Way back in 1997, I compiled, edited, and introduced a small collection of source materials about the Declaration of Independence. Earlier I posted the epilogue. Here’s the introduction:
Washington Irving’s immortal character Rip Van Winkle slept right through the arrival of American Independence. As generations of school children have learned, Rip fell into a deep, twenty-year sleep in the wilds of the Catskills after drinking from a mysterious flagon. When he returned to his village, he found that everything had changed—including the political situation, as the following selection shows:
The appearance of Rip, with his long grizzled beard, his rusty fowling-piece, his uncouth dress, and an army of women and children at his heels, soon attracted the attention of the tavern politicians. They crowded round him, eyeing him from head to foot with great curiosity. The orator bustled up to him, and, drawing him partly aside, inquired “on which side he voted?” Rip stared in vacant stupidity. Another short but busy little fellow pulled him by the arm, and, rising on tiptoe, inquired in his ear, “Whether he was Federal or Democrat?” Rip was equally at a loss to comprehend the question; when a knowing, self-important old gentleman, in a sharp cocked hat, made his way through the crowd, putting them to the right and left with his elbows as he passed, and planting himself before Van Winkle, with one arm akimbo, the other resting on his cane, his keen eyes and sharp hat penetrating, as it were, into his very soul, demanded in an austere tone, “what brought him to the election with a gun on his shoulder, and a mob at his heels, and whether he meant to breed a riot in the village?”—“Alas! gentlemen,” cried Rip, somewhat dismayed, “I am a poor quiet man, a native of the place, and a loyal subject of the king, God bless him!”
Here a general shout burst from the by-standers—“A tory! a tory! a spy! a refugee! hustle him! away with him!”
Perhaps we find it too easy to laugh at the confusion of a simple underachiever like Rip Van Winkle. Would any of his more accomplished contemporaries have been less confused in his situation? What about the men who voted for the adoption of the Declaration of Independence? What if any of them had fallen asleep before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, not to awaken for twenty years?
Many of them would have been just as perplexed upon awakening as Rip himself—and many would have uttered a similar plea of loyalty to the king. But in July of 1776, the British colonies declared themselves a new, sovereign nation. What happened to change the course of American history so abruptly and so fatefully?
Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America, was founded in 1607, and for about a century and a half after that, British Americans considered themselves loyal subjects of the mother country. By various charters and agreements, thirteen British colonies were founded along the Atlantic seaboard. In theory, the British could exploit these colonies much as they pleased. But in practice, the British essentially left the colonies alone. True, they imposed a few modest taxes to regulate trade. But these were easily evaded by the colonists, for whom the practice of smuggling was considered an honorable profession, praised by as distinguished a citizen as John Adams of Massachusetts. Great Britain was an indulgent parent; she and her North American colonies coexisted in mutual affection and respect.
Arguably, the high point in this relationship was the French and Indian War (1754-1763). When France tried to take control of North America, Britons and colonists fought side by side against a common foe. Unfortunately, after the British-Colonial victory, Great Britain found herself deeply in debt. To pay off this debt, the British at last saw fit to exploit the colonies in earnest. And the colonists were not happy about it.
They had, after all, become used to self-rule, which they considered their right as British subjects. The colonies elected their own assemblies, passed their own laws, issued their own money, and collected their own taxes. Not surprisingly, they resented it when Britain decided to maintain a standing army in America. Moreover, the British demanded that the colonies contribute to this army’s support; colonists were even forced to quarter soldiers in their own homes. Colonial resentment grew when Britain forbade settlement anywhere west of the Allegheny Mountains. The British also denied colonial assembles the right to issue their own money and imposed tougher import duties on such goods as molasses. A greater shock came when the British imposed the Stamp Act upon the colonies in 1765.
This act was intended to impose a tax on such items as newspapers, playing cards, dice, and legal documents. The colonists would have none of it. They convened the Stamp Act Congress, which established an effective boycott against the act, causing it to be repealed in 1766. But the bitterness created by this measure never really disappeared, and Great Britain continued trying to impose her will upon the colonists. The Townshend Acts created further import duties, and the New York Assembly was suspended for its refusal to agree to the quartering of troops. Toward the end of the 1760s, the British began to send more and more troops to America in hopes of bringing her unruly colonists back into line.
Boston, Massachusetts, became a hotbed of resistance against the British. In 1770, five colonists were shot and killed by British soldiers when a mob attacked the Boston Customs House; this became known as the Boston Massacre.
In 1773, the British tried to coerce the colonists into purchasing tea from the British East India Company and paying a stiff duty for it. On December 16 of that year, a mysterious gang of Bostonians disguised themselves as Indians and committed one of the most ambitious and destructive acts of vandalism in history, dumping tons of unsold British tea into the Boston Harbor. This became known as the Boston Tea Party.
The British responded to the Boston Tea Party by blockading Boston. This stringent punishment aroused the sympathy of the American colonies, who convened the Continental Congress in 1774. Congress organized an effective boycott and sent petitions to Great Britain. Its members were determined to restore what they believed to be their natural rights as British subjects; they had no intention of declaring independence from the mother country. The First Continental Congress adjourned on October 26, 1774, with plans to reconvene on May 10, 1775.
Then, early in 1775, King George III and the British Parliament decided to use military force to subdue the colonists. Troops were sent to Concord, Massachusetts, to destroy military supplies there. On April 19, those troops were met in Lexington by a band of armed colonists. Shots were fired and lives were lost, first in Lexington and then at Concord.
The Revolutionary War had begun. While Rip Van Winkle lay asleep in the Catskills, his America was changing forever. A little more than a year after the battles of Lexington and Concord, the unimaginable would happen. Independence from Britain would become a reality. And Congress’s Declaration of Independence would justify that decision in memorable and powerful language that resounds to the present day.