Taxation wasn’t the only reason that America’s 13 colonies declared their independence from Britain, but it was certainly a factor, Hillsdale College’s Bill McClay says.
“Americans believed in self-government because they lived self-government,” says McClay, the Victor Davis Hanson Chair in classical history and western civilization at Hillsdale College.
The American colonists’ desire to maintain self-government played a critical role in their decision to declare independence from England, he notes.
The Declaration of Independence served as a “press release to the world,” McClay says, adding that the founding document laid out the “what” and “why” of the American Revolution, but was “much more than that.”
On the Fourth of July, the Hillsdale professor says, Americans can say that “our national birthday commences with this document that expresses these very high and noble imperishable sentiments. ‘All men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights.’”
McClay joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” for the first episode of a three-part series celebrating Independence Day and America’s founding.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: We are joined today by the Victor Davis Hanson Chair in classical history and western civilization at Hillsdale College, Dr. Bill McClay.
Dr. McClay, thank you so much for being with us today.
Bill McClay: Oh, it’s my pleasure, and what a wonderful occasion to talk about.
Allen: That’s right. We’re so excited to be kicking off this series as we head toward the Fourth of July, our Independence Day series, and today, we’re going all the way back to the 1770s to discuss some of the events that led up to the start of the Revolutionary War.
So if you would, let’s begin our conversation today by just talking about some of the original tensions that the Colonies had with England. How early did that tension and friction begin between the Colonies and England?
McClay: Well, it really, I think, starts in a very important way in the 1760s during and after the French and Indian wars. … Historians say “Oh, you haven’t gone back far enough. You have to go back further.” So I want to go back to what was distinctive about British colonization. And it was that it was very not a part of a big planned project.
There was no imperial design, as a famous historian said, that the British Empire was founded in a fit of absence of mind. We had all these different colonies that were run by different proprietors on different principles. Some of them were strictly interested in material wealth—Virginia, mainly. Massachusetts, of course, was a religious refuge, and there was a utopianism in it, in Pennsylvania, even in a way. In Georgia, a guiding concept for the humanitarian improvement of the human condition.
So meanwhile, the Spanish, who were our main competitors and were really ahead in this process, had a very centralized approach to colonization. Everything was for the sake of the mother country to extract wealth, not to build settlements.
And as a result, the British colonies flourished in a way because there was freedom, there was freedom of exchange. There were free markets, there was private property, there was an encouragement of these things and nothing like that on the Spanish end. And it meant that people got used to governing themselves.
Now we’re getting into issues of the Revolution. People were accustomed to running their own show because the mother country wasn’t really interested in or able to govern, to control very much over that vast, expansive ocean.
So when the time comes around for the Revolution, this getting back more to your question, the 1760s, ’50s, ’60s, you have the French and Indian War settled in 1763 with Treaty of Paris.
But one of the things that the Brits realized is that this cost them a lot of money, and they were deeply in debt from fighting the cause of the colonists. Really, they could not have fought on their own.
We don’t have time to go into the French and Indian War, but it definitely was a marker in the process of the mother country taking responsibility for the Colonies, for their remaining British. And there was a strong feeling, not unjustified, that if this is what we’re going to be doing, the Colonies need to be paying for it, paying something like their fair share. But they were not taxed. Parliament did not have the ability to tax the Colonies.
So it really is issues relating to the British Empire coming of age as an empire and having leaders who sought often in very ham-handed and even stupid ways, ineffectual ways, to consolidate the Empire more, to bring the Colonies in line, make them pay some of the freight for their own defense and their own well-being.
So you have a series of actions taken by the British government, by the Parliament, by and large, to begin to extract some revenues from the Colonies. And the Colonies are very irate about it.
And it’s not only this, there was smuggling that went on during the French and Indian War, and the British government sought to put a stop to that by enabling their naval ships to impress, to stop and take over and extract for trial in maritime courts, in Marshall Courts under martial law, Americans, without going through the process of a formal accusation and depriving them, basically, of their legal rights.
So there were all sorts of things, not just taxation, that represented intrusions of what had been formerly the practice of self-government. Americans believed in self-government because they lived self-government. Every colony had its own little replica of what was going on in the mother country where Parliament and the king were battling for supremacy.
You have similarly in each of the Colonies, something like that going on, but they were doing their own thing. It was not all directly tied to what was going on back in the mother country.
Allen: As this tension is building and there’s this growing frustration, who are the voices who are calling and saying, “We really do need independence,” and who are trying to mobilize the Colonies toward that? And who were the voices that were saying, “No, we need to stay faithful to the mother country”?
McClay: Well, it changed over time. It was a gradual process. I think a lot of people don’t realize how long it took to get to the point of actually declaring independence.
The war had already been going on and without a Declaration of Independence for a year. But many of the figures, like John Adams, Sam Adams—Massachusetts was really the hotbed of patriot resistance. And we’ll use the term patriot here, we’re talking about those in favor of independence.
And there were quite a number of people of patriotic sentiment who were not necessarily in favor of independence. One good example of that is John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, who was a patriot, who was irate about the intrusion of royal, or at least of British, authority into what had formerly been American affairs. And yet in the end, he did not sign the Declaration of Independence because he felt—well, it’s a lot of different feelings, but he mainly felt that we couldn’t possibly prevail in a war of independence over the greatest military power in the world.
And it was, for all involved, this was an enormous undertaking when they concluded the Declaration by pledging their lives, their fortunes as sacred honor. They weren’t kidding around. They knew what this was going to mean to make a break like this.
And yes, Thomas Jefferson, a lot of the names that are very familiar to you, who ended up being part of the founding generation and even framers of the Constitution were advocates for independence. But it was a very gradual thing.
There were, of course, several things that caused it to flame up. The incidents at Lexington and Concord in 1775, April 1775, that’s where, when the war begins and Gen. [Thomas] Gage’s troops were sent.
And by the way, what were Gen. Gage’s troops doing there? It was part of the strategy of the British, was to occupy Boston and bring it to heel, because Boston had been the worst offender in terms of resisting all of the efforts of the British to bring the Colonists to heel. So they would bring Boston to heel.
But Gen. Gage was asked to take a contingent out to Concord where there was a patriot armory of sorts and to seize the weapons and to presumably destroy them or bring them back. And they were met along the way, thanks to Paul Revere, who alerted the militias in that area—and that’s all there were, they were militias, there wasn’t a continental army yet involved in this effort—and aroused their awareness, and they were waiting in Lexington, where the first shot was fired, and then in Concord, where the British found the armory was empty.
And on their way back, they were strafed by the fire of Americans, militiamen, snipers firing at them all the way back. And they had significant losses.
Actually, the so-called Battle of Bunker Hill, it was another rousing triumph for the colonists. So things looked pretty good at the beginning. But the very day that the Declaration of Independence was signed, the British landed a huge force at Staten Island.
And I’m jumping ahead a little bit here, but these early victories were not indicative of the way things were going to go for a long time.
Now, I want to emphasize that between April 1775 and July 4, 1776, that’s a significant passage of time. It took a while for the political will to make the break to coalesce. And there were several things involved.
I think one thing we have to give an awful lot of credit to is Thomas Paine’s famous pamphlet “Common Sense,” which was a call to arms that … advanced thinking and in a couple of different ways.
One was that it was a strong endorsement of independence, that, what do you have to gain? What do we have to gain? He’s a recent immigrant, but he immediately adopted the colonial cause as his own. What do we have to gain anymore from our attachment to the mother country? Nothing. Well, that actually was not entirely true, but for those who had been through this series of convulsions and boycotts and other efforts to push back against British intrusion, it fell true.
And second, he turned this into not just a cause of the Americans deserving their independence from Britain, but of the Americans declaring their independence from monarchy itself.
It was a small Republican document in that sense. It was endorsing the idea that we do not need kings. And placing the onus for the tyrannical acts of the British on the king, who had actually somewhat been in the background and was actually very well liked.
A lot of the patriots early on distinguished between the king, who they thought was OK, and the Parliament, which they did not think was OK. But with Paine’s “Common Sense,” he focused it on the king as the sole object, the object that stood in place of the whole in the act of declaring independence and finding a new path.
I just want to say, this was widely read. It went through a number of printings right off the bat. The numbers are not impressive, unless you consider that the percentage of the—250,000 people read it or bought it, many, many more read it. This is at a time when the population of the Colonies was in the low single digit of millions. So it’s a significant portion of the population were read and were influenced by this document.
Allen: Very critical. Wow. So then when did Thomas Jefferson actually sit down and begin writing the Declaration of Independence?
McClay: Well, it was in the early part of 1776. There was a committee and John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were part of this. It’s Jefferson’s document. I think everyone concedes that, that … the felicity of his prose style made him—even though he was very young man, I think 33 at that point. But he was a logical choice to do this.
And there were drafts. It’s interesting, one of the drafts that we’ve seen that has come down to us features a paragraph under the grievances in the declaration that blames the king for slavery, for the existence of slavery in North America. Well, that was nothing. He had nothing to do with it. He wasn’t around for it. He’d done nothing to encourage or discourage it—George III. And that was, fortunately, taken out because the other grievances were all valid.
If you actually read the declaration closely, it has two parts. The preamble, which is the part we’re all familiar with, it has the fundamental political philosophy of the new nation, and then the grievances, which lists, “These are all the things that the king did.”
And Jefferson picks up Paine’s stylistic change and directs everything toward the king, almost everything. There are a few exceptions, but it very much personifies the king as the object of scorn, the tyrant who deserved to be left behind.
Allen: I see. Now, of course, we’re about to celebrate July Fourth, but the Continental Congress, they actually declared America’s independence on July 2. So why is it that we celebrate on the fourth?
McClay: Well, I think it’s because of this magnificent document. It was adopted. John Adams famously wrote to Abigail going on and on about how the July 2 is going to live forever in history. And it’s typical of John Adams, who, by the way, is my favorite Founder—partly because of his quirks and foibles.
But it’s because of this document, which was so much more than just what its title suggests. It was a document that has inspired the whole world and continues to. It was being waved around during the Hong Kong protest a few years ago. Always comes up and the language of the declaration comes up in all sorts of human rights, liberty, pre-democracy movements all over the world. It was foundational in its influence on the French Revolution, who I think did the revolution a little less carefully than ours, but that’s another subject.
So its influence was vast. And I do often, when I’m teaching, I say, “Well, first and foremost, the Declaration of Independence was a press release to the world.” It was saying, “This is what we’re doing and this is why we’re doing it.” But it’s much more than that. It is that very definitely, but it’s much more than that.
So I think given its eloquence and its eminence, it’s not surprising that it becomes the day that we celebrate.
But it says something about America that, in some way, we are a country that is inseparable from certain ideals. That the other countries may say our national birthday represents these things, we can say our national birthday commences with this document that expresses these very high and noble imperishable sentiments: “All men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights.”
And that when the government becomes abusive of those rights, we have the freedom and the duty even to change that government. In other words, self rule. That same principle that caused the friction back at the beginning is what is declared in the declaration that comes at the end of that process in the beginning of our national life.
Allen: So powerful. Dr. Bill McClay of Hillsdale College. Dr. McClay, thank you so much for being here.
McClay: Oh, Virginia, it’s my pleasure. And you have a happy fourth.
Allen: Happy fourth to you as well.
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