Posts Tagged ‘Declaration of Independence’

The 4th of July wasn’t much fun in 1776

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

Americans are getting ready to celebrate the 4th of July with parties, food and fireworks.  This year marks the 240th anniversary of the signing of a document in which we declared ourselves to be an independent nation.  And we will  wave our flags and think that the 4th of July in 1776 must have been a pretty great day.

But it wasn’t. The delegates in Philadelphia actually signed the Declaration of Independence on July 2, but the news didn’t reach George Washington and his army in New York City until July 6. Unfortunately, the British navy had arrived a week before that, throwing the city into a panic.Kate Dolan writes about the 4th of July in 1776  So many ships arrived in such a short period of time that one Pennsylvania soldier said their masts looked like trees in a forest.  The streets of the city were jammed with families trying to leave while militia members from surrounding regions were trying to come to join in the city’s defense.

George Washington could not have been resting easy. Only a few weeks before, he’d learned of a loyalist plot to assassinate him and his officers when the British fleet arrived in New York.  Those arrested for involvement in the plot included the city’s mayor and two members of his Life Guard.  Alarm guns fired frequently in the city, perhaps reminding him that just five of the 120 British ships at anchor carried more firepower than all of the American guns along the shore. And they carried 10,000 troops, with thousands more expected daily.

The announcement that the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence did inspire celebrations in the streets and at least one officer reported that he and his cohorts spent the afternoon “merrily.” And it must have been reassuring to know that the governing members of the colonies were now publicly committed to a course of action that would be punished as treason if they failed. It was all or nothing, and they were all in it together.  As Benjamin Franklin famously summed it up, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Washington received a copy of the Declaration  on July 8 and had it read aloud in the city at 6 p.m. the next evening. Afterwards, swarms of people marched out to tear down a giant statue of King George III, hack off the statue’s head, cut off his nose and mount what was left of the head on a spike in front of a tavern.  Lead from the statue would  later be melted down into musket balls.

But the celebrations didn’t last long. Within three days, British ships brazenly sailed up the Hudson River and while American gun crews fired furiously all day, the ships suffered no harm and the only casualties were six Americans killed when their cannon blew up due to their own mismanagement.  More ships followed, and soon the British had a comfortable base on Staten Island.

To the British, the Declaration of Independence was a joke. The British admiral’s secretary said the document revealed “the villainy and the madness of these deluded people.”

Ships and troops continued to arrive throughout the summer until the end of August when the British attacked and defeated Washington’s army in the largest battle fought on North American soil up to that time. While Washington and his men were able to elude capture, they suffered a series of defeats and were chased out of New York.

Seven years of brutal fighing would follow before the Treaty of Paris ended the war in 1783.

So this year when we wave our flags and head out to parties to celebrate our nation, let’s be glad that “bombs bursting in air” above us are decorative amusements and not weapons designed to destroy. And let’s drink a toast to our forefathers who were willing to set aside their differences to “hang together.” We could use a little of that right now.


Much of the information in this article comes from 1776 by David McCullough.

A welcome detour

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

I’m always on the lookout for something to take the monotony out of a day’s drive along I-95, so I was very excited to discover the town of Halifax, North Carolina. This historic site is just six miles off the interstate near the border of North Carolina and Virginia, has things to explore indoors and out, and is free. The place should be mobbed.

Instead, it was more or less empty when we first visited eight years ago and a brief stop last weekend indicated that things hadn’t changed much, if at all. So I’m going to repost the two articles I wrote in 2006–the first one today (obviously) and the second on Thursday, April 12 when the site holds its annual Halifax Day celebration. It is a great site and deserves more attention.

Kate Dolan writes about Halifax North Carolina

Halifax Day Celebration in 2003, men in colonial garb marching a few blocks away from the actual colonial buildings of the town

On our first visit, we arrived just after the Visitor’s Center had shut for the day, but some very thoughtful person had placed detailed maps in a box on the gate so we could take our own walking tour. (They still do this) When we paid a return visit two years later, we were able to view a presentation about the site, tour a small museum and visit some of the outbuildings.

The museum was just the right size to visit with two children who were tempted to use the 18th Century dugout canoe as a skateboard ramp for a stuffed bunny, even though they are old enough to know better. Although the town advertises its political history as the home of the Revolution, most of the exhibits in the museum and other buildings focus on social history — everyday life in the 18th and early 19th centuries. One facet that I found refreshing was the site’s frank acknowledgment of slavery and the treatment of free blacks. The subject is discussed openly but without sensationalism or the attempt to vilify the upper classes that is prevalent at so many other sites these days. Visitors are left to draw their own conclusions.

Halifax is subtly memorialized on the North Carolina flag, which bears the date of April 12, 1776. That is the date of the Halifax Resolution, when the North Carolina Provincial Congress voted to empower their delegates who would be attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to concur with the other colonies’ delegates if they voted for independence. This is taken to mean that North Carolinians, at Halifax, were the first colonists to officially recommend independence from Great Britain. But it actually sounds more like they agreed to second the motion if someone else brought it up first.

Anyway, they’re pretty proud of that resolution, as evidenced by the state flag. And for that reason, I give the museum curators at Halifax a lot of credit for not making the site an overblown rehashing of that historic document. Instead, it is much more interesting, giving information on basic life of local citizens of the period, from what they wore and ate to the situations they faced during the Revolutionary War. In 1781, the British took revenge of sorts against the “birthplace of the Revolution.” Part of Cornwallis’s army occupied the town under the command of the infamous Col. Banastre Tarleton, and the soldiers behaved so badly that Cornwallis had two of them court-martialed and hanged.

I liked Halifax so much that I decided it deserved two articles, so next month I will share pearls of wisdom about 18th Century law and order (the jail) and the high life (the Eagle Tavern). For this month, I will close with a poem that I copied down by George Moses Horton, a slave who lived from 1797 to 1883 and who wrote and published three books of poetry.

“Is it because my skin is so black

That thou shouldst be so dull and slack

And scorn to set me free?

Then let me hasten to the grave,

The only refuge for the slave

Who mourns for liberty.”

A reminder that not every North Carolina resident was able to declare independence in 1776.