J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, May 25, 2023

From the “Lower Counties” to an Independent State

Earlier in the week, I wrote about the fewer-than-thirteen colonies represented in Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 “JOIN, or DIE.” cartoon in the Pennsylvania Gazette.

The snake parts included Pennsylvania but not Delaware. From one perspective, Delaware was merely a part or adjunct of Pennsylvania. From another, it was a separate polity. The question wasn’t settled until 1776.

The area on the west side of what we call the Delaware River was the home of the Lenape, Nanticoke, and possibly Tuscarora people at the start of the seventeenth century. In 1631 the Dutch established a colony near the site of today’s Lewes, but that lasted about a year.

In 1638 Sweden tried imperial expansion and set up a colony at what’s now Wilmington. The Dutch returned in strength and took back the territory in 1655. Then the English seized Delaware from the Dutch in 1664.

That English expedition was acting on behalf of Prince James, Duke of York, later James II. Baron Baltimore, proprietor of Maryland, argued that the land should belong to his colony, but a duke had more clout than a baron. York turned his territory over to William Penn in 1682.

Penn was pleased that Philadelphia now enjoyed access to the sea along the Delaware River. He included his new “lower counties” in the Pennsylvania general assembly. But the old and new parts of the province didn’t work well together. In 1704 a separate Delaware assembly began meeting at New Castle.

In the top-down view of the Penn family and the imperial government in London, Pennsylvania and Delaware remained a single entity. They always had the same appointed governor. In 1765 the ministers in London named John Hughes as stamp master for all of Pennsylvania, including the ”lower counties.”

Franklin’s emblem showed a similar perspective. Though as a member of the Pennsylvania assembly he knew that the lower counties met separately, he didn’t think Delaware needed to be treated as a whole colony on its own. It was just an appendage to rapidly growing Pennsylvania, lacking western lands and a major port.

Other newspapers copied the Pennsylvania Gazette emblem, also leaving out Delaware. When Isaiah Thomas and Paul Revere adapted the original snake into a more dangerous kind for the Massachusetts Spy masthead, they added Georgia—but still filed Delaware under “P.”

What changed the way people looked at Delaware? I think the arrival of continent-wide Congresses was a big factor. (Ironically, the “JOIN, or DIE.” emblem was created to promote the first such gathering, the Albany Congress, which didn’t really work.)

Colony legislatures, not governors, sent delegates to the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 and later gatherings. That meant Delaware acted separately from Pennsylvania. The two delegations had equal votes in the Congresses. American Whigs happily counted twelve colonies at the First Continental Congress, thirteen at the second.

By 1776, those politicians were proclaiming that power rose from the people—or at least that top slice of the people who elected representatives. From that bottom-up perspective, Delaware was already separate from Pennsylvania. During that year, the Delaware legislature’s declarations and resolutions formally established the state as independent not only from Britain but also from its northern neighbor.

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