Papers of John Adams, volume 4

From John Sullivan

To Horatio Gates

To James Warren, 21 March 1776 JA Warren, James


To James Warren, 21 March 1776 Adams, John Warren, James
To James Warren
My dear sir March 21. 1776

I have not received more than one Letter from you since I left you and that was a very Short one.1 I have written as often as I could.

If you get a sight of the New York and Philadelphia News Papers you will see what a mighty Question is before the Tribunal of the Public.2 The Decision is yet in suspence, but a Guess may be formed what it will be.

The Day before Yesterday the Committee of Observation of this City a virtuous brave and patriotic Body of Men 100 in Number voted with only one dissentient Voice, to petition their assembly now sitting, to repeal their deadly Instructions to their Delegates in Congress.3 This assembly, a few days ago upon a Petition from the Same Committee and some other Bodies, has voted seventeen additional 57Members, in order to make the Representation of this Province more adequate.4

You will soon see, a sett of Resolutions, which will please you. The Continental Vessells the Provincial Vessells, and Letters of Marque and Privateers will be let loose upon British Trade.

I hope and believe it will not be long before, Trade will be open. Foreign Nations, all the World I hope will be invited to come here, and our People permitted to go to all the World except the Dominion of him, who is adjudged to be Nerone Neronior.5 I think the Utmost Encouragement must be given to Trade—and therefore We must lay no Duties at present upon Exports and Imports—nor attempt to confine our Trade to our own Bottoms, or our own seamen. This for the present.

We have so much Work to do, by sea and Land, and so few Hands to do it, that We shall not be under any Necessity nor will it be good Policy, I think, to attempt such Restrictions as yet.

The Act of Assembly here for seventeen additional Representatives, will give a finishing Blow to the Quaker Interest in this City—at least to its ascendency. It will strip it of all that unjust and unequal Power, which it formerly had over the Ballance of the Province. The Tories here, attribute this Maneuvre to your Friends to whom you are sometimes so partial. If the Charge is true the Posterity of Pensylvania will have cause to bless your Friends from Generation to Generation. You cant think how much I am flattered with it. As I have the Pleasure of a particular Acquaintance, and frequent friendly Conversations with Several Gentlemen of this city belonging to the Committee of Observations, I am inclined to hope, that a small Portion of this Merit, is due to me. But I would not be too vain and proud of it.

RC (MHi: Warren-Adams Coll.); docketed: “Mr J Adams Lettr Mar: 21. 1776.”


That of 31 Jan. (above).


In a broad sense the “mighty Question” was independence but more particularly it concerned the American response to the Prohibitory Act of 22 Dec. 1775, news of which began to appear in New York and Philadelphia papers in late February. A printed copy of the act was read to the congress on 27 Feb., although the Journal of that day makes no mention of it (Richard Smith's Diary, 27 Feb., in Burnett, ed., Letters of Members , 1:366). Also arousing interest were the reception, or lack of it, that should be given to the commissioners coming from England and the efficacy of the doctrines of Common Sense.

The Prohibitory Act, which in effect declared Americans outlaws, drove some moderates like Robert Alexander into the extremists' camp; and JA saw the act as an “Act of Independency” (English Historical Documents, vol. 9, American Colonial Documents to 1776, ed. Merrill Jensen, N.Y., 1955, p. 853; JA to Horatio Gates, 23 March, below). Nonetheless, the forces opposed to independence still retained influence, and events moved slowly—too slowly for JA. 58It took the congress three weeks to make its response. The Declaration on Armed Vessels authorized Americans to outfit ships and to seize as prizes any vessels owned by inhabitants of Great Britain, but its preamble still did not directly blame the King for acts Americans viewed as grievances ( JCC , 4:229–232, esp. the note at p. 230–231; Gipson, Empire before the Revolution , 12:358; Merrill Jensen, The Founding of a Nation, N.Y., 1968, p. 659–660).

A number of newspaper essayists kept the issues before the public. In Philadelphia the debate between James Cannon as the radical “Cassandra” and Provost William Smith as the conservative “Cato” was joined by Thomas Paine as “The Forester.” (For the essays that appeared in March and April in the Pennsylvania Evening-Post, Pennsylvania Packet, and Pennsylvania Gazette, as well as in the papers of other towns such as New York and Boston, see Force, Archives , 4th ser., 5:passim; JA identified the three writers in a letter to AA of 28 April, Adams Family Correspondence , 1:400.) Although concerned in part with who would rule in Pennsylvania, the Assembly or a convention, the three men covered the whole range of issues facing Americans. “Cassandra,” who sharply opposed receiving the commissioners from England, and “The Forester” could hardly fail to affect public opinion in the highly charged atmosphere produced by the arrival of the Prohibitory Act, which, as JA pointed out more than once, gave Americans little choice about the need for independence.


For these instructions, see Samuel Chase to JA, 25 Nov. 1775 (above).


This bill was passed by the Assembly on 14 March, signed by the governor on 23 March, and printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette on 27 March. The seventeen additional members were to be apportioned among Philadelphia and eight frontier counties, where whig feeling ran high ( Penna. Archives , 8th ser., 8:7446, 7456).


More Neronian than Nero.