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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard
» PART II. CONFLICT AND INDEPENDENCE
» CHAPTER VI

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American Independence

Drifting into War.—Although the Congress had not given up all hope of reconciliation in the spring and summer of 1775, it had firmly resolved to defend American rights by arms if necessary. It transformed the militiamen who had assembled near Boston, after the battle of Lexington, into a Continental army and selected Washington as commander-in-chief. It assumed the powers of a government and prepared to raise money, wage war, and carry on diplomatic relations with foreign countries.

Spirit of 1776
From an old print
Spirit of 1776

Events followed thick and fast. On June 17, the American militia, by the stubborn defense of Bunker Hill, showed that it could make British regulars pay dearly for all they got. On July 3, Washington took command of the army at Cambridge. In January, 1776, after bitter disappointments in drumming up recruits for its army in England, Scotland, and Ireland, the British government concluded a treaty with the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel in Germany contracting, at a handsome figure, for thousands of soldiers and many pieces of cannon. This was the crowning insult to America. Such was the view of all friends of the colonies on both sides of the water. Such was, long afterward, the judgment of the conservative historian Lecky: “The conduct of England in hiring German mercenaries to subdue the essentially English population beyond the Atlantic made reconciliation hopeless and independence inevitable.” The news of this wretched transaction in German soldiers had hardly reached America before there ran all down the coast the thrilling story that Washington had taken Boston, on March 17, 1776, compelling Lord Howe to sail with his entire army for Halifax.

The Growth of Public Sentiment in Favor of Independence.—Events were bearing the Americans away from their old position under the British constitution toward a final separation. Slowly and against their desires, prudent and honorable men, who cherished the ties that united them to the old order and dreaded with genuine horror all thought of revolution, were drawn into the path that led to the great decision. In all parts of the country and among all classes, the question of the hour was being debated. “American independence,” as the historian Bancroft says, “was not an act of sudden passion nor the work of one man or one assembly. It had been discussed in every part of the country by farmers and merchants, by mechanics and planters, by the fishermen along the coast and the backwoodsmen of the West; in town meetings and from the pulpit; at social gatherings and around the camp fires; in county conventions and conferences or committees; in colonial congresses and assemblies.”

Thomas Paine
From an old print
Thomas Paine

Paine’s “Commonsense.”—In the midst of this ferment of American opinion, a bold and eloquent pamphleteer broke in upon the hesitating public with a program for absolute independence, without fears and without apologies. In the early days of 1776, Thomas Paine issued the first of his famous tracts, “Commonsense,” a passionate attack upon the British monarchy and an equally passionate plea for American liberty. Casting aside the language of petition with which Americans had hitherto addressed George III, Paine went to the other extreme and assailed him with many a violent epithet. He condemned monarchy itself as a system which had laid the world “in blood and ashes.” Instead of praising the British constitution under which colonists had been claiming their rights, he brushed it aside as ridiculous, protesting that it was “owing to the constitution of the people, not to the constitution of the government, that the Crown is not as oppressive in England as in Turkey.”

Having thus summarily swept away the grounds of allegiance to the old order, Paine proceeded relentlessly to an argument for immediate separation from Great Britain. There was nothing in the sphere of practical interest, he insisted, which should bind the colonies to the mother country. Allegiance to her had been responsible for the many wars in which they had been involved. Reasons of trade were not less weighty in behalf of independence. “Our corn will fetch its price in any market in Europe and our imported goods must be paid for, buy them where we will.” As to matters of government, “it is not in the power of Britain to do this continent justice; the business of it will soon be too weighty and intricate to be managed with any tolerable degree of convenience by a power so distant from us and so very ignorant of us.”

There is accordingly no alternative to independence for America. “Everything that is right or natural pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries ”tis time to part.' … Arms, the last resort, must decide the contest; the appeal was the choice of the king and the continent hath accepted the challenge.... The sun never shone on a cause of greater worth. ’Tis not the affair of a city, a county, a province or a kingdom, but of a continent.... ’Tis not the concern of a day, a year or an age; posterity is involved in the contest and will be more or less affected to the end of time by the proceedings now. Now is the seed-time of Continental union, faith, and honor.... O! ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth.... Let names of Whig and Tory be extinct. Let none other be heard among us than those of a good citizen, an open and resolute friend, and a virtuous supporter of the rights of mankind and of the free and independent states of America.” As more than 100,000 copies were scattered broadcast over the country, patriots exclaimed with Washington: “Sound doctrine and unanswerable reason!”

The Drift of Events toward Independence.—Official support for the idea of independence began to come from many quarters. On the tenth of February, 1776, Gadsden, in the provincial convention of South Carolina, advocated a new constitution for the colony and absolute independence for all America. The convention balked at the latter but went half way by abolishing the system of royal administration and establishing a complete plan of self-government. A month later, on April 12, the neighboring state of North Carolina uttered the daring phrase from which others shrank. It empowered its representatives in the Congress to concur with the delegates of the other colonies in declaring independence. Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Virginia quickly responded to the challenge. The convention of the Old Dominion, on May 15, instructed its delegates at Philadelphia to propose the independence of the United Colonies and to give the assent of Virginia to the act of separation. When the resolution was carried the British flag on the state house was lowered for all time.

Meanwhile the Continental Congress was alive to the course of events outside. The subject of independence was constantly being raised. “Are we rebels?” exclaimed Wyeth of Virginia during a debate in February. “No: we must declare ourselves a free people.” Others hesitated and spoke of waiting for the arrival of commissioners of conciliation. “Is not America already independent?” asked Samuel Adams a few weeks later. “Why not then declare it?” Still there was uncertainty and delegates avoided the direct word. A few more weeks elapsed. At last, on May 10, Congress declared that the authority of the British crown in America must be suppressed and advised the colonies to set up governments of their own.

Thomas Jefferson Reading His Draft
From an old print
Thomas Jefferson Reading His Draft of the
Declaration of Independence to the
Committee of Congress

Independence Declared.—The way was fully prepared, therefore, when, on June 7, the Virginia delegation in the Congress moved that “these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states.” A committee was immediately appointed to draft a formal document setting forth the reasons for the act, and on July 2 all the states save New York went on record in favor of severing their political connection with Great Britain. Two days later, July 4, Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, changed in some slight particulars, was adopted. The old bell in Independence Hall, as it is now known, rang out the glad tidings; couriers swiftly carried the news to the uttermost hamlet and farm. A new nation announced its will to have a place among the powers of the world.

To some documents is given immortality. The Declaration of Independence is one of them. American patriotism is forever associated with it; but patriotism alone does not make it immortal. Neither does the vigor of its language or the severity of its indictment give it a secure place in the records of time. The secret of its greatness lies in the simple fact that it is one of the memorable landmarks in the history of a political ideal which for three centuries has been taking form and spreading throughout the earth, challenging kings and potentates, shaking down thrones and aristocracies, breaking the armies of irresponsible power on battle fields as far apart as Marston Moor and Château-Thierry. That ideal, now so familiar, then so novel, is summed up in the simple sentence: “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Written in a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind,” to set forth the causes which impelled the American colonists to separate from Britain, the Declaration contained a long list of “abuses and usurpations” which had induced them to throw off the government of King George. That section of the Declaration has passed into “ancient” history and is seldom read. It is the part laying down a new basis for government and giving a new dignity to the common man that has become a household phrase in the Old World as in the New.

In the more enduring passages there are four fundamental ideas which, from the standpoint of the old system of government, were the essence of revolution: (1) all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; (2) the purpose of government is to secure these rights; (3) governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed; (4) whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Here was the prelude to the historic drama of democracy—a challenge to every form of government and every privilege not founded on popular assent.


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