Declaring Independence for America
Starting in 1763, England and her American colonies began to irritate each other almost incessantly. Once blood was spilled at Lexington and Concord, war became inevitable, even though there were some efforts on both sides to avoid it. Despite the fact that fighting had actually started, in 1776 there were many in the Continental Congress, and throughout the colonies, who were still not all that keen on breaking away completely from Britain. The radicals who were ready for a break needed a spark to light a fire under those who were still reluctant to act. They got two sparks.
Sparking an interest
The first motivator was a political blunder by the English government. The Brits needed more fighters, but English citizens did not fall all over themselves trying to sign up, since being an English soldier often meant brutal treatment, poor pay and food, and the chance someone might kill you.
So British officials hired the services of the soldiers who worked for a half-dozen German princes. Eventually, they rented about 30,000 of these soldiers, called “Hessians,” after the principality of Hesse-Kassal, where many of them came from.
The Americans were outraged at this. It was one thing for the mother country and her daughters to fight, but it was a real affront for Mom to go out and hire foreigners to do her killing for her. (Eventually, about 12,000 Hessians deserted and remained in America after the war as citizens of the new country.)
The second spark came from the pen of a 38-year-old tomato-faced Englishman with a big nose. Thomas Paine arrived in the colonies in November 1774. He had been a seaman, a schoolmaster, a corset maker, and a customs officer, and wasn’t too successful at any of these occupations. With the help of Benjamin Franklin, Paine got a job as editor of a Philadelphia magazine.
On Jan. 10, 1776, Paine anonymously published a little pamphlet in which he set forth his views on the need for American independence from England. He called it “Common Sense.”
It was straightforward, clear, and simple in its prose. Basically, it said the king was a brute, with no reasonable mandate to rule in England, let alone America; that England was a leech feeding off the back of American enterprise; and that it was time for the colonies to stand up on their own and become a beacon of freedom for the world.
The pamphlet electrified the country. It sold 120,000 copies within a few months, and eventually sold a staggering 500,000 copies, or one for every five people in America, including slaves. (Paine never made a dime from it, having patriotically signed over royalties to Congress.) It was read by soldiers and politicians alike, and it shifted the emphasis of the fight to a struggle for total independence, and not just for a new relationship with England.
On June 7, 1776, Congress began to deal with the issue in earnest. A delegate from Virginia, Richard Henry Lee, prepared a resolution that the colonies “are, and of a right ought to be, free and independent states.” A few days later, the representatives appointed a committee of five to draft a formal declaration backing Lee’s resolution, just in case Congress decided to adopt it.
The committee consisted of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, a Connecticut lawyer named Roger Sherman, a New York iron mine owner named Robert Livingston, and a 33-year-old red-haired lawyer from Virginia named Thomas Jefferson. (The committee got on well enough, although Sherman apparently had a habit of picking his teeth, which provoked Franklin into warning that if he didn’t stop it, Franklin would play his harmonica.)
Jefferson was selected to be the chief writer. Why? As Adams explained it to him when Jefferson tried to decline, “Reason first: You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspect, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third: You can write 10 times better than I can.” “Well,” replied Jefferson, “if you are determined, I will do as well as I can.”
Jefferson set to work at a portable desk he had designed himself, and a few weeks later produced a document that has come to be regarded as one of the most eloquent political statements in human history. True, he exaggerated some of the grievances the colonists had against the king. True, he rather hypocritically declared that “all men are created equal,” ignoring the fact that he and hundreds of other Americans owned slaves, whom they certainly did not regard as having been created equal.
Overall though, it was a magnificent document that set forth all the reasons America wanted to go its own way — and why all people who wanted to do the same thing should be allowed to do so. A bit of tinkering by Franklin and the document was presented to Congress on June 28.
At the demand of some Southern representatives, a section blaming the king for American slavery was taken out. Then, on July 2, Congress adopted the resolution submitted by Lee. “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch [instant of time] in the history of America,” predicted John Adams. He missed it by two days, because America has chosen to remember July 4 instead. That’s the day Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence, or as one member put it, “Mr. Jefferson’s explanation of Mr. Lee’s resolution.”
With Independence declared, Congress now had to find a substitute form of government. Starting in August 1776, and continuing into 1777, members finally came up with something they called the Articles of Confederation. Basically, it called for a weak central government with a virtually powerless president and congress. Most powers to do key things, such as impose taxes, were left to the states. Even so, it took the states until 1781 to finish ratifying the articles, so reluctant were they to give up any of their power. It was a poor excuse for a new government, but it was a start. In the meantime, the new country was looking for a few foreign friends.