Tag Archives: Continental Congress

Veterans Day 2012

One of George Washington’s first decisions after receiving word of the Continental Congress’s approval of the Declaration of Independence was to order it read to the Continental Army. Then and now, we must remember that the price paid for a free republic called the United States of America is paid with a currency called blood and sacrifice. It is the only way a nation can uphold the pledge of lives, fortunes, and sacred honor promised so we can remain the people we are. To my children, father and father-in-law, and many friends who served this country no matter how high the cost of liberty, I offer my thanks. Veterans Day is more than just another day off.

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Ben Franklin Declared A Well-Dressed Man

One of Benjamin Franklin’s numerous roles during the American Revolution was his service as an ambassador to France on behalf of the Continental Congress. One of the reasons he advocated independence was his firm (and correct) belief that France would be more inclined to support an independent nation fighting against Great Britain rather injecting itself a rebellion or civil war. Already the only American any sophisticated European would have known, the world-famous Dr. Franklin knew how to dress well. The link above is a story about the Smithsonian acquiring his original silk suit that he wore as part of his diplomatic wardrobe. In addition, there is also mention that a Houdon sculpture of Franklin remains missing after a theft. That is heart-breaking news for me since I am a fan of the sculpture and I have repeatedly seen one of the four versions by the celebrated French sculptor. I hope for the sake of history and art lovers it reappears soon.

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August 31, 2012 · 9:50 pm

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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Watch Out, Grammy Awards: The Declaration is Now A Music Video

 From Soomo Publishing comes a surprising gem no doubt geared toward bored Millenials in college asking, “What does the Declaration of Independence have to do with me?” It’s fluff, but it’s relevant fluff in the form of a music video based on the idea that the break with England came when “it was too late to apologize.” I have no idea what band made this video, and it will never replace Carl Lotus Becker or Dumas Malone. Consider it a palate cleanser before tackling another chapter on the political history of revolutionary America.

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Trumbull, Again: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery”

John Trumbull, "The Declaration of Independence" (1817), U.S. Capitol Rotunda

 

Courtesy of Alabama Live, news that the Birmingham Museum of Art will host a display of American art including the original 21-by-31-inch painting upon which John Trumbull based his titanic “Declaration of Independence” that hangs in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The article contains a good summary of the painting’s patriotic mythology but also an analysis of  Trumbull’s technique. The smaller original painting pre-dated the 1817 colossus, which many art critics consider inferior to the smaller work. Still, the painting is a familiar icon and stunning achievement as anyone who has seen it at the U.S. Capitol can attest. The article also has a handy identification key so you can know “who’s who” in either painting.  The exhibit, which also includes more than 200 other examples of historic American art from the Yale University Art Gallery, is through January 10, 2010.

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Struggling for Independence: Some Reflections on a Coincidence

At first glance, the article seems to be an exercise in the history of coincidences, even a gimmick to display the irony of common people sharing the names of uncommon men. The New York Times feature “Lens: Photography, Video and Visual Journalism” has presented the portraits of individuals who share the names of American presidents. The results are somewhat predictable: A retired Atlantic City firefighter who was the butt of jokes because his name is Richard Nixon, or the story of Ronald Reagan of Syracuse, New York, who loves the name his son hates. (In a spirit of bipartisanship, it should be noted a man named after John F. Kennedy concedes his name didn’t help his reputation with the ladies.)

However, one photo of a presidential namesake from the December 1 edition captures more than ironies although many are obvious. Thomas Jefferson, a combat veteran crippled by a stroke and troubled by his past substance abuse, appears in his wheelchair posed in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall. As you will recall, this was the home of the Continental Congress and the room famously portrayed in the beautiful (though highly stylized and very inaccurate) Jonathan Trumbull portrait showing the presentation of the Declaration of Independence. The contemporary Mr. Jefferson, who is black, looks at the camera calmly, surrounded by the tables covered by green baize where his namesake presented the words “all men are created equal.”  In my opinion, the photo is electrifying.

Visual poetry, to be sure, full of things that are the staff of life at the Times: The contradictions of American democracy, the sufferings of various minorities, and the image of great places humbled by the presence of ordinary Americans. However, I suggest the photo captures an additional idea. The Declaration brought black Americans into that room in 1776, into the very presence of those who forged the identity of the United States and made it a nation. The escape from slavery would not be found in the U.S. Constitution, a document of compromise that would not even grant full humanity to slaves (witness the famous Federal Ratio), or in the Bill of Rights (where slaves, as chattel property, belonged to their masters with the full force of Amendment 5 and its promise that Americans would not be deprived of their property without due process or just compensation). It is no accident that the abolition movement quickly turned to the Declaration for its inspiration.

Much has been said and written about the Jefferson’s Rough Draught and its original anti-slavery clause that was struck from the final version of the Declaration by a vote of the men in that room. That, too, was another compromise in the name of colonial unity and state-making. In it, Jefferson spared no criticism of the institution in which he participated as he laid blame for the slave trade at the feet of George III:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & 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. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Congress struck that section. Yet, it is too easy to speak of the contradictions and hypocrisy of that decision. They are there – but so is another section that exists in the Declaration’s final form.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Frederick Douglass

That is the section containing the political powder keg: “All men are created equal.” Jefferson and the Congress wrote that God gave humanity equal political rights. Arguments regarding what the Founder’s concept of “men” in the language of the 18th century and the political ideology of liberty abound, but the men in that room were intelligent individuals capable of understanding the door that they would open with that phrase. People outside of the room certainly understood the meaning. For example, as the nation moved forward both the Jeffersonians and the apologists for Jacksonian Democracy argued that they were the guardians of American liberty, which include the expansion of political rights. Abolitionists black and white seized the same ideas and ran toward the logical conclusion that America’s founding statement applied to all people in the United States. (Women, too, would argue for their political emancipation through suffrage and equal right using the rationale of the Declaration.) No wonder Frederick Douglass once wrote, “Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration … With them, nothing was ‘settled’ that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were ‘final;’ not slavery and oppression.”

I wish the contemporary Mr. Jefferson nothing but peace, hope, and a long life. I am glad that the other Mr. Jefferson gave us a road map that gives his namesake (and all of us) a fighting chance to find those things in the United States.

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History Channel’s On-Line Exhibit Dedicated to the Declaration

The History Channel has a content-rich page called “The Declaration of Independence.” Of particular value is a copy of the Declaration‘s text with historical and interpretative commentary from  Elizabeth Hovey, adjunct professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York. (Make sure you have your pop-up blocker turned off to use this function.)

Hovey’s interpretations respect natural law traditions and display a solid understanding of Jefferson’s political theory. You’ll find far less explanation, though, of the bill of grievances in the Declaration, which is the longest section in the document, as well as no explanation of Congress’ reference to prior efforts to reconcile with Great Britain.

Other material at the site such as biographical information and a brief history of the Declaration answers basic questions most students might have about this founding document. Teachers will also find some decent open-source lesson plans for their use.  All in all, this is a useful and accessible site that would benefit the history buff, social studies teacher, or high-school student.

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