A long road to independence

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 3, 2004

On this day, the United States of America celebrates its 228th birthday.

Local historian Robert Leith, professor of history at Ohio University Southern, said the vision of a united nation, free from the dominion of Great Britain, was a dream that was borne of hard work, troubled times and a yearning for a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

Seeds of revolution

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Although the earliest English settlers were loyal to the crown and native country, as the years passed, successive generations became less and less so.

By the mid 1770s, some of the wealthier planters in Virginia were beginning to to become frustrated under British rule and were becoming more and more vocal about their displeasure. Their rebellion caught the attention of the royal governor, who retaliated by issuing a decree that the rebellious group of colonists could no longer meet at Williamsburg.

"These planters were pretty vocal and they began meeting at the Raleigh Tavern to eat and drink, and they were upset about what was happening," Leith said. "They started talking about breaking away from England."

Leith said these ideas gained momentum in early May, 1775, when the second Continental Congress opened its meeting in Philadelphia. These congresses were originally intended to address issues between the colonists and the British government with the hope of peaceable resolution. But since the first meeting, there had been two battles and the colonists had taken two British forts, Leith said. The relationship between the motherland and its offspring across the Atlantic was tense at best.

The Virginia planters who met at the Raleigh Tavern sent a communique to their delegates at the second Continental Congress, suggesting that the new colonies should declare their independence from England.

Leith said the planters may have had less noble and more selfish reasons for wanting to declare their independence from Britain.

"Many of them owed a great amount of money in England," Leith said. "No doubt merchants in Britain were pressuring the government to find a way to collect the money owed by the Virginia planters."

The Virginia planters were perhaps gambling that if the colonies were to break away and declare independence, they might escape paying their huge debts.

On June 7, 1776, delegate Richard Henry Lee took an historic plea before those assembled in Philadelphia. Acting on the communique from the Virginia planters, he urged that the colonies should break away from England and become "united states." It was the first time that the colonies were ever referred to as "states."

"There were three parts of his suggestion," Leith said. "One was to declare independence from the British Empire. The second was to consider themselves states (as opposed to colonies) and the third was to become united states."

Acting on this plea for independence, a five-man committee was appointed on June 11, 1776, to explore the idea of independence. They were: Ben Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. And while all are generally credited with writing the Declaration of Independence, Leith said it was Jefferson who did the work. Others revised it, voted for it and later championed it, but Jefferson was its author.

From June 11 to June 28, Leith said Jefferson concentrated on writing what was to become the super essay of American history: The Declaration of Independence.

While the work of fashioning

the document that would seal America's fate was

hung on Jefferson's shoulders, the Virginian was also burdened with another worry- one just as close to his heart.

"Jefferson's wife, Martha, was pregnant and she was having trouble. She was hemorrhaging," Leith said. "After the first of the Jefferson daughters was born she had become anemic and there are fears now that she will die. So he was under great pressure."

The declaration

While founding fathers are credited with creating the document on which our freedom is based, Leith said few, if any, of their ideas were original. The document was more the result of their extensive reading.

"The Declaration of Independence was really nothing new," Leith said. "He (Jefferson) drew from Aristotle, Cicero, St. Thomas Aquinas and the English philosopher John Locke."

When the document was submitted for the approval of the congress on June 28, numerous changes had been made to Jefferson's original proposal.

"One of the changes made had to do with the slave trade. Jefferson had wanted to do away with the Atlantic slave trade but some of the southern states threatened to leave," Leith said.

"The Declaration of Independence was 1,321 words, much shorter than what Jefferson wrote. And he was hurt by this. He made copies of his work so friends could see the difference between what he had written and what was accepted."

The actual name of the document was The Unanimous Declaration of 13 United States of America.

An historic decision

On July 2, the Continental Congress voted to declare independence from Britain, although the actual Declaration of Independence was not signed for another two days, Leith said.

In writing to his wife, Abigail, back home in Quincy, Mass., John Adams said he envisioned that July 2 would be one of the brightest days in American history, unaware that July 4 would snatch the glory in the ages to come.

The first and only person to sign it was John Hancock. Many others actually waited until August 2 for many reasons, Leith said.

"Lee had left to take care of his wife. Others had been replaced (in the Congress). One of the 56 recanted his signature. Richard Stockton of New Jersey recanted after the Brits threatened to burn his house," Leith said.

Still, the document was cheered by the delegates as a first and decisive step in the road to freedom from English tyranny.

"After it was read two times on July 2, people cheered 'huzzah, huzzah, huzzah,'" Leith said. This was in spite of the fact that this act of independence was considered treason against the British government.

July 4, 2004

Leith said he would love to see our country's independence celebrated in some formal way in our community. Something, he said, that is missing.

"I would like to see a local celebration in a cemetery or in a church," Leith said. "We should remember that it (our freedom) did not come easily. I would like to see some community event here where people come together and show their faith in America and what it stands for."