Saturday, May 23, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- Independence
 
A stout man of 38 years sat waiting to affix his signature to a copy of the newly formed and approved Declaration of Independence.  Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, had moved on June 7, 1776, that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States …” The Second Continental Congress’s Committee of the Whole had discussed Lee’s motion the following day and Monday, June 10, before deciding to postpone final consideration until July 1.  The middle colonies and South Carolina had not been ready to sanction the final break; but -- the Committee had believed -- given time, they could be persuaded.  A committee, which included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, had consequently been formed to write a declaration of independence.  On July 2 a resolution for independence had been adopted.  On July 4 twelve colonies had approved Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The New York delegation had chosen not to vote.  On July 15 New York had accepted the Declaration and Congress had ordered that it be engrossed on parchment and signed by the members. 
 
Thomas Nelson was one of the famous Virginia delegation that had won so much praise from the pen of John Adams of Massachusetts.  Washington, Henry, Pendleton, and Bland were all missing from that first group of delegates who had come north in the spring of 1775.  Nelson was one of four new men who had taken their places.  Adams described him “as a fat men … He is a speaker, and alert and lively for his weight.”  Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Rush provided more information.  Rush wrote that Nelson is “a respectable country gentleman, with excellent dispositions in public and private.  He was educated in England.  He informed me that he was the only person out of nine or ten Virginians that were sent with him to England for education that had taken part in the American Revolution.  The rest were all Tories” (McGee 224, 226).
 
Before affixing his signature Nelson very likely recalled his position on independence during the previous twelve months. 
 
He had decided early that hostilities had progressed too far and that a final stand would have to be taken.  There remained, however, opposition to independence in Congress, especially from New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.  “But events were pushing the colonies in the direction of independence whether all of them liked it or not.  In Virginia the militia commanded by William Woodford defeated a British force under [former Governor] Dunmore at Great Bridge, forcing the noble lord to abandon Norfolk; in Canada the combined American forces under Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery were repulsed before Quebec on December 31 [1775].  These occurrences, coupled with a royal proclamation of December 23 closing the colonies to all commerce as of March 1, 1776, made the breach between England and the colonies almost irreparable” (Evans 54).  On January 22 Nelson had written his friend in Virginia, John Page, how he wished he knew “the sentiments of our people upon the grand points of confederation and foreign alliance, or, in other words, of independence … We cannot expect to form a connexxion with any foreign power, as long as we have a womanish hankering after Great Britain; and to be sure, there is not in nature a greater absurdity, than to suppose we can have any affection for a people who are carrying on the most savage war against us” (Sanderson 51).
 
Soon afterward, Thomas Paine’s famous Common Sense had been published.  Nelson had sent a copy home to his friend, Thomas Jefferson, at Monticello.  Here was a stirring piece of work that Nelson must have embraced heartily.  No doubt he had hoped it would convince many in the states of the folly of striving for peaceful conciliation with Great Britain.  There were still many men in the Congress who needed to alter their thinking.  In February Nelson had written Page an intense letter that expressed his frustration.
 
Independence, confederation, and foreign alliance are as formidable to some of the Congress, I fear a majority, as an apparition to a weak, enervated woman.  Would you think that we have some among us, who still expect honourable proposals from the administration?  By heavens, I am an infidel in politics, for I do not believe, were you to bet a thousand pounds per scruple for honour at the court of Britain, that you would get as many as would amount to an ounce.  If terms should be proposed, they will savour so much of despotism, that America cannot accept them.  We are now carrying on a war and no war.  They seize our property wherever they find it, either by land or sea; and we hesitate to retaliate, because we have a few friends in England who have hips.  Away with such squeamishness, say I” (Sanderson 52-53).
 
Upon returning to Virginia in March to spend time with his family and to attend to business matters, he had discovered that a majority of the colony’s population favored independence.  The Virginia Gazette had “expressed the sentiment of many when, soon after his arrival, it declared: ”If we cannot enjoy the privileges of Englishmen when connected with them, let us instantly break off to them” (Evans 55).
 
On May 6, one hundred twenty-eight delegates had convened in Williamsburg to conduct the final business of the soon to be replaced House of Burgesses.  The Convention had elected Edmund Pendleton to be its president.  Nelson had been appointed to the important Committee on Privileges and Elections.  Jefferson had urged Nelson to raise in committee the issue of independence.  He had done so in his numerous communications with other delegates.  To one delegate (not identified) he had written “having weighed the arguments on both sides, I am clearly of the opinion that we must, as we value the liberties of America, or even her existence, without a moment’s delay, declare independence.”  There was no need to determine the opinions of France and Spain.  France would benefit from the separation.  Fear in the minds of some that England would give territory to either country on the condition that it not support the colonies was “chimerical.”  Nelson declared that the military “would abandon the colors if independence were not declared.  … the spirit of the people (except a very few in these lower parts, whose little blood has been sucked out by mosquitoes), cry out for this declaration” (Evans 56).
 
Quite surprisingly, Patrick Henry had been hesitant.   He had feared precisely what Nelson had dismissed – “that England would call on some European ally with the promise of a part of the colonies as a reward for helping to subdue them.”  Henry had believed that an alliance with France or Spain had to be affected before separation could be declared.  When he had recognized that “he would lose much of his support unless he lead the movement [for immediate independence], he took the initiative, allies or no allies” (Evans 57).  Consequently, he had devised a plan.  He would persuade Nelson to introduce a motion for independence and Henry would then work for its acceptance.  The plan had been effected.
 
Edmund Randolph had written later that Nelson “affected nothing of oratory, except what ardent feelings might inspire, and characteristic of himself he had no fears of his own with which to temporize …” (McGee 226-227). “He passed over the probabilities of foreign aid, stepped lightly on the difficulties of procuring military stores and the inexperience of officers and soldiers, but pressed a declaration of independence upon what, with him, were incontrovertible grounds; that we were oppressed; had humbly supplicated a redress of grievances, which had been refused with insult; and to return from battle against the sovereign with the cordiality of subjects was absurd” (Evans 57).
 
On May 17 Nelson had left for Philadelphia with the Virginia delegation carrying the resolutions that the Virginia convention had agreed upon., to wit that Congress “‘declare the United colonies free and independence states, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the crown or parliament of Great Britain’” (Evans 58). 
 
Now, August 2, Thomas Nelson affixed his signature to the official document.
 
Nelson had much to lose financially.  He had written to a Virginia colleague three months earlier that “no man on the continent will sacrifice more than myself by separation” (Evans 56).  Yet quite early he had stood forcefully for independence.  He, like every delegate to the Continental Congress, also knew the personal danger of this position.  What real chance did a band of disjointed states, challenging the immense power of Great Britain, have of prevailing?  It behooved Nelson to work assiduously to achieve that outcome.
 
Works cited:
 
Evans, Emory G.  Thomas Nelson of Yorktown: Revolutionary Virginian.  The University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1975.  Print. 
 
McGee, Dorothy Horton.  Famous Signers of the Declaration.  New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1955.  Print.
 
John Sanderson, Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Second edition. Philadelphia: William Brown and Charles Peters, 1828.  V.  Print.