Not all colonists were ready to follow their leaders into revolution. Interpreters Steve Holloway and John Hamant debate in character as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.
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Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.
In modern America, the signers of the Declaration of Independence are heroes: the men who founded this country. Not then. Not everyone thought we should be free of Great Britain. Not everyone thought we could win the war for independence. Not everyone thought we should even try.
On today's podcast, it is 1776, and you are in Philadelphia with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, as they are interpreted by Steve Holloway and John Hamant, roles that they play in the Electronic Field Trip "Founders or Traitors?"
Gentlemen, welcome. You were both on the committee, I understand, to write the Declaration of Independence. You are aware that if American forces do not win the war, you are likely to hanged as traitors.
Benjamin Franklin: Good day, sir. It comes as a bit of a shock that we would be seen as such by our British brethren, but I do feel that Great Britain will not cede her colonies without war. Yes, that could be one of the conclusions.
Lloyd: That's the general way to put it. From the beginning, when talk of independence first started to circulate among the colonies, both of you were interested in the idea. You were not reluctant. Mr. Franklin, I know your son is quite the loyalist.
Franklin: Indeed, he is. A royal governor of the colony of New Jersey. He takes after his mother.
Lloyd: Mr. Adams, if I have heard correctly of you, rather than be with the Congress in Philadelphia, you would far rather be home in Massachusetts.
John Adams: I think many of us would rather be home with our families. This is a duty that has fallen upon us. It is our responsibility, because of our various positions in our community, to represent the people whom we call our neighbors, and our families. It falls upon us to do this. We are in a position to do this, we have been chosen to do this, and we are obligated to do this.
Lloyd: Do you know anyone personally who is opposed to the independence of America?
Adams: Oh yes, I do. I have a very close friend – who I'd rather not name – who has returned to England. Members of my wife's family, cousins. I remember one of the first cases I tried in Braintree. The chief justice was a Quincy, the prosecuting attorney was a Quincy. In fact, Samuel Quincy was the one who was appointed to prosecute the British soldiers after the massacre in Boston. I, of course, was their defense counsel. Mr. Quincy is a loyalist, prosecuting the British. He has returned to England. I, myself, am a patriot. I was charged with defending the British.
Lloyd: And won the case, as I remember.
Adams: Yes, I did. It was one of the noblest things, and one of the most selfless things I think I have ever accomplished in my life.
Lloyd: Which leads to, perhaps, a too-personal question, but I'll try it anyway. Why did you do it?
Adams: It's part of our ancient constitution, our British Constitution. Everyone deserves a fair trial, and that is the purpose of it. Regardless of what you may feel of them personally, or their beliefs, our common law – one of the great traditions that we would preserve, not change in our revolution – is that everyone is entitled to his day in court. The British soldiers were guiltless of creating this fray, back in March of '70. They were the ones who were attacked, and justice prevailed.
Lloyd: At the point we are now, with the Declaration of Independence written and the war started, what do you foresee for the immediate future? Is this going to be quick, or not quick?
Adams: I have always felt the war is going to be a very long war, perhaps lasting as long as 10 years. Many of my fellows in Congress initially believed it was to be a very short war. I thought that was foolish, and of course, I still do.
Lloyd: Mr. Franklin?
Franklin: It is my hope that the conflict will be a brief one. It is also my hope that those who make decisions on both sides will come to reason, and that this can be settled amicably.
Adams: This notion of this story of a Peace Commission is as errant a notion as any that has ever sprung from the minds of politicians, enthusiasts, or maniacs. The British would attempt to capture us, much the same way as I would attempt to capture a horse with an empty hat, with the horse believing it is filled with apples.
Franklin: I think, Mr. Adams, peace is always preferred to war. If things can be settled in a peaceable manner, that is certainly the route we should take.
Adams: It is a war that was begun in April of '75, and it was begun by the British. We should see it to its successful conclusion.
Franklin: New Englanders have never been able to find peace.
Lloyd: I take it you're talking about the Peace Commission. The Howe brothers – one general, one Admiral – a very odd pair to have on a Peace Commission.
Adams: True enough.
Lloyd: But, as Mr. Franklin says, "Peace is always preferred to war." In war, people get killed who are perfectly innocent of being anything other than soldiers, and now they're not. They're quite dead. If I could have independence peacefully. . .
Adams: True enough. Absolutely. I agree completely. If the British are prepared to acknowledge that we are an independent nation, then let peace reign.
Lloyd: I take it from your tone of voice that you don't find that very true, or very likely.
Adams: Unfortunately, I am afraid that we're going to have to convince the British that we are an independent nation on the battlefield.
Lloyd: Now, Britain has – rightly or wrongly – the reputation for having the best land army in Europe, the reputation for having the best sea navy in Europe. The 13 colonies have a reputation for having militias that aren't very effective. It seems, on the face of it, an uneven contest.
Adams: Well indeed, a militia cannot stand up to regular troops, which is why we have regular troops. We are not relying upon militia for our defense. Militia is a means by which an aggressor may be deterred, but certainly not defeated. We have an army, the Continental Army, of which one of our own, George Washington of Virginia was placed in command. It has thus far proven itself able to survive, if not prevail. I have no doubt that it will survive long enough that will obtain proficiency necessary to defeat the British.
Lloyd: Question for either of you. Defeat the British – is that essential?
Adams: To defeat the British, which to my way of thinking means that they acknowledge our independence, yes. They will not be compelled to acknowledge it until such time as they realize that a war against us, on this continent so far from home, when they have imperial interests elsewhere, isn't ultimately in their best interest. That is, to defeat the British.
Franklin: I think "defeat the British" is the answer to the dilemma. Britain must be knowledgeable that we have won a decisive victory. Now, how that victory comes, whether it is through attrition, through wearing them down, distracting them overmuch from their other responsibilities in the world, or whether it is a decisive victory on the battlefield, that is the only way that true independence will arrive.
Adams: If I may point out, we have enjoyed a decisive victory when the British were out-maneuvered and were forced to evacuate Boston. Indeed, they may have been wiped out in their attempt to leave Boston, had an arrangement not been made with General Washington, that if they were allowed to leave unmolested, they would not burn Boston to the ground. They indeed have tasted defeat already.
Lloyd: Not a bad bargain, by the way: getting off free, but keeping your town. I bet the good people of Boston thought it was just wonderful.
Adams: They seemed to be pleased.
Lloyd: You think it's going to be longish rather than shortish. You are hopeful that you can find some accommodation, or it will be less war-like than we currently are in. But, how long are the people of the colonies, do you think, willing to put up with a war being fought on their territory?
Adams: Some are not willing to put up with it at all. I would estimate that perhaps a third are Tories, a third are timid, but a third are true blue. I would rely on that latter third to carry us through.
Franklin: I fear the longer the war continues, the more the will and determination of those in the colonies will fade. They will find this a horse that they do not wish to ride for a very long time. It will be up to us – those of us who send out information, who write for the newspapers, who communicate with our fellow citizens – it will be up to us to see that the spirit of liberty and freedom remains bright.
Lloyd: Mr. Franklin, if I remember your saying this correctly, you seem to say that victory could come through wearing down the enemy. Mr. Adams, you are now saying that we are wearing down the American people. Now, which side gets worn down first?
Adams: Well I'm saying that one side is not even with us to begin with. Or one-third. One-third actively supports the crown, the British. One-third, I think, would support whatever side is strongest at the moment. It is the latter third, the patriot, the true blue –they are the ones that we rely upon. The fact that they are true blue, to my way of thinking, would seem to indicate that they are not going to lose faith with our cause. If they do, they're not true blue.
Lloyd: Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, as interpreted by Steve Holloway and John Hamant on the Electronic Field Trip "Founders or Traitors?" It airs December 6 on history.org/trips, and on your local Public Broadcast Station. That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Visit history.org to learn more. Check back often, we'll post more for you to download and hear.