(By Mr. William Johnson)
My Dear Americans,
As our celebration of Independence Day approaches, please permit me to make a few observations of the event. After all, I was there.
My name is John Hancock, and it all began in Boston, Massachusetts with a Massacre and a Tea Party, followed by a fight at Lexington and Concord. In my opinion, the prime instigator and incendiary in the creation of the United States of America was Sam Adams, often called the “Father of the American Revolution”.
On July 4, 1776, I signed, rather conspicuously I might add, the Declaration of Independence. Let me be clear on one detail: I was the only delegate to affix his signature that day; hence, the only man in the country to have formally committed treason against Great Britain.
On August 2, 1776, most of the other delegates signed their names to the “engrossed” copy, a fancy way of saying that it was a nice piece of parchment with some very loopy lettering. No one present at the start knew how it would turn out in the end. What in retrospect has the look of an ordained unfolding of God’s will was actually an improvised affair, in which sheer chance, pure luck, both good and bad, and specific decisions made in the crucible of specific military and political crises determined the outcome. The United States is now the oldest enduring Republic in world history, with a set of political institutions and traditions that have stood the test of time.
If hindsight enhances our appreciation of the solidity and stability of the Republican legacy, it also blinds us to the truly stunning improbability of the achievement itself. All the major accomplishments were unprecedented.
The thirteen colonies, spread along the eastern seaboard and stretching inward to the Alleghenies and beyond, had no history of enduring cooperation. The very term “American Revolution” propagates a wholly fictional sense of national coherence. How it could possibly have turned out so well still amazes me. Many may not realize that the name “American” was a problem for us.
It should be noted that the initial identification of the colonial population as “Americans” came from English writers who used the term negatively, as a way of referring to a marginal or peripheral population, unworthy of equal status with full-blooded Englishmen in the metropolitan center of the British Empire. The word uttered and heard was an insult that designated an inferior or subordinate people. The entire thrust of the colonist’s justification for independence was to reject that designation, because they possessed all the rights of British citizens. And the ultimate source of these rights did not lie in any indigenously American or British origins, but rather in a transcendent realm of natural rights allegedly shared by men everywhere.
The term “American”, like the term “Democrat”, began as an epithet, the former referring to an inferior provincial creature, the latter to one who panders to the crude and mindless whims of the masses. The idea of an American nation remained a precarious and highly problematic project and, at best, a work in progress.
On the liability side of the ledger, four items top the list:
- First, no one had ever established Republican government on the scale of the United States, and the overwhelming judgment of the most respected authorities was that it would not be done;
- Second, the dominant intellectual legacy of the Revolution, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, stigmatized all concentrated political power. In its most virulent forms, any energetic expression of governmental authority was depicted as an alien force that all responsible citizens ought to repudiate and, if possible, overthrow;
- Third, apart from the support for the Continental Army during the war, which was itself sporadic, uneven, and barely adequate to assure victory, the states and regions comprising our new nation had no, history as a nation and no common experience behaving as a coherent collective. For example, while drafting the declaration in Philadelphia in 1776, Tom Jefferson had written back to friends in Virginia that it was truly disconcerting to find himself deployed at that propitious moment nearly 300 miles from “my country”.
- Fourth, and finally, according to the first census commissioned by Congress in 1790, nearly 700,000 inhabitants of the fledgling American Republic were black slaves, the clear majority concentrated in the Chesapeake region and points south.
The achievement of our revolutionary generation was a collective enterprise that succeeded because of the diversity of personalities in ideologies present in the mix. Our interactions and juxtapositions generated a dynamic form of balance and equilibrium, not because any of them was perfect or infallible, but because our mutual imperfections and fallibilities, as well as our eccentricities and excesses, checked each other. Second, we all knew one another personally, meaning that we broke bread together, sat together at countless meetings, corresponded with one another by private as well as public matters. Politics, even at its highest level in the early Republic, remained a face-to-face affair in which the contestants, even those of us who were locked in political battles to the death, were forced to negotiate our emotional affinities and shared intimacies produced by frequent personal interaction. Somehow, I feel you have lost that personal relationship concept in your modern world.
I should point out the work of my friend John Adams, often called the “Atlas for Independence”, as a fine example of industry. He sat on 90 committees, chairing 25. His day was as follows:
- 7 AM – 10 AM – Committee Meetings
- 1 AM – 4 PM – Debate in Congress
- 4 PM – 6 PM – Dining with Delegates
- 6 PM – 10 PM – Committee Meetings
- Sabbath – Informal meeting after church
I might add that no one received any pay for their time. In fact, I spent half my fortune supporting the American Revolution.
We realized that if the infant American Republic could survive its infancy, if we could manage to ensure a coherent national entity long enough to consolidate its natural advantages, we had the potential to become a dominant force in the world.
In sum, our long-term prospects for the newly independent American nation were extraordinarily hopeful, almost limitless. But the short-term prospects were bleak in the extreme, because the very size and scale of the national enterprise, what in fact made the future so promising, also overwhelmed the governing capacities of the only Republican institutions sanctioned by the Revolution.
By 1787, John Adams, who gave the problem more concentrated attention than anyone except perhaps James Madison, was periodically tempted to throw up his hands and declare the task impossible. He noted, “The lawgivers of antiquity legislated for single cities, but who can legislate for 20 or 30 states, each of which is greater than Greece or Rome at those times?” And since the only way to reach the long-run glory was through the short run gauntlet, the safest bet was that the early American Republic would dissolve into a cluster of state and regional sovereignties, expiring, like all the republics before it, well short of the promised land.
The chief reason this did not happen, at least from a purely legal and institutional point of view, is that in 1787 a tiny minority of prominent political leaders from several key states conspired to draft and then ratify a document designed to accommodate Republican principles to a national scale. Over the subsequent two centuries critics of the Constitutional Convention have called attention to several of its unseemly features:
- the convention was extralegal, since its explicit mandate was to revise the Articles of Confederation, not replace them;
- its sessions were conducted in utter secrecy;
- the 55 delegates were a propertied elite and hardly representative of the entire population;
- Southern delegates use the proceedings to obtain several assurances that slavery would not be extinguished south of the Potomac; (this short-term accommodation gave our fledgling nation time to establish a government, ultimately rectified in the Civil War.)
- the machinery for ratification did not require the unanimous consent dictated by the Articles themselves.
The Declaration in 1776 gave us Independence. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 gave us nationhood. This created the continuing conflict of Federalism v Nationalism; I shall save that discussion for a future monologue.
The last line of the Declaration reads as follows: “And for the support of this Declaration, and with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
As I read the news today, I somehow doubt that many of your elected representatives would make the same pledge with any degree of sincerity. Many of my fellow cosigners did in fact lose their lives and their fortunes—but all kept their honor.
Ben Franklin said it well: “We have given you a Republic—if you can keep it.”