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Democracy

The Glorious Fourth

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Today we celebrate our Independence Day. It was 248 years ago that a small group of disaffected Englishmen gathered in Philadelphia and voted unanimously[1] to declare their separation from the United Kingdom, in full knowledge of the possible consequences for themselves and their people. It was at most 50 men who represented the 13 Colonies in this momentous decision: 50 representatives that did not include a single woman, a single black, a single Native American. Yet they decided the fate of the nation.

Independence was actually voted on the day before; Congress approved the resolution on July 2nd, but didn’t publish it until July 4th, which is the day we celebrate. The actual act of independence was not Thomas Jefferson’s famous document, but rather that of fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee:

“Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of a right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”

Those of you who have seen HBO’s fabulous mini-series “John Adams” know that the resolution was not greeted with universal applause by the delegates; despite a great deal of simplification and condensation, the show did a good job of highlighting the essential tensions between those who merely wished a redress of grievances, those who feared war, and those who felt that independence was the only solution. A great diversity of opinion was expressed and debated in those torrid June days and not everyone in Congress was eager to cease being and Englishman in order to become an American.

Today we take it all in as a matter of course: we voted for independence, everyone cheered, Washington kicked British butt and then the French finally showed up at Yorktown where Cornwallis surrendered and ended the war. It is practically sacred writ for Americans: something to be learned as an article of faith and not questioned. But that one sentence summary conceals some enormous and mostly contentious assumptions. The mood in Congress was somber after the vote: these men knew they had just declared insurrection against the premier military power in the world. When Jefferson wrote and Congress approved the final words of the Declaration, they weren’t merely being theatrical: “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Lives would be lost, fortunes would be ruined, and some would even sacrifice their honor to be branded as traitors by both sides. Seven more years of bloody war and hardship would pass before the peace was won and people could get on with their ordinary lives.

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If Lee submitted the actual resolution of independence, Jefferson provided the political cover. The Declaration of Independence was both a sublime statement of political ideology and a masterful piece of propaganda. Remember that the American colonists were engaged in a blatant piece of illegality: armed insurrection against their King was about the worst crime any people could commit in the eyes of XVIIIth century Europe. There was no admissible legal pretext to justify rebellion and secession: no referendums or plebiscites, no ethnic or religious or cultural differences. Those are all concepts for another century anyway. Jefferson therefore had to provide another justification for the Americans that would allow the absolute monarchies of Europe to offer support without seeming to contradict their own stated principles. Jefferson chose to base his argument on two pillars: the unalienable rights of the governed, which are only ceded to government through their consent; and the oppression of the British King and Parliament of those rights. Europeans monarchs could focus on the latter as a justification[2], while ignoring the former.

The Declaration was a justification for their actions of the colonists as insurrection and secession are always illegal in their conceptions, a rejection of the existing political framework and only sanctified by time and victory. But neither the Declaration nor Lee’s Resolution made America independent of Britain; the colonies had been de facto independent since the 1775 when colonial legislatures had begun to completely ignore Royal Governors and the Massachusetts militia had begun trading fire with British regulars:

“The question is not whether by a declaration of independence we should make ourselves something we are not, but whether we should declare a fact something that already exists.”[3]

In other words, the Founding Fathers are so named because their actions were consecrated by victory. They knew perfectly well the price of defeat: they would hang from a gibbet until they were dead, dead, dead. That is the only slim margin of difference between a Thomas Jefferson and a Theobald Wolfe Tone, a Franklin and a FitzGerald[4]. Treason and patriotism are the descriptives applied by history, and history is written by the winners.

Yet these men, these patriots, took this risk knowingly and willingly, because life under British rule had become oppressive enough that the alternative seemed worse to them. What began as a dispute over taxation rapidly escalated into a rejection of the whole system of monarchical and parliamentary rule: which is curious, because the British Parliamentary system was considered the most enlightened and liberal of all European political systems at the time. The colonists didn’t rebel because they were serfs ruled by a Czar; they rebelled precisely because they had rights that were being repressed and that they wanted to reassert. A constitution, written or unwritten, is no absolute guarantee, and it is just those people most aware of their rights that will be most zealous in their defense.

The intransigence of the British Parliament, the stupidity of successive British administrations[5], the obstinacy of the King: all these factors combined to increase the resistance and self-awareness of the colonists that they were being treated shabbily. But anger grew to fury when the British began to strip away more and more of the historic political rights and self-government that the colonists had grown accustomed to: colonial charters were revoked; Royal Governors were appointed with the power to approve and veto colonial legislation; Crown attorneys were appointed in Britain and paid independently of the legislatures; and British officials and soldiers would be returned to England for trial rather than face a local jury[6]. The British stripped away colonial self-government to the point where all that would have remained was a hollow shell had the colonials not risen up against it.

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People whose proudest assertion in 1765 was that they were free-born Englishmen would curse the name just 10 years later. This is how quickly and completely the misunderstandings and missteps of Parliament managed to alienate the affection of their people. The bonds of affection were broken; those who had once fought side by side against the French, now fought against each other. The British continually underestimated the depth of feeling they had unleashed: they always thought of the American rebels as a small minority led by opportunistic adventurers. They never understood that it was a broad-based popular movement that enjoyed support across all classes and all colonies. British strategy and British failures cannot be understood in any other context. They compounded these errors by making the Commander-in-Chief of British forces in America, Lord Thomas Gage, also the chief negotiator for the government and then sending him alien Hessian mercenaries to suppress the rebels. Nothing could have more permanently crushed the spirit of reconciliation than to have to negotiate with a constable employing foreigners to kill your neighbors and friends. The American Revolution was as much about British failures and misconceptions as it was about American successes or determination.

It is also significant to note that the colonists were never united in their desire for independence, though this element is played down in US history books. Historians estimate that at the start of the Revolution perhaps 30% of the population in the Thirteen Colonies were fervent Patriots, another 30% were Tories and the rest wanted to be left alone. By the end of the conflict, neutrality had almost vanished and the Patriots were the majority of course, but it could easily have gone the other way. Yet Congress did not wait for an absolute majority, nor even bother to hold a plebiscite to count how many votes were for or against independence: they knew the tenor of sentiment in the colonies and understood that the people were waiting to be led. History has vindicated their actions, but it was an enormous gamble at the time and could easily have turned out differently. British brutality and lack of understanding of the colonials contributed tremendously to the alienation of sentiment that contributed so much to American victory. In the end, those who called themselves Americans won the contest and those who still called and felt themselves British either reconciled themselves to the new order or decamped for Canada and the British Isles. The American Revolution can just as properly be called the First American Civil War.

The American Revolution inspired the French Revolution, which then spread across the world and over time, led to the vast wave of democratization that has shaped the modern political landscape. The powerful words of Jefferson, which were almost wholly ignored at the time, are today the preeminent statement of fundamental individual liberties and perhaps the most recognized words in the English language. Americans have long failed to live up to them – we still fail – but they are our inspiration. Lincoln made them the centerpiece of the Emancipation Proclamation and they continue to inspire people around the world today who seek liberty and independence from oppression. Every free citizen of the world has two independence days, the 14th of July and the Glorious Fourth: modern democracy is inconceivable without both.

Happy Fourth to everyone! And God bless our United States.


Sources and Notes:

[1] New York’s delegates abstained from voting as their instructions did not cover a possible Declaration of Independence and their constituent assembly did not respond in time with new, broader instructions.

[2] It was generally accepted that the right of rebellion did exist against particularly heinous monarchs, whose actions would lose them God’s favor, so long as the rebellion was led by the nobility. There were too many examples of just such successful coups in European history for these to be ignored.

[3]From the HBO mini-series “John Adams” Episode 3, Independence: attributed to Benjamin Franklin in a debate before Congress, but actually taken from Jefferson’s personal diary and notes.

[4]Theobald Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward FitzGerald were leaders of the United Irishmen,a movement joining Protestant and Catholic Irishmen in an aborted effort to secure, initially, Home Rule, and subsequently, Independence for Ireland in 1798.

[5]Historians generally agree that the British government was at a nadir of competence during the run-up to the Revolution.

[6]This was particularly offensive to John Adams, who had staked his personal and professional reputation on defending the British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre incident.

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“Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives.“

John Adams

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