On July 3, 1776 – the Second Continental Congress having the day before enacted a resolution declaring the political ties between United Colonies and Great Britain “totally dissolved” – an excited John Adams, a delegate from the Massachusetts Bay colony wrote a letter to his wife Abigail, then living with their children outside Boston.
Adams was a dour man, given to bouts of depression and known for his generally bleak outlook. He was also one of the finest legal minds in North America, having won an acquittal for the British soldiers accused of perpetrating the Boston Massacre by appealing to the supremacy of the law over the emotion of the moment.
He was, as the other continental delegates learned, not a man to be trifled with. The enthusiasm and hope he expressed in his letter to his wife was, therefore, an uncharacteristic expression of emotion from the man whom no less than Thomas Jefferson would refer to as “The Colossus of Independence.”
The breaking of ties with Great Britain should, Adams wrote, be regarded as the most memorable moment “in the history of America.” It should – and he wrote he believed it would be celebrated by the generations of Americans who would follow – “as the great anniversary festival” to be “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”
It’s easy to see how right he was, now, 250 years later. At the time Adams wrote to Abigail, victory on the field of battle was less than assured. Washington’s Army was on those very days being chased out of New York by the British, splitting the colonies in two. If captured by troops loyal to the crown, any man who had affixed his name to Mr. Jefferson’s Declaration presumed he would be hanged without trial for being a traitor to the King.
Indeed, as history records, several signers who pledged “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” in pursuit of American independence were called upon to pay that bill, in part or in full. Their cause was not an easy one for, in winning, they changed the face of the world.
The enormity of what the founders accomplished is discussed too little today. Not only did they eventually defeat on the battlefield what was then the greatest military power on Earth, they did it through careful, precise, one might even say legal means. Washington was originally sent into the field as a defensive measure, following the British attempt to seize stores and munitions hidden by the colonists at Lexington and Concord. After July 2, 1776, a resolution having been approved by what then passed for the national legislature, the colonists who had declared themselves a new nation believed they were free to pursue a course of their own under a government of their own.
A British friend of mine of longstanding likes to describe the American War for Independence thusly:
A group of Englishmen raised an army to defend their rights as Englishmen against the tyranny imposed by a Hanoverian King using Hession mercenaries to fight his battles for him.
He has a point. The good guys were the ones defending the English notion of rights and the social contract as explained by the leading philosophers of the Enlightenment like John Locke against the tyranny of rules imposed by the old order as represented by King George III, whose father – King George II – was the last British monarch to have been born outside the United Kingdom.
You see this clearly when you parse the Declaration. Everyone knows the familiar phrase like “When in the course of human events,” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and, most famously, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Too few people these days read the whole thing and understand what it means, which, while the pundit class repeatedly points to the so-called current dangers imperiling American Democracy, might be reassuring.
The Declaration lays out the case for things we now take for granted, like the idea of natural law coming from what Mr. Jefferson ascribed as “Nature’s God.” We take from this the idea that some things are empirically true and “self-evident” without requiring documentation or experimentation to prove it so. It was, for its time, a bold assertion that leads directly to the idea mankind has – or had been given – certain rights which did not come from government and which government could not lawfully, morally prevent us from exercising.
These rights, some of which are enumerated in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the essential building blocks of the world we live in today. We regard those nations who follow us in this regard as friends and allies while those who oppose the idea these rights are free, not given by government (and, therefore, potentially taken away by them) as those which should be regarded warily.
In part, the Declaration leads like an indictment. It is a bill of particulars, and in this, we may see Adams’ influence on Jefferson, describing just how it is “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.”
As the Declaration puts it, governments “are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” which King George III lost by becoming a tyrant. How did he do this? Let’s look at a few, as put forward in the document:
These are just some of the charges. They are resolute in their presentation and Mr. Jefferson and the other members of the Second Continental Congress were no less firm in explaining the method of redress:
“(W)henever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
Then they went further:
“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly, all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”
In sum, the King, having broken “the law of nature and nature’s God” abdicated his authority to lead. It was, therefore, necessary to replace him, not just with another monarch but with a new system grounded in the idea that power ultimately resides with the people. That’s the revolution. It’s not just that America broke free from Great Britain but that all people had – or were destined to in the fullness of time – break free of the rule of those governments whose legitimacy could be contested because they had become tyrannical. That’s what Adams called upon us to revere and solemnize and what we celebrate today.