History Wars, Part Deux: Was Declaring Independence Even Important?

With Some Reflections on the Professorial Death Match in a Steel Cage

Dateline: Craytown, USA. Something new has been tossed up by the raging swells of the History Wars fought by scholars of the U.S. founding that I was writing about a while back in a paying-subscriber-only post. And this new thing has particular relevance to my own ripsnorting, page-turning, non-scholarly narrative trilogy Wild Early Republic (The Whiskey Rebellion, Declaration, and Autumn of the Black Snake). So I’d like to tell you all about it.

But how, oh how, can I ever put you in the picture, if you’re not in it already, regarding the ever-rising pitch of excitement among top scholars of the founding period as they gird and regird their loins to do more and more battle with one another in unusually public forums? (The scholar Joyce E. Chaplin has called this the American Revolution as Forever War.) It’s so wild out there right now that context for the specific issue I want to talk about becomes hard to describe.

Lay-dies . . . and . . . Gentle-mennn! Tag-teaming himself into the social-media ring! Mounting a new public defense of certain claims of the New York Times’s 1619 Project! Previewing his own forthcoming book, Sweet Liberty! It’s Professor of History at the University of South Carolina . . . author of Forced Founders and Unruly Americans:

WOODY . . . HOLT-ONNNN!

In July, Woody Holton—his work has been very important to mine, as has his support for my most recent book, which relied in part on his stuff—published a compelling and learned op-ed in the Washington Post on various crucial contributions by free and enslaved black people to declaring and achieving American independence. Part of that essay focused on the 1775 proclamation by Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, emancipating anyone enslaved by the rebellious colonials of that province and willing to fight their former owners on behalf of British government. It’s an especially controversial claim of the 1619 Project that this Dunmore proclamation played a key role in triggering the colonists to adopt the cause of American independence (later revised by the Times Magazine, under pressure of criticism, to an irrefutable “some of the colonists”). The Dunmore claim forms a part of the project’s larger insistence that Americans essentially declared independence in response to an overall perception that Britain was threatening the institution of slavery in America, which is part of its even larger framing of the black experience in America as the essential experience.

I’ve noted elsewhere my skepticism about impressions of the past fostered by that kind of working-backward, Russian-doll proof of grand, essentialist, monocausal historical framings, as carried out in this case for the edification and titillation of the Times-Magazine-reading liberal bourgeoisie. But still. In The Washington Post, Woody Holton came down on the side of the 1619 Project. And he knows a lot, putting it mildly.

And then! Just the other week! On September 1! Holton amped the social-media-fisticuffs into the stratosphere by announcing on Twitter that to celebrate the upcoming release, 76 days from then, not of his own book but of the 1619 Project’s book, he would roll out 76 separate pieces of primary-source evidence—76!—one per day, a preponderance proving conclusively that it was indeed white rage, in response to what Holton calls the Anglo-African alliance, that caused a countrywide shift in 1775 to pro-independence sentiment. Taking on all comers, his Twitter presence volubly happy-warrior and super-energized, now slashing, now parrying, now goofing, now tagging in the Twitter account of Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project, as a comrade-in-arms (I think she’s remained pretty quiet during all this), Holton was already causing quite a stir in certain circles when . . . Bam!

As if intending to add fuel to a fire giving off more heat than light, on September 7, six mainly emeritus/a scholars came directly at Holton. Their critique took the form of yet another of those open letters of high-minded dismay (like the historians’ letter to the Times Magazine on the 1619 Project and the “Persuasion” crew’s Harpers letter), this one in response to Holton’s July Washington Post op-ed.

And Holton of course fired off a rejoinder. Sock! Biff. Pow? And on and on we’ve gone in a perfect storm of . . . public promotion? Promotion of issues. Promotion of individual historians. Promotion of the importance of the profession.

I think the letter by the six—they include Carol Berkin and usual-suspect Gordon Wood—engaged in some very adroit disingenuousness of the kind I’ve elsewhere criticized in Sean Wilentz’s anti-1619-Project argumentation.

And yet amid all of this discussion, if that’s the word I want, an old theme has emerged, which has always fascinated me. It has to do with something as seemingly non-controversial and comparatively dry as whether the Continental Congress’s famously declaring independence, in July of 1776, was really the decisive event in turning American struggles against Britain into a war of independence, thus beginning the process that would lead to the national founding of the United States.

And that’s what I really want to talk about. Given everything else going on, in 1774 and ‘75, in various parts of the country—often among ordinary people— did the decision of some elites gathered in Philadelphia to pass a resolution for independence on July 2, 1776, really matter so much?

Boringly perhaps, I think the answer is Yes. And I suspect some scholars—both those I sometimes align with and those I don’t—will view my position as naive, legalistic, old-fashioned, not very democratic, and even conservative and elitist.

The concerned scholars taking issue with Holton put the matter this way:

By November 1775 Virginia, like most of the other colonies, had already radically moved toward virtual independence from British authority. . . . In 1774, the colonists had already become effectively independent of British authority, as former American Historical Association president Mary Beth Norton exhaustively demonstrates in her recent book on that fateful year.

My point isn’t to call them out on those remarks but to note that I think a lot of the scholars who might take issue with their immediate point contra Holton would agree that American independence had been effectively accomplished in 1774—or at least before July of ‘76. Mary Beth Norton does exhaustively demonstrate that ‘74 became what her book calls it: “the long year of revolution.” Wood has elsewhere placed the decisive moment later and made it pretty vague: he says that given all the fighting after April of ‘75, it was only a matter of time before independence was declared; to him, the thing started to look inevitable, so political struggles in Philadelphia don’t resonate in his work. Important scholars of founding-era Massachusetts from Ray Raphael to John Bell have rightly pointed to actions of ordinary people operating independently of British government—and of the Continental Congress—in leading the whole country to war. In Virginia, site of Dunmore’s proclamation, which undeniably did incite fear and loathing in ‘75, the rebellious colonials were indeed already coming at odds with him militarily: that’s why he issued the proclamation. And Pauline Maier’s book American Scripture provides numerous examples of resolutions and declarations made by towns and counties and ad hoc groups that were pushing toward independence, well before the Congress finally made its famous move.

But to me, none of that adds up to anything like American independence.

I mean, come on: obviously there was an incremental process. Yet the story of that process so often seems to come down to a series of state-by-state steps, leading to a critical mass that left the Congress, for all of its back-and-forth, riding an unstoppable momentum toward an inevitable result, really a no-brainer. The current interest on the part of scholars and readers in ordinary people’s historical action and agency gets blurred here with analyses of how certain individual provinces were in fact to some degree operating, by the end of 1774 and into ‘75, outside of and even in defiance of the royal elements in provincial government. That can make the July 2, 1776, decision by the Congress look at once democratically driven and more or less fait accompli in the states: the Congress merely acquiesced in a decision really made by the American people as a whole and by some state governments.

I’m oversimplifying, of course. But I do think something like what I’ve just described remains the blurry takeaway from some smart and granular recent scholarship on declaring American independence.

Sharpen the focus, though, and relations prevailing within and among the Congress, the states, the pro-independence elites, and the broad mass of ordinary people look a lot more conflicted to me. I’m not getting into the complications here. But consider, just for example, the class tension rising to unbearable pitch within pro-independence forces in Massachusetts by the spring and early summer of 1776. It’s true that, especially west of Boston, ordinary people were leading a lot of the anti-British action. That presented a huge risk, as upscale pro-independence forces especially in Boston saw it, of those people’s more or less making the province independent, in advance of the Congress’s getting around to declaring all of the states together independent, and then what? Would Massachusetts government fall into the hands of the people?

That was a worrying prospect to John Adams, then serving in the Congress in Philadelphia and pushing hard, mainly backroom, for a congressional resolution for independence. In early 1776, he began hearing from home that if the delegates to the Congress didn’t declare independence soon, the Berkshire farmers might down march to Philadelphia and declare it for them. He responded by asking the convention running the state, in effect, “so then why not change your instructions to us delegates and let us beat Virginia to the punch in presenting a resolution for independence?” The convention’s response, in effect: “We can’t, because the second we do, the farmers will think they’re in charge of the state.” That was a terrifying deadlock. Far from simply acquiescing in democratic pressure at home, one of John’s and Samuel Adams’s many motivations for extreme urgency about getting a unified declaration by the Congress in 1776 was to supersede and suppress that democratic action, keeping the government of Massachusetts in traditional hands. You can call that a triumph of ordinary people, pushing elites to independence, but Adams wanted independence anyway, for reasons other than the people’s; and his ugency about the issue had nothing to do with representing in the Congress the wishes of ordinary people in his state. That’s what I mean by conflict.

And if the Congress hadn’t declared independence, people and states who wanted independence wouldn’t have gotten it. Another terror emerged from the vision of states’ seeming to become independent on their own, a terror informed by grim fact. Independence didn’t mean declaring independence; it meant achieving it, and there was no chance of anything like an individual colony’s, or even a plurality’s, holding out for a minute against British invasion. Money was the key to war, as always, and without a declaration of independence by all delegations in the Congress there would be no foreign financial support by imperial opponents of Britain, no taxation for countywide war requisitions, no investing in war by the American rich.

Also key to war: geography. The middle states, led by Pennsylvania, were among the most reluctant to consider independence, New England and Virginia the most eager. No way those two geographically divided pro-independence regions could wage a war of independence without the middle. Pennsylvania would have to switch. And yet as late as May 1, 1776, in the closest thing to a referendum on the issue ever held, the province’s qualified voters defeated a pro-independence slate in an assembly election.

So the idea of fait accompli—“Virginia, like most of the other colonies, had already radically moved toward [sic] virtual independence [sic] from British authority”—can seem a bit bonkers. The phrasing there is too clever by half. “Radically moved toward”? “Virtual independence”? If you weren’t born yesterday, you can smell how adroit they think they’re being in avoiding stating a falsehood while giving a misleading impression. And I really don’t like that.

Finally, the Continental Army, such as it was, had taken the field as a creature of the Congress—not of any individual state, or any cohort of states thst were “radically moving toward” considering themselves “virtually independent”—and it was the Congress alone that defined the army’s mission. Before July 2, 1776, that mission was defensive: the pursuit not of independence but of a fair reconciliation within the empire. It wasn’t delusory. The six letter-writers point out that a state of war already prevailed before Dunmore made his proclamation, but it wasn’t a war for independence, as they seem to hope to imply. The Howe brothers stepped ashore on Staten Island ready to make a deal. They found, to their disappointment, that the Congress had just declared independence. There was no going back.

The U.S. military mission, that is, had altered. The Congress altered it, and only the Congress could have done so—not in response to inevitabilities issued from the bottom up, or issued by certain supposedly already independent states’ governing elites, but via minority political actions involving some very strange bedfellows indeed. (I’ve written a book about that, but paying subscribers can check out some related thoughts right here.) As anyone who has seen the musical “1776” knows, the issue came down to the wire in the Congress. That’s because there existed, on the one hand, very good reasons against turning the war into a war of independence, on the other hand an absolute need for unanimity; otherwise the war, already something of a civil one, would become officially a civil one, and God knows what then.

So I continue to think that the key action, in a realpolitik sense, was in and around the Congress, which makes my take, as I’ve said, old-fashioned, in that I’m stubbornly focusing on elite politics (I’m really stubbornly focusing on elites in political conflict with free labor—also old-fashioned!). I’m not saying independence had only minority popular support. I don’t know that, and I don’t think anyone else does either. I’m saying that it really didn’t matter, in the end, whether there was majority support for independence, either among the broad public or even among elites, because independence never came down to taking the public temperature. There was never a real referendum, unless we count the May 1 Pennsylvania assembly election, which went against independence. Intense activism in the Congress and the states, aided by a majority of ordinary Pennsylvanians—not qualified voters—carrying out a literal coup in that swing state, created the military reality of independence, as consolidated in the Congress. Thirteen governments, each obligating its own citizenry, came together not only in declaring independence but also in committing their citizens to pursuing it whether they wanted to or not, where it counted, on the field of battle, with massive expenditures in cash and the blood of common soldiers.

In the event, it didn’t go very well. But that was the idea.

So by now it must now be pretty clear that I can’t see Dunmore’s proclamation as playing the essential and decisive countrywide role in swinging the reluctant colonists over to independence that Holton and the 1619 Project say it did. That notion seems to rest on an assumption that independence required some kind of unified majority sentiment. You can of course pile up 76 pieces of primary-source material, or for that matter 1776 of them, to show that the proclamation really, really pissed some people off (the already pro-independence crowd loved it, of course, hoping it might have the effect Holton says it had) and you’d still never support the claim. You’d have to argue in context, not drown people in quotes. That difference raises issues in the use of evidence, a practice the history profession prides itself on teaching.

But Holton’s stuff is on Twitter, and he’s having fun, and a lot of his primary material is new to me and cool to see. I find the six anti-Holton letter-writers’ formal, oh-so-dismayed assertion that the whole thing was effectively a done deal by the end of 1774—that’s their tactic for ruling out the importance of anything in 1775, thus expunging Dunmore as cause—context-free, insupportable even with reference to some of their own scholarship, and downright bogus.

So there’s some History-Wars both-siderism for ya—BAD HISTORY style!