A Pennsylvania example for our times

Editor’s note: This editorial first ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philly.com on May 12, 2013.

John Dickinson

John Dickinson

In September 1774, when America’s First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, there were no “united states,” just a collection of British colonies largely going their separate ways whose primary loyalty was to a distant British king. The brilliant, though occasionally cranky, Massachusetts delegate John Adams described the assembled delegates as a “gathering of strangers,” complaining that “the art of address of Ambassadors from a dozen belligerent Powers of Europe . . . would not exceed the Specimens We have seen here.”

Yet by July 4, 1776, the members of that congress, in spite of the significant differences in interests and ideology among them, were able to come together on that audacious decision to break all ties with Britain–a decision that makes congressional quarreling over debt ceilings, sequesters, or judicial appointments seem utterly trivial.

The critical question facing those 18th-century politicians was no different than those facing our politicians today–how to transcend their differences and find the path toward serving the common good. How was it that the founders were able to achieve that transcendence when our political leaders seem so hopelessly mired in partisan, and trivial, acrimony?

Some of the answers lie in the seriousness of the conflict with an imperial ruler. The First Continental Congress convened in order to fashion a united American response to Britain’s Coercive Acts, a series of parliamentary statutes aimed at punishing the colony of Massachusetts and, in particular, the “fanatics” of Boston who had dumped 92,000 pounds of tea in the town harbor. And, as the conflict with Britain escalated to life-and-death struggles on the battlefield, the stakes were raised, and congressional representatives from other parts of the country began to realize that a threat to one colony could soon be a threat to all.

But it was not only the increasingly dangerous external threat posed by the British army and navy that brought America’s congressional representatives together. For most of the 22 months between September 1774 and July 4, 1776, those “strangers” from across the more than 330,000 square miles of American territory lived together in cramped quarters in Philadelphia’s boardinghouses, and drank and dined together daily in the city’s taverns. Unlike their congressional counterparts today, who spend three or four days a week in Washington and then fly off to raise money for their next political campaign, the members of America’s revolutionary Congress worked and lived together. They acquired a level of familiarity and respect for one another that is altogether missing in politics today.

The months between January and early July of 1776 were particularly difficult for the 56 men living together in Philadelphia. They were months during which, as Adams’ older cousin Sam described them, “the child independence was struggling to be born.” When Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee finally introduced a resolution proposing independence on June 7, as many as five or six colonial delegations resisted the move.

On July 1, when the highly respected Philadelphia lawyer John Dickinson delivered a long and carefully prepared speech warning that a precipitous move for independence might result in burning towns, bloodshed, and ignominious defeat, there were many in the room who shared his fears, and many others who were still sitting on the fence. In a straw vote about 7 that evening, nine colonial delegations voted in favor of Lee’s resolution for independence. South Carolina and Pennsylvania opposed it, Delaware was divided, and New York abstained. The advocates of independence had obtained their majority. But they knew that even a two-thirds majority on a matter of such epochal importance would not be sufficient.

By the next morning, a divided American congress became a united one. Although New York’s delegates would have to wait until July 9 before getting their legislature’s official permission to support independence, the other three colonies that had withheld their backing on July 1 came around. The dynamic in each of those colonies differed, but it was the actions of the Pennsylvania delegates–representatives of the country’s most rapidly growing and economically powerful colony, whose support for independence was vital to its success–that provide us with the most instructive lesson in political leadership.

Dickinson still controlled the balance of power within his colony’s delegation. He remained committed to the position that he had taken the previous day, but in the decisive vote on July 2, he, along with his Pennsylvania colleague Robert Morris, withdrew “behind the bar”–the rail which to this day keeps visitors from walking into the space in which the delegates to the Congress were doing their business–thus enabling a bare majority of the Pennsylvania delegation to cast votes in favor of independence.

Dickinson’s decision to absent himself from the vote was every bit as much an expression of his love of country as was the passionate advocacy of independence by his frequent political adversary John Adams. A few days later, Dickinson would give yet another demonstration of his love of country by leading a battalion of Pennsylvania militiamen in battle against the British army in Elizabethtown, New Jersey.

The behavior of those members of Congress who reluctantly added their assent to independence on July 2, as well as that of men like Dickinson, who went “behind the bar,” provides us with an example of what may be the most striking difference between the politicians of 1776 and those who sit in Congress today. They understood that there were at least some occasions in which the attribute of humility–the ability to subordinate one’s personal opinions in the name of unity and consensus–was a vital ingredient in serving the public good. Don’t we wish that our elected officials today could carry out their business with at least some of that sense of humility?

Richard R. Beeman is the author of “Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776,” the John Welsh Centennial Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, and a trustee at the National Constitution Center. He will discuss his book on Monday at 6:30 p.m. at the Constitution Center. The program will be moderated by Jeffrey Rosen, the center’s new president and CEO. For reservations, call 215.409.6700, or visit constitutioncenter.org.

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