We talk a great deal of our rights as we define and then redefine them for our present age and way of thinking. This is not necessarily something that is new. It did not just suddenly start with the Emancipation Proclamation or Universal Suffrage, it did not begin with the Civil Rights Movement, the Warren Court or the Civil Rights Act. No, this has been something that we have discussed, debated, and even go to war over. Since before there was an American nation and an American people, before the Republic was born and the institutions of it came into being we have talked about our rights, at times even struggling with the theory versus the practical experience with them.
But what is the American tradition of rights and where did the Bill of Rights come from?
The truth? To truly appreciate our rights, and understand what they are and what they mean. We need to study them so that we can truly appreciate them. We need to do this from a perspective that transcends just our modern age and our modern understanding as we look at them through the context and the scope of history. It is only in this way that we will be able adequately protect our rights and stand firm for our liberties as we seek to answer the dominate questions that we face as a nation and a people.
In this first Episode of an ongoing series about the Bill of Rights and its history that is what will be explored. Tracing back to the Magna Carta of 1215 and moving through the British Petition of Right and the English Bill of Rights, the three major Constitutional Documents join me as I explore the deeper questions of the history of liberty in America, drawing from the perspective of past, and tie it to our present age and our present thinking so that we can draw from the deeper lessons that are offered.
The Whig Party was dead. With the passing of Senators Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, and victory of Democrat Franklin Pierce over General Winfield Scott in 1852, the nails in the coffin constructed by the Compromise of 1850 were hammered in. By 1854 the party that succeeded in electing two presidents in its 19-year history collapsed, unable to answer the dominate questions of its age, as the issues of slavery and nativism dominated the national debate. In the South the remaining Whigs would join the Know Nothing Movement, while in the North they would merge with members of short lived anti-Slavery Free Soil Party to form the Republican Party.
In 1856 the new Party would nominate Colonel John C. Fremont, hero of American Westward Expansion, and son-in-law of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, the powerful Missouri Democrat who had nearly been shot on the floor of the Senate by fellow Democrat Henry Stuart Foote during the debates over the Compromise of 1850. Colonel Fremont did well, carrying 33% of the vote and 11 states to secure 114 Electoral College Votes. It wasn’t enough to win though, and James Buchannan, with his long resume of over 50 years of political service would take 45% of the Popular Vote, 19 states and 174 Electors to secure the Presidency.
Now, four years later, the young Party would once more have its eyes set on the White House.
Between May 16th and 18th, 1860 the Republicans met at the Wigwam Convention Center in Chicago, Illinois, the “largest audience room in the United States”, a building constructed for the occasion. The atmosphere was vastly different than it had been 4 years prior. Whereas room for 2,000 might have sufficed at that point, now over 10,000 crowded the hall, having lined the streets seeking admittance. It would become the largest group assembled under a single roof in American history to that point.
It had seemed like William Seward would emerge as the victor. He was the early favorite and he had credibility, having served as Governor of New York and now its Senator. More than that though, a third of the delegates needed to secure the nomination would come from his state. It was the largest holder of votes at that convention. He had seen off the train of 70 delegates and over 400 supporters lead by his campaign manager Thurlow Weed just a short time prior, and as the voting started, he had received word from Congressman Eldridge Spaulding, “Your friends are firm and confident that you will be nominated after a few ballots.”
Why wouldn’t he be confident though? The road map to victory was clear. In every other strong state for the Republicans the vote was dividing between the different candidates, and his only real competition, Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron, didn’t have much support outside of his home state. Perhaps had he had more of a name former Congressman Abraham Lincoln would have been more than a blip on the radar to Seward. Regardless he had only recently gained any sort of national presence with the Lincoln-Douglass Debates when he challenged Senator Stephen Douglas in his re-election bid. Between that election and his Cooper Union Speech, he established himself as a leading voice of the anti-slavery movement but that wasn’t enough to establish himself as the party’s choice. He wasn’t a serious contender, not one to really take note of, not with the Democratic Convention poised to nominate Douglas when it re-convened in Baltimore. Nominating one candidate from Illinois to challenge the state’s favorite son who had just defeated him in a Statewide election a short time before seemed foolhardy. Yes, he might have the adoration of the local Chicago Tribune, and was a Westerner as the West took on increasing importance in the election, but Illinois only had 22 delegates. Even if he was a threat it would be with his support of another candidate. He would gone by the second ballot, he would drop, leaving Congressman Edward Bates and Governor Salmon Chase, both of Ohio, nipping at his heels, splitting their state. They would be little trouble Seward would offered Lincoln the Vice Presidency for his support and would sail to victory.
As some had expected the first ballot nomination would seem to go off without a hitch. As the nominations began to be called it was New York for Seward, Pennsylvania for Cameron, Illinois for Lincoln, New Jersey would declare for its Senator, William Dayton, who had served as Fremont’s Vice Presidential pick 4 years prior. It wasn’t until Indiana that the convention started to reflect a slightly different mood than people expected, as the state that had become crucial after it swung Democrat in the last election, seconded Lincoln. The hall would erupt in applause, as former Congressman Henry S. Lane of Indiana, now a candidate for Governor, would jump on the table and start swinging his cane. As the crowd eventually subsided, Ohio would begin to split between its three candidates, taking itself out of contention.
The Seward camp would still look to a first ballot win, a power play to take the nomination before his opponents could mount a serious strike against him. Lincoln’s people, on the other hand, would have a different goal: hold on.
As the ballots would begin to come in, it would become apparent that Seward was not in the position of power, that position of strength that he had hoped he was in. Where he had hoped that the Eastern States would give him the momentum moving into the West, it appeared it was going to be a fight and a fight to the finish after all.
Maine would be the first to split with 10 to the New York Senator and 6 to Lincoln, while New Hampshire would offer 7 to Lincoln and three split between Seward, Chase and Fremont. It wasn’t until Vermont that normalcy would return as the state offered its delegates to its Senator, Jacob Collamer. Massachusetts would swing 20 delegates to Seward and 4 to Lincoln. Regardless the votes were splitting, and in some cases shifting. Whatever relief he had from Massachusetts it was gone as the votes from Virginia started to come in. Long considered a Seward stronghold it shifted as it gave 14 of its delegates to Lincoln and only 8 to the New York Senator that thought it would be an easy pick for him.
When the dust settled Seward had the lead with 173.5 delegates, but it wouldn’t be the knockout blow that he needed as Lincoln came up behind him with 102. Henry Lane’s bet that it was to be a race between Lincoln and Seward was right, and by delivering Indiana’s delegates to his neighboring state’s candidate he had secured Lincoln’s place in the race.
Now as they headed into the next round it was apparent that Cameron’s chances were collapsing and Pennsylvania would be key, and Lincoln’s representatives knew it. While Seward’s people had been busy wining and dining delegates, the Lincoln camp had been steadily building a Stop Seward movement. It wouldn’t be too hard. They had begun building the coalition before the convention had started, and to many delegates outside of New York Seward was considered too radical for their tastes. More than that though the Lincoln camp utilized its home state advantage and had already separated the New York Delegation on the floor from other states they might conspire and collaborate with, but now they needed to win the support of delegates. The details of the deal with Pennsylvania aren’t necessarily known. Cameron and his people wanted a Cabinet position for the Senator and control of all federal patronage in Pennsylvania should Lincoln win, but from Springfield Lincoln would telegraph his supporter David Davis, “I authorize no bargains and will be bound by none.” It was perhaps be because of the corruption many had accused Cameron of, corruption he and many had heard of even before the convention, corruption that would eventually lead to his resignation as Lincoln’s Secretary of War two years later. Whatever the case, 48 of Pennsylvania’s delegates would swing.
By the end of the second ballot Seward would pick up a mere 11 delegates, Lincoln 79. The gap of 71.5 delegates had suddenly narrowed to three.
On the third vote Lincoln would gain, the momentum clearly on the side of the Dark Horse from Illinois, while Seward’s support began to collapse. The Seward camp had no idea until it was too late, as William Evarts telegraphed Seward heading into the third ballot “All right. Everything indicates your nomination today sure.”
When the dust had settled though it was a different picture, and the dream of the New York Senator faded quickly. 231.5, three and a half votes shy of the nomination, would go to Lincoln. Slowly a delegate from Ohio, former Congressman David Kellogg Cartter, rose with a shaky voice, “I arise, Mr. Chairman, to announce the change of four votes, from Mr. Chase to Abraham Lincoln.” It would be all that would be needed. Abraham Lincoln would be the Republican nominee for President in 1860 as the voting of May 18th drew to an end.
Now, even as the cannons erupted and the smoke filled the air outside the hall, the jubilation now palpable in the air, it would be time to rebuild and bring the party back together for an election that would become a turning point in American history. It would not be an easy path or an easy road for any of them. Even as they exited the convention Seward’s supporters were now declaring the nomination stolen as they proclaimed, “Let those who nominated Lincoln elect him. We are against him.” It would be a tough road in front of the young party.
Even with the victory of the Iberian Union over the English Armada in 1589 the defeat of the Spanish Armada the year prior had opened new opportunities for British trade. It would be a one that would be seized upon by the third Earl of Cumberland, George Clifford, and the 215 Knights, Aldermen, and Burgesses who, in 1600, would be issued a Royal Charter for the formation of the “Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies“, or the British East India Company, as it would more commonly be known as. With connections that extended throughout the Government and wove itself through Whitehall and later St. James Palace, it had initially concerned itself with commerce, building an elaborate trade network into India and the Far East. Even as the republican government of the Commonwealth of England was declared Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell would renew the Royal Charter with little to no alteration.
Yet by 1773 the focus of the Company had shifted and now it set its sights on Empire. This was to include its own army of almost 70,000 soldiers, comprised largely of the population of India. None of it came cheap, but then neither did the support of the government which was now demanding 400,000 pounds, 14% of England’s Treasury Revenue, in exchange for the free hand that it was giving to the Company. This, during a time when dividends to its shareholders rose from 10% to 12.5%, did nothing to improve their fortunes. But then neither did the reforms it was enacting of land payments they were offering. Now faced with a serious shortage of money, the company skirted on the edge of bankruptcy.
Luckily its influence had not waned in the 170 years since its formation, with a number of its shareholders sitting in Parliament. Now it was up to the Earl of Guilford, Frederick North, Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, to find a solution to solve the problem for the Company. That solution would come in a series of acts passed by Parliament with the sole purpose of offering the beleaguered behemoth a government bailout.
The first of these would be a 1.4-million-pound loan, roughly the equivalent of almost 2 billion pounds in today’s currency. Yet, in its dire position how could the company hope to pay that back? The answer would come in the form of the Tea Act of 1773, passed by Parliament on April 27th, and given Royal Assent by George III on May 10th, 1773.
Though it would ultimately create a virtual monopoly on tea for the British East India company in America, it wasn’t meant to be controversial. At the request of the Company it was actually intended, more than anything else, to lessen the toll that smuggling and non-consumption, a policy that the merchants and the residents of some colonies took on in protest of Parliament’s attempts to assert control over colonial trade, had taken. The British East India Company would even recommend a reduction or even a removal the duty on tea, the last of the hated Townsend Act duties imposed on the Americans still in effect. Lord North would heed that call, and reduce the duty from 9 pence per pound to three as the Prime Minister conceded that he would rather lower the tax “at the desire of the India Company than that of America”.
The effect, Lord North and the East India Company had hoped, would be that the Colonists would realize the price offered now by legitimate trade would be significantly cheaper than the tea offered up by smugglers of Dutch Tea. How could they protest, how could they find offense when it would save them money? In the end, at least in North’s mind, it would be a win-win. He would not only save the Company, but also assert the supremacy of Parliament in matters of taxation over the colony while ensuring the colonies were appeased by the lowering of the duties.
He would be wrong, as it did nothing more than create further resentment in the colonies and stoked the fires of rebellion as the Massachusetts Legislature, for one, declared, “It is easy to see how aptly this scheme will serve both to destroy the Trade of the Colonies, and increase the revenue. How necessary then is it, that each Colony should take effectual methods to prevent this Measure from having its designed Effect.”
Like so many of his contemporaries in Parliament and Government, North failed to understand the sentiment of the Colonies, he failed to understand the mood of the Colonists and the cause that drove them. In many senses, it wasn’t hard to see why, in his outrage, Benjamin Franklin would declare that the British “have no idea that any people can act from any other principle but that of self-interest” as they somehow convinced themselves in Parliament that this cheap tea was somehow, someway, “sufficient to overcome all the patriotism of an American.”
To them it wasn’t a question of the tea. In fact the Colonials had choked down many cups of smuggled tea that would have hardly met the quality standards imposed by the East India Company, not because of price or availability. It was because of the principle ingrained in the Magna Carta, that principle they believed to be their right as natural born Englishmen. This was namely that Parliament, a Parliament that they had no representation in, no voice on the floor of, had no right to tax them without their consent. To approve of this was to assert the dominance of Parliament, removing power from their hands. They would pay a higher price and swallow the inferior product if for no other reason than to maintain that fundamental, core principle. No frivolous luxury was going to rob them of that. No frivolous luxury was going to rob them of their rights as Natural Born Englishmen.
Though protests would begin slowly it would not take long before the colonies were in open rebellion, and nowhere was this more apparent that Massachusetts, where Governor Thomas Hutchinson was determined to make a stand where few of his other counterparts would, asserting the dominance, asserting the supremacy of Parliament and their right to tax the colony, insisting on the lawful unloading of the Tea in Boston Harbor. The resulting protest would become a story of American lore as the colonists made their position abundantly clear in word and deed.
In the end it would be the arrogance of Parliament, combined with their ultimate disinterest in the will and the desire of the people, a Parliament far removed from the daily lives of the people it governed over, that would light the fuse of the powder keg of Revolution as the government looked to its own interest over that of the peoples. But then, in the minds of many, this had been proven time and time again. Why would this bailout that took itself from their pocket, ignoring their petitions and protests, be any different? It was but the latest offense.
It had been just over three years after General James Wolfe met the Marquis de Saint-Veran, General Louis-Joseph Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham. Though it would cost both commanders their lives, it would be the turning point in the war that would lead to the inevitable British victory in North America. Not even the French successes at the Battle of Quebec could turn that tide anymore. Now, with the Treaty of Paris signed by France, England and Spain, that vast Northern territory that once belonged to Louis XV now rested in the hands of his nation’s ancient enemy. Soon it would fall upon the shoulders of the newly appointed Governor-General, Jeffery Amherst, the chief architect of the British victory, to secure the peace as, as Francis Parkman, author of France and England in North America, would observe, “Half of the continent had changed hands at the scratch of a pen.”
Perhaps had the Court of St. James chosen any other man some level of conciliation with the Native tribes could have been reached. Yet, for as much disdain as General Amherst felt towards the French he now was charged with the governance of, it was nothing compared to the contempt he had for the Native American people. The idea that he might have to somehow placate them and keep the peace with them through the giving of gifts did nothing to change that opinion. Even as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern District, General William Johnson, a man respected by the tribes he was charged with keeping the peace with, pleaded with him to maintain those ties with Native Nations, he would make his position abundantly clear, “When Men of What race soever, behave ill they must be punished but not bribed.”
In that arrogant dismal it would soon become apparent that the days of friendlier relations with the French were over as Amherst demonstrated his lack of patience with them. Not only would he stop the gifts, trade would be restricted and guns and gun powder to the tribes would be limited, fueling the animosity between the two peoples. The fact that the British would refuse to pull from the Allegheny Valley at the forks of the Ohio would nothing to ease this tensions. It would be Amherst hard-line policies that would lead Chief Pontiac to unite the Great Lake tribes, the Ottawa, Ojibwa, Huron, and Potawatomi, to rise up, and throw off the European advances, embracing the traditional way of life preached by “The Delaware Prophet” Neolin.
Just two days prior Pontiac had passed the gates of Fort Detroit with 300 men, their guns hidden in their blankets. He had hoped to launch a surprise attack and chase the British from its walls, but word had already reached Major Henry Gladwin of the plans. Even as they entered Pontiac and his men came to the realization that they were outgunned as they saw the British troops stationed around them with bayonets loaded and ready. The attack would be halted. The next day Pontiac, accompanied by three other Chief’s of the Ottawa, made every indication they had wanted peace. They had appeared before the gates of Fort Detroit to parlay with Gladwin, presenting him with a Calumet, a ceremonial pipe, with the assurances that they would return the next day to smoke it with him in the name of peace.
Then, on May 9th, 1763, at about 11 am, Pontiac would return with approximately 400 men that rowed 56 canoes across the river to the gates of the fort. Captain Donald Campbell, who would later be taken under a flag of truce, bludgeoned to death, scalped and dismembered by the Objibwa, before their Chief Wasson cut out and ate his heart, would come forward from the gate to greet them. Gladwin, acutely aware of the danger that Pontiac presented, and distrustful of all Natives even before this, would allow only a small number through the gate. Pontiac would explain that all his people would want to smell the smoke of the pipe. Gladwin would respond that then all would be allowed to enter, but only in small groups, one leaving before another would be allowed in.
The embarrassment and humiliation felt by Pontiac would be almost too much to bear, but worse yet, he knew the element of surprise was lost. Even as they turned from the gates they knew what had to be done and they would not be satisfied until the British were either dead or chased from Detroit.
As the war dance died down from the Native Camps, the war cry would go up as the Siege of Fort Detroit had begun, setting in motion a series of events that would send ripples and waves through the colonies for over a decade.
A brutal engagement, of which Pontiac himself was only responsible for a small part of the planning of, Pontiac’s Rebellion would spread as far west as present day Indiana and into the east as they laid siege on Fort Pitt, bringing out the darker nature of both sides as no mercy was shown. Amherst himself would propose the use of smallpox laden blankets to subdue the Native population as his sights would turn to biological warfare. The native tribes, in many instances, made no distinction between settler and soldier, torturing and slaughter both, as they had done with surrendering soldiers. In Western Pennsylvania British Colonists would form their own vigilante groups, and, making no distinction between friend or foe, murdered Native’s indiscriminately, while, in at least one case, that of Captain Campbell, a British soldier was cannibalized by the enemy. In the end the there would be no certainty as to the number of the losses from either side as, as one historian would describe it, “Both sides seemed intoxicated with genocidal fanaticism.”
Aware now of the dangers and the struggles now faced with the conclusion of the French and Indian Wars, George III would, by October of that year, sign the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which would forbid British settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains and void land grants offered by the Crown for service to it. Though having been planned before the Siege of Fort Detroit, Pontiac’s actions pushed it through hastily and pre-maturely. Even now one need not examine too hard the effects that it would ultimately have on the British subjects across the Atlantic. Having looked Westward for the abundance of land, and the potential that it brought, the Proclamation would enrage Colonists, who believed expansion into that territory was their right and destiny, bringing latent resentment towards the Court of Saint James and that far distant, far removed government in London to the forefront, resentments that would rear their head during the course of the next decade and beyond as America marched itself towards Revolution.
Eventually peace would be struck but, by that time, the damage had already been done. In the end the measures taken by the Crown to prevent future rebellion would, in turn, offer kindling to a different sort.
In many ways it had earned the nickname Rogue’s Island. Founded by Roger Williams when he had been expelled from Massachusetts colony for sedition and heresy, it had become the home of what many considered the most radical elements of the Puritans population in the colonies. While the colony itself had grown and prospered as a Mercantile hub, especially with the rise of the Transatlantic slave trade, the radical, rogue nature of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations had remained. By 1764 a group of Loyalists known as the Tory Junto, concerned with the revolutionary streak that ran through the Colony would go as far as to petition the Court of St. James to repeal the Colonies Royal Charter and replace it with Royal Government. In the end they would fail. They would be chased from Rhode Island. The colony, on the other hand, would remain largely unchanged, with many committed to the cause of Independence even in those early days.
That independent spirit that refused to relent to King and Parliament would become clear when, less than a decade later residents ran aground the HMS Gaspee, a British Custom’s schooner under the command of the increasingly zealous Lieutenant William Dudingston. While Admiral John Montagu, once a staunch defender of the unpopular Lieutenant Dudingston, had the commander sent back to England for Court Marshall, he found himself powerless to punish those who had burned the Royal Vessel in Narragansett Bay. Though charged with treason by a Royal Commission, it wouldn’t last as the matter was eventually dropped. Though it wasn’t the first or the last act of defiance by the Colony, it had demonstrated how far Rhode Island would go and the protection that its residents would be afforded by its Governor Joseph Wanton.
In that spirit of independence, the Rhode Island Legislature would meet on May 4th, 1776. It had been little over a year since the fighting had broken out at Lexington and Concord, since the first shots had been fired, engulfing the thirteen colonies in war, and violence and bloodshed, as they entered open rebellion against the British Crown. Rhode Island would eagerly send its troops. Merchants and privateers by trade, accomplished and creative sailors by experience, it would furnish the Continental Forces with the Commander-in-Chief of its Navy, Commodore Esek Hopkins, brother of former Governor turned Delegate to the Continental Congress. Samuel Hopkins. Now, as the Continental Congress met to discuss what this loose Confederation of Colonies would do, Rhode Island busied itself with its own future and the path to its own independence.
Drafted by Jonathan Arnold, who would go on to serve as a surgeon in the Continental Army before twice serving in the Congress of the Confederation, the preamble of the Resolution would read:
WHEREAS in all states, existing by compact, protection and allegiance are reciprocal, the latter being only due in consequence of the former:
And whereas George the Third, King of Great Britain, forgetting his dignity, regardless of the compact most solemnly entered into, ratified and confirmed, to the inhabitants of this Colony, by his illustrious ancestors, and till of late fully recognized by him—and entirely departing from the duties and character of a good King, instead of protecting, is endeavoring to destroy the good people of this Colony, and of all the United Colonies, by sending fleets and armies to America, to confiscate our property, and spread fire, sword and desolation, throughout our country, in order to compel us to submit to the most debasing and detestable tyranny, whereby we are obliged by necessity, and it becomes our highest duty, to use every means, with which God and nature have furnished us, in support of our invaluable rights and privileges; to oppose that power which is exerted only for our destruction.
In less than two hundred words they would lay out their case in the simplest possible terms, listing their grievances with the Crown and the Parliament, calling the policies of the Crown and Parliament to the forefront for their tyranny and oppression, before the resolution itself was read. Allegiance to the King was replaced with allegiance to the State, the courts were removed from Royal Authority and placed under home rule and the business of the government would no longer be conducted in the name of the George III or his heirs, it would be a government of Rhode Island.
With a stroke of the pen and a vote of the Legislature Rhode Island, long reputed as the most independent of the Colonies, would become the first of the thirteen to separate itself from the Crown and Mother Country, and declare its independence. No longer would it hold itself under the authority of a King in a far distant capital. No longer would it hold itself to the authority of a Parliament it was not represented in. Even as they closed that session of the Legislature, the feeling, the attitude and tone would be different for them as, instead of declaring, as they so often before had, “God save the King”, now they declared “God save the United Colonies.” Nicholas Cooke, elected to replace Governor Wanton in 1775, would write to General George Washington shortly after, “I also enclose a copy of an Act discharging the inhabitants of this Colony from allegiance to the King of Great Britain, which was carried in the House of Deputies, after a debate, with but six dissentient voices, there being upwards of sixty members present.”
Two months later, to the day, the Declaration of Independence, the great charter of American national freedom, would pronounce freedom across all Rhode Island’s sister colonies, finally breaking the ties that bound it to the British Empire, as sovereignty separate from the Crown rang through the colonies, and set these United Colonies on an irreversible course towards nationhood and republic. Proudly the delegates of Rhode Island would affix their names to the document. The signature of William Ellery would be second only to that of John Hancock, while Hopkins, now well advanced in years but still a force to be reckoned with, would seek to steady his palsied ridden right hand, declaring, “my hand trembles, but my heart does not.”
Once the war was over Rhode Island would become the fourth of the thirteen colonies to ratify the Articles of Confederation, that first charter of political freedom that governed the new United States, but it would, in that independent nature, initially refuse to take on the Constitution. It would only be when a Bill of Rights, declaring the rights and freedoms of the individual, was guaranteed that it would become the last of the original thirteen to adopt. Even then it would be reluctantly, having grown weary from those years of colonial rule of giving too much power and authority to a centralized government in a distant capital, in the hands of an Executive and Legislature removed from their daily lives.
The smoke lifted through the air as the houses burned, undoubtedly seen across the border in Dutchess County, New York. Earlier that day 2,000 British soldiers, marching from Fairfield, Connecticut under the command of Willian Tryon, Royal Governor of New York and Major General of the Provincials, had arrived in Danbury. Searching for rebel weapons and supplies, they would start to mark the homes of Loyalists. It wasn’t just that were going to deprive the enemy of guns and food. No, they were going to send a message. The unmarked homes, homes of Patriots would be set on fire.
As word reached Colonel Henry Ludington, commander of the local militia, fresh returned from a three-day ride with his troops to shore up supplies, a sinking feeling had to come over him. The Patriots had only recently moved their supplies to Danbury in the belief that they would be safe there. Now they gone. Worse yet though, the veteran of the French and Indian Wars had to know that it was only a matter of time before the British Army crossed the border. Had the 400 men under his command been assembled they could perhaps, at the very least, put up a fight. But they weren’t. They were furloughed, on leave at their homes, believing little, if nothing had changed. He had to gather the troops. Yet the messenger who brought word at about nine that evening didn’t know the terrain, not well enough to bring word to the men scattered throughout the county.
No, this task had to fall on the shoulders of someone who knew the territory and terrain, someone who knew the homes and the families along the road.The task would fall on the shoulders of the oldest of Colonel Ludington’s eight children, the 16 year old Sybil.
Fiercely independent, she had watched her father train and drill his soldiers, and felt her own patriotism to the cause grow. Brave beyond her years, she had often served as a sentinal for her father. More than that though she knew the countryside, well versed in the terrain and the towns a messenger would have to ride. She would be the only choice.
As the rain fell amidst the thundering of that night on April 26th, 1777 she would mount her horse with her father’s musket at her side, and she would ride. She would ride hard into the night. The ground beneath would have been soft and murky, having stormed all day, but she wouldn’t let it slow her. Her route would take her as far south as Mahopac and then to the North to Stormville. A treacherous path, she not only would have to avoid loyalists, but also roaming bandits with no allegiance to either side of the war.
Yet she would be undeterred and undaunted. Not even the attack of a highwayman she would have to fend off would stop her. As she reached Carmel yelling “The British are burning Danbury” the Church bells would ring the alarm. Knowing the treacherous road she faced one of the men of Carmel would offer to ride the rest of the route with her. She knew the territory, and she had no fear for what might come. Dispatching him to spread word to the East, with the words “Tell them to join my father at Ludington Mill”, she would continue alone.
Even as she rode word would reach Tryon that the Revolutionary forces were on the move. By this point, having found supply of whiskey, order broke down as the British troops stumbled through the streets of Danbury, looting homes as the people of the town watched in horror. Knowing that it wouldn’t be long before General David Wooster, and General Benedict Arnold arrived from Bethel, Tryon ordered they burn even more of the houses. The sky would burn orange into the night as the smoke lifted higher. Yet what they would soon find is that Arnold and Wooster were not their only problems as Ludington’s men began to assemble.
In the course of that night, through mud and mist, rain and dark, against all obstacles, Sybil would cover forty miles before returning home in the early hours of that morning.
Just over two years to the day of Paul Revere’s famous ride into the countryside of Boston she had rode twice as far to raise up the 400 men that would chase the British as they hurriedly exited Danbury that morning. Though they would not be able to save Danbury from the British they would be a part of the larger forces that would engage them at the strategic American victory at the Battle of Ridgefield. A short time later Colonel Ludington would receive praise from General Alexander Hamilton for his efforts, writing, “I congratulate you on the Danbury expedition. The stores destroyed have been purchased at a pretty high price to the enemy” with his daughter receiving personal notes of thank you from both the Comte Rochambeau and General Washington.
Never really claiming her share of the glory a short time later she would slowly fade to the realm of the obscure, a part of lost history of the American Revolution, for over 100 years. Even today, while names like Paul Revere or William Dawes invoke a stir, hers remains largely unknown in the pantheon of early American heroes.
Lord Dartmouth had put it plainly to Governor Thomas Gage, “the sovereignty of the king over the Colonies requires a full and absolute submission.” Still few in Parliament had perhaps seen it going like this when, in February of that year, they had declared the Colony in an open state of rebellion, and pledging English lives and property to putting it down.
Now even with the re-enforcements of Lieutenant-General Hugh Percy arriving with a thousand fresh troops to aid the expedition of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, the Patriots had refused to relent. They pushed forward without giving an inch to British Regulars as they inflicted heavy casualties on them. Once, where they had perhaps been able to be talked down, it had now gone too far. Shots had been fired, blood had been shed, and the war was upon them.
It had to be dawning on Governor Gage, as he looked out late in the evening and saw the camp fires surrounding the city, that there would be no submission, there would be no obedience in the colonies except through military supremacy even as the Colonialists were perhaps realizing they had forfeited their own safety at Lexington and Concord that morning. Now the only safety they would be guaranteed would be in their own numbers and ranks, in their military preparations and their ability to band together as a cohesive force.
Now headquartered in nearby Cambridge, by the morning of April 20th, 1775 almost 15,000 Colonials surrounded the city. Plain people from nearby towns and colonies, militiamen, tradesmen, farmers who would have otherwise been home planting their crops, were now arriving in droves. Though they would not be able to take the Harbor or contend with the might of the Royal Navy, they could control the ground. Under the loose command of Brigadier General William Heath, who had taken control in the final stages of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, they began, with military like efficiency, to form Siege lines, emphasizing a blockage along the two necks, Boston and Charlestown, leaving the Royal forces trapped on the Peninsulas without land access to the remainder of the colony.
Even as Gage now planned his next move, fortifying along Charlestown and Boston Necks, General Artemas Ward, having received word that fighting had commenced, rose from his sickbed in Shrewsbury, where he had been laid up with bladder stones, took to his horse and rode thirty five miles to Cambridge.
A Colonel in the French and Indian Wars, Ward had made powerful enemies speaking out against Parliament and British colonial policies. Sir Francis Bernard, the predecessor to Governor Thomas Hutchinson, had stripped Ward of his commission and voided the results of an election to the Colonial Assembly that would have seen Ward take a seat in it. Had Bernard been able to contend with the respect and popularity that Ward had the portly officer might have been erased from history, but he could not. When it became apparent that the situation in Boston was degenerating into war, his former Regiment resigned from service to the Crown and elected him their new Commander. Only a few months later the Massachusetts Assembly voted him Commander-in-Chief of the Colonies Militia.
The task in front of Ward was not an easy or a simple one. He was, by virtue of his rank, not by any vested authority, the officer in charge, but, more than that, he commanded an army of volunteers, one that had enlisted only for a single battle rather than a long, drawn war. Criticized by some for failing to impose stricter rules on those troops, he was acutely aware of a situation that Samuel Adams would clearly state when he wrote, “Our soldiers will not be brought to obey any person of whom they do not themselves entertain a high opinion.” Writing to the Provincial Congress himself a few days later Ward would state, “My situation is such that if I have not enlisting orders immediately, I shall be left all alone. It is impossible to keep the men here expecting something to be done. I therefore pray that the plans [for the formation of an army] may be completed and handed to me this morning, and that you, gentlemen of the Congress, issue orders for the enlisting of the men.”
At that very moment he had a delicate balance he had to strike. Ultimately, despite his popularity, he would be replaced by General George Washington as New England tried to convince the remaining colonies that this was not their struggle alone, that this was a struggle for the liberty of all of the colonies united. It would ultimately his new Commander’s low opinion of him that would force him into retirement, and from anywhere but the more obscure places in early American history.
In the meantime Ward had to keep the Siege together through whatever means he could. Yet his challenges, they perhaps seemed small compared to that which was facing his adversary across the Charles River. It was there that the Patriot Commander found his greatest strength.
The truth was he benefitted from the ineptitude of Governor Gage, who miscalculated the situation and the Patriots more often than not. Even as Dr, Benjamin Church, a well-known Patriot, fed him information in the days following the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and the establishment of Rebel encampments, he seemed unable clearly assess the situation to properly put down the rebels who were now rising up against the Crown and his own authority. But he would not be alone for long. In just over a month Vice Admiral Samuel Graves would sail into the harbor with 4,500 fresh troops, and three new Generals, John Burgoyne, William Howe, and Henry Clinton. Within the course of another month he would be replaced entirely, recalled to London, and replaced by William Howe.
Regardless, the pot had boiled over as the fire of Revolution was lit. The inevitable collision between the American Colonies and England, the most powerful Empire in the World, had occurred, and it was beginning to become apparent that nothing would ever be the same again….