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The Declaration of Independence

ISSUE:  Summer 1926

“A decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

“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.”


This appeal to mankind in the great quarrel with England and the bold assertion that all men were created equal were among the most startling of the many startling claims and assertions of the Declaration of Independence, the like of which had not appeared in the world since Martin Luther urged the religious independence of Germany in the sixteenth century. The author of this buoyant document was the young, red-headed, freckle-faced member of congress from the red hills of Albemarle, a frontier county of Virginia—a gentle, suave, kindly, ingratiating man who did more then and later to give these United States whatever faith they have occasionally avowed and supported than any other man that ever lived, though Virginians, then as on a recent great occasion, wagged their troubled heads about the “radicalism” of their greatest thinker.

And the world had been working itself into a frame of mind to read the American appeal. Voltaire and Rousseau, uneasy and restless spirits of France, then about to be released from their earthly bondage, had set the stage in France for a new dispensation; while the king, at the end of a long period of debaucheries, inanities and the most cruel inhumanity, represented the ancient regime at its worst. Across the channel, the crabbed, envious, square-headed George III of Hanover was holding his unsteady throne in delicate equilibrium, his immediate followers shot through with venality and corruption and his churchmen strayed far from that strait and narrow way of Christians; while yonder in the midst of his sandy Prussian plains Frederic II, stooping, wiry, sharp-visaged and long-faced, with great, searching dark eyes and a nose that required no advertising, held the balance between darkened and enlightened despotism, jeering the while his fellow monarchs whenever they showed their troubled faces.

There was, moreover, a bitterness of soul there at Versailles, a bitterness that ran deep in the hearts of both the light-headed nobility and the more solemn statesmen that surrounded the faltering king. But a few years before the terrible Seven Years War had closed, the young and boastful Pitt was striding back and forth upon the banks of the Thames, waving the bloody British sword, damning all Frenchmen, taking a piece of the earth here, a river valley there and half a continent elsewhere, the very terror of astute French statesmen accustomed hitherto to have all men make obeisance, learn their language and cry “Hurrah” to the grand monarch. The cold, far-flung stretches of Canada, the dreamy, romantic Louisiana, great kingdoms in India and the best of the West Indies had all been snatched from Louis XV by obstreperous England with hardly a fourth of the population of France! Was it the end of the long French dominance? A bitter query. One not to be answered in the affirmative till yet another war had laid heavy tribute on tribute-burdened Europe. La revanche. Perhaps three million sturdy American frontiersmen would light the torch of war, universal war as Colonel George Washington had done once before, he to whose ears “the whiz of bullets was but sweet music.” The French humiliated, bankrupt and corrupted through and through, wanted another war, longed to see someone clip the wings of proud Britain. The Declaration was welcome at court, more than welcome in the salons. Thomas Jefferson had an audience,


But the Americans who put out the great appeal interest us more, interest if they do not command the allegiance of a purse-proud generation. As ever in history a small group of men phrased the language and stirred the emotions of the great masses of men behind them. The foremost of these prompters of revolt was Sam Adams, spare of build, stooping a little, faltering and tremulous of voice, “the palsied traitor,” his enemies said. Fifty-four years old and looking sixty-four, clad in threadbare clothes, rusty hat and decrepit shoes, his impecunious children and neglected wife about him, without money enough to take him out of his native colony, a man now dishonored in the region that he made free, irreconcilable foe of privilege, unceasing agitator against the British king, was nevertheless laying solid stones in the great structure we now call the United States.

Of a different temper was Benjamin Franklin; voluntary exile from Massachusetts, of a family of seventeen children, well-rounded from a judicious use of pork and greens, bearing lightly the weight of his seventy years, incapable of an indiscretion, of beaming countenance and homely philosophy, now teaching Presbyterian backwoodsmen to keep their powder dry and stir the fires of their clansman’s wrath against England, now coaxing pious Quakers of the eastern Pennsylvania hills by the gentle art of prevarication—a wonderful American, known and read all over the world, at home in the salons of Paris where he argued with the aged Voltaire and equally at ease in the cabins of the crudest Pennsylvania mountaineer. One sees him to-day as he prods the buoyant Thomas Paine, whom he had “picked out of an ash barrel” in London, urges the younger man to write those revolutionary pamphlets which it ill became a great man of the world to father; Franklin, the easy boss of the middle colonies, the despair of the Penns, the hope of the radicals, sending Paine’s immortal “Common Sense” to South Carolina aristocrats, masters of hundreds of slaves! One can never forget the persuasive, if half-forgotten, Franklin calming the impetuous Thomas Jefferson, ready to make a wicked world over in “three short months” as the latter wrote his hot-tongued friend William Fleming of Virginia the very day the Declaration was coming to a vote. The world owes Benjamin Franklin a bigger debt than William Cabell Bruce makes it believe, and the United States ought to be ashamed of the dingy monument that is supposed to honor him there on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington. We are working our way into interesting company: Samuel Adams, the impecunious, Benjamin Franklin, the comfortable, and Thomas Paine, “the terrible/’ preaching democracy in a language that none could fail to understand and the tall, red-headed Jefferson, just thirty-three years old, an artist, an idealist and a Christian besides.

But there were others. Richard Henry Lee, chief of the clan of Lees, spare of build, forty-four years old, trained in the schools of England, eloquent as Cicero himself, a better friend of Adams than he was of his neighbor, the dour, pock-marked Colonel George Washington, land speculator and military chief, of Fairfax County. Richard Henry Lee, maker of the alliance of the Adamses and the Lees, destined to play a role at more than one critical moment in American history, owner of many tobacco plantations and master of many negro slaves, in debt to his London factor, hardly able to pay his taxes, yet always caucusing with the radical Virginians, riding his thin horse to meetings of Congress and running home in great haste to see his sick wife just as the Declaration was to have been written by himl Deprived in a quick stroke of fortune of the crown of immortality that hung over his gentle head. The Washington, long in doubt whether they would abandon their sovereign, and the Lees hastening to abandon that same sovereign in part because the Washingtons were so slow, all safely in the boat of revolution in 1776 and under bonds not to rock the boat. Nor may we forget that other Virginian, father of all the radicals and reds, Patrick Henry, “the demagogue,” as everyone in Richmond will tell you today with a confidence and a satisfaction born of better times in the Old Dominion—a demagogue and a Scotchman, son of a Scotchman, like the late Woodrow Wilson, clad in unbecoming military togs, down at Williamsburg where Washington, Edmund Pendleton, “the upright,” and the irate Landon Carter mildly wished that he might fall into a fight with the British governor and “both of them be sunk to the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay.” But the author of “give me liberty or give me death” was not likely to take himself out of the way because he was a demagogue or still less because his enemies wished him at the bottom of the sea. It was the same Henry who had worn the coonskin cap and buckskin breeches into the sedate house of burgesses twelve years before; mortal enemy of parsons who wanted good pay for poor preaching; sallow, stooping, sinewy, big-eyed, gentle of speech, like all good Virginians; a mouth like that of the late William J. Bryan; and a matchless mixer and, what is more, the husband of the redoubtable Dorothy Dandridge there in the big, rambling house in upper Hanover, recently burned down to the disgrace of all the rich Virginians of our day. Patrick Henry, facing the British in the neighborhood of Norfolk, was none the less one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence; a builder, too, of the American republic.

When the Lees and the Washingtons took their places on the same side of the fence and both the fiery Henry and the gentle Jefferson united in laying plans for the undoing of “the best monarch in the world,” now turned usurper, events were casting tall shadows before them. I do not know a more charming group of historic characters than the revolutionary leaders of Virginia that famous summer of 1776, but one may not present them all to the reader, the impatient reader of our hastening day, not given to pious recollections or historic gratitudes; one merely names them: Edmund Pendleton, in sore doubt and not unmindful of that merciless drubbing the demagogue had given him and poor Speaker Robinson ten years before; Dr. William Cabell of the upper James River country, too comfortable in the old regime to wish a new one or to waste any love on disturbers of the peace like Henry and the upstart from Albemarle; and the rare blades, William Fleming, already mentioned, and Dabney Carr, bosom friend and brother-in-law of Jefferson himself, leaders of roaring freemen of the uplands and high ridges of the Blue Mountains, talking everlastingly of liberty and equality, quoting now and then the strident phrases of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” They made an interesting company, immortal even if they did not love one another.

These were the makers of the Declaration which Thomas Jefferson wrote, these and some others whom it were a shame to omit: Willie Jones of the sand-clay country of upper North Carolina, chasing off of nights on one of his thoroughbreds to caucus with Henry and Jefferson, laying plans to take North Carolina out of the empire before the dignified Virginians could fit their flowing phrases together and assemble their great men to do the deed; Willie Jones whom my friend R. D. W. Conner has never forgiven for being so clever “and unscrupulous,” an aristocrat, hob-nobbing with dirty tenants and vulgar overseers, leader of the North Carolina levellers. It was indeed pretty bad, but one imagines that Henry and Jefferson, Franklin and Sam Adams, did not look a gift horse in the mouth, so anxious were they not to hang alone on George Ill’s gallows there on Tower Hill, London. Willie Jones and his fighting followers and Tom Person of the North Carolina up-country, whose own neck had narrowly missed being stretched by a British governor at Alamance court house, made good recruits, levellers or otherwise; and Cornelius Harnett of the lower Cape Fear country, head and moderator of the wild sons of liberty in and about Wilmington, where to be a king’s man was tantamount to a coat of tar and feathers, ranged himself with “the unscrupulous Jones” and hurried the poor North Carolinians into a revolution which they would have liked better if they had known more about it—active all these and others, like the illiterate Griffith Rutherford, in the movement that set the world on fire a hundred and fifty years ago.

Nor were the Pinckneys, the Izards, the Mazicks, the Manigaults and the other badly-named South Carolinians, gentle, handsome, beautifully garbed souls, with great houses in town and greater estates in the country, slaves in troupes and gangs and incomes of thirty or forty or fifty thousand a year, unwelcome, although they were clearly in bad company when they consorted with demagogues like Adams, Franklin, Henry and the incomparable Jones. But once in the melee there was no way out but to fight it out. To think of Henry Laurens, with his ships upon distant seas; of Manigault with gold in his treasure chest and bills of exchange in every ship that came from Europe; lawyers, vestrymen, parish judges, men well known at St. James’s; contriving revolution with mean mechanics; setting up committees of safety and pulling down the throne of George III; even reading Tom Paine’s “cheap tirade!” The times were all out of joint, men in immaculate linen, with sons at Oxford and daughters fit to be the brides of princes, rich men grown easy of manner, calm, used to the ways of the great world, stirring up the dregs of society, even setting poor black folk a bad example. There was much awry a hundred and fifty years ago.

Such were the men, the exponents of that radical throng, the leaders of a people both weak and unprepared, challengers of the most powerful of all the nations of the world. What were the supports, the basic elements of the heroic movement?


Here one enters upon a problem never yet solved. The ideals, the motives and the objectives of the groups and race elements that merged slowly into a democracy and started a current that was finally to topple every throne in Europe but the one directly attacked. These groups, classes and races of young America made Adams and Franklin and Jefferson the architects of a new system, a new order. Who were these, the clay in potters’ hands?

Roosevelt has described them with rifle on shoulder, axe in hand, a slatternly wife and half a score of children at their side, going out into the woods to subdue the great wilderness that was then America—a fair picture, if an incomplete one, in “The Winning of the West.”

Perhaps the older and the more sophisticated of these peoples were the New Englanders, churchmen as regular and as orthodox as good Jesuits, educated but intolerant, even in the century of toleration, a people who could find a means of livelihood on the roof of a house, men who went down to sea in fast sailing ships, outran British revenue cutters, picked up negroes in Africa, sold them to the rice and tobacco planters of the South, loaded again their boats in the West Indies with sugar or molasses, poured the sticky, oozy stuff into the vats of great Boston distillers who made the rum that made the colonials drunk all the way from Newport to Washington’s whiskey outfit at Mount Vernon— thriving sailors and shipowners who then took lumber and liquor abroad, unloading the one in the West Indies and peddling the other to Negro chiefs in Africa for more slaves to sell to other southerners. A wonderful people, these dwellers by the sea, growing rich every day, singing the militant songs of Cotton Mather, catching schools of cod along their coasts, digging fat and bones out of whales in the north Atlantic to be sold in Europe, or wherever there were men who needed oil or women who needed stays to their corsets, a cheerless, a prayerful people, thanking God they were not as other men.

But these coast-town folk were not all of New England that put a lusty oar into the current of the Revolution. Out on the poor hills of middle and western Massachusetts, along the narrow valleys of Connecticut and on the wilder and colder slopes of New Hampshire and Vermont, there lived a race of younger and less comfortable offshoots of the parent stocks, newcomers from the north of Ireland, squatters in the king’s woods and interlopers on Wentworth’s lands —men as loath to part with a penny as the President of the United States, not quite so certain they were the salt of the earth, sons of the Almighty himself, farmers on rocky barren soils, dwellers in log huts like those of the Virginia mountains, women dressed in the plainest of homespuns, men in rough buckskin breeches, barefooted half the year and miserable in their rough-made shoes the other half, children hardly clad at all, but fighters of Indians all, drivers of hard bargains, drinkers of corn whiskey and hard cider, Americans of the type that the world was one day to call Yankees, the folk who were to become the embattled farmers, democrats who needed not to say so, devotees of the doctrine of self-government, freemen who named their sons “Freeborn” to prove or claim the fact, freemen as accustomed to quarrel with their governors about taxes as the middle colonies were to quarrel about their lands, mainstays all of them of Sam Adams, a full million strong, a peculiar people, drawling their words through their noses, chewing their tobacco and dipping their snuff as lustily as if they had been Virginians—the dominant group, as later events were to prove, in the making of these United States.

Next to these were the canny Scotch, who, crowded out of their highlands where the British authorities allowed them no peace, elbowed Irishmen out of Ireland to get even. But even there the British exciseman, tax gatherer and rack-rent collector followed them, taking away their goods, closing the British market to their pigs and beef, breaking up their churches. They moved again—to the wilds of America, the hills and the mountains where Roosevelt “discovered” them ready to fight at the drop of the hat, poorer than Scotchmen ought to be, in their rude cabins by the rushing streams, far away from the habitations of men, feeding their children upon the meat of the animals they killed and clothing themselves in the skins of the selfsame animals. In moccasins, deerskin breeches and coonskin caps, the enemies, here as elsewhere, of the House of Hanover—a virile race, not unlike the hard-visaged New Englander, clearing trees and innumerable rocks off the lands they seized, without money and without price, from the Penns, the Fairfaxes and the Granvilles, growing the while into the second great bloc that was to enter into the party of Adams and Franklin and Jefferson—ready always for a war with England; all save that body of the Scotch who became so entangled in the skein of Carolina politics that they made war on their local enemies before they were ready for war with George III —lost at Alamance, some of their addled heads hanging in May, 1770, at the ends of ropes, there in North Carolina as warnings to all who could not understand the game.

A great support of the wild cause, these Scotch of the middle region of the colonies, the valley of Virginia and the southern highlands. But there was another, a slower, a gentler, a less hopeful and less buoyant race slowly ranging itself alongside their cantankerous neighbors. I refer to the Germans driven out of the Rhine country or kidnaped on the borders of Holland and sold to America for terms of service, at last finding their resting places along the banks of streams, on the sides of mountains, where the Scotch were apt to maneuver them on to the worst and the roughest lands, Germans with a long history of oppression and woe behind them, humbly asking merely to be left alone. They built better houses than their Scotch neighbors, larger barns, and they drove horses so fat it seemed impolite to apply the cudgel. Their wagons creaked on their axles as they bore heavy burdens of German wheat into Philadelphia or to the wharfs of the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers—a people who worked from the first ray of morning sunlight well into the night of each day, getting on in the world in spite of hard circumstances. Some of the beauty of their character and their ideals may yet be seen in the solid stone or brick structures at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, or Salem, North Carolina—reminders even now to the gaping Rotarian of what men will do out of sheer devotion to an ideal. Few elements of the early American life were more wholesome or more healthy than the Germans, more assiduous than the Scotch—their clean fields, their whitewashed barns and their tidy cabins telling of their ceaseless industry and their good husbandry.

These could hardly escape their Scotch neighbors, and their sons and daughters, overcoming obstacles of race and language, soon learned the language of love and mated there in the wilderness, then built other cabins of logs or stone and reared becoming families of half-dozen, half a score, even a score of children—the melting pot out of which belligerent America was rising. All along the mountain sides, in the deep coves and glens and out on the fertile limestone plains, from Albany to Augusta and from the Schuylkill, the Shenandoah and the forks of the Yadkin rivers to the high altitudes of the Alleghanies, the process of land-grabbing and procreation went on, went on all through the middle decades of the eighteenth century, increasing the numbers of the king’s enemies at a rate unheard of till then in the history of the world, the population doubling by natural processes every twenty years. So that in the fatal year of 1776, these newcomers counted hundreds of thousands of hardy Presbyterians and pious Lutherans or mere godless sons of the wilderness—self-sustaining, self-governing men with deadly rifles flung over their shoulders, long-legged, muscular mountain climbers and Indian scalpers, ready for a quarrel any time over land, over religion or over taxes, which seldom ever got beyond the mere laying; and their women kind were almost as virile, as resolute, as warlike as the men, able on occasion to lay an Indian low and even to take his scalp—all equal to hardship and bred to adore their new country. A wonderful part of the world-wide muddling of the English government which sent these Scotch enemies of the house of Hanover to the wilds of America, there to teach the gentle, peaceful Germans the game of kings—war.

These made two of the segments of the great upcountry folk of the colonies that were welding slowly into the party of revolution, the party of Sam Adams and Franklin and Jefferson, clay in the hands of the master potters. There were other segments. Through the weary years of the eighteenth century, British policy or want of policy coaxed or kidnaped poor English tenants or townsfolks to the decks of American-bound ships. There they were bound in tight contracts and sold to the plantations, to Pennsylvanians, Virginians and Carolinians as cooks, field hands and even school teachers, where they happened to know the difficult arts of reading, writing and arithmetic—to work out the cost of their transportation in terms of three or five or seven years. Never in the best of humor, they worked alongside negroes in corn and tobacco fields, “redemptioners or indentured servants,” who when their terms of service were over, often long before, hastened away to poor pieces of land, sandy ridges that gentleman planters gave them or sold them at a song, or quite as often donned their new suit of clothes, bestrode the horse they had somehow acquired, persuaded their mates to go with them, and packed off to the mountains, the frontier, the country of the Germans and the Scotch. There they squatted on the lands of Penns and Fairfaxes and Granvilles or the king himself without the slightest disposition to secure deed or leave and no more thought of paying first cost or quitrent than Scotchmen. A little less hardy and a little less quarrelsome, but no lovers of distant slaveholders or absentee landlords in England, these ignorant or semi-ignorant families and groups merged into the great up-country population, altogether making a great commonwealth, contentious, a little lawless, yet self-sustaining—a commonwealth in all but name extending from western New York where the Iroquois troubled the forests to northern Georgia where the Cherokees stayed for a time the westward march of young America, a stretch of country some six hundred miles long and two hundred miles wide, cut athwart by older charters thus making the western parts of half a dozen states, governed by staid Quakers in Pennsylvania and slaveholder cliques in the other colonies. The westerners were in the majority in each of the old communities before the year 1776, but nowhere were they permitted as much as a third of the representatives in their respective legislatures, a condition of things that hastened the war with England in the middle colonies and delayed it in the Carolinas where local rivalries and jealousies had not been patched into treaties of accommodation. A million people, these, as I would estimate, the second leg on which the Revolution stood; though one must not assume that all the New Englanders or all the middle and southern upcountry folk saw clearly or wanted war; they demanded free lands, free churches, liberal suffrage, self-development, unhindered and without threat or intimidation, demands which grew into war.

But there were yet other groups and parts of groups that caught on to the great car of revolution before it passed: the tobacco planters of Maryland and Virginia, in debt for generations to their English creditors, a land-poor lot who could rarely tell whether they were beneath the dignity of bankruptcy or whether they were on the verge of economic independence, restless and quarrelsome, always paying prices for their goods that other men fixed and always selling their tobacco at prices which the same price-fixing Englishmen set; like modern farmers: if they made a big crop they were poor because the price was low; if they made a small crop they were still poor in spite of high prices. Decade after decade this exasperating certainty of worse times to come made of the tobacco gentry revolutionists, ready on occasion to repudiate their debts across the Atlantic and start over again. And in the budding cities, in Charleston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, there were the mechanics and tradespeople, the clerks and the longshoremen—rough lot, used to better wages than similar folk in Europe and better dressed than their cousins on the other side, but they were not happy; who is ever happy? These like the tobacco gentry were ready for a commotion; and clean-dressed oratorical gentlemen like William H. Drayton, of South Carolina, James Cannon, of Philadelphia, and John Lamb, of New York, were ready to organize them into “sons of liberty” and set them on the road to democracy and self-government. Here was an element that later worried many a staid and proper head like that of Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall.


These were the leaders and these the supports of the great and radical movement which cut deep in 1776 and the years following. Few of that generation foresaw independence at the beginning, all of them would have been content with that autonomy which Britain later gave Canada. But statesmen were wanting in London; and soldiers stationed in Massachusetts, after the manner of soldiers, wanted action, hastened action and thus made statesmen useless. They fired or caused the firing of the first shot at Lexington, shed some hot if innocent blood there on the dry thin soil of God’s chosen people, and the war began. The farmers and the farmers’ sons of the New England backwoods poured into camps, patched up uniforms and rubbed clean the bores of their rifles; in Pennsylvania, the arguing, hairsplitting Quakers held back for a time the irate Presbyterians of the hinterland; but in Virginia, the voice of Patrick Henry called hundreds and thousands to the new and improvised colors—it was Henry, then as later, more powerful in the old colony than any king had ever been. “Give me liberty or give me death” became a watchcry. Before a year passed the Puritans, the Presbyterians, the tobacco planters and the sons of liberty were in arms, drilling, shouting, burning their laggard neighbors in effigy, closing the courts of justice against pro-British folk, excited, exuberant, half-drunk on bad liquor, marching in irregular companies and regiments toward Boston; George Washington, stiff and shy, but able and inspiring, taking command. It was the American Revolution—the initial step in the as yet irresistible movement of modern democracy.

What it meant was declared in the great document from which I have quoted: the opinion of men everywhere was to them the court of last resort. Equality among men, the kind of equality that prevailed everywhere out of the towns and off a few great plantations. A freehold suffrage so liberal that few fighting men failed to register their wills. Equal units of population were to have equal representation in legislatures. The unoccupied lands of the west were to be the free possession of those who took and improved them. Trade upon the high seas was to be free and there were in the future to be no import duties, save the fees needful to meet the cost of harbor upkeep. In the upcountry and in the south there were to be freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. Free speech everywhere and trial by jury of one’s neighbors. Legislatures were to be elected annually. And any people might at will overthrow its own government and set up a new one. These were the ideas and the ideals of the men who spoke through Thomas Jefferson on July 4 a hundred and fifty years ago. Was there ever anything like it? Three millions of people, speaking with difficulty one language, their roots still deep in foreign soils and their traditions of a thousand years still pulling them into conservative paths.

But the matchless leadership of those years, with the assistance of the poor distraught king of France, made good the great programme. In a little while American bills of rights, American ideals of equality and freedom were circulating in France; and in a little while longer the great intellectual ferment of half a century there merged into the deeper ferment of American democracy exemplified before the eyes of the world and set la grande nation upon its great revolution. Democracy was knocking at the door of Europe. Adams and Franklin and Henry and Jefferson had indeed set the pace for a new epoch, the hard pace of democracy.


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