Tag Archives: Revolutionary War

Happy Fourth of July

A portrayal of the Second Continental Congress and the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.

A portrayal of the Second Continental Congress and the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.

It is worth your time some time today between attending Fourth of July parades and the requisite grilling as part of a federal holiday barbecue to read Brian Vanyo’s essay “What Do We Celebrate on the Fourth of July?” Vanyo, an author and board member of the Constitution Leadership Initiative, points out that our national founding principles include strong leanings toward limited government power and a call to the people to resist encroachments on their rights by a swollen government. Mr. Vanyo and I sing from the same choir book, as my recent essay re-posted on RealClearHistory discusses how the current administration has twisted the classic meaning of equality in the Declaration.

Vanyo writes, “The domineering government we have today was never the design of our founders — in the words of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, ‘An elective despotism was not the government we fought for.’ But the government we have today needs not be the government we keep. By the principles of our founding, we have the power to change our government and secure our inalienable rights.” That’s an idea worth re-discovering today, an idea far more important to the Fourth of July than the condition of any burger fresh off the grill.



Filed under Commentary, History of the Declaration of Independence

A Congress of Reluctant Revolutionaries

A portrayal of the Second Continental Congress

A portrayal of the Second Continental Congress

Today marks the anniversary of the formation in 1775 of the Second Continental Congress, the body of delegates who met in Philadelphia during the American Revolutionary War.  The Second Congress was for all purposes a de facto national government of the United States once independence was declared. It is the “Congress of Independence” that drafted and approved the Declaration of Independence, but it also appointed George Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and signed treaties with the foreign powers that supported the revolution. Most notably, the Second Congress issued the Model Treaty with France, our staunchest foreign ally during the war.  The document became the guide for all subsequent commercial treaties.

In hindsight, one of the most striking qualities of the Second Congress is its reluctance toward revolution and independence. Most Americans – even many of the Founders who mobilized the Second Continental Congress  – continued to cling to the hope even after open warfare broke out that there could be some kind of reconciliation with Great Britain. Although the waffling colonists chafed considerably under the paternalism of the mother country and resented Parliament’s obstinate refusal to compromise, many still believed that British rule was preferable to the return of French power to North America. Americans might hate the fact that the Crown quartered troops in Boston homes, but they hated the threat of French soldiers taking their homes and their women even more. Despite the economic hardships levied on the colonies by the Intolerable Acts in the early 1770s and the shots fired at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Congress issued the Olive Branch Petition, which professed continued loyalty to the king and love for the mother country.

In the early months of 1776, the advantages of imperial protection still held enough sway that Thomas Paine dedicated a large portion of Common Sense (the pamphlet which widely popularized the idea of American independence for the first time) to fanning the flames of outrage against crown and Parliament. In fact, an entire section of the pamphlet is an elaborate, almost begging entreaty to American readers, asking them to accept the common sense of the matter at hand, namely the need to abandon king and country and listen as “the blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘TIS TIME TO PART.” Paine needed to apply all of his consummate skills as the most persuasive member of the Revolution’s “chattering class” to the task of convincing readers of the necessity of independence 10 months after the Americans had entered a bloody fight with the 18th century’s global superpower, the same power that many of them hoped would protect them from a traditional enemy.

However, by the beginning of 1776 events accelerated. Ordinary colonists as well as the small but active and vocal minority that advocated separation decided that they were fighting a war for independence.

Towns and legislatures in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Virginia began to debate the wisdom of independence, asking the people for their opinions on the subject and whether they would be willing to support such a radical move with their lives and fortune. Similar discussions soon followed in every colony. This was an unprecedented move in itself: even the history of English rights and liberties contained nothing like a poll for regime change mobilized from the ground up. However, it became obvious that there was significant support for an independence movement. Six months earlier the wide scope of a debate about independence would have been unlikely. Congress could at last be confident that they would not be ahead of the people when it came to a revolutionary war. The “reluctant revolutionaries” at last declared that they were Americans.

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The Beginning of the End of the American Revolution

Portrait Banastre Tarleton by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Portrait of Banastre Tarleton by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Battle of Cowpens (1781), one of the most disastrous defeats of British forces in the Southern theater of operations during the American Revolution. Portrayed by Mel Gibson like it was a sequel to the film “Braveheart” in his cartoonish “The Patriot,” the American victory at Cowpens, South Carolina, did two things that are far more impressive than an epic, slow-motion portrayal of guerrilla battles. First, Daniel Morgan and his army turned the flanks of the infamous Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion, a force which had crushed American efforts to block British operations in the Carolinas, and destroyed both Tarleton’s legion and its fierce reputation forever. Second, Lord Cornwallis and his exhausted army gave up on the Carolinas, moving forces back to Virginia where by October 18 the British army surrendered at Yorktown. Cowpens can accurately be called the beginning of the end of the war for independence. The National Park Service has a superb synopsis of the battle here.

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What John Quincy Adams Tells Us About One-Term Presidents

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams, 6th president of the United States of America

Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal, prolific biographer and writer Harlow Giles Unger offers an essay on John Quincy Adams, a forgotten Founding Father whose career before and after his single presidential term is little remembered even by many professional historians. As Unger writes, JQA  was “the oldest son of John and Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams seemed destined for greatness from birth. He served under Washington and with Lincoln; he lived with Ben Franklin, lunched with Lafayette, Jefferson, and Wellington; he walked with Russia’s czar and talked with Britain’s king; he dined with Dickens, taught at Harvard … negotiated the peace that ended the War of 1812, freed the African prisoners on the slave ship Amistad … restored free speech in Congress, (and) led the anti-slavery movement … .” It was a stellar career, one that Unger portrays excellently in his new biography of the polymathic president.

One other message of the article is that JQA could serve as a role model for President Obama should he lose this November and himself enter the ranks of one-term presidents. (“One-term president” is usually a criterion used to suggest that the individual was also a failed president.) I suggest the best purpose of the essay is to remind readers of the long-lasting living link between the founding period and the mid-nineteenth century. People like John Quincy Adams (d. 1848), Dolley Madison (d. 1849), James Monroe (d. 1831), and even the infamous Aaron Burr (d. 1836) were long-lived individuals who spoke frequently of the times which created the United States. These individuals witnessed the formative years of American history from the dawn of the American Revolution to the eve of the Civil War. New research on the War of Revolution, how the Declaration of Independence was received by Americans of the era, and the political attitudes of the Founding Fathers and Mothers would be greatly expanded by new examination of the papers of these individuals, as well as memoirs and commentators written by family and friends that recall the reminiscences of those seminal individuals.

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October 6, 2012 · 6:41 am

A Portrait of the Revolution

Art history is not my strong suit, although I have possessed a love of fine art since my youth. I was fortunate enough to grow up in San Diego, Calif., a cultured city that is too often noted only for surfing and the U.S. Navy. In Balboa Park is the Timken Museum of Art, a gem of a smaller museum whose collection includes John Singleton Copley’s Mrs. Thomas Gage (1771), a portrait of the British general’s wife that was among the influences that prompted my interest in Revolutionary America. (Perhaps a picture is worth a thousand words when it comes to persuading a budding historian to become one of Clio’s sons.)

However, I acknowledge the importance of iconography, the systematic study and interpretation of paintings, drawings, and other portrayals of people and events, as an important tool used by historians to understand the past. There is also the intrinsic worth of the art in terms of its beauty or the uniqueness of the portrayal. How an event is portrayed says more than just the event itself — the wildly inaccurate but visually stunning Trumbull portrayal of the Declaration of Independence‘s signing that serves as the masthead of my blog is just one example of the celebratory “veneration of the Founders” that permeated early 19th century art and histories the Revolution. Look at a work of art and you will often look into a time machine that tells you about the artist’s time and place in history.

A wonderful on-line collection of art associated with the American Revolution is the Web site Portraits in Revolution (or PortRevolt, the short form of the name). The work put into the site, which is attractive and well-designed, is impressive enough. However, along with a rich collection of images there are links to various primary documents, advice on how to research topics in the history of the American Revolution, quotes from individuals from the period and historians who have written about the Revolution,  and a blog with historical commentary by the Webmaster. (At this point, the only identity that I can determine for the site’s author and designer is “JDN.” I welcome any hints regarding who he or she is. An e-mailed query to the site from me is also on its way.) I bookmarked the site and I recommend that anyone interested in U.S. history do the same.

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