Happy birthday, Uncle Sam!
As I See It
On June 7, 1776, more than a year after the outbreak of hostilities at Lexington and Concord between Great Britain and her American colonies over unpopular tax measures and other restrictions imposed on the colonies by the British Parliament, the Continental Congress, made up of 56 delegates from the 13 colonies, passed a resolution declaring that “these United Colonies are, and of right, ought to be, free and independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”
A committee, chaired by Thomas Jefferson, was appointed to prepare a formal Declaration of Independence justifying that action by enumerating the grievances of the colonists. The resolution was adopted on July 2, and the final form of the Declaration was ratified on July 4, 1776, and signed by John Hancock as president of the Continental Congress. An official parchment copy was signed later by all 56 delegates — a remarkable act of courage, amounting to treason, punishable by death and confiscation of all of one’s wealth and property.
Some, especially in the southern colonies, did pay a high price in the destruction of their properties; others, who served as officers in the War, were captured and held as prisoners; and some died of natural causes; but those in New England suffered no consequences, and as far as I have been able to determine, none were executed.
But the Declaration of Independence gave our country only its birth. The greater challenge was to form a functioning government for the fledgling nation. With the war over, it was obvious that the loose Articles of Confederation under which the Continental Congress had operated were inadequate to serve the needs of a new nation, and that a new constitution bestowing greater power on the central government would be needed.
So on May 25, 1787, 55 delegates from 12 states (all except Rhode Island) met in Philadelphia, and labored throughout that summer to create the new Constitution. They completed their task on Sept. 17, 1787. On June 21, 1788, the Constitution was ratified by New Hampshire, the ninth state required, but it was not declared effective until March 4, 1789. These exceptional men had created a remarkable document — an experiment in self-government — the likes of which the world had never seen. Perhaps we should celebrate one of these dates equally with the Fourth of July, because the Constitution is the foundation on which our nation is based and has thrived for 21/4 centuries.
It is interesting that only eight of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence also served on the Constitutional Convention. The most notable of these was Benjamin Franklin. And whereas all 56 delegates signed the Declaration, only 39 of the 55 delegates signed the Constitution, 16 declining because, at the time, they were not satisfied with it.
The Declaration of Independence and American Revolution have echoed throughout the world down to the present day. But in the vast majority of the subsequent revolutions, independence was followed almost immediately by civil war between the factions who had banded together to gain their freedom, most notably in Russia, China and India. In India, the civil conflict was over religion, between Muslims and Hindus (more than 200,000 people died), and it was resolved only by splitting off the Muslim portions — Pakistan and Bangladesh — from Hindu India. A majority of the many new nations created since the end of World War II are former European colonies, whose boundaries were determined by the colonial powers, often putting native tribes with long-standing animosities under the same flag. When these colonies gained their independence, and the colonial powers ended their dominance, intertribal violence broke out, and in some cases still continues.
Why didn’t this happen after we gained our independence? The 13 colonies were all British colonies, inhabited principally by British immigrants, and the native population was not a factor because the few surviving remnants had largely been dispersed. Also, colonials played a significant role in the administration and law enforcement of their colonies. And finally the leaders of the American Revolution were substantial and often well-educated citizens: lawyers, bankers, businessmen, civic leaders, large landowners, merchants, fleet owners, and the like. George Washington was the wealthiest planter in the colonies, and several others like Robert Morris, who helped finance the Revolution, were extremely wealthy. They wisely ducked the slavery issue, which postponed our Civil War for more than 70 years.
— “As I See It” appears on the first and third Thursdays of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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