July 4, 2021
by Steve Stofka
On this Independence Day holiday. I’ll add a few historical tidbits I read recently. Beginning in 1775, Americans fought with each other, with the British and Indians. It was our first civil war. Even the British were shocked at the atrocities that Patriots committed on other Americans. From New York to South Carolina, farmers who wanted to remain neutral were regarded as traitors, Loyalists who favored the monarchy. In their outrage, colonial militias pillaged farms and crops, burned homes and families. Farmers in New York fled to Canada.
In the middle of this civil war, the colonies published the Declaration of Independence. It was carefully edited so that it fit on one printed page and could be posted on tavern and courthouse doors. John Adams, who would become the second President of the United States twenty years after the Declaration, called it a “Theatrical Show” (Taylor, 2021, p. 160).
The mood for independence quickened at the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in January 1776. At the time of its publication, the author was anonymous and many thought it was Adams who had written it (McCullough, 2008, p. 83). Adams was rather critical of the Biblical claims made in Common Sense, but he recognized the emotional appeal of its plain spoken diatribe against monarchy.
A declaration on independence would give the colonies some legitimacy in the eyes of France and Spain, who might be able to help the desperate colonies. Unlike some of his peers in the Continental Congress, Adams thought the war against Britain might drag on for ten years. When British General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown eight years later, half of Washington’s army troops were French. The navy that closed off Cornwallis’ retreat was French (Taylor, 2021, p. 294). In the struggle of global empire, anything that weakened Britain was in the best interest of both France and Spain.
The majority of American colonists did not want independence. A third of the population were Loyalists who appreciated the Parliamentary order and military protection of British rule. A third of the population didn’t care. A third wanted independence (Taylor, 2021, p. 212). As in the later civil war, many small farmers resented the big plantations owners who bought their way out of the war, paying a fee to avoid military service for themselves and their sons.
In 5th grade history class, we don’t learn many of the messy details of our history. The school boards want to avoid controversy; teachers want to avoid conflict between students. They prefer textbooks that emphasize the tragedy of war and praise negotiation to settle differences. After all, the teachers are repeatedly encouraging students to “use their words.” Even in high school, much of the ugliness and confusion is left out. In a full historical account, there are few clear moral lessons.
When we read some of these details as adults, some of think it is “revisionist” history because that information conflicts with the child’s view of history we were taught. In the 1992 movie A Few Good Men Jack Nicholson says, “You can’t handle the truth!” It’s true. We were taught a romanticized version of history, carefully edited to make sense to young people.
Some adults hold onto their cherished myths the way the Peanuts character Linus cuddled his blanket. They are today’s Loyalists – loyal to the monarchical rule and order of myth. Some of us declared independence from those myths and welcome the historical accounts, beautiful or ugly. We celebrate our independence from fanciful myth.
McCullough, D. (2008). John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Taylor, A. (2021). American republics: A continental history of the United States, 1783-1850. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.