August 11, 1776

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General orders prohibit furloughs or discharge of officers and soldiers without the knowledge and consent of General George Washington.

In Boston, Massachusetts, the Declaration is read in all the local churches.

In Little River, South Carolina, Major Andrew Pickens, with a detachment of 25 men was attacked by a group of 135 Cherokee Indians while on a reconnaissance mission.  The American troops killed several Indians who then broke off the fight and withdrew.  The battle was also known as the “Ring Fight”

John Adams writes to James Warren:  “I Informed you in my last that we were Calling in every 25th. Man of the Train Band, and Alarm List to supply the places of your Battalions called away and already Marched. These Men are coming into the place of Rendesvous Dochester Heigths, but you have Appointed no General Officer to Command them, and unless General Ward can be prevailed on to Continue, I know not how they can be furnished with pay subsistence Barrack Utensils, or Ordinance Stores. Would it not be well to Appoint A Major General to Command in the Eastern department only. I am not Aware of any disadvantages in such An Appointment. I hope before this the Confederation, and matter of foreign Alliances are determined, As I suppose matters will go more glibly after the decleration of Independance, which by the way was read this Afternoon by Doctor Cooper, and Attended to by the Auditory with great Solemnity, and satisfaction.  Matters of great Importance must after all remain to be settled, Among which I Conceive Coin and Commerce are not to be reckoned Among the smallest. These are indeed such Intricate subjects that I dont pretend to Comprehend them in their full Extent. Your Currency still retains its Credit, but how long that will last if you Continue large Emissions is difficult for me to Guess. Commerce is A Subject of Amazeing Extent. While such Matters are on the Carpet how can we spare you.  I suppose Mrs. Adams will Inform you by this Post that She and the Children are well tho’ Charles has not yet had the Small Pox, which is the Case with many others After being Inoculated 2. 3. and even 6 or 7 Times. The Physicians cant Account for this. Several Persons that supposed they had it lightly last winter, and some before, now have it in the Natural way. Mrs. Warren and myself have been fortunate enough to have it very Cleverly and propose going home this week. She Joins me in the sincerest regards, for you and Mr. Adams, and wishes for your Health and Happiness. I am &c.  If the News you have from France be true the Ball must wind up soon.  God Grant a Confirmation. I long to be A Farmer again.

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August 3, 1776

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In view of the serious threat to New York and its own shores, the State Convention in New Brunswick, New Jersey, resolves to fine all able-bodied men who refuse to bear arms.

General Horatio Gates feels reassured that the energetic Benedict Arnold would be responsible for building and commanding the fleet in order to oppose the inevitable invasion from Canada.

Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Tupper commanding 5 small boats attacked 5 British ships that passed up the Hudson River from Staten Island and anchored at the Tappan Sea.  The attack failed.  HMS Phoenix and HMS Rose were involved.

John Adams writes to his wife, Abigail (original spelling retained):  Went this Morning to the Baptist Meeting, in Hopes of hearing Mr. Stillman, but was dissappointed. He was there, but another Gentleman preached. His Action was violent to a degree bordering on fury. His Gestures, unnatural, and distorted. Not the least Idea of Grace in his Motions, or Elegance in his Style. His Voice was vociferous and boisterous, and his Composition almost wholly destitute of Ingenuity. I wonder extreamly at the Fondness of our People for schollars educated at the Southward and for southern Preachers. There is no one Thing, in which We excell them more, than in our University, our schollars, and Preachers. Particular Gentlemen here, who have improved upon their Education by Travel, shine. But in general, old Massachusetts outshines her younger sisters, still. In several Particulars, they have more Wit, than We. They have Societies; the philosophical Society particularly, which excites a scientific Emulation, and propagates their Fame. If ever I get through this Scene of Politicks and War, I will spend the Remainder of my days, in endeavouring to instruct my Countrymen in the Art of making the most of their Abilities and Virtues, an Art, which they have hitherto, too much neglected. A philosophical society shall be established at Boston, if I have Wit and Address enough to accomplish it, sometime or other.—Pray set Brother Cranch’s Philosophical Head to plodding upon this Project. Many of his Lucubrations would have been published and preserved, for the Benefit of Mankind, and for his Honour, if such a Clubb had existed.  My Countrymen want Art and Address. They want Knowledge of the World. They want the exteriour and superficial Accomplishments of Gentlemen, upon which the World has foolishly set so high a Value. In solid Abilities and real Virtues, they vastly excell in general, any People upon this Continent. Our N. England People are Aukward and bashfull; yet they are pert, ostentatious and vain, a Mixture which excites Ridicule and gives Disgust. They have not the faculty of shewing themselves to the best Advantage, nor the Art of concealing this faculty. An Art and Faculty which some People possess in the highest degree. Our Deficiencies in these Respects, are owing wholly to the little Intercourse We have had with strangers, and to our Inexperience in the World. These Imperfections must be remedied, for New England must produce the Heroes, the statesmen, the Philosophers, or America will make no great Figure for some Time.

Our Army is rather sickly at N. York, and We live in daily Expectation of hearing of some great Event. May God almighty grant it may be prosperous for America.—Hope is an Anchor and a Cordial. Disappointment however will not disconcert me.  If you will come to Philadelphia in September, I will stay, as long as you please. I should be as proud and happy as a Bridegroom.”

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August 2, 1776

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Members of congress signed the engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Samuel Cooper writes to John Adams:  “The Small Pox is an Enemy more terrible in my Imagination, than all others. This Distemper will be the ruin, of every Army from New England if great Care is not taken. I am really Sorry that the Town of Boston attempted to clear itself of the Infection.2 I cannot but wish, that an innoculating Hospital, was set up in every Town in New England. But if this is not done, I am Sure that Some Hospitals, ought to be erected in Some convenient Places.  Between you and me, I begin to think it Time for our Colony to think a little more highly of itself.—The military operations have been at least as well conducted, under our own Officers, when left to themselves, as any others. You and several others of my best Friends have been pressing for a Stranger to command in Boston, and from two political Motives, I have been pressing for it too. The one was this, the People, and the Soldiery, at Boston, would not be so likely to respect, a General from among themselves, as a Stranger, the other was that the People of the Southern and middle Colonies, would have more Confidence in one of their own Officers, than in one from New England. And in Case of any Thing Unlucky I had rather hear them groan for one of their own, than scold or curse at a New England man.  The Reverse of Fortune in Canada, and the Arrival of the Hallifax Fleet, at Sandy Hook have now, removed all Expectation of having such an Officer Sent to Boston as We wished and therefore I wish that some Massachusetts Man, could command at Boston.”

In Congress, a proposal for term limits is drafted which will ultimately be passed:  “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 proceeding, 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.”

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July 29, 1776

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On the frontier of North Carolina, to discourage a reported Indian alliance with the British, troops from Virginia, North and South Carolina invade Cherokee territory and begin a campaign, which will ultimately destroy 32 towns and villages.

John Adams writes to Abigail, first asking her about her small pox vaccination, but then moving on to discuss a “knotty problem” that will, indeed, engage those who meet at the Constitutional Convention over ten years later:  “How are you all this Morning? Sick, weak, faint, in Pain; or pretty well recovered? By this Time, you are well acquainted with the Small Pox. Pray how do you like it?  We have no News. It is very hard that half a dozen or half a Score Armies cant supply Us, with News. We have a Famine, a perfect Dearth of this necessary Article.  I am at this present Writing perplexed and plagued with two knotty Problems in Politicks. You love to pick a political Bone, so I will even throw it to you.  If a Confederation should take Place, one great Question is how We shall vote. Whether each Colony shall count one? or whether each shall have a Weight in Proportion to its Numbers, or Wealth, or Exports and Imports, or a compound Ratio of all?  Another is whether Congress shall have Authority to limit the Dimensions of each Colony, to prevent those which claim, by Charter, or Proclamation, or Commission to the South Sea, from growing too great and powerfull, so as to be dangerous to the rest.  Shall I write you a Sheet upon each of these Questions. When you are well enough to read, and I can find Leisure enough to write, perhaps I may.”

Meanwhile, Adams receives a letter from Abigail:  “I write you now, thanks be to Heaven, free from paine, in Good Spirits, but weak and feeble. All my Sufferings produced but one Eruption. I think I can have no reason to be doubtfull with regard to myself as the Symptoms run so high and my Arm opperated in the best manner. The small pox acts very odly this Season, there are Seven out of our Number that have not yet had it, 3 out of our 4 children have been twice innoculated, two of them Charles and Tommy have not had one Symptom. I have indulged them in rather freer living than before and hope they will not long remain doubtfull. Mrs. Cranch and Cotton Tufts have been in Town almost 3 weeks and have had the innoculation repeated 4 times and can not make it take. So has Mrs. Lincoln. Lucy Cranch and Billy are in the same State. Becky Peck who has lived in the same Manner with us, has it to such a degree as to be blind with one Eye, swell’d prodigiously, I believe she has ten Thousand. She is really an object to look at; tho she is not Dr. Bulfinches patient. Johnny has it exa[c]tly as one would wish, enough to be well satisfied and yet not be troublesome. We are ordered all the Air we can get, and when we cannot walk we must ride, and if we can neither walk nor ride, we must be led. We sleep with windows open all Night, and Lay upon the Carpet or Straw Beds, Mattrass or any thing hard, abstain from Spirit, Salt and fats, fruit we Eat, all we can get, and those who like vegetables unseasond may Eat them, but that is not I.—This doubtfull Buisness is very dissagreable as it will detain us much longer, but there are several instances now of persons who thought they had had it, and were recoverd, and lived away freely, and now are plentifully dealt by. Mr. Joseph Edwards wife for one, and queer work she makes of it you may be sure. The Doctors say they cannot account for it, unless the free presperation throws it of[f]. Every physician has a number of patients in this doubtfull State. Where it does take and the patient lives any thing free, they have a Doze of it. Cool weather is much fitter for the small pox. I have not got rid of any terrors of the small pox but that of not being liable to it again, which you will say is a very great one; but what I mean is that I should dread it more now than before I saw it, were I liable to it. If we consider the great numbers who have it now, computed at seven thousand, 3 thousand of which are from the Country, tis very favorable, tho not so certain as it was last winter with many patients. Mr. Shaw who was innoculated at the same time when I and 3 of my children were out of the same Box, and has lived lower by his account than we have, has a full portion of it for all of us. There is no accounting for it. We did not take so much phisick as many others neither. If this last does not take I shall certainly try them with some wine.  Dr. Sawyer of Newbury Port lost a child 9 years old last week with the Distemper, and Coll. Robinson of Dorchester lies extreem bad with a mortification in his kidneys. Some such instances we must expect among such a variety of persons and constitutions.  I rejoice Exceedingly at the Success which General Lee has met with. I believe the Men will come along in a short time. They are raising, but the Massachusets has been draind for Sea Service as well as land. The Men were procured in this Town last week; we have taken a vessel from Halifax bound to New York, which we should call a prize but that it containd about 14 Tories among whom is that infamous Wretch of a Ben Davis the Ginger Bread Robber. How many little ones can say I was an Hungry and you gave me no Bread, but inhumanely took what little I had from me.2 I wish the Sea or any other Element had them rather than we should be tormented with them. Friends and connextions are very bad things in such times as these. Interest will be made, and impartial Justice obstructed, we catch flies and let the wasps go.—Hark a General Huzza of the populace, these wretches are just committed to jail.  The Continential Troops are near all gone from this Town, all I believe who are in a Marching State. The small pox has been General amongst them and exceeding favourable.  I have requested of Judge Cushing to write you an account of his circut and he has promised to do it. Both he and his Lady are under innoculation. When I came into Town I was in great hopes that if we did well we should be able to return in about 3 weeks, and we should have been able to have effected it, if it had opperated as formerly. Now I fear it will be 5 weeks before we shall all get through but I must not complain. When I cast my eye upon Becky whose Symptoms were not half so high as mine or some of the rest of us, and see what an object she is I am silenced, and adore the Goodness of God towards us.  Her Dr. says she is not dangerous. Col. Warren has sufferd as much pain as I did, but has more to shew for it, he is very cleverly spatterd. Mrs. Warren is now strugling with it, to one of her constitution it opperates in faintings and langour. It did so upon Betsy Cranch, yet when it found it[s] way through, it opperated kindly.—I believe you will be tired of hearing of small pox, but you bid me write every post and suppose you are anxious to hear how we have it. The next post I hope to tell you that they all have it, who now remain uncertain.”

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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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July 14, 1776

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Since the 12th, five British ships have been within sight of Manhattan Island.  Upon seeing the ships, the American defense fell apart, some soldiers running, others gaping at the British, and few firing pointlessly at their out-of-range ships.  Two of the ships entered the Hudson River unchallenged, and conducted a two-hour cannon attack of New York.  Washington observed that “the shrieks & cries of these poor creatures running every way with their children was truly distressing.”  This was followed by the entrance of the British man-of-war, the sixty-four gun HM Eagle, carrying none other than Admiral Lord Howe.  The two Howe brothers had now arrived.

However, they had come with the power not only to engage in war, but to offer peace.  It was still the hope of the British that the Americans would see the error of their ways, especially when they saw all of the ships with the armaments aimed directly at them.

On the 14th, a small boat under white flag was sent by Lord Howe to offer terms of peace.  Philip Brown was in the boat and he carried a letter from Lord Howe to “George Washington, Esqr, New York.”  Three Continental Army Officers (Henry Knox, Joseph Reed, and Samuel Webb) met with Brown, who, as Knox recalled, rose up, bowed, and said “I have a letter, sir, from Lord Howe to Mr. Washington.”  Colonel Reed understood well the importance of the designation of “Mr. Washington,” as opposed to his official title as General of the Continental Army.  “Sir, Colonel Reed replied, “we have no person in our army with that address.”  Perplexed, Brown pulled the envelope out again, showed it to him, and said, “Sir, will you look at the address?”  Reed responded, “No, sir, I cannot receive that letter.”  Replied Brown, “I am very sorry, and so will be Lord Howe, that any error in the superscription should prevent the letter being received by General Washington.”  Colonel Reed said, “You are sensible, sir, of the rank of General Washington in our army?”  Brown replied, “Yes, sir, we are.  I am sure my Lord Howe will lament exceedingly this affair, as the letter is quite of a civil nature, and not a military one. He laments exceedingly that he was not here a little sooner.”  By which Brown was saying that had he gotten there before the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, perhaps that lamentable action could have been avoided.

Washington himself had no deep concern over refusing the overture, although he wrote to John Hancock on this day that “I would not upon any occasion sacrifice essentials to punctilio, but in this instance…I deemed it a duty to my country and my appointment to insist upon that respect which in any other than a public view would willingly have waived.”  Nonetheless, at this point Washington was no longer looking toward reconciliation, and he saw British peace overtures as merely attempts “to distract, divide, & create as much confusion as possible.”  Lord Howe’s secretary, Ambrose Serle, was disgusted by the American action.  “So high is the vanity and the insolence of these men…There now seems no alternative but war and bloodshed, which must lay at the door of these unhappy people.  They pretend (or rather have pretended) to seek peace, and yet renounce it.  The faction have thrown aside all appearances at length, and declare openly for Independence & War.”

Washington believed, correctly, that the only offer Howe was permitted to make would be one of  pardon.  Washington, however, sought no pardon, either for himself or his people.  In his eyes, they had done nothing wrong that admitted of a pardon.

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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!