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An Apology for the Pennsylvania Assembly



Philadelphia, February 29, 1776.

It has always appeared more meritorious in my eyes to make a good and sufficient apology for any seeming deficiency in the conduct of others, (especially of publick officers,) than forever to be censuring them for conduct, the reasons of which they do not fully attend to.

Insinuations have been thrown out in pamphlets and newspapers, against certain proceedings of our honourable House of Representatives, which I think injurious. As the best causes have not been assigned them, I would, therefore, beg leave to offer such reasons for those parts of their conduct which to some have appeared exceptionable, as I trust will fully acquit them, and remove the censure from that honourable Body to those to whom it of right belongs.

I have often heard them condemned for their backwardness in the cause of liberty, the great dislike they discover to certain measures, and the reluctance with which they proceed in an effectual opposition to a Government which sets no bounds to its claims, and exercises the most unrelenting cruelty in the prosecution of them. Insensibility itself, it is said, might be roused by their madness, and nothing but disaffection to the cause could account for such conduct. If proper attention were paid to the delicacy of their situation, I am persuaded our Assembly would escape without censure. It is a principle in philosophy, and ought to be admitted in every other science, never to admit of more causes than are sufficient to account for the effect, nor to permit a bad cause to be assigned while a good one can be found which will equally solve the phenomenon.

The Representatives of a free people, who are chosen purely for their publick merit and characters, must ever be considered as men of integrity, wisdom, and capacity for the service; a supposition of a contrary nature would reflect more disgrace upon the electors than the elected. In this light I mean to view our present Representatives, and to justify their conduct upon these principles only. An oath or affirmation is surely the most sacred and solemn of all obligations, the most distant appearance of a breach of which a conscientious man, and particularly the Legislators of a nation, would carefully avoid, as the happiness of the community in a great degree depends on the reverential awe and dread in which such an appeal to the Divinity is held by the people. And of all oaths, those that are undefined in their nature, and extensive in meaning, create the greatest perplexity in the consciences of religious men. To this, alone, I ascribe the backwardness of the Assembly to enter on such decisive measures as would give general satisfaction to their constituents — not to a dislike of the cause. And any one who will particularly attend to the late instructions given to our Delegates in Congress, will plainly perceive that I have pointed out the true principles on which they are founded. To the oaths which they are obliged to lake before they can sit to hear a debate or vote in the House, and not to a disaffection to the cause, is their conduct on some important occasions to be ascribed. We ought never to charge that to a bad principle which can be accounted for on a good one. I beg, therefore, that my


defence of their conduct may be impartially attended to, and not slightly passed over because it appears in a newspaper.

Men who are conscientiously careful to prove to the world that a solemn oath or affirmation is a sacred thing, and not to be trifled with, must find themselves under peculiar embarrassments when called upon to act against a Government to which they have sworn; and, if I am not ill-informed, some members have had their objections to taking it at this very sitting.

I beg leave to transcribe a part of the affirmation which the members are obliged to take on being admitted to a seat in the House, which, I am persuaded, will sufficiently apologize for the seeming reluctance with which they pursue measures that may appear to them to interfere with the oaths they have taken:

"I, A B, do solemnly, sincerely, and truly acknowledge, profess, testify, and declare, that King George is the lawful and rightful King of the Realm of Great Britain, and of all others his dominions and countries thereunto belonging; and I do solemnly promise, that I will be true and faithful, and bear true allegiance to King George, and to him will be faithful against all traitorous conspiracies and attempts whatsoever, which shall be made against his Crown and dignity, and I will do my best endeavour to disclose and make known to King George and his successors all treasons and traitorous conspiracies, which I know to be made against him or any of them."

Now, this short extract, though but a small part of the whole, is so full of words of uncertain sense and import, so crammed with expressions, the extent of whose signification is so undefined and ill-limited, that a conscientious man may readily be at a loss to know how far he may proceed with safety, and where he must stop, or be perjured. Our Representatives certainly deserve great credit for the truly patriotick part of their conduct, and a too conscientious regard to their oaths ought to apologize for what they have left undone, as well as for some parts of their proceedings, particularly their instructions. It is hard to oblige men to do any thing that they may think interferes with their consciences. It is acknowledged that a bad oath is better broken than kept; and yet, few among us would be quite free from uneasy sensations and reflections on being reduced to the necessity of violating it. I readily admit the justness of that reasoning which, in the present case, alleges, that where the obligation is mutual, breach of covenant on one side of necessity releases the other. This is certainly implied in the nature of the compact.

But the clearest implication does not always relieve the conscience from scruples. If sacred history tells truth, Abraham' s servant, when about to swear, on a more trivial occasion, would not be content with any implied release from his oath, but insisted on having the terms of it particularly and clearly defined, and the clause of release fairly and fully stated, that neither his own conscience, nor the tongue of slander might be able, however falsely, to accuse him of perjury. I also remember, a gentleman lately told me that he had just been reading the oath of allegiance, and, for his part, he said he could not, consistent with it, oppose the present proceedings of Great Britain. I told him the oath was conditional; but it would not do. Now, there may be many men in our House of Assembly who have like consciences with this man and Eleazer.

I conclude, therefore, that every degree of inactivity, backwardness, or inconsistency, with which they are chargeable, proceeds wholly from the oaths they have taken. Their situation is, in this respect, very delicate, and ought to be taken into consideration by every one who takes upon him to judge of their conduct. I am sure nothing heretofore alleged can so easily account for the instructions given by them to our Delegates in Congress, and the unanimity with which they were agreed to in the House. Their oaths, they might imagine, tied them, and they must tie their Delegates. Let us fully acquit them of all sinister motives. Here is principle sufficient to account for the matter; a principle more consonant to our ideas of their integrity and virtue, and the patriotick part of their proceedings, and, therefore, more worthy of credit than the charge of Toryism. Men of equal integrity, but more confined in their notions, would have refused to act at all, and rather submitted to any terms than made an opposition.


I cannot, therefore, help hinting, that if their constituents condemn them for backwardness and inconsistency on the present occasion, they have much greater reason for accusing their constituents of unreasonableness in expecting such things at their hands, while an oath is in the way.

The Assembly and a Convention are both Representatives of the People; yet, on the present occasion a Convention acts more to the minds of the people. Why so? Not, surely, because the members that compose it are greater friends to their country, or more warmly attached to the liberties of America? By no means; but, because they have no oaths to embarrass them. Why, then, is the Assembly laid under these difficulties, when they can be avoided?

If people would consider this matter properly, and show that regard to their Representatives which they certainly merit, they would not lay such stumbling-blocks in their way. If no other body of men would do what is required of them, necessity would plead on their behalf, and save them from self-reproach; but, as this is not the case, their backwardness is justifiable, and they, alone, are to ba blamed, who have it in their power to remove the difficulty, and yet will not do it. For my part, I was always against troubling the Assembly with the matter. Were it not for a kind of tacit interfering with their oaths, who, that has the high esteem of them which is due to upright Representatives, can doubt but they would have recommended the calling a Convention before this time? The Committee of Inspection for this City and District have it in their power to take the load off their shoulders, and, if they do not, blame not your Assembly. I have shown sufficient cause why they cannot enter into the necessary measures. The Committee lies under no such difficulties. Let blame, for the future, fall on the deserving.