A Nuanced Tale
By David Wolfford
The Declaration of Independence makes for a glorious story. A united front of downtrodden colonists, through Thomas Jefferson’s quill, challenged tyrannical King George III. When commemorating the United States’ birth, we may revel too much in a patriotic, School House Rock tale of good and evil. This story is more nuanced.
Public opinion on separating from Britain was divided throughout the crisis and as late as July 1776. The American-British relationship had declined, and Parliament’s Coercive Acts of 1774 to punish Boston for the Tea Party brought about the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Delegates included radicals leaning toward separation, moderates, and conservatives loyal to the Crown; the latter two wanted a peaceful political solution without separation. On the ground in revolution-prone Boston one historian’s measure reveals a divided merchant class. Of 318 merchants, 118 became committed loyalists, 37 remained neutral, and 163 actively sided with the patriots. In New York, merchants overall favored loyalty.
British soldiers, hostilities, and essayists changed minds. The king sent more troops to enforce new law. The armies faced off in nine battles or skirmishes with over 1,000 American casualties. Common Sense persuaded. In Congress, in a preliminary tally on the day before the vote to declare independence, Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted “No,” Delaware’s delegation was split, and New York abstained. The next day, the late arrival of a key Delaware radical, the conspicuous absence of a conservative Pennsylvanian, and a shift by South Carolina resulted in a 12-0 vote. New York still abstained.
Thomas Jefferson was not the sole author, and his draft was not the final draft. It began as a three-sentence resolution introduced on June 7, 1776. Congress still debated and created a committee to explain the possible separation. Jefferson, a published critic of Britain, became the obvious draftsman. Ben Franklin and John Adams made 26 alterations to Jefferson’s work before submitting it to Congress. Most were simple changes in phrasing. They added to Jefferson’s list of accusations three new paragraphs accusing the king of dissolving colonial legislatures, pushing oppressive trade laws, and impressing sailors into the British navy.
Jefferson included a paragraph-long critique of slavery and blamed King George. He has violated “the persons of a distant people . . . captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere.” He also commented on the deadly Middle Passage and on the hypocrisy of George only granting slaves their freedom to win a war. How the slave-owning Jefferson writing in Philadelphia could criticize slavery while over 100 slaves labored back at Monticello is a question suitable for another day. Other southerners wouldn’t have it, others thought it went too far to pin slavery on George. Congress deleted the passage.
Conditions in the colonies weren’t that bad, and the king takes a disproportionate brunt of the blame. The average citizen residing in Britain paid 26 shillings per year in taxes to the Crown, the average New Englander one shilling. The colonists enjoyed a higher standard of living with larger incomes and more purchasing power than fellow Britons. The economic and trade regulations the Parliament put on the Americans were rather mild.
Unpopular British policy inevitably originated in Parliament or in the king’s council. Through most of the conflict, the Americans viewed him as their protector, a taming check on Parliament and his scheming counselors. There was little direct personal criticism of George between the 1766 Stamp Act repeal and the Coercive Acts. Even the Congress referred to him politely in debate and in the pre-Declaration documents. But published pamphlets and discourse moved from explicit expressions of loyalty to suggestions of rebellion.
Some argue the king is a bit of a fall guy. Though the Tea Act, the Townsend Acts, and the Coercive Acts so riled the revolutionaries, “Parliament” is nowhere directly named in the Declaration. “What they needed was a fundamental presupposition against kings in general,” wrote historian Carl Becker a century ago. Andrew Roberts, George’s biographer from across the pond, more recently accuses Jefferson of “padding the brief,” with exaggerations, overgeneralizations, and complaints of a British law-and-order response to colonial violations. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.
So when you celebrate the Red, White, and Blue, cherish the natural rights, representation, and liberty that conceived the United States, but remember our country’s birth wasn’t that black and white.
David Wolfford teachers at Mariemont High School and is author of Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics (AMSCO/Perfection Learning). A version of the above article appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer.