The Civil War of 1776
An English war for American independence

Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (Library of Congress)


Charles C. W. Cooke

The central question in the history of the English-speaking peoples has been where power is to lie. Is it to be invested in the people and exercised through a parliament, or is it to be enjoyed by kings and emperors? On July 4, we celebrate the efforts of men who steadfastly plumped for the former path.

The “long train of abuses and usurpations” that the Declaration of Independence served to enumerate relate to more than merely the balance of power: among other things, the discontents of the 13 colonies objected loudly to the violation of individual rights to which British subjects had become happily accustomed, and they were greatly vexed by the unwillingness of administrators in England to arrive at political outcomes with which they were willing to comply. Nevertheless, the document’s hottest fire is directed without apology at the monarchy, which was perceived to be undermining the sacred autonomy that its signatories considered their birthright. Diverse as they were, the colonial “Systems of Government” that Thomas Jefferson regretted were being “altered” by British intrusion were steeped in that country’s parliamentary tradition, many territories having used the opportunity afforded to them by London’s long period of “wise and salutary neglect” to institute a form of self-government that, for its day, was extraordinarily advanced. As we have learned from antiquity, men will fight more fiercely for the preservation of what they have known than they will for the acquisition of something new. The British in America were apparently willing to tolerate a good deal of arrogation. Their assemblies, however, were off-limits.

The Crown was a favorite target of the colonies’ dismayed. In their estimations, the most egregious of the “repeated injuries and usurpations” had been driven by “the present King of Great Britain,” who had contrived to refuse his assent to the popular will, to impose taxation without the permission of the local “Representative Houses,” and to seek either to rule alone by decree or to permit the British legislature to override the wishes of those for whom their policy was intended. Each one of the first six “Facts” that Jefferson’s sharp pen “submitted to a candid world” related not to the undermining of individual rights but to the usurpation of parliaments, a message that the instrument hammers home another half-dozen times. Its primary theme is abundantly clear: “Legislative powers,” it contends, are “incapable of Annihilation,” “Representation” being “a right . . . formidable to tyrants only.” King George III, it charges, had tried every trick in the book to avoid accountability: dissolving representative bodies when they posed a threat to his rule; calling “together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant”; and refusing to acquiesce to “Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature.” For the high crime of “suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever,” the Declaration concludes, the doyens of the British state had forced their American subjects to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them.”

It is fashionable today to view the Revolution as one might a traditional war between foreign powers, but, in truth, the break of 1776 was the latest in a series of fallings out between brothers — a civil war fought by men who were separated by an ocean but not by a history. Reading through the extraordinary profusion of pamphlets and gripes that the crisis produced, one cannot help but be impressed by how keenly the revolutionaries hewed to existing principle. Thomas Paine, perhaps the most radical of the agitators, may have believed that he could start the world all over again, but the colonists who marched with him mostly definitely did not. Instead, they sought a restoration of their inheritance, the Constitutional Congress asserting in 1774 that British subjects in America were “entitled to all the rights, liberties, and immunities of free and natural- born subjects, within the realm of England.” In the same year, William Henry Drayton, a lawyer from South Carolina who later served as a delegate to the Congress, fleshed out the claim, establishing in a tract of his own that he and his countrymen were “entitled to the common law of England formed by their common ancestors; and to all and singular the benefits, rights, liberties and claims specified in Magna Charta, in the petition of Rights, in the Bill of Rights, and in the Act of Settlement.” With this popular sentiment, Drayton and his acolytes set themselves up as the Roundheads of the New World, linking spiritual arms with the parliamentarians of the English civil war, with the seditious architects of the Glorious Revolution, and with all who had established colonial outposts in the name of English freedom.

Signers of the Declaration of Independence
As Americans celebrate the Fourth of July, here's a look at the men who signed their name to the nation's founding document, the Declaration of Independence.
Fifty six names appear on the Declaration of Independence, representatives to the Continental Congress from the original thirteen colonies. Most were born in America, with eight born abroad. They were men of means, more than half of them lawyers, along with merchants from a variety of trades. All had much to lose if the fight for independence were to fail.
Some of the signers went on to play key roles in the early years of the new nation, including helping to draft the federal Constitution.; two later became president. Others are less well known to history, with a few having done little in public service save for their time on the Continental Congress.
As a group they pledged to each other “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor,” a pact with terrible gravity given the threats issued by King George against the independence movement and the Continental Congress itself.
Their assertion of the right of independence, and the inalienable rights of all men, would echo through the nation's founding and beyond.
John Adams (Massachusetts): Adams, who would go on to become the first vice-president (under George Washington) and the second president of the United States, was one of the core Founding Fathers, whose work in advocating independence earned him the appellation "Atlas of American Independence."
Samuel Adams (Massachusetts): The "Firebrand of the Revolution" was a true believer in independence who played a major part in the agitation that led to the Revolution, most famously in helping to incite the Boston Tea Party. His spirited and successful career as a polemicist contrasted with his personal and professional shortcomings.
Josiah Barlett (New Hampshire): One of several physicians serving in the Continental Congress, and would put those skills to use with a Continental army regiment from New Hampshire during the Revolutionary War.
Carter Braxton (Virginia): Braxton had signed on to the Virginia Resolves, which protested British regulation of colonial affairs, in 1769, but initially opposed the independence movement as a congressman.
Charles Carroll (Maryland): The lone Roman Catholic signer, Carroll was also one of the wealthiest men in the colonies, and once travelled with Benjamin Franklin to try to obtain a union between Canada and the colonies.
Samuel Chase (Maryland): A lawyer known as the "Demosthenes of Maryland" for his skilled oratories, Chase would later serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Abraham Clark (New Jersey): Though he failed to be admitted to the bar, Clark was known as a "poor man's counselor" who would give legal advice in trade for goods. Two of Clark's sons were captured by the British and kept on the prison ship Jersey.
George Clymer (Pennsylvania): A financier who acted as a Continental treasurer before the Revolution, Clymer represented Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, where he signed that founding document as well.
William Ellery (Rhode Island): Ellery tried his hand at several professions before settling on law, and after the Revolution — during which his Newport home was destroyed by British troops — he worked in the Continental Loan Office.
William Floyd (New York): British soldiers used Floyd's home on Long Island as a barracks during the Revolutionary War, and drove his family to exile in Connecticut. He later deeded the estate to his son and built a new home in Westernville.
Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania): The oldest signer of the Declaration, at 70, Franklin was a self-educated renaissance man, scholar, scientist, inventor, and philanthropist who helped develop the first draft of the Declaration, and later served as commissioner to France.
Elbridge Gerry (Massachusetts): Gerry served on the Continental Congress's council of safety, which prepared the colonies for war, and barely eluded capture by British troops in 1775. He was nicknamed the "soldiers' friend" for his advocacy of better pay and equipment.
Button Gwinnett (Georgia): Born in England, Gwinnett lost his island estate to creditors, and was forced to watch as British troops replenished their supplies from the livestock on his estate. A year after the Revolution, he was killed in a duel.
Lyman Hall (Georgia): Trained as a Congregationalist minister, Hall later hung a shingle as a physician, and put his medical skills to work dealing with the malarial swamps that bordered his estate.
John Hancock (Massachusetts): Famous for his oversized signature on the Declaration, Hancock was a wealthy Boston merchant wooed by Samuel and John Adams to join the independence movement. Though lacking military experience, he entertained hopes of heading the Continental Army, a job that went instead to George Washington.
Benjamin Harrison (Virginia): The "Falstaff of Congress" was an early agitator for separation from Britain, and would later serve three terms as governor of Virginia.
John Hart (New Jersey): Hart was a jurist and legislator before joining the Continental Congress, Hart lost his wife to illness when British redcoats sacked his home and his family was scattered. He died a few years after the Revolution.
Joseph Hewes (North Carolina): A very successful merchant from a Quaker family, Hewes would later leave the faith. At first opposed separation while serving in the Continental Congress, he is said to have had a transformation during a debate, pronouncing: "It is done! And I will abide by it."
Thomas Heyward (South Carolina): A lawyer who served in the South Carolina militia, Heyward was captured by the British in 1780 and spent a year in prison. Shortly before his release he celebrated Independence Day by substituting patriotic verses into the British national anthem.
William Hooper (North Carolina): Raised in an aristocratic loyalist family, Hooper spent ten months on the run from the British in 1781, but due to his aristocratic airs as a politician he lost favor with the public after the war.
Stephen Hopkins (Rhode Island): An early supporter of revolutionary politics, Hopkins suffered from palsy, which affected his signature on the Declaration. Said Hopkins: "My hand trembles, but my heart does not!"
Francis Hopkinson (New Jersey): Hopkins supplemented his work as a lawyer with a talent for art and music, making hime one of the America's first native-born composers, and he frequently penned satirical essays that advanced the patriot cause. His eldest son Joseph would later write "Hail Columbia."
Samuel Huntington (Connecticut): A self-made man born to humble origins, Huntington tight himself law, and later served as the King's Attorney before resigning to join the revolution. As a presidential elector in 1789, he earned two votes himself as a "favorite son."
Thomas Jefferson (Virginia): The chief author of the first draft of the Declaration and a man of wide-ranging curiosity and erudition, Jefferson would later serve as secretary of state, vice president, and the third president of the country he did so much to bring into being.
Francis Lightfoot Lee (Virginia): Joining the cause of revolution at the time of the Stamp Act in 1765, Lee participated in many protests and assembles in Virginia. After the revolution he largely retired from a life of public service.
Richard Henry Lee (Virginia): It was Lee who formally introduced the resolution for independence on June 7, 1776. At the Constitutional Convention his opposition to a strong central government led him to oppose the federal constitution and campaign for the inclusion of a bill of rights.
Francis Lewis (New York): Lewis was once captured during the French and Indian War and served time in a French prison, quickly rebuilding his fortune upon his return. Lewis was an early revolutionary, and was one of the Sons of Liberty. His wife suffered during imprisonment by the British, and died in 1779.
Philip Livingston (New York): A prosperous merchant, Livingston stood with the Whigs in their quarrel with the royal governor but resented the tactics of the Sons of Liberty. During the war General George Washington planned the evacuation of Long Island in his home.
Thomas Lynch (South Carolina): The second-youngest signer, Lynch was an aristocratic farmer who served alongside his father on the Continental Congress. Both were seriously ill at the time of the signing. Lynch died just three years later when his shop foundered in the West Indies.
Thomas McKean (Delaware): Thought he broke a crucial tie vote on Delaware's delegation to the Continental Congress, McKean was the last to actually sign the Declaration, waiting until January 18, 1777. During and after the Revolution he served three stormy terms as governor of Pennsylvania.
Arthur Middleton (South Carolina): A graduate of Cambridge from a wealthy aristocratic family, Middleton campaigned against the royal governor of South Carolina and advocated the tarring and feathering of Loyalists. He was captured by the British during the siege of Charleston.
Lewis Morris (New York): During the Revolutionary War Morris served as a brigadier general in the Westchester County militia, and his three eldest sons served under General Washington.
Robert Morris (Pennsylvania): Morris was dubbed the "Financier of the Revolution" for his work in keeping the Continental Army supplied, which sometimes meant taking out personal loans to fund General Washington's war effort. After wild financial speculation in his later years, Morris died penniless in 1806.
John Morton (Pennsylvania): A surveyor and farmer, Morton was a crucial swing vote in favor of independence on the Pennsylvania delegation, where he served alongside Benjamin Franklin and James Wilson. Morton was the first to die, passing away in the spring of 1777.
Thomas Nelson (Virginia): An outspoken proponent of separation from Britain, Nelson helped obtain munitions and supplies for the Continental Army when his own poor health preventing him from serving, sometimes personally guaranteeing loans from wealthy plantation owners.
William Paca (Maryland): Paca worked tireless to drum up support at home to help push the Maryland delegation to vote for independence, and during the war outfitted troops with his own money.
Robert Treat Paine (Massachusetts): Paine served as a prosecuting attorney at the Boston Massacre trial, arguing against defense counsel, and later fellow Contingental Congress delegate, John Adams. His habit of contesting proposals earned him the nickname "Objection Maker."
John Penn (North Carolina): A country lawyer whose time at the Continental Congress comprised most of his time in public service, Penn was once challenged to a duel but managed to talk his way out of it.
George Read (Delaware): Read was the only signer to vote against independence on the final congressional vote on July 2, 1776. At the Constitutional Convention, Read defended the rights of smaller states.
Caesar Rodney (Delaware): One of only two bachelor signers, Rodney once road all night through a thunderstorm to cast an affirmative vote for independence after learning of fellow Delaware delegate George Read's no-vote.
George Ross (Pennsylvania): A latecomer to the revolutionary cause, Ross leaned to the loyalist side when he was elected to the Continental Congress, but was not actually seated during the voting on July 1-2, signing the Declaration a month later.
Benjamin Rush (Pennsylvania): A pioneering physician, Rush's time serving on the Continental Congress was brief. He served as a surgeon in the Philadelphia militia during Washington's New Jersey campaign. He was later a vocal advocate of abolition.
Edward Rudledge (South Carolina): The youngest signer, at 26, Rutledge initially opposed independence in favor of first securing a confederation and forging foreign alliances. After voting against the resolution on July 1, Rutledge convinced his peers to change their vote for the sake of unanimity.
Roger Sherman (Connecticut): A member of the Declaration's drafting committee, Sherman was one of only two men (the other was Robert Morris) to sign all three founding documents: the Declaration, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.
James Smith (Pennsylvania): Born in Ireland, the eccentric Smith was an early Whig Party leader who found politics after attempts at working as a lawyer and iron maker failed to pan out.
Richard Stockton (New Jersey): Politicized in part by the Stamp Act crisis, Stockton at first advocated colonial self-rule under the British crown. In the early months of the Revolutionary War he was turned out by loyalists and imprisoned by the British under harsh conditions.
Thomas Stone (Maryland): Stone heartily advocated reconciliation with the British crown right up until voting on independence, and argued for peace negotiations with British Lord Howe just two months after signing. Serving on the committee that drafted the Articles of Confederation, Stone did not sign them.
George Taylor (Pennsylvania): Born in Ireland, Taylor came to America as an indentured worker, later taking control of his employer's business (and marrying the man's widow). During the war his Durham Furnace turned out bullets and cannonballs for the army.
Matthew Thornton (New Hampshire): Born in Ireland one of a handful of physicians among the signers, Thornton did not enter the Continental Congress until three months after the formal signing, but was allowed to affix his signature.
George Walton (Georgia): Wounded and captured during the British siege of Savannah and held prisoner for nearly a year, Walton had been an early advocate for independence while in the same city.
William Whipple (New Hampshire): Whipple left his maritime shipping business in 1775 to devote time to public affairs. He advocated for an aggressive military campaign over negotiation in confronting the excesses of British rule, and favored severe punishment for loyalists and speculators.
William Williams (Connecticut): After studying for the ministry during the French and Indian War, Williams later became a merchant. During the Revolutionary War, Williams wrote newspaper tracts promoting the colonial viewpoint.
James Wilson (Pennsylvania): As a Whig leader, Wilson denied the British Parliament's authority over the colonies but did not question allegiance to the Crown. He later became a leading voice in the debate over and drafting of the Constitution, and went on to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
John Witherspoon (New Jersey): The only active clergyman among the signers, Witherspoon, born in Scotland, gravitated to revolutionary sentiments against the British, and while president of the College of New Jersey he advocated resistance to the crown during a commencement address.
Oliver Wolcott (Connecticut): A soldier as well as a lawyer, Wolcott found his martial experience invaluable during the Revolutionary War, where he served as a brigadier general during the New York campaigns of 1776-77.
George Wythe (Virginia): As a law professor Wythe counted among his students future American presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. Wythe was an early advocate of separate nationhood for the colonies.
Updated: Jul. 04, 2014