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.
Tag Archives: independence
A new book by Nicholas Buccola offers a fresh look at the political thinking of a man who makes frequent appearances at this blog: Frederick Douglass, the redoubtable 19th century abolitionist and former slave. In The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty, Buccola writes that “Douglass’s arguments against slavery are, in a very important sense, arguments for liberalism.” Douglass enthusiastically embraced a “robust conception of mutual responsibility” and “the ideas of universal self-ownership, natural rights, limited government, and an ethos of self-reliance.” If that sounds like familiar ideas, then you have probably read the Declaration of Independence and its list of grievances. Douglass certainly did: His powerful 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” issues a call to paternalistic white abolitionists to consider what independence truly means. Reason Magazine offers a great review of the book. Remember, classical liberalism is broadly defined as the political and economic ideology of self-reliance, personal independence, and a limited government that secures rights and does not grant rights. It is a far cry from the progressive movement and its post-1960s transformation of the word to mean an embrace of centralized government power, government securing social and economic equality, and dependence and reliance on government to ensure equality of outcome. A dose of Frederick Douglass’s liberalism would be sound medicine for the illnesses wrought by the two major parties today and current national politics.
To some, it might seem naïve or even déclassé to honor the document’s closing words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” We are a more secular age, and for many (particularly our opinion makers) patriotism is a suspect idea – many in academe say it smacks of “triumphalism,” an irrational belief in the superiority of the American experience. Much has been said in recent decades regarding the short-comings of the Revolutionary generation; much of it has been enlightening, even brilliant; some of it seems reflective of the anger and cynicism of academics who have in the words of the historian David Hackett Fischer “lost interest in liberty and freedom.” Fischer reminds those who write American history that “to lose touch with liberty and freedom is to condemn themselves to complete irrelevance in American and the world,” an intellectual failure that “severely weakened their own causes and done grave injury to public discourse and civic spirit in the United States.” It is worth remembering that with all their faults, their sometimes faltering steps toward representative democracy, and their contradictions expressed in word and deed, the men and women who trusted in the words of the Declaration of Independence had no idea whether the words it contained would survive to transform their lives in a nation that survived long enough to secure the Declaration’s promises. Some of them risked everything they held dear because of the side they chose. Some of us today might be uncomfortable with traditional admiration for a risky attempt at gaining a nation based on freedom and liberty. The Founders did not have the luxury of hindsight or a long-established nation that would have offered them the privilege to cynically appraise the sincerity of their actions.
In order to secure the claims for the American people promised in the Declaration of Independence, the United States needed to win a war against the greatest imperial power of the times. That imperial power possessed the best-trained equipped army of the time, backed by the best equipped and largest navy in the world. All of this military might was backed by the strongest system of public finance in the world and supported by at least 1/5 of the population of the 13 American colonies. The American Revolution was nothing less than a fight for national survival. Unless the Americans secured through warfare an independent state with the ability to govern themselves under their own authority and under their own laws, the republican philosophy of self-government, political equality, natural rights, and Whig tradition of expanding freedoms summarized in the Declaration would remain what had been in Europe, namely interesting political theory that was much debated, but little practiced. America’s success in this venture hinged on a war fought while facing long odds. We often forget how outlandish the proposition called “The United States of America” appeared in the 1770s to many other Americans and the political class of the 18th-century world. George Washington lost more battles than he ever won; American prisoners of war were often treated with cruelty; American women were often assaulted by British troops; Valley Forge is a by-word in American history for an army that suffered and died. Certainly, the men who signed the Declaration knew they had signed their death warrants. George III had promised the Patriot leaders “condign punishment,” 18th-century regal cant for swinging by the neck on a British rope as a traitor until the offender was dead. Gage’s forces sent to Lexington and Concord had orders to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams, both signers of the Declaration. Internet hagiography regarding the signers and their supposed sufferings abound, but it is a fact signers such as John Hart (a delegate from New Jersey) had his home burnt to the ground in the dead of winter by British forces, killing his children in the flames. Another New Jersey delegate, the Rev. John Witherspoon (then the president of what became Princeton University) had his library purposely destroyed by British soldiers who torched Nassau Hall. He spent most of his income on reconstruction efforts for the college after the war, nearly going broke. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a delegate from Pennsylvannia, left an account of the mood in the room when he and the delegates present at the time took their turns signing the Declaration several weeks after Congress approved it. In an 1810 letter to John Adams, he wrote:
Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many to be our own death warrants? The silence and gloom of the morning were interrupted, I well recollect, by Colonel Harrison of Virginiawho said to Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts“I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body, I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body, you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.” This speech procured a transient smile, but it was succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted.
Keeping those facts in mind, it is not hard to imagine how the revolutionary generation placed their lives and fortunes at stake. They knew what they had done, but they could not look back across 232 years of national history to put their minds at ease regarding the outcome of their actions. Many of them were people who in the world of 18th-centuryAmerica had the most to lose. The members of the Continental Congress were lawyers, men of property and commercial success, local politicians, a world-famous scientist and writer,Virginia aristocrats and New York millionaires who risked everything they had on a revolution that challenged the most powerful nation on earth. Few of us have faced risks like that when we signed a document.
Honor meant much to these men, too. They rejoiced in the title “gentleman,” a word that we today simply place on restroom doors. Good name, reputation, and status mattered because these qualities were the basis of their place in society. Honor mattered because they saw life as a public drama where you could be praised or blamed for your actions that were played out in front of the world, and the wrong choice could mark you for life as someone not worthy of the word “gentleman.” Like any human beings, they had enormous flaws and their lives were often a contradiction of the ideals they followed. Yet, at least they aspired to those ideals, a quality singularly lacking even in recent American presidents, members of Congress, business leaders, celebrities, and sports figures. When they signed the Declaration they jeopardized what the world would think of their character, morality, and integrity. However, they considered it the right thing to do, and they often described how to continue doing the right thing to the younger generation that came in their wake. Thomas Jefferson, writing to his nephew Peter Carr, gave him this advice:
When your mind shall be well improved with science, nothing will be necessary to place you in the highest points of view, but to pursue the interests of your country, the interests of your friends, and your own interests also, with the purest integrity, the most chaste honor. The defect of these virtues can never be made up by all the other acquirements of body and mind. Make these, then, your first object. Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you.
Honor was also very much part of the literary culture of the English language, the mother tongue that the Founders still adored even if they could no longer love the realm that gave them their cultural and intellectual birth. Among the three men most instrumental in bringing about the Declaration of Independence – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson – many things bound them together, including a shared love of the works of William Shakespeare. Adams quoted him frequently in his writings and letters to his wife Abigail; Franklin ensured that the Philadelphia lending library had adequate copies of the Bard’s complete works; and Jefferson, a lifelong lover of theater, read Shakespeare’s plays his entire life and kept several editions of his complete works in his library at Monticello. Perhaps the three men would have agreed that like Henry V in his namesake play, honor was worth the hazard when the cause was right, even if they and their cause stood in the shadow of overwhelming force and long odds.
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
They did not die in 1776, nor did the revolution they helped bring to the world. It was won only through one ofAmerica’s longest wars, fought against the global superpower of the age, based on political theories that up to the time had only enjoyed intellectual debate rather than practical application. Their honor was intact because they kept their promise: They created a nation where ordinary people could govern themselves because they made liberty and freedom their standard; they offered an asylum to the world searching for freedom and opportunity; and they set an example for all humankind that tolled the end of empires and the beginning of nations.
We should honor them.
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.
A Classic Study Still Worth Reading: “Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography,” by Merrill D. Peterson
Merrill D. Peterson is one of the most noted scholars alive on the life and thought of Thomas Jefferson. A professor emeritus of history at the University of Virginia, he has written or edited 37 books, including Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography, which was first published in 1975. Though more than 1,000 pages in length, it remains one of the most thorough and compelling single-volume biographies of Jefferson available. No surprise: Very few scholars have spent as much time as Peterson attempting to understand the fundamental ideas that influenced Jefferson’s concept of liberty and his importance to the American concept of democracy. His grasp of Jefferson as a thinker, political figure, human being, and occasional “living contradiction” is impressive, as a PBS interview in conjunction with Ken Burns’ 1996 documentary on the third president revealed.
For readers interested in the Declaration of Independence and its significance, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation examines how Jefferson formulated the words that defined the United States. He answers basic questions: What was Jefferson’s concept of liberty? Why did an aristocrat who often had doubts about the capacity of people to govern themselves become a revolutionary for the idea that ordinary people could govern themselves? How did his vision of a republican form of government compare with the ideals of self-government he described in the Declaration? What were his philosophy of revolution and his philosophy of nationalism? (Both are certainly influences that shaped the purpose of the Declaration.) Certainly, the book examines Jefferson’s life and thought as a whole, but the book does live up to its name. Peterson examines Jefferson, his relationship to a new nation called the United States, and the principles of democracy he helped establish in a way that allows the reader to comprehend one of the nation’s most gifted political minds.
One passage of the book captures Peterson’s ability to explain the importance of the Declaration to world at large:
Jefferson managed to compress a cosmology, a political philosophy, a national creed into the second paragraph of the Declaration. This was a triumph. It raised the American cause above parochialism, above history, and united it with the cause of mankind. A philosophy of human rights attained timeless symbolization in words that inspired action; action became thought and thought became action. It was, as Hannah Arendt has said, “one of the rare moments in history when the power of action is great enough to erect its own monument.” (pp. 90-91)
Though published more than two decades ago, Peterson’s scholarship in Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography remains one of the best lenses through which Thomas Jefferson’s words can be examined for clearer understanding.
Most Americans consider July 4 the day when all the action took place that made the Declaration what it was: A statement of liberty and freedom, a proclamation of independent nationhood, and even a manifesto defining what American patriots had been fighting for during a war that had been waging for 16 bloody months. The Continental Congress voted, declared, and signed all in one earth-shattering climax of patriotic energy. Charming popular depictions of the history of the Declaration reinforce this misconception. As a high school student enthralled with the bicentennial celebration of the nation in 1976, I saw the musical 1776 repeatedly, awed by its closing scene of the Congress’ delegates signing the Declaration as a bell tolled once for each of the 13 states. It was dramatic, heady stuff for a sophomore who already knew that he was in love with this nation’s history.
The truth is just as dramatic – but more complex. August is a significant month in the history of the Declaration for many reasons, including the fact it’s probably when the majority of the delegates actually signed the document. Contrary to the popular tradition established late in the 18th century and fostered to this day, the Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4, 1776. We have good records of the proceedings in the Continental Congress, including the Journals of the Continental Congress that were kept from 1774 to 1789. The entry for July 4, 1776, contains a copy of the Declaration in its adopted form and the words, “Signed by order and in behalf of the Congress, John Hancock, President.” There is no list of additional signatures. A later entry (July 19) clearly states an order that the Declaration passed on July 4 be “fairly engrossed,” defined in Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language as “written in large fair characters.” No doubt, this order created an official copy of Declaration – but again, there is no record of additional signers. However, the order also included a directive that the Declaration “when engrossed be signed by every member of Congress.” On August 2, the journal notes “The declaration of Independence being engrossed & compared at the table was signed by the Members.” Thus, the best documentary evidence indicates that on July 4 the only founder who signed the Declaration was John Hancock, whose iconic and bold five-inch-long signature
prompted the birth of the phrase synonymous with placing one’s name on something: “He put his John Hancock on it.” Eventually, 56 delegates signed. Eight did not, some because they actually opposed independence. A few might have even signed as late as September or October 1776 because they were absent on other business.
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin all stated more than decade later that the Declaration had been signed on July 4. How could these titans of the American Revolution get such a basic fact wrong? Memories fade, and their idea of what “signing” meant could simply mean that when Hancock signed the Declaration as the president of Congress he was validating the document in the name of all the delegates. It is clear that some delegates were not even present in Congress on July 4, a fact substantiated by multiple sources. One thing is certain: When the majority of delegates gathered to sign the Declaration in August, they had to be prepared to do more than fight the heat, flies, and thunderstorms of a Philadelphia summer. They now had to fight for their lives. Certainly, the men who signed the Declaration knew they had signed their death warrants. George III had promised the Patriot leaders “condign punishment,” 18th-century regal cant for swinging by the neck on a British rope as a traitor until the offender was dead. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a delegate from Pennsylvannia, left an account of the mood in the room when he and the delegates present at the time took their turns signing the Declaration several weeks after Congress approved it. In an 1810 letter to John Adams, he wrote:
“Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many to be our own death warrants? The silence and gloom of the morning were interrupted, I well recollect, by Colonel Harrison of Virginia who said to Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts ‘I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body, I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body, you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.’ This speech procured a transient smile, but it was succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted.”
These were men who had truly pledged “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.” They knew what they had done, but they could not look back across 233 years of national history to put their minds at ease regarding the outcome of their actions. Many of them were people who in the world of 18th-century America had the most to lose. The members of the Continental Congress were lawyers, men of property and commercial success, local politicians, a world-famous scientist and writer, Virginia aristocrats and New York millionaires who risked everything they had on a revolution that challenged the most powerful nation on earth. Few of us have faced risks like that when we signed a document. Their signatures, and the country they created to the blessing of us all, are more than just ink on parchment.