In the 1760s and through 1775 John J. Zubly was the leading Whig in Georgia. He wrote a number of sermons and political tracts strongly opposing any right of the British Parliament to tax Americans and especially objecting to its declared right to legislate for America “in all cases whatsoever.” In spite of that stance, he favored reconciliation with Great Britain over independence for America, and as one of Georgia’s delegates to the Second Continental Congress, he advocated against independence at every chance. But after two long months in the Continental Congress and lengthy debates, often on the losing side, Zubly was wearing out.
After returning to Georgia with the colony’s other two delegates and reporting to the Georgia Committee of Safety on December 19, 1775, he retired from political life. He let everyone know he was still for reconciliation but would take no action, private or public, against the revolutionary authorities in America, give no aid or oath to the British, and would not accept their parole if offered. He would remain neutral. He returned to his pulpit in Savannah and wrote theological tracts.
Unfortunately, the revolution would not allow Zubly to remain neutral. Increasingly American radicals demanded the fence-sitters in the country to chose sides. They did this by demanding that people swear oaths of loyalty.
On July 1, the day before the Continental Congress voted to declare independence and that “all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the Georgia Committee of Safety, unaware of what was happening in Philadelphia, decided that liberty was only for those who favored the radical agenda. Having taken over the government, causing the royal governor to flee, they required all Georgians to swear to two oaths, one to the colony of Georgia and the other to the Continental Congress.
Zubly agreed to the first, but refused the second. On the basis this refusal the Committee of Safety ordered his arrest, declaring him “an enemy of the state.” The chief justice of the colony overturned the order, but the radicals were not satisfied and re-arrested him, this time “to prevent him from going at large,” alleging that he was an “endanger to the public safety.” Having taken over the government, the radicals needed a method to raise state funds. As loyalism and neutrality was still popular in the colony, the radicals did not feel strong enough to enact taxes. So they decided to confiscate the property of those they felt were loyalists and the sell the property at auction, thus raising money for government functions. Zubly was banished from Georgia and half of his estate was confiscated. “A crowd of patriots” ransacked is home and threw his library, which was extensive, into the Savannah River. After his banishment Zubly moved to South Carolina and lived on an estate he owned in the Black Swamp.
But he did not go quietly. Zubly, the man who had never misled the people about his feelings concerning reconciliation, who had always strongly defended American rights against usurpation by the British Parliament, who had done his best to simply step aside remain neutral when his fellow citizens decided differently from him, who had made it abundantly clear that he would take no action to harm the American cause nor give aid and comfort to the British, who had been wronged and mistreated and lost his property, decided to speak out.
His first action was to defend himself publicly before the grand jury hearing the charges against him. When his case came before the Chatham County Grand Jury in 1777, Zubly wrote a public defense. But he did more than defend himself, he tried to warn the people of Georgia of the dangers they were creating for themselves.
To the Grand Jury of the County of Chatham, The State of Georgia
Gentlemen, on the point of being unjustly (as I conceive) banished from the country, I think it a debt due to those whom I shall leave behind, to point out the very fatal precipice towards which the state is, I think now verging . . .
You must be convinced, gentlemen, that no grievance can more properly demand the attention of a grand jury, than that which strikes at the very center of existence. That nothing can be more injurious to freemen in a popular government, than to be declared subjects. That nothing can be more alarming than the establishment of a power to take away liberty and property out of the usual and due course of law, by a power distinct from and in opposition to the only legal and constitutional judiciary department.
You must be convinced gentlemen, that if the constitution by which a people are to be governed, may be altered, infringed, or taken away . . . at the pleasure of those who may choose to do so, constitutional government is at an end.
If we must swear an oath to other states, who are not by oath bound to support nor claim any right to rule over us, the independence of thisstate is at an end.
If a man may be taken up without any previous accusation upon oath, all liberty is at an end.
If a man cannot preserve liberty and property, without taking an oath, which cannot be known whether is true, and in part is known to be false, all decency is at an end. And in a word, where the constitution is not a law to rulers, when judges and powers are set up in manifest opposition to it—where a natural justice, which condemns no man without a crime proved, is disregarded—where a set of men, not sworn to act according to law, and to do justice, are vested with discretionary powers . . . I ask, what constitution, what laws and what liberty or property can the people hope for . . .
I look upon myself as the very first victim singled out to feel the effects of a power which will greatly affect every man in this state . . .
In a free government no person can be compelled to appear before any but a lawful judge . . . I have been ordered to appear before judges who have not existence in our constitution . . .
A power to tender an oath, to deprive a man of half his estate, and banish him from every endearing connection, is lodged in seven men, without appeal, without check, without challenge . . . as the matter now mended, every man’s person and half his property lies at the mercy of seven men who need not have any qualifications, need not receive or produce any accusation, or hear any evidence . . .
The chairman . . . asked me, “whether before I went to the Continental Congress as a delegate, I had ever signed the Association?” You may be informed by memberswho were present that the great and mighty charge was the sum total of all that was offered to be alleged against me.
I offered to swear, that while I enjoyed the protection of the state, I would in all things do my duty as a good and faithful freeman. I offered to sear, that while I enjoyed the protection of the state, I would give no intelligence to, nor take up arms in aid to the troops of the King of Great Britain.
But all this would not answer the purpose. I refused to swear that I have receive no protection from the King of Great Britain, because everyone who knows me, must know it to be false. And for this I am now to be banished.
Zubly was being punished, severely punished, even though he had committed no crime, no one had accused him of a crime and no evidence of any crime was presented. He was being punished merely for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to the Continental Congress.
He went to South Carolina, kept a low profile and remained quiet. But events changed in 1779. The British began a campaign to clear American rebels out of the southern states and reclaim them for Britain. In 1779 Georgia fell to the British, followed in 1780 by South Carolina and North Carolina. The war was not going well for the Americans. Many who had property confiscated from them were able to file claims in royal courts to regain it. Zubly moved back to Savannah and resumed his parish at the Presbyterian. A royalist newspaper was started in Savanah, the Royal Georgia Gazette. Zubly decided to write a series of articles expressing his disappointment in the Americans refusing reconciliation, pointing out that that the British had tried to offer compromise by the Carlisle Commission and had tried to reform the laws that were obnoxious to Americans, but that radicals in the Continental Congress had persuaded their fellow delegates to reject any such offer. He felt the bloodshed that had gone on for so long had been unnecessary, and wasteful. As he saw it now the war was no longer about restoring American rights, but was being fought solely over the issue of independence.
He wrote seven essays under the name of Helvetius which were published in the Royal Georgia Gazette. In these essays he tried to show how America had fostered a schism without law and order and that it was bringing misery and hardship. In the fourth essay Zubly concentrated on international law as expressed by a number of international legal authorities. In this he concentrated on what is, and what is not, a just war, as recognized by international law.
Helvetius # 4
The maxim that I have advanced . . . ‘That no war can be lawful without a just cause and unless there is no easier and safer remedy to obtain and preserve peace’ . . .
That war, even justly begun, can no longer be just than while the cause continues that made it so . . .
War and misery must either continue forever, or must end in the entire destruction of one or both parties, or in a reconciliation between them. A nation that will not harken to or received any proposals of peace, they renounce human nature, and offend against mankind at large . . .
War does not decide the question. Victory only compels the conquered to subscribe to a treaty.
Is it not most notorious that Great Britain not only repealed every law and grievance complained of, but also made the most generous offer to congress . . . and that those offers have been treated with a scorn and contempt which would be deemed intolerable between private individuals, and with and insult that violates the law of all civilized nations.
In number six, Zubly again told the people he was never their enemy, but merely tried to warn them of the dangers to which they were headed.
Helvetius # 6
In my former numbers I have insinuated that unlawful resistance to lawful government is rebellion, and that as all war is unjust that has not a just cause and object, so a civil war must be supremely so . . .
Thousands have perished by the sword, many by hunger and want, some sank with a broken heart under injuries they could not sustain . . . There is not a province in America . . . which has not, more or less, been stained with blood, sufferings, violence, nor a spot of the once delightful part of the globe that bears not the visible marks of the curse and misery introduced by their present or late fractious rulers . . .
They have bargained and sold their country and dupes to France. And must be glad to do anything they command . . .
You have refused every offer of peace, and made use of every artifice to continue the war . . . You are guilty towards all mankind of disturbing their quiet and setting a pernicious example.
You that still are, have been, or wish to be in arms in such a nefarious cause, I never was a personal enemy to any of you, though no man has a greater abhorrence of your proceedings. I never attempted to destroy, but ran very great risks, and suffered most heavy losses to prevent your destruction. I never lifted my arms against you.
With the Helvetius essays Zubly left politics for good and went back to the church that he had ministered to since 1760, satisfied that he had done his best for the people and the land that he loved. On July 22, 1781, Zubly passed away. It was two months before the British defeat at Yorktown. Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, were still in British hands. He died in a part of America that was still a part of the empire that he cherished and was never to know that with the defeat at Yorktown, American independence was secured, that independence which he had dreaded all his public years.
Even in death the radical movement in America could not leave Zubly alone. Randall Miller edited a collection of his writings which was published in 1982. Miller mentions an incident that supposedly was the real cause of Zubly’s sudden exit from the Continental Congress in November 1775. Miller relates an unproven story which supposedly occurred in October 1775, while Zubly was still in congress. Samuel Chase openly charged Zubly with writing letters to the royal governor of Georgia. Zubly supposedly denied the charge whereupon Chase said he had one such letter and was ready to produce it. Supposedly that is what made Zubly suddenly decide to leave the congress. The story also alleges that the two other Georgia delegates were told by the congress to immediately travel to Georgia to make sure that Zubly did not misrepresent the congressional proceedings.
In volume two of the Letters of Delegates to Congress, the editors note that the above story is “a tradition among Georgia historians.” It first appeared in 1811 when Hugh McCall published The History of Georgia, Containing Brief Sketches of the Most Remarkable Events Up To the Present Day. McCall alleges that “Zubly left Philadelphia under a cloud. As the time for independence drew near, Zubly . . . dismayed by Congress’ drift toward independence,” wrote a letter to Georgia Royal Governor James Wright. Chase supposedly intercepted the letter and accused Zubly in open congress of writing it. Zubly denied it, “but left congress as Chase was preparing to present the incriminating evidence against him.” Congress then supposedly sent the other two Georgia delegates to Georgia to counter any unfavorable report Zubly might give.
The story gained credence when in 1901 the diary of Ezra Stiles, a clergyman connected with the College of New Jersey, was published. He was a contemporary of many of the founding fathers and on friendly terms with some of them. In his diary Styles told a similar story in which congressman Francis Dana reported to Styles in April 1776, that Zubly had been motivated to leave congress because of the drift towards independence and congress’s refusal to send “yet another petition to Great Britain.” Dana also mentioned “a rumor” supposedly current that Zubly had been detected in correspondence, not with the Royal Governor of Georgia, but rather the Royal Governor of South Carolina, William Campbell.
With respect to these two stories it is interesting to note that, according to the editors of the Letters of Delegates to Congress, “there is no tangible evidence confirming the existence of Zubly’s alleged letter” to the governor of either colony. It was the mission of the editors to find just such a letter, if it existed. Given that accounts differ as to whether the letter’s recipient was the governor of Georgia or the governor of South Carolina, it is obvious that we are dealing with rumor. There is no documentation of any such letter or incident. Certainly Chase never produced such a letter. In addition we know from Zubly’s letter of November 10, 1775, that the other Georgia delegates, John Houstoun and Archibald Bulloch, were planning to leave some weeks after Zubly left—hardly a rush to get to Georgia ahead of him. Bulloch and Zubly made their report to the Georgia Committee of Safety together on December 19, 1775. Finally, we know from the notes on debates by John Adams and others that it was Zubly who did all the talking for the Georgia delegation. If Zubly had been speaking of things out of tune with the sentiments of the other Georgia delegates one would think that they would have spoken up. We can only conclude that they were fully aligned with Zubly’s take on the issues under discussion in the congress and that he was accurately representing the sentiments of most Georgians.
When Zubly was arrested and tried in Georgia the only charge against him was the refusal to swear allegiance to the congress. There was no evidence ever brought to bear against him of giving aid to the British or of communicating with the royal governors of any colony. If there had been a letter surely it would have been produced at his trial, such as it was.
Based on all of the above, in the opinion of this writer, we have to rate the alleged incident of the letter as false and that it was nothing more than an attempt by later historians, using mere rumors to further smear the name of Zubly to confirm his being labeled a loyalist.
Randall M. Miller, Zubly, A Warm and Zealous Spirit: John J. Zubly and the American Revolution, A Selection of His Writings (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1982), 22.
New Georgia Encyclopedia, www.goergiaencylopedia.org/articles/histiry-archiology/john-j-zubly-1724-1781.
Zubly had repeatedly, while in the Continental Congress, tried to make just that point with the other delegates. He tried to convince them that before the war got totally out of hand, it would be wise to find a compromise based on reconciliation and a restoration of American rights.
Letters of Delegates to Congress, 328n1.
Ezra Styles, The Literary Diary of Ezra Styles . . ., ed. Franklin B. Dexter, 3 vols., (New York: E. Scribners Sons, 1901), 2:10, as found in Letters of Delegates to Congress, 2:328n1.