July 8, 2018 Independence Day - Captain Paul Laedlein, U.S. Navy (retired)
Author Joseph Ellis has written; “no event in American history which was so improbable at the time, has seemed so inevitable in retrospect, as the American Revolution.
What has the look of a foreordained unfolding of God’s will was in reality an improvisational affair in which sheer chance, pure luck, and decisions made in the crucible of military and political crises determined the outcome”.
Ours was the first successful colonial rebellion in history and has resulted in the longest lasting republic in history. It was a stunning achievement.
This was not a social struggle of deprived and underprivileged masses against an entrenched elite. Nor was it a revolt of an oppressed people attempting to throw off the chains of imperialism.
Rather it was a transformational change from a colonial society whose governing power is derived from God and King to a free republic whose governing power is derived from ordinary people. That was a very idealistic vision in 1776 and a very dicey proposition to say the least.
Based on the military history of the Revolution, and it was only the military history that made victory possible, had the British more aggressively pressed their advantage, the war would have been over in the first year. Nipped in the bud.
And the leaders, our founding fathers, in their powdered wigs and short britches would have been tracked down, tried for treason, and hung. Washington at Valley Forge is said to have rubbed his neck and pondered aloud how it would feel to be fit with a noose.
The founders were comfortable, well-educated, affluent gentlemen enjoying the best of American colonial life. And had the rebellion never been undertaken, an independent American nation probably would have eventually developed anyway within the protection of the British Empire in a similar way as Canada or Australia.
So why did they do it? What convinced them to agree “with a firm reliance on the protection of providence to mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” To commit high treason.
But I get ahead of myself.
It’s November 9th 1620. After a harrowing 3000 mile journey, leaking, over-burdened and unable to beat westward around the elbow of Cape Cod, The Mayflower runs north along the coast toward shelter in Provincetown Harbor. Onboard, a furious uproar ensues. They have no authorization to settle anywhere but the lower Hudson River.
The 102 passengers are deeply divided between the pious Pilgrims and the commercial adventurers who have no desire to live in a religious community. But both sides recognize that their very survival depends on an agreement to work together.
The next day they hammer out what will later be known as the Mayflower Compact.
Not to make too much of the Mayflower Compact, it was a brief pragmatic document. At its core it stated merely that they agreed to “solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation”.
That agreement was unique in that it was created in the absence of Royal authority (there was no representative of the King on the Mayflower). In order to gain the support of their secular partners, the Pilgrims agreed to a system of governance based on civil consent rather than either divine or Royal decree and both sides agreed to submit to laws drawn up by duly elected officials.
They agreed to disagree and yet compromise to create the first democratic government in America.
During the next century and a half, as the colonies rapidly developed and survival gave way to prosperity, Americans came to derstand themselves to be richly blessed.
They were fully aware that they were already freer, more equal, more prosperous, and less burdened by their colonial power (slavery, indentured servitude, and the position of women notwithstanding) than any other people at the time.
The diverse colonies and their two million Royal subjects were on the very edge of western civilization and also on the very edge an enormous undeveloped continent with what appeared to be limitless resources and opportunities.
It was also the Age of Enlightenment and its influence spread like wildfire everywhere in the western world but was nowhere more promising than in America. The Enlightenment embodied a range of concepts based on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy.
It came to advance ideals like liberty, tolerance, fraternity, and constitutional government. It included values such as civic virtue, unselfish citizenship, frugality, and devotion to the common good.
The notion of a republic founded on such ideals and values (known then as republicanism) was already present in 18th century British society. It was just seen as being a glorious refinement of benevolent monarchy.
In America, far removed from direct British rule, these factors combined to create a unique political, societal, and cultural mosaic. A kind of American character began to emerge.
Outside of the rigid British class structure, ordinary Americans could, through hard work and personal initiative, gain unprecedented respectability and social mobility. They could own land, pick up and move, start businesses, and participate in politics.
Liberty, in the hands of ordinary people, released powerful impulses and transformed the social, cultural, and economic landscape of the country. Liberty became the most treasured resource in America.
But colonial expansion also brought European conflicts to America. And in 1763, after having spent a fortune on the French and Indian War, Parliament considered taxing the colonies to cover the cost of a standing army in America.
The colonists considered themselves loyal to the King but not subject to Parliament (whose members represented only citizens in Britain). Modest trade tariffs had been levied before by London but funds for colonial government expenses had always been voted and appropriated by colonial assemblies.
The very idea of a standing British army in the colonies much less taxation without representation was seen clearly as an intolerable encroachment of tyranny. Protests and active resistance followed but independence was never contemplated.
A series of taxes, including the Stamp Act and the famous Tea Tax, followed with increasingly strong resistance; riots, boycotts, and a huge tea party. A gaping rift developed between Britain and the colonies.
The government in London was increasingly seen as notoriously corrupt and hopelessly decadent, hostile and dangerous to liberty. In turn the colonists were seen as uncouth provincials, rabble, ungrateful and unmannered. Even the term ‘American’ became a slur.
That England had a deliberate and systematic plan to reduce the colonists to slavery became a matter of faith.
The Intolerable Acts, passed in 1774 after the Boston Tea Party were the Pearl Harbor of the American Revolution, uniting the colonies in opposition.
The Continental Congress was convened to try to persuade Parliament to relent. Even after the battles of Lexington and Concord and the defeat of British forces at Bunker Hill in Spring 1775, the Continental Congress appealed directly to the King, pledging loyalty to the crown and asserting their rights as British citizens. George III refused and declared the colonies to be in rebellion.
Thomas Paine wrote that now “America can be as happy as she pleases, she hath a blank sheet to write upon”.
Thomas Jefferson did the writing in the early Summer of 1776: “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…”
On July 2, 1776 the 2nd Continental Congress unanimously voted to dissolve the connection to Britain and the next day, in New York, George Washington took command of the American army. Said General Nathanael Greene; “His Excellency General Washington has arrived amongst us, universally admired. Joy was visible on every countenance.” Volunteer citizen soldiers rushed to join; 20000 by August. Washington told them; “remember officers and men that you are free men, fighting for the blessings of liberty”.
Once reluctantly engaged, there was no turning back. The Revolution was propelled forward by the most powerful cause imaginable at that time – the preservation of liberty. And it was sustained from then on by sheer perseverance and spirit. “Perseverance and spirit,” wrote Washington, “have done wonders in all ages.”
Less than 5 months later, however, Washington and his battered army, having suffered a string of crushing defeats in the defense of New York, were in full retreat southward through New Jersey. He now had about 3500 men, mostly in tatters; hungry, tired, and sick.
In less than 2 weeks, on December 1st, the enlistments of 2000 men would be up and the men would be free to go. And they did. Hundreds more deserted. He talked of retreating across the Alleghenies to wage a guerilla war.
In the words of one British Commander; “their army is broken all to pieces, and the spirit of their leaders is all broken…I think one may venture to pronounce that it is well nigh over with them”.
At Trenton, Washington crossed the Delaware into Pennsylvania and awaited the arrival of the British army. Congress fled Philadelphia. But at that darkest hour, as winter set in, General Howe, British Commander, made a fateful decision. Leaving a detachment of Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, he departed for warmer quarters in New York, believing that mopping up the colonial army could wait for spring.
Washington’s famous Christmas night crossing of the Delaware and astonishing rout of the 1400 Hessians at Trenton followed by victory at Princeton a week later, while not tactically significant, was a turning point, the Americans’ first great cause for hope and encouragement.
And so the seesaw fortunes of the Revolution went for another six years until victory and the Peace of Paris. To those most closely involved, the outcome seemed nothing less than a miracle.
In the years that followed, idealism quickly gave way to realism. The new states were diverse and as jealous of their self-government as ever. Instead of a utopian order of benevolent democracy, liberty and independence bred as much political conflict and self-interest as it did unity.
The success of the American Revolution made the colonies independent states but it did not make them a nation.
The Constitution of 1787 created the United States.
The Constitution was as pragmatic as the Declaration was idealistic. Like the Mayflower Compact it was basically a contractual agreement, a pledge to bind the young states together in a workable union under an over-arching federal government.
Through a process of negotiation and compromise the drafters found a way to contain the explosive energies of our national debate within a forum rendered safe by the creation of a system combining the ideals of the Declaration within a framework of checks and balances. It was an extraordinary piece of statesmanship. And our survival as a nation has always depended upon it.
Four score and seven years later, it was severely tested and Abraham Lincoln famously pondered “whether any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure”. But it did.
Today, twelve score and two years on, we are still a very diverse people. The dynamic tension between our ideals and our realities is still there.
We still argue, we still face daunting challenges, we are still on the journey to a more perfect homeland. But that which binds us together is always stronger than that which pulls us apart.
We are still “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”.
Lord, grant that we, and all the people of this land, may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Captain Paul Laedlein, U.S. Navy (retired), July 1. 2018