September 17, 1776

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Silas Deane promises Robert Morris that he would forward to America vast quantities of military stores in October, including clothing for 20,000 troops.

Congress adopts a plan of a treaty to be proposed to the King of France by the American Commissioner to that country.

The Maryland Convention completes a draft of a Bill of Rights and Constitution.

John Adams writes his official report regarding the failed peace commission with Lord Howe:  “Tuesday. September 17th. 1776. The Committee appointed to confer with Lord Howe, agreable to the order of Congress, brought in a report in Writing, which was read as follows:

In Obedience to the orders of Congress, We have had a meeting with Lord Howe. It was on Wednesday last upon Staten Island, opposite to Amboy, where his Lordship received and entertained Us, with the Utmost politeness.

His Lordship opened the Conversation by Acquainting Us, that, tho’ he could not treat with Us as a Committee of Congress, yet, as his Powers enabled him to confer and consult with any private Gentlemen of Influence in the Colonies, on the means of restoring Peace, between the two Countries, he was glad of this Opportunity of conferring with Us, on that Subject, if We thought ourselves at Liberty to enter into a Conference with him in that Character. We observed to his Lordship, that, as our Business was to hear, he might consider Us, in what Light he pleased, and communicate to Us, any propositions he might be authorised to make, for the purpose mentioned; but that We could consider Ourselves in no other Character than that, in which We were placed, by order of Congress. His Lordship then entered into a discourse of considerable Length, which contained no explicit proposition of Peace, except one, namely, That the Colonies should return to their Allegiance and Obedience to the Government of Great Britain. The rest consisted principally of Assurances, that there was an exceeding good disposition in the King and his Ministers, to make that Government easy to Us, with intimations, that, in case of our Submission, they would cause the Offensive Acts of Parliament to be revised, and the Instructions to Ministers to be reconsidered; that so, if any just causes of complaint were found in the Acts, or any Errors in Government were perceived to have crept into the Instructions, they might be amended or withdrawn.

We gave it, as our Opinion to his Lordship, that a return to the domination of Great Britain, was not now to be expected. We mentioned the repeated humble petitions of the Colonies to the King and Parliament, which had been treated with Contempt, and answered only by additional Injuries; the Unexampled Patience We had shewn, under their tyrannical Government, and that it was not till the late Act of Parliament, which denounced War against Us, and put Us out of the Kings Protection, that We declared our Independence; that this declaration had been called for, by the People of the Colonies in general; that every colony had approved of it, when made, and all now considered themselves as independent States, and were settling or had settled their Governments accordingly; so that it was not in the Power of Congress to agree for them, that they should return to their former dependent State; that there was no doubt of their Inclination for peace, and their Willingness to enter into a treaty with Britain, that might be advantageous to both Countries; that, though his Lordship had at present, no power to treat with them as independent States, he might, if there was the same good disposition in Britain, much sooner obtain fresh Powers from thence, for that purpose, than powers could be obtained by Congress, from the several Colonies to consent to a Submission.

His Lordship then saying, that he was sorry to find, that no Accommodation was like to take place, put an End to the Conference.

Upon the whole, it did not appear to your Committee, that his Lordships commission contained any other Authority, than that expressed in the Act of Parliament, namely, that of granting Pardons, with such exceptions as the Commissioners shall think proper to make, and of declaring America or any part of it, to be in the Kings Peace, upon Submission: for as to the Power of enquiring into the State of America, which his Lordship mentioned to Us, and of conferring and consulting with any Persons the Commissioners might think proper, and representing the result of such conversation to the Ministry, who, provided the Colonies would subject themselves, might, after all, or might not at their pleasure, make any Alterations in the former Instructions to Governors, or propose in Parliament any Amendment of the Acts complained of, We apprehended any expectations from the Effects of such a Power would have been too uncertain and precarious to be relied on by America, had she still continued in her State of dependence.

Ordered that the foregoing Report, and also the Message from Lord Howe as delivered by General Sullivan, and the Resolution of Congress, in consequence thereof, be published by the Committee, who brought in the foregoing report.

“Two or three Circumstances, which are omitted in this report, and indeed not thought worth notice in any of my private Letters, I afterwards found circulated in Europe, and oftener repeated than any other Part of this whole Transaction. Lord How was profuse in his Expressions of Gratitude to the State of Massachusetts, for erecting a marble Monument in Westminster Abbey to his Elder Brother Lord How who was killed in America in the last French War, saying ‘he esteemed that Honour to his Family, above all Things in this World. That such was his gratitude and affection to this Country, on that Account, that he felt for America, as for a Brother, and if America should fall, he should feel and lament it, like the Loss of a Brother.’ Dr. Franklin, with an easy Air and a collected Countenance, a Bow, a Smile and all that Naivetee which sometimes appeared in his Conversation and is often observed in his Writings, replied ‘My Lord, We will do our Utmost Endeavours, to save your Lordship that mortification.’ His Lordship appeared to feel this, with more Sensibility, than I could expect: but he only returned ‘I suppose you will endeavour to give Us employment in Europe.’ To this Observation, not a Word nor a look from which he could draw any Inference, escaped any of the Committee.

Another Circumstance, of no more importance than the former, was so much celebrated in Europe, that it has often reminded me of the Question of Phocion to his Fellow Citizen, when something he had said in Public was received by the People of Athens with a clamorous Applause, “Have I said any foolish Thing?”—When his Lordship observed to Us, that he could not confer with Us as Members of Congress, or public Characters, but only as private Persons and British Subjects, Mr. John Adams answered somewhat quickly, ‘Your Lordship may consider me, in what light you please; and indeed I should be willing to consider myself, for a few moments, in any Character which would be agreable to your Lordship, except that of a British Subject.’ His Lordship at these Words turn’d to Dr. Franklin and Mr. Rutledge and said ‘Mr. Adams is a decided Character:’ with so much gravity and solemnity: that I now believe it meant more, than either of my Colleagues or myself understood at the time. In our report to Congress We supposed that the Commissioners, Lord and General Howe, had by their Commission Power to [except] from Pardon all that they should think proper. But I was informed in England, afterwards, that a Number were expressly excepted by Name from Pardon, by the privy Council, and that John Adams was one of them, and that this List of Exceptions was given as an Instruction to the two Howes, with their Commission. When I was afterwards a Minister Plenipotentiary, at the Court of St. James’s The King and the Ministry, were often insulted, ridiculed and reproached in the Newspapers, for having conducted with so much folly as to be reduced to the humiliating Necessity of receiving as an Ambassador a Man who stood recorded by the privy Council as a Rebell expressly excepted from Pardon. If this is true it will account for his Lordships gloomy denunciation of me, as ‘a decided Character.’—Some years afterwards, when I resided in England as a public Minister, his Lordship recollected and alluded to this Conversation with great politeness and much good humour. Att the Ball, on the Queens Birthnight, I was at a Loss for the Seats assigned to the foreign Ambassadors and their Ladies. Fortunately meeting Lord How at the Door I asked his Lordship, where were the Ambassadors Seats. His Lordship with his usual politeness, and an unusual Smile of good humour, pointed to the Seats, and manifestly alluding to the Conversation on Staten Island said, ‘Aye! Now, We must turn you away among the foreigners.’  The Conduct of General Sullivan, in consenting to come to Philadelphia, upon so confused an Errand from Lord Howe, though his Situation as a Prisoner was a temptation and may be considered as some Apology for it, appeared to me to betray such Want of Penetration and fortitude, and there was so little precision in the Information he communicated that I felt much resentment and more contempt upon the Occasion than was perhaps just. The time was extreamly critical. The Attention of Congress, the Army, the States and the People ought to have been wholly directed to the Defence of the Country. To have it diverted and relaxed by such a poor Artifice and confused tale, appeared very reprehensible.”

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September 9, 1776

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Congress adopts the name “United States of America.”  “Resolved, that in all continental commissions, and other instruments, where, heretofore, the words ‘United Colonies’ have been used, the style be altered for the future to the ‘United States.”

In London, England, William Lee informs C.F.W. Dumas in Pairs that the Declaration of Independence has “totally changed the nature of the contest” and for the British military effort, the Americans required more military stores and experienced officers.

Meanwhile, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, while travelling to meet with the British Peace Negotiators, find themselves sharing a bed and arguing about the nature of the common cold.  John Adams later described the event:  “The Taverns were so full We could with difficulty obtain Entertainment. At Brunswick, but one bed could be procured for Dr. Franklin and me, in a Chamber little larger than the bed, without a Chimney and with only one small Window. The Window was open, and I, who was an invalid and afraid of the Air in the night, shut it close. Oh! says Franklin dont shut the Window. We shall be suffocated. I answered I was afraid of the Evening Air. Dr. Franklin replied, the Air within this Chamber will soon be, and indeed is now worse than that without Doors: come! open the Window and come to bed, and I will convince you: I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds. Opening the Window and leaping into Bed, I said I had read his Letters to Dr. Cooper in which he had advanced, that Nobody ever got cold by going into a cold Church, or any other cold Air: but the Theory was so little consistent with my experience, that I thought it a Paradox: However I had so much curiosity to hear his reasons, that I would run the risque of a cold. The Doctor then began an harrangue, upon Air and cold and Respiration and Perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep, and left him and his Philosophy together: but I believe they were equally sound and insensible, within a few minutes after me, for the last Words I heard were pronounced as if he was more than half asleep…. I remember little of the Lecture, except, that the human Body, by Respiration and Perspiration, destroys a gallon of Air in a minute: that two such Persons, as were now in that Chamber, would consume all the Air in it, in an hour or two: that by breathing over again the matter thrown off, by the Lungs and the Skin, We should imbibe the real Cause of Colds, not from abroad but from within. I am not inclined to introduce here a dissertation on this Subject. There is much Truth I believe, in some things he advanced: but they warrant not the assertion that a Cold is never taken from cold air. I have often conversed with him since on the same subject: and I believe with him that Colds are often taken in foul Air, in close Rooms: but they are often taken from cold Air, abroad too. I have often asked him, whether a Person heated with Exercise, going suddenly into cold Air, or standing still in a current of it, might not have his Pores suddenly contracted, his Perspiration stopped, and that matter thrown into the Circulations or cast upon the Lungs which he acknowledged was the Cause of Colds. To this he never could give me a satisfactory Answer. And I have heard that in the Opinion of his own able Physician Dr. Jones he fell a Sacrifice at last, not to the Stone but to his own Theory; having caught the violent Cold, which finally choaked him, by sitting for some hours at a Window, with the cool Air blowing upon him.

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August 6, 1776

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Congress directs General Philip Schuyler to contact British General John Burgoyne for the purpose of entering a prisoner of war exchange agreement.  By now the members are convinced that Howe will assault New York.

From Port Amboy, Elizabeth, the wife of exiled Governor William Franklin, writes to her father-in-law Benjamin Franklin.  After the outbreak of hostilities, William Franklin’s position had become increasingly perilous.   “At present we only live, as it were, upon Sufferance,” he had written three days after Bunker Hill, “nor is it in our power to mend our Situation.” He managed to hold onto the remnants of his authority longer than most colonial governors, but by the beginning of 1776 the remnants were tatters. In early January he sent a confidential report to Lord George Germain, the new Secretary of State for the American Colonies; the report was intercepted and brought to the local commander of militia, Lord Stirling, who concluded that it endangered the American cause. The Governor’s house was surrounded by soldiers in the middle of the night; his wife was so frightened that he feared for her life. She had no relatives of her own to turn to, and had little support from the Baches and none from her father-in-law. William, distressed as he was for her, stood his ground and held onto office until June. Then, in response to a resolution of Congress urging the establishment of new governments in all the colonies, the New Jersey provincial congress moved to secure his person. On June 19 he was removed from his house, and on the 21st examined before the congress, which recommended that the Continental Congress send him out of the province as soon as possible. On the 26th orders came from Philadelphia to transfer him to Connecticut; he arrived there on July 4, and on giving his parole was lodged in a private house in Wallingford.

She wrote as follows:  Honored Sir, Your Favor by my Son I received Safe, and should have done myself the Honor of answering it by the first Post after, but I have been of late much Indisposed. I am infinitely obliged to you for the 60: Dollars, and as soon as Mr: Pettit Settles his Account with me3 I will punctually repay you.

My Troubles do Indeed lie heavy on my Mind, and tho’ many People may Suffer Still more than I do, yet that does not lessen the Weight of mine, which are really more than so weak a Frame is able to Support. I will not Disstress you by enumerating all my Afflictions, but allow me Dear Sir, to mention, that it is greatly in your Power to Relieve them. Suppose that Mr. Franklin would Sign a Parole not dishonorable to himself, and Satisfactory to Governor Trumbull, why may he not be permitted to return into this Province and to his Family? Many of the Officers that have been taken during the War has had that Indulgence shewn them, and why should it be denied to him? His private Affairs are unsettled, his Family Disstressd and he is living very uncomfortably, and at a great expence, which he can very illy afford at present. Consider my Dear and Honored Sir, that I am now pleading the Cause of your Son, and my Beloved Husband. If I have Said, or done anything wrong I beg to be forgiven. I am with great Respect Honored Sir Your Dutifull and affectionate Daughter”

Franklin ignored her request, and never helped secure the release of his son.

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July 20, 1776

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At noon a barge arrived with Colonel Paterson to finally address George Washington with the peace overtures that he was permitted to offer.  Washington, who had previously refused two written offerings because they had not properly given Washington his credentials, had his personal guard lining up in formation to the entrance, and he himself appeared in his full battlefield outfit.  According to Henry Knox, who observed the meeting, Paterson “appeared awestruck, as if he was before something supernatural.”  Paterson lay on the table the original letter from Richard Howe addressed to “George Washington Esq. etc. etc.”  Again, Washington refused to pick this up.  Paterson explained that the et ceteras implied everything that might follow.  Washington replied, “It does so – and anything!”  Paterson continued to say that his King had permitted the Howe brothers to grant pardons, but Washington replied that  “those who had committed no fault wanted no pardon.”  The meeting was as pointless as Washington had known it would be, and he described it as “the vile machinations of still viler ministerial agents.”

In one of two letters that he sent on this day, John Adams laments to his wife Abigail that friends have not written to inform him how she was doing in regards to the smallpox.  (He had already heard that she intended to take the inoculation along with her children.)  Writes Adams:  “This has been a dull day to me: I waited the Arrival of the Post with much Solicitude and Impatience, but his Arrival made me more solicitous still.—“To be left at the Post Office” in your Hand Writing, on the back of a few Lines from the Dr. were all that I could learn of you, and my little Folks. If you was too busy to write, I hoped that some kind Hand would have been found to let me know something about you.  Do my Friends think that I have been a Politician so long as to have lost all feeling? Do they suppose I have forgotten my Wife and Children? Or are they so panic struck with the Loss of Canada, as to be afraid to correspond with me? Or have they forgotten that you have an Husband and your Children a Father? What have I done, or omitted to do, that I should be thus forgotten and neglected in the most tender and affecting scaene of my Life! Don’t mistake me, I don’t blame you. Your Time and Thoughts must have been wholly taken up, with your own and your Families situation and Necessities.—But twenty other Persons might have informed me.  I suspect, that you intended to have run slyly, through the small Pox with the family, without letting me know it, and then have sent me an Account that you were all well. This might be a kind Intention, and if the design had succeeded, would have made me very joyous. But the secret is out, and I am left to conjecture. But as the Faculty have this distemper so much under Command I will flatter myself with the Hope and Expectation of soon hearing of your Recovery.”

Benjamin Franklin writes to Lord Howe making clear that the Americans seek no pardon from Great Britain, having done nothing wrong:  “My Lord, I received safe the Letters your Lordship so kindly forwarded to me, and beg you to accept my Thanks.  The Official Dispatches to which you refer me, contain nothing more than what we had seen in the Act of Parliament, viz. Offers of Pardon upon Submission; which I was sorry to find, as it must give your Lordship Pain to be sent so far on so hopeless a Business.  Directing Pardons to be offered the Colonies, who are the very Parties injured, expresses indeed that Opinion of our Ignorance, Baseness, and Insensibility which your uninform’d and proud Nation has long been pleased to entertain of us; but it can have no other Effect than that of increasing our Resentment. It is impossible we should think of Submission to a Government, that has with the most wanton Barbarity and Cruelty, burnt our defenceless Towns in the midst of Winter, excited the Savages to massacre our Farmers, and our Slaves to murder their Masters, and is even now bringing foreign Mercenaries to deluge our Settlements with Blood.1 These atrocious Injuries have extinguished every remaining Spark of Affection for that Parent Country we once held so dear: But were it possible for us to forget and forgive them, it is not possible for you (I mean the British Nation) to forgive the People you have so heavily injured; you can never confide again in those as Fellow Subjects, and permit them to enjoy equal Freedom, to whom you know you have given such just Cause of lasting Enmity. And this must impel you, were we again under your Government, to endeavour the breaking our Sprit by the severest Tyranny, and obstructing by every means in your Power our growing Strength and Prosperity.  But your Lordship mentions ‘the Kings paternal Solicitude for promoting the Establishment of lasting Peace and Union with the Colonies.’ If by Peace is here meant, a Peace to be entered into between Britain and America as distinct States now at War, and his Majesty has given your Lordship Powers to treat with us of such a Peace, I may venture to say, tho’ without Authority, that I think a Treaty for that purpose not yet quite impracticable, before we enter into Foreign Alliances. But I am persuaded you have no such Powers. Your Nation, tho’ by punishing those American Governors who have created and fomented the Discord, rebuilding our burnt Towns, and repairing as far as possible the Mischiefs done us, She might yet recover a great Share of our Regard and the greatest part of our growing Commerce, with all the Advantage of that additional Strength to be derived from a Friendship with us; I know too well her abounding Pride and deficient Wisdom, to believe she will ever take such Salutary Measures. Her Fondness for Conquest as a Warlike Nation, her Lust of Dominion as an Ambitious one, and her Thirst for a gainful Monopoly as a Commercial one, (none of them legitimate Causes of War) will all join to hide from her Eyes every View of her true Interests; and continually goad her on in these ruinous distant Expeditions, so destructive both of Lives and Treasure, that must prove as perrnicious to her in the End as the Croisades formerly were to most of the Nations of Europe.  I have not the Vanity, my Lord, to think of intimidating by thus predicting the Effects of this War; for I know it will in England have the Fate of all my former Predictions, not to be believed till the Event shall verify it.  Long did I endeavour with unfeigned and unwearied Zeal, to preserve from breaking, that fine and noble China Vase the British Empire: for I knew that being once broken, the separate Parts could not retain even their Share of the Strength or Value that existed in the Whole, and that a perfect Re-Union of those Parts could scarce even be hoped for. Your Lordship may possibly remember the Tears of Joy that wet my Cheek, when, at your good Sister’s in London, you once gave me Expectations that a Reconciliation might soon take place. I had the Misfortune to find those Expectations disappointed, and to be treated as the Cause of the Mischief I was labouring to prevent. My Consolation under that groundless and malevolent Treatment was, that I retained the Friendship of many Wise and Good Men in that Country, and among the rest some Share in the Regard of Lord Howe.  The well founded Esteem, and permit me to say Affection, which I shall always have for your Lordship, makes it painful to me to see you engag’d in conducting a War, the great Ground of which, as expressed in your Letter, is, “the Necessity of preventing the American Trade from passing into foreign Channels.” To me it seems that neither the obtaining or retaining of any Trade, how valuable soever, is an Object for which Men may justly Spill each others Blood; that the true and sure means of extending and securing Commerce is the goodness and cheapness of Commodities; and that the profits of no Trade can ever be equal to the Expence of compelling it, and of holding it, by Fleets and Armies. I consider this War against us therefore, as both unjust, and unwise; and I am persuaded cool dispassionate Posterity will condemn to Infamy those who advised it; and that even Success will not save from some degree of Dishonour, those who voluntarily engag’d to conduct it. I know your great Motive in coming hither was the Hope of being instrumental in a Reconciliation; and I believe when you find that impossible on any Terms given you to propose, you will relinquish so odious a Command, and return to a more honourable private Station.”

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July 10, 1776

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The Virginia Gazette, reporting on the rout at Gwynn’s Island writes, “His Lordship Dunmore lost his china by a double-headed shot, and it is said he himself was wounded in the leg by a splinter.  The fleet is driven off without water, and although they have plenty of prize flour, there is not a biscuit on board.”

John Adams writes to Abigail:  “You will see by the Newspapers, which I from time to time inclose, with what Rapidity, the Colonies proceed in their political Maneuvres. How many Calamities might have been avoided if these Measures had been taken twelve Months ago, or even no longer ago than last december?  The Colonies to the South, are pursuing the same Maxims, which have heretofore governed those to the North. In constituting their new Governments, their Plans are remarkably popular, more so than I could ever have imagined, even more popular than the “Thoughts on Government.” And in the Choice of their Rulers, Capacity, Spirit and Zeal in the Cause, supply the Place of Fortune, Family, and every other Consideration, which used to have Weight with Mankind. My Friend Archibald Bullock Esq. is Governor of Georgia. John Rutledge Esq. is Governor of South Carolina. Patrick Henry Esq. is Governor of Virginia &c. Dr. Franklin will be Governor of Pensilvania. The new Members of this City, are all in this Taste, chosen because of their inflexible Zeal for Independence. All the old Members left out, because they opposed Independence, or at least were lukewarm about it. Dickinson, Morris, Allen, all fallen, like Grass before the Scythe notwithstanding all their vast Advantages in Point of Fortune, Family and Abilities.  I am inclined to think however, and to wish that these Gentlemen may be restored, at a fresh Election, because, altho mistaken in some Points, they are good Characters, and their great Wealth and numerous Connections, will contribute to strengthen America, and cement her Union.  I wish I were at perfect Liberty, to pourtray before you, all those Characters, in their genuine Lights, and to explain to you the Course of political Changes in this Province. It would give you a great Idea of the Spirit and Resolution of the People, and shew you, in a striking Point of View, the deep Roots of American Independence in all the Colonies. But it is not prudent, to commit to Writing such free Speculations, in the present State of Things.  Time which takes away the Veil, may lay open the secret Springs of this surprizing Revolution. . . . But I find, altho the Colonies have differed in Religion, Laws, Customs, and Manners, yet in the great Essentials of Society and Government, they are all alike.”

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Thoughts on the Declaration of Independence

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On Veteran’s Day, my mom’s parents used to drag her from cemetery to cemetery to introduce her to long-gone relatives who had died in the service of the country.  She hated it.  Hated it so much, in fact, that it was one of the reasons she gave for not wanting to be buried.  Be kind to people when they are alive, was her point of view – once they are dead, they will not hear you.

She seemed to have missed the point.  Of course the dead could not hear her.  But it was not for the dead that the trips were being made, but for the living; for her.  When we remember those who died and sacrificed to create and defend out country, we gain a necessary sense of appreciation for what we have here.

Many millennials were shocked about the recent presidential election, because they had come to believe that their view of social progress was natural and inevitable, not something that people had died for.

Independence Day is my favorite holiday because it has great meaning historically and also psychologically and personally.  This is what I mean:  We all know that “The Founders” came to Philadelphia in 1774 to discuss England’s recent actions against Massachusetts, as resulting from the Boston Tea Party.  There are a couple of things to remember.  First of all, these men were no more born as “Founders” than their slaves who were cruelly removed from Africa were born “slaves.”  For the most part these men had grown up affectionately subservient to Great Britain.  Benjamin Franklin was living in London because he believed it to be the epicenter of human activity.  And he was not adorned by any coonskin cap back then, but printed himself with a proper British powdered wig.

Young George Washington had dreamed of attending college in England and, like his brother Laurence, achieving distinction by fighting on behalf of the British Crown.  His estate at Mount Vernon was named after a British Admiral.  John Adams and his wife Abigail wrote letters to each other sprinkled with allusions to Shakespeare.  When he attended college he was accorded a number which reflected the rank and the social importance of his family.  The greatest and most scintillating evenings of young Thomas Jefferson’s life were the evenings he spent with the Royal Governor in Virginia’s Governor’s Palace.

What happened?  How could a generation born into a loving and respectful relationship with its mother country turn so suddenly and violently revolutionary?

One of the reasons I love Independence Day is that nothing of particular importance happened on July 4th.  No blood was spilt, no victories gained.  Nothing but a change of minds.  We became independent that day, because we decided we were independent.  That’s all.

But in that there is much.  The power behind a decision, made with resolve is the most powerful force in the world.  All things are created twice, wrote Steven Covey, first in somebody mind and then in their acts.  So too was it with independence.  So too was it with the creation of a country based on the ideals of the enlightenment.  This isn’t to say that the decision is the easy part – no, that would be the eight years of war that followed the decision.  The decision, however, is the critical part.

We became independent when we decided we were independent.  Think about that.

And thank John Adams for asking the young and relatively unknown Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, to write this document.  Why Jefferson?  Well, if you have Michael Jordan on your team, do you pass to Anthony Carter?  Thomas Jefferson was a man who Adams claimed never to have heard string three sentences together in the congress.  No mind, he knew he could write those sentences well enough.  He had read “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” in which Jefferson argued that although Virginia was tied to the King of England – out of choice, he wanted to know, not law – she was in no way tied to the Parliament.  Jefferson sought to “remind” King George that America’s ancestors had come to their country in the same way the British ones had arrived in England, and that Americans were no more bound to the rulers of their previous residence than were the British.

Thomas Jefferson’s mind and pen were steeped in enlightenment ideals, steeped in the idea that we should follow our intellects and out good sense when it comes to matters of faith, government, and science.  That we do not believe that we are in the center of the universe simply because we would like to think so.

By choosing Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence, Adams and his cohorts were making a daring but quite possibly a costly choice.  After all, there were many that believed, as Alexander Hamilton would put it, that England’s government was the most perfect attainable by man.  The argument for independence could be made without arguing also for the natural right of all mankind.  Already the Americans were counting on help from the French.  Why then choose Jefferson, a man with such blatant hostility against monarchy?  Because, Adams told him, (1) he was a Virginian “and a Virginian should be at the head of this matter;” (2) Adams was considered obnoxious by many in congress and Jefferson was very much otherwise; and (3) Jefferson could write ten times better than Adams.

Why Jefferson?  Well, if you want somebody to write your self-defining document, you choose the best writer.  Only Lincoln, among our great statesmen and women, can be compared to Jefferson.

Jefferson was a produce of the Enlightenment.  Growing up in the rarified air of the intellectual elites of Virginia, Jefferson was not averse to spending fifteen hours a day reading his heroes, such as Locke.  He would have said, as did Marley’s Ghost, that mankind was his business.  Jefferson wanted to secure independence not just for Americans, but, ultimately, for mankind.  He sought to free mankind from the choke of monarchical oppression.

But not for his slaves, or for American slaves.  He did not try to end slavery, as some have said, on the document, although he did blame King George for the slave trade and did try to end that.   Of course, by ending the slave trade, he made his own slaves and those of his neighbors in Virginia that much more valuable, as he was choking off all competition.  (Virginia had the most slaves.)

Jefferson and slavery.  His failure to adequately oppose it in either his public or his personal life will always rear its head when discussing the man, and rightfully so.  He failed the country and he failed himself by so willingly (and conveniently) giving in to the politically realities of his time.  Biographers such as Jon Meacham argue that he was simply a pragmatist.  And yet, when it came to the rest of his life, he was anything but.  He was a man who chose to build a mansion on top of a mountain when everybody told him how completely unreasonable the idea was.  His imagination soared far above and beyond those of the great majority of his compatriots, but when it came to the evils of slavery, he became the most conventional of any of them.

So why do we celebrate the man and the document he wrote?

Perhaps the greatest student of the Declaration of Independence was Abraham Lincoln.  And we have all heard the words that begin his most famous address, The Gettysburg Address, about a battle that occurred around July 4th as well:  “Four Score and Seven Years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  Strange, isn’t it, since those fore score and seven years bring us back to the Declaration of Independence, which certainly did not create a new nation.  Anything but.  It was quite specific in not doing that, in setting up a system in which each of the thirteen colonies, now states, had their own sovereignty.  And so we are left with the conclusion that either Abraham Lincoln had gone a bit batty, or that he was arguing the position that the Declaration was far more than simply a statement of separation, but that it was the opening salvo of our Constitution and the first explanation and description of our county.

Lincoln makes some interesting comments about the Declaration.  Soon after his first election he had this to say:  “It was not mere matter of separation of the colonies from the motherland, but [of] that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence, which gave liberty not alone to the people of the country, but hope to all the world, for all future time.  It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights would be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.  This is the sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”  So here Lincoln makes an important point, that there is much in this Declaration that is not directly on point as to the issue of independence from England; much that goes farther and deeper than that.

We could have ended up looking back on a Declaration as a document for a specific purpose, as we see the Declaration of Causes for Taking Up Arms.  We could see it as a legal argument, as we see The Federalist Papers.  Certainly, we could have seen it as a document overtaken and subsumed by the later Constitution.  But we don’t.  We see it as Lincoln saw it, as the very first articulation of the American experiment, before we had even agreed to become one country.  And yet, continuing to follow the idea that we are one people, and that we can be described with a shared body of values.  Think about it – we might well have said, in some of our colonies, all men are created while in some of our colonies, we have slaves.  The document could have described an errant group of different colonies with individualistic characteristics who came together to fight this just war, much as the Allies would have described themselves during World War II.

To Lincoln, the Civil War was required by the Declaration of Independence.  It created a conflict, from day one, a conflict between what it stated and how we lived, and it was a conflict, Lincoln seemed to believe, that the Founders, including Jefferson, knew that a future generation would have to resolve.  Writing to Joshua Speed, Lincoln said, “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

Today we continue to celebrate that work-in-progress that is the Declaration of Independence.  It set the tone and it led the way, and it gave us words that were far more empty of real meaning when he wrote them then they are today.  I tell people that I am a Jeffersonian, which is a very different thing from being a Jefferson-advocate.  The words of the Declaration of Independence, at least many of them, reign supreme, and the tragedy is not that they were written in a way that did not always accord with our actions, but that we did not more quickly alter our actions to be in accord with this document.  Gore Vidal may have put it best:  “He said the right words at the right time, and they were never forgotten.”

Join us at Bow Tie Tours as we discuss the Declaration of Independence.  Take our “Independence Tour Extraordinaire” to see where Jefferson wrote the Declaration and where it was signed.  (Includes tickets to Independence Hall.)  To get to know Thomas Jefferson even better, sign up for our four day Jefferson Package and travel with us to Jefferson’s home and the places that were important to him.

Enjoy your Independence Day!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 26, 1776

Sir_Joshua_Reynolds_-_John_Murray,_4th_Earl_of_Dunmore_-_Google_Art_Project

Virginia Governor Dunmore reports to Lord Germain in England that the Gwynn’s Island is his new base, and that if the fever had not killed most of the slaves that flocked to his banner, he would have stayed on the mainland.

In Seneca, South Carolina, Patriot Captain James McCall and a thirty man detachment of South Carolina rangers were snet on a peace mission to the Cherokee Nation.  They were ambushed by the Indians.

In New Jersey, General Sir William Howe and the British fleet arrive off Sandy Hook.

John Adams writes to his wife, attributing the defeat in Canada to smallpox.  “Our Misfortunes in Canada, are enough to melt an Heart of Stone. The Small Pox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians and Indians together. This was the Cause of our precipitate Retreat from Quebec, this the Cause of our Disgraces at the Cedars.—I dont mean that this was all. There has been Want, approaching to Famine, as well as Pestilence. And these Discouragements seem to have so disheartened our Officers, that none of them seem to Act with Prudence and Firmness.  But these Reverses of Fortune dont discourage me. It was natural to expect them, and We ought to be prepared in our Minds for greater Changes, and more melancholly Scenes still. It is an animating Cause, and brave Spirits are not subdued with Difficulties.”

Adams continues to write of his multiplying duties:  “The Congress have been pleased to give me more Business than I am qualified for, and more than I fear, I can go through, with safety to my Health. They have established a Board of War and Ordinance and made me President of it, an Honour to which I never aspired, a Trust to which I feel my self vastly unequal. But I am determined to do as well as I can and make Industry supply, in some degree the Place of Abilities and Experience. The Board sits, every Morning and every Evening.1 This, with Constant Attendance in Congress, will so entirely engross my Time, that I fear, I shall not be able to write you, so often as I have. But I will steal Time to write to you.”

Learn more about the events of 1776 by joining Bow Tie Tours for one of our award winning historical walking tours.  Join us for our July 4th Celebration, a 7-Hour Extravaganza that takes you into the rooms where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and where Congress signed it.  See the chair Washington sat in during the Constitutional Convention, and the dais from which performed the first peaceful transfer of power from one president to another.  See where Benjamin Franklin flew his kite, where Alexander Hamilton first met Mariah Reynolds.  The bank that was the result of a titanic struggle between competing ideological forces that brought about our two party system.  The tent where George Washington slept.  This will be a July 4th you will never forget, and you will be joined by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Signer of the Declaration of Independence who can tell you these things from personal experience.  Tickets are limited, so contact us now for this rare opportunity.