WASHINGTON — It was a kind of Brexit centuries before Brexit: Nearly 250 years ago, the Declaration of Independence was written, adopted and announced — and a group of breakaway colonies declared themselves the United States of America.
It was bold; it was risky, and the Declaration had to do a lot of things — inspire the colonists who wanted independence, persuade the ones who didn’t and convince the British, and the rest of the world, that this was a new country, not just a bunch of cranks. They needed a great piece of writing to thread all those needles, and that’s what they got.
Adam Rothman, a professor of history at Georgetown University who specializes in the history of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War, spoke with WTOP recently about the process that led to the Declaration of Independence. He tells a story that’s no less compelling for being complicated.
For one thing, Rothman said, it’s critical to remember that what we now call the American Revolution had already been going on for more than a year when the Continental Congress got together to officially declare the existence of the United States. A lot of goals and scenarios besides independence had been on the table.
“There’s a big debate within the Continental Congress about how to proceed — whether to continue negotiations with the Crown or whether to declare independence,” he said.
All through the winter and spring of 1776, emissaries from the colonies were in London, trying to get King George III “to dial back the use of force in Massachusetts and accede to the colonists’ demands,” Rothman said. There was still hope that the king would rule that “Parliament had overstepped its bounds.” When those failed, it was time to turn to independence.
Up until very near July 4, 1776, “they considered themselves British — fully British,” Rothman said. “And when they’re rejected in that aspiration, they come to the conclusion that they can only really satisfy their desire for equality by being independent.”
A terracotta and plaster bust of George Washington, made by William Rush in 1817, is wrapped in plastic in a shipping container at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
(AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
What? No email?
The whole process was even more agonizing due to its slowness. “Remember also that this is not an age of instantaneous communication,” Rothman said. “You’ve gotta get the instructions to the delegates in London; you’ve gotta get the reports back from London. And this takes weeks, not seconds.”
A detail of an English holster pistol carried by Brigadier General Peter Muhlenberg during the American Revolution is seen at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
(AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
(Gulp) You sure about this?
So, independence it was, the Congress decided. “But that’s not a simple thing,” Rothman said. “For one thing, it hadn’t been done before.”
For another, the British were “a very successful imperial power,” Rothman said. Not only that, but they were taking a serious leap.
“They’re … going up against a government that many colonists, even those who believed in independence, thought was the best on earth,” Rothman said. “A lot of people feared that they’d be sacrificing this very advantageous form of government, and a lot of colonists feared that they’d be thrown into a hostile world. They’d no longer have the protection of the British Crown against the French, the Indians, the Spanish — it’s a dangerous world out there.”
Members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment Fife and Drum Corp march during opening ceremonies for the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, Wednesday, April 19, 2017.
(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
All together now
The colonies were less than a century away from having a civil war over slavery, but they were in it together against the British — they had to be.
“The only way that any of the colonies was going to become independent was in alliance with the other colonies,” Rothman said. “No colony thought they could go it alone.”
That dynamic — the states versus the central government — makes for “one of the great debates of American history,” Rothman said, and the contrast between declaring independence and actually winning it was a symbol of that.
“People who are ardent advocates of states’ rights, or state sovereignty, might say that independence was an act of individual states. Partisans of a more unified vision of American would say that independence was won by all these states acting together in an alliance.”
In the final analysis, Rothman said, it was both: “So from the beginning they were the United States,” he said, with emphasis on both words.
Fireworks explode over the Philadelphia Museum of Art during an Independence Day celebration in Philadelphia on Wednesday, July 4, 2007.
(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Let’s take another crack at that
The old joke is that an elephant is a horse designed by committee. And everybody knows of Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence — it’s right on his epitaph. Well, like many things that “everybody knows,” it’s not that simple.
“We don’t think of the soaring rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence as being written by a committee, but it was,” Rothman said. After the Continental Congress decided on independence, the job was delegated to a subcommittee, which in turn delegated the job to Jefferson “because he was the best writer.”
But he was hardly the last person to make his mark on the document.
“The architecture, the structure, comes from Jefferson, but various turns of phrase, for instance, were contributed by different people,” Rothman said. “Jefferson gives the draft to the committee, and the committee edits it, and the draft goes to the whole Continental Congress, and they edit it.”
So while literally dozens of passages in the Declaration form the basis of America’s ideals, and sing like biblical passages, in Rothman’s telling there’s no less drama — and maybe even more — because the process was “part of a deliberative political process.”
This Tuesday, April 4, 2017, photo shows a child’s toy stoneware lamb excavated from a British Revolutionary War campsite near New York City, at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. Approximately 10 percent of British soldiers who arrived in New York in 1776 had their wives and children with them. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
One example of a major edit in Jefferson’s first draft: “a long passage just lambasting the King for conducting the slave trade,” Rothman said, adding that it calls the importation of African slaves “piracy and war against human nature.”
“It’s a very remarkable anti-slavery passage,” Rothman said. “Well, that doesn’t make it into the final Declaration. And it’s interesting to think how we might look at the American Revolution differently if those denunciations of slavery made it into the founding documents.” For one thing, the southern colonies might or might not have signed on, Rothman said.
Of course, Jefferson himself owned slaves. “People see him as a hypocrite,” Rothman said of Jefferson, “and there’s certainly truth to that. But he’s also the author of some of the most remarkable anti-slavery documents in American history,” the passage that didn’t make the cut in the Declaration of Independence being one of them.
Of course, Rothman points out, a lot of Virginian slaveholders saw a big difference between importing new slaves and simply continuing the enslavement of children and grandchildren of their current slaves. They “didn’t need the slave trade to maintain their labor force. So they have the luxury of criticizing it.”
This is an undated photo of a portrait of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson by artist Rembrandt Peale. (AP Photo)
That escalated quickly
Rothman points to the National Archives timeline of the process that led to the Declaration, and it’s kind of stunning how quickly it all came together.
On June 7, 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee read a resolution declaring “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” On June 11, they appointed a committee of five members — John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson — to draft the Declaration.
On July 2, the Congress voted 12-0, with New York abstaining, in favor of Lee’s resolution, and started to tear into the draft Declaration. They adopted it July 4, but they were still making changes that morning.
This Thursday, April 13, 2017, photo shows a replica of a privateer ship at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Hold up — shouldn’t we be celebrating July 2 then?
That’s what John Adams thought: “The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. … It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
(Shews? Never mind.)
But July 4 is the day that the Declaration was adopted, and that’s the date that’s shown at the top of the Declaration itself, so July 4 it is. Just goes to shew you.
Fireworks light up the sky over the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and the U.S. Capitol on July 4, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Getty Images/Mark Wilson
What does the Declaration of Independence even say?
A lot of copies were made of the Declaration right after its adoption, and they’re not all the same. Rothman points to Princeton historian Danielle Allen, author of the book “Our Declaration,” who pointed out what she thinks is a big one.
It comes in the very second paragraph: “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 …”
That’s how it reads in the 1823 stone engraving of the Declaration that’s the basis for the copy that most of us know. But Allen looked hard at the parchment original and says that that period after “Happiness” isn’t there.
If it’s not there, the role of government in ensuring those rights is just as much a self-evident truth as the three rights. “The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights,” Allen told The New York Times in 2014. “You lose that connection when the period gets added.”
A 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence, shown in this undated handout photograph, was bought by television producer Norman Lear and Internet entrepreneur David Hayden, who plan to send the document on a national tour under the auspices of Lear’s nonprofit organization, People for the American Way. (AP Photo)
Who’s it for?
One of the things that impresses Rothman most about the Declaration of Independence is the balancing act it pulls off — specifically, the number of different audiences that it had to influence.
First, Rothman said, there was the patriot audience — “people who are already committed to independence.” For them, Rothman said, “it’s a rallying cry.” Then there were people on the fence, or even against independence — for them, it’s trying to be “a persuasive document.”
The final audience, Rothman said, was the rest of the world — including the British. It was important to declare independence in a way that the rest of the world would respect. “The United States is trying to announce their arrival, and hope that they’re recognized.”
He said one phrase in the beginning does a lot of work to appeal to all these audiences: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people …”
“That ‘one people’ is a fiction,” Rothman said. “Actually, there are many ‘people’ in the colonies at that time. But the Declaration is a key moment in trying to forge that sense that there is one people, and that they deserve their independence. … They’re taking their station among the powers of the earth. They’re entering the world of nations.”
This is an undated drawing of American patriot and statesman John Hancock, who was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence. (AP Photo)
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