The Declaration of Independence: Who, How & Why
By TLB Contributor: Dan Asmussen
A cover letter, dated in Philadelphia, July 6, 1776, was attached to the Declaration of Independence, as it was sent to the British authorities, wherein John Hancock states:
“Gentlemen, Altho it is not possible to forsee the consequences of human actions, yet it is nevertheless a duty we owe ourselves and posterity in all our public councils to decide in the best manner we are able and to trust the event to That Being who governs both causes and events, so as to bring about his own determinations.
Impressed with this sentiment, and at the same time fully convinced that our affairs will take a more favorable turn, The Congress have judged it necessary to dissolve all connection between Great Britain and the American Colonies, and to declare them free and independent States as you will perceive by the enclosed Declaration, which I am directed to transmit to you.”
So began the journey of the thirteen former British Colonies toward a lasting union of Independent Sovereign States. In truth the journey had begun with the first permanent settlement of European emigrant to these shores, as the vast reaches of this continent and the vicissitudes of life in settings markedly different from those of Europe shaped an entirely new spirit, a new mentality, morality and ethic, opposed to tyranny of any variety, secular or ecclesiastic.
Fifty-six men, appointed by their fellow citizens of each Colony, meeting in Congress assembled, determined that the only logical course of action by which they could throw off the yoke of tyranny was to declare the independence and sovereignty of the individual colonies, and join together in a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defence, the security of their Liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretence whatever.
In so doing, these fifty-six men, on the authority of the good people of the colonies, signed the Declaration of Independence, mutually pledging to each other their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.
Have you ever wondered what happened to the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence?
Five signers were captured by the British as traitors and tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost their sons in the Revolutionary War, another had two sons captured. Nine of the fifty-six fought and died from wounds or the hardships of the Revolutionary War.
What kind of men were they? Twenty-four were lawyers and jurists. Eleven were merchants, nine were farmers and large plantation owners, men of means, well educated. But they signed the Declaration of Independence knowing full well that the penalty would be death if they were captured.
Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, saw his ships swept from the seas by the British navy. He sold his home and his properties to pay his debts, and died in rags.
Thomas McKean was so hounded by the British that he was forced to move his family almost constantly. He served in Congress without pay, and his family was kept in hiding. His possessions were taken from him and poverty was his reward.
Vandals or soldiers or both, looted the properties of Ellery, Clymer, Hall, Walton, Gwinnett, Heyward, Ruttledge, and Middleton.
At the battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson, Jr. noted that the British General Cornwallis had taken over the Nelson home for his Headquarters. The owner quietly urged General George Washington to open fire. The home was destroyed, and Nelson died bankrupt.
Francis Lewis had his home and properties destroyed. The enemy jailed his wife, and she died within a few months.
John Hart of New Jersey was driven from his wife’s bedside as she was dying. Their 13 children fled for their lives. His fields and gristmill were laid to waste. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves, returning home to find his wife dead and his children vanished. A few weeks later he died from exhaustion and a broken heart.
Lewis Morris and Philip Livingston suffered similar fates.
Such are the stories and sacrifices of the American Revolution. These were not wild-eyed, rabble-rousing ruffians. They were softspoken men of means and education. They had security, but they valued liberty more. Standing tall, straight, and unwavering, they pledged:
“For the support of this declaration, with the firm reliance on the protection of the Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
They gave you and I a free and independent America. The history books of today do not tell the student a lot of what happened leading to and during the revolutionary war. We didn’t just fight the British. We were British subjects, a state of siege and repression of rights and liberties had existed for many years and a state of war had existed for two years prior to the signing of the Declaration, and we fought our own government for independence!
Most of the citizens of today take their liberties so much for granted. They shouldn’t, for in taking liberty for granted, they have lost much of it. All governments progress from liberty to tyranny and despotism, unless carefully watched and circumscribed.
Much is to be learned in today’s times from the events of that time, the causes and the reasons for the uprising and indignation of the citizens in opposition to tyranny. Many parallels can be drawn as we review the happenings of today.
The events, by and large, leading to the decision to declare for independence, are well delineated in the Declaration of Independence, a bill of particulars and reasons.
During the 20 years prior, the British Parliament passed and tried to enforce a series of tax and navigation measures that could scarcely have been better calculated to arouse to the highest pitch the spirit of resistance in America.
A state of siege and of war had existed, resulting from the stationing of British troops in Boston in 1768, to aid in the enforcement of the Townshend Acts. The ridicule of the “red-coats” by the colonials and the “snow-balling” of a British sentry, March 5, 1770, led to a riot, which cost the lives of several colonials. Among them was the negro, Crispus Attucks, very probably the first person to die on the long road and battle for independence and freedom.
Established Committees of Safety and Committees of Correspondence among the colonies, inaugurated by Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, now began to work. When the royal governor of Virginia dissolved the House of Burgesses in June, 1774, the members meeting unofficially afterwards adopted a resolution calling upon all the colonies to send delegates to Continental Congress to meet in Philadelphia in September.
The First Continental Congress began its sessions in Philadelphia, September 5, 1774, and was attended by 56 delegates representing every colony except Georgia. It was soon apparent that the radicals were in the majority. Nevertheless a plan of compromise that was proposed by Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania came within one vote of adoption.
But the radicals were eager to avoid any appearance of yielding to the British contentions, and succeeded presently in pushing through a far less conciliatory program. A Declaration of Rights was adopted which stated the American case against taxation without representation as clearly as the somewhat conflicting opinions of the delegates on that subject would permit, branded the “Intolerable Acts” as “unpolitic, unjust, cruel and unconstitutional,” and demanded their repeal. The language of the Declaration was deferential enough, but the statement of the American case was thoroughly unyielding.
To insure that words would be backed by deeds, the Congress went on to frame a continental “Association,” by which the delegates bound themselves and, so far as they could, those whom they represented, not to import or use any British “goods, wares, or merchandise whatsoever.” Also, the slave trade was to be discontinued, and if the British government failed to come to terms with the Americans inside of a year, American exports to the British Isles and to the West Indies were to be stopped. The enforcement of this measure was to be turned over to popularly elected local committees, who should make it their business to publish violations of the agreement, seize goods imported in defiance of its terms, and maintain a united front against the British. And after the lapse of a year a second Continental Congress should meet to observe the progress of events.
The actions of the First Continental Congress were essentially revolutionary. Without any constitutional authority whatever the Congress had to all intents and purposes passed a law and provided the means for its enforcement. For the Association proved to be singularly effective. In nearly every colony committees were organized which resorted, when it was deemed necessary, to such acts of violence as tarring and feathering to secure obedience to the regulations of the revolutionary Congress. Colonial spokesmen urged also with some success that such home industries as might serve to diminish dependence on Great Britain be patronized, and that as a fit precaution against further governmental injustices militia companies be formed and munitions of war collected.
These measures had much the same effect upon British opinion as Americans had learned by previous experience to expect. Burke and other English realists urged that the various repressive acts be repealed, and that the status which the colonists had enjoyed at the close of the French and Indian War be restored. Pitt believed that a bargain could be struck with the colonists by which they would agree to acknowledge the legislative supremacy of Parliament in return for the promise that Parliament would not construe its power to include the right to tax the colonies.
Merchants in London and elsewhere, who were losing heavily from the American boycott, petitioned Parliament to conciliate the Americans and reopen trade. But this time the ministry, strongly supported by the King and by a majority in the Parliament just elected, refused to yield to the clamor. Instead it placed closer limits on New England trade and voted to send more troops to America. Lord North’s “Conciliatory Proposition,” which offered immunity from parliamentary taxes to any colony which would agree to assume of its own accord its fair share of imperial expense, was generally regarded in America as merely a device to promote dissension among the Americans, and probably was so intended.
Meantime party lines in America became more and more definite. The day of temporizing was soon over, and wavering citizens were gradually forced to decide what course they meant to support. For some time even the more militant were not precisely of one mind. All were agreed that no concessions should be made to the British point of view, but the more moderate, who hoped to avert the use of force unless in case of extreme necessity, viewed with some misgivings the military preparations under way. Similarly the conservatives disagreed among themselves. Some thought that resistance, so long as it was strictly peaceful, might well be continued in the hope of ultimate success; others were eager for conciliation and compromise. Ultimately the conservatives parted company.
The most conservative, fearful of disturbing the status quo, preferring the British connection to anything that resistance to the mother country had to offer became the “Tories” or “Loyalists” of the American Revolution. The moderates, on the other hand, gradually drifted over to the militant, and ultimately joined with them as “Whigs” or “Patriots” to take up arms and to win independence. Doubtless a minority in the beginning, the revolutionists through their effective organization and aggressive tactics ultimately won over a majority to their way of thinking. But probably as many as a third of the colonists were openly or secretly loyal to the mother country throughout the Revolution.
The American Revolution did not start on the morning of April 19, 1775. When the British fired upon a small group of hastily assembled patriots on the Lexington Green, they were attempting to regain control of a colony they had already lost. The real Revolution, the transfer of political authority to the American patriots, occurred more than half a year before, when thousands upon thousands of farmers and artisans deposed every Crown-appointed official in Massachusetts outside of Boston.
During the late summer of 1774, each time a court was slated to meet under British authority in some Massachusetts town, great numbers of angry citizens made sure it did not. These patriots were furious because they had just been disenfranchised by the Massachusetts Government Act. Having lost control of the governmental apparatus, and in particular of the courts, they feared that arbitrary rulers might soon seize their tools, their livestock, or even their farms.
Worcester was at the center of this massive uprising. It was the patriots of Worcester who first called for a meeting of several counties to coordinate the resistance. It was at Worcester, on September 6, 1774, that the British conceded control of the countryside. For the preceding month, General Thomas Gage had proclaimed he would hold the line at Worcester by sending troops to protect the court, but on the appointed day he backed down. When British troops failed to show, 4,722 militiamen from 37 towns in Worcester County lined both sides of Main Street and forced every official and every prominent Tory in town to resign or recant thirty times over, hats in hand, as they made their way through the gauntlet from Heywood’s Tavern (at Exchange Street) to the County Court House. (This was by far the greatest assembly of people ever to convene in the town of Worcester, which had fewer than 250 voters. Some towns, having armed and trained for a month, sent virtually every adult male.) Shortly thereafter, the town of Worcester was the first to urge that a new government be formed “as from the Ashes of the Phoenix.”
Through it all, the revolutionaries engaged in a participatory democracy so thorough it is difficult for us to fathom today. At every turn, all decisions were made by the full body of the people. No action could be taken without running the matter through the entire rank-and-file.
According to the dictionary, a “revolution” is “a forcible overthrow of an established government or political system by the people governed.” There can be no doubt that the people of Worcester County staged a full-scale revolution, long before Lexington and Concord. This Revolution has been obscured for many reasons: it was bloodless, it had no famous leaders, it was basically middle-class, it was far from the media center in Boston, it has been overwhelmed by the repeated telling of Paul Revere¹s ride. But we should not be misled: the patriots of 1774 staged a very potent Revolution precisely because they were nameless yet ubiquitous, aggressive yet bloodless. The staggering power of “the body of the people” precluded serious resistance. Local Tories, overwhelmingly outnumbered, had no choice but to acquiesce. Officers of the British army looked on helplessly, not knowing where, when, or how to deal with an uprising of such breadth and magnitude. All British troops withdrew to Boston, and General Gage reported back to London that “the flames of sedition” had “spread universally throughout the country, beyond conception.” For seven months the patriots reigned supreme in rural Massachusetts, unchallenged until the counter-revolution of April 19, 1775.
Events were now moving rapidly in the direction of that appeal to arms which many observers on both sides of the Atlantic had long foreseen. In Massachusetts the authority of Governor Gage was openly defied; “minute men” citizen militias were being drilled upon the village commons, and stores of munitions were being collected at strategic spots. Neither side wished to precipitate hostilities, but as a necessary measure of self-defense Gage finally felt obliged to seize the military supplies that the militia leaders had accumulated at Concord, and to arrest, if possible, the arch-conspirators, Samuel Adams and John Hancock.
With these ends in view a small detachment of troops left Boston on the night of April 18, 1775. The Governor had counted on surprise, but his opponents had been on the lookout, and thanks to the activities of Paul Revere and others the whole countryside was soon aware of the coming of the “redcoats.” When, early on the morning of the nineteenth, the troops entered Lexington, they found a company of armed militia drawn up on the meeting-house green, presumably with intent to oppose the British advance. Thereupon Major Pitcairn, in command of the British, rode forward and ordered the Americans to disperse. Captain John Parker, who led the colonial militia, observing that his men were badly outnumbered, also ordered them to withdraw.
But from some quarter, whether British or American will never be known, a shot was fired, “The Shot Heard Around The World”, after which the firing became general. Resistance to the British troops proved futile, as Parker had foreseen, and leaving the Americans to care for a number of dead and wounded, Pitcairn marched on to Concord. There he found and destroyed some American supplies, but he scored no further triumphs. On the return to Boston his troops were the target for farmers and citizen militiamen who lined the Battle Road, and from behind stone walls, rocks, and trees picked off so many of the redcoats that the retreat to Boston ended in a humiliating rout.
The news of this long-awaited clash soon penetrated to every village and hamlet throughout the colonies. From all New England armed militiamen collected around Boston to lay siege to the city, and patriotic resolves from far and near assured the Massachusetts militamen that in the course they had chosen they would not lack for support. The Militia of the People had begun defending themselves and their country from the usurpations and tyrannies of government. To Insure the Inherent Rights of the People against tyranny and despotism in their own government is the primary reason the Second Article of Amendment to the Constitution for the United States was later adopted.
On the tenth of May following the affairs at Lexington and Concord the second Continental Congress began its sessions at Philadelphia. The new Continental Congress was a far more militant body than its predecessor, partly because the colonial governors had received instructions from England to prevent the election of delegates to another Congress, and the choices had therefore to be made by strictly revolutionary groups. There were moderates present, however, such as John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, and they not only prevented an immediate declaration of independence, but they also succeeded in inducing the delegates to appeal once more to the King for redress of grievances.
The tide of revolution could not be stemmed for long. On June 15 Congress took over the troops gathered near Boston as the Continental Army, and assumed authority to direct the course of the war. At the suggestion of John Adams, it gave the command of these troops to George Washington, the well-known Virginia aristocrat. While this selection was designed in part to flatter the South and in part to placate the upper classes of every section, probably no wiser choice could have been made.
Washington, present in uniform as Colonel of the Citizen’s Militia of Virginia, was a delegate to the Continental Congress from Virginia when he was chosen to head the Continental army. He set out at once to join his command, but before he could complete his journey another battle had been fought. Reinforcements had brought the number of British soldiers in Boston to about ten thousand men, and General Gage, fearful lest the Americans should gain possession of the hills that surrounded the city and open on him with cannon fire, planned to occupy some of the hills himself. But the Americans anticipated him, and sent twelve hundred men under Colonel William Prescott to occupy Bunker Hill in Charlestown, although Prescott’s command went beyond Bunker Hill to Breed’s Hill, and began fortifications there. It would have been easy for the British to entrap the Americans, since the heights in Charlestown were connected with the mainland by only a narrow neck of land.
But Gage, instead of attempting to cut off Prescott’s chance of retreat, ordered a direct assault up the hill from the bay. Twice the colonial lines held, and twice the British after heavy losses retreated to re-form their lines. On the third assault, the Americans gave way, for they had run short of ammunition. But the battle of Bunker Hill, as it has always been called, fought June 17, 1775, proved alike to the British and to the colonists that as soldiers the raw American citizen’s militia were not wholly to be despised.
Nevertheless the colonial troops about Boston, numbering perhaps twenty thousand, that Washington now undertook to command were less an army than a mob. Organization was lacking, bickering over precedence in military rank was rife, supplies were woefully inadequate, desertions were dangerously numerous. Washington’s ability to draw order out of chaos never showed itself to better advantage. The troops were drilled and taught to obey, desertions were checked, and a better plan for the siege of Boston was evolved. All summer and fall and far into the winter, the American army watched and waited, while the British within the city, now under the command of General Howe, hesitated to attack. At length, on the 4th of March, 1776, Washington occupied Dorchester Heights, to the south of Boston, and trained his cannon on the city.
Faced by this dire threat, Howe hastily embarked his troops for Nova Scotia, taking with him also nearly a thousand Loyalists who feared to face the now thoroughly American occupation.
The cannon that Washington used to make Boston untenable for the British had been dragged overland from Ticonderoga, a captured British fort at the southern end of the Lake George — Lake Champlain approach to Canada. This post and Crown Point, which lay farther to the north, were made the objectives of two expeditions, one led by Ethan Allen, who held a Connecticut commission, and another led by Benedict Arnold, under the authority of Massachusetts. The two expeditions combined, and on the very day that the second Continental Congress opened, Ticonderoga surrendered without the firing of a gun. With Crown Point also taken, the pathway to Canada seemed open, and Congress, hoping that the French there might be induced to join in the revolt, authorized Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold, with separate commands, to continue the northward advance.
In November, 1775, Montgomery took Montreal and then cooperated with Arnold, who had made an heroic march through the Maine woods, in the attack on Quebec. But an assault made December 31, 1775, which cost Montgomery his life, was unsuccessful, and the winter siege that followed proved equally futile. With the French showing no desire to help the Americans, and the British ably commanded by Sir Guy Carleton, Montreal was abandoned and Arnold’s troops were soon forced back to Crown Point.
The only other military activity of consequence during the first year of the war occurred in the Carolinas, where the British made a bid for the support of the back-country Loyalists. An expedition was dispatched by sea to attack Wilmington and Charleston, but before the fleet reached Wilmington a clash at Moore’s Creek Bridge, February 27, 1776, between North Carolina Patriots and Loyalists gave a complete victory to the former. General Clinton, in command of the British expedition, then gave up hope of taking Wilmington, and went on to Charleston, where he met such stiff resistance that he abandoned the entire project and retired in June, 1776.
The first year’s fighting thus ended in a kind of stalemate, with the Americans repulsed in their effort to conquer Canada, and the British equally unable to secure a foothold anywhere in the colonies. But American opinion during this period had not remained stationary. At the outbreak of hostilities, only a few extremists were ready to go the whole length of separation from Great Britain; the great majority thought of the conflict as merely a civil war conducted to maintain American rights within the British Empire. Indeed, such was their sentimental attachment for the mother country that many colonials took up arms against her with extreme reluctance.
They counted on the aid of powerful English liberals, such as Burke and Pitt, to bring the British government to a more conciliatory point of view and they hoped devoutly that the fighting would not last long. But the events of the year seemed to belie their hopes. George III had turned down the American petition for the redress of grievances, had branded the Americans as rebels, apparently with the full support of Parliament, and had even begun to hire German troops – “Hessians” – to assist in the vigorous prosecution of the war.
Furthermore, there were changes in America. The old colonial governments had crumbled away, and to forestall anarchy new political foundations had had to be laid. Revolution had thus taken place in fact if not yet in name. Also, American trade was suffering acutely, and since seemingly trade with Great Britain could not be reopened – was now forbidden by an act of Parliament – other outlets for American trade must be found.
Such outlets only an avowedly independent nation, fully competent to make treaties for itself, would be able to obtain. And, since the war must needs continue, expediency demanded that help be sought from the traditional enemies of Great Britain, particularly from France. But what foreign nation would care to exert itself merely to secure a redress of grievances for Americans within the British Empire? On the other hand, if the disruption of the Empire was the American goal there was plenty of outside interest in that.
At precisely the right moment there appeared a pamphlet by Thomas Paine, entitled “Common Sense”, which stated simply and effectively the American case for independence. Paine had only lately come from England to America, but he was a lover of liberty, and the opportunity to strike a blow in its behalf appealed to him strongly. He ridiculed the idea of personal loyalty to the King, of which so much had been made in American protests against the tyranny of Parliament, and called George III a royal “brute.” He saw “something absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island,” since “in no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than the primary planet.” He branded reconciliation as “a fallacious dream,” and found a potent argument for separation “in the blood of the slain.” The pamphlet sold by the hundreds of thousands, and in the early months of the year 1776 was read and quoted everywhere in America. Neither its logic nor its language was above reproach, but the common man liked both, and the sentiment in favor of independence grew accordingly.
That Congress was in a mood to respond to the shift in public opinion soon seemed evident. As early as April, 1776, the North Carolina delegates received instructions to work for independence. On May 4, 1776, two full months before the other twelve of the thirteen original colonies did so, independence from the mother country – Great Britain – was formally declared by the General Assembly of the Colony of Rhode Island. This bold and brave historic action created the first free republic in the New World. Virginia soon followed and openly proclaimed her own secession from the British Empire.
On the seventh of June, in Congress, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, seconded by John Adams, offered a resolution “that these United Colonies, are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” Doubtless this resolution expressed the sentiments of an overwhelming majority of the delegates, but to satisfy a small minority it was agreed, June 10, that the vote should be delayed three weeks. Not until July 1, however, was the debate resumed, and at this time a vote in committee of the whole showed only nine states favorable. But when the formal vote was taken next day, every state save New York, whose provincial convention gave its assent a week later, was for independence.
On June 11, in anticipation of the impending vote for independence from Great Britain, the Continental Congress appointed five men — Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston — to write a declaration that would make clear to all the people why this break from their sovereign, King George III, was both necessary and inevitable.
The committee then appointed Jefferson to draft a statement. Jefferson produced a “fair” copy of his draft declaration, which became the basic text of his “original Rough draught.” The text was first submitted to Adams, then Franklin, and finally to the other two members of the committee. Before the committee submitted the declaration to Congress on June 28, they made forty-seven emendations to the document. During the ensuing congressional debates of July 1-4, Congress adopted thirty-nine further revisions to the committee draft.
The four-page “Rough draught” illustrates the numerous additions, deletions, and corrections made at each step along the way. Although most of these alterations are in Jefferson’s own distinctive hand — he later indicated the changes he believed to have been made by Adams and Franklin — he opposed many of the revisions made to his original composition.
On July 2, 1776, the same day that Congress voted for independence, the committee presented its report. Debates took up the greater parts of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th. After striking from the document a passage which censured the British people as well as their rulers, and another which severely arraigned the King for forcing the slave trade upon the colonies, the remainder of the Declaration of Independence that the committee had formulated was, in the evening of July 4th, 1776, again reported by the committee, agreed to by the house and signed by every member present, except Mr. Dickinson.
At the signing ceremony, John Hancock, president of the Second Continental Congress, signed first, boldly, so, he said, King George IV would not need his spectacles to identify him as a traitor and double the reward for his head! Two weeks later Congress decided that the document should be engrossed on parchment and signed by all the delegates; and this was done. On August 2 the members of Congress who were present affixed their signatures, and later as occasion offered those who had been absent, were given an opportunity to sign their names.
The Declaration of Independence, written almost entirely by Jefferson, borrowed heavily from Locke’s Second Essay of Government, and asserted in language already familiar the natural rights of men, including the right of revolution. It differed markedly from earlier American protests in that it directed its attack primarily against the King rather than against Parliament. Hitherto the Americans, while they had denounced Parliament unsparingly for assuming powers unwarranted by the British Constitution, had been content to acknowledge the King as a common sovereign, and to protest their loyalty to him. But if, as many of the American leaders had come to maintain, the only bond of union with the mother country lay through the King, then to break that bond their attack would have to be directed against George III himself, rather than against Parliament.
The Declaration of Independence even blamed the King for the “acts of pretended legislation” to which he had given his assent, and found in the long list of grievances it recited a kind of breach of contract on the part of the monarch which gave the colonies the right, if they chose, to become free and independent states. The “original Rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence, one of the great milestones in American history, shows the evolution of the text from the initial “fair copy” draft by Thomas Jefferson to the final text adopted by Congress on the morning of July 4, 1776.
The appearance of unanimity which accompanied the Declaration quite belied the facts. Not less than a third of the Americans would have preferred that the colonies retain their membership in the British Empire, and in the course of the next few years probably as many as fifty thousand of these “Loyalists” proved their sentiments by fighting with the British forces and against the “Patriots.” So numerous were the pro-British Americans in some localities that Washington’s forces, rather than his adversaries, sometimes suffered the disadvantage of fighting in enemy territory. Naturally the Loyalists, unless they were fortunate enough to live where they could receive the protection of British troops, came in for as severe persecution as the Patriots could inflict. Many Loyalists saw their property destroyed or confiscated, they often suffered great personal violence, and they were driven by the thousands to take refuge in Canada, the West Indies, or England.
Nor had complete political unification been achieved in America. When the thirteen separate colonies became thirteen separate and independent states, the difficulties of union that had been so overwhelming before the Revolution were by no means eradicated. The new states did indeed cooperate through Congress in a way that they had been unable to agree upon before; but the Articles of Confederation which were presently presented and adopted as a codification of the existing practice merely provided for a loose alliance that only the necessities of war could hold together. Congress was sadly lacking in authority, and often proved to be a debating society when what was needed was a powerful and efficient central war office.
Over against these political dissensions in America, however, the British were unable to present a united front. The King’s party, which strongly favored the war, was supported by the upper classes generally – the ministers, the nobility, the majority in Parliament, the opinion on leading lawyers, the clergy of the established church, and even a few of the dissenting clergy such as John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. But the opposition party was far from enthusiastic at taking up arms against the Americans. Liberal leaders, long convinced that such a step was as unnecessary as it was unwise, reflected that failure to win the war would serve their ends well by discrediting the personal power of the King and causing the downfall of his satellites in the ministry; merchants desirous of retaining American trade longed for normal times and were not too particular about how they should be restored; dissenting ministers very generally lined up against the King and the established church; the common people, who were practically without voice in politics, showed their resentment against being required to fight far from home and against Englishmen by refusing to enlist; and there was the customary trouble in Ireland.
The inefficiency of the British government as a war-making machine was also a handicap. The King’s friends in the ministry were often of little merit as administrators. Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, had himself been cashiered from the army, and was sorely lacking in talent. Lord Sandwich, in charge of the Admiralty, was a notorious corruptionist. The American Congress with its defective organization and its lack of experience was at times not more inept in the direction of affairs than the British government under these incompetent leaders.
In the comparison of armed forces, the odds told more heavily against the Americans. The number of enlistments in the Continental Army was great, reaching perhaps ninety thousand in the year 1776, but this was due to the fact that short-term enlistments, often for only three months, were permitted. Washington rarely had as many as sixteen thousand men under his command at any one time, and at Valley Forge his forces had dwindled to a paltry two thousand. As the war wore on the difficulty of obtaining enlistments increased, for the soldier’s wages, low enough in any event, were always in arrears, while work was plentiful and brought a much higher and surer reward. Moreover, the American troops were never adequately supplied with munitions, and they were often clothed only in rags.
Supplementing the Continental Army which Congress created was the state militia. These troops sometimes fought well when defending their own homes and firesides, but otherwise they were exceedingly undependable. Practically none of the American volunteers had had anything like adequate training in military tactics, thanks to the short-term enlistments, and the American officers were forced to whip a new army into shape for practically every battle. For all their shortcomings the American soldiers were as individuals hardy and resourceful; some of them had profited from military service during the French and Indian War, or other Indian wars; and at least a small nucleus were deeply enough devoted to the cause for which they fought that they stood together regardless of all difficulties.
To oppose the Americans the British had a well-drilled regular army of perhaps sixty thousand men, most of whom were needed on garrison duty somewhere in the far-flung British Empire. What might have amounted otherwise to an embarrassing shortage of troops was made up for by the use of “Hessians,” of Loyalists, or “Tories,” and of Indians. The British commanders in America were, on the whole, adequately supplied with troops. Clinton’s army in 1781 reached a total of thirty-four thousand men. While Howe was at Philadelphia he had under his command about seventeen thousand men. The British redcoats, moreover, were not “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots,” but were enlisted for long terms, were rigorously disciplined, and were adequately supplied with the materials of war.
They were backed also by almost unlimited naval power, for Great Britain was the clearly acknowledged mistress of the ocean. Even with the assistance of the French, the efforts of the Americans to challenge British sea-power were painfully inadequate. And yet all this superiority was not enough to enable the British to win. Their armies were three thousand miles away from home; their attack had to be delivered along a thousand miles of seacoast; and they were confronted, once they had penetrated into the interior, with a trackless wilderness where conquest was virtually impossible as long as the will to resist endured.
In point of military leadership, thanks mainly to the solid qualities of Washington, the Americans were superior to the British. It cannot be demonstrated that as a commanding officer Washington was a genius. He was not thoroughly versed in military tactics, and he might have had great difficulty in commanding large armies. But whatever the limits of his ability, he proved equal to the existing emergency. His obvious integrity, his unflinching courage, and his dogged determination inspired his men with confidence and paved the way to ultimate victory. He was a master of the strategy of retreat, and he understood thoroughly that while he had an Army of Militiamen in the field the Patriot cause was not lost.
“Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people’s liberty teeth and keystone under independence. From the hour the Pilgrims landed, to the present day, events occurences and tendencies prove that to ensure peace, security and happiness, the rifle and pistol are equally indispenable. The very atmosphere of firearms everywhere restrains evil interference – they deserve a place of honor with all that’s good.” — George Washington, Commanding General of the Continental Army, Father of Our Country and First President of the United States in a speech to Congress, January 7, 1790
“The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in Government.” — Thomas Jefferson, Author of The Declaration of Independence, and Third President of the United States
The Second Article of Amendment to the Constitution for the United States Stands as the Guarantor of All The Liberties and Rights of We The People.
Text of The Declaration of Independence:
In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776. 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
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 British 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.
— John Hancock
Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton
John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry
Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery
Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott
William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris
Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark
Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross
Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean
Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton
George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton
William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn
Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton
Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton
Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) considered the Declaration of Independence his greatest achievement. It marked the beginning of self- government in America, kindling a flame that he believed would eventually light the world. But the Declaration was a personal achievement for Jefferson as well, a masterpiece of eloquence that still inspires us today.
Near the end of his life, Jefferson explained his goal in writing the Declaration of Independence. In a letter to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825 he stated:
“This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular or previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All of its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day . . .”,
The last letter that Mr. Jefferson ever wrote was in acknowledgment of an invitation from the city of Washington, to take part in a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In this, the wisdom that comes with death guided him into a singularly happy formulation, the clearest and most forceful that he ever made, of his lifelong contention …
” … that the mass of mankind was NOT born with saddles on their backs, nor a favoured few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God”.
Then, almost at once, his last illness came upon him. As he grew weaker, it became evident that his mind was being much revisited by events of half a century before. On the night of the third of July, he sat up in bed, went through the motions of writing, and said some words, only partly intelligible, about the Revolutionary Committee of Safety. He seemed to wish to live until the Fourth, and when told at last that it was, he appeared satisfied. He died painlessly at one o’clock in the afternoon, July 4, 1826, about five hours before his old friend and fellow, his partner in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams, another great defender of liberty, signer of the Declaration, and our 2nd president .
It is the “tone and spirit” of Jefferson’s writing that make the Declaration of Independence something more than a statement of political principles. Jefferson was the apostle of a society that constantly responds to changes in the world, a society open to new possibilities, reminding us not so much of what we are as Americans but of what we can be.
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