Thursday, July 05, 2012

When inertia gives way (Book Review)

Yesterday the U.S. celebrated the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence.  I'm willing to bet, however, that few realize almost exactly one year earlier, the Continental Congress adopted an "Olive Branch Petition" directly to King George III, hoping for royal intervention to settle their disputes with Parliament.
(John) Dickinson, who hoped desperately to avoid a final break with Britain, phrased colonial opposition to British policy as follows: "Your Majesty's Ministers, persevering in their measures, and proceeding to open hostilities for enforcing them, have compelled us to arm in our own defence, and have engaged us in a controversy so peculiarly abhorrent to the affections of your still faithful Colonists, that when we consider whom we must oppose in this contest, and if it continues, what may be the consequences, our own particular misfortunes are accounted by us only as parts of our distress."
By phrasing their discontent this way, Congress attempted to notify the king that American colonists were unhappy with ministerial policy, not his own. They concluded their plea with a final statement of fidelity to the crown: "That your Majesty may enjoy long and prosperous reign, and that your descendants may govern your Dominions with honour to themselves and happiness to their subjects, is our sincere prayer."
I recently finished reading "Declaration," by William Hogeland.  It's an amazing account of the weeks leading up to the momentous vote of July 2, 1776.  As late as May of that year, Dickinson and his supporters in Pennsylvania had that colony firmly opposed to any resolution of independence from England.  They were upset with the treatment of the colonies, yes... but they were still Englishmen.  Still hopeful for reconciliation, they best exemplified the line in the Declaration that:
"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."
It was here that Dickinson and those of his disposition clashed with men like Sam and John Adams, who had concluded (Sam eagerly, John a bit more reluctantly) 'abolition' was in order.  Yet despite the best efforts of the Adams brothers and their fellow travelers, the colonies were not in accord on the matter.  Hogeland's book recounts a momentous couple of months, when events moved rapidly -- the arrival of the main British force sent to restore order in America; the overturning of the May election in Pennsylvania, resulting in political marginalization of Dickinson; the efforts of leading Virginians to broaden the drive for independence past the perception that it was just "those Boston radicals."  Tremendous currents converged, and in the tumult, nobody could be certain where it was all leading.

On July 1, 1776, the Congress met as a "committee of the whole," which allowed an opportunity to test the sentiment for independence.  The desire was for unanimity in such action.  Dickinson himself gave an impassioned appeal and warning prior to the vote.  Only nine of the thirteen delegations voted in favor, and the reconciliationists had won their final victory. 

Yet a mere 24 hours later, a tide that had been rising for years finally culminated in a vote to throw off the rule of the most powerful nation on earth at the time.  The die was cast, and even Dickinson would end up bearing arms in the escalating conflict.

This is but one example of why I love to study history.  Looking back, it's easy to view events as some sort of foregone conclusion.  They never are.  To read how Americans went from fighting beside the Crown in 1763 to fighting against the Crown just over a decade later shows how rapidly history can shift course. 

...and leads one to wonder where today's currents are carrying us...

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