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Declaration of Independence, Part 3: ‘Our cause is the cause of mankind’

POSTED: July 3, 2012 1:00 a.m.

Abraham Clark, a delegate from New Jersey, believed that Congress, in supporting the Declaration of Independence, was “the greatest Assembly on earth.” The anvil was struck by the Declaration, he believed, and America was now a “Free State, or a Conquered Country.”

In late 1776, Congress sent 77-year-old Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin, the oldest delegate to sign the Declaration, to France in order to seek a military alliance. Shortly after he arrived, the elder statesman discovered that there was overwhelming support for the American cause, not only in France, but in other European countries as well.

“All Europe is on our side of the question, as far as applause and good wishes can carry them,” he observed. “Those who live under arbitrary power do nevertheless approve of liberty, and wish for it; they almost despair of recovering it in Europe.”

Europeans were fascinated with America’s actions and they read “the translations of our separate colony constitutions with rapture.” Many told the Pennsylvanian that they would move to America when the war was over to escape monarchial tyranny in their own country.

Franklin knew, as did many in Europe, that the impact of American independence went far beyond the United States and that the shockwaves of liberty would reverberate through the ages and across the world.

“Our cause is the cause of mankind,” he boasted, and Europeans recognized that “we are fighting for their liberty in fighting for our own.”

The event set America upon a “glorious task assigned us by Providence” and he hoped that his countrymen would have the “spirit and virtue” to crown their efforts with success. Silas Deane, a member of the Continental Congress from Connecticut and a fellow diplomat with Franklin in Paris, also sensed European excitement over American independence.

In a an early December communication to Congress’ Committee of Secret Correspondence, Deane observed that the “good and wise part, the lovers of human liberty and happiness, look forward to the establishment of human freedom and independence as an event (italics mine) that will secure to them and their descendants an asylum from the effects and violence of despotic power, daily gaining ground in every part of Europe.”

To Deane, Franklin, and other American diplomats in Europe, American proclamations of liberty and freedom seemed to be making inroads everywhere in the old world, except in England.

News of the Declaration was greeted by most citizens in the 13 colonies with applause and celebrations. Silas Deane observed, before he embarked on his mission to France, that the Declaration was met “with universal approbation, and the people everywhere seem more animated by it in defense of their country.”

Throughout the colonies, celebrations, displays, toasts and ceremonial volleys fired by militia followed the announcement of independence. The event prompted the Kentish guards in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, to give 13 toasts in honor of independence.

The far-reaching impact of American independence was recognized in the last toast, when the soldiers drank to the hope that liberty would “expand her sacred wings, and in glorious effort, diffuse her influence o’er and o’er the globe.”

In Richmond, Va., after the Declaration was publically proclaimed in front of a throng of freeholders, the militia formed and fired three volleys in honor of independence. Afterward, the city was illuminated and toasts were given honoring liberty and freedom in the clubs and pubs.

The festivities were repeated in most other cities and communities throughout the colonies as Americans, through militia demonstrations, bonfires, toasts and spontaneous parties, celebrated the news of independence.

In many places, the affirmation of independence prompted the masses to carry out acts of violence against the images and statues representing King George III and the British monarchy.

In Williamsburg, Va., after the reading of the Declaration, an angry crowd tore down George III’s coat of arms at the courthouse and burnt it before a throng of spectators.

In New York City, some soldiers in Washington’s army participated in the mob action that destroyed the statue of the king on Bowling Green. The statue, according to one eyewitness, was “tumbled down and beheaded.” The action was premeditated, since the soldiers were plotting to tear down the statue when the opportunity arose. The publication of the Declaration gave them the only incentive they needed to express their built-up resentment toward the British monarch.

Washington, aghast at the thought that his soldiers had taken part in occasion, rebuked the unknown perpetrators the following day. Recognizing that the men who pulled down and mutilated the statue were “actuated by zeal in the public cause,” their actions nonetheless still had “so much the appearance of riot and want of order in the army.”

The general disapproved “the manner, and directs, that in the future, these things shall be avoided by the soldiery and left to be executed by proper authority.”

Most Americans, by supporting independence, knew that they were stepping into an uncertain future. In their war against the British who controlled the world’s greatest army and navy, the colonists were outmatched in almost every military category.

Their only advantage, in 1776, was that they were fighting a defensive war on their home turf. With no major military victories to date, an army of citizen-soldiers with limited terms of enlistment in the Continental Army, no allies, a dearth of supplies and ammunition, a host of financial problems and a large portion of the population still devoted to the crown, the colonists seemed doomed to failure.

Clay Ouzts is a professor of history at Gainesville State College in Oakwood. His an essay on the history of the Declaration of Independence, the reaction to it in the Colonies and elsewhere and its effect on the nation’s strive for independence runs through Wednesday, July 4.


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