From York, Pa. to inside the beltway, politicos got no friend
In a 2004 political event outside York’s Colonial Courthouse replica, guest speakers and the crowd joined Carole King in a song dedicated to the John Kerry campaign – King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” From left are City Councilwoman Toni Smith, actor/director Rob Reiner, King, actress Valerie Harper, County Commissioner Doug Kilgore and Mayor John Brenner. Background posts: Laurens kept Continental Congress together during Valley Forge winter and Events in 1777 helped tip American Revolution toward patriots.
The traveling band of celebrities in the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign unwittingly made a relevant choice of the Colonial Courthouse as a backdrop.
When Continental Congress met in the actual York County Court House in 1777-78, politics held sway.
But then, delegates were not troubled by Democratic and Republic ideologies but were often split according to whether they represented Northern or Southern colonies.
And just as today, this legislative body wasn’t always effective… .
“The Congress still continues the same noisy, empty & talkative assembly it always was since I have known it,” Charles Carroll of Maryland wrote his father soon after arriving in York.
Anyway, the question of slavery – legal throughout the United States during the early years of the American Revolution – was never far from the minds of those sitting in York
The following excerpts from “Nine Month in York Town” and “Almost Forgotten” shows how much the topic consumed the quarrelsome patriots and suggests how geography affected views on this hot issue:
From their earliest days in York Town, delegates talked among themselves about the improbability of America gaining foreign aid from France, Spain and other countries without a document showing that the 13 Colonies had agreed to work together.
Congress took up debate on the Articles of Confederation on its eighth day in York Town – Oct. 7, 1777.
Money and taxes – the basis on which states should pay into a common fund – dominated early debate. The original draft of the Articles said states were to pay taxes in proportion to their total number of inhabitants, including slaves.
Some delegates followed Maryland delegate Samuel Chase’s argument that slaves were property and, thus, should not be subject to taxation. The Northern farmer invested in livestock, and the Southern planter bought and fed slaves. Livestock would not be taxed, so why slaves?
Whether labor is free or via servitude makes no difference, John Adams and others countered. It is the number of laborers that produces the surplus for taxation.
This topic of taxation angered Henry Laurens, the slaveholding South Carolina delegate.
“. . . (S)ome sensible things have been said, & as much nonsense as ever I heard in so short a space, I have not contributed to either,” Laurens wrote his son, John. “I mean to expose my inabilities this Morning in a very few words because I think few are necessary. . . .”
A calm Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, not the opinionated Henry Laurens, presented the decisive argument. Lee saw that division, split among Northern free states and Southern slaveholding states, would deter union and impair the fight for freedom.
“. . .(I)n this great business . . . we must yield a little to each other, and not rigidly insist on having everything correspondent to the partial views of every state,” he argued. “On such terms, we can never confederate.”
He pointed to history. Wealth was connected with the value of land, not with the number of people residing on a property.
Lee was willing to give. His home state of Virginia would pay more if taxes were based on land rather than on people. But that was the fairest basis for taxation. Lee’s idea won. Five states voted yes, four no.
Taxation would be based on the value of all land within each state, and the buildings and improvements would be estimated according to rules of Congress.
One hundred and fifty years later, the writer of a proclamation celebrating Congress’ visit pointed out the significance of the body’s vote on taxation and alluded to the Civil War:
“Here . . . the Representatives in Congress struck from the quick a vital spark. They refused absolutely to tax the negro man either as a chattel or a slave. Had Congress done less than that, America could not have become the Leader of Freedom among the Nations of the World. That latent spark, sealed for four and eighty years, thereafter flashed into a corrosive flame – then self-consumed – expired forever.”
Cornelius Harnett, a mercantilist before the war, paused from his duties to write to his friend, William Wilkinson, about business. The war was forcing up prices, the North Carolina delegate wrote. Rum. Slaves. Other commodities.
“. . . (Y)ou may be Assured you may purchase Negroes or any other Article of Commerce 150 per Cent Cheaper in No. Carolina than you could in Philadelphia before Congress left it,” he advised.
“500 dollars for a small Mulatto boy has been lately given.
“As to Labourers, you may surely get them either on purchase or hire 100 per Cent Cheaper than I can possibly procure them here.”
News of a slave desertion from one of his plantations, “Mepkin,” troubled Henry Laurens.
His main concern was that a slave named Doctor Cuffee would continue to stir up other servants, as the bondsman’s mother was known to do.
Laurens was due to update fellow South Carolinian John Lewis Gervais about affairs of Congress. He noted in a letter that Gervais should sell Doctor Cuffee.
Five years training as a cobbler meant that the slave could make a good shoe, Laurens wrote, plus he could do all types of plantation labor.
Laurens advised Gervais not to sell the slave to another owner near any of his plantations. He continued to brood about the conduct of his slaves.
“. . . (L)et Zuma follow him immediately to sale,” he wrote, “if he once more elopes or comits any capital fault.”
Amid his duties as Gen. Washington’s aide-de-camp in snowy Valley Forge, John Laurens found time to write his father in York Town about a plan to recruit a regiment of blacks to fight for the patriot cause.
This plan to arm and equip slaves in South Carolina gave Henry Laurens pause, despite the Continental Army’s dire need for fresh troops. He was a product of the long Colonial tradition that prohibited slaves from bearing arms.
“There is nothing reasonable, which you can ask & I refuse,” Laurens replied. “. . . But before you mature such a plan, many considerations are to be had which I am persuaded have not yet taken place in your mind. A Work of this importance must be entered upon with Caution & circumspection, otherwise a Man will be reduced to the ridiculous state of the Fox who had lost his Tail.”
They would discuss the matter, the father said, when they met again.
John Laurens persisted with a plan to persuade the South Carolina and Georgia assemblies to permit slaves to serve in the Continental Army. Slaves would be rewarded with freedom for their service.
Blacks were common in Northern regiments, joining as free men in voluntary service or as slaves assigned as substitutes for their owners. By one count, 755 blacks were serving as soldiers or in service roles in the Army in August 1778.
The Southern assemblies rejected the scheme amid, as Laurens observed, “the howlings of a triple-headed monster in which Prejudice Avarice & Pusillanimity were united.”
Sawney, Cornelius Harnett’s slave, was on the lam, and the North Carolina delegate was willing to pay for his return.
Attendants – both slaves and freedmen – often accompanied delegates on their travels. Among other things, their presence enhanced safety, ensuring that delegates did not have to travel alone.
The slave was about 35 years old, 5-feet-5 inches tall, a tailor by trade with a dark complexion and his face pitted from smallpox. He wore an old brown coat, linen breeches, yarn stockings and an old beaver hat. He also was suspected of taking 100 pounds worth of goods from the quartermaster.
Harnett promised to pay $20 if the slave was returned within 20 miles from York Town or $30 if beyond that. Harnett feared that Sawney had headed behind British lines in Philadelphia. He even sent cavalrymen out for him but to no avail.
The delegate had good reason to believe Sawney had headed east. The British actively campaigned for slaves to seek freedom behind their lines. Their plan was to create a small army of workers and impair production on patriot plantations and farms that counted on the slave labor. Often, the British reneged on their promise and resold the freedom-seekers in other colonies, enriching many officers.
“I expect to set off the middle of April (back to North Carolina), & I fear, without a Servant to attend me,” he wrote to friend William Wilkinson, “as not one is to be had here as yet on any Terms.”
William Alexander of Codorus Forge in Hellam Township took advantage of the Pennsylvania Gazette’s Beaver at High Street print shop to place a notice seeking the return of a runaway slave.
He offered a 10-pound reward and described slave Jack Johnson as about 35 years old, wearing a small felt hat, old stockings and shoes.
“. . . (H)e is a fancy fellow, and much given to drink,” the advertisement said. “Whoever takes up and secures said Negroe, so as his master may have him again, shall have the above reward, and reasonable charges if brought home . . . .”
Robert White, a Carlisle tavern owner, had the opposite challenge. He wanted to disown a 16-year-old slave. His Gazette notice touted the girl as a healthy, stout mulatto wench: “(S)he has had the small-pox and measles, can cook, wash and do most sorts of house work.”
Timothy Pickering, member of the Board of War, differed from many of his fellow visitors in his view of York Town.
The future U.S. secretary of state, with his servant, Millet, en joyed his accommodations in the home of the widow of a Pennsylvania Dutch physician, as outlined in a letter to his wife, Rebecca:
” ‘Tis more difficult getting a habitation than I expected. I was puzzled to find a place to lodge at. Finally, I was led to the widow Mihmins. But she said she had no bed but one, her own, nor could furnish me with diet. I told her I could find both. To this she consented to take me in. I am happy she did, for she is a very neat, clever and obliging old woman, and has agreed to wash and mend my linen and stockings which is a great thing here. What her price will be I do not know, but I am sure not extravagant. The old lady often puts me in mind of my mother. She is in all respects kind and motherly. I have not felt so much at home since I left Salem (Mass.). She lived all alone and now sets from morning to night at her spinning wheel, which, by the way, is a very modest one.
“She has one decent lower room warmed by a stove after the German fashion . . . and a small kitchen furnished with every utensil in pretty order. There she gets her own victuals and Millet cooks for me.
“Besides the lower room and kitchen, there is a warm chamber where I lodge. In the corner Millet has fixed me a little cabin in which he has put a straw bed, and upon that my mattress, a bag of straw makes my bolster and my pillow is upon that. I lie between my sheet doubled – the other sheet was stollen from me at Wilmington last September – my blanket lies double upon that and my great coat and other clothes over all. In this manner I have lain every night warm and comfortable.
“Millet has bought a tolerable veal at a shilling a pound, butter at two thirds of a dollar, eggs at one third of a dollar a dozen and potatoes at a dollar a bushel. But above all he gets a quart of good milk every night and every morning which with good bread at a third of a dollar – a loaf of about six pounds weight . . . makes our breakfast and supper.
“But half the time as we dine late, we need no supper, so we have milk enough for good puddings. The milk costs me 12 pence a quart. At the next door, Millet gets excellent beer of a brewer at half dollar a gallon. Thus, my diet is perfectly agree able.
“I have directed Millet to get some rice and Indian meal, and when they are obtained, I shall want for nothing.”