Tag Archives: 13 Colonies

Forgotten Fragments

“Mr. Watson, come here. I need you!”

Alexander G Bell, age 29

A.G. Bell, inventor of telephone age 29 (most photos show him much older)

Memory.  One way those of us without photographic memories can maintain the vitality of some facts fresh in our minds is to repeat them often to ourselves, like flashcards.  Sometimes we do this by sharing with others; story telling is a form of memory re-enforcement.  For example: the date, time and place you met your true love.  “In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Perhaps the date of an election: 1948, “Dewey Defeats Truman!” 

Likewise, key facts of our nation’s founding and early years are kept fresh by repetition; they are well-known and often repeated. 

  • 1776: Declaration of Independence. 
  • 1781: Victory at Yorktown. 
  • 1787: Constitution is written. 
  • 1791: The first 10 Amendments, AKA the Bill of Rights, become part of Constitution. Et cetera, et cetera.

Gonna shake the tree here, maybe turn over some rocks, and see if we can get a few more interesting, fragmental facts rejuvenated.

The thirteen “original” American colonies.  Why only 13 colonies?  Could there have been more? Weren’t there?

At the dawn of the US’s independence, let’s say we go south, and recall both Floridas: East Florida and West Florida, divided by the Apalachicola River. La Florida had been claimed by Spain since 1565. Spain had made an ill-timed poor decision to enter the Seven Years War (or French and Indian War, according to your preferred history) on the side of France near the end of that war.  Through the British victory and the 1763 Treaty of Paris, both Floridas became British possessions. (As did all of the French lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, and all of Canada). In fact, the Floridas became British colonies. Yet, the Floridas did not join “the thirteen” for Independence; they had yet to build up a sense of disdain for Britain and the Crown: they had only recently been acquired and were lightly populated. But they were certainly British American colonies.  So, already up to fifteen British colonies in the New World.

Henry Knox, about age 56. Somehow he failed to maintain his figure, perhaps too much good living [Painting by Gilbert Stuart, 1806, Public Domain]

What about Vermont?  Your mental Rolodex and flashcards will quickly show that Vermont was not among “the Thirteen.”  Yet – thanks to Ethan Allan and the “Green Mountain Boys” – they fought with the Americans against the British, helping Benedict Arnold win an important early revolutionary war victory at Fort Ticonderoga in May, 1775.  The 60 guns captured there (brilliantly transported over hill, dale and frozen river, by Gen Knox in his “Noble Train of Artillery” about 250 miles in wintery conditions) led to the American rebels ability to fire upon, and surprisingly dismiss, the British Navy from Boston Harbor in March, 1776. [Knox was only 25 at the time. ]

How did Vermont even come to exist?  Why was it not part of “the Thirteen?” Conflicting charter definitions left the area we know as “Vermont” in limbo: the colonies of New York and New Hampshire both laid claim to it.  And, at one time, even Massachusetts.  Even Quebecois traipsed fairly freely through the area, setting up camps, exploring and fur trapping.

Vermont took the opportunity presented by such disorder to become a de facto separate colony, beginning in 1770.  The “cities”, i.e. centers of administration, for New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts colonies were distant, and Vermonters felt no connection to them at all. The aforementioned “Green Mountain Boys” defended Vermont’s “independence” from other colonies fiercely.

Knox Cannon Trail. Many walk/hike this 250 mi trek to commemorate Knox’s achievement. Historic towns along the way offer lodging and refreshment options

When “America” formally declared its independence from England, the Vermonters deigned not to join, and formed their own Republic, in 1777 (although they continued a military alliance with the rebel Americans).  Much later, when New York finally acceded to Vermont’s discrete separateness, the Green Mountain Republic folded its tent and was incorporated into the union, in 1791 – after 14 years of formal independence.  It became, coincidently, the 14th state.

Aside: The only other state I can think of that was subsumed directly from independent nation status into the US as a state is Texas.  Any others?  [Hawaii went from independence through a lengthy Territory status].

Vermont was never formally granted its own charter of any sort by Britain.  So, it was not a “colony”, per se.  Our historical scavenger hunt did turn up some revolutionary factoid fragments: Ethan Allan and his Green Mountain Boys, Vermont’s short lived independence as a republic, the defeat of the British at Fort Ticonderoga and Boston Harbor, and Henry Knox’s 250-mile Noble Train of Artillery.

Our New World Colony tally remain at 15; i.e. “the Thirteen” plus the two Floridas.

But were there more?  Well, we mentioned Canada. Canada is surely part of America – North America. The Canadian half of me is a bit ill-at-ease by lack of thorough knowledge here, but we’ll give it a shot.  In 1776 Quebec had been its own chartered provincial colony since 1763.  As was St Johns Island (later Prince Edward Island), split off as a separate chartered colony from Nova Scotia in 1769.  At this period we should also count Nova Scotia and Newfoundland as colonies.  The Hudson Bay Company had also been granted a special charter, but I don’t believe it was of anything like formal colony status.  [Notes on Canada and British colonial status in footnotes below].   

So, how many Colonies did the Brits have in America at the time of the US War for Independence?  I count 19, or perhaps 20.  Not including Vermont.  And that’s just mainland colonies.  We’d find more British American colonies in the Caribbean, like Jamaica, the West Indies, the Bahamas, and others. So much for 13. But that is the number we tell ourselves, on our mental flashcards, over and over.  13 … 13 … 13.

The Bill of Rights.

We know the Bill of Rights as the original ten Amendments to the US Constitution.  Lost in the shuffle is that there were twelve original amendments passed by Congress in 1789. Twelve was the number of Amendments submitted to the states for ratification.

Turns out Amendments #1 and #2 failed.  Well, sort of.  The remaining ten – which we Americans fondly study and recite – were ratified by the requisite number of states (three-quarters), finally, in December, 1791.  These thus became formally part of the nation’s Constitution … these are the first 10 of its 27 Amendments.  So, our current #1 was actually originally #3.

Strangely often forgotten are Amendments numbered as #9 and #10. These clearly imply that the power of the federal government is limited; and suggest that the “Founders”, including James Madison, the principal author, clearly feared a powerful and unrestricted central federal government. You can refresh your memory here and here.

Well, what about the original first two Amendments? 

Amendment 1.  What happened?  Didn’t pass.  Probably a good thing. It would have allowed the House of Representatives to grow to approximately one representative for each 50,000 inhabitants.  Positives? On the one hand, it would have had at least two benefits.  First: it would certainly give us much more granular representation, possibly eliminating the drive for gerrymandering.  Second, it would have adjusted the Electoral College to almost entirely obviate the advantage of smaller states. But it had a serious downside: the House of Representatives would currently have to accommodate up to about six thousand butts and noses (that’s 6,000 – compared to 435 now).  With some foresight, the states did not ratify this.  [More here].

The original Amendment #2 has a significantly different story – although for nearly two centuries it followed the same moribund track as #1.  This originally proposed Amendment  #2 concerned Congressional salaries.  It forbade any sitting Congress from voting itself a pay raise.  They could, however, vote for an increase for the next and following Congresses.  I don’t know why it didn’t pass, but it didn’t. Seems like a good idea.  In fact, at this very time, in 1789, Congress voted itself a 17% pay raise (from $6/day to $7). Passed by Congress, but unratified by the requisite number of states, it lay in limbo, like a genie in a lamp. 

Jump to 1982.  An otherwise regular and inconspicuous student at the University of Texas, young 19-year old Mr Gregory Watson, was doing some research hoping to find a good topic for a term paper for his government class.  He stumbled across this proposed Amendment. 

“No law varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”

He found, upon further investigation, that this amendment was still “alive”; seven of the Thirteen states at the time had ratified it.  But, it had no sunset. It was still alive. That is: it could still be ratified by the states without going back to Congress.  What a novel idea!  Congress cannot vote itself a pay increase. Now, let’s get it ratified by 31 more states.

Watson proposed such a revival in his essay.

His professor thought he was rather silly and gave him a grade of “C” – that is: average.  Grades were inflated a bit even then. In short: He was regarded as below average. [Greg Watson, the bad grade that helped change the Constitution]

Gregory Watson, in 2017

Undeterred, Watson undertook a one-man campaign to get the amendment passed.  With enough letters and phone calls, and ten years of persistence – and more than a few states getting pissed that Congress continued to vote itself pay increases – it eventually got momentum.  The number of states that ratified went from 7, to 10, to 20.  To 30. 

It took a decade.  In 1992 Michigan became the 38th state to ratify the amendment. It has passed the ¾ threshold.  It passed!  It became part of the Constitution and is now the 27th Amendment.  It’s the law of the land: A sitting Congress cannot vote to increase their own pay.  It remains the last change to the US Constitution.  It was ratified and became law 202 years after it passed Congress; a record that will surely never be broken. [Watch recent video of Watson and his story here.]

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Our lost fragments of history can be significant.  Our past is much more interesting and its texture much more complex than our day-to-day notions give credit to it. And more than our flashcards of rote memory. Not only that: it shows that a diligent, young, energetic, inspired and undaunted person – one who is blessed with fortitude and idealism, whether Henry Knox, Alex Bell or Greg Watson – can change the nation.  Even if it’s just one thing. 

To all the lost fragments … let’s not lose the threads of our past, nor the possibilities of our future. 

And to all the potential Greg Watsons out there.  Just do it! Be Greg Watson.  Wherever you are, Mr Watsons of the world, we need you.

Peace out

Joe Girard © 2020

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Status of British colonies in Canada at time of American Revolution:

Upper and Lower Canada formed 1791, to account for influx of Loyalists from America

Quebec Province was a colony from 1763 (when it was taken from France) until the forming of Upper and Lower Canada, in 1791

Nova Scotia was a British Colony from 1654 until 1848, when it received significant self-governing status.  It later became part of the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867 (Canada Day, eh?)

Newfoundland was a British Colony from 1610 until 1907, when it attained Dominion status.  It was confederated into Canada after WW2, in 1949.

Prince Edward Island was acquired during the Seven Years War, from France, and formally became a British colony in 1769.  The French called it Saint John’s Island (Île Saint-Jean).  The Brits retained the name until formally changing it to PEI in 1791. Excessive debt drove the colony to seek confederation with Canada, which became official on Canada Day, 1873.

New Brunswick was part of the British Empire during the American Revolution, but not a colony itself; it was attached at the time to Nova Scotia.

Labrador, to my knowledge has never held colonial status.  It is currently attached to Newfoundland.

To my knowledge and research, neither the Hudson’s Bay Company nor any part of Rupert’s Land was ever a colony.  These were pure business propositions from their founding up through the American Revolution.

Other stuff

Who Really Invented the Telephone?     

Henry Knox: The Noble Train of Cannons is also called the Henry Knox Cannon Trail.

Plaque noting where Knox’s Canon Trail saga ends
Sketch of Knox Winter transport of cannons, artist unknown, US Military Archives, Public Domain

Correction:  A few essays ago I wrote in Driving me Dazy that no state has an Interstate Highway with the same number as a US (Route) Highway number.  Wrong!  Wisconsin now has I-41 (which overlays US-41 over its entire length, to avoid confusion).  I-41 stops in Green Bay, but US-41 continues well north into the Keweenaw Peninsula on Michigan’s UP (Its other end is Miami: no confusion there).  And Arkansas has US-49 in the eastern part of the state, and a few fragments of I-49 in the far west part of the state.  Those happened long after I lived in those states.  Sorry.