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Browsing: Papers of John Adams, Volume 4

This note contained in document ADMS-06-04-02-0022
2. 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some moderates like Robert Alexander into the extremists' camp; and JA saw the act as an “Act of Independency” (English Historical Documents, vol. 9, American Colonial Documents to 1776, ed.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. { 58 } It 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.
Cite web page as: Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed.C. James Taylor. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2016.