Happy Fourth of July, the day each year when Americans celebrate the historic actions of a small band of courageous and skillful politicians?
Yep, politicians. It was the elected and selected members of the second Continental Congress representing 13 separate colonies who debated, amended and ultimately approved a declaration that one British officer dubbed “an impudent, false and atrocious proclamation.”
Many now think of Independence Day as a holiday with military connotations — air shows, pyrotechnics, parades led by fife and drum. But it was civilians, not soldiers, who acted on (or around) July 4, 1776.
As important as George Washington’s army was to winning independence from Britain and King George, it was the Continental Congress – made up of politicians – that decided what they were fighting for.
Certainly without the army, the declaration was little more than a “skiff made of paper,” as congressional opponent John Dickinson called it. But without the declaration, the army was little more than a mob.
Historian David McCullough in “1776” noted the change that occurred with the approval of the Declaration of Independence.
“From this point on, the citizen-soldiers of Washington’s army were no longer to be fighting only for the defense of their country, or for their rightful liberties as freeborn Englishmen, as they had at Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill and through the long siege at Boston,” McCullough wrote. “It was now a proudly proclaimed, all-out war for an independent America, a new America, and thus a new day of freedom and equality.”
So armies defend our freedoms, but in a free society they follow the orders of civilian leaders. And quite often they are up against soldiers fighting for something very different. For example, the final straw that pushed the colonies to declare independence may have been King George’s decision to hire Hessian mercenaries to help him re-subjugate the colonies.
“Had hostilities been confined to Americans versus English, a chance, however slight, for accommodation existed,” wrote Samuel B. Griffith II in his history “In Defense of the Public Liberty.” “With the injection of thousands of mercenaries, no such opportunity remained.”
We all might prefer to think that today’s politicians are less noble, less worthy of admiration. But most historians show the so-called founding fathers as quite human — both brave and petty, both resolute and too-willing to compromise.
Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the document, for example, included a condemnation of the British slave trade, but it was removed to gain the support of Southern delegates. Compromise, however, was necessary to show the English and our potential allies in Europe that the colonies were united.
There is one important difference between these politicians and today’s version: Our members of Congress do not fear for their lives or liberty when they vote.
“All were acutely aware that by taking up pen and writing their names, they had committed treason, a point of considerably greater immediacy now, with the British army so near at hand,” wrote McCullough in his biography “John Adams.”
In fact the very day the vote was taken, July 2, the British landed a huge fleet in the harbor near Staten Island.
William Ellery, a signer from Rhode Island, wrote that he stood next to the secretary on Aug. 2 as most delegates added their names and pledged “to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
“I was determined to see how they all looked as they signed what might be their death warrants,” Ellery wrote. “Undaunted resolution was displayed on every countenance.”
Adams, as he often did, gets the last word.
“You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not,” he wrote his wife, Abigail, on July 3. “I am well aware of the toil, and blood, and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these states.
“Yet, through all the gloom, I can see rays of light and glory,” he continued. “I can see that the end is more than worth all the means, and that posterity will triumph.”Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657