World Civilizations

AMERICA: A Narrative History

From Empire to Independence
Chapter Five



Within three months more than 150,000 copies of Paine's pamphlet were in circulation, an enormous number for the time. "Common Sense is working a powerful change in the minds of men," George Washington said. A visitor to North Carolina's Provincial Congress could "hear nothing praised but Common Sense and its independence." One by one the provincial governments authorized their delegates in the Continental Congress to take the final step: Massachusetts in January 1776, South Carolina in March, Georgia and North Carolina in April, Virginia in May. On June 7 Richard Henry Lee of Virginia moved a resolution "that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states . . . " Lee's resolution passed on July 2, a date that "will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America," John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail. The memorable date, however, became July 4, 1776, when the Congress adopted Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, a statement of political philosophy that retains its dynamic force to the present day.

JEFFERSON'S DECLARATION Jefferson's summary of the prevailing political sentiment, prepared on behalf of a committee composed of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston, was an eloquent restatement of John Locke's contract theory of government--the theory, in Jefferson's words, that governments derived "their just Powers from the consent of the people," who were entitled to "alter or abolish" those that denied their "unalienable rights" to "life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." The appeal was no longer simply to "the rights of Englishmen" but to the broader "laws of Nature and Nature's God." But at the same time the Declaration implicitly supported the theory that the British Empire was a federation united only through the crown. Parliament, which had no proper authority over the colonies, was never mentioned by name. The enemy was a king who had "combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws . . . ." The document set forth "a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States." The "Representatives of the United States of America," therefore, declared the thirteen "United Colonies" to be "Free and Independent States."

"WE ALWAYS HAD GOVERNED OURSELVES So it had come to this, thirteen years after Britain acquired domination of North America. In explaining the causes of the Revolution, historians have advanced many theories and explanations: trade regulation, the restrictions on western lands, the tax burden, the mounting debts to British merchants, the fear of an Anglican bishop, the growth of a national consciousness, the lack of representation in Parliament, ideologies of Whiggery and the Enlightenment, the evangelistic impulse, the abrupt shift from a mercantile to an "imperial" policy after 1763, class conflict, revolutionary conspiracy. Each of them separately and all of them together are subject to challenge, but each contributed something to collective grievances that rose to a climax in a gigantic failure of British statesmanship. A conflict between British sovereignty and American rights had come to a point of confrontation that adroit statesmanship might have avoided, sidestepped, or outflanked. Irresolution and vacillation in the British Ministry finally gave way to stubborn determination to force an issue long permitted to drift. The colonies, conditioned by the Whig interpretation of history, saw these developments as the conspiracy of a corrupted oligarchy--and finally, they decided, of a despotic king--to impose an "absolute Tyranny."

Perhaps the last word on how it came about should belong to an obscure participant, Levi Preston, a Minute Man from Danvers, Massachusetts. Asked sixty-seven years after Lexington and Concord about British oppression, he responded, as his young interviewer reported later: " `What were they? Oppressions? I didn't feel them.' 'What, were you not oppressed by the Stamp Act?' `I never saw one of those stamps, and always understood that Governor Bernard put them all in Castle William. I am certain I never paid a penny for one of them.' `Well, what then about the tea-tax?' `Tea-tax! I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard.' `Then I suppose you had been reading Harrington or Sidney and Locke about the eternal principles of liberty.' `Never heard of 'em. We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts's Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack.' `Well then, what was the matter? and what did you mean in going to the fight' `Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn't mean we should.' " Tindall, George Brown and David E. Shi. AMERICA: A Narrative History. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996.


World Civilizations

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