One year before they signed the Declaration of Independence, the members of the continental congress extended an olive branch to King George III.
The ‘Olive Branch Petition’ infuriated John Adams, but he signed it anyway and kept quiet. Then he sent a letter to James Warren that described how he really felt — something he would later regret deeply.
The Olive Branch petition was the brainchild of John Dickinson, a Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress. Dickinson was a wealthy, Maryland-born lawyer who wanted to avoid a full-blown war with England.
Dickinson and Thomas Jefferson drafted the Olive Branch petition. It asked for control of American taxation and trade and pledged loyalty to King George. It argued the 13 colonies were only quarreling with Parliament and asked the king to end military operations.
Dickinson thought the ‘humble petition’ might persuade the king to negotiate with the colonists. John Adams disagreed, believing war to be inevitable. Blood had already been shed in Concord, in Lexington and on Bunker Hill, and Gen. George Washington had arrived in Cambridge and taken command of his troops.
Nonetheless, Adams signed the Olive Branch petition, not wanting to antagonize the other colonies. It was approved on July 5 and sent to London with Richard Penn and Arthur Lee. Penn was the Loyalist grandson of Pennsylvania founder William Penn; Lee, a Virginia patriot.
On July 24, Adams wrote a letter to James Warren mocking Dickinson as a ‘certain great fortune and piddling Genius…[who] has given a silly cast to our whole Doings.’ He believed the colonies should have already raised a navy and captured British officials. The letter was confiscated by the British and widely published in Tory newspapers at about the same time as Penn and Lee arrived in London.
The letter was published and Adams embarrassed. King George refused to see Penn and Lee, wouldn’t even look at the petition. On Aug. 23, he issued the Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition, which declared the colonies in a state of rebellion and ordered his officers to suppress the uprising.
Adams was ostracized for weeks. Dickinson wouldn’t speak to him, nor would many of the others. He later remembered he was ‘avoided like a man infected with leprosy.’ Benjamin Rush described Adams then as ‘an object of nearly universal scorn and detestation.
One year later, things would be very different.
With thanks to John Adams by David McCullough. You can buy John Adams from the New England Historical Society online bookstore here.