As Independence Approached …

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 indicates.

He now hurried forth, and hastened to his old resort, the village inn—but it too was gone. A large rickety wooden building stood in its place, with great gaping windows, some of them broken and mended with old hats and petticoats, and over the door was painted, “the Union Hotel, by Jonathan Doolittle.” Instead of the great tree that used to shelter the quiet little Dutch inn of yore, there now was reared a tall naked pole, with something on the top that looked like a red night-cap, and from it was fluttering a flag, on which was a singular assemblage of stars and stripes—all this was strange and incomprehensible. He recognized on the sign, however, the ruby face of King George, under which he had smoked so many a peaceful pipe; but even this was singularly metamorphosed. The red coat was changed for one of blue and buff, a sword was held in the hand instead of a sceptre, the head was decorated with a cocked hat, and underneath was painted in large characters, GENERAL WASHINGTON….

Joseph_Jefferson_as_Ripvanwinkle_by_Napoleon_SArony_(1821-1896)

Actor Joseph Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle (1896)

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.

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Engraving of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere

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 human 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 list, 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 less 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 which resounds to the present day.

Sally, Maria, Patsy, and Tom …

Why did I write a play set in Paris more than two hundred years ago?

It’s something of a cliché that Thomas Jefferson is just about the most contradictory figure in American history. In his Declaration of Independence, he articulated the very founding ideals of a new nation—the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal” and were “endowed” with the “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And yet the writer of these eloquent words was a lifelong slave owner.

I started working on The Shackles of Liberty during the 1970s, when I read Fawn M. Brodie’s biography Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. Before the appearance of Brodie’s book, the story of Jefferson’s lifelong relationship with his slave Sally Hemings had been a nagging rumor that few historians took seriously. The evidence Brodie presented was groundbreaking—and extremely controversial.

When I first cracked the book open, I immediately came across a story told by Sally’s son Madison Hemings about his mother’s relationship with Jefferson. It began in 1789, when Jefferson was in Paris serving as America’s Ambassador to France:

… [D]uring that time my mother became Mr Jefferson’s concubine, and when he was called home she was enciente by him. He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him but she demurred. She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. She refused to return with him.

I was instantly hooked on the Story. I imagined the extraordinary scene. Sixteen-year-old Sally, three quarters white and the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife, Martha, stood face to face with her 46-year-old master to demand her freedom. For a stunning moment, this courageous young woman demanded complete equality with one of the most powerful and influential men in the world. Then came the bargaining as described by Madison Hemings …

To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promises, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia. Soon after their arrival, she gave birth to a child, of whom Thomas Jefferson was the father.

I knew right away that I had to write a play that culminated in Sally’s fateful bargain. In my mind’s ear, I started hearing fragments of dialogue:

SALLY: You won’t free me, free our child.
THOMAS: No.
SALLY: Little by little, not right away, over lots of years.
THOMAS: I can’t.
SALLY: Teach him. Things you know how to do. Fiddling, cutting stone, working with wood.
THOMAS: Impossible.

As I read Brodie’s book (and many years later,  Annette Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family), the story grew richer and richer, and Jefferson’s contradictions grew ever more troubling. While Jefferson could at least conceive of the emancipation of African-Americans, the same was not true of women. In Paris, he was shocked by the power and assertiveness of European women,

some on foot, some on horses, & some in carriages hunting pleasure in the streets, in routs & assemblies, and forgetting that they have left it behind them in their nurseries …

How different were these independent women from the docile ladies he had left behind in America? To him it was “a comparison of Amazons and Angels.”

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Martha Jefferson Randolph

Not surprisingly, Jefferson was something of a despot to his two daughters, albeit a loving one. In 1783, he wrote these explicit instructions to his eleven-year-old daughter, Martha:

I do not wish you to be gaily clothed at this time of life, but what you wear should be fine of its kind. But above all things and at all times let your clothes be clean, whole, and properly put on. … Nothing is so disgusting to our sex as a want of cleanliness and delicacy in yours.

Slaves, women, and children. They all shared a strange place in Jefferson’s mind. And he had crises with all three during his years in Paris.

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Self-portrait of Maria Cosway

For one thing, he fell in love with the brilliant European painter Maria Cosway, a woman with talents, thoughts, and ambitions that were very much her own. Beautiful, charming, and diminutive, she nevertheless had something of the European Amazon about her.

Meanwhile, Jefferson’s daughter Martha, better known at the time as “Patsy,” was studying in a Parisian convent school. Imagine her anti-clerical father’s shock when she announced that she wanted to become a nun!

Finally, there was Sally, whose voice kept calling out to me about freedom and hope …

It’s awful, hope—like drowning. Or not drowning, but getting held under, and you can’t guess how deep. And you’ve got to hold your breath, and your lungs are busting, and you can’t keep it in long, but you know when you let out the air, you’ll only have water to breathe in again. Hope’s just this—long—holding in of something you know you can’t keep.

So there they were—Jefferson and three women, who together somehow embodied the conflict and contradictions that we all live with today. Appropriately the backdrop of the play was Paris in 1789—the dawning of the French Revolution. In those days of precarious hope, Jefferson’s words about liberty and equality hung in the Parisian air.

 

(The Shackles of Liberty is the winner this year’s Southern Playwrights Competition, sponsored by Jacksonville State University.)

NOT Signed on July 4, 1776 …

230px-Us_declaration_independenceWay back in 1997, I compiled, edited, and introduced a small collection of source materials about the Declaration of Independence. It was fascinating to explore the Story of that great document. Here is the epilogue I wrote for the book:

What really happened during those first four fateful days of July, 1776? As the previous pages of this book suggest, the truth is somewhat at odds with popular legend. American independence was actually approved by Congress on July 2, not on July 4; the vote was twelve to zero, with New York abstaining. New York voted in favor of independence on July 7, finally making the decision unanimous. The adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4 was regarded by the delegates as little more than a legal formality—with important public relations implications, of course.

Perhaps most surprisingly, there is no evidence that a signing of the document took place on July 4. The only signatures put onto the document on that day seem to have been those of Congress’s president, John Hancock, and its secretary, Charles Thomson. The iconic engrossed copy of the Declaration didn’t become available for signing until August 2. Many of its famous signatures were not added until weeks or even months after that. Some of the signers had not been present in Congress on July 4, 1776 to vote on the Declaration’s adoption, while some delegates who had been present on that day never became signers (Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, New York: Doubleday, 1978, p. 339).

But the myth of a July 4 signing has proven very powerful—so powerful that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both mistakenly came to believe that it had actually happened! Through good intentions and faulty memories, the two most important instigators of American independence generated their share of misinformation about the Declaration of Independence.

John Adams was correct, however, when he wrote to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776, “It may be the Will of Heaven that America shall suffer Calamities still more wasting and Distresses yet more dreadfull.” The Revolutionary War would continue its destructive course until the United States defeated the British at Yorktown in 1781 with the help of the French Fleet. Even after peace was declared in 1783, the new nation still faced the question of how to govern itself. The Federal Constitution, which went into effect in 1789, created a strong union but left the problem of slavery unsolved. It would take the tragic and terrible Civil War (1861-1865) to bring an end to slavery, but race relations in America remain deeply troubled to this day. With such a turbulent history, perhaps we should be grateful for the benign mythology surrounding our Declaration of Independence and its ennobling language.

The most magical story told about Thomas Jefferson and John Adams happens to be true. On July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of their Declaration’s adoption, both men were on their deathbeds. That morning, Jefferson awoke from a coma to ask his bedside companions, “Is it the Fourth?” He died shortly after noon. Adams passed away later the same day after murmuring these haunting last words:

“Thomas Jefferson survives.”