“And what do we mean by the Revolution? The War? That was only an effect and consequence of it.” — John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 1815
Any history of the American Revolution should begin with the French & Indian War (1754-63) we read about in Chapter 3, without which no rebellion would have taken place. Take a look at the map above. The British took over North America at the end of the war, ruling the region north of Florida and west to the Mississippi River. Colonists wouldn’t have broken from Britain if they still needed their protection from the French (green on the map), who’d blocked western expansion in the Ohio Valley. Americans and Redcoats fought together against the French but, as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt, and colonial militia resented the contempt of their superiors in the British military. Some colonists didn’t think that they needed the British anymore and the population inhabiting these growing, resource-rich colonies was virtually self-selected for rebellion against authority, many of its settlers having emigrated from the British Isles to seek greater freedom. They bristled under British attempts to keep them near the East Coast and quarreled over financial issues regarding taxes and trade. By 1763, it was time to dust off the Join or Die cartoon Ben Franklin had drawn up in 1755 to rally colonists on behalf of the British against the French; but, this time, they were rallying against their own rulers.
After the French & Indian War, the British tried and failed to diffuse Indian conflict along the frontier by drawing a Proclamation Line down the spine of the Appalachian Range (red line above), barring settlement west of that boundary. The British were overextended financially and geographically after their win over France and they wanted to push more settlers along a north-south axis to Anglicize French Canada (make it more English) and establish a claim to Florida. The border wasn’t effective in keeping settlers like Daniel Boone from going west and caused resentment among those who thought the British were trying to hem them in so as to better control and tax them. Fighting Indians along this frontier during Pontiac’s War of 1763 galvanized settlers even more, forging unity they later employed against the British.
For Indians in the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley, it’s no coincidence that they tried to unite at this point, primarily under the Odawa (or Ottawa) leader Pontiac. As we saw in Chapter 3, Indians in the French Pays d’en Haut (“upper country”) triangulated their relationship with Europeans by playing French and British off against each other — shifting alliances based on diplomatic and trade terms. Neither British nor French could afford to sever their alliance with all Indians out of fear that they would join the other side and gang up on them. Now, after 1763, the French were gone and it was basically expansion-minded Whites against Indians, a misnomer (based on Christopher Columbus’ original misunderstanding of his whereabouts in the Caribbean) that became increasingly common among British Americans instead of individual tribal names like Shawnee, Delaware, Miami, Iroquois, Cherokee, etc. Indians, too, began to see themselves increasingly as one group but struggled to unify. Linguistic barriers and traditional rivalries made it difficult for tribes to communicate and cooperate with each other. Pontiac’s uprising was a brutal conflict that included treacheries on both sides and civilian casualties. Similar to what we saw with Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) on a smaller scale in Chapter 5, the British preferred to tamp down hostilities and maintain peace along the frontier, but settlers pushed for war and expansion. Pontiac’s War not only exacerbated Britain’s relationship with American colonists but also bound the colonists together in a shared experience, helping to lay the foundation for future cooperation against the British.
Geographic expansion and Indian conflict, then, complicated the relationship between Britain and their American colonists. Also, some masters feared Britain’s potential power to outlaw slavery in the colonies. Yet, as is often the case in human conflict, be it marital, political, or military, money was at the root of the problem. The British tried to crack down on smuggling, regulate currency, and collect import taxes, enforcing the Navigation Acts they’d passed in mid-century to enforce their mercantilist monopoly on American trade. American merchants protested against British officials being able to search their homes and warehouses for contraband. One of their lawyers in Boston, James Otis, Jr., wrote, “Taxation without representation was tyranny.” They’d been arguing the same since at least as far back as 1750.
Taxes were the key aggravation since the British had borrowed so much money to win the French & Indian War. They spent over 50% of their annual budget financing interest on their debt, compared to modern Americans who pay ~ 6%. Parliament argued that the war was fought for the colonists’ benefit, so it was time they started to pay their fair share. Taxes are hard to measure because they varied among the colonies and were levied in a variety of forms, including tobacco, fur, rum, and coins. But most historians agree that American colonists paid only ~ 10% of the average English citizen. Ohio St.’s Ben Baack puts the colonial average ~ 2-4% of English taxpayers. Colonials argued that the French war was not for their benefit but rather for England’s own — that was the price of empire — and, regardless, they should not have to pay any taxes if they had no representation in the Parliament that taxed them.
Rebellion Fit For An Englishman
Let’s step back to get some perspective on the colonists’ complaint. First, they paid mainly only import taxes to the home country while benefitting from living under the protection of the world’s biggest navy and enjoying significant political freedom and self-government within the colonies. Propertied white males could vote at least in the lower houses of all the assemblies, though some colonies had royally appointed governors. Roughly 20% of colonial Americans could vote in local elections, but none in Parliament. Eighteenth-century British Americans had similar status to today’s residents of Insular Territories — Guam, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Northern Marianas, etc. — who (other than Samoans) are U.S. citizens, can vote in local but not national elections, serve in the military, and pay payroll but not income taxes. Washington, D.C. residents also pay federal income taxes with no congressional representation. This wasn’t Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia the colonists were living in. If you think of British colonial rule as too onerous, ask yourself how much sleep you’ve lost over U.S. denial of citizenship to Samoans or political representation to Puerto Ricans. Now imagine if they only paid 1/20th as much as you in taxes.
Second, political representation proportional to British Americans’ small population wouldn’t have helped the colonists much. Parliament could’ve just called their no taxation without representation bluff and given them a small number of seats in the House of Commons. However, that would’ve opened the door for the entire United Kingdom and the American colonies were bound to grow bigger.
Third, representation of any kind barely existed outside the British Empire in 1763 and complaining about its lack thereof would not have even made sense elsewhere. Unlike absolutist European and Asian monarchies, England had a tradition of rights among its people — a contract between ruler and ruled — that dated back to Magna Carta of the late Middle Ages (at least in myth) through Edward Coke’s Petition of Right, the English Civil War, and Glorious Revolution. In the English Civil War of the 1640s, Puritans chopped their king’s head off and set up the biggest republic the world had seen in 1500 years. The monarchy restored but, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, it never regained true power from Parliament and ministers (see the 1689 Bill of Rights).
Yet American Brits reared in this neo-republican tradition saw themselves as entitled to certain rights as British subjects and had long since grown used to governing their own affairs with little interference from home beyond British attempts to regulate shipping with the Navigation Acts. Moreover, by the mid-18th century the colonists paid taxes to their locally elected governments, so paying more to the British would’ve added a second layer. And, as a colony, they enjoyed less political autonomy than countries like Australia and Canada do today within the British Commonwealth.
By the 1760s, the long period of relative self-rule and lax enforcement known as the Era of Salutary Neglect was waning; the British were ready for their colonials to start paying their way to help pay off the French & Indian War. There was no real constitutional precedent to look to because the British Constitution was not a written document so much as an agreed-upon, centuries-long political tradition. Later, the U.S. would try to avoid such problems by writing down their constitution. Parliament argued that all its colonial subjects (like today’s U.S. citizens of D.C. or Puerto Rico) were virtually represented, while colonists argued for no taxation without representation. The American rebellion, then, wasn’t launched to commence a novel, grand experiment in democracy, but rather to protest what independent-minded colonial Brits saw as backsliding. They knew they’d been lucky to enjoy a significant amount of liberty while still enjoying the privileges and military protection of being in the British Empire, but a significant minority of Americans saw things trending in the wrong direction.
An equal number of Americans saw no major problem and maintained their loyalty to England.
Currency was also controversial. With no sources of gold or silver, the colonies tended to experience a net outflow of specie, or hard currency (precious metals), making that an impractical solution for legal tender. Most backcountry transactions relied on bartering of commodities (e.g. tobacco, hay, rum, nails, etc.), but foreign merchants demanded gold or silver in port cities. Locally printed colonial money was spotty and unreliable and depreciated when taken overseas. The British standardized colonial money with the Currency Act of 1764, that encouraged the use of (British) pound sterling by regulating colonial money and prohibiting it from use in debt transactions, the basis of most import-export trade. This tightening of the money supply was a major grievance for the next decade, though the British repealed the act in 1774, before the actual Revolution. Taxes were even more contentious.
Tax Disputes, Military Occupation & Resistance
The first tax after the French & Indian War, the Sugar Act of 1764, met little resistance because colonists had paid (or cheated on) such external import duties since the Molasses Act of 1733. The 1733 law was enacted to prevent colonists from smuggling molasses from the French Caribbean. However, rum was New England’s primary export (80%) and the British Caribbean couldn’t supply enough molasses to support the Atlantic trade, let alone the colonists’ own rum consumption, which was staggeringly high by today’s standards. George Washington, for instance, won an election to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758 by buying off 391 eligible voters in his district with 160 gallons of rum, beer, and cider. The 1764 Sugar Act lowered the earlier molasses tax by 50% in an attempt to limit cheating enough that they could actually collect some duty. The tax chafed the colonists and they voiced their displeasure at being taxed without representation, but mostly they just kept cheating. (Spoiler alert: later we’ll see colonists throw an even bigger fit when the British lower another import tax).
The Stamp Act of 1765, though, was more controversial because it was internal, not just levied at the docks, and there was no way to smuggle around it. Because of its big backlash, many historians use it to date the beginning of the American Revolution. The Stamp Act created a series of annoying taxes of roughly one penny on legal transactions, including marriage licenses, deeds, wills, contracts, etc. It was the first time the British levied an everyday tax within the colonies.
The response was vigorous and rowdy, with tax collectors being tarred and feathered, temporarily buried alive, or burned in effigy, and rebels protesting with signs, songs, parades, and the like. Since “liberty was dead,” the rebels held mock funerals for it, carting liberty’s coffin through the streets. A congress met in New York to petition King George III and Parliament. Across the colonies, loosely affiliated groups calling themselves the Sons of Liberty popped up. In New York, they commemorated the repeal of the Stamp Act annually by erecting Liberty Poles, a tradition that dated back to the Roman senate’s assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. The British kept sawing them down until the Sons of Liberty secured their fourth pole with iron bands and the British blew it up. Liberty Poles and Liberty Trees (Boston) were ubiquitous throughout the colonies and in Europe during the American and French Revolutions. Boston’s Sons of Liberty branch intimidated tax-collector Andrew Oliver into resigning and ransacked the mansion of loyalist Governor Thomas Hutchinson.
The Stamp Act also had a powerful opponent in the House of Commons, former Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder, who said: “I rejoice that America has resisted.” When Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, rebels mistakenly concluded that their resistance was the lone cause when, really, there was a change of leadership in England and parliamentarians like Pitt opposed the tax. An unstable monarchy further muddled colonial relations. The young, inexperienced King George was in the early stages of mental illness, probably related to (or compounded by) a porphyria skin disorder triggered by arsenic in his medicine or makeup. His periodic insanity included one episode when he shook hands with an oak branch thinking he’d met the King of Prussia, and he claimed that he couldn’t see himself in mirrors. Related to much of the European royalty that carried hereditary madness, George was sometimes kept in a straightjacket by his ministers. Complicating matters further, the communication lag of ships crossing the Atlantic confused colonists and rulers alike. Atlantic trips could last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. A becalmed ship could drift for days depending on weather in the Doldrums, the equatorial zone where prevailing trade winds meet. That made it difficult to follow the parliamentary debate over the Stamp Act. Such delays were especially common on trips to America, as trips back to England or Europe tracked westerly trade winds further north in the Atlantic.
When Parliament rescinded the tax they also issued the 1st Quartering Act stationing forces in the colonies and the Declaratory Act of 1766 that reaffirmed their right to tax. It was as if Parliament said, “Okay, you got your way this time, but don’t forget that, from here on out, we do have the authority to tax you whenever we please and here are some soldiers to remind you of it.” These occupying forces were an ongoing source of tension since most had to find part-time work to supplement their low pay and they slept in town commons in unsanitary camps. In England, they offered felons a choice between prison and the military – considered a virtual death sentence because of the likelihood of contracting disease or dying in combat or at sea. Running a global empire was not all Tea and Crumpets.
The Townshend Duties of 1767 threw fuel on the fire, especially since part of the tax went toward the troops there to collect the tax in the first place. The law taxed imports the colonists relied on from Britain such as lead, paper, paint, glass, and tea. Resistors boycotted these goods in impressively organized fashion, forming non-importation groups to network their cause. Women sewed their own homespun to undersell English cloth exports. Wearing the rougher cloth became a badge of resistance. In the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi did the same with Indian cotton to protest British rule.
Fearing that taxes would only make the colonists more self-sufficient, English merchants and manufacturers blinked first, pressing Parliament to rescind the duties. After Parliament repealed all the taxes except for the one on tea in 1770 (Americans, after all, couldn’t grow their own tea), rebels could see a clear pattern that resistance got results. It had seemingly worked twice with the Stamp Act and Townshend Duties. A cartoon in an English newspaper entitled “Triumph of America” predicted that Parliament would struggle to rein in the American team of horses from here on out (below) — representing what we’d today call the “slippery slope argument.” In the meantime, non-importation organizations provided a valuable network colonists could build on in future years — a sort of rebel LinkedIn® of the time. In just two years, the British had managed to alienate pretty much every level of society: merchants and lawyers with the Stamp Act, consumers with the Townshend Duties, and laborers with Redcoats competing for part-time jobs.
A relative lull ensued in the early 1770s with no new taxes and little broad-based resistance. True believers like the Sons of Liberty worked overtime to fire everyone else up with anniversary celebrations of the great Stamp Act revolt while focusing people’s attention on the many still unresolved disputes. These disputes included trade, ongoing taxes, state-sanctioned religion, and military occupation.
In 1772, a Rhode Island branch of the Sons of Liberty led British customs officials on a chase that grounded their vessel, the HMS Gaspée. Before high tide could free it, the mob boarded, looted, and burned the ship, then shot and imprisoned the captain. They were retaliating for recent British attempts to enforce their longstanding trade restrictions on the colonists, and local courts offered the Brits no hope of justice since they sided with smugglers. Their ringleader was a local merchant, pirate, and slave trader named John Brown, not to be confused with a famous namesake opponent of slavery a century later. This John Brown’s great-grandfather started Rhode Island & Providence Plantation with Roger Williams in 1638 and the family founded their namesake Ivy League university in Providence.
The protest echoed an earlier riot in Boston surrounding seizure of wine merchant-smuggler John Hancock’s sloop the Liberty. While historians don’t calculate British taxes as being worthy of much protest, it may be that the crackdown on smuggling did more to threaten New England’s economy. Hancock was an elite businessman who had enjoyed a special handshake arrangement with the aforementioned Governor Hutchinson (he paid Hutchinson a kickback to look the other way). But when the Crown sent more troops to occupy Boston after the Stamp Act Riots, that arrangement ended. The Crown’s stricter rules backfired because the wealthy Hancock formed an alliance with maltster-brewer Sam Adams whom, according to traditional accounts at least, was associated with the unrulier Sons of Liberty street mob. Modern scholarship indicates that Adams was less a rabble-rouser than an upright conservative looking to establish a new “Christian Sparta” and that rowdier depictions of Adams came from pro-British Loyalist sources. In any event, John Hancock and Sam Adams teamed up to trade goods on the black market and resist British authority. In so doing, they helped to cement revolutionary ties across class lines.
Tensions also mounted over control of colonial timber, with the Crown mandating that the tallest trees be preserved as masts for the Royal Navy. Some New Hampshire sawmills were hoarding logs marked for the navy and their owners’ arrest set off the Pine Tree Riot. The light fines assessed to the guilty parties underscored the limits of British authority in more remote areas of the Empire, and some historians suggest that the arguments over lumber set the stage for the Tea Party the following year. As was the case with the Gaspée Affair, the Pine Tree Riot resulted from disagreements over who had ultimate control over the American economy, the colonists or British Parliament.
Rebels met in taverns, airing their grievances and cementing their organizational ties. Bars served not only as meeting places but also post offices and courthouses. Even the supposedly strict Puritans legally required that each town had a heated tavern next to the unheated churches where congregations attended “all-day” service since they broke for meals next door. Four important rebel taverns were the Raleigh in Williamsburg, Virginia, Fraunces in New York City, Green Dragon in Boston, and Tun in Philadelphia, that doubled as a Masonic Lodge and is where the Marines formed in 1775. Boston’s famous branch of the Sons of Liberty met in the basement of the Green Dragon, the “Headquarters of the Revolution.” As a saying went, over brew a revolution grew.
Lacking cloud space or a smartphone, Benjamin Franklin even initiated a colonial-wide postal system to keep people in contact that later morphed into the U.S. Postal System (the USPS is a year older than the U.S., beginning in 1775). The overriding issue was that the colonies had enjoyed over a century of neglect before the British tried to assert greater control in the mid-18th century. But by then there was seemingly no pressing need for British protection, at least on land (we’ll see later that Americans overestimated their ability to protect themselves at sea). And the aforementioned Proclamation Line, while not always obeyed, inhibited western expansion. Import taxes continued on tea and sugar.
Some of the colonists’ complaints were longstanding, predating the post-French & Indian War taxes. Everyone, regardless of their faith, had to pay tithes to the established Church of England formed when Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Vatican in 1534. In America, the Church of England was usually known as the Anglican Church. While laws allowing for the mild torture of non-Anglicans in nine of the colonies went mostly unenforced, the tax aggravated colonials who prided themselves on their relative religious freedom in relation to Europeans. As we saw in earlier chapters, some had even migrated for that very reason. While there were numerous non-Christians and Anglicans in the rebel camp, a pattern emerged of dissenters from the established church agitating for more freedom while Anglicans tended, by and large, to appreciate the benefits of being in the British Empire. These Anglicans were much more likely to remain Loyalists to Britain once musket balls flew in 1775. Non-Anglican ministers like Jonathan Mayhew and John Witherspoon, in turn, could fire up their congregations, leading British politicians to blame bad relations on the “Presbyterian Revolution.” In the House of Commons, Horace Walpole bemoaned that “Cousin America has run off with the Presbyterian parson (Witherspoon), and that is the end of it.” The Great Awakening, especially, primed a generation of colonial American Protestants for rebellion against authority, as had the Calvinists’ and Quakers’ break from the established church. Historian Christine Heyrman called the First Great Awakening a “dress rehearsal” for the Revolution. The artist that created this silk needlework below depicted the Biblical figure of Absalom suffering under the rule of his father, King David, symbolized by King George III. The king on the left is playing his harp, oblivious to the anguish of his children (the colonists), while the figure executing Absalom, Joab, is dressed as a Redcoat.
Finally, Redcoat or “Lobster-Back” soldiers still occupied town commons and took up jobs — an ongoing nuisance. It seems that the American Revolution, while led by an elite (mostly multi-millionaires, adjusted for inflation) was launched in a combination of pulpits, streets, and taverns. While the stakes weren’t as earth-shatteringly high as those of the 20th century (i.e. fascism vs. democracy, communism vs. capitalism, freedom vs. dictatorship), it was nonetheless a rowdy and spirited uprising expressed in rallies, debates, celebrations, songs, pamphlets, posters, and sermons. And the revolution was violent by American historical standards when it degenerated into war in 1775. But, as of the early 1770s, that was a long way off and no one anticipated war or a new country.
Two years before the Gaspée Incident and Pine Tree Riot, in 1770, Lobster-Backs in Boston caused an uproar when they fired their muskets into an angry crowd. Ten days earlier, a British customs officer named Ebenezer Richardson shot dead an eleven-year-old German immigrant named Christopher Seider, which had the whole city in an angry mood. Seider was part of a mob throwing rocks at Richardson’s windows. Similar to American experiences later in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the British found that occupying forces, even those with instructions to treat civilians well, tend to wear out their welcome because of these inevitable conflicts. According to legend, shortly after Seider’s death, a cable-maker asked a Redcoat if he was looking for work and when he replied yes the man retorted, “Wee then, go and clean my shit house [outhouse].”
That led to a small-scale melee in its own right. Then on March 5th, a soldier assaulted a young wigmaker’s apprentice, striking him on the head with his musket. The apprentice was hollering at him to pay his boss and the soldier ignored him at first because he’d already paid. The ensuing fracas forced the retreating Redcoats back in front of their customs house where a mob pelted them with snowballs/ice, rocks, oyster shells, and sticks — taunting and daring them. Some brandished clubs and cutlasses (short swords). One rioter yelled, “Come on you rascals! You bloody backs, you lobster scoundrels, fire if you dare, God damn you, fire and be damned, we know you dare not.”
One thing was similar to the Vietnam War protests at Kent State in 1970. Students were harassing National Guardsmen in that case because they knew the soldiers wouldn’t retaliate, but one did. The same thing happened in Boston 200 years earlier. One snow-baller hit a Redcoat hard enough that he dropped his musket and he fired it when he picked it back up. Others followed suit and fired into the crowd, killing five men and injuring six. They were probably scared out of their wits being surrounded by an angry mob of nearly 400.
Rather than being lynched, the guilty soldiers were defended by John Adams, who got their trials delayed and sentences reduced to branded thumbs (m for manslaughter). Adams wanted to demonstrate the Americans’ ability to conduct a fair and just trial amidst an atmosphere of vigilantism. A murder charge would’ve brought the death penalty but they used the Benefit of Clergy loophole to avoid it — an 18th-century law whereby a first offender (not necessarily of the cloth) could get a reduced sentence by reciting Scripture. Adams, falling short of today’s standards of political correctness, argued for an even lighter sentence since they were surrounded by a “motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and mollatoes, Irish teagues, and outlandish jack tarrs [sailors].”
Publicists like silversmith-recycler-poet Paul Revere spun the event as a massacre (above), exploiting the shooting into a cause célèbre against British rule. Ironically, the Boston Massacre occurred the very day Parliament rescinded most of the Townshend duties, March 5th, 1770, though no one on either side of the pond was aware of the coincidence.
Boston Tea Party
Britain left the Townshend tax on tea, leading to a crisis three years later, also in Boston. In 1773, Parliament restored the monopoly of the nearly bankrupt British East India Co. as the sole importers of tea to the Americas. Tea was as popular in the 18th century as coffee today and the BEIC joint-stock company was so large and powerful that it flew its own flag. As an attempt to dissuade Americans from smuggling Dutch tea, the Tea Act lowered the price of tea below the going rate by exempting the BEIC from taxes, despite continuing fat dividends and high salaries. The company could now ship directly from China to America, skipping the British import duty, and sold directly to distributors instead of middlemen. By lowering the price, the new law followed the same pattern set by the earlier Sugar Act. Parliament was allowing the BEIC to dump its surplus in America at a cut rate to undersell smugglers.
Salvaging the BEIC was essential to buoying stock markets in London and Amsterdam, as it was the second-biggest financial concern in the empire outside of the Bank of England. In fact, the company’s revenue was actually greater than that of the government and many company men had bought their way into Parliament. But the BEIC was struggling in India due to political unrest (like that in America) and famine in Bengal (which the British callously exacerbated). Powerful people stood to lose fortunes. For the wealthy at least, the British East India Co. was what we’d now call “too big to fail.”
In 1773, this lowering of tea prices might have pleased American consumers, but some didn’t like the precedent of cutting out smugglers. You see, middlemen themselves like middlemen, even if they raise prices for consumers. That price hike is what they call a living. Smuggling tea from the Dutch and molasses from France was a time-honored right Americans wanted to hold onto even if it raised prices. The more conspiratorial tea-sippers joined forces with those who disliked the “drug” to start with, or who disliked the flea infestations that often accompanied British boats from China. Others protested the blurring of lines between the British government and the country’s biggest corporation (BEIC). Tapping into the mostly dormant organizations of 1765 and 1767, protesters organized a boycott throughout the colonies and most major harbors either turned away the tea boats or stored the tea in warehouses to sell later (in Charleston’s case to help finance rebellion).
However, in Massachusetts, Governor Thomas Hutchinson ordered the tea off-loaded. In the ensuing “Destruction of the Tea” or “Tea Riot” as it was known until sanitized for 19th-century schoolchildren, the Sons of Liberty — fortified by rum punch consumed at the Green Dragon, led by Sam Adams, and dressed as Mohawk Indians — stormed aboard three small vessels and dumped 45 tons of tea into Boston harbor (actually into the mud and clams since the tide was out). 45 was a symbolic number, signifying the Sons of Liberty’s support for parliamentarian John Wilkes, whose Issue #45 accused King George of lying to Parliament (Wilkes fled England).
Southern colonists saw the tea destruction as juvenile vandalism and the British were not amused either. They demanded immediate compensation for lost income amounting to over one million dollars (adjusted for inflation). They saw any lenience toward Boston as signaling lenience toward rebels like Wilkes in England. Parliament even excoriated Ben Franklin over the affair just because he was an easy (in person) target, even though he was in London on a mission to improve colonial relations and supported Massachusetts compensating for the tea after he learned of the riot.
Like most colonials of his generation Franklin was proud and grateful to be British, but after his interrogation before the King’s Privy Council in the “Royal Cockpit” behind the Palace of Whitehall, he began to entertain thoughts of independence. While he maintained Loyalist and English friends, historian Sheila Skemp described it as the moment “when Franklin became an American.” That cost him his relationship with his Loyalist son William and, more importantly, the Brits lost a key ally who could’ve come in handy down the road. Franklin’s popularity soared back in the colonies, though.
The history of the history of the Tea Destruction is interesting in its own right. Not only did textbooks change the name to Tea Party after the 1830s, there’s little mention of the event at all in early histories of the Revolution prior to that. Early historians wanted to play down any potentially criminal behavior in association with the Revolution and early American political leaders didn’t want to encourage vigilante behavior among their own angry citizens.
British Clamp Down
Though contemporary Southerners likewise saw the initial tea dumping as inappropriate, they sided with Massachusetts when Britain overreacted by closing Boston’s harbor (allowing shipping in Salem), barring hometown jury trials (sending cases to England), and dismantling the colony’s locally-elected government. Boston merchant John Andrews wrote his brother-in-law in Philadelphia that the British threatened to “make the town a desolate wilderness…with grass growing in the streets.” They also mandated that troops could now stay in citizens’ homes. Redcoats were rough characters that men didn’t want sleeping under the same roofs as their wives and daughters. This 2nd Quartering Act later led Americans to bar the practice in the 3rd Amendment to the Constitution (you may have wondered why you have the constitutional right to not host soldiers against your will).
In a separate act meant to appease French settlers to the north and west — but one that was interpreted by Americans as being aimed at them — the British declared Catholicism the official state religion of Quebec and (at least according to American patriots) banned self-government there. The British were actually enacting traditional French civil codes and making sure French citizens could vote along with the British. Though French Canada was vanquished in 1763 as a political entity, their settlers weren’t forced to evacuate; Québécoirs speak French to this day.
In the 18th century, their presence stoked anti-Catholic sentiments among Protestant Americans, as did this Quebec Act. Paul Revere drew a widely distributed cartoon entitled This Sir, is the Meaning of the Quebec Act, showing Catholic bishops celebrating having conquered the Americas. Sam Adams wrote that “more was to be feared from Popery in America” than taxation. The act reinforced the Proclamation Line that aimed to keep Americans out of that very area, especially since Quebec expanded to include the entire Ohio Valley and Great Lakes — now western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Nearly the whole Big 10 was in Canada. Two more laws, the Restraining Acts, expanded British control over New England governments that had run virtually on their own for 150 years except for a brief interruption in the 1680s and prohibited American fishing in the North Atlantic, an important and lucrative industry.
Other colonies were angered rather than intimidated by the crackdown on Boston. Collectively, these Coercive (or Intolerable) Acts triggered a chain of events that led to armed conflict, but not yet calls for independence. In Virginia, Patrick Henry concluded a dramatic speech at St. John’s Church in Richmond with the rallying cry Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death! In truth, he waited until the Virginia Convention vacated to avoid being arrested for treason. The Founders could revise history better with paintings like this beautiful one below than future generations could with photographs (at least before Photoshop® and CGI).
Virginians weren’t just upset with the Coercive (Intolerable) Acts or Quebec Act. The Chesapeake tobacco gentry was descending further and further into the debt of English merchants and they suspected the British of depressing tobacco prices to worsen their plight. Just as New England smugglers resented Britain’s mercantilist constraints on the tea trade, Southerners complained that the British economic system threatened their independence and even honor. Making matters worse, Scottish banks were calling in Virginia planters’ loans because they had over-invested in the struggling British East India Co. — the same outfit Parliament was trying to save with the Tea Act that triggered the Boston riot.
Patrick Henry’s fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson was bolder, arguing (in the spirit of John Locke) that rulers were servants of the people, not vice-versa, in a pamphlet entitled Summary View of the Rights of British America. Jefferson argued that the Virginia House of Burgesses should have equality with Parliament and that King George should avoid becoming “a blight on history.” Writing in public in 1774 that kings should avoid being blights on history wasn’t like Tweeting an op-ed about George Bush or Barack Obama, or like giving a dramatic speech in front of an empty assembly. Jefferson was guilty of a capital crime at this point and would commit his dipped quill to parchment even more treasonously two years later with the Declaration of Independence. The Brits had tried to teach the Americans a lesson by cracking down hard on Boston but their strategy backfired, only rallying other Americans to the point they were willing to risk their necks.
Representatives from the colonies met under one roof for the first time, forming the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia and erecting shadow governments called Committees of Correspondence atop the foundation of earlier networks. In retrospect, this was the germ of the future U.S. government though no one knew it at the time. Then, there was no talk of breaking off and forming a separate country, only addressing grievances within the British Empire.
Siege of Boston & United States Birth Pangs
Small-scale sporadic fighting broke out across New England and rebels stole British ammunition and weapons stockpiles from places like Fort William & Mary in New Hampshire and Fort Ticonderoga in New York. Outside Boston in April 1775, Minutemen trained to be “ready at a moment’s notice” mustered in preparation for fighting Redcoats. It turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy as Redcoats (aka Regulars) were sent to keep Minutemen from drilling outside Boston, leading to a fight. This was the setting for the famous “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” to warn the Minutemen of Lexington and Concord that the “British were coming.” Actually, he didn’t yell anything because he would’ve given himself away, but that was part of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem Paul Revere’s Ride, written on the eve of the Civil War in 1860. The phrase wouldn’t have made sense anyway because Revere and the other rebels all saw themselves as British. Revere and his friends had to cross the Charles River in silence to avoid the attention of a nearby warship, but their oars would’ve made too much noise in their metal locks. A nearby woman offered her flannel petticoat, which they tore up and wrapped around their oars.
British General Thomas Gage hoped to find Sam Adams and John Hancock in Lexington or Concord to imprison them and to seize rebel armaments. The warning system set up by Revere, William Dawes, and ringleader Joseph Warren gave the militia time to prepare though Revere never made it to deliver the word. Redcoat sentries captured him while another man, Samuel Prescott, hurdled a fence on his horse and evaded capture. Why don’t we know about Prescott? Because his name wouldn’t have rhymed with “listen children and you will here…” in Longfellow’s poem (neither would Revere’s, for that matter, if he’d kept his French Huguenot birth name, Rivoire). The Minutemen had been in a local tavern all day and would’ve been caught by surprise without Prescott’s message. Following the “Shot Heard Round The World” at the North Bridge in Concord — no one knows for sure who shot first, least of all those who’d been in the tavern all day — farmers fired away at the British from trees and behind stone walls as the shocked Brits high-tailed it back to Boston like jackrabbits at a greyhound convention.
Then, Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys and Benedict Arnold seized British cannons by surprise at Fort Ticonderoga. Troops under Henry Knox hauled them by hand across upstate New York and Massachusetts to the outskirts of Boston, where 30k angry Yankees surrounded the Redcoats. The Second Continental Congress sent Virginian George Washington north to form the rebel militia into a coherent army. They didn’t have anyone else at their disposal with military experience and Washington even wore his old uniform from the French & Indian War to congressional meetings. Washington took command of what he called the “Troops of the United Provinces of North America.” U.P.N.A. easily enough could’ve become the name of the new country. Washington’s task was to take ten companies of riflemen from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland with him to link with the Massachusetts militia. At no point in the coming war, though, did he really have a full-blown professional army. Washington struggled throughout to unify various state militias, with citizen-soldiers often coming and going on their own terms.
Historians now suspect the Troops of the United Provinces of North America moniker morphed gradually into United States of America, with no one really drawing attention to that fact that they’d named a new country. Of course, there was no new country yet despite Continental Congress ruling as a de facto government and having already formed an army, navy, and marines. On Christmas Day, 1775 Washington wrote about the “United Colonies” and, on January 2, 1776, his aid used the term United States of America in a letter.
This is worth a brief digression if you’ll allow. The USA is an interesting name when you think about it regardless of who came up with it. Had they gone with a single word (e.g. France, Mexico, Japan) they may have come up with something like America or Columbia, perhaps Washington ten years later. Instead, the name describes a concept, maybe because they improvised it gradually. The federal idea of a national tier sharing power with existing states underneath was embedded in the name of the country before the Founders actually chose or designed such a system, or even declared independence. That wasn’t a given; they could’ve started a country with no states or separate states with no unified country. Their choice is only obvious in retrospect.
Also around this time, Washington’s army unfurled the Grand Union Flag, or Continental Colors, an interesting precursor to the Stars & Stripes. At first blush, they seem to have stolen their design from (of all people!) the British East India Co., importers of the very tea the Sons of Liberty ceremoniously tossed into Boston’s harbor in 1773. Yet, they put some thought into this transitional banner. The thirteen stripes represent colonial autonomy, but the Union Jack in the upper left corner shows their continued allegiance to the United Kingdom. You can see how easily something like Commonwealth status (e.g. Australia, Canada, New Zealand) could’ve come about. This pennant indicates that compromise was still on the table as of 1775. By 1777, though, you see early versions of a flag with the same layout but stars signifying new states in the upper left. As this site chronicles in detail, the first-ever known image of such a flag comes from the Chester County Militia, flown at the Battle of Brandywine (outside Philadelphia) in 1777.
Back to our story. With Washington in charge at Cambridge, his army kept the British trapped in the Siege of Boston. Instructed not to fire “until they saw the whites of their enemies’ eyes” to preserve limited ammunition, rebels prepared for Redcoats to come across Charleston Bay from Boston proper, where they awaited on Breed’s and Bunker Hill. They fought the British to a standstill until they ran out of munitions and retreated. It was a surprisingly costly victory for the Redcoats, whose leader remarked that the success “was too dearly bought.” They’d expected to punish a mob rather than fight an army that looked them in the eye.
The British eventually put Boston astern, agreeing not to burn it if the Americans didn’t fire on them during their retreat. Before that, in October 1775, the Royal Navy laid siege to Falmouth, Maine (now Portland), burning ships and razing the harbor town. The Burning of Falmouth motivated Continental Congress to start its own small Continental Navy, the beginning of the modern branch. Their first U.S. Navy Jack was more direct than the Grand Union Flag, (supposedly) with a snake saying don’t tread on me. Even if raising a militia was technically within their colonial rights, forming a navy was definitely an act of treason.
In the meantime, Continental Congress sent an Olive Branch Petition to King George asking for reconciliation (olive branches are a universal sign of peace). The Union Jack was still on their flag, after all. But George refused their offer, if he even read it. He called the rebel colonists “deluded” and their leaders “traitorous.” George’s rejection of the petition lent credence to John Adams’ argument that the rebels had already passed the point of no return. Continental soldiers burned copies of the King’s speech after it was read to them. Given the debate about representative government then ongoing, George was a fitting example of the downside to hereditary rule. Instead of seeking a compromise or resolution, the erratic, unstable George issued the Prohibitory Act in December 1775 that blockaded all American harbors. Given the colonies’ dependence on Atlantic trade, it was an act of virtual economic warfare.
It’s tempting for us to project modern notions of democracy on colonial Americans and assume that they all opposed monarchical authority. But many colonists felt betrayed by a king to whom they owed their allegiance precisely because it was his job to protect them. In this version of Backstory (35:40-37:14), historian Peter Onuf explains this “protection covenant.” For many Americans, the problem was that George broke the covenant, not that there was a covenant. The tension was inherent in Britain’s colonial model because, in order to enforce law and order in the Empire, King George had to wage war on his own subjects. John Adams didn’t want a stronger Parliament in relation to tyrannical King George III; he longed for a stronger king to protect the colonists from a tyrannical Parliament. This is an important distinction because it explains why some framers lobbied for a stronger executive branch run by an individual (a president) during the Constitutional Convention twelve years later.
Preparing for war with the mother country, Second Continental Congress sent a delegation led by Ben Franklin north to Quebec to try and convince Canadians to join the cause as a fourteenth colony. When they refused, Congress launched an ill-advised campaign to conquer Canada to prevent the British from using it as a staging area. This was the first of two U.S. attempts to conquer Canada, the other being in the War of 1812. George Washington ordered troops to respect the Canadians’ Catholic faith while taking the colony, helping to establish a principle of religious freedom at a time when Protestants dominated Continental Congress.
After slogging hundreds of miles through the snow across New England, an invading force led by Richard Montgomery and future traitor Benedict Arnold took Montreal but failed to capture Quebec City and the campaign collapsed (painting above). Some troops quit when the church bells tolled midnight on New Year’s Eve because they were only being paid through 1775. With this defeat at the Battle of Quebec, the Invasion of Canada ended. The newly formed Continental Marines also laid siege to British outposts in Nova Scotia and Nassau, Bahamas. Not yet formally at war, and not yet even a country, Continental Congress was attacking the British from Canada to the Caribbean.
In February 1776, recent English immigrant Thomas Paine published a pamphlet as influential as any ever written on American soil, arguing for Americans to break from Britain and form their own country. He was part of the English Whig faction that had long resisted absolute, centralized power, especially from the monarchy or royal ministers. Paine, a former corset-maker and customs official, suggested a decentralized system similar to how the country would be set up in its first decade under the Articles of Confederation (Chapter 10).
Breaking away from Britain altogether had seemed preposterous just a year before, but Paine had the courage to say publicly what many had already been thinking in the back of their minds: ‘Tis Time To Part. Paine claimed that everyone he overheard or spoke to thought nationhood was inevitable in America; it was just a matter of when not if. Washington was already moving in that direction while fighting the British and King George’s rude rebuttal of the Olive Branch Petition solidified the idea of independence in many people’s minds because the King himself suggested that it was already happening.
Around a third of Americans remained staunchly loyal to their king and would remain so during the coming war, but another 33-40% now found themselves solidly in the rebel camp, with another third or so neutral. Paine’s Common Sense sensibly countered the main arguments against independence. Aren’t Americans the children of the parent British Crown? “Then the more shame upon her conduct. Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families.” Doesn’t hereditary rule prevent civil wars? “Were this true, it would be weighty; whereas, it is the most barefaced falsity ever imposed upon mankind. The whole history of England disowns the fact.” Was America too small? It was in 1776, but simple demographic extrapolation showed it would soon be larger than Great Britain. “There is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.” Weren’t kings enshrined by Divine Right? “Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.” While not Christian himself, Paine understood the rebellion’s religious underpinnings. He wrote the pamphlet in the language and cadence of a sermon, cleverly inviting his audience to consider that Old Testament Jews had rejected monarchical authority. Paine wrote with clear italics and commas so that Common Sense could be read out loud in sermons, taverns, and coffeehouses.
All this came from a man who’d been genuinely fond of the British Empire. Like Ben Franklin, Paine saw Britain’s as the best, freest political system on Earth. But both men passed a threshold and came to view British rule as increasingly and irredeemably aristocratic and unenlightened, despite the freedoms that had been won there in relation to other European countries.
Colonial coup d’états
The key shifts toward actual independence happened within individual colonies. Indeed, the critical step was not on July 4th, but rather when Continental Congress instructed each colony to form their own, independent governments on May 10th, 1776. States were forming and declaring independence before the upper, national tier. The democratically elected Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly favored staying in the Empire, but a more radical militia took over the colony in an armed coup. No shots were fired as the Assembly led by John Dickinson backed down in the face of 4k protestors and voluntarily gave up power. Dickinson (left) had helped launch the rebellion with his resistance to the Townshend Duties in Letters From An American Farmer (1767) and reworked some of Jefferson’s writings into Declaration of the Causes & Necessity of Taking Up Arms (1775). Consequently, his overthrow at the hands of independence-seeking rebels in 1776 indicates how far the Revolution had progressed.
The Pennsylvania Committee of [Militia] Privates created a new government that favored independence from Britain and granted voting rights to militia members. Much to the chagrin of John Adams, who favored a more stable and conservative future, Pennsylvania got rid of all property qualifications for voting, a radically democratic step for the time. That feature purportedly led to a big shouting match between Adams and Thomas Paine at a Philadelphia hotel. Many years later (1805), lamenting his radically democratic politics, Adams described Paine as “a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar, on a bitch wolf.”
Pennsylvania severed its ties to the British Crown in May 1776. The coup was influential because its participants convinced Continental Congress to declare that all colonial legislatures that derived their power from the Crown should be suppressed. Paine took part in this rebellion personally, along with mathematician James Cannon and scientist Thomas Young. Benjamin Franklin supported the coup and Pennsylvania’s new constitution, as did others in Continental Congress like Sam Adams and John Adams (despite his reservations about the broadened suffrage). All this was happening in the same town where Continental Congress met, making it all the more important. That critical third or more of the population that favored independence seized the initiative and several colonies, including Pennsylvania and Rhode Island in May and the two Carolinas even earlier, declared their independence from the mother country: South Carolina (March 26th), North Carolina (April 12th), and Rhode Island (May 4th).
Churches, trade guilds, and various colonial bodies and assemblies followed these states’ lead. In American Scripture (1997), historian Pauline Maier researched and documented how these local declarations coalesced into a national declaration. Continental Congress unified them under one umbrella and named the “United Colonies” the United States of America. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a “motion for independency” on June 7th for “free and independent states.” Congress formed a committee to write up a declaration on June 11th, approved the resolution on July 2nd — the day it was announced in Philadelphia newspapers — and approved the written declaration announcing the resolution on July 4th, 1776, signing it on August 2nd. If the colonies were going to break from Britain their best chance of survival was to unite as one country, at least for military purposes. As Franklin punned, “We must all hang together, or surely we will hang apart.” The committee of five that Continental Congress assigned to write the Declaration included Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. They assigned the actual writing portion of the task to the youngest of the group, Jefferson (33), because of his reputation for penmanship and perhaps his proven disregard for the noose. “He was no Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from the hand of God,” wrote Maier, “but a man who had to prepare a written text with little time to waste and who … drew on earlier documents of his own and other people’s creation.” While Jefferson’s product lacked originality, it nonetheless became the most famous revolutionary document in world history, the Declaration of Independence. This articulate justification for the American stance shifted blame from Parliament, heretofore the usual target, directly onto the king. It was especially intended for other European eyes, such as the British-hating French, who might be enlisted as allies in the fight to come, and the Spanish. Real countries are diplomatically recognized by other countries — why ISIS isn’t likely to ever gain traction as a country.
The rebels did not have to look far for language or ideas. Jefferson borrowed heavily from his fellow Virginian George Mason’s preamble to that colony’s own declaration but drew his broader inspiration from the European Enlightenment. He tapped into the Radical Whig ideology of British resistors to tyranny such as Thomas Paine and John Locke (Chapter 7). Locke argued in the late 17th century for “natural rights” to life, liberty, and estate, at least for upper-class white males — very similar to Jefferson’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Closer to home, Sam Adams argued for the colonists’ right to life, liberty, and property in 1772. Radical English Whigs had long argued that “all men are created equal.” Jefferson quoted jurist Sir William Blackstone most among these Whigs. Prior to 1774, American rebels didn’t say or write anything more radical than former Whig Prime Minister William Pitt’s aforementioned speech against the Stamp Act in the House of Commons in 1765. Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn explained how colonists were especially well-versed in “country whig” ideology that traced to the English Civil War and Commonwealth of the mid-17th century, when Puritan republicans dethroned Charles I. They were eternally vigilant and suspicious of conspiracies on the part of the king and his ministers to usurp power from Parliament and read pamphlets to that effect. The American Revolution was a natural extension of the republican trajectory English Whigs had been on for awhile, in other words. Declarations, in general, were British, tracing to the aforementioned Magna Carta (1215) and Declaration of Rights (1689). America’s was a Whig revolution on the outskirts of the Empire, led by men familiar with what they saw as their British rights.
Some have even argued that Thomas Paine wrote the Declaration, but he was too controversial of a character for Congress to ascribe his name to it. For people who believe that (a theory based on his wording and use of capital letters), the mysterious handprint on the back of the document might be Paine’s. However, the writing seems in line with Jefferson’s.
Some misconceptions surround the Declaration. First, it did not create a new government the way the Constitution did in 1789, though it did create a new country independent from Britain as long as the rebels won. It was essentially a declaration of war against Britain. If the rebels had lost, it would just be a forgotten document in a civil war and we wouldn’t be calling its signers the Founders.
Second, while Jefferson argued that the rebels were exercising God-given rights, he took care to attribute their powers not to the Judeo-Christian God but rather the God of Nature. That was remarkable phrasing given that the colonies had far more Christians than Deists, even if Deism was disproportionally popular among the Founders themselves. Most representatives of the Continental Congress were Christian and Jefferson didn’t intend to exclude Christianity so much as to broaden beyond it. Some of the Founders recognized that America was a diverse country religiously and people of all faiths and beliefs would be welcome under the tent. They enshrined that principle legally in the Constitution eleven years later.
Third, Jefferson did not abolish slavery in his original draft, as is sometimes thought, though he did roundly condemn Britain for abetting a slave trade that he called an “execrable commerce.” Mostly, he was criticizing the British for inciting slaves to rise up against their American masters, as they started to do in 1774. In blaming the British king for the slave trade, Jefferson was anticipating (however lamely) the long-standing questions from England about why “we always hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes (Samuel Johnson).” The Declaration Committee probably dropped Jefferson’s condemnation of slavery to avoid drawing attention to the obvious hypocrisy of a slave-owner and other slave-owners condemning the trade. To his credit, Jefferson did un-hypocritically try to get slavery abolished in Virginia two years later. That’s perhaps why he changed Locke’s life, liberty, and estate to life, liberty, and happiness in the Declaration — to avoid future legal wrangling over slaves as property. Abraham Lincoln argued 80 years later that Jefferson snuck in the all men are created equal phrase to help future generations abolish slavery. Whatever the case, Jefferson’s fellow planters in South Carolina and Georgia would’ve refused to join a union without slavery. Those states were important economically and geographically, especially with Spain lurking as rulers of Florida at the time. But slavery was legal in all thirteen colonies/states as of 1776 and some northern politicians objected to abolition as well.
Indeed, University of Houston historian Gerald Horne argues in Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance & the Origins of the United States of America (2014) that avoiding a feared British Empire-wide abolition of slavery was one cause of the rebellion. England didn’t actually end up abolishing slavery until 1833 but, if Horne is right, not only was Jefferson hypocritical in trying to condemn slavery in the Declaration (or naïvely oblivious to his fellow patriots’ cause) but supporting slavery must be included along with others mentioned in this chapter as a significant cause of the American Revolution. In that line of reasoning, Americans fought in 1776 partly for the same reason Confederates rebelled in 1861. South Carolina and Georgia are key to Horne’s argument, as many slaveholders scared off by insurrections in Jamaica and Antigua migrated there, and they feared that freed slaves in Spanish-held Florida would lead a war against the southern British colonies. Then, once the war started, the British offered freedom to slaves in many areas who helped them fight the Rebels (see Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation). Historian Alan Taylor agrees with Horne’s assessment, stating that many masters were fighting for the liberty to enslave. Also, Britain’s highest court implied in 1772 that any colonial slaves who made their way to England would be freed, rendering imperial power even more threatening than it would’ve been due to just taxes, navigation acts, and religious tithes. Taylor writes that “patriots rallied support by associating the British with slaves, bandits, and Indians.” Horne and Taylor’s theory is worth considering especially regarding the southern war, but to the extent it’s true, it underscores the irony of the Revolutionary War leading to abolition in the North — nearly half the country.
Lest you think any of this uprising was easy or inevitable, or that the Founding Fathers were merely corny characters in old-fashioned powdered wigs, keep in mind that they were risking life and limb by committing their treasonous ideas to paper, however self-serving those ideas may have been. These Dead White Males now faced a formidable challenge just to maintain their temporary status as Alive White Males. You need look no further than the following remarks King George made toward Irish rebels after a failed uprising there in 1798:
You are to be hanged by the neck, but not until you are dead; for while you are still living your bodies are to be taken down, your bowels torn out and burned before your faces, your heads then cut off, and your bodies divided each into four quarters, and your heads and quarters to be then at the King’s disposal; and may the Almighty God have mercy on your souls.
That’s no slap on the wrist or “three strikes you’re out.” If the British had apprehended Jefferson and the other ringleaders, they likely would have torn their guts out with bayonets and burned them before beheading them. It seems that one of the privileges of being an 18th-century monarch was collecting body parts like a 20th-century serial killer.
These threats explain why the Declaration’s message was announced publicly, but the copies themselves were hidden for a time to protect the signers. And it explains why its first signatory, John Hancock, was courageous in signing so large, boasting, according to undocumented lore, that “hopefully the British ministry can read that without spectacles; let them double the reward!” To this day, Americans understand the signal to sign their name when someone says, “Give me your John Hancock.” Hancock witnessed King George’s coronation personally in London while there on business in 1763. However, as you may remember, the disgruntled merchant later had his sloop the Liberty impounded by customs officials in Boston, causing an angry mob to burn the customs boat and beat up the officials. By 1776, he could also add veteran tea-tosser and proud Declaration signer to his rebel résumé.
The Declaration, of course, only intended freedom for middle-class-and-above white males — not women, slaves, Indians, or property-less white men. Voting rights varied across the colonies but changed little in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution. The Founders would’ve rolled over in their graves like rotisserie chickens had they learned of future Americans warping their ideals on behalf of the “Great Unwashed.” Nonetheless, the Declaration of Independence, even more so than the Constitution that came eleven years later, planted a seed for more radical revolutions down the road. Its soaring language inspired groups like Suffragists, abolitionists, and modern civil rights leaders. The Founders didn’t have to make up new ideas from scratch, needing only to look toward English Whigs to demand the rights they saw themselves as entitled to. Likewise, future American women and minorities could turn the Founders’ words against the establishment, making their arguments more unassailable.
In his famous I Have a Dream speech in Washington in 1963, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t say, “We have a radical new idea that will take some getting used to because none of you have heard of it.” He said the Founders had issued a promissory note (the Declaration) and “it is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” This only made sense in a country where some sort of sacred obligation, however unfulfilled, was understood to have existed in the first place. No sacred obligation, no MLK. When King followed optimistically that “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt,” many white Americans understood what he meant. A foreigner in the audience might’ve wondered what justified his optimism.
Vietnamese independence leader Ho Chi Minh, the Black Panthers, and student protestors at Tiananmen Square (Beijing 1989) all quoted Jefferson’s Declaration. None quoted the Constitution or, for that matter, the dozens of manifestos from independence movements all around the world. The Constitution, though, would end up being the vehicle whereby disenfranchised groups actually gained their freedom in the U.S., not the Declaration. The Constitution, as mentioned, is what frames the American legal/political system. Yet, the Declaration is possibly more famous. While most people are familiar with when their country gained independence, most aren’t conscious of the actual piece of paper the proclamation was written on. Neither were most Americans until, as president, Jefferson cunningly drew attention to it. Only the more radically democratic French Declaration of the Rights of Man from 1789 has garnered anything like the fame of the Declaration of Independence, and it was partly inspired by the American version from the previous decade. Jefferson, in fact, helped the French draft their version.
Required Further Reading: Declaration of Independence (Jefferson)
Optional Reading & Viewing:
Common Sense (Paine)
American History Documents: Revolutionary Era (Indiana Univ.)
Patriot’s Day: Events Leading to the American Revolution (PBS)
Explore: Coming of the American Revolution (NEH)
Brian Levack, “Magna Carta & Anglo-American Constitutionalism,” (UT, Not Even Past)
Richard Greenberg, “America’s 100 Other Declarations of Independence,” (Politico, 7.17)