The Fourth of July — this coming Sunday — officially Independence Day, and a paid federal holiday since 1938 honors the Continental Congress’ publication of the Declaration of Independence 245 years ago. It was a major event well known and duly recognized. Less known perhaps are critical circumstances surrounding it. They deserve a limited look.
Quickly printed and widely distributed, the Declaration became the political instrument in Colonial America. It added fuel and fire to the revolution, underway since 1775 but still stalled and struggling. The Declaration caused the Colonists to view the Revolutionary War as one between two separate countries rather than a civil war with Britain. The effects were dramatic. Revolutionary leader, Boston lawyer, later Vice President then President, John Adams, described the events of 1776 as “the most memorable epoch in the history of America.” Few disagreed, then or now.
The 56 politicians who signed the Declaration — from Georgia Button Gwinnett, George Walton and Lyman Hall — placed their lives and fortunes at grave risk. “If you strike at the King,” wrote Machiavelli, “you better kill him. For if you don’t, he will surely kill you.”
The Colonists and their revolutionary leaders had, indeed, struck at King George III and his British Redcoats army, the world’s best trained and best equipped.
The outcome was anything but certain. With no flag, no anthem, no capitol city and no president, the Colonists mounted a bloody insurrection aimed at overthrowing Britain’s entrenched rule. They sought total independence from the mother country and a new social order, though at the time its future structure was unclear.
Dangerous in the extreme, armed revolutions are not everyday occurrences. They demand of their perpetrators unique qualities of character and temperament: a profound belief in their cause; unimpeachable integrity; unwavering courage and a capacity to cope with risks and privations. Political skills, a talent for creating and spreading propaganda, a willingness to employ force — armed or otherwise — are all unmistakably present in the lives and times of history’s successful revolutionaries. Very few can qualify.
The astonishing evidence is that tiny primitive Colonial America produced a formidable contingent. Upon closer scrutiny they included superb public speakers, writers, organizers, and men of action who, in the main, were educated and widely read. Many were steeped in the philosophy of the period’s most influential political thinkers: John Locke of England and Montesquieu of France; many of whose ideas became incorporated in the U.S. Constitution.
Consider the background and conditions then existing. The Colonies were thinly populated. The best estimates put the population at 2.5 million. At least a quarter were African slaves. The population of New York, the largest city, was 33,131; Philadelphia claimed 28,522; Boston a mere 18,320. Other inhabitants, mostly small farmers, were scattered along the eastern seaboard from Georgia to Vermont.
Misery and hardship abounded. People sickened and died with regularity. Life expectancy for men was 54 years, 56 for women. The few travelers, President George Washington among them, who bravely jostled their way cross country described the deplorable state of roads, bridges, housing, roadside taverns and inns. Only seven colleges offered degrees. Their graduates numbered 4,400 — two for every thousand white persons.
Communications, every revolution’s mandatory medium, were as slow as those in Roman times: by foot, horseback, stagecoach and sailing vessel; hence a major obstacle for the Colonists spreading the word and seeking a radical alteration of the status quo. Irrespective of risks, however, and against all obstacles and difficulties the American Revolution triumphed. General Washington described his rag tag Continental Army’s victory over the British as “nothing short of a standing miracle.”
Unlike many revolutions, in particular those of the 20th century in Russia, Germany, and Spain, the American Revolution defied the dictum “they devour their own children.” On the contrary and with few exceptions they survived. Many were among the political geniuses who in 1787 served as delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Others later held leadership positions in the new Government of the United States. Washington and Adams, as noted, became Presidents along with Jefferson and Madison. Alexander Hamilton, the most precocious of all the Founding Fathers — Washington excepted — became the preeminent Secretary of the Treasury to date.
Two centuries later and more, on the Fourth of July, a great nation acknowledges its Declaration of Independence, a signed and printed document that advanced great men’s extraordinary works. Its influence continues to the present day — here and around the world.
•Retired attorney Jim Thomas lives in Atlanta. He is a former Pierce County resident and can be contacted at jmtlawyerspeak@yahoo. com.