A Declaration in the Shadow of Defeat
“The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind,” wrote Thomas Paine. “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth.” In the last days of 1775, the jubilation stirred by American heroics at Lexington and Concord, and Bunker Hill faded into harsh winter. The American invasion against the British in Canada met with failure beneath the walls of Quebec City when General Richard Montgomery, who had successfully taken Fort St. Johns and Montreal, was killed; Benedict Arnold wounded; and Daniel Morgan taken prisoner by the redcoats. British armies stood poised to invade New York through the Champlain valley, and from the sea. The president of the Continental Congress reported, “Our Affairs are hastening to a Crisis and the approaching campaign will in all probability determine forever the fate of America.” Such was the impending crisis which led to the Declaration of Independence.
In the wake of the disaster at Quebec, Thomas Paine published Common Sense. Paine renounced reconciliation with Great Britain and its tyrant king. He expounded upon the case for independence, the “bounteous change that would be to the benefit of generations yet unborn.” Paine’s pamphlet became the talk of the colonies, and the Continental Congress heard that talk. Word that King George sought German mercenaries with which to impose his will on America, and the terms of the American Prohibitory Act—another retaliatory measure designed to cutoff trade, shut down business, and endanger American shipping—augmented the voices for independence. Congress quickly came to an agreement with a French firm to provide oil, tobacco, and other provisions in exchange for arms and ammunition. The loss of significant portions of two armies enlarged the need for French supplies, French shipping, and French aid—none of which could be expected if a reconciliation with Britain remained a possibility. Congress had to declare independence in order to remain in the war.
In June Richard Henry Lee introduced in Congress a resolution declaring in favor of independence. While many of the colonies clamored for independence, others had not yet embraced that extremity. Congress recessed, appointing a committee to draft a declaration of independence. Jefferson completed the primary draft of the document—the statement of the American Cause. Although many expressions within the declaration can be traced to James Harrington’s Oceana, and John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, the sentiment sprang from the recognition that government exists to serve the needs of the people, rather than that the people exists to serve the whims of the government.
When Congress reconvened to discuss the declaration, John Dickinson rose and spoke for two hours in favor of reconciliation. He warned against bringing France into the war, and favored the protection of Great Britain for prosperity and security. John Adams began a lengthy response, during which a storm of thunder and lightning rolled through Philadelphia. Accompanied by crashes of thunder, Adams declared for independence. He emphasized the necessity of foreign assistance for victory—and which would not be forthcoming without a separation from England. Nearly every member of Congress spoke upon the subject. While the delegates spoke, Howe’s ships approached the coast of New York. The New York legislature packed up at Howe’s approach, leaving its congressional delegates without direction on how to vote on the matter of independence. The remaining twelve colonies voted unanimously for independence. Nevertheless, a number of the individual delegates voted against independence. Dickinson resigned after the vote.
Congress soon approved the Declaration of Independence after making numerous changes to Jefferson’s draft. John Adams wrote to his wife that the acceptance of the Declaration of Independence “will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great Anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp, shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forever.” Of course Adams knew that the nation would pay a steep cost in blood and toil to maintain the Declaration; he saw beyond the immediate difficulties. “[T]hrough all the gloom, I can see the rays of light and glory; I can see that the end is more than worth all the means, and that posterity will triumph…” Perhaps once source of Adams’ optimism springs from the inspiring words of the document itself and the aspirations of the American Cause they proclaim:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable 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…
Abraham Lincoln referred to the Declaration of Independence as words “fitly spoken,” an “apple of gold” which the Constitution was designed to protect. The ideals of the Declaration--the American Cause--were truly revolutionary in an age of kings and princes. Those principles remain the foundation of our liberty, the principles for which our forefathers pledged their blood, treasure and sacred honor.