The small American Revolution museum in New Hampshire—which boasts two eighteenth-century buildings and an original Dunlap broadside of the Declaration of Independence—has been forced to lay off all staff members.
Tag Archives: Declaration of Independence
That’ll be the subject of debate tomorrow at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, of all places. They’re flying in a group of British barristers to square off with prominent American lawyers, and then they’ll let the audience decide.
Want my personal answer? Of course it wasn’t legal, not if we’re talking about the laws extant in the British colonies at the time. Independence happened because enough Americans became convinced that their rights weren’t secure within the framework of the empire, and that no remedies for their grievances were possible within that framework. That’s why the Americans made the case for independence from a standpoint of natural rights, rather than customary British rights. Sure, some of them originally argued against the policies that caused the whole uproar by referring to the rights of Englishmen, but the British government didn’t buy it, and neither did increasing numbers of colonists who eventually jettisoned those arguments and turned to natural law to justify separation instead.
Now, if you’re going to make a case that independence wasn’t kosher with regard to natural law, you’ll have to take it up with Jefferson, Paine, Adams, et al. And you’re going to have your hands full, because those guys can argue with the best of ‘em.
I’ve never been a fan of John Hagee, the bombastic pastor of San Antonio’s Cornerstone Church. I find his theology bizarre and his sermons too laden with his own geopolitical concerns. You might remember him as the guy whose endorsement for McCain made the news because of remarks he’d made about the Holocaust.
When I stumbled across his broadcast the other night on my circuit through the channels, I found him talking about the founding of America. Thinking this would provide some entertainment, I stuck with it. It turned out to be your standard civil religion jeremiad. America is going down the tubes, we’ve forgotten our roots, etc.
By way of illustration, Hagee ran through a list of men who signed the Declaration of Independence and later suffered devastation and ruin because of their support for the Revolution. If this rings a bell, it’s because it comes from a patriotic chain e-mail called “The Price They Paid” that usually makes the rounds on July 4. It’s mostly hogwash, riddled with the sort of errors that anybody with Internet access can debunk in a few minutes.
Take, for example, the story of Thomas Nelson, Jr, member of the Continental Congress and commander of militia. In 1781 he succeeded Jefferson as governor of Virginia. He owned a fine home in Yorktown, supposedly used as the headquarters of Cornwallis during the siege. According to “The Price They Paid,” and as repeated by Hagee, Nelson was aware that the British commander would have taken up residence in his house and requested French and/or American artillery to open fire on the building. The cannons demolished the house, and Nelson died broke.
It’s a great story, but it’s at best highly exaggerated. How do we know? Well, here’s a modern photo of the site of Nelson’s home:
Note the big freaking house sitting on top of it. Nelson’s home is still there, and while it did indeed suffer cannon damage, there’s no evidence outside of tradition that Nelson himself ordered troops to fire on it.
In fact, according to Jerome Greene’s highly detailed study of the siege, Cornwallis did not even use Nelson’s house as his headquarters. Instead, he set up shop in the home of Nelson’s sixty-five-year-old namesake uncle. Allied guns struck this home, too; Greene reports that cannon fire killed one of Nelson’s servants. Some versions of the legend maintain that it was this house to which Nelson directed fire, but again, it’s an unsubstantiated tradition.
Personally, I think these myths actually trivialize the actions of the signers. They took real risks in publicly identifying themselves with an unlikely cause because they thought it was the right thing to do. Embellishing their stories implies that this wasn’t enough, that they weren’t real patriots until they lost everything they had because of their allegiance to the cause. It’s the willingness to risk that makes someone a hero, not the outcome.
You’d think a guy like Hagee, who makes a fortune as a speaker and writer, could do better than a sappy chain e-mail for a sermon illustration. But if his congregation thinks they’re getting their money’s worth, then I guess they might as well have at it.
While we’re on the subject of credibility in historical films, there’s another scene from HBO’s John Adams that’s worth looking at, one which illustrates authenticity of a different kind—the authentic depiction of historical personalities
Before watching the scene, we’ll set the stage with a few descriptions of the characters involved. Here’s David McCullough describing Jefferson and Adams in the book on which the series is based: “Where Adams stood foursquare to the world, shoulders back, Jefferson customarily stood with his arms folded tightly across his chest. When taking his seat, it was as if he folded into a chair, all knees and elbows and abnormally large hands and feet” (p. 111).
Joseph Ellis describes Jefferson as “a listener and observer, distinctly uncomfortable in the spotlight, shy and nervous in a distracted manner that was sometimes mistaken for arrogance” (p. 32).
Finally, here’s Edmund S. Morgan on Benjamin Franklin: “[He] could not see anything without asking himself what it was, how it got that way, what made it tick. He had that rare capacity for surprise that has made possible so many advances in human knowledge, the habit of not taking things for granted, the ability to look at some everyday occurrence and wonder why” (5).
Now here’s the scene, with Adams and Franklin critiquing Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence:
I’d say these guys did their homework.
Good writing, good acting, and good direction can bring us as close as we’re likely to get to seeing historical figures in the flesh, and when it happens, it magic.