The ArtsPhantoms of liberty
Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America
Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776
By William Hogeland
Simon & Schuster,
The idea that the Founding Fathers were actually scared shitless of real democracy isn’t exactly news. There were strong limits on early American democracy: property requirements to hold office, closed nominations to decide who would govern, voice voting, not to mention that slaves, women, servants and the propertyless couldn’t vote. Consequently, voter turnouts were very low in the colonies.
There were some startling glimpses of democracy present in early America, though. Compared to Europe, American colonial white men had it made. Between 50 to 75 percent of them could vote in elections, compared to 18 percent of adult white males in Britain. William Hogeland exposes a few of these glimpses of democracy by shining a light on relatively unknown radical democrats in his new work Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776.
Throughout the 1770s, Philadelphia was arguably the most important city in North America. It was host to two Continental Congresses, it sat in a wealthy and influential state – neither too Northern nor too Southern – that was decidedly against severing ties with Great Britain. Though Massachusetts was an important colony in the rush to war with the mother country, the would-be Keystone State, according to historical accounts, eventually became the linchpin that influenced and in some cases cajoled the other 12 colonies into taking the plunge into U.S. history. (See works by Terry Bouton, Thomas Slaughter and Hogeland’s own 2006 The Whiskey Rebellion).
Declaration tells the story of the weeks leading up to July 1776, when 13 colonies – each with different agendas, economies and political ideologies – announced to themselves and the world that they would become as one, independent of the British Empire. It’s a story filled with backroom deals, secret meetings and equivocating politicians set during a time of rampant cash-flow shortages, untold numbers of bankruptcies and foreclosures, and a general dissatisfaction with government. It’s a book readers should be able not only to relate to but also enjoy.
This succinct 288-page account presents the usual suspects: John Adams, who would go on to become president after George Washington; Samuel Adams, John’s shabbily dressed and now perhaps more famous, beer-making cousin; Benjamin Franklin, inventor and most renown man of his time; Thomas Jefferson, the Virginian who would pen the first draft of the Declaration and go on to become president after Adams; and even Thomas Paine, one of the nascent country’s first best-selling authors.
Independent historian/part-time political blogger Hogeland also offers a refreshing new look at an old story. What sets Declaration apart from others who’ve told this tale countless times – and on whom he relies heavily as sources – is the inclusion of highly complicated, lesser-known men such as leader of the Pennsylvania State House John Dickinson, who was vehemently against independence and came very close to defeating it before being outmaneuvered.
Also present are the unknown radicals who secretly worked with the Adamses to overthrow the sitting reconciliationist government of Pennsylvania, such as Thomas Young, a poor, self-taught doctor (yes, doctors who did not attend European universities were likely to be poor in the 18th century). Originally from New York, Young came to Philadelphia on a cross-country crusade to pursue his desire to “place government in the hands of artisans, mechanics, small farmers, and laborers [which] in no way accorded with the philosophy of the leaders who had begun resisting new British trade laws.”
Another was James Cannon, a poor, Scottish-born, evangelical mathematics teacher who co-founded a company that promoted American manufacturing – something the British disliked because it went against the flow of colonial trade – and sought to politically connect the backcountry poor to urban slum dwellers. Cannon also managed the Committee of Privates, a cross-state body elected by militia privates who saw themselves as a New Model Army for America and would later play an integral part in overturning the state government for one that favored independence.
There’s also Christopher Marshall, an apothecary whose belief in “a loving God [who] would save all and damn none” set him at odds with his own children, not to mention his fellow Quakers and countrymen. His role appears insignificant at first, except that it’s his diary that connects the Adamses to their secret coalition with Young, Cannon, Paine, Marshall, et al. despite the cousins’ attempts to destroy any evidence of it. The men met in the Adamses’ rented Philadelphia rooms, drank loads of coffee and hatched a plan to overturn Pennsylvania’s government and replace it with one that would instruct its delegates to vote for independence.
Hogeland sets up a suspenseful battle between street politics and state house business-as-usual chicanery with well-researched chapters that more often than not read like fiction with unexpected twists and turns – even though you know the outcome in advance. This is narrative history writing at its finest.
(A version of this story first appeared in Baltimore’s City Paper.)