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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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.”

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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.”

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WASHINGTON PODCAST NOW AVAILABLE!

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June 8, 1776

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In Philadelphia, Congress considers Richard Henry Lee’s world-shaking resolution from the previous day, urging that they declare independence.

In South Carolina, Colonel Moultrie receives notice that General Sir Henry Clinton has landed troops on the southern tip of Long Island.  Moultrie in turn orders American troops to occupy the northern part of Sullivan’s Island.

In Canada, at the Battle of Three Rivers, American troops under command of General John Sullivan have 2500 men and have about 400 killed or wounded.  British General Guy Carleton has 3000 men, and has 8 killed and 9 wounded in action.  The Americans have been decisively defeated in what can only be termed a military fiasco.  The guide was a turncoat and misled them into a swamp.  It took two hours to backtrack.  British General Carleton simply released all of the prisoners, as there was no way to feed them.  Certainly, they believed, the Americans would view this battle as proof that there was no conceivable way in which they could defeat the British Empire in any war of Independence.

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June 7, 1776

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Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduces to Congress three resolutions, total independence from Britain, the formation of foreign alliances, and preparation of a plan of colonial confederation.  This is a dramatic and world changing moment!  John Adams seconds the resolutions, which is as follows:  “Resolved That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.  That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming   foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to   the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.  Resolved that it is the opinion of this Committee tha[t] the first Resolution be postponed to this day three weeks and that in the mean time least any time should be lost in case the Congress agree to this resolution a committee be appointed to prepare a Declaration to the effect of the said first resolution.”

In Newburyport, Massachusetts, the American privateer U.S.S. Yankee Hero was attacked by HMS Melford and a small group of ships, commanded by Captain John Burr.  Outnumbered 4 to 1 the Yankee Hero surrendered after a two-hour fight.

Join us at Bow Tie Tours to see the place where this resolution was offered to congress!  We also offer the best battlefield tours in the area, including the battles of Washington’s Crossing/Trenton/Princeton, The Battle of Brandywine, and the Battle of Monmouth.

June 1, 1776

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Congress agrees to raise 6,000 militias “to reinforce the army in Canada, and to keep up communications with that province.”  Meanwhile in South Carolina, President Rutledge received intelligence that a fleet of 50 or more vessels were anchored north of Sullivan’s Island.

John Winthrop writes to John Adams:  “I have often wondered, that so much difficulty should be raised about declaring independence, when we have actually got the thing itself. Who or what are we afraid of? Are we afraid of provoking G.B. which is now actually carrying on open war against us, and bending her whole force to subjugate or exterminate us? But I have had such an implicit Faith in the wisdom of Congress, that I could not doubt but they had sufficient reasons for their conduct. I now perceive you were in these sentiments long ago. But they are very opposite to the inveterate prejudices and long established systems of many others. It must be a work of time to eradicate these prejudices. And perhaps it may be best to accomplish this great affair by slow and almost imperceptible steps, and not per saltum, by one violent exertion. The late Resolve of May 15. comes very near it. For what relates to sulphur &c. I have nothing to add to what I wrote in my last—only that saltpetre has been made here in very large quantities. Yesterday, being the last day in which the bounty of 7/ per lb. was allowed, I was surprised to see what a number of horses, loaded with that precious commodity, was crouding round the Commissary’s Store in Watertown; and on the road from Watertown to Concord, I met a great many others, and one or two waggons. The whole quantity I have not yet learned. The bounty is now reduced to 5/, till the 1st of October. I wonder you have not heard more about our Courts of Justice. I have purposely omitted many things in my Letters, from a persuasion that you had full information of them, either from private Letters, or the public News papers which I suppose you constantly receive. There have been no Courts held in Hampshire or Berkshire—no Justices of the pleas yet appointed for Hampshire. In Taunton, the Justices were opposed by force, and hindered from going into the Court house, by 30 or 40 men with large sticks in their hands, and some blows were given. The Justices then assembled in the tavern. Three or four of the Ringleaders, it is said, were soon after elected by the people as military officers (one of the blessed fruits of our new militia system).3 The principal grounds of complaint, so far as I can learn, are these. 1. That the fees and Court charges are extravagantly high. 2. That the Commissions run in the name of the K. 3. That some persons have been put in Commission who are obnoxious to the people. To remove the 1st complaint, a new Fee-bill has past, which has reduced most fees considerably. What is called a confession bill has also past, similar to the Connecticut practice. For the 2d, the Style of Commissions, Law-processes &c. is altered by an Act, and instead of G.III. it is to be, The Government and people of the Massachusetts Bay. A like Act has passed in Rhode Island. As to the 3d, no officers have as yet been displaced—so, that grievance remains. Whether the alterations made will allay these heats, time must discover. Some suspect, these are only ostensible reasons, and that the true ground of the opposition, at least with many, is an unwillingness to submit to law, and pay their debts. But such has been the spirit raised among the people; that it was tho’t advisable to adjourn, by Resolves, the Courts in most of the Counties. The Courts of Sessions have sat in Essex and Middlesex, but in no other County that I know of. I suppose they will set in Suffolk next Term. The Superior Court will meet, for the first time, at Ipswich on the 3d Tuesday of June, and so procede on the eastern circuit. I should hope, their presence in the several Counties, especially if the weight and influence of the Chief Justice could be added, would have a very happy effect. But important as his presence here would be, it is of so much greater importance at Philadelphia, that it ought not to be wished for at this time.   When these commotions will subside, it is impossible to say. There is such a spirit of inno[va]tion gone forth, as I am afraid will throw us into confusion. It seems as if every thing was to be altered. Scarce a News paper but teems with new projects. This week produced three. 1. for County Assemblies. 2. For a Registry of Deeds in each town. 3. For the Probate of Wills &c. to be made in each town by a Committee to be annually chosen for that purpose at the March meetings. The Representative of one Town in Suffolk (I do not know which) has received instructions to this purpose. I humbly conceive, this is not a proper time to make so many alterations, when our All is at Stake. Tis like repairing a house that is on fire. First put out the fire, and then repair the house. Tis likely, however, these points will be agitated, and perhaps carried this Session.”

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