The Declaration of Independence
The British saw everything the colonists did to protect their rights as a great
outrage. Step by step, mutual confidence and affection had slipped away until
they were beyond all hope of recovery. As a result, Buckingham County called
for "a total and final separation from Great Britain. Then, perhaps "some
foreign power may, for their own interest, lend an assisting hand."
That became imperative once the colonists learned that George III had hired
German soldiers to help put down their "rebellion." Unless the colonists also
got outside support, they would surely be destroyed. It was do or die.
Not everyone agreed. In the end, about a fifth of all colonists remained loyal
to Britain. Nonetheless, on July 2nd, 1776, twelve colonies approved a
resolution that "these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and
independent states, that they are dissolved from all allegiance to the British
Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great
Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved." A week later New York made the
After approving independence, Congress spent two days editing a draft
declaration submitted by a committee and its draftsman, a thirty-three old
Virginian named Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's reputation as an eloquent writer
preceded his appearance in Congress a year earlier. Now, as the delegates
hacked away at his prose, changing words, cutting large passages, rewriting
much of the last paragraph, Jefferson suffered visibly. Later he complained
bitterly that the delegates had "mutilated" his text."
On July 4th, the delegates finished their editorial work and ordered the
declaration printed and distributed so it could be read "at the head of the
Army" and "proclaimed" throughout the land. In that way the people learned
that a new nation, the United States of America, had assumed a "separate and
equal station" among the "powers of the earth."
They celebrated independence by shouting "huzzah," shooting off canons, and
watching militia companies parade. Crowds tore down or destroyed symbols of
royalty on taverns and public buildings. In New York, people pulled a bronze
statue of George III from its pedestal and sent it off to Connecticut, where
patriotic women melted the statue down and used the metal to make bullets.
When Americans of 1776 cited the Declaration of Independence, they quoted the
last paragraph, the one in which Congress declared that "these united colonies
are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states." Little attention,
indeed, so far as I can tell, none at all, was given to the document's second
paragraph, which began: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all
men are created equal." Those ideas were expressed in many other contemporary
writings. But only the Declaration announced American independence.
And that was the news in 1776.
The American Revolution
To declare independence was one thing; to win it was another. While Congress
whittled away at Jefferson's prose, a massive British fleet arrived at New
York. After evacuating Boston, the British had assembled one of the largest
sea and land forces ever seen in North America to end this pesky colonial
rebellion once and for all. They almost succeeded.
In 1776, the American Army suffered one defeat after another. Washington broke
the downward spiral with small but significant victories at Trenton and
Princeton, New Jersey, in late December and early January. By then he had
convinced Congress that the American cause could not depend on local
militiamen, who would serve only for short periods and preferred to remain near
their homes. It needed an army of trained soldiers and officers willing to
sign up for long terms of service in return for concrete rewards including
bounties, respectable pay, and the promise of land at the war's end.
Thereafter the American cause was primarily defended not by men defending their
homes and families, as at Lexington and Concord, but by young, single men, both
white and black, with little if any property. Militiamen sometimes supported
the Continental Army, as at Saratoga, New York, where they gathered from all
over New England to stop an invasion from Canada under the British general
"Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne in October 1777.
The victory at Saratoga gave the signal for France, which was hesitant to join
the United States in a losing war, to negotiate an alliance with the Americans.
That tipped the odds against Britain. Thereafter, Britain concentrated its
attention on the South, where it set off a brutish, bloody civil war. Finally,
the British commander, Lord Charles Cornwallis, turned east and settled in at
Yorktown, Virginia, on the Chesapeake Bay, waiting for supplies and
Washington and a large body of French troops moved in and mounted a siege while
the French fleet prevented the British from rescuing Cornwallis. On October
18, some three years after Saratoga, Cornwallis surrendered. When the British
minister learned the news, he exclaimed, "Oh God, it is all over."
And so another group of negotiators gathered in Paris. The Americans,
including the wily Benjamin Franklin and honest John Adams, won extraordinarily
favorable terms. The trans-Appalachian west became part of the United States,
along with all the land between Canada and the northern border of Florida. And
Britain recognized the United States as an independent nation.
Not 1763, but 1776 turned out to mark the great watershed in American history.
How would life be different on the other side of that great divide? Now, at
least, the Americans could decide that themselves.