Tag Archives: 1776

George III Comments on the Declaration of Independence for the First Time

George III

On this day in 1776, George III addressed Parliament and gave his first public comments on the Declaration of Independence. In some ways, the delay was understandable. It took two months for news to travel across the Atlantic under the best of circumstances and the monarch was known for his measured approach to public speaking. However, the king was not amused, making harsh comments about the revolution that he always saw as a rebellion. The History Channel sums up his comments concisely:

In the address, the king spoke about the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the revolutionary leaders who signed it, saying, “for daring and desperate is the spirit of those leaders, whose object has always been dominion and power, that they have now openly renounced all allegiance to the crown, and all political connection with this country.” The king went on to inform Parliament of the successful British victory over General George Washington and the Continental Army at the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, but warned them that, “notwithstanding the fair prospect, it was necessary to prepare for another campaign.”

George III is one of the most complicated and misunderstood characters in the story of the American Revolution. For many contemporary readers of the Declaration, the lengthy list of charges leveled against George III is a perplexing catalog of indictments whose meaning (at least for most of the grievances) seems lost in obscurity. “Today most Americans, including professional historians, would be hard put to identify exactly what prompted many of the accusations Jefferson hurled against the King,” wrote Pauline Maier in her book American Scripture. Historians from past generations had a similar response. “When the Declaration is read now days at Fourth of July celebrations the audience listens with much attention to the opening paragraphs,” wrote then-noted scholar Sydney George Fisher in a 1907 article called The 28 Charges Against the King in the Declaration of Independence. “But when the 28 charges against the King are reached the audience listens only out of politeness or patriotic duty. The charges seem very dull and tiresome and mean nothing much to the modern mind except that one carries away a general impression that the King must have been a horrible monster of tyranny and cruelty against an innocent child-like and loving people.”

The list of grievances rolls over the reputation and character of George III like Doomsday, accusing him of old harms (“for imposing Taxes on us without our Consent,” i.e., “No taxation without representation,” the rallying cry of the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765) and new terrors (his decision to send Hessian mercenaries to fight Americans is called “totally unworthy of the head of a civilized nation,” no doubt because of the German soldiers’ reputation for rape and plunder). The tone of this résumé of woe is astounding. The king, once the object of paternal respect and the loyal toast, had been a popular monarch in America. Any of the love, affection, and respect George III once enjoyed from his American subjects are ashes in the fires of revolution.

George III’s comments did little to assuage those harsh feelings. Even as efforts on both sides of the Atlantic attempted negotiation during the war, the king evinced stubborn refusal to consider any settlement that would grant independence to the American colonists. He was determined not to reign during the dissolution of the British Empire. His comments to Parliament are a confirmation of the great breach that occurred whether he wanted it or not.

However, the rejection of George III in the Declaration is more than long-winded rhetorical flourish: It is the rejection of the last link of loyalty between America and a once-beloved empire. This calculated annihilation of the royal mystique that had prompted Congress to continue seeking reconciliation with the sovereign for months after shots had been fired and a war fought in earnest is jaw-dropping in its goals, implications, and results. Americans, Britons, and the rest of the world observing the Revolution would not have missed the gravity of the accusations and how they were framed – or simply that they were enumerated in print, a decision that could only be considered blatant treason.

In colonial America, it had been the custom to celebrate the king’s birthday with all the pomp and pride of subjects who loved their monarch. The fireworks, processions, sermons, and proclamations would usually end with Americans-who-were-also-Britons offering the words, “God Save the King,” often as part of a toast during the celebrations.  Once the Declaration of Independence was circulated throughout the American states, there was a different toast in honor of the document: “George rejected and liberty protected.” He had been their father figure, friend, protector from unbridled power, successor to the royal line that granted the colonies their charters, and guardian against foreign enemies. In the Declaration, he is a figure of tyranny, even evil, cast as an adversary in harsh tones like those used in Common Sense. The birthday of an irrelevant king was replaced with the birthday of a nation. No other section of the Declaration contains so much poignancy when closely examined; no other section did more to convince Americans “’TIS TIME TO PART.”



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The Musical “1776” and History’s Most Obnoxious Revolution

“This is a revolution, dammit! We’re going to have to offend SOMEBODY!” – John Adams, in the musical 1776

Last night, I had the opportunity to see a charming production of 1776, the Tony Award-winning musical that did much to humanize the Founding Fathers and present the issues surrounding American independence in a literate and often humorous light. What I saw was an excellent local production, so you will have to tolerate a momentary and shameless plug for the Camelot Theater Company: The show runs through July 22, and it is well-worth seeing if you happen to be in Oregon’s Rogue Valley any time soon.
There is a lot of commentary regarding the historical accuracy of 1776. True, there are dramatic liberties that still grate on my nerves when I see the musical, including the brilliant Oscar-nominated 1973 film adaptation of the Broadway play. Richard Henry Lee, the Virginia delegate who offered the resolution for American Independence, was called the “Cicero of Virginia,” hardly the openly horny doofus portrayed on stage for comic relief. Half of the Second Continental Congress did not walk out over the issue of slavery, although national unanimity hinged on the removal of the anti-slavery clause from Jefferson’s Rough Draught of the Declaration. John Adams did not import Jefferson’s wife to Philadelphia to sexually refresh the Pen of Liberty – in fact, Jefferson’s frequent absences from Monticello while he was in Congress contributed to the physical stress that almost certainly exacerbated Martha Jefferson’s chronic illness. (In the musical, Jefferson’s character is portrayed as wishing to leave Philadelphia for a conjugal visit rather than write the Declaration. Actually, in the summer of 1776 Martha Jefferson had a miscarriage and was grievously ill. Jefferson wished to depart because he feared for the life of his beloved spouse). John Adams, the Voice of Liberty, was known for his prickly demeanor and outspoken embrace of independence far ahead of most of the other delegates – yet, he was one of the most respected and admired men in Congress from any colony.
Still, the musical “gets it” when it comes to the majority of the history. Much of the dialogue is the words of the actual men. Musical numbers in the production often do a better job than some history books in teaching people why American Independence was such a thorny problem. “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” points out that Americans (not just those at the top of the colonial social pyramid) were among the wealthiest, least-taxed people in the world. Why would anybody in their right mind in any century sever that kind political and economic relationship in exchange for an untried democratic experiment? (As an educational comparison, I often half-teasingly point out to my environmentally sensitive students that for a generation anxious about global warming I still see a lot of gasoline-powered autos in student parking.) “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” will make anyone cringe when they understand how the song accurately points out that all of America was economically tied to slavery: “Whose fortunes are made in the triangle trade/Hail slavery, the New England dream!/Mr. Adams, I give you a toast:/Hail Boston! Hail Charleston!/Who stinketh the most?” It is an intensely powerful indictment of our nation’s greatest weakness during the greatest revolution in world history. Even more powerful are the steady stream of dispatches from George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Like much of the musical, the lines are based on Washington’s actual writings and they portray the grinding difficulties and overwhelming odds that he and the soldiers in the field faced when fighting the most well-funded and militarily adept empire since ancient Rome. Anyone interested in a summary of the historical facts presented in 1776 would do well to look at James Troutman’s Web page or this article from the Yeshiva University newspaper.

However, one of the best things about 1776 is how it portrays the incivility of our democratic revolution and why conflict aided our nation’s cause. While reading the Director’s Notes written by Livia Genise, I was struck by her comments: “This is an election year. What may be at stake, in the opinion of many Americans, is our very way of life. So many people have already lost their homes, their pensions, their jobs. In the last four years, gun sales have soared and civility diminished. We seem to be, as a nation, on the verge of a not so-civil-war. Perhaps the lesson to be learned from our founding fathers [sic] is empathy, compassion and respect for all who make up the melting pot that is America.” I won’t win any popularity contests by dumping on a local theater director, and I want to make clear she directed a fine performance. But, the frequently expressed idea that America has somehow lost a Golden Age of Civility always strikes me as well-meaning but ahistorical and naïve sentimentalism. Furthermore, it ignores the historical themes (highly accurate ones, I might add) captured by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards, the authors of 1776 , that are there for all to see. (As for gun sales, two thoughts: Is Ms. Genise perhaps thinking of the Obama administration’s ill-advised Operation Fast and Furious? In 1776, would Great Britain have walked away from their wealthiest colonial prize without armed struggle? Sometimes, harsh language against an adversary isn’t enough and the British sent the largest amphibious invasion force in history before D-Day to destroy the American Revolution.)
The Second Continental Congress was often a contentious group. The colonies were notorious for the sheer absence of continental, i.e. intercolonial, cooperation. John Adams once wrote:

“The colonies had grown up under constitutions of government so different, there was so great a variety of religions, they were composed of so many different nations, their customs, manners, and habits had so little resemblance, and their intercourse had been so rare, and their knowledge of each other so imperfect, that to unite them in the same principles in theory and the same system of action, was certainly a very difficult enterprise. The complete accomplishment of it, in so short a time and by such simple means, was perhaps a singular example in the history of mankind. Thirteen clocks were made to strike together—a perfection of mechanism, which no artist had ever before effected.”

Differences, even brusquely expressed, are part of the mechanism of a healthy democracy. Often, the conflict will eventually lead to compromise of surprising kinds. The musical puts it even more succinctly when Benjamin Franklin’s character urges John Adam’s character to compromise on slavery for the sake of founding a liberty-loving nation:

“John, the issue here is independence! Maybe you have forgotten that fact, but I have not! These men, no matter how much we may disagree with them, they are not ribbon clerks to be ordered about – they are proud, accomplished men, the cream of their colonies. And whether you like them or not, they and the people they represent will be part of this new nation that YOU hope to create. Now, either learn how to live with them, or pack up and go home! In any case, stop acting like a Boston fishwife.”

One can’t forgive slavery, but forming a new nation with the institution of slavery intact either demonstrates the limits of civility or the power of differences in a democracy – or both. We are still working that issue out as a nation.

Finally, calling George III a tyrant was about as uncivil an act as one could accomplish in the free-wheeling political life of British North America. The Declaration of Independence declares that “a prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Throughout the Declaration the words tyrant, tyrants, and tyranny occur a total of four times. Definitions of “tyrant” and “tyranny” were both specific and potent in the political vocabulary of the age – and very rarely used. Kings were expected to consider their people’s welfare and the just administration of government as their first duties. Certainly, Mr. Jefferson and others could have named numerous examples both ancient and modern of men who had breached that expectation, but all the more reason for men who had come from the freest political culture of the time to watch a king and judge his actions. Their grandfathers had memories of a similar situation in English history, and knew the dangers of a king who placed self-interest above all else. “For he being supposed to have all, both legislative and executive power in himself alone, there is no judge to be found, no appeal lies open to any one, who may fairly, and indifferently, and with authority decide, and from whose decision relief and redress may be expected of any injury or inconviency [sic], that may be suffered from the prince, or by his order …,” wrote John Locke in The Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690), which provided the intellectual arguments for the removal of James II during the Glorious Revolution as he described the dangers of a king dedicated to absolute power above all else. “For he that thinks absolute power purifies men’s blood, and corrects the baseness of human nature, need read but the history of this, or any other age, to be convinced of the contrary. He that would have been insolent and injurious in the woods of America, would not probably be much better in a throne; where perhaps learning and religion shall be found out to justify all that he shall do to his subjects, and the sword presently silence all those that dare question it.”
Again, the musical presents the main idea very clearly:

John Dickinson: Mr. Jefferson, I have very little interest in your paper, as there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ve all but heard the last of it, but I am curious about one thing. Why do you refer to King George as a… tyrant?
Thomas Jefferson: Because he is a tyrant.
John Dickinson: I remind you, Mr. Jefferson, that this “tyrant” is still your king.
Thomas Jefferson: When a king becomes a tyrant, he thereby breaks the contract binding his subjects to him.
John Dickinson: How so?
Thomas Jefferson: By taking away their rights.
John Dickinson: Rights that came from him in the first place.
Thomas Jefferson: All except one. The right to be free comes from nature.
John Dickinson: And are we not free, Mr. Jefferson?
Thomas Jefferson: Homes entered without warrant, citizens arrested without charge, and in many places, free assembly itself denied.
John Dickinson: No one approves of such things, but these are dangerous times.

There is one kind of safe society where no words are ever raised in harsh criticism. Jefferson once wrote, “Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem.[I prefer dangerous freedom to peaceful slavery.] Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
That’s the beauty of the musical 1776. As I often written on these pages, I do not expect popular culture to present in-depth historical analysis. But a historically accurate, entertaining dramatic production (with more than a little light-hearted comedy as forgivable distraction) will sometimes do more than volumes of history to teach people why the United States is an exceptional nation. One of our exceptional qualities is like the Founding Fathers’ old habits. We often argue our way to liberty, not always with the hand-holding, “kumbayah” moralizing that some want but with a messy process called democracy. Like one of the characters in the play says, “Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yeah! I’m for debating anything.”


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Adam Smith and American Liberty

Adam Smith, commentator on the American Revolution

Across the Atlantic, many intellectuals and statesmen in Europe noted that the American Revolution was an event with global implications, and they correctly linked the international significance of the war to the global significance of the Declaration of Independence. Undoubtedly, there are many ways that the American Revolution was a unique international event prompting much hope for change and progress by spreading republicanism. One often ignored aspect is the Declaration of Independence was the first political manifesto so titled – no other political document in history had carried that name. America was about to join “the powers of the earth,” in other words, become a nation with sovereign rights and sovereign powers.  During an age of global bridges when an Atlantic world existed through interconnections between Europe and the Americas through trade and mercantilism, this revolution that resulted in British colonies declaring their independence could not avoid being an international event. If nothing else, many Americans believed it, ranging from the hundreds of thousands who read Thomas Paine’s Common Sense to the some the central figures who eventually draft the Declaration of Independence. To a generation of politicians and scholars who came of age in the world shaped by imperial rivalry and global competition resulting from the Seven Years’ War (part of which was fought as the French and Indian Wars in North America), this was an event worth noting, and the Continental Congress could rest assured that the rest of the European world would take notice.

Among those who took notice was the great British economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790), often called the father of classical economics, the first great definer of capitalism, and in many ways one of the first great commentators on American independence. Smith also was unsentimental in his assessment of the American Revolution: If the colonists wished to remain Englishmen, they should pay for their share of the enormous debt incurred to raise armies and fight the French and Spanish in their defense. Besides, Smith accuses the North American colonies of constant political turmoil and factions. He doubted that an independent America would survive because “those factions would be ten times more virulent than ever.” But most importantly, any nation that would result from the “the present disturbances” would prove that the British Empire in North America —a Protestant, commercial, maritime, politically free entity that was then at the apex of its experience –existed in the imagination only, a situation hardly worth the expense of maintaining. Smith was clearly aware that a global shift in the balance of power would result from an independent America.
Yet, Smith considered the events of the American Revolution so momentous that he also offered a detailed comparative analysis of the motivations and results of colonization both ancient (Greece and Rome) and contemporary (16th-18th-century European efforts). He acknowledged that the pursuit of “wealth and greatness” spurred almost all colonial enterprises in history; however, the results were uneven or delayed – even Spain in the New World did not find the near legendary amounts of gold and silver that built an empire that was a paragon of overseas success to the other ambitious nations of 1500s and 1600s. However, it is the English colonies that Smith said had a unique advantage because of light taxes and slight regulation. “But there are no colonies of which the progress has been more rapid than that of the English in North America,” Smith wrote in his seminal work, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776 and (not surprisingly) later known to many of the delegates who wrote or edited the Declaration. “Plenty of good land, and liberty to manage their own affairs their own way, seem to be the two great causes of the prosperity of all new colonies. In the plenty of good land the English colonies of North America, though, no doubt, very abundantly provided, are, however, inferior to those of the Spaniards and Portuguese, and not superior to some of those possessed by the French before the late war. But the political institutions of the English colonies have been more favourable to the improvement and cultivation of this land, than those of any of the other three nations.”
Smith points out that the British colonists “never yet contributed any thing towards the defence of the mother country, or towards the support of its civil government,” but they also possess cheap, efficient local governments that have “generally been confined to what was necessary for paying competent salaries to the governor, to the judges, and to some other officers of police, and for maintaining a few of the most useful public works.” The colonists’ liberty by the standards of the time is notable:

But though the policy of Great Britain with regard to the trade of her colonies has been dictated by the same mercantile spirit as that of other nations, it has, however, upon the whole, been less illiberal and oppressive than that of any of them.
In every thing, except their foreign trade, the liberty of the English colonists to manage their own affairs their own way is complete. It is in every respect equal to that of their fellow–citizens at home, and is secured in the same manner, by an assembly of the representatives of the people, who claim the sole right of imposing taxes for the support of the colony government. The authority of this assembly over–awes the executive power, and neither the meanest nor the most obnoxious colonist, as long as he obeys the law, has any thing to fear from the resentment, either of the governor, or of any other civil or military officer in the province. The colony assemblies, though, like the house of commons in England, they are not always a very equal representation of the people, yet they approach more nearly to that character; and as the executive power either has not the means to corrupt them, or, on account of the support which it receives from the mother country, is not under the necessity of doing so, they are perhaps in general more influenced by the inclinations of their constituents. The councils, which, in the colony legislatures, correspond to the House of Lords in Great Britain, are not composed of an hereditary nobility. In some of the colonies, as in three of the governments of New England, those councils are not appointed by the king, but chosen by the representatives of the people. In none of the English colonies is there any hereditary nobility. In all of them, indeed, as in all other free countries, the descendant of an old colony family is more respected than an upstart of equal merit and fortune: but he is only more respected, and he has no privileges by which he can be troublesome to his neighbours. Before the commencement of the present disturbances, the colony assemblies had not only the legislative, but a part of the executive power. In Connecticut and Rhode Island, they elected the governor. In the other colonies they appointed the revenue officers who collected the taxes imposed by those respective assemblies, to whom those officers were immediately responsible. There is more equality, therefore, among the English colonists than among the inhabitants of the mother country.

Tom Paine, no member of the Congress but a brilliant commentator on the international significance of the American Revolution, wrote with more meaning than perhaps he understood: The Cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Consequently, the Declaration carried several powerful messages, first to Great Britain, then to the rest of the world. The United States, in seeking independence, owed the rest of the world an explanation regarding its challenge to established, legitimate government and the existing international order. In addition, the United States intended to be treated equally and with respect by the rest of the world. Given time, it would be a nation to reckon with because of its numerous advantages. Like Adam Smith, anyone in 1776 who had observed and considered the new nation’s potential would know that the United States at its birth possessed a unique marriage of advantages: Economic resources envied throughout the European world and a political culture whose love of rights and individual freedoms were admired and respected.  The opening paragraph of the document announcing the birth of the United States is clear in its intent. The United States had permanently dissolved “the political bands” that held it to the British Empire, and it was ready to assume its place among “the powers of the earth” where it would shape world history in astounding ways.

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It Is The Words That Matter, Even If Jefferson Wrote Them

Thomas Jefferson, author of The Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson, that living paradox in the pantheon called the Founding Fathers, is scrutinized in a new exhibition, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” now on view at the National Museum of American History. It is the latest attempt to reconcile the obvious: How could Jefferson preach liberty and practice slavery? It is not a question easily ignored. Fulfillment of the Declaration’s promises are the only valid test that can measure whether the United States is truly a land of liberty. As the seminal American historian George Bancroft stated, the Declaration enshrined the “unchangeableness of freedom, virtue, and right” in the American political psyche and “heart of Jefferson in writing the declaration” became identified as the American political psyche. James Parton, the nation’s first professional biographer, described the formula succinctly: “If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If Jefferson is right, America is right.” That is what is at stake.

Contradictions abound in the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the least of which is Jefferson (who penned the words “all men are created equal”) was a prominent slave owner his entire adult life. Identifying consistency in Jefferson’s philosophy regarding anything is the historian’s answer to an exercise that attempts to nail jelly to a wall, and Jefferson the slaveholder is also Jefferson the lawyer who in 1770 represented Virginia slave Samuel Howell in an unsuccessful attempt to gain the enslaved man’s freedom through a legal argument stating that under nature’s law “all men are born free.”  Jefferson the father of at least one child by his slave Sally Hemmings (a conclusion verified by modern DNA comparison testing of the descendants from both lines) is also the Jefferson the author of a attack on slavery contained in the Rough Draught of the Declaration of Independence that laid the blame for the Atlantic slave trade (one of the legs in the economic tripod of the lucrative Triangle Trade that had made Britain wealthy through mercantilism) at the feet of George III.  In words that attacked the sovereign’s claim to be a member of Christian civilization, Jefferson wrote: “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of distant people, who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain.” Only two things seem clear: Jefferson believed that God granted personal liberty and freedom to all humankind, and he owned hundreds of slaves. In eyes of his critics, the author of America’s (and some would argue, the world’s) seminal statement of freedom and democracy was a slave breeder, the Declaration is a document rooted in racist duplicity, and Jefferson “must have been a demon, a hypocrite, or an enigma.” What more could critics of the Founding Period’s figures and their shortcomings ask for, particular those who label the Declaration a racist document? Jefferson failed, and America failed is often the answer.

Fortunately, the task at hand is not to find consistency in Jefferson’s political philosophy. Undoubtedly, Jefferson was an intellectual along with many other pursuits, but he was also a man of affairs who was drawn to the pragmatic and utilitarian more than to the abstract, a lawmaker who had spend most of his adult life in the worldly, concrete enterprise called politics. He was interested in methods that worked, that respected the history and tradition of English law, and that operated with efficiency and precision. He drew from multiple sources such as the Whig tradition that English history displayed an on-going struggle recover and keep liberty, the Enlightenment which taught Jefferson that rational thought and inquiry would vanquish ignorance that had been based on dogmatic authority, and the classical past that provided examples of how to deal with contemporary problems when its politicians and thinkers were read within the context of the modern world. This is where Jefferson’s consistency lay: In the sources he used and admired, sources which praised liberty and allowed men to secure it. All of this is reflected in what he wrote in the Declaration of Independence.

Equally fortunate, there is ample evidence that liberty and freedom in the United States succeeded because of what Jefferson wrote, which he considered an expression of what was communally held as basic American political truths. The tenets expressed in the natural rights statement are well-known and straightforward, but those tenets are worth examining not just to understand the elementary philosophy of government Americans were fighting for during the Revolution. Equally important, there are specific examples of how the Declaration influenced the expansion of American democracy and American freedom as time and events changed the nation, examples that manifestly demonstrate that the United States is not a failure when it comes to the expansion of human freedoms because of the moral power of that document.

That power found in the Declaration’s own words can be synopsized in the following manner:

1)      These are self-evident truths (truths that withstand any argument because of they are almost mathematically logical):

  1. All men (humankind) are created equal (political equality and equality in the realm of advancement as far as talent and work can take one in life).
  2. They are endowed by their Creator (in hindsight an ambiguous deity, yet one that would be readily recognized as either Nature’s God of the Enlightenment or Jehovah of the Christian tradition) with certain unalienable rights (rights that can never be separated or transferred from humankind by any government or governor): life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (a trio of rights that would cover the gamut of human existence and provide the safest means for self-government and personal independence).
  3. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted (established by consent) among men, deriving their just (morally, legally, and politically sound) powers from the consent of the governed,
  4. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends (including the current form of government), it is the right of the people (also “unalienable”) to alter (change) or to abolish it (eliminate it), and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles (namely, consent of the governed, freedom, and liberty) and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness (the results of protecting the trio of rights – and others—mentioned in the earlier clause of the natural rights statement. Concurrent with these rights is the right to just revolution, which is validated by the right to resist tyranny).

2)      Prudence (caution in deliberating and consulting on the most suitable means to accomplish valuable purposes) dictates that long-established governments should not be cast aside light and transient (hasty and momentary) causes.

3)      But when a long train of abuses (of power and the ruled) and usurpations (of the governed’s right to government by their consent) reveals a plan to reduce them under absolute despotism a) it is their right, b) it is their duty overthrow a despotic government and “provide new Guards for their future security.”

Its logical power is even more briefly identified as a form of deductive argument by Stephen E. Lucas, professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin,Madison:

Major premise: When government deliberately seeks to reduce the people under absolute despotism, the people have a right, indeed a duty, to alter or abolish that form of government and to create new guards for their future security.
Minor premise: The government ofGreat Britainhas deliberately sought to reduce the American people under absolute despotism.
Conclusion: Therefore the American people have a right, indeed a duty, to abolish their present form of government and to create new guards for their future security.

Yet, for all of its cool logic and philosophical depth, this section of the Declaration achieved something so moving that we often forget its absence in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights: It issued a basic manifesto of equal rights and political participation. The Constitution protected slavery: Witness the 3/5 “federal ratio” used to count enslaved humans for apportionment, the 20-year moratorium on banning the slave trade, the early fugitive slave clause, all drafted without mentioning the word “slave” once in the entire document. The Bill of Rights protected slaveholders in Amendment 5 because slaves were chattels, property that could not be taken without due process of law. All this had been included to compromise with the political and economic interests of the slave-owning South, among other reasons. The Declaration uncompromisingly stated what other American state papers dared not. “All men are created equal.” Those words matter, even if we cannot fully understand that enigma called Thomas Jefferson.

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National Archives Opens Benjamin Franklin Exhibit

Frequently regarded as a “favorite” Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin was one of the most accomplished men in American history. Inventor, scientist, printer, politician, diplomat, philosopher, ladies man (the way Franklin drew young French beauties into his amorous orbit makes JFK look a socially awkward teen-ager), and beer drinker,

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by French artist Joseph-Siffred Duplessis

Franklin was also an essential figure in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. He served on the Committee of Five responsible for drafting and editing the version first submitted to the Continental Congress. Franklin also is the only member of the founding generation who signed the seminal documents of the United States: The Declaration, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution.

The National Archives opened a Franklin exhibit today that explores the multifaceted intellect of this brilliant and likable figure from the Founding Period. The Washington Post says the display will “explore the life of Benjamin Franklin as a scientist, diplomat, philanthropist and founding father.”

Like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin was a self-made man whose easy humor and bonhomie distracts us from understanding his deepest motivations. Franklin spent a good deal of his life abroad in Great Britain serving as a de facto ambassador for the American colonies. Insult and injury to his reputation by the British government probably did more than patriotism to drive him into the ranks of those calling for independence, but Franklin never looked back.  “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately” he reputedly said as he signed the Declaration. He abandoned his love all things British to become one of the first iconic Americans. The display at the National Archives looks like a good opportunity to understand this transformation and the subsequent creation of a true of American genius who always was in search of a better world.

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Magna Carta Charts A Great Comeback at the National Archives

The nation’s only copy of Magna Carta — the seminal charter in medieval English history that limited the power of government over the governed and declared that not even a king is above the law — has a new lease on life.

The Washington Post reports a $13.5 million conservation effort to protect the 715-year old copy of the document will allow the National Archives to place it on display by February 17.  It is the only copy of Magna Carta in the United States.

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Patrick Henry, and Alexander Hamilton are among the most notable members of the Founding Generation who quoted Magna Carta or referred to it in their writings about American liberty. It was often seen as the first statement of rule of law, even part of a tradition that justifies revolution if a free people face a government that does not recognize their rights. 

Jefferson in particular had a high opinion of Magna Carta.  In 1786 during his only trip to London, he took time off from haunting bookstores and attending theaters to view Magna Carta at the British Museum.  He knew that it contained a clause stating the right of subjects to contradict the king’s will if they are endangered by a monarch’s lawlessness. In fact, much of Jefferson’s arguments for revolution align with an idea throughout Magna Carta: Englishmen cannot be alienated from their rights. As Jefferson argues in the Declaration of Independence, the colonists are simply declaring their right to rights they already possess.


Filed under History of the Declaration of Independence

William Cooper Nell: The Man Who Restored the Importance of “The Colored Patriots”

William Cooper Nell (1816-1874)

It is no secret that black Americans were often the citizens who understood best the promises of the Declaration of Independence even when they were denied the rights promised them by Nature and Nature’s God. However, the military service of African-Americans during the revolution that secured the United States’ existence is often overlooked. As the war progressed, nearly one-fifth of the Continental Army comprised free blacks and runaway slaves, who frequently re-enlisted for service even in slave-owning states.

Before the Civil War, many abolitionists both black and white worked hard to restore black colonial troop’s rightful place in the story of the American Revolution as individuals who did not fight because they received the permission of whites, but as full partners in the Patriot cause because it was their cause, too. However, it was a black historian who wrote the first scholarly treatment of black fighting men during the War for Independence. In 1855, William Cooper Nell wrote The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, a lengthy examination of the topic that examined the contributions of black Patriots from throughout the colonies.

Nell was brilliant student in his youth. He worked for racial equality both in Boston and nationally, and was deeply respected by white peers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Wendell Phillips. He was one of the founding members of an organization that offered assistance of newly arrived fugitive slaves. He fought for desegregation of schools, railroads, and public halls in Boston, a city plagued with rampant racism despite it reputation as the virtual epicenter of the national abolitionist movement. In 1851, he became the first published black historian in the United States when he wrote the book Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812. Nell believed that integration, not separatism, should be the goal of black people in America, and that to gain full integration African-Americans had to attain high standards of intellectual excellence.  In The Colored Patriots, Nell stressed this inclusion while describing how blacks who fought as part of the general community of the times believed in the cause for which they were fighting. In short, black Patriots were part of the spirit of the age, part of American nation-building, and only time and ignorance had created the idea that blacks were not part of the Revolution and excluded from the Declaration’s promises. Quoting David Ruggles, one of his fellow black abolitionists noted for his outspoken journalism, Nell places the connection between the revolution’s manifesto and the black revolutionaries in full view:

“I have had the pleasure of helping six hundred persons in their flight from bonds. In this, I have tried to do my duty, and mean still to persevere, until the last fetter shall be broken, and the last sigh heard from the lips of a slave. But give the praise to Him who sustains us all, who holds up the heart of the laborer in the rice swamp, and cheers him when, by the twinkling of the North Star, he finds his way to liberty. Six hundred in three years I have saved; had it been in one year, I should have been nearer my duty, nearer the duty of every American, when he reflects that it was the blood of colored men, as well as whites, which crimsoned the battle-fields of Bunker Hill and the rest, in the struggle to sustain the principles embodied in our Declaration of Independence.”

In 1861, Nell became a postal clerk in Boston, making him the first American black appointed to a federal post. But, it is his work as a historian that deserves increased recognition today, work that placed before a candid world the contribution of “colored patriots” and how they helped make a nation defined by the Declaration of Independence.

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Filed under History of the Declaration of Independence, Scholarship and Historians