior power is to be exercised are to be constituted by the principal supreme power, and can be altered, suspended and abrogated by the same and no other.

6th. No authority can exist or be exercised but what shall appear to be ordained and created by the principal supreme power or by derived inferior power which the principal supreme power hath authorized to create such authority.

7th. That the derived inferior power can by no construction or pretence assume or exercise a power to subvert the principal supreme power.

Source: The Founders’ Constitution, Volume 1, Chapter 2, Document 8
The University of Chicago Press

The Colonial Records of North Carolina. Edited by William L. Saunders. 10 vols. Raleigh: Josephus Daniels, 1886–90.

D10: Instructions of Pittsfield, Massachusetts

Report of the Committee appointed by the Town to draw up Instructions for their Representatives in State Convention is as follows:

To Col. Williams.

Sir,–As you have been duly elected by the town of Pittsfield their representative to meet in a convention of this State at Cambridge, the 1st of September next, for the purpose of forming a new Constitution for the people of this State, which we view as a matter of the greatest consequence to the present and future generations, it will doubtless be agreeable to you to understand their sentiments for the government of your deportment. You are therefore hereby instructed to unite with said convention in drawing up a Bill of Rights and in forming a new Constitution for the people of this State. We wish you to oppose all unnecessary delay in this great work, and to proceed in it with the utmost wisdom and caution.

In the Bill of Rights, you will endeavor that all those unalienable and important rights which are essential to true liberty, and form the basis of government in a free State, shall be inserted: particularly, that this people have a right to adopt that form of government which appears to us most eligible, and best calculated to promote the happiness of ourselves and posterity; that as all men by nature are free, and have no dominion one over another, and all power originates in the people, so, in a state of civil society, all power is founded in compact; that every man has an unalienable right to enjoy his own opinion in matters of religion, and to worship God in that manner that is agreeable to his own sentiments without any control whatsoever, and that no particular mode or sect of religion ought to be established, but that every one be protected in the peaceable enjoyment of his religious persuasion and way of worship; that no man can be deprived of liberty, and subjected to perpetual bondage and servitude, unless he has forfeited his liberty as a malefactor; that the people have a right peaceably to assemble, consider of their grievances, and petition for redress; that, as civil rulers derive their authority from the people, so they are accountable to them for the use of it; that elections ought to be free, equal, and annual; that, as all men are equal by nature, so, when they enter into a state of civil government, they are entitled precisely to the same rights and privileges, or to an equal degree of political happiness; that the right of trial by jury ought to be perpetual; that no man’s property of right can be taken from him without his consent, given either in person or by his representative; that no laws are obligatory on the people but those that have obtained a like consent, nor are such laws of any force, if, proceeding from a corrupt majority of the legislature, they are incompatible with the fundamental principles of government, and tend to subvert it; that the freedom of speech and debates and proceedings in the House of Representatives ought not to be questioned or impeached in any court, or place out of the General Court; that excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unjust punishments inflicted; that jurors ought to be duly impanelled and returned, and all jurors ought to be freeholders. These, and all other liberties which you find essential to true liberty, you will claim, demand, and insist upon, as the birthrights of this people.

In respect to the Constitution, you will use your best endeavors that the following things may be inserted in it amongst others: That the election of the representative body be annual; that no representative on any occasion shall absent himself from said House without leave first had from said body, but shall constantly attend on the business during the sessions. All taxes shall be levied with the utmost equality on polls, faculty, and property. You may consent to government by a Governor, Council, and House of Representatives. The Governor and Council shall have no negative voice upon the House of Representatives; but all disputed points shall be settled by the majority of the whole legislative body. The supreme judges of the executive courts shall be elected by the suffrages of the people at large, and be commissioned by the Governor. That all grants of money shall originate in the House of Representatives. The judges of the maritime courts, the attorney-general, and high sheriffs of each county, are to be appointed by the suffrages of people at large, and commissioned by the Governor. The justices of the Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions of the Peace in each county be elected by the suffrages of the people of said counties. That no person, unless of the Protestant religion, shall be Governor, Lieutenant-governor, or member of the Council or the House of Representatives.

The said Bill of Rights and Constitution you will move may be printed, and sent abroad for the approbation of the people of this State at large, and that each town be requested by said convention to show their approbation or disapprobation of every paragraph in said Bill of Rights and Constitution, and that it be not sent abroad for their approbation or disapprobation in the lump; and that the objectionable parts, if any such shall be, shall be pointed out by each town.

You are not to dissolve the convention, but to adjourn from time to time, as you shall find necessary, till said form of government is approved by the majority of the people.

On the whole, we empower you to act agreeable to the dictates of your own judgment after you have heard all the reasonings upon the various subjects of disquisition, having an invariable respect to the true liberty and real happiness of this State throughout all generations, any instructions herein contained to the contrary notwithstanding.

Source: The Founders’ Constitution, Volume 1, Chapter 13, Document 13
The University of Chicago Press

Taylor, Robert J., ed. Massachusetts, Colony to Commonwealth: Documents on the Formation of Its Constitution, 1775–1780. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1961.


3) Women Question Great Power Held By Men:

There is little evidence that women in Revolutionary America organized to advocate for what we today would call women’s rights. The few examples of women calling for inclusion in the benefits of Revolution are a handful of letters and writings by elite women. What follows is probably the most famous of these calls from the pen of Abigail Adams in a letter to her husband, John Adams.

D11: Abigail Adams to John Adams, Braintree, March 31, 1776:

Tho we felicitate ourselves, we sympathize with those who are trembling least the Lot of Boston should he theirs. But they cannot be in similar circumstances unless pusilanimity and cowardise should take possession of them. They have time and warning given them to see the Evil and shun it.—I long to hear that you have declared an independancy—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness.”

D12: John Adams to Abigail Adams, Apr. 14., 1776:

As to Declarations of Independency, be patient. Read our Privateering Laws, and our Commercial Laws. What signifies a Word.

As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient—that schools and Collcdgcs were grown turbulent—that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerful! than all the rest were grown discontented.—This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out.

Depend upon it. We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems. Altho they are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude. We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know We are the subjects. We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would compleatly subject Us to the despotism of the Peticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight. I am sure every good Politician would plot, as long as he would against Despotism, Empire, Monarchy, Aristocracy, Oligarchy, or Ochlocracy.—A fine Story indeed. I begin to think the Ministry as deep as they are wicked. After stirring up Tories, Land jobbers, Trimmers, Bigots, Canadians, Indians, Negroes, Hanoverians, Hessians, Russians, Irish Roman Catholicks, Scotch Renegadoes, at last they have stimulated them to demand new Priviledges and threaten to rebell.”

 D13: Abigail Adams to John Adams, B[raintre]e, May 7, 1776:

I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you arc proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken—and notwithstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims we have it in our power not only to Tree our­selves but to subdue our Masters, and without voilence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet—

”Charm by accepting, by submitting sway
Yet have our Humour most when we obey.”

I thank you for several Letters which I have received since I wrote Last. They alleviate a tedious absence, and I long earnestly for a Satur­day Evening, and experience a similar pleasure to that which I used to find in the return of my Friend upon that day after a weeks absence. The Idea of a year dissolves all my Phylosophy.

Our Little ones whom you so often recommend to my care and instruction shall not be deficient in virtue or probity if the precepts of a Mother have their desired Effect, but they would be doubly in-forced could they be indulged with the example of a Father constantly before them; I often point them to their Sire.

”engaged in a corrupted State Wrestling with vice and faction.”


4) Enslaved People Question Whether a Free Republic Should Have Slavery:

Much to the chagrin of many white Revolutionaries, many enslaved people took seriously the public talk of liberty and independence during the 1760s and 70s and began to press their own cases for freedom.

D14: Petitions of the Enslaved, Massachusetts, 1777:

To the Honorable Counsel & House of Representatives for the State of Massachusetts Bay in General Court assembled, January 13, 1777: The petition of A Great Number of Blackes detained in a State of slavery in the bowels of a free & Christian County Humbly sheweth that your Petitioners apprehend that they have in Common with all other men a Natural and Unalienable Right to that freedom which the Grat Parent of the Universe that Bestowed equally on all menkind and which they have Never forfeited by any Compact or agreement whatever ­ but that wher Unjustly Dragged by the hand of cruel Power and their Derest friends and sum of them Even torn from the Embraces of their tender Parents ­from A populous Pleasant and Plentiful country and in violation of Laws of Nature and of Nations and in Defiance of all the tender feelings of humanity Brough here Either to Be sold like Beast of burthen & Like them Condemned to Slavery for Life­ Among A People Professing the mild Religion of Jesus. A people Not Insensible of the Secrets of Rational Being Nor without spirit to Resent the unjust endeavors of others to Reduce them to a state of Bondage and Subjugation your hononuer Need not to be informed that A Live of Slavery Like that of your petitioners Deprived of Every social privilege of Every thing Requisite and render Life Tolable is far worse that Nonexistance.

[In imitat]ion of the Lawdable Example of the Good People of these States your petitioners have Long and Patiently waited the Event of petition after petition. By them presented tot the Legislative Body of this state and cannot but with Grief Reflect that their Success hath been but too similar they Cannot but express their Astonishment that It have Never Bin Considered that Every Principle from which America has Acted in the Course of their unhappy Difficulties with Great Briton Pleads Stronger than A thousand arguments in favors of your petitioners they therfor humble Beseech your honours to give this petition its due weight and consideration & cause an act of the legislature to be past Wherby they may be Restored to the Enjoyments of that which is the Natural right of all men­and their Children who wher Born in this Land of Liberty may not be held as Slaves after they arrive at the age of twenty one years so may the Inhabitance of this States No longer chargeable with the inconstancy of acting themselves that part which they condemn and oppose in others Be prospered in their present Glorious struggle for Liberty and have those Blessings to them, &c.

 D15: James Madison on Enslaved People and Independence, 1774:

If America should come to a hostile rupture, I am afraid an Insurrection among the slaves may well be promoted. In one of our Counties lately a few of those unhappy wretches met together and chose a leader who was to conduct them when the English troops should arrive — which they foolishly thought would be very soon and that by revolting to them they should be rewarded with their freedom. Their intentions were soon discovered and the poor precautions taken to prevent the Infection. It is prudent that such attempts should be concealed as well as suppressed.

D16: Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation (1775)


By his EXCELLENCY, &c.


As I have ever entertained hopes that an accommodation might have taken place between Great-Britain and this colony, without being compelled, by my duty, to this most disagreeable, but now absolutely necessary step, rendered so by a body of armed men, unlawfully assembled, firing on his Majesty’s tenders, and the formation of an army, and that army now on their march to attack his Majesty’s troops, and destroy the well disposed subjects of this colony: To defeat such treasonable purposes, and that all such traitors, and their abetters, may be brought to justice, and that the peace and good order of this colony may be again restored, which the ordinary course of the civil law is unable to effect, I have thought fit to issue this my proclamation, hereby declaring, that until the aforesaid good purposes can be obtained, I do, in virtue of the power and authority to me given, by his Majesty, determine to execute martial law, and cause the same to be executed throughout this colony; and to the end that peace and good order may the sooner be restored, I do require every person capable of bearing arms to resort to his Majesty’s STANDARD, or be looked upon as traitors to his Majesty’s crown and government, and thereby become liable to the penalty the law inflicts upon such offences, such as forfeiture of lifeconfiscation of lands, &c. &c. And I do hereby farther declare all indented servantsNegroes, or others (appertaining to rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining his Majesty’s troops, as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper sense of their duty, to his Majesty’s crown and dignity. I do father order, and require all his Majesty’s liege subjects to retain their quitrents, or any other taxes due, or that may become due, in their own custody, till such time as peace may be again restored to this at present most unhappy country, or demanded of them for their former salutary purposes, by officers properly authorized to receive the same.

Given on board the ship William, off Norfolk, the 7th of Nov.

D17: Editorial Response to Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation

Source: Virginia Gazette, November 5, 1775.

The second class of people, for whose sake a few remarks upon this proclamation seem necessary, is the Negroes. They have been flattered with their freedom, if they be able to bear arms, and will spedily join Lord Dunmore’s troops. To none then is freedom promised but to such as are able to do Lord Dunmore service: The aged, the infirm, the women and children, are still to remain the property of their masters, masters who will be provoked to severity, should part of their slaves desert them. Lord Dunmore’s declaration, therefore, is a cruel declaration to the Negroes. He does not even pretend to make it out of any tenderness to them, but solely on his own account; and should it meet with success, it leaves by far the greater number at the mercy of an enraged and injured people. But should there be any amongst the Negroes weak enough to believe that Dunmore intends to do them a kindness, and wicked enough to provoke the fury of the Americans against their defenceless fathers and mothers, their wives, their women and children, let them only consider the difficulty of effecting their escape, and what they must expect to suffer if they fall into the hands of the Americans. Let them farther consider what must be their fate, should the English prove conquerors in this dispute. If we can judge of the future from the past, it will not be much mended. Long have the Americans, moved by compassion, and actuated by sound policy, endeavoured to stop the progress of slavery. Our Assemblies have repeatedly passed acts laying heavy duties upon imported Negroes, by which they meant altogether to prevent the horrid traffick; but their humane intentions have been as often frustrated by the cruelty and covetousness of a set of English merchants, who prevailed upon the King to repeal our kind and merciful acts, little indeed to the credit of his humanity. Can it then be supposed that the Negroes will be better used by the English, who have always encouraged and upheld this slavery, than by their present masters, who pity their condition, who wish, in general, to make is as easy and comfortable as possible, and who would willingly, were it in their power, or were they permitted, not only prevent any more Negroes from losing their freedom, but restore it to such as have already unhappily lost it. No, the ends of Lord Dunmore and his party being answered, they will either give up the offending Negroes to the rigour of the laws they have broken, or sell them in the West Indies, where every year they sell many thousands of their miserable brethren, to perish either by the inclemency of the weather, or the cruelty of barbarous masters. Be not then, ye Negroes, tempted by this proclamation to ruin yourselves. I have given you a faithful view of what you are to expect; and I declare, before GOD, in doing it, I have considered your welfare, as well as that of the country. Whether you will profit by my advice I cannot tell; but this I know, that whether we suffer or not, if you desert us, you most certainly will.

D 18: Virginia Assembly’s Response to Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation


Virginia, Dec. 14, 1775.

By the Representatives of the People of the Colony and Dominion of VIRGINIA, assembled in GENERAL CONVENTION


WHEREAS lord Dunmore, by his proclamation, dated on board the ship William, off Norfolk, the 7th day of November 1775, hath offered freedom to such able-bodied slaves as are willing to join him, and take up arms, against the good people of this colony, giving thereby encouragement to a general insurrection, which may induce a necessity of inflicting the severest punishments upon those unhappy people, already deluded by his base and insidious arts; and whereas, by an act of the General Assembly now in force in this colony, it is enacted, that all negro or other slaves, conspiring to rebel or make insurrection, shall suffer death, and be excluded all benefit of clergy : We think it proper to declare, that all slaves who have been, or shall be seduced, by his lordship’s proclamation, or other arts, to desert their masters’ service, and take up arms against the inhabitants of this colony, shall be liable to such punishment as shall hereafter be directed by the General Convention. And to that end all such, who have taken this unlawful and wicked step, may return in safety to their duty, and escape the punishment due to their crimes, we hereby promise pardon to them, they surrendering themselves to Col. William Woodford, or any other commander of our troops, and not appearing in arms after the publication hereof. And we do farther earnestly recommend it to all humane and benevolent persons in this colony to explain and make known this our offer of mercy to those unfortunate people.


 D19: Report of Revolutionary Committee, Dorchester, Maryland

Source: Report of Dorchester County Committee of Inspection, Fall 1775, Gilmor Papers, Maryland Historical Society

The insolence of the Negroes in this county is come to such a height, that we are under a necessity of disarming them which we affected on Saturday last. We took about eighty guns, some bayonets, swords, etc. The malicious and imprudent speeches of some among the lower classes of whites have induced them to believe, that their freedom depended on the success of the Kings troops. We cannot therefore be too vigilant nor too rigorous with those who promote and encourage this disposition in our slaves.

D20: White Citizens in Sutton, Massachusetts Question Disenfranchisement of Non-White Men


[Note: The excerpt is part of larger critique of the proposed 1778 Massachusetts Constitution that had been drafted by the Revolutionary legislature. Ordinary people in Massachusetts overwhelmingly rejected this proposed constitution for giving too little power to “the people,” restricting voting rights, lacking a bill or rights, and condoning slavery. The part of the constitution that citizens in Sutton were criticizing here was article 5 that said the following:

Article 5: V.–Every male inhabitant of any town in this State, being free and twenty one years of age, excepting negroes, Indians and mulattoes, shall be entitled to vote for a Representative or Representatives, as the case may be, in the town, where he is resident; provided he has paid taxes in said town (unless by law excused from taxes) and been resident therein one full year, immediately preceding such voting, or that such town has been his known and usual place of abode for that time, or that he is considered as an inhabitant thereof; and every such inhabitant qualified as above, and worth sixty pounds, clear of all charges thereon, shall be entitled to put in his vote for Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Senators or Representatives, shall be by ballot, and not otherwise.]

The four first Articles we don’t object against.

But the V Article appears to us to wear a very gross complextion of slavery; and is diametrically repugnant to the grand and Fundamental maxim of Humane Rights; viz. “That Law to boind all must be assented to by all.” which this Article by no means admits of, when it excludes free men, and men of property from a voice in the Elections of Representatives; Negroes etc. are excluded even tho they are free and men of property. This is manifestly ading to the already acumulated Load of guilt lying upon the Land in supporting the slave trade when the poor innocent Affricans who never hurt or offered any Injury or Insult to this country have been so unjustly assaulted inhumanely Murdered many of them; to make way for stealing others, and then cruelly brought from their native Land, and sold here like Beasts and yet now by this constitution, if by any good Providence they or any of their Posterity, obtain their Freedom and a handsome estate yet they must excluded the Privileges of Men! this must be the bringing or incurring more Wrath upon us. And it must be thought more insulting tho not so cruel, to deprive the original Natives of the Land the Privileges of Men. We also cant but observe that by this Article the Convention had in contemplation of having many more slaves beside the Poor Africans, when they say of others beside; being Free and 21 years old

We therefore think that we ought to have an Article expressive of what the State is to consist of. And to say in express Terms that every person within the State 21 years of Age shall have a sole absolute Property in himself and all his earnings having an exclusive Right to make all manner contracts, and shall so Remain until they are rendered non compos Mentis by lawful Authority, or have forfeited their Freedom by misdemeanour and so adjudged by Authority proper to try the same; or their service legally disposed of for the discharge of some Debt Damage or Trespass. And then that every Male Inhabitant free as afforesaid etc. Provided that Men who lie a Burden upon the publick or have little or no Property ought not to have a full or equal Vote with those that have an estate, in voting for a Representative, for then a Representative may be chosen without any property, and as the proposed Constitution stands there is all the chance that could be wished, for designing mischevious. Men to purchase themselves seats in the House; for poor, shiftless spendthrifty men and inconsiderate youngsters that have no property are cheap bought (that is) their votes easily procured Choose a Representative to go to court, to vote away the Money of those that have Estates; and the Representative with all his constitutents or Voters not pay so much Taxes as one poor Negro, Indian or Molatto that is not allowed to put in a single vote. Perhaps if all under what used to be voters for Representatives; were reconed each Vote equal to half one of the old voters it might be about a just and proper Medium. It is farther to be observed that this Article is grossly inconsistant with the XIV which provides that all Money Bills or Acts for levying and granting Money shall originate solely in the House and not be subject to any amendment, by the Senate; when the Representatives are chosen by Persons of no Property, and there must be sixty Pounds clear Estate to vote for a Governor or Senator. If men of no Property might vote for any part of the Legislature and not the whole; it ought to be that part of the Legislature which are under the greatest Restraints as to Money Bills Acts or Resolves.

The Founders’ Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 15, Document 22
The University of Chicago Press

Handlin, Oscar, and Handlin, Mary, eds. The Popular Sources of Political Authority: Documents on the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1966.


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