Tag Archives: patriots

Time Magazine Publishes 19th-Century Photos of 18th-Century Patriots

188374_10150136440405747_803215746_6646993_415462_nThe past is not always as distant as it seems. TIME’s Lightbox section on-line recently carried 19th-century photographs of men who were aged veterans of the American Revolution. Many of their stories are also told in brief thanks to the work of Joe Bauman, a journalist who was first prompted by the American Bicentennial to laboriously track down old daguerreotypes and collate the pictures using Revolutionary War pension records. His e-book is in part the source of the photo essay presented.

Seeing the faces is a weird experience in the original meaning of the word. Here are men from a time more legendary than real in the minds of many Americans who are outside the scholarly study of history, but their images are captured by an old technology still in regular use today: photography. The matter-of-fact explanations offered by the veterans of why they joined the fight against Britain are staggering in their simplicity. At least one of the veterans hints he was afraid not to fight the British.  So, gaze on the faces that 237 years ago made it possible for the United States to become a nation rather than simply a still-born idea.


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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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The Hessians and their Aggressions


"Mercenaries" such as these smartly-dressed Hessian troops are mentioned in the Declaration of Independence as threats to Americans lives and liberties.

Among the 27 grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence is the following accusation leveled at the British king George III:

 “He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.”

            The document is referring to the nearly 30,000 contract soldiers from various German states who fought with British forces in the American Revolution. Although their fearsome reputation often was built on exaggeration, these so-called “Hessians” were responsible for their share of depredations against American lives and property. If nothing else, many Americans considered the use of mercenaries tantamount to an act of war by a foreign power against their lives and fortunes. Earlier in the century, Great Britain had used similar mercenary forces to suppress rebellions in Ireland and Scotland.  Under international law at the time, the Hessians were not really mercenaries (the correct term is“auxiliaries,” subjects of a ruler who assisted another by providing soldiers in return for money), but those fine points didn’t matter.  The presence of foreigners with British forces was enough to convince many fence-sitting Americans that their choices were simply fight or submit.

            George Washington considered the German mercenaries both a real threat and an opportunity. On August 26, 1776, Washington ordered one of the first psychological warfare operations in the history of the United States military when a baker and Patriot operative named Christopher Ludwick distributed pamphlets urging “Hessians” to desert and aid the Continental Army. “The papers designed for the foreign Troops, have been put into several Channels, in order that they may be conveyed to them, and from the Information I had yesterday, I have reason to believe many have fallen into their Hands,” Washington wrote in a letter to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. Congress established a committee to develop a plan based on propaganda, promises of citizenship, and enticements of free land that might convince Hessians soldiers to switch sides. Despite the propaganda and promises, their efforts produced scant results. In America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army by Charles Patrick Neimeyer, the author notes that only 66 Hessians deserted in 1776, a remarkably low number considering the Patriot’s efforts. Even though 18th century armies normally had high desertion rates, foreign mercenaries fighting in the British Army against the Americans were battling far from home and at time when the war was going well for their side. The Hessians remained an active and formidable component of British forces throughout the American Revolution. (By the way, Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration and one of the United State’s first great medical men, wrote an excellent biography of Christopher Ludwick which can be found here courtesy of Google Books.)

            However, the presence of the foreign troops unintentionally aided arguments for independence. They were foreign troops who were seen as invaders. No king who claimed to love his people would do such thing. Many Americans concluded that the king did not love Americans – he hated them, and he would use every tool in his imperial arsenal to destroy them. A king who did that was a tyrant and under the doctrine of natural rights no people owed any continued allegiance to a sovereign who treated them in such a miserable way. Thus, the presence of the “Hessians” was one more piece of evidence submitted in the Declaration to a candid world that the American Revolution was not a rebellion, but a legitimate war. One of these foreigners clearly saw what Americans believed when he observed troops in the Continental Army. “With what soldiers in the world could one do what was done by these men, who go about nearly naked and in the greatest privation? Deny the best-disciplined soldiers of Europe what is due them and they will run away in droves, and the general will soon be alone. But from this one can perceive what an enthusiasm – which these poor fellows call ‘liberty’ – can do!” wrote the Hessian officer Johann Von Ewald.  Offers of money or land could not purchase that kind of loyalty to a cause, one that declared liberty and independence. No wonder Gen. Washington wanted the Declaration read aloud to his troops.


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When is the real “Independence Day”?

Is July 4 really "Independence Day"?

Is July 4 really "Independence Day"?

Depending on your point of view, the date that the United States declared independence is something of a moving target. Several events before July 4, 1776, could be rightly labeled “independence day” because of their significance during the course of debate in the Continental Congress about the subject. As scholars point out, July 4 is the date that Congress approved the final version of the Declaration of Independence, not the day independence was declared.

Richard Henry Lee (portrait by Charles Wilson Peale)

Richard Henry Lee (portrait by Charles Wilson Peale)

For example, on June 7, 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee offered a resolution stating, “Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of 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.”  Although the Congress voted on June 10 to table discussion of the Lee resolution for nearly three weeks, the question of independence was now official business. Considering the outcome, some historians have argued that the June 7 resolution is really the first assertion of the act of independence that followed.

John Adams (portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1798)

John Adams (portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1798)

However, John Adams always thought otherwise. Although he had seconded the Lee resolution, he regarded a May 15 resolution that he introduced the first real call for independence because it authorized the colonies to organize individual state governments – an undeniable break from the British empire. In a letter to his wife Abigail, Adams wrote:

Great Britain has at last driven America to the last step, a complete separation from her; a total absolute independence, not only of her Parliament, but of her crown, for such is the amount of the resolve of the 15th… There is something very unnatural and odious in a government a thousand leagues off. A whole government of our own choice, managed by persons whom we love, revere, and can confide in, has charms in it, for which men will fight.

Of course, Adams proceeded to serve on the five-member committee that drafted and presented the Declaration of Independence to the Congress. However, the issue that came first was a congressional vote for independence prompted by the Lee resolution. Adams and other proponents of independency spent considerable time marshalling votes for unanimous state support for independence. The vote itself came on July 2, with 12 states voting for independence and New York abstaining, although a week later New York joined its sister states with a “yes” vote after receiving permission from the state assembly. Thus, July 2 could be considered the date for a national statement independence based on the reasons summarized in the Declaration.

When Adams wrote about the monumental events of July 2, he gave his wife the following account:

… The Delay of this Declaration to this Time, has many great Advantages attending it. The Hopes of Reconciliation, which were fondly entertained by Multitudes of honest and well meaning tho weak and mistaken People, have been gradually and at last totally extinguished. Time has been given for the whole People, maturely to consider the great Question of Independence and to ripen their Judgments, dissipate their Fears, and allure their Hopes, by discussing it in News Papers and Pamphletts, by debating it, in Assemblies, Conventions, Committees of Safety and Inspection, in Town and County Meetings, as well as in private Conversations, so that the whole People in every Colony of the 13, have now adopted it, as their own Act. This will cement the Union, and avoid those Heats and perhaps Convulsions which might have been occasioned, by such a Declaration Six Months ago.

But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.    

            So, according to John Adams we should be shooting off fireworks, firing up the barbecue, and toasting the United States on July 2.

            I am not proposing a change to the calendar of federal holidays – that would be petty for reasons both practical and historical. However, it is worth noting that the multiple times independence was “declared” reflects the dilemma of people in the 18th century dealing with a very human problem: How do individuals attempting not only a political revolution but a revolution in thought move toward their goal in a sound and successful manner? We have the luxury of more than 200 years of hindsight to examine independence. They faced the shock of a new day as independent citizens of the United States with no idea how the “Days Transaction” would fare. History is rarely a story of events seamlessly moving forward with guaranteed outcomes. If we celebrate anything on any day, it should be the success of independence and the nation it created, a nation of unalienable rights, “the last, best hope of earth.”

Gettysburg clip

Detail of the Lincoln "fair copy" of the Gettysburg Address showing the words "all men are created equal."

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The Dog Days of the Declaration: Just When Was It Signed?

Detail of a copy of the John Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence

Detail of a copy of the John Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence

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

John Hancock's signature from the Declaration of Independence

John Hancock's signature from the Declaration of Independence

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.

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