Friday, July 20, 2012

Drafting The Declaration of Independence

I am co-author of a new American history textbook for college students, The American Challenge: A New History of the United States. Below, in a passage I co-authored with Norwood Andrews, we discuss the impact of Thomas Paine’s incendiary pamphlet Common Sense in the critical days after the battles of Lexington and Concrod and the fierce debate over the Declaration of Independence.

In the days leading up to the American Revolution, the soon-to-be former colonists would struggle with reconciling a fight supposedly for freedom with the racist practice of slavery.   However, a significant number of Americans had traveled a long philosophical distance from when they considered themselves loyal British subjects. Beginning in January, copies of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense began to circulate through the colonies.  Over the year that followed, the pamphlet was reprinted no fewer than twenty-five times, with roughly half a million individual copies made.  Paine was a virtually penniless Englishman fleeing to America from a failed career as a corset-maker and tax collector, but along with a letter of introduction from Franklin, he brought a style of written expression that was clear, sharp, elegant, and fearless.  In Philadelphia he found work as an editor, but he would make his mark as an author of one the clearest arguments for the colonies’ political independence.  

With his skeptical, scientific turn of mind and his uncompromising temperament, Paine saved no respect for sacred traditions in his blunt pamphlet.  His complete lack of deference was breathtaking.  “The royal brute of Great Britain” was no guardian of his subjects’ liberties.  England was corrupt, not as a result of recent missteps or individually bad government ministers, but because kings by their nature tended to be corrupt tyrants. Governments existed to serve the people, not the other way around, and the British regime could not meet that basic requirement. “A government of our own,” he proclaimed, “is our natural right.”   British rule brought no practical benefits, recent British military attacks made reconciliation unthinkable, and independence was no more likely to lead to intervention by foreign powers or civil wars among the colonies. Paine was not only angry at injustice, however, but his pamphlet also offered a vision of an optimistic American future.  In his scripture-quoting yet fundamentally secular way, Paine reimagined America, as had earlier Puritans, as a shining city on a hill, a light to the rest of humanity:

O! ye that love mankind!  Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth!  Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression.  Freedom hath been hunted round the Globe.  Asia and Africa have long expelled her.  Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart.  O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.

Common Sense captured a growing public mood and helped to seal a permanent shift away from olive branches and petitions to the King to demands for a separate, new American nation.


As the summer of 1776 wore on, heat, dust, and the usual unsavory smells permeated the streets of Philadelphia, and even the insides of its grand brick buildings.  In the Pennsylvania state house, in a stifling hall filled for a second consecutive summer by weary delegates from thirteen colonies, the windows had to be closed to keep out the biting horseflies.

Some hoped the Congress would launch not just a war of political independence, but a more profound social revolution as well. In writing to her husband in March of that year, Abigail Adams had playfully instructed him to “remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your Ancestors. . . . If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”  John’s effort to respond in kind betrayed mild indignation. America’s revolution would in many ways be a conservative one, aimed at replacing one government ruled by rich elites with one headed by a different, local set of the privileged.  Gender, racial and class inequality were not on the table in Philadelphia.

Some delegates still held out hope for reconciliation at the beginning of this summit, but the day was carried by those who advocated what they called “Independency.” In early June, a small committee of delegates to the Second Continental Congress had been assigned to draft a declaration of independence for consideration by the whole.  Sequestered in his boarding house, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, diffident in public debate but both meticulous and forceful in written argument, sought to frame a case that would draw upon the delegates’ shared experiences of recent years.

Taking his wording sometimes directly from the English philosopher John Locke, Jefferson’s declaration argued that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were natural rights possessed by all people and that governments that failed to protect those rights were no longer legitimate.  The declaration listed alleged acts of tyranny committed by the British king and the Parliament, such as the closure of Boston Harbor after the Tea Party protest; the suspension of the right of trial by jury for cases involving smugglers; closing elected colonial assemblies; using foreign mercenaries to attack the colonists and so on.  Jefferson wrote that as a result of these violations of rights, the bonds between the British government and the colonies had been “dissolved.”

With minor changes made by Jefferson’s fellow committee members (John Adams and Benjamin Franklin), his draft was brought before the delegates in the airless room on June 28.  Eventually the Congress would reduce the length of the Declaration by one-fourth.  The Congress would eliminate Jefferson’s more controversial passages condemning King George III for encouraging the transatlantic slave trade.  Even though Jefferson himself owned slaves, he frequently attacked the institution of slavery as immoral. 

“[H]e [the king] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people, who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither . . .determined to keep a market where MEN should be bought and sold,” read Jefferson’s original draft.  Jefferson then condemned the king for “suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce . . .”   Southern members of the Continental Congress, particularly from South Carolina and Georgia, according to Jefferson, disdained the argument that slavery was in any way “execrable” and insisted on deletion of this passage. Meanwhile, some Congressmen did not support slavery per se but feared Jefferson’s words would undermine support for independence on the part of both Southern slaveowners and New England merchants profiting from the slave trade.  Some would acknowledge the contradiction of proclaiming the universal right to liberty while holding human beings as property, but decided the time to push for abolition of slavery had not arrived and that political independence from Great Britain remained the more important cause.  However, they did not remove a reference to Lord Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves who escaped from their masters and served in the British military or of the recent slave revolt supposedly plotted by Thomas Jeremiah.  The final draft of the Declaration condemns the king for “inciting treasonable insurrections of our fellow citizens” and exciting “domestic insurrections among us.”  Regardless of the arguments it engendered about slavery, the Declaration itself had been improved in many ways from Jefferson’s original draft. “This was no hack editing job; the delegates who labored over the draft Declaration had a splendid ear for language,” wrote historian Pauline Maier. 

Four days later, the delegates unanimously agreed on the core issue—“that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, Free and Independent States.” Writing to his wife Abigail in Massachusetts, Adams confidently anticipated that “the Second Day of July 1776” would be “celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the Great anniversary Festival. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”  The Congress, however, quibbled about wording for another two days before ratifying a final draft on July 4 and sending the text to a printer.  The die was cast. The “American Revolution” would not uproot society, but it would it become one of those rare points at which startling new possibilities existed, and the range of possible outcomes stretched the limits of human imagination.  

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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