Joseph Galloway – the forgotten Founding Father

  • Themes: American Diplomacy

Was the revolution that created the United States of America inevitable? The life of Joseph Galloway shows what might have been.

An illustration of Joseph Galloway by Thomas Emmett, 1885. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
An illustration of Joseph Galloway by Thomas Emmett, 1885. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The portrait that exists of Joseph Galloway – a watercolour on ivory miniature painted when he was in his mid-forties and at the turning point of his life – shows a dapper gentleman of alert, yet refined, features. He had been born in 1731 in Maryland, his Quaker family having been in America for nearly a century, among the early settlers that crossed the Atlantic in the twenty-two years between the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers and the outbreak of the English Civil War. Rather than a formal schooling he was educated by a private tutor before moving to Pennsylvania, aged eighteen, to practice law.

With a population approaching 19,000, Philadelphia was both the colony’s capital and the largest city in British North America. Aged twenty-two, in 1753 Galloway cemented his position in its society by marrying Grace Growden. She was said to be the most beautiful woman in Pennsylvania. By happy coincidence she was also the daughter of the colony’s richest man, Laurence Growden, owner of an estate valued at £70,000 which included an ironworks and the country house, Trevose (named after the headland in Cornwall from where the family had set off for the New World). Galloway’s new father-in-law was also one of the colony’s leading politicians.

Galloway adapted to his improved prospects by adopting his in-laws’ Episcopalian faith. That his marriage smoothed his advance into public life is not to be doubted, but that he was welcomed into the Growden family is testament that in the space of four years he had shown himself to be a successful lawyer and a man of prospects.

As well as his connections, his professional competence is evident in the speed of his political ascent. Only five months after winning his seat in the October 1756 election to the Pennsylvania Assembly, Galloway was entrusted by its most distinguished member, Benjamin Franklin, with managing his party group whilst Franklin voyaged to London. Despite being twenty-five-years Galloway’s senior, the polymath – whose scientific experiments and inventions gave him good claim to being the world’s most famous American at that time – clearly rated his political protégé. The affinity was further bonded by the friendship between Galloway and Franklin’s son, William.

Unique among the thirteen colonies, Pennsylvania was the hereditary possession of the Penn family who by the mid-eighteenth century were mostly living in England and ruling the province indirectly through the governor they appointed. Political debate in the elected Assembly was framed by politicians who upheld the Penns’ ‘proprietorial interest’ versus those, like Franklin and Galloway, who sought to curtail it. The primary purpose of Franklin’s trip to London was to petition the government there to transfer the colony from the tax-avoiding Penn family to direct Crown rule.

It is ironic that Benjamin Franklin spent much of the twenty years before the American Revolution in London arguing for the British Crown to increase its political control over his own colony. Throughout these years, Franklin and Galloway kept up as full a communication as the six to twelve weeks trans-Atlantic sailing time permitted. Whilst Franklin was making little headway in London, in Philadelphia Galloway was having to manage diminishing enthusiasm for direct Crown control among those irritated by successive provocations from Westminster. These ranged from the 1763 Proclamation Act (protecting Native American land beyond the Appalachians from encroaching settlers) to the Stamp Act (which sought to defray part of the expense of North America’s security from both less pliable Native Americans and the French).

Whilst Westminster’s right to tax trans-Atlantic commerce was well-established, the Stamp Act on newspapers and legal documents infringed upon the internal taxation prerogatives of the colonial legislatures. Galloway opposed such imperial overreach, but feared anarchy more. His response was to organise the civil defence of Philadelphia’s property from anti-tax rioters and to propose in the press (under the pseudonym ‘Americanus’) a scheme for a united assembly of the colonies to agree taxes necessary for common defence, and to petition London. As Galloway wrote to Franklin (who had conceived a prototype version of this scheme in 1754), ‘these considerations indicate the prudence, if not the necessity of uniting the colonies to their mother country by every prudential measure that can be devised.’

Galloway’s stout defence of Philadelphia from the mob was warmly rewarded by its electorate. Both he and his party swept the October 1765 elections. Westminster’s repeal of the Stamp Act appeared to demonstrate the wisdom of measured opposition rather than open revolt. It also diminished the apparent need for his proposed constitutional innovation. In 1766 he began eight years as the Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly. To Franklin he wrote, ‘I have now no doubt that all discontent will subside in America.’

This proved to be political punditry of the poorest kind. For whilst Galloway won successive re-elections, the shouts and alarms multiplied – the Townsend duties, the tea duties and disorder in Boston, the 1774 Quebec Act that annoyed New England’s anti-Catholic Puritans and settlers keen to venture further west.

When the first Continental Congress met to discuss how to respond to London’s provocations, Galloway offered the delegates the source of his own authority, the State House in Philadelphia. They instead chose Carpenters’ Hall. Every colony apart from Georgia sent representatives. Besides Galloway, they included George Washington, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Samuel Adams, and John Adams.

On 28 September 1774, Galloway addressed them with his Plan of Union. Each of the thirteen colonial assemblies would retain their existing legislative powers. Additionally, they would each elect on three year terms representatives to a Grand Council.

The Grand Council would become the American colonial legislature, responsible for common civil, criminal, and commercial areas of shared interest. But rather than function in isolation, it would be ‘united and incorporated’ with the British Parliament and ‘regulations may originate, and be formed and digested, either in the Parliament of Great Britain or in the said Grand Council, and being prepared, transmitted to the other for their approbation or dissent; and that the assent of both shall be requisite to the validity of all such general acts or statutes.’ The crown would be represented through a president-general (a role somewhere between a viceroy and a governor-general) who could veto American proposals. This was a double-lock. Vitally, Galloway’s Grand Council – unlike the Irish Parliament in Dublin at the time – would be able to veto Westminster law it did not like.

Galloway’s plan drew powerful backing, being seconded by the New York representatives John Jay and James Duane, and by Edward Rutledge of South Carolina. Patrick Henry proposed that the Grand Council’s representatives be directly elected by voters, rather than chosen by their legislative assemblies. There were also the less constructive critics, led by the pugnacious Samuel Adams, for whom a compromise solution was no solution at all.

On 29 September, Galloway’s plan was put to the vote. Five colonies voted for its adoption. Six voted to postpone further discussion of it. Seeking delay was a clever tactic, which aimed to derail the hasty adoption of the plan before its opponents had properly mustered their alternative strategy. On 22 October, they succeeded. Not only was it removed from the agenda, Samuel Adams moved the motion that all references to the debate on Galloway’s plan be expunged from the official minutes of the Congress. To add insult to injury, Galloway was ordered to revise these minutes and to omit his own contribution.

For his part, Galloway (writing of himself in the third person) later claimed that the revolutionaries forced him to expunge the record of his Plan of Union because they were ‘conscious that it would be approved of by the people at large, if published, and believing Mr Galloway would not venture to make it public.’ Unfortunately for Mr Galloway, by the time he did publish it, in New York the following year, his opponents were in the ascendant.

Was the Plan ever viable? At the time of its introduction, Galloway’s ally, Ben Franklin, was still in London. It was January before Franklin received Galloway’s letter which explained the proposal and sought his endorsement of it. Although wearying of Westminster’s political culture and its stubborn refusal to back down to just colonial demands in a timely fashion, Franklin had not yet determined to become a revolutionary. He replied to Galloway, ‘I communicated your Plan of Union to Lord Camden [the former Lord Chancellor] soon after I received it, and to Lord Chatham [as the ex-prime minister, William Pitt the Elder, had become] last week. They seemed to think the idea ingenious, but the mode so new as to require much attentive thought before a judgment of it could be formed.’  Meanwhile, Franklin’s son, William (who was governor of New Jersey) showed the plan to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Earl of Dartmouth.

Of the mistakes made by British prime minister Lord North’s administration, the failure to move speedily on Galloway’s Union Plan was not the worst. By the time they considered it, the government knew it would no longer appease a Continental Congress that had considered it and then excised it from the record. It was a dead letter. The intriguing – and unanswerable – question is whether it could have formed the basis for a constitutional settlement if on 29 September 1774 the Continental Congress had endorsed it.

His mission to London having failed, Franklin boarded a ship and had successive meetings with Galloway at Trevose, where the two old political allies tried to work out a common plan of action. They could not, and after much soul-searching, Galloway’s detestation of revolutionary violence and threats to order led him to side with the American Loyalists.

When the British occupied Philadelphia, he served as their Superintendent – in effect civil governor of the city. To Patriots, he was now a marked man, declared a traitor and ordered to surrender himself to the rebel’s Executive Council or face the consequences. When the British evacuated Philadelphia in June 1778, 3,000 American Loyalists escaped with them. Among them were Galloway and his daughter Elizabeth. Besides the threat of prison or death, Loyalists’ property was being confiscated and reassigned to Patriot politicians. In a fateful decision, Grace Galloway opted to stay behind to plead for the retention of what had been her family’s possessions. Bundled out of her home by rebel enforcers, her pleas refused, she died without seeing her husband or daughter again.

As the 1960s French government abandoned the Algerian pied-noirs and harkis, and in the 1970s the Americans their South Vietnamese supporters, the British recognised that in order to bring an unpopular war to a close, they would have to sell out those who had risked most for their cause. Joseph Galloway was but one of between 80,000 and 100,000 dispossessed Loyalists who became permanent exiles – a sizeable exodus of political refugees from a new republic of three million people.

Many went to Canada, but among those who joined Galloway in Britain was Ben Franklin’s son, William, who the Patriots had imprisoned for remaining loyal to the Crown. Alongside William Franklin, Galloway devoted himself to lobbying for compensation to Loyalists who had lost everything in the cause. Many were reduced to desperation and Galloway was particularly offended by the indifference to their plight shown by a section of London society that happily fawned over their vanquishers’ cheerleader, the wealthy Whig politician, Charles James Fox. Politically disillusioned (Galloway ended up with much the same low impression of London politicians as his friend-turned-opponent, Ben Franklin) he found solace in religion and became close friends with John and Charles Wesley.

Caring for him in his exile, Galloway’s daughter Elizabeth wrote of him, ‘few men in the course of a long life, settled more business for others; and perhaps, seldom any one gave so much advice gratis. His morning-room was often crowded with, and seldom empty of Americans, who received from him his best services in their own affairs.’ He died on 29 August 1803.

The rejection of his Plan of Union ensured bloodshed. But its adoption might also have ended that way too. For instance, how would his envisaged American Grand Council have responded in 1833 to London’s abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire? Might that have been the point of departure, or might Anglo-American union have stalled such a reform? Such alternative outcomes can only be conjecture.

Simply, the making and breaking of Joseph Galloway reminds us of how small can be the gap between enduring success and total failure and how uncertain great events turn out to be when their path is scrutinised in detail. Those who – narrowly – defeated him and guided the winning side are commemorated as Founding Fathers, their names familiar far beyond American shores.

Joseph Galloway lies in an unmarked grave in Watford.


Graham Stewart