A Radical Idea
By Stephen Tuttle | June 29, 2019
What most of us think about the American Revolution seems to be this: The British overtaxed the colonies, we threw some tea into Boston Harbor, we declared our independence, went to war, won, wrote the Constitution and became a new country.
Our discontent started long before 1776, as did the idea of a country free of British rule. The Declaration of Independence was actually closer to an end product than a beginning.
In 1754, Benjamin Franklin created a document for the Albany Congress proposing a union of the colonies for the purpose of fighting indigenous tribes. It laid the groundwork for his later Articles of Confederation. Some would even claim the Mayflower Compact of 1620, calling for “just and equal laws” and constitutions, was the first seed planted.
It wasn't going to be easy. Historians tell us there were more colonists loyal to England, or at least opposed to war, but their British overlords behaved thuggishly and stupidly, fomenting anger a more benevolent king might have avoided.
The hated Stamp Act of 1765, which the British enacted because — and you're excused if you've heard this before — it was expensive keeping troops thousands of miles from home. Colonists were enraged but simply refused to purchase the required stamps or avoided buying anything imported from England. It was just a little spark among many that lit the revolutionary fuse. The Stamp Act was repealed a year later.
But the British continued trying to imposing additional taxes and levies while creating an oppressive regime in the colonies. It was never going to work.
In 1770, British troops fired on a group of protesting colonists, killing five in the Boston Massacre. Anger that had been burning for decades was getting closer to an explosion. War was now close at hand.
In 1775, still a year before the Declaration of Independence, deadly skirmishes were already being fought. Paul Revere, William Dawes, and others made their night rides quietly alerting people to approaching British soldiers. (Note: There were manyriders, and none of them likely shouted since that would have alerted loyalist informers.)
Most of our history books peg April 19, 1775, the day of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, as the official beginning of the war that was already being fought. It was the year Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys took Fort Ticonderoga; our insurrectionists lost the Battle of Breed's Hill (adjacent Bunker Hill was not the site of the battle); George Washington was named commander of the armies, such as they were; and the Second Continental Congress met.
In June of 1776, under the authority of the Second Continental Congress, 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in fewer than three weeks.
The section most often referenced — “We hold these truths to be self-evident ...” — is a small part of a long document that reads more like a bill of particulars in an indictment. The accused was King George III of England.
Jefferson intentionally toned down his sometimes soaring rhetoric, saying he was trying to express the American mind “ ... in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take ... .”
And spell it out he did, listing 27 charges against George III. It included, among many alleged offenses, refusing to follow local laws, refusing to allow legislatures to meet or disbanding them and refusing to allow new elections, making judges dependent on his will, keeping an occupying military force in the colonies in peacetime, abolishing trials by jury, failing to prosecute English military personnel for crimes in the colonies ... it was a long list.
Jefferson didn't get around to “ ... imposing taxes without our consent” until the 17thitem.
(Sadly, the Second Continental Congress removed Jefferson's reference to King George's slave trafficking; slavery was legal in all 13 colonies at the time.)
The Declaration of Independence was declared on July 2, approved and printed on July 4, but not finally signed by all delegates until August 2. John Adams assumed July 2 would be the day of national celebration, with parades and fireworks. But history settled on July 4, the day colonists could first read the document.
The War for Independence would last another seven years before the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1783. Nearly 4,500 colonists died; another 6,000 were wounded. It would be another five years before we had a constitution and another year beyond that before our government operated under it.
We celebrate on the 4thof July because two-and-a-half centuries ago, brave men and women conceived, then fought and died to establish a radical idea: a new nation striving for liberty. We've not yet realized their self-evident truths, but we keep trying. For that we should be thankful.