Journals of the Continental Congress

Second Continental Congress: March 15 1776

March 15, 1776

Congress receives and read letters and enclosures from General Washington, Lord Sterling, William Allen, the Convention of New York, General Schuyler. Included are a “number of intercepted letters.” The New York delegates are concerned about General Lee’s Loyalty Test, and John Hancock writes that Congress is determined to defend New York.

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Journals of the Continental Congress [Edited]

Ordered, That Richard Henry Lee, and Benjamin Franklin, be appointed to call on General Lee, and direct him immediately to repair to the southern department, and take the command of the forces there.  Lee’s decision to apply loyalty tests to Tories in Rhode Island and New York continued to be debated among members of Congress.

Benjamin Harrison reported that the committee of the whole was ready to make recommendations for the defense of New York.

Resolved, That Lord Stirling be directed to order the troops destined for Canada to proceed on their march, agreeable to their former orders.

Adjourned to 10 o’Clock tomorrow.

James Duane, John Alsop, John Jay, and Lewis Morris to the New York Provincial Convention

General Lee informed Congress, by Letter, that he had imposed a Test upon the Inhabitants of our Colony, in order to ascertain their political Principles.  [Editor’s Note. See John Jay to Alexander McDougall, March 13, 1776.]  However salutary such a Measure might be, when grounded on a legal and constitutional Basis; we were much alarmed that it should owe it’s Authority to any military officer, however distinguished for his Zeal, his Rank, his accomplishments, and Services.

We considered it as one of the most solemn and important Acts of Legislation, and a high Encroachment upon your Rights as the Representatives of a free People. We could not therefore be silent upon so momentous a Point, though we were not favored with your Sentiments or Instructions; nor informed of what, or whether anything, had passed between you and the General respecting the disaffected Inhabitants. We took up the Subject on general Principles.

There can be no Liberty where the military is not subordinate to the civil power, in everything not immediately connected with their Operations. Your House, the natural and proper Tribunal for all civil matters within the Circle of your own Jurisdiction, was assembled: and Congress itself within the General’s reach, ready to enforce every reasonable Proposition for the public safety. To one or other he ought to have applied. A similar Effort in Rhode Island had passed over unnoticed; reiterated Precedents must become dangerous: we therefore conceived it to be our unquestionable Duty to assert The Independence and Superiority of the civil power, and to call the Attention of Congress to this unwarrantable Invasion of it’s Rights by one of their Officers.

A resolution passed, in Consequence, on the 9th of March, “that no Oath by way of test be imposed upon, exacted, or required of any Inhabitant of these Colonies by any military Officer” and it was ordered to be immediately published.  We flatter ourselves that our Conduct on this Occasion will meet with your Approbation….

Congress were much perplexed in appointing the Officers to the four New York Battalions not knowing whether a former Resolution directing the English Troops who wintered in Canada to be formed into two Battalions, had been carried into Effect….A Battalion was intended for Colonel [Rudolph] Ritzema; but some Objections having been Suggested it is left vacant until he can have an Opportunity of being heard, of which you will be pleased to inform him. [Editor’s Note. He was made commander of the Third New York Battalion on March 28, 1776.]

John Hancock to William Alexander (Brigadier General)

Whatever may be the Designs of General Howe, it appears from all the Intelligence received, more than probable, that the Ministry will make an Effort to gain Possession of New York. It is therefore the Desire of the Congress, by all possible Means, to provide for the Defense of that Place.

They have the Satisfaction to find, by the Report of a Committee appointed to confer with General Lee on that Subject, that though the City of New York cannot easily be made defensible against an Attack by Sea, yet it may be made an advantageous Field of Battle, and that by Works thrown up in proper Places, the Enemy may be prevented from gaining Possession of it, and making it a Place of Arms. It is therefore the Desire of Congress, that you would exert the utmost Diligence in erecting the Works, and perfecting the Defense agreeable to the Plan he left you.

By the enclosed Resolves you will perceive, the Congress have voted eight Thousand Men for the Defense of the Colony of New York.  Three Battalions, & a Company of Rifle-Men from Pennsylvania, and one Battalion from New Jersey are ordered to join you with all Expedition.  Col. Irvine’s Battalion and the Rifle Company are said to be completely armed. The Rest are not so well provided as could be wished.  But by the Resolve for taking the Arms out of the Hands of the disaffected and Non-associators, it is hoped, they may be soon supplied.

As the Tempest approaches and threatens to burst upon them, I flatter myself the Convention of New York will strain every Nerve in speedily raising and arming the four Battalions, ordered to be raised there for the Defense of their Colony….

The Congress have a just Sense of the Importance of defending New York. But as they conceive this may be done by the Means pointed out, they would not have the Measures interrupted which are taken for accomplishing their Views in Canada. I have it therefore in Command to direct you, to order the Troops destined for Canada to proceed on their March agreeably to their former Orders.

Edited with commentary by Gordon Lloyd.