Papers of John Adams, volume 2

Editorial Note Editorial Note
Editorial Note

The authorship of this document is now attributed to William Smith Jr. See William Gordon to JA, 25 Oct. 1775, note 1, for further explanation.

The historian William Gordon (1729–1807) came to America from England in the fall of 1770 and returned to his native country in 1786, where he lived for the rest of his life (MHS, Procs. , 63 [1929–1930]: 303–308). While in the colonies he became a partisan of the American cause, but in his “Thoughts upon the Dispute” at least, partisanship was combined with strong traditional loyalties. He wanted a solution to the dispute between the colonies and Great Britain that would strengthen the empire for the mutual benefit of both.

The nature of his specific proposals invites comparison with the Galloway Plan of Union, presented to the members of the First Continental Congress but tabled by the vote of one state. Not only was Galloway's plan voted neither up nor down, but all mention of it was suppressed when the journal of the congress was published in November 1774 (Merrill Jensen, The Founding of a Nation, N.Y., 1968, p. 498–500). It is perhaps significant that Gordon does not mention the Galloway scheme, although it was published in Thomas Bradbury Chandler's What Think ye of Congress Now?, advertised for sale in January 1775 (T. R. Adams, American Independence , No. 159a). Either Gordon's was a wholly independent effort, or he chose to ignore a rival proposal. Gordon's plan is more closely modeled on colonial royal governments in that the Lord Lieutenant is to be assisted by a council of twenty-four appointed by the king for life. Moreover, Gordon spelled out the number of representatives each colony should have in the American parliament; Galloway left the number to future determination. Where Galloway clearly stipulated that continuance in office for the “President-General” should depend upon the king's pleasure, Gordon only implied such tenure by the title he chose for the chief executive officer, “Lord Lieutenant as in Ireland.” Both agreed that the Crown would retain its negative, but Gordon would have required joint consent of the two parliaments only for aids, leaving to the British Parliament legislative supremacy in all other matters (during war the British assent for aids 420would not be required), and Galloway envisioned joint consent on every measure affecting the empire.

Dating Gordon's scheme with any precision is impossible, for internal clues are sparse and sometimes ambiguous. Such clues as there are suggest that Gordon wrote after the First Continental Congress had made its work public (see notes 2, 4, and 5, below); but if that is so, his positions on some matters are in conflict with the resolutions of the congress, and one would think he would have taken some account of the differences. If Gordon wrote after the congress adjourned, he certainly wrote before early April 1775. News of Britain's treatment of the petition and memorials sent by the congress arrived on 2 April and changed the attitude of many Americans. In his account of the Battle of Lexington (Force, Archives , 4th ser., 2:625–631), Gordon mentions Parliament's reaction to American pleas, and his analysis of the battle left no room for the kind of cooperation he had planned upon. He summed up his feelings thus in his narrative dated 17 May 1775: “You must look back to the origin of the United Provinces, that you may have an idea of the resolution of this people. May the present struggle end as happily in favour of American liberty, without proving the destruction of Great Britain. We are upon a second edition of King Charles the First's reign, enlarged. May the dispute be adjusted before the times are too tragical to admit of it” (same, p. 631).

If one explains away internal clues as wholly vague, an alternative dating would have Gordon writing out his plan before the First Continental Congress met or while it was in session, perhaps as a suggestion for the consideration of the Massachusetts delegation. This timing would explain why Gordon makes no reference to Galloway's plan and why he reduces American grievances to taxation without representation and ignores important infringements upon rights listed in congressional resolves. Further, Gordon would then seem to be more original than he has been credited with being, particularly if he knew nothing, as seems likely, of the Albany Plan of Union of 1754.

None of the Gordon materials known to be extant gives even an oblique reference to his scheme. John Adams' several mentions of Gordon in his diary and letters hint of no such proposal. Thus, the circumstances of its composition remain unaccounted for. It is printed for its intrinsic interest and because it was preserved in the Adams Papers.