Like that uncle who tells children on Christmas morning that there is no Santa Claus, Lord Conrad Black chose the Fourth of July to question the veracity of the Declaration of Independence. For the sake of the “historical accuracy” he champions, I write to set the record straight. Our Founders were right.
Last week, we celebrated the birth of our nation. As John Adams suggested in 1776, “It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” With our Declaration of Independence, we create a new nation based on our unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That fabled document presents a rousing case for our natural right to shed the bonds of British tyranny. Historian Black certainly presents compelling points, but he makes two primary errors in his critique of our Declaration.
First, Black takes a rather myopic view of the buildup to hostilities. Focusing merely on the Stamp Act, he ignores Britain’s additional vexing measures aimed at building London’s tax base, including the Sugar Act and the notorious Tea Act. These are in addition to the Quartering Act that violated American homes and property, the Coercive Acts that stripped Massachusetts of self-government, and the Royal Proclamation of 1763 that blocked American westward expansion. Black also glosses over the deeper — and perhaps most important — principle: These measures were imposed without providing the colonies the right to elect representatives to Parliament.
Second, Black neglects the glaring fact that we had been warring with British forces for over a year before Jefferson ever put quill to parchment. Black takes issue with, among other parts of Jefferson’s masterpiece, the lines charging that George III “evinces [a] design to reduce [us] under absolute despotism” and has been “waging war against us. He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.” Black asks, “Were Jefferson and the others delusional? What on earth were they writing about?” He contends, “None of this had happened.” But it had. If the Declaration had been written in March of 1775, Black’s contentions would be more accurate; however, we declared our independence over a year later, in July of 1776.
The powder keg of tension created by Britain’s Acts and the Proclamation finally ignited only when the occupying British forces moved to confiscate American arms. About 70 American farmers and shopkeepers stood on a small, dewy town green, in Lexington, Mass., boldly facing a well-trained column of approximately 1,000 British regulars. Terrified by the enormous mass of red and metal rapidly nearing, some of the Americans decided to go home. But just then, the confused scene was pierced by the boom of a gun.
Each side blamed the other for this “shot heard round the world,” but, regardless, the British officers were unable to restrain their men from firing — killing ten Americans and injuring ten others. With that, the conflict snowballed as rage militaire engulfed the region and Americans responded by the thousands in the defense of their families and homes. Whatever legitimate arguments the British had for taxing the colonies, which Black eloquently makes, they meant little as the political dispute escalated into armed bloodshed.
By the time Jefferson was writing, not only had we endured bloody battles, such as that at Bunker Hill, but Britain also had attacked and seized our ships, bombarded our shores from Georgia to Maine, burned multiple towns — including Falmouth, Mass., and Norfolk, Va. — and took countless American lives. So it is not a stretch for Jefferson to declare of the king, “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.”
Add to this the fact that the Americans had attempted to negotiate peace during the summer of 1775. They presented the British with the “Olive Branch Petition,” in which the colonies agreed to end their uprising if George III and Parliament revoked their oppressive new laws and withdrew their troops. When the king rejected their attempts at peace and sent more ships and soldiers to kill them, the Americans, it is little wonder, viewed him as “evinc[ing] a design to reduce them under absolute despotism.”
The authors of the Declaration knew that the document was needed to rouse the people and galvanize support for what would be a long and difficult war. The language was carefully scribed to serve that purpose, but that does not make the Declaration any less true — and it certainly does not make our Founders “delusional.”
Downplaying his masterpiece, Jefferson wrote of the Declaration, “Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind.” What an accurate expression it turned out to be.
— Logan Beirne is the Olin Scholar at Yale Law School and the author of the book Blood of Tyrants: George Washington & the Forging of the Presidency from Encounter Books.