This year’s Fourth of July weekend was a celebration of many things. It was, of course, a time to reflect on the 245th anniversary of the American Colonies’ formal separation from the British Empire and proclamation that they would thereafter be the United States of America.
From a more practical, self-gratifying perspective, it’s a time to eat, drink and be merry while watching fireworks. This year in particular was a time to cheer loudly because America — like most of the world — has all but declared its independence from COVID’s physical and psychological shackles.
But there’s more to the birth of our nation than meets the eye.
America’s Founding Fathers seceded from Great Britain, just as the Southern states seceded from the United States 84 years later. Yet the two events are hardly ever compared in terms of their common purpose. Rarely is the American Revolution described as a treasonous secession or the Civil War as a declaration of independence.
Much of that has to do with the diametrically opposed outcomes: In the late 1770s, the rebels won; in the 1860s, they lost.
As the old saying goes, history is written by the victors. An oversimplification of each event follows:
Great Britain’s King George III made the colonists’ lives so miserable with his extremely overbearing policies that they couldn’t take it anymore and broke free. Patrick Henry’s rallying cry “Give me liberty or give me death!” aptly summed it up.
In 1860, the Republican Party, formed predominantly to abolish slavery, elected its first president, causing the slaveholding South to secede and form the Confederate States of America. In each case, the rebellion would not avert war; the United States won both times.
Because our values as a nation oppose both oppression and slavery, it’s instilled in us from a young age that it was right for the colonists to revolt in 1776, but not for the Southern states to do so in 1860. In other words, “the good guys” prevailed both times.
Moreover, there is a stark difference in how we understand each event. Regarding the Confederacy, we know all about the Civil War and the “brother against brother” mindset. We know the South didn’t simply say, “Oh, you’d like us to abolish slavery? Whatever you say. Consider it done.”
However, as divided as we realize America was during the Civil War, most of us have no idea about the de facto civil war among colonial Americans.
We assume that the denizens of Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and the rest of the Thirteen Colonies lined up with one voice behind George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to rid the land of the abominable King George. Few of us know about the Loyalists and their Declaration of Dependence.
Actually, many colonists thought life under British rule was perfectly fine and considered it outright treason to be disloyal to the Crown.
On Nov. 28, 1776, when the United States was not yet even five months old and the Revolutionary War was raging, hundreds of Loyalists signed a Declaration of Dependence at Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan (which still exists).
The Loyalists declared that “we owe to ourselves and our prosperity, whilst this testimony of our Allegiance can be supported by known and recent facts, to declare … that so far from having given the last countenance or encouragement, to the most unnatural, unprovoked Rebellion, that ever disgraced the annuls of Time; we have on the contrary, steadily and uniformly opposed it, in every stage of its rise and progress, at the risque of our Lives and Fortunes.”
Interestingly, once power changed hands, those loyal to the former government by definition were traitors to the new one. That they were subjected to various forms of persecution, rendering the aforementioned signers’ “risque of Lives and Fortunes” statement quite poignant, might elicit instant scorn from those anxious to bash our Founders at every turn, though examining all perspectives — including preserving the survival of the fragile, fledgling nation — is more intellectually honest.
Finally, a deeper understanding of the Revolution’s complexities — it wasn’t a one-dimensional story of good vs. evil — doesn’t diminish its virtue. On the contrary, it may cause more Americans around the grill, amid the burgers and hot dogs, to develop a deeper appreciation of it.
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