As we near our annual celebration of Independence Day, I would like to throw out a few comments regarding the people involved in creating the Declaration of Independence and where we are today in relationship to them.
First of all, in a technical sense of the word, those who wrote, voted for and signed this document weren’t “Patriots.” They were in fact rebels guilty of treason against the government that ruled them. The thirteen colonies owed their allegiance to the Crown and Parliament of Great Britain. Further, in a technical sense, the revolution had already begun long before they even thought of creating this document.
The Second Continental Congress was comprised of unelected representatives of the thirteen colonies, established by Great Britain. Boston was already occupied by the British; blood had been spilt on both sides. However, some in Congress wanted to still work for reconciliation with our “mother country” while others wanted to break from them for all time. Many remained in the middle.
In 1775 the First Continental Congress had sent King George the Third a petition for redress of grievances. In June 1775 the Congress established a Continental Army, a Continental Currency and in July of 1775 a “Post Office” for “The United Colonies”. In August 1775 King George III replied to the petition, a royal proclamation declared that the King’s American subjects were “engaged in open and avowed rebellion.” Later that year, Parliament passed the American Prohibitory Act, which made all American vessels and cargoes forfeit to the Crown. And in May 1776 the Congress learned that the King had negotiated treaties with German states to hire mercenaries to fight in America. The weight of these actions combined to convince many Americans that the mother country was treating the colonies as a foreign entity.
On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia read a resolution to the Congress beginning: “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.” This was not unanimously supported by the Congress. It was decided that a document should be prepared to list the grievances that led to this situation and in effect, attach legality to an illegal act before the entire Congress would vote on the resolution. Further, the vote had to be unanimous.
A Committee of Five was formed to write the “Declaration” to be heard before the Congress before a final vote was to be held to determine if the members of Congress would all hang together or hang separately. The Committee consisted of John Adams of the Colony of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of the Colony of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of the Colony of Pennsylvania, Robert Livingston of the Colony of New York and Thomas Jefferson of the Colony of Virginia.
Roger Sherman was essentially a self educated man who had no legal training yet became an attorney, Justice of the Peace and later a Justice of the Superior Court. He was the only member of the Committee of Five who ended up working on and signing all four major documents regarding our founding: The Declaration of Independence, The Articles of Association, The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, and the United States Constitution. While working on the Constitution, he was the one who created the 3/5 compromise regarding slaves and was opposed to paper money. Jefferson said of him, “That is Mr. Sherman, of Connecticut, a man who never said a foolish thing in his life.”
Robert Livingston was an early anti-colonialist who was a member of the Whig Party. He was another lawyer and became Chancellor of New York and was the man who gave George Washington the Oath of Office when he was sworn in as our first President under the Constitution. Though on the Committee of Five, he did not sign the document having been recalled to New York before the vote was cast. He went on to join Jefferson as a member of the Jeffersonian Republicans, later known as the Democratic Party, in opposition to the Federalist Party under Hamilton. He was Jefferson’s Minister to France and negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. After signing the agreement Livingston said “We have lived long but this is the noblest work of our whole lives…The United States take rank this day among the first powers of the world.”
Benjamin Franklin was quite frankly a self-made man. He was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman and diplomat. He was among the first to push for colonial unity. He invented the lightening rod, the Franklin stove, bifocals, and the odometer. He was an international figure and though elderly, quite the ladies man. He was the first to actually map North Atlantic Ocean currents as a result of his many trips to Europe and his role as British deputy postmaster. He opposed slavery and later wrote of the importance of integrating Blacks into American Society. He started the first abolitionist society on these shores. He was educated, had a keen wit, sense of humor and an uncanny ability to size people and organizations up for political purposes. In today’s world, he would be considered a mix between Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Bill Maher and Hugh Hefner. When leaving the Constitutional Convention he was asked what sort of government we would have to which he responded “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
John Adams was considered the driving force in getting the Congress to break from the mother country. He was disliked by many in the Congress. A Harvard graduate and attorney, he opposed the Stamp Act of 1765 and continued to have issues with British rule and taxation. However, in 1770 he successfully defended the British soldiers charged with killing 5 Boston civilians in what became known as the Boston Massacre. He went on to become a staunch supporter of independence from Great Britain citing the tyranny of King George and the harm inflicted in Massachusetts during Concord and Lexington and later Bunker Hill. Then again, he negotiated the peace treaty with Great Britain following the end of the Revolutionary War and also secured our nation’s first loans from Amsterdam. Though serving in Congress, he was known to have said that “One useless man is a disgrace; two become a law firm and three or more a Congress.” By today’s standards he was considered a Conservative. Of note, his government negotiated the “Treaty of Tripoli” which was unanimously approved in the Senate, made up of the founding fathers and cited clearly that “the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” However, Adams was a devout Christian himself. He went on to become the second president of the United States. He wrote in “Thoughts of Government” “There is no good government but what is republican. That the only valuable part of the British Constitution is so; because the very definition of a republic is an empire of laws, and not of men.” Despite this, he imposed the Alien and Sedition Acts, considered even today as very draconian attack on free speech in our nation. He sided with the Federalists who were opposed to Jeffersonian Republicans. Of interest was the fact that Jefferson was his Vice President at this time. The Jeffersonian Republicans over time became the Democratic Party. He lost re-election to his Vice President, Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. He was from Virginia, he owned slaves, he was a Deist, and he did not believe in the “miracles” written about in the Bible and went so far as to remove all of them created his own Jefferson’s Bible. He cited “Nature’s God” not the Christian God. Although he ended up being the third president of the United States, although he was responsible in doubling the size of this nation via the Louisiana Purchase, although he instituted many of the practices of the Executive Branch still followed today, on his Tombstone Jefferson wanted no mention of his Presidency. Instead, he wanted written “Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson: Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, Father of the University of Virginia.” And below is what he wrote that we celebrate on July 4th:
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, 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; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Those on the Committee of Five were different men with different views and values. Yet they had one goal in mind and although Jefferson wrote the document, it was with the consent and contributions of the others. Further, this document was presented and passed by the Second Continental Congress. Members of this body were from all thirteen colonies and all had extremely varied views on religion, government, slavery, commerce, sovereignty and most important, whether we should even be declaring our independence.
At the end of the day, by unanimous consent, the document was approved and the illegal act of rebellion of given the face of legitimacy. These men of varied views worked and compromised for the common good. Let us also not forget that during this period of our history, the two million inhabitants were not united in wanting to break with Britain. About a third did, another third didn’t and the final third were in the middle and weren’t sure. Much as it is with this country today on most subjects. But then again, over time and reflection we came together as a new nation. Those who couldn’t bring themselves to accept what the nation was becoming, left for Canada or England and the rest remained and we started as a nation. A nation with multiple views and values, strengths and weaknesses, priorities and political ideation. However, unlike today, with reflection and common purpose, we came together, the mid 1800’s notwithstanding.
Common purpose, compromise, cooperation, and tolerance are not bad words. This is what made us what we are today. We should reflect on what was happening in 1776 and the people involved. For the most part, their composition and attitudes aren’t that different from our nation today. They got past it; we should honor them by following in their footsteps.
Happy Independence Day.