Papers of John Adams, volume 2

Alexander McDougall to ?

417 Appendix Appendix
418 419
William Gordon's Plan for An American Parliament

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.

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.

Thoughts upon the Dispute between Great Britain and Her Colonies Smith, William Jr. Gordon, William Thoughts upon the Dispute between Great Britain and Her Colonies Smith, William Jr. Gordon, William
Thoughts upon the Dispute between Great Britain and Her Colonies

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.

They who speak of the union between these countries bearly as of importance, and even of vast importance, do not express themselves properly. He who knows that one third part of the commerce 421of G Britain depends upon her colonies, and that if this is lost she is ruin'd, will talk of the union as essential to the very existence of the empire.

What are we to think then of the present quarrel? It is a disease that affects life; and as it spreads fast, the remedy must be speedily administred. A solid dominion must be founded in love and interest. The affection of three millions of subjects, situated as we are, once lost will scarce ever be regain'd.

The last war was a glorious one.1 To individuals it has been profitable, and if our successes are wisely improved, it will be to the nation, the vast increase of the public debt notwithstanding.

By the conquest of Canada, G Britain was supposed to acquire the dominion of all North America, and thenceforth to be in a condition to seize the West India Islands at pleasure, humble France and Spain and secure the tranquillity of Europe. (I have been informed that the value of the West India produce imported into France in 1754 was near ten millions sterling. How immense the profits on the European sales? She holds these sources of wealth at the mercy of G Britain. By expeditions from the continent of America any of these Islands may be easily overwhelm'd and reduced.) But is the rescue of the continent from France the insuring of it to Great Britain? Surely something more was to be done after the war ceased. The colonies when deliver'd from the enemy were to be secured to their protectors. It was palpable blundering to imagine, that this could be effected by unusual exceptionable taxations and an imbarrassed partial commerce. The minister fell into this error, in a fright at the amount of the national debt and for want of knowledge concerning the nature and state of our trade.

We presumed that the colonies were now out of their infancy, able to stand upon their own legs, and to give aid to the mother country.

The vast wealth acquired from us in the circuits of commerce were not considered, what respected our defence from the enemy abroad, and the savages at home, and the internal support of government ingrossed all his attention.

It is agreed, that if the colonies enjoy a free trade, it will bear impositions that may vastly relieve the charges of the empire.

A direct tax was devised in 1764, but not without some diffidence, a years notice was give before the burden was actually imposed.

This is the origin of the controversy. Much has been written on the subject. Both countries fly to the constitution for arguments in 422support of tenets, diametrically opposite to each other. On the part of America there is a claim to all the rights of Englishmen, whence it is inferred, that no tax can be laid upon them without the consent of their assemblies. G Britain on the other hand attempts to justify her measures by admitting the principle, but denying the consequence. She contends that the Americans are virtually represented by the commons of G. Britain.

It is not proposed to enter into this controversy here. Let it suffice to observe, that the litigants on both sides seem to be insensible, that the constitutional principles they appeal to, were established before the colonies were discover'd, and that some of them argue as if we were in the same predicament with a county of the old realm of England, whereas the truth is, that the empire, long after the constitution was formed, acquired a new adventitious state, and the question therefore is not what the constitution was or is, but what, present circumstances consider'd, it ought to be. Britain having made a vast accession to her dominion, by discovery, by conquest and by cession, the disputants instead of spending their time in collecting arguments, chargeable with a non sequitur, should have pointed to the measures conducive to the common weal of both countries, because to that the constitution (be it what it will) ought to bend, and sooner or later will bend, unless it is the design of heaven to infatuate and destroy us as a nation.

The colonies became seperate, and with respect to each other independent societies, by accident. Neither the crown nor the nation had any design in splitting the dominions into so many different petty governments. Thro' necessity each acquired legislative powers in a mode somewhat similar to the grand patern of the parent country. There seems to be no reason to doubt, but that if the whole continent of North America had been antiently asked for by one company, suppose for instance the Virginia Company, the grant would have passed and one assembly been constituted to make laws for this immense region. The case is however otherwise. The continent consists of seventeen colonies and Provinces, under the immediate government of almost as many little parliaments, made up of a governour and a council, differently appointed, and an assembly of delegates chosen by the people.

None can deny that the colonies ought to bear some part of the publick burdens. If the royal requisitions for aids are to be made to each, the objections are obvious and unanswerable;

1.The empire will become too complex popular and unwieldy;


2dly. persons utterly incompetent for its affairs will participate in its councils, and

3ly. the empire will be perpetually distracted and in danger of a dissolution from a want of uniformity in design.

The advocates for the British supremacy had these consequences in full view. The prospect filled them with terror. We ought to ascribe the fictitious virtual representation they talk of to their consternation, and not to malice; but their scheme is manifestly defective, because it does not provide for the safety of the colonists. It discovers an overweening attachment to their own interest, and being partial tends to work the disunion we all dread as ruinous to the whole empire.

America supplicates for relief,2 and if she desires no more than the parliaments ceasing to act upon their principle of unbounded sovereignty, and that the crown may again recur to the old course of requisitions to each colony, the guilt of partiality will be ours.

Let any man well consider the three objections to such a form of government above-mentioned, and he must be convinced that it cannot give stability to so vast an empire. Its affairs are now directed by more than twenty parliaments. What a multitude of souls to one body!

If our experience has not yet furnished arguments from facts against such a distribution of power, 'tis because we were formerly too feeble and exposed to give the assistance, that will soon be justly due and certainly expected.

The present contentions are the first in the train of tragical consequences inevitably flowing from too manifold a partition of the legislative authority of the empire.

It is of necessity then that a constitution be divised friendly to every branch of the great whole, and linking G. Britain and her colonies together by the most indissoluble ties.

As the contest arose from a foresight of the inconvenience attending a resort to so many seperate assemblies the most obvious remedy seems to be a consolidation of all these little continental parliaments into one.

It is not proposed to anihilate the assemblies, but that there be a Lord Lieutenant as in Ireland and a council of at least twenty four members appointed by the crown, with a house of commons consisting of deputies chosen by their respective assemblies, to meet annually at the central province of New York at the parliament of North America.


A parliament is no Novelty, and therefore we shall not be perplexed in settling its powers and the privilege of the several branches. Let it be in general understood that to this body the royal requisitions for aids are to be made, and that they are to have authority to grant for all and to settle the quotas of each, leaving the ways and means to their seperate consideration, unless in cases of default.

The number of the council may depend upon the royal pleasure, but to preserve their independency they ought to be men of fortunes and hold their places for life, with some honourable distinctions for their families, as a lure to prevent the office from falling into contempt.3 The number of the delegates will naturally be proportion'd to the comparative weight and abilities of the colonies they represent. The two Floridas, Rhode Island, Nova Scotia and Georgia ought to have five each. New Hampshire, Maryland, North Carolina and Quebec, seven. South Carolina, and New Jersey, eleven. New York, Pensilvania and Connecticut, twelve. Massachusets Bay and Virginia fifteen.4

NB. From seperate requisitions to the Island colonies we have no inconvenience to apprehend. It is easily done to command their wealth by a commercial police. They are besides absolutely dependent upon G Britain and the colonies continent of America. They owe their safety to the protection of the one and the supplies of the other, and must of necessity belong to the power that rules both. They can never revolt while the present union subsists. The whole house will thus consist of one hundred and forty one members5—a small number considering the importance of their trust: besides accident, business and disease will occasion the absence of many. They may be afterwards increased, when the colonies become more populous and desire it. The crown to retain its antient negative and the British parliament its legislative supremacy in all cases relative to life liberty and property, except in the matter of taxations for general aids or the immediate internal support of the American government. No other than such limited sovereignty is exercised over Ireland, tho' a conquer'd country.

This project is manifestly free from all the objections that lay either against that which subjects American property to the British disposition, or the other which asks that each colony should participate so largely in the councils of the empire, as to have the power of refusing aids,6 tho' thought necessary for the common safety by the united voice of G Britain and all the rest of her extensive dominions.

It may be said of every one of the colonies, that our assemblies are 425unequal to the task of entring into the views of so wise and so great a nation as G Britain, and from which we are so far removed. Indeed, it is not to be expected from an infant country, many of whose assemblies represent little obscure counties and are themselves at streights for a bear livelihood. Besides the scant districts of the respective provinces bring the several branches of the legislature into too great a familiarity for the purposes of good government, and open the doors to frequent bickerings and discords, in which the common interest will be too often sacrificed to private piques or partial aims, and the royal voice drown'd in the dinn of faction or the clamors against an obnoxious governor.7

But in a parliament chosen not by the counties, but by the representatives of the colonies we shall collect the wisdom of the whole continent, and find the members acting upon principles doubly refined from popular lees, and with a liberality unbiassed by the partial prejudices prevalent in the little districts by which they are sent.

Unspeakable advantages will also follow from the introduction of a dignified government into a country long neglected, and where on account of its being little known to G Britain, and the diversity of their colony constitutions many disorders have crept in, in some instances dangerous and detrimental to the colonists and their British creditors, and derogative of the just rights and many prerogatives of the crown, most friendly to peace and good order.

But the capital advantage of this scheme will be the recovery of the colonies to a firm confidence in the justice and affection of the parent state; by opening to her the conduits of sure full and constant information, enabling her so to regulate and improve this vast dependant growing territory as to unite every branch of the empire by the cords of love and interest, and give peace health and vigor to the whole.

There are several reasons why this measure should be speedily attended to.

1. The colonies are universally agitated by suspicion fear and disgust, and doubling by their own growth in less than thirty years will in fifty equal the present inhabitants of G Britain and Ireland. Unforeseen events in Europe may accelerate this momentous increase.

2dly. By the dissentions in the mother country, her rapid advances in luxury, the American attention to manufactures, the alarming extent of the national debt, the democratical ascendency of the commons and many other causes, G Britain seems to have passed the 426Zenith of her glory, without some great change in the system of her affairs.

3dly. If there is a recourse to the establishment of a dominion founded only in fear, it can last no longer than till the controuling power is distressed by a general war, and the revival of the contest for liberty at such a crisis must be tragical indeed. Members to a parliament in Europe the Americans never will send, and every other scheme but one as agreeable to them as that now recommended would soon prove to her but a temporary paliative and meer quack medicine.

4ly. The colonies will never be less assuming than at present. If the disgusts now raised should continue we may become a nest for the disaffected and designing even in G Britain and Ireland. Now we demand only an exemption from parliamentary taxation as a right, recognizing at the same time the supremacy of G Britain in every other instance, and particularly her sovereignty in commerce.8 It is therefore her interest to lay a solid foundation for the dominion by a voluntary and durable compact. What we ask as a favor at present, may after a few years be offered and refused.

I am sensible that a jealousy of the power which a union of our councils would create may prevent G Britain from concurring in the creation of a third parliament for the government of the empire: but this very jealousy is part of the national disease and will if it continues be the ruin of us all.

If she means to oppress her colonies their common danger will in spite of all opposition unite them together. The late offensive laws are a proof of it, and all history verifys the position. But if she abandons her partiality, and generously consults the common weal, what ground can there then be for jealousy. When once secur'd in our property, our affection will revive, and ten thousand cords may be contriv'd to tie us together by the knot of interest. Prosperity may indeed make us wanton, but provinces rarely rebel till the yoke of oppression galls and a deaf ear to their complaints has begot a sullen abhorrence of their masters.

It has been apprehended by some that such extensive colonies like an overgrown child will exhaust the parent. The cases of the antient Phenicians and modern Spaniards have been mention'd on this occasion. But all that read history are not able to apply it, and make the proper distinctions. If G Britain is to be ruin'd, as these speculatists suppose, by the flight of the inhabitants to America, 'tis high time to set the new house in order for their comfortable accommodation and welcome reception. The colonies are growing up with many 427distinguishing peculiarities, and tho' they easily may be now drawn into a harmonious uniformity yet by a little longer negligence their prejudices will grow obstinate and humoursome. If any unforeseen catastrophe in Europe should render their favorite islands no longer tenable in that quarter, they may retreat to America and the present is the most advantageous season for laying a solid foundation for the speedy re-establishment of a dominion which no power upon earth will be able to annoy.

But tho' the wars in Asia drove the feeble and defenceless Phenicians to Carthage, and the mines of Mexico and Peru depopulated Spain; yet G Britain by a wise conduct may improve her colonies even for the increase of her own population, as well as the aggrandizing of her power.

Every body knows that the number of her inhabitants is vastly inhanced since the discovery of the new world, and can any man be ignorant that this is owing to the augmentation thereby given to her commerce.

The same causes will produce the same effects. The Spanish emigrations drained the old state chiefly because they sent her money instead of merchandize. Spain was converted into a castle of indolence. She acquired silver and gold from her colonies, but not real wealth.

If G Britain is attentive to her own and the trade of her colonies, she may dismiss all fears of our increase—Nay it will then be her interest to encourage our increase.

One cannot take the state nature climates and prodigious extent of the American continent into contemplation without high prospects in favor of the power to which it belongs. It is sufficient to be the granary of all the rest of the British dominions. Fed by her plough Britain might attend more to the cultivation of sheep. By that staple and the collection of raw materials from us and by us, she may convert her own island as it were into one great town of manufacturers, undersell every other nation in Europe and maintain and exalt her supremacy until heaven blot out the empires of the world.

MS in William Gordon's hand (Adams Papers, Microfilms, No. 345, under date 1775); consisting of four full sheets folded in half to form a booklet of sixteen pages, which once may have been held together with a single stitch; six and one-quarter closely written pages, the writing being on what would have been the odd-numbered pages if they had been numbered; docketed by JQA on the tenth page: “Thoughts on the dispute between G. Britain and the Colonies”; and on the sixteenth page: “Dispute between G.B. & their Colonies about 1775 An American Parliament proposed”; docketed in an unidenti-428fied hand: “Thoughts on the dispute between England & her American Colonies—without date or signature.”


Certainly by 1774–1775 this view of the French and Indian War was not shared by many Americans. The war was frequently condemned as having been in Britain's, not the colonies', interest.


It is conceivable that Gordon refers here to the petition and memorials framed by the First Continental Congress, which would date his plan after they became known to the public. Or this could be a general reference to various petitions of the past; but his apparent uncertainty about whether the old requisition system could be reinstated suggests the ambiguity of the congress' resolve asserting the colonies' right “in all cases of taxation and internal polity, subject only to the negative of their sovereign, in such manner as has been heretofore used and accustomed” (italics supplied; JA's Service in the Continental Congress, 5 Sept. – 26 Oct. 1774, No. IV, resolution No. 4, above).


This provision ignores the attack in the congressional resolves upon the royal councils as unconstitutional (same, resolution No. 10).


That Gordon includes Nova Scotia and Quebec, as well as the Floridas, among the colonies to be represented, again suggests dating his scheme after the congress had finished its work, for it had decided to make overtures to the Canadians.


In the margin of the MS the totals for each group of colonies are added up. Gordon's attitude toward the British West Indian colonies seems out of keeping with the admiration expressed by many when they heard that Jamaica had supported the mainland colonies on taxation (JA to James Warren, 15 March 1775, note 4, above). Gordon's views might date his plan before mid-March 1775.


The power of refusal by individual colonies is implied in the congressional resolutions.


Gordon's description of the quality of individual assemblies is far from the dignified virtual coequals of Parliament that the congress set forth.


Not only does Gordon ignore here such complaints embodied in the congressional resolves as British infringement on the right of trial by jury and the illegality of standing armies, but he also ignores the language, suggested by JA, that control of commerce arises from the cheerful consent of the colonies, not from Parliament's authority (JA's Service in the Continental Congress, 5 Sept. – 26 Oct. 1774, No. IV, resolutions Nos. 5, 9, and 4).