We are in the very midst of a Revolution, the most compleat, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the History of Nations.
—JOHN ADAMS TO WILLIAM CUSHING, June 9, 1776
The British invasion was choreographed by Lord Germain and his minions at Whitehall much like a transatlantic race. First off in early June were General William Howe and his 9,000 veterans of the Boston Siege, sailing out of Halifax, Betsy Loring’s blond hair blowing in the wind alongside the dapper if paunchy Howe, whose only worry was that Washington would refuse to make a stand in New York. Coming up from the South Carolina coast was a smaller fleet with 2,900 troops under the command of General Henry Clinton, who had just failed to capture Charlestown and was eager to avenge that setback in New York, where he had been born and raised as the son of the royal governor.1
Last off the mark was Admiral Richard Howe with by far the largest fleet, more than 150 ships with 20,000 troops and a six-month supply of food and munitions, by itself the largest armada to cross the Atlantic before the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. Lacking any semblance of modern communications technology, Germain had somehow managed to defy the insuperable obstacles of space and distance to coordinate this three-pronged assault so that it converged on Staten Island, if not simultaneously, at least within a matter of weeks. No transatlantic military operation of this scale and scope had ever been tried before, and the deftness with which it was carried off was eloquent testimony to the matchless prowess of the Royal Navy.
AS BRITISH MILITARY POWER WAS converging, American political power was spreading out. The resolution passed by the Continental Congress on May 15 was a clarion call to force an up-or-down vote in the colonial legislatures on the question of independence. Several colonies insisted that the question be forwarded to local governments at the county or town level, thereby extending the debate beyond the colonial capitals to the countryside. Massachusetts, for example, requested and received fifty-eight responses from towns and counties in late May and June, all answering the question whether “said Inhabitants … solemnly engage with their Lives and Fortunes to Support the [Continental] Congress in the Measure.”2
In British history there had been several occasions when Parliament had issued petitions or declarations designed to limit or terminate monarchical power, most famously during the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. So the legal precedent for disposing of kings who had allegedly violated the covenant with their subjects was well established. Indeed, if you were a king and were shown a document that began with the word “Whereas,” you should expect a list of grievances to follow and realize that your reign was likely to be of short duration. But there was no precedent for the extensive and far-reaching mandate that the Continental Congress was now requesting, which had the appearance of a full-scale popular referendum, something resembling the approach of an unbridled democracy.3
The British ministry and the Continental Congress were, in fact, looking at the crisis from different ends of the same telescope in ways that accurately reflected their contrasting political assumptions. The British approach was decisively imperial, top down fromGeorge III, through Lord Germain, to all those converging ships and men. The American approach was decidedly republican, bottom up, dependent upon broad-based popular consent from that enigmatic entity called “the people.” To repeat, nothing so sweepingly democratic had ever been attempted before, for the quite sound reason that a poll of the people was almost assured to produce a muffled or divided response or, worse, a chaotic cacophony.
What seems most historically significant, at least in retrospect, is how true each side was to the core values it claimed to be fighting for. It was the coercive power of an empire against the consensual potency of a fledging republic. History seldom provides pure embodiments of such contrasting political alternatives, but in the summer of 1776 they were both on display, and the military projections of both perspectives were committed to a collision at the mouth of the Hudson.
IF THE CONTINENTAL CONGRESS WAS asking for a referendum on American independence, and it was, the answer came back in the form of a landslide. Massachusetts lived up to its reputation as the cradle of the rebellion by delivering a nearly unanimous verdict. The town of Ashby put it most succinctly: “That should the honorable Congress, for the safety of the Colonies, declare them independent of Great Britain, the inhabitants of Ashby will solemnly engage with their lives and fortunes to support them in the measure.”4
Massachusetts had experienced the brunt of British military harassment over the past year and had also enjoyed the most long-standing tradition of robust participation at the town level, so it was not surprising that the turnout in the Bay Colony proved so huge and the verdict so resounding. Nevertheless, there is something almost elegiac about the picture of ordinary farmers, most accustomed to meeting for discussions about local property lines or regulations against roaming cows or pigs, gathering in the meetinghouse to debate the fate of America’s role in the British Empire.5
The residents of Topsfield, for example, observed that it was “the greatest and most important question that ever came before this town.” They went on to explain that only a few years earlier “such a question would have put us into surprise, and we apprehend, would have been treated with the utmost contempt.” But now the political landscape had changed dramatically: “She who was without any just cause, or injury done by these Colonies, has become their greatest Enemy. The unprovoked injuries these Colonies have received; the unjustifiable claims that have been made on the Colonies by the Court of Great Britain, to force us, and take away our substance from us, without our consent … have been cruel and unjust to the highest degree.”6
Topsfield, in fact, was in tune with multiple resolutions throughout the colonies in describing their embrace of independence as a recent and reluctant development forced upon them by the policies of George III and his ministers over the past year. “The time was, sir,” said the good people of Malden, Massachusetts, “when we loved the King and the people of Great Britain with an affection truly filial … but our sentiments are now altered forever.” Boston, predictably, weighed in with the most defiant response, describing any thought of reconciliation “to be as dangerous as it is absurd,” and “loyalty to the worst of tyrants as treason to our country.” Elaborate constitutional arguments were laid aside in favor of more elemental pronouncements of lost affection for a father figure who was sending the flower of the British army and navy, along with a hired team of Germanic mercenaries, to murder them in cold blood.7
This response validated the Adams strategy of delay while the fruits of independence ripened on the imperial vine. It was the accumulation of evidence about the belligerent intentions of George III and the British ministry that wore down old allegiances and made the decisive difference among ordinary Americans. The recruitment of foreign mercenaries was frequently mentioned as the ultimate stab in the back. Reading the resolutions that poured into the colonial legislatures and then the Continental Congress was like harvesting a political crop that had been planted and nourished by the king himself. A year earlier, independence had seemed some combination of impossible and improbable. Now it seemed inevitable.
The returns from Virginia were just as resolute as those from New England, though the voices beyond Williamsburg came from counties rather than towns because of the different demographics. The Virginia Convention, in fact, was the first off the mark, delivering its decisive commitment to independence even before receiving the request to do so by the Continental Congress. Again, like most of their fellow colonists, the Virginians cataloged the list of oppressive policies imposed by George III and his ministers in recent months, culminating in the dispatch of “Fleets and Armies … and the aid of foreign troops engaged to assist these destructive purposes.”
Virginia cited one grievance unique to its situation, which somewhat awkwardly raised the forbidden subject of slavery: “The King’s representative in this colony [Lord Dunmore] hath not only withheld all the powers of Government for operating for our safety, but having returned on board an armed ship, is carrying on a piratical and savage war against us, tempting our slaves by every artifice to resort to him, and training and employing them against their masters.” Dunmore had in fact issued a blanket offer of emancipation to all Virginia slaves who joined him, simultaneously igniting a primal fear of slave insurrection harbored by the planter class, while also exposing the moral contradiction south of the Potomac of slave owners wrapping themselves in the rhetoric of liberty.8
The resolutions from the Virginia Convention and the instructions from four Virginia counties were all pro-independence and anti-reconciliation, like those of their compatriots in New England, but they were also more philosophical and expansive, like written speeches rather than legal briefs. Their tone made it clear that Virginia regarded itself as the most important player in this political crisis, and the Virginians sent their resolutions to all the other colonies on the assumption that they set the standard for others to imitate. Given the primacy of Massachusetts in the struggle to date, this was a rather presumptive posture, but it came to the Virginians naturally.9
Thus far the referendum on independence had been remarkably harmonious, but the first dissonant sounds were sure to come from the middle colonies, most especially Pennsylvania and New York. Both colonies contained a significant number of loyalists and an even larger number of reluctant revolutionaries still grasping at the possibility of a last-minute political reconciliation. The legislatures in both colonies had instructed their delegates to the Continental Congress, as Pennsylvania put it, “to dissent from any notion leading to separation from the Mother Country.” And John Dickinson had used these instructions to block all of Adams’s efforts in the congress to create a united front for independence throughout the spring of 1776. What was not clear as summer—and the massive British fleet—approached was whether political opinion in Pennsylvania and New York had changed in response to the escalating military crisis.
The initial reactions of the Pennsylvania and New York legislatures suggested that it had not. In Pennsylvania, the Quaker elite remained resolutely committed to a political solution at all costs. And in New York, many of the wealthiest merchants remained outspokenly loyal to the crown. Despite the looming menace of the British invasion, both legislatures refused to alter instructions to their delegates to the Continental Congress.10
What then happened in both colonies exposed the latent political power of the bottom-up approach. In Pennsylvania, the radical mechanics of Philadelphia, Thomas Paine’s most ardent constituency, soon supported by petitions from four surrounding counties, challenged the authority of the current legislature to speak for the people. In effect, they argued that the elected representatives had forfeited their right to govern by ignoring the seismic shift in popular opinion on the independence question over recent months. And, in a dazzling display of political agility, these mechanics, artisans, and ordinary farmers mobilized enough supporters to create a provisional government dominated by pro-independence representatives. (Their key reform was to expand the electorate by limiting theproperty qualification to vote, thereby ensuring a comfortable majority in the constitutional convention and the new legislature.) One of their first acts was to register their “willingness to concur in a vote of the [Continental] Congress declaring the United Colonies free and independent States.”11
Something similar, though not quite as dramatically decisive, happened in New York. In New York City as in Philadelphia, organized associations of mechanics, again with the support of petitioners from surrounding counties, mounted a campaign to challenge the legitimacy of the elected government. In New York, however, opponents of independence were sufficiently powerful to block the calling of a constitutional convention on the grounds that the petitioners themselves were an extralegal body “without any authority whatsoever in the public transactions of the present times.” Though it was clear by mid-June that the provincial legislature was fighting a losing battle against a surging popular movement outside New York City, it resisted the inevitable until July 9, endorsing independence a full week after the Continental Congress made the dramatic move and even then lamenting “the cruel necessity which had rendered that measure unavoidable.” By then “cruel necessity” referred to the veritable forest of British masts bobbing up and down in Long Island Sound.12
And so, even in colonies where resistance to independence enjoyed considerable support, pro-independence forces captured the elected governments on the basis of superior organizational skills and greater political energy. If the spears being handed out to militia units on Long Island were an ominous sign for the military prospects of the Continental Army, the speed with which the supporters of independence seized control of the political agenda in Pennsylvania and New York was an ominous sign for the prospects of Great Britain’s imperial agenda.
As it turned out, all the new state governments in the former United Colonies eventually came under the control of dedicated patriots fully committed to American independence. This was not an accurate reflection of popular opinion as a whole, which was more divided, with perhaps a significant minority south of the Hudson wishing the crisis would somehow end, the armies disappear, so they could get on with their splendidly ordinary lives. But at the moment, political control rested with the more actively involved local leaders and citizens. And if their words are to be believed, their conversion and subsequent commitment to “The Cause” was a choice literally forced on them by the nonnegotiable policies of George III and that approaching flotilla of redcoats and foreignmercenaries.
JOHN ADAMS COULD NOT have imagined a better outcome. As the resolutions and petitions rolled into the Continental Congress in late May and June, they amounted to close to a unanimous consensus on independence. But as in the Sherlock Holmes short story, the dog that did not bark pleased him almost as much. Which is to say that all responses from the states stayed on point, meaning they focused on the core question of independence and did not append a complicating catalog of demands about ending slavery, granting women their rights, or removing property qualifications to vote. The prevailing attitude seemed to be that independence was the all-important immediate question and that collateral concerns about the shape of the American republic should be postponed for another day. As the citizens of Topsfield so nicely put it: “As innovations are always dangerous, we heartily wish that the ancient rules in the [Massachusetts] Charter might be strictly adhered to until the whole of the People of this Colony have liberty to express their sentiments in respect to that affair as fully as they have in the case of independence.”13
The only exception seemed to be the Philadelphia mechanics, who were busy writing a Pennsylvania constitution that called for the expansion of the franchise to include artisans and mechanics like themselves. But instead of clouding or complicating the independence question—the great Adams fear—adding propertyless men to the rolls of the citizenry only enlarged the pool of patriots. Indeed, without them Pennsylvania might well have remained a huge obstacle in the road to independence. Adams was so thrilled to get Pennsylvania into the fold that he temporarily abandoned his long-standing belief in the property qualification to vote: “The Province of Pennsylvania … will soon become an important Branch of the Confederation,” he wrote a friend in New York. “The large Body of the People will be possessed of more power and Importance, and a proud Junto of less. And yet Justice will I hope be done to all.”14
For nearly a year, Adams had imagined the arrival of this climactic moment, and in his mind’s eye he had pictured the proper sequence of events that would permit its orderly management. First, state constitutions, then a confederation of the states, then an alliance with France; then, and only then, once all these pieces were in place, independence would be declared. But now events were making a mockery of this orderly sequence. Up and down the Atlantic coast, new state constitutions were being debated, delegates to the Continental Congress were shuffling in and out of Philadelphia with new instructions from their state governments, and the British fleet was expected to arrive at New York at any moment. As Adams explained to Patrick Henry, he now realized that his hopes of managing a political explosion had always been a pipe dream. “It is now pretty clear,” he wrote on June 3, “that all these Measures will follow one another in rapid succession, and it may not perhaps be of much Importance which is done first.”15
It was also “pretty clear” that when history was happening at such breakneck speed, any effort at management was an illusion. Adams did not like that realization—it defied all his conservative instincts—but he had no choice but to accept it. And if he could not control events, he could at least record them for posterity—perhaps the ultimate form of control. “In all the Correspondencies that I have maintained,” he wrote to Abigail, “I have never kept a single Copy.… I have now purchased a Folio Book, in the first Page of which … I am writing this Letter, and intend to write [i.e., copy] all my Letters to you from this time forward.” He urged Abigail to do the same thing, “for I really think that your Letters are much better worth preserving than mine.”16
He had a keen sense of being present at the creation. As he explained to an old Boston colleague: “Objects of the most Stupendous Magnitude, Measures in which the Lives and Liberties of Millions, born and unborn are most essentially interested and now before Us. We are in the very midst of a Revolution, the most compleat, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the History of Nations.”17
In the crowded character of the moment, Adams could be excused for an overexcited assessment. But, in fact, he was not exaggerating. No republic—or confederation of republics—on this scale and magnitude had ever been attempted. Adams truly was living “in the very midst of a Revolution,” and in June 1776 he also felt as if he were standing in the center of a wind storm as the currents of history swept past him.
As Adams’s correspondence during those hectic weeks reveals, his mind was mostly occupied with his duties as chair of the Board of War and Ordnance. These involved several postmortems on what had gone wrong at the Battle of Quebec, questions about where to acquire sufficient supplies of sulfur and saltpeter for gunpowder, proposals for the creation of an infant American navy, and worries about the neglected defenses around Boston. Strangely, Adams paid almost no attention to the military buildup in New York, perhaps believing that the conference with Washington had settled all outstanding problems so that there was nothing to do now but trust in Washington’s leadership and wait for Howe’s fleet to arrive. At least part of his mind was on Abigail and their four children, who were living outside Boston amid a raging smallpox epidemic. On the political front, his chief focus was on sketching the outline for a new American foreign policy, with an eye toward attracting France as an invaluable European ally.18
He made no mention of his appointment to a five-person committee charged with drafting a document announcing American independence to the world. Such a committee seemed like a sensible idea because of the calendar of the congress. The vote on the Virginia Resolution, officially proposed by Richard Henry Lee on June 7, had been delayed until July 1, in deference to several delegations that were obliged to confer with their state legislatures before any binding vote on independence could be cast. If and when the Virginia Resolution passed, a document should be ready so that the congress could proceed without pause to publish the decision. Adams convened the committee to draft that document on June 11. The other members were Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. None of them regarded the assignment as particularly important. Depending on where you stood, the chief business was going on back in the state conventions, in the still-divided Pennsylvania and New York delegations at Philadelphia, and on the shorelines of Long Island and Manhattan.19
The obvious choice to draft the document was Benjamin Franklin, who was generally regarded as the most accomplished prose stylist in America. But Franklin refused, first taking refuge in a painful case of gout, then claiming that, on the basis of several bitter experiences, he had vowed never to write anything that would then be edited by a committee. Adams also declined the honor, explaining that his prominence as a leader of the radical faction in the congress would subject the document to greater scrutiny. He was overwhelmed as well by his more pressing duties as head of the Board of War and Ordnance. Jefferson was the next choice, in part because he was a Virginian and the resolution was coming from Virginia, in part because he was more innocuous than Adams. It would turn out to be one of the most consequential accidents in American history.20
JEFFERSON HAD RETURNED to his post at Philadelphia on May 14 after a five-month absence back at Monticello, his mansion-in-the-making just outside Charlottesville. His wife of four years was having a difficult pregnancy, his mother had died suddenly in March, and Jefferson himself was suffering from migraine headaches, the first occurrence of what proved to be a chronic condition. As soon as he arrived, he wanted to leave, believing that the main business was occurring in Williamsburg, where the Virginia Convention was drafting a new state constitution. “It is a work of the most interesting nature and such as every individual would wish to have his voice in,” he explained to a Virginia friend. “In truth, it is the whole object of the present controversy.” When Jefferson talked about “my country,” he was referring to Virginia, and he harbored a Virginia-writ-large view of America in which the momentous events now cresting in Philadelphia were a mere sideshow. Based on his correspondence of May and June, it appears the imminent battle at New York never even crossed his mind.21
Almost exactly a year earlier, he had made what might be called a provincial version of the grand entrance, arriving in Philadelphia aboard an ornate carriage called a phaeton, drawn by four horses and accompanied by three slaves. Within the carefully calibrated hierarchy of the planter class in Virginia, he did not make the top tier, in part because of his age—he was only thirty-two—and in part because he was a notoriously poor public speaker. At slightly over six foot two, with reddish blond hair and an erect posture described as “straight as a gun barrell,” he possessed the physical attributes of a Virginia grandee, but he had a weak and “reedy” voice that did not project in large spaces. He was also by disposition self-contained, some combination of aloof and shy, customarily standing silently in groups, with his arms folded tightly around his chest as if to ward off intruders.22
He had made his political reputation with his pen, chiefly with a pamphlet titled A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), in which he was one of the first to argue that Parliament lacked the authority not just to tax the American colonies but to legislate for them at all. (In hindsight, Summary View also contained some sharp criticisms of George III, an early rehearsal for the more expansive indictment in the Declaration of Independence.) Adams had immediately recognized the young Virginian as a kindred spirit within the radical faction of the Continental Congress, silent but staunch in committees, and a “penman” who could be called upon to draft reports. The leadership in the congress selected him to draft an address to George III titled Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms (1775), an important assignment that reflected Jefferson’s reputation as a literary craftsman who could make his greatest contribution behind the scenes.23
Jefferson’s selection to draft what would become the most famous and revered document in American history was, then, part of a prevailing pattern. He had become the unofficial draftsman of the Continental Congress. But it is important to recognize that the golden haze that eventually enveloped the Declaration had not yet formed. Its subsequent significance was lost on all the participants, including Jefferson himself. All assumed that more important business was going on elsewhere, either in other committees meeting in Philadelphia or, in Jefferson’s case, down in Williamsburg. What became the great creative moment was perceived by all concerned as a minor administrative chore.
Most probably, which is to say that historians are not sure, the full committee met at Franklin’s lodgings on or shortly after June 11 to discuss the content and shape of the document. After reaching agreement on its general framework, they handed the task of composition to Jefferson. Much later, when the historic significance of the Declaration had become clear, he claimed that he had “turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing,” nor had he “copied from any particular or previous writing.” While literally true, the remark was misleading and fed the emerging mythology of a solitary Jefferson, communing with the gods in some quasi-religious séance.24
In fact, he had before him, or at least in his mind’s eye, his recent draft of a new constitution for Virginia, which contained a long list of grievances against George III. His draft of the Declaration represented an expansion of that list, following a well-established formula enshrined in English history whenever a king needed to be restrained or deposed. Upon reading the published version of the Declaration, Edmund Pendleton, who was chairing the Virginia Convention, apprised Jefferson that the bill of indictment against George III in the draft constitution he had sent to Williamsburg had apparently “exhausted the Subject of Complaint against Geo. 3d. and [I] was at a loss to discover what the Congress could do … without copying, but find that you have acquitted yourselves very well on that score.” Jefferson had, in truth, been practicing the long grievances section of the Declaration ever since Summary View, had refined the draft in his version of Virginia’s constitution, and had then made his final revision for the Continental Congress. In that sense, he was the most experienced prosecutor the congress could have appointed to make the case against George III.25
Jefferson completed his draft of the Declaration sometime during the third week of June. (Adams later remembered, perhaps exaggerating, that it took him only “a day or two.”) He showed that draft to Adams and Franklin, two of the most prominent leaders in the congress, whose judgment he respected. They suggested only one change. Instead of “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,” they made the truths “self-evident,” an alteration that Jefferson apparently accepted as an improvement.26
Then the committee placed the document before the full congress on June 28. (The famous painting by John Trumbull that hangs in the Capitol Rotunda, titled The Declaration of Independence, depicts this moment, not July 4 as most viewers presume.) A debate then ensued (July 1–2) on the Virginia Resolution for independence, in which John Dickinson spoke eloquently for delay, repeating the moderate mantra that diplomacy had not yet run its course, that secession from the British Empire meant war against the most formidable military power on the planet, and that any attempt to conjure up the vision of an independent American republic produced only a series of political nightmares in his mind. Unfortunate for Dickinson’s message, indeed fatal for his increasingly anachronistic agenda, was the quite real nightmare of British troops and ships assembling on Staten Island, which did not need to be conjured up. Adams argued, in his best Ciceronian style, that the time for American independence had obviously arrived. (It was the most significant speech in Adams’s long political career but was delivered without notes, and no record of it exists.) The vote was nearly unanimous, 12–0, with the New Yorkers abstaining on the grounds that they were still bound by the instructions of their legislature. Then the congress immediately put itself into a committee-of-the-whole format in order to debate Jefferson’s draft.27
Over the next two days, the committee made eighty-five revisions or deletions in the text, a rather remarkable editorial feat that, most historians have concluded, improved the clarity and cogency of the final document. Jefferson, on the other hand, sat silently and sullenly throughout the debate, regarding each revision as a defacement. At one point Franklin leaned over to console him, reminding Jefferson that this was the reason he never wrote anything that would be edited by a committee. On July 4 the congress approved its revised version, and the Declaration of Independence was sent to the printer for publication. There was no signing ceremony on that day, as Jefferson later claimed. The parchment copy was signed by most members on August 2.28
The major editorial changes all occurred in the lengthy grievances section of the document, which the delegates focused on for the understandable reason that it provided the political and legal rationale for independence; this was, after all, the whole point of the Declaration. The delegates found three of the charges against George III either too Virginian or too Jeffersonian for their taste.
First, Jefferson accused George III of waging “cruel war against human nature itself, by rejecting efforts to end the slave trade,” then “exciting those very people [i.e., slaves] to rise in arms against us … by murdering the people on whom he has also obtruded them.” This was Jefferson’s attempt to rephrase Virginia’s somewhat tortured claim that the slave trade, and implicitly slavery itself, was the fault of George III, and that he was also to blame for Lord Dunmore’s offer of emancipation to Virginia’s slaves, a purportedly criminal act.
This might have made sense in the Old Dominion, where the plantations were overstocked; so ending the slave trade was popular among the Tidewater elite, though ending slavery itself was unimaginable. But in the Deep South, most especially in South Carolina, ending the slave trade was a deal breaker. And for all the states north of the Potomac, the very inclusion of slavery in the bill of indictment was inadmissible, even more so when coupled with condemnation of Dunmore’s emancipation proposal, which contradicted the antislavery implications of the paragraph. Best to delete the entire passage and let slavery remain the unmentionable elephant in the center of the room.29
Second, Jefferson attempted to insert one of his own fondest beliefs into the draft, which he had developed more fully in Summary View. He called it the doctrine of “expatriation,” and it claimed that the original English migrants to America came “at the expense of our own blood and treasure; unassisted by the strength of Great Britain … but that submission to their parliament was no part of our constitution.” In Jefferson’s scenario, the American colonists were all descendants of the Saxon race, itself with origins in theGermanic forests, where all coercive forms of government were rejected as despotic, so all claims of royal or parliamentary authority over American colonists were latter-day violations of the original understanding. This represented a rather preposterous rewriting of American colonial history in the once-upon-a-time mode, and the Continental Congress struck it out as an embarrassing piece of romantic fiction.30
Third, and finally, the end of Jefferson’s draft featured a highly emotional condemnation of George III for abdicating his role as affectionate parent by “sending over not only soldiers of our common blood but Scotch & foreign mercenaries to invade and destroy us.” Parental love had somehow been replaced by despotic cruelty: “These facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, and manly spirit bids us to renounce forever these unfeeling brethren.” Jefferson was trying to give expression to the multiple resolutions from state, town, and county precincts that lamented the sudden transformation of George III from benevolent monarch into belligerent tyrant. That really was the dominant message conveyed by ordinary Americans, and its inclusion suggests that Jefferson had been reading the resolutions pouring into the congress in response to the May 15 request. But the Jeffersonian version of the message struck most members of the congress as excessively sentimental. So it too was deleted.31
THE MOST IMPORTANT OCCURRENCE during the editorial debate within the congress was an event that did not happen, another dog that did not bark. Fixated as they were on the long grievances section, the delegates ignored altogether the first two paragraphs of the text, which they presumably regarded as Jefferson’s rhetorical overture, the flamboyant windup before the real pitch. They made no comment whatsoever on the following words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.32
Since these were destined to become the most important fifty-five words in American history, the seminal statement of the “American Creed,” and perhaps the most inspiring words in all of modern history, it is difficult for us to comprehend the total indifference and inattention of the delegates. But that is because we possess the advantage of hindsight and therefore realize what the natural rights section of the Declaration would eventually become. Starting in the 1790s, several prominent Americans began to notice the implications of Jefferson’s language, but the culmination of the creeded interpretation of the document was articulated by Abraham Lincoln in 1859:
All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecaste, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, and so to embalm it there, that today and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.33
But what Lincoln, surely with tongue in cheek, called “a merely revolutionary document” was for all the delegates in Philadelphia the whole point of the exercise and the major reason why the document is called the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln’s phrase “embalm it there” implies that Jefferson knew what he was doing, but there is no evidence that he did. His primary attention over the ensuing weeks was devoted to ensuring that his unedited draft—that is, before it was “mangled” by his fellow delegates—was preserved for posterity, but that meant focusing exclusively on his language in the grievances section.34
Nevertheless, what Jefferson had done, albeit inadvertently, was to smuggle the radical implications of the American Revolution into the founding document, planting the seeds that would grow into the expanding liberal mandate for individual rights that eventually ended the property qualification to vote, ended slavery, made women’s suffrage inevitable, and sanctioned the civil rights of all racial minorities. Adams had worried himself sick that all the state, county, and town resolutions of May and June would raise this radical agenda, and in the process complicate the all-important vote on independence. Now Jefferson’s lofty and lyrical prose had surreptitiously inserted the latent implications of the American Revolution into the Declaration so deftly that no one noticed. Before he died in 1826, Jefferson had begun to glimpse ever so faintly what he had done, insisting that “Author of the Declaration of Independence” top the list of achievements engraved on his tombstone.
As the core statement of America’s most elemental principles, the natural rights section of the Declaration has stood the test of time, just as Lincoln predicted it would. And it has done so for reasons that Lincoln was one of the first to fully comprehend.
For while the idea that governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed is clearly indebted to John Locke’s formulation of the doctrine and “the right of revolution” that followed from it in his Second Treatise on Government (1688), a more utopian dimension lurks in the second paragraph of the Declaration that is very much an expression of Jefferson’s imagination. It envisions a perfect world, at last bereft of kings, priests, and even government itself. In this never-never land, free individuals interact harmoniously, all forms of political coercion are unnecessary because they have been voluntarily internalized, people pursue their own different versions of happiness without colliding, and some semblance of social equality reigns supreme. As Lincoln recognized, it is an ideal world that can never be reached on this earth, only approached. And each generation had an obligation to move America an increment closer to the full promise, as Lincoln most famously did. The American Dream, then, is the Jeffersonian Dream writ large, embedded in language composed during one of the most crowded and congested moments in American history by an idealistic young man who desperately wished to be somewhere else.
IN ONE OF THOSE chronological coincidences that would not be believed in fiction, the first wave of the British fleet carrying General William Howe and his 9,000 troops was sighted off the Long Island coast on June 28, the day the drafting committee presented the Declaration to the Continental Congress. As the fleet approached, sentries in the Continental Army were stunned by its size: 113 ships led by Howe’s flagship, Greyhound. “I thought all London was afloat,” exclaimed one of the sentries. Little did he know that Admiral Howe was coming on with an even larger fleet.35
After an initial probe of the Long Island coast, General Howe decided that Staten Island was a more secure location. Troops began to disembark there on July 2, the day the congress voted on independence, and completed the landing on July 4, the day the Declaration was approved and sent out to the world. As the Howes were soon to discover, by arriving just as the climactic vote on independence was cast, their preferred role as peace commissioners became decidedly more problematic, because now they would not be asking American colonists to avoid taking that fateful step, but rather asking Americans who no longer regarded themselves as colonists to reconsider their decision.
Although Washington had been worried about New York’s tactical vulnerability for weeks, the actual presence of the enormous British force was now striking home much in the manner of his worst nightmare. He put his entire army on alert, assuming that Howe intended to attack immediately, especially after loyalist spies had apprised him of the location and unfinished condition of the American defenses. He did not yet realize that Howe had prudently decided to wait for his brother’s arrival with a much larger force.
The political drama reaching a climax in Philadelphia now had its military equivalent in New York, with the sharp edge of life-and-death danger building up for all to see. Obviously shaken, and not yet aware of what was transpiring in Philadelphia, Washington summoned up his own rhetorical energies in his General Orders on July 2, in his own way matching Jefferson’s visionary message and tone:
The time is now at hand which must probably determine, Whether Americans are to be, Freeman, or Slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their Houses and Farms are to be pillaged and destroyed, and they consigned to a State of Wretchedness from which no human efforts will probably deliver them. The fate of the unborn Millions will now depend, under God, on the conduct of this army.… Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and show the whole world, that a Freeman contending for Liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth.36
This was Washington’s own declaration, rendered pressingly relevant by the recognition that Jefferson’s Declaration would be quickly forgotten if the war was lost that same summer. The ideals that Jefferson had so eloquently articulated were designed to be universal and eternal. But whether they would endure forever or die an early death over the next few weeks was a question soon to be decided by soldiers on the battlefield and not by an inspired young statesman in his study.