Menu

Close

article

An Excerpt from “These Truths” by Jill Lepore

MAY 20, 2022

From Chapter Three, “Of Wars and Revolutions”

Jill Lepore

On April 19, 1775, blood spilled on the damp, dark grass of spring, on Lexington Green.

It began when General Thomas Gage, in charge of the British troops, seized ammunition stored outside of Boston, in nearby Charlestown and Cambridge, and sent seven hundred soldiers to do the same in Lexington and Concord. Seventy armed militiamen, or minutemen—farmers who pledged to be ready at a moment’s notice—met them in Lexington, and more in Concord. The British soldiers killed ten of them, and lost two men of their own. The rebel forces then laid siege to Boston, occupied by the British army. Loyalists stayed in the city, but Loyalists in Boston were few: twelve thousand of the city’s fifteen thousand inhabitants attempted to escape, the ragged and the dainty, the old and the young, the war’s first refugees.

John Hancock, John Adams, and Samuel Adams rode in haste to Philadelphia. The evacuation cleaved families. Boston Gazette printer Benjamin Edes carted his printing press and types to the Charles River and rowed across while, in Boston, his eighteen-year-old son was taken prisoner of war.1 Jane Franklin, sixty-three, rode out of the city in a wagon with a granddaughter, leaving a grandson behind. “I had got Pact up what I Expected to have liberty to carey out intending to seek my fourtune with hundred others not knowing whither,” she wrote to her brother, who was on his way back to America, after years in England, to join Congress.2

Shots having been fired, the debate at the Second Continental Congress, which convened that May, was far more urgent than at the First. Those who continued to hope for reconciliation with Great Britain—which described most delegates—had now to answer the aggrieved, more radical delegates from Massachusetts, who brought stories of trials and tribulations. “I sympathise most sincerely with you and the People of my native Town and Country,” Benjamin Franklin wrote to his sister. “Your Account of the Distresses attending their Removal affects me greatly.”3 In June, two months after bullets were first fired in Massachusetts, Congress voted to establish a Continental army; John Adams nominated George Washington as commander. The resolute and nearly universally admired Washington, a man of unmatched bearing, and very much a Virginian, was sent to Massachusetts to take command—his very ride meant as a symbol of the union between North and South.

All fall, Congress was occupied with taking up the work of war, raising recruits and provisioning the troops. The question of declaring independence was put off. Most colonists remained loyal to the king. If they supported resistance, it was to fight for their rights as Englishmen, not for their independence as Americans.

Their slaves, though, fought a different fight. “It is imagined our Governor has been tampering with the Slaves & that he has it in contemplation to make great Use of them in case of a civil war,” young James Madison reported from Virginia to his friend William Bradford in Philadelphia. Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, intended to offer freedom to slaves who would join the British army. “To say the truth, that is the only part in which this colony is vulnerable,” Madison admitted, “and if we should be subdued, we shall fall like Achilles by the hand of one that knows that secret.”4

But the colonists’ vulnerability to slave rebellion, that Achilles’ heel, was hardly a secret: it defined them. Madison’s own grandfather, Ambrose Madison, who’d first settled Montpelier, had been murdered by slaves in 1732, apparently poisoned to death, when he was thirty­-six. In Madison’s county, slaves had been convicted of poisoning their masters again in 1737 and 1746: in the first case, the convicted man was decapitated, his head placed atop a pole outside the courthouse “to deter others from doing the Like”; in the second, a woman named Eve was burned alive.5 Their bodies were made into monuments.

No estate was without this Achilles’ heel. George Washington’s slaves had been running away at least since 1760. At least forty­-seven of them fled at one time or another.6 In 1763, a twenty-­three-year-­old man born in Gambia became Washington’s property; Washington named him Harry and sent him to work draining a marsh known as the Great Dismal Swamp. In 1771, Harry Washington managed to escape, only to be recaptured. In November 1775, he was grooming his master’s horses in the stables at Mount Vernon when Lord Dunmore made the announcement that Madison had feared: he offered freedom to any slaves who would join His Majesty’s troops in suppressing the American rebellion.7

In Cambridge, where George Washington was assembling the Continental army, he received a report about the slaves at Mount Vernon. “There is not a man of them but would leave us if they believed they could make their escape,” Washington’s cousin reported that winter, adding, “Liberty is sweet.”8 Harry Washington bided his time, but he would soon join the five hundred men who ran from their owners and joined Dunmore’s forces, a number that included a man named Ralph, who ran away from Patrick Henry, and eight of the twenty-­seven people owned by Peyton Randolph, who had served as president of the First Continental Congress.9

Edward Rutledge, a member of South Carolina’s delegation to the Continental Congress, said that Dunmore’s declaration did “more effectually work an eternal separation between Great Britain and the Colonies—than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of.” 10 Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston; rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.

Not that it ever tipped them definitively. John Adams estimated that about a third of colonists were patriots, a third were Loyalists, and a third never really made a decision about independence.11 Aside from Dunmore’s proclamation of freedom to slaves, the strongest impetus for independence came from brooding and tireless Thomas Paine, who’d immigrated to Philadelphia from England in 1774. In January 1776, Paine published an anonymous pamphlet called Common Sense, forty­-seven pages of brisk political argument. “As it is my design to make those that can scarcely read understand,” Paine explained, “I shall therefore avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet.” Members of Congress might have been philosophers, reading Locke and Montesquieu. But ordinary Americans read the Bible, Poor Richard’s Almanack, and Thomas Paine.

Paine wrote with fury, and he wrote with flash. “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind,” he announced. “ ’Tis not the affair of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent—of at least one eighth part of the habitable globe. ’Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected, even to the end of time.”

His empiricism was homegrown, his metaphors those of the kitchen and the barnyard. “There is something absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island,” he wrote, turning the logic of English imperialism on its head. “We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, that it is never to have meat.”

But he was not without philosophy. Digesting Locke for everyday readers, Paine explained the idea of a state of nature. “Mankind being originally equals in the order of creation, the equality could only be destroyed by some subsequent circumstance,” he wrote, a schoolteacher to his pupils. The rule of some over others, the distinctions between rich and poor: these forms of inequality were not natural, nor were they prescribed by religion; they were the consequences of actions and customs. And the most unnatural distinction of all, he explained, is “the distinction of men into kings and subjects.” 12

Paine made use, too, of Magna Carta, arguing, “The charter which secures this freedom in England, was formed, not in the senate, but in the field; and insisted upon by the people, not granted by the crown.” He urged Americans to write their own Magna Carta.13 But Magna Carta supplies no justification for outright rebellion. The best and most expedient strategy, Paine understood, was to argue not from precedent or doctrine but from nature, to insist that there exists a natural right to revolution, as natural as a child leaving its parent. “Let us suppose a small number of persons settled in some sequestered part of the earth, unconnected with the rest, they will then represent the first peopling of any country, or of the world,” he began, as if he were telling a child a once­-upon-a time story.14 They will erect a government, to secure their safety, and their liberty. And when that government ceases to secure their safety and their liberty, it stands to reason that they may depose it. They retain this right forever.

Much the same language found its way into resolutions passed by specially established colonial conventions, held so that the colonies, untethered from Britain, could establish new forms of government. “All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity,” read the Virginia Declaration of Rights and Form of Government, drafted in May 1776 by brazen George Mason. “All power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people.” James Madison, half Mason’s age, had been elected to the convention from Orange County. He proposed a revision to Mason’s Declaration. Where Mason had written that “all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion,” Madison rewrote that clause to instead guarantee that “all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it.” The proposed change was adopted, and Madison became the author of the first­-ever constitutional guarantee of religious liberty, not as something to be tolerated, but as a fundamental right.15

Inevitably, slavery cast its long and terrible shadow over these statements of principle: slavery, in fact, had made those statements of principle possible. Mason’s original draft hadn’t included the clause about rights being acquired by men “when they enter into a state of society”; these words were added after members of the convention worried that the original would “have the effect of abolishing” slavery.16 If all men belonging to civil society are free and equal, how can slavery be possible? It must be, Virginia’s convention answered, that Africans do not belong to civil society, having never left a state of nature.

Within eighteenth­-century political thought, women, too, existed outside the contract by which civil society was formed. From Massachusetts, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, in March of 1776, wondering whether that might be remedied. “I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors,” she began, alluding to the long train of abuses of men over women. “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands,” she told him. She spoke of tyranny: “Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.” And she challenged him to follow the logic of the principle of representation: “If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”

Her husband would have none of it. “As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh,” he replied. “We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient—that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent—that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. . . . Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.” 17 That women were left out of the nation’s founding documents, and out of its founders’ idea of civil society, considered, like slaves, to be confined to a state of nature, would trouble the political order for centuries.

At the Continental Congress, in June, Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson drafted the Articles of Confederation. “The Name of this Confederacy shall be ‘The United States of America,’” he wrote, possibly using that phrase for the first time. It may be that Dickinson found the phrase “the united states” in a book of treaties used by Congress; it included a treaty from 1667 that referred to a confederation of independent Dutch states as the “the united states of the Low Countries.” In Dickinson’s draft, the colonies—now states—were to form a league of friendship “for their Common Defence, the Security of their Liberties, and their mutual & general Wellfare.” The first draft brought before Congress called for each state’s contribution to the costs of war, and of the government, to be proportionate to population, and therefore called for a census to be taken every three years. It would take many revisions and a year and a half of debate before Congress could agree on a final version. That final document stripped from Dickinson’s original most of the powers his version had granted to Congress; the final Articles of Confederation are more like a peace treaty, establishing a defensive alliance among sovereign states, than a constitution, establishing a system of government. Much was makeshift. The provision for a census of all the states together, for instance, was struck in favor of an arrangement by which a common treasury was to be supplied “in proportion to the value of all land within each state,” and since, in truth, no one knew that value, what the states contributed would be left for the states to decide.18

Nevertheless, these newly united states edged toward independence. On June 7, 1776, fiery Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” A vote on the resolution was postponed, but Congress appointed a Committee of Five to draft a declaration: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, New York delegate Robert R. Livingston, and Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman. Jefferson agreed to prepare a first draft.

The Declaration of Independence was not a declaration of war; the war had begun more than a year before. It was an act of state, meant to have force within the law of nations. The Declaration explained what the colonists were fighting for; it was an attempt to establish that the cause of the revolution was that the king had placed his people under arbitrary power, reducing them to a state of slavery: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” Many readers found these words unpersuasive. In 1776, the English philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham called the theory of government that informed the Declaration of Independence “absurd and visionary.” Its self-evident truths he deemed neither self­-evident nor true. He considered them, instead, “subversive of every actual or imaginable kind of Government.” 19

But what Bentham found absurd and visionary represented the summation of centuries of political thought and political experimentation. “There is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before,” Adams later wrote, jealous of the acclaim that went to Jefferson. Jefferson admitted as much, pointing out that novelty had formed no part of his assignment. Of the Declaration, he declared, “Neither aiming at originality of principles or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind.” a id=”ref-20″ style=”text-decoration: none;” href=”#footnote-20″>20 But its ideas, those expressions of the American mind, were older still.

“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable,” Jefferson began, “that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, & to institute new government.” He’d borrowed from, and vastly improved upon, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason. Having established that a right of revolution exists if certain conditions are met, it remained to establish that those conditions obtained. The bulk of Jefferson’s draft was a list of grievances, of charges against the king, calling him to account “for imposing taxes on us without our consent,” for dissolving the colonists’ assemblies, for keeping a standing army, “for depriving us of trial by jury,” rights established as far back as Magna Carta. Then, in the longest statement in the draft, Jefferson blamed George III for African slavery, charging the king with waging “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery,” preventing the colonies from outlawing the slave trade and, “that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us.” This passage Congress struck, unwilling to conjure this assemblage of horrors in the nation’s founding document.

The Declaration that Congress did adopt was a stunning rhetorical feat, an act of extraordinary political courage. It also marked a colossal failure of political will, in holding back the tide of opposition to slavery by ignoring it, for the sake of a union that, in the end, could not and would not last.

In July, the Declaration of Independence was read aloud from town houses and street corners. Crowds cheered. Cannons were fired. Church bells rang. Statues of the king were pulled down and melted for bullets. Weeks later, when a massive slave rebellion broke out in Jamaica, slave owners blamed the Americans for inciting it. In Pennsylvania, a wealthy merchant, passionately stirred by the spirit of the times, not only freed his slaves but vowed to spend the rest of his life tracking down those he had previously owned and sold, and their children, and buying their freedom. And in August 1776, one month after delegates to the Continental Congress determined that in the course of human events it sometimes becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the bands which have connected them with another, Harry Washington declared his own independence by running away from Mount Vernon to fight with Dunmore’s regiment, wearing a white sash stitched with the motto “Liberty to Slaves.” 21

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University. She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker, and the host of the podcast, The Last Archive.

Reprinted from THESE TRUTHS by JILL LEPORE. Copyright © 2018 by JILL LEPORE. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Image Credits
These Truths and Jill Lepore.
The Ballance of Power, R.S. (British); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Charles Allen Munn, 1924; Public Domain.

 

Notes
1. Peter Edes, A Diary of Peter Edes (Bangor, ME: Samuel Smith, 1837).
2. Jane Franklin to Benjamin Franklin, May 14, 1775, Papers of Benjamin Franklin.
3. Benjamin Franklin to Jane Franklin, June 17, 1775, PBF.
4. James Madison to William Bradford, June 19, 1775, quoted in Feldman, Three Lives of James Madison, 24.
5. Douglas B. Chambers, Murder at Montpelier: Igbo Africans in Virginia (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2005), 9–​10.
6. Morgan, “ ‘To Get Quit of Negroes,’ ” 411.
7. Cassandra Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 218.
8. Lund Washington to George Washington, December 3, 1775, in The Papers of George Washington, 2:477–​82; Pybus, Epic Journeys, 11.
9. Pybus, Epic Journeys, 212.
10. Edward Rutledge to Ralph Izard, December 8, 1775, in Correspondence of Mr. Ralph Izard (New York, 1884), 165.
11. Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Knopf, 2011), 8.
12. Paine, Common Sense, ii, 17, [12].
13. Thomas Paine, “The Forester’s Letters, III: ‘To Cato’ ” in The Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. Moncure Daniel Conway, 4 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894), 1:151; Paine, Common Sense, 31–​32.
14. Paine, Common Sense, 2–​3.
15. Feldman, Three Lives of James Madison, 26–​7.
16. The first draft: The Papers of George Mason, 3 vols. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 1:277. The final draft: Papers of George Mason, 1:287; “Have the effect of abolishing”: quoted in Gary B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 11.
17. Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776, and John Adams to Abigail Adams, April 14, 1776, AFP.
18. John Dickinson, Draft of the Articles of Confederation, June 1776, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
19. Jeremy Bentham, “Short Review of the Declaration,” in David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 173. And see David Armitage, Foundations of Modern International Thought (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), ch. 10.
20. On the Declaration, see Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (New York, 1922); Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Knopf, 1997); Armitage, The Declaration of Independence.
21. Gary B. Nash, The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 28.

Related Productions