The Truth about McCullough’s John Adams

            When giving tours or giving speeches, I try hard not to come off as an insufferable crank (despite being one.)  This often requires a bit of dissemination on my part.  Such as when a woman tells me, her voice dripping with pride, that her husband is a great history scholar – he has read all of Bill O’Reilly’s books.  Given the world I live in, where both adults and children admit to me that they have no idea who wrote the Declaration of Independence, who we were fighting against in the Revolutionary War, and why did all of these battles take place on National Parks – I can only smile wanly and nod.  “Have you read them?” is the next, unavoidable question.  “Well, no, I spend more of my time reading history books by…you know, historians or writers.” 

            Given all of that, I can’t take umbrage when people tell me they love the David McCullough book, John Adams.  How could I?  It would be like complaining that you don’t regularly groom your animals in a slaughter house.  But let me let those of you who are reading my blog in on a little secret – I think John Adams is the most overrated history book I have ever read, and I think McCullough is a fraud.  (For those of you who reply, “I think he’s a great writer,” I can only offer the response that one can be both.)

            Before discussing this book, and the mini-series it spawned, let me note something about many, many well-respected authors and historians that I find amazing.  They act like children.  Too many historical writers feel the need to be totally on one side or the other in their character-driven narratives.  Thus, if they love Washington, they feel the need to hate Jefferson for his alleged apostasies against Washington.  Hamiltonians must hate Jeffersonians every bit as much as Jeffersonians hate Hamiltonians.  (Want to know something interesting?  “Hamiltonians” comes through fine on my computer, but “Jeffersonians” has that tell-tale red line under it, indicating a misspell.  When I check to see what might be more appropriate, it offers “Jeffersonian” without the s.  What, am I the only one left!)

            McCullough takes this tendency to extreme and ridiculous heights.  His book, which is a one-volume biography of Adams, spends more time kvetching about Jefferson than is necessary or appropriate.  Yes, I get it, I get it, he was mean to Adams, I know.

            I hear this all the time about Jefferson.  He was mean to Hamilton.  He was mean to Washington.  He was mean to Adams.  I respond, dispassionately – being a calm and impartial Historical Expeditionary – that he was on several occasions somewhat two-faced in his dealings with these guys.  This came from his twin tendencies – first, he did not like engaging in disagreeable personal invective but, second, he also did not want the country, this potential paradise on earth, to be turned into a pale imitation of England.  In other words, this wasn’t a fight over a girl in junior high school – it was about saving humanity.  It was about doing everything he could to save humanity by stopping the attempts of the Hamiltonians to to open the doors of the governing chambers to the speculators, and to bring about the festering, putrid land of corruption and moral decay that is the America of today. 

            Here, in a nutshell, is the biggest problem with the McCullough book.  He took a nice advance (his time must always be paid for) to write a book about Adams and Jefferson.  (Something that was just done by Gordon S. Wood.  Perhaps I’ll blog about it one day.)  But he didn’t like Jefferson.  Adams, on the other hand, made him feel all warm and squishy.  So, while most of the book is a long curricula-vitae on Adams’ accomplishments, another large portion is on how much Jefferson sucked.  He spent too much money.  He was a hypocrite.  Blah, blah, blah.  Meanwhile, Adams was a bastion of rationality and intellect.

            Now, let me make something clear here – I friggin’ love John Adams.  What historian – or, to be more accurate, Historical Expeditionary – wouldn’t?  I fell in love with history when my mother took me to the musical 1776, and I now revel in his journals and letters.  He is the one guy who really seems to let me know him through his written word, instead of letting me know the reputation he would like to leave behind.

            That being said, he is a larger than life, sometimes out of his mind, individual, like Churchill or Teddy Roosevelt, somebody who goes off the deep-end as often as he avoids doing so.  Benjamin Franklin’s oft-repeated quote could not be more accurate:  “Always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”  Joseph Ellis, who was kind of a dick to me when I asked him to sign several of his books at a book signing, comes much closer to the essence of Adams in his wonderful book, Passionate Sage.

            I love Adams.  But that doesn’t mean I want you to skip a thorough discussion of one of the great blights of his career, the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Act, which basically made it illegal to criticize the dude in print.  After grudgingly admitting that, yes, Adams did sign the Act (and blaming Abigail for telling him to do so), he is quick to tell us that it “must be seen in the context of the time, and the context was tumult and fear.”  Ok.  All the more reason not to engage in it, one might say.

            What bugs me the most about the book is its universal acclaim and its totally preposterous Pulitzer Prize.  Now that does bother me, because I am thinking of all the younger and hungrier writers who do not demand to be paid for each second of their time but who are killing themselves trying to write books that might further historical discourse and knowledge.  I don’t mind when well-known authors win the award if they deserve it – Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln classic, Team of Rivals, comes immediately to mind – but am disgusted and dispirited when one wins it who does not. 

            Why do I call McCullough a fraud?  First of all, he starts the book with the seemingly obligatory orgasmic celebration of a “new” collection of journals and letters, in this case the Adams Papers.  All of which would be fine if he actually read them, but I don’t believe he did.  I found just about every quote to be familiar, most of them pulled, no doubt from the excellent two-volume study on Adams written by Page Smith in 1962. I’ve always hoped that some graduate student would take down every quote in the McCullough book, and then match them up with the Page Smith book. I’d be surprised if there were ten quotes in McCullough’s that were not already quoted in Smith’s.

            Then there is a talk I saw him do when he was telling the group how he had no idea what he would write about after Adam’s retirement.  Did anything happen?  Then, to his amazement, he “came across” a vast amount of fascinating material in the letters between Adams and his old friend Jefferson.  Ok, here’s the thing.  Everybody knows about that.  Are we to believe he was the one person with any historical background in America that had not heard about the famous Adams-Jefferson letters during their final years?  A fraud.

            What about the HBO Series, you ask?  For the most part I like it, and wish they would follow up with one on Washington or Jefferson or Franklin or Hamilton or somebody. I’m not crazy about Paul Giamatti’s performance. Why is he always screaming at his kids? But, the main problem, is I could never convince myself that he was John Adams and kept seeing him as Paul Giamatti. Personally, I would go for the 70s series The Adams Chronicles, which I thought was pretty wonderful at the time, and still do.

            So you have the book and were planning to read it.  Should you burn it?  Throw it out?  Put it in one of those weird little library boxes that are found on street corners throughout the country?  Well, here’s the thing.  I’m not telling you it’s a terrible book, only that it has defects and it annoys me.  McCullough is indeed a wonderful writer, and the world is a better one for this book having been written, since it brought John Adams into the light for many people who otherwise would never have thought about him one way or the other.  So it won’t kill you to read it.  You’ll learn stuff.  You’ll enjoy yourself.  You’ll be better off for having read it.

            But if you want to read the best biography on Adams, check out Page Smith’s two volume set that I already mentioned.  This is one of the greatest historical works I have ever read.  The guy deserved a Pulitzer!  He really did!

Sexual Harassment Allegations Come to Light!

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Betsy Walker has come forth with allegations that Thomas Jefferson, after assuring her husband that he would look in on her while he was away conducting a treaty with a nearby Indian tribe, did sexually harass and attempt to seduce her.  After slipping her an ode to the efficacy of free love, Jefferson was relentless in his attempts.  On one occasion, Jefferson had come to her house to play cards.  After she went to bed he “pretended to be sick, complained of a headache & left the gentlemen…Instead of going to bed….he stole into my room….”  Jefferson was “repulsed with indignation & menaces of alarm and ran off.”

Thomas Jefferson has admitted to the charges Betsy Walker has made, and apologizes for any pain he may have caused.  “I plead guilty…that when young and single I offered love to a handsome lady.  I acknowledge its incorrectness .”   We are still attempting to discover whether or not this was a singular and unique event, although several women (including Sally Hemings, Maria Cosway, Angelica Schuyler, and others) have indicated that this may be a pattern with Mr. Jefferson.

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November 6, 1776

Lord Germain, Secretary of State for America, writes two letters to Admiral Richard Howe.  The first acknowledges his report of the capture of New York.  The second lette reminds Howe that the King wanted him to engage the Southern Indians through John Stewart, Superintendent of Indians.

At an American Council of War, it is agreed that Howe would move his troops to New Jersey.  Therefore, Washington will also go to New Jersey and three thousand men will be posted at Peekskill, New York.

President of the Congress, John Hancock, writes to Washington in regards to British movements out of New York:  “I have the honor to inform you, that on yesterday morning the Enemy made a sudden and unexpected movement from the Several posts they had taken in our Front. they broke up their whole Encampments the preceding night, and have advanced towards King’s bridge and the North river. the design of this manuvre, is a matter of much conjecture and speculation, and cannot be accounted for with any degree of certainty. the Grounds we had taken possession of, were strong and advantageous and such, as they could not have gained without much loss of blood in case an attempt had been made. I had taken every possible precaution to prevent their outflanking us, which may have led to the present measure. they may still have in view their original plan; and by a sudden wheel try to accomplish it. detachments are constantly out to observe their motions, and to harrass them as much as possible.  In consequence of this movement, I called a Council of Genl Officers to day to consult of such measures as should be adopted in case they pursued their retreat to New York. the result of which, is herewith transmitted.  In respect to myself, I cannot indulge an Idea, that General Howe, supposing he is going to New York, means to close the Campaign and to sit down without attempting something more. I think it highly probable and almost certain, that he will make a descent with a part of his Troops into Jersey, and as soon as I am satisfied that the present manuvre is real and not a feint, I shall use every means in my power to forward a part of our force to counteract his designs. nor shall I be disappointed, if he sends a Detachment to the Southward for the purpose of making a Winter Campaign. from the information I have received, there is now a number of Transports at Red Hook with about three thousand Troops on board. their destination as given out, is, to Rhode Island, but this seems altogether improbable for various reasons, among others, the Season is much against it. in the Southern States they will find it milder and much more favourable for their purposes. I shall take the liberty of mentioning, that it may not be improper to suggest the probability of such a measure to the Assemblies and Conventions in those States, that they may be on their guard, and of the propriety of their establishing and laying up magazines of provisions & other necessaries in suitable places. this is a matter of exceeding importance, and what cannot be too much attended to.  From the approaching dissolution of the Army, and the departure of the New Levies which is on the eve of taking place, and the little prospect of levying a New One in time, I have wrote to the Eastern States by the unanimous advice of the General Officers, to forward Supplies of Militia in the room of those, that are now here, and who it is feared, will not be prevailed on to stay any longer than the time they are engaged for. The propriety of this application, I trust will appear, when it is known, that not a Single Officer is yet commissioned to recruit, and when it is considered how essential it is to keep up some shew of force and shadow of an Army.  I expect the Enemy will bend their force against Fort Washington and invest It immediately. from some advices it is an Object that will attract their earliest attention.  I am happy to inform you that in the Engagement on Monday Sennight, I have reason to beleive our Loss was by no means so considerable as was conjectured at first. By some deserters & prisoners we are told that of the Enemy was tolerably great. some accounts make it about Four Hundred in killed & wounded—All agree that among the former there was a Colo. Carr of the 35th Regiment.  The force that will be sent to Jersey after I am satisfied of Mr How’s retreat, in addition to those now there, according to my present opinion, will make it necessary for me to go with them, to put things in a proper channel, and such a way of defence, as shall seem most probable—to check the progress of the Enemy in case they should attempt a descent there or a move towards Philadelphia.

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October 12, 1776

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In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson obtained leave to bring in a bill declaring tenants entail to hold their lands in fee simple.  The laws of entail allow transfer of land to an heir of body, not wives or adopted child and led to large holding interests.

British General Henry Clinton lead a force of 4,000 men up the East River at Throg’s Neck.  General Washington sends a force, not to oppose, but to remove the bridge that connected the neck with the mainland.  The British eventually took it after a few days.

After Benedict Arnold’s escape at Split Rock, New York, General Guy Carleton hastened after them and caught up to them, but Arnold’s USS Congress sailed on to Crown Point.

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September 27, 1776

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The South Carolina House sends a report to President Rutledge that opposed the idea of forcing captured Indians into slavery.  They argued that the idea would hurt future relations and encourage Indians to retaliate in a similar fashion.

General George Washington transmits to Congress that the British military force in Canada is 8,000 men, one 18 gun ship, two brigs, three schooners, gondolas, bateaux, and artillery companies and about 100 cannon, the finest ever sent from England.

Richard Henry Lee writes to Thomas Jefferson to inform him that he has been chosen, along with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane to travel to France in order to convince the French to join the efforts of the colonies.  “I should have written to you before now if I had not been uncertain about finding you at home, as the distance was great, and the meeting of our Assembly approaching. All the material events that have happened since you left us are to be found related pretty faithfully in the public papers, which I suppose are regularly conveyed to you.

The plan of foreign treaty is just finished, and yourself, with Doctor Franklin, and Mr. Deane now in France, are the Trustees to execute this all important business. The great abilities and unshaken virtue, necessary for the execution of what the safety of America does so capitally rest upon, has directed the Congress in their choice; and tho ambition may have no influence in this case, yet that distinguished love for your country that has marked your life, will determine you here. In my judgement, the most emminent services that the greatest of her sons can do America will not more essentially serve her and honor themselves, than a successful negotiation with France. With this country, every thing depends upon it, and if we may form a judgement of what is at a distance, the dispositions of that Court are friendly in a high degree, and want only to be properly acted upon, to be wrought into fixt attachment and essential good. We find ourselves greatly endangered by the Armament at present here, but what will be our situation the next campaign, when the present force shall be increas[ed] by the addition of 20 or 30 thousand Russians with a larg[e] body of British and Irish troops? I fear the power of America will fail in the mighty struggle And the barbarous hand of despotism will extirpate libe[rty] and virtue from this our native land; placing in th[eir] stead slavery, vice, ignorance, and ruin. Already these foes of human kind have opened their Courts of Justice (as they call them) on Long Island, and the first frui[ts] of their tender mercies, are confiscation of estates, and condemnation of Whigs to perpetual imprisonment.  The idea of Congress is, that yourself and Dr. Frank[lin] should go in different Ships. The Doctor, I suppose, will sail from hence, and if it is your pleasure, on[e] of our Armed Vessels will meet you in any River in Virginia that you choose.”

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July 26, 1776

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Colonel Alexander Hamilton writes to the New York Representatives in regards to the scarcity of supplies being afforded his men:  “I am obliged to write you, to remove a difficulty which arises respecting the quantity of subsistence which is to be allowed my men. Enclosed you have the rate of rations which is the standard allowance of the whole Continental and even the Provincial army; but it seems Mr. Curtenius can not afford to supply us with more than his contract stipulates, which by comparison, you will perceive is considerably less than the forementioned rate. My men, you are sensible, are by their articles, entitled to the same subsistence with the Continental troops; and it would be to them an insupportable discrimination, as well as a breach of the terms of their enlistment, to give them almost a third less provisions than the whole army besides receives. I doubt not you will readily put this matter upon a proper footing. Hitherto, we have drawn our full allowance from Mr. Curtenius, but he did it upon the supposition that he should have a farther consideration for the extraordinary supply. At present however he scruples to proceed in the same way, until it can be put upon a more certain foundation.”

Congress discussed Article XVIII of the confederation proposal which granted Congress the power of “regulating the trade, and managing al affairs with the Indians.”  John Adams takes notes of the debate (original spellings):  “Rutledge and Linch oppose giving the Power of regulating the Trade and managing all Affairs of the Indians, to Congress. The Trade is profitable they say.

Gwinnett is in favour of Congress having such Power.

Braxton is for excepting such Indians as are tributary to any State. Several Nations are tributary to Virginia.

Jefferson explains it to mean the Indians who live in the Colony. These are Subject to the Laws in some degree.

Wilson. We have no Right over the Indians, whether within or without the real or pretended Limits of any Colony…. They will not allow themselves to be classed according to the Bounds of Colonies. Grants made 3000 miles to the Eastward have no Validity with the Indians. The Trade of Pensilvania has been more considerable with the Indians than that of the neighbouring Colonies.

Walton. The Indian Trade is of no essential service to any Colony. It must be a Monopoly. If it is free it produces Jealousies and Animosities, and Wars. Carolina very passionately considers this Trade as contributory to her Grandeur and Dignity. Deerskins are a great Part of the Trade. A great difference between S. Carolina and Georgia. Carolina is in no danger from the Indians at present. Georgia is a frontier and Barrier to Car. G. must be overrun and extirpated before Car. can be hurt. G. is not equal to the Expence of giving the Donations to the Indians, which will be necessary to keep them at Peace. The Emoluments of the Trade are not a Compensation for the Expence of donations.

Rutledge differs from Walton in a Variety of Points.—We must look forward with extensive Views. Carolina has been run to an amazing expence to defend themselves vs. Indians. In 1760 &c. fifty thousand Guineas were spent. We have now as many Men on the frontiers, as in Charlestown. We have Forts in the Indian Countries. We are connected with them by Treaties.

Lynch. Congress may regulate the Trade, if they will indemnify Car. vs. the Expence of keeping Peace with the Indians, or defending Us vs. them.

Witherspoon. Here are two adjacent Provinces, situated alike with respect to the Indians, differing totally in their Sentiments of their Interests.

Chase. S. Carolina claims to the S. Sea. So does North, Virginia, and Massachusetts Bay. S. Carolina says they have a Right to regulate the Trade with the Indians. If so 4 Colonies have all the Power of regulating Trade with the Indians. S.C. alone could not stand alone vs. the Indian Nations.

Sherman moves that Congress may have a Superintending Power, to prevent Injustice to the Indians or Colonies.

Willson. No lasting Peace will be with the Indians, unless made by some one Body. No such language as this ought to be held to the Indians. We are stronger, We are better. We treat you better than another Colony. No Power ought to treat, with the Indians, but the united States. Indians know the striking Benefits of Confederation— they have an Example of it in the Union of the Six nations. The Idea of the Union of the Colonies struck them forcibly last Year. None should trade with Indians without a Licence from Congress. A perpetual War would be unavoidable, if every Body was allowed to trade with them.  Stone. This Expedient is worse than either of the Alternatives. What is the meaning of this Superintendency? Colonies will claim the Right first. Congress cant interpose untill the Evil has happened. Disputes will arise when Congress shall interpose.”

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

July 2, 1776

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Congress formally adopts Richard Henry Lee’s resolution, asserting that the “United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved.”  The vote would be unanimous, except that New York abstained.

General John Sullivan, from Crown Point, New York, writes to John Hancock about his experience in Canada “to give you a particular account of the miserable state of our troops there, and the numbers of which daily kept dropping in their beds and graves would rather seem like the effect of imagination than a history of facts.”

After landing at New York, British Captain Archibald Robertson reports on “The Rebels” he encountered and notes how they “fired musketry at the nearest ships without effect.  Lucky for us the rebels had no cannon here or we would have suffered a great deal.”

Thomas Jefferson, being a forerunner of the term-limit movement, drafts a proposal to encourage the colonies to return different people to congress, rather than just the same ones.  “To prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office the members of the Continental Congress, to preserve to that body the confidence of their friends, and to disarm the malignant imputations of their enemies It is earnestly recommended to the several Provincial Assemblies or Conventions of the United colonies that in their future elections of delegates to the Continental Congress one half at least of the persons chosen be such as were not of the delegation next preceeding, and the residue be of such as shall not have served in that office longer than two years. And that their deputies be chosen for one year, with powers to adjourn themselves from time to time and from place to place as occasions may require, and also to fix the time and place at which their Successors shall meet.”

On this 4th of July Weekend, join us for Bow Tie Tours, the best historical walking tours in Philadelphia.  Visit some of the nearby battlefields to hear the true story of the Revolution.

June 30, 1776

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Now heading the newly created Board of War, John Adams asserts how military stores are of the utmost importance.  “I cannot think the country safe, which has not within itself every material necessary for war and the art of making use of those materials.  I shall not rest eady, then, until we shall have made discoveries of Saltpeter, Sulfur, Flints, Lead, Cannon, Mortars, Ball, Shells, Muskets and Powder in sufficient plenty, so that we may always be sure to having enough of each.”

Maryland’s Royal Governor Robert Eden joins Governor Dunmore in self-imposed exile from the mainland.

Thomas Jefferson responds to the news that he has been reappointed to the Congress with a polite refusal to continue.  “I this day received information that the Convention had been pleased to reappoint me to the office in which I have now the honor to be serving them and through you must beg leave to return them my sincere thanks for this mark of their continued confidence. I am sorry the situation of my domestic affairs renders it indispensably necessary that I should sollicit the substitution of some other person here in my room. The delicacy of the house will not require me to enter minutely into the private causes which render this necessary: I trust they will be satisfied I would not have urged it again were it not necessary. I shall with chearfulness continue in duty here till the expiration of our year by which time I hope it will be convenient for my successor to attend.”  Jefferson is almost certainly alluding to the health of his wife, which was evidently precarious at that time and would only grow worse.  Jefferson was also eager to return to Virginia in order to participate in the drawing-up of the state constitution, a matter which he may well have seen as far more important than anything going on in congress.

Join Bow Tie Tours for Philadelphia’s Best Historical Walking Tours.  Join us for our Independence Tour Extraordinaire, which includes admission to Independence Hall, the Declaration House, Carpenter’s Hall, and Christ Church.  You may also want to join our July 4th Extravaganza which includes admission to those sites as well as the outstanding Museum for the American Revolution and a celebratory drink at City Tavern.  Also, check out our latest podcast, George Washington 101, Episode 3, on chasingamericanhistory.com.

June 28, 1776

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Convicted of mutiny and sedition, Thomas Hickey, former Life Guard to General George Washington, is hanged near Bowery Lane in New York in front of 20,000 spectators.  Washington hoped the punishment would “be a warning to every soldier in the army” to avoid sedition, mutiny, and other crimes “disgraceful to the character of a soldier and pernicious to his country, whose pay he receives and bread he eats.”  He gave an interesting twist to the assassination attempt.  “And in order to avoid those crimes, the most certain method is to kedp out of the temptation of them and particularly to avoid lewd women, who, by the dying confession of this poor criminal, first led him into practices which ended in an untimely and ignominious death.”

In Charleston, South Carolina, at about 10 a.m. Commordore Peter Parker’s squadron opens fire on Fort Sullivan.  To the surprise of the British, the forts palmetto log wall absorbs the British shot, preventing typical splinter injuries to the garrison.  More suprising is the accurate and effective fire directed by Conlen Moultrie at the British fleet.  Their two largest warships HMS Bristol and HMS Thunder suffered extensive damage and severe crew losses.  Commodore Parker suffers painful physical injuries and the embarrassing loss of his breeches.  Moultire’s attack costs Parker 261 injured and dead.  American casualties are slight.

At the Battle of Fort Sullivan Island, American forces commanded by Colonel William Moultrie has a force of 9 ships, he had 64 killed in action, 131 wounded in action  This battle was considered an American victory.

In Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson presents a draft of the Declaration of Independence to Congress.

Join Bow Tie Tours for the Best Historical Walking Tours in Philadelphia.  On Independence Day, join us for our outstanding 7-hour extravaganza that includes admission to Independence Hall, The Museum of the American Revolution.  End it all at City Tavern for a celebratory drink before the fireworks!