The fog was lifting over New York early on the morning of June 29, 1776, when a man named Daniel McCurtin happened to glance out over the bay. At first he saw nothing but mist hanging low over the water then suddenly he blinked and stared in amazement.
Later he tried to describe the scene. He wrote that he had “spied as I peeped out the Bay something resembling a wood of pine trees trimmed. I declare, at my noticing this, that I could not believe my eyes, but keeping my eyes fixed at the very spot, judge you of my surprise when in about ten minutes, the whole Bay was full of shipping as ever it could be. I declare that I thought all London was afloat.”
Washington’s lookouts on the share of Long Island were blinking, too, as General Howe’s mighty fleet of 130 ships arrived in the Lower Bay. This was the Army Howe had taken to Halifax after being forced out of Boston, but now it was greatly strengthened. The fleet anchored near Staten Island, shifting its anchorage in the bay several times during the next few days. The Americans waited, trying to guess where the attack would come. At Manhattan? Or Brooklyn? Or would Howe sail up the Hudson and attempt to join forces with a British army coming down from Canada by land?
Howe finally put his army ashore on Staten Island at the month of the harbour, which was not defended. The British were not yet ready to strike. They were awaiting reinforcements from England. The delay gave Washington more time to fortify his positions in Manhattan and across the East River on Brooklyn Heights. To defend both places meant splitting his small army in half, with the East River between them. Had he kept all his forces in Manhattan, the British could have mounted cannon on Brooklyn Heights and destroyed the city.
New York was extremely difficult to defend. Yet, both Congress and Washington were anxious to prevent it from falling into British hands, for the loss of one of the most important cities in the colonies would frighten and discourage the colonial governments as well as the people. Many Americans, convinced that the war was a hopeless one, might then have joined the loyalists and forced the country to make peace with England.
The presence of thousands of American troops in New York did help the revolution in one way. It made the leading loyalists leave town and gave the outspoken patriots in the army a chance to turn public opinion there in favour of independence. This kind of help was important, because it made the country more united. The patriots and committees helped, too, by writing pamphlets and articles about the need for independence. Thomas Paine said that America was the only stronghold of liberty left in the world. In Europe freedom lay crushed under the heels of kings and princes and the same thing was about to happen in England. America must defend its freedom and “prepare in time an asylum for all mankind.” Still another thing that helped independence was England’s action in forcing American sailors to serve in the British navy. This was taken as proof that the English regarded the Americans as slaves.
One by one, the colonial governments instructed their delegates in Congress to vote for independence. Massachusetts, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia were the first to do so. By May, four colonies in New England and four in the South had declared in favour of independence. The middle colonies still remained undecided. “They were not quite ripe,” reported John Adams. “but they are very near it.” Congress waited. The delay made the patriots impatient and they blamed the delegates for being timid. One wrote to Samuel Adams, saying‚ “The people are ahead of you now.” If Congress did not act quickly, soldiers and patriots would march on Philadelphia, get rid of Congress and set up the kind of government that would carry out the will of the people.
On June 7, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia asked Congress to decide “that these united colonies are, and ought to be, free and independent states . . .” After several days of debate, Lee said that there had already been too much talk. Why not vote now? “Let this happy day give birth to an American Republic! The eyes of Europe are fixed upon us. She demands of us a living example of freedom.”
The vote had to be held up for several weeks, because some of the delegates were still awaiting instructions from home. Meanwhile, Congress chose a committee of five to write a Declaration of Independence — Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston. The committee turned over the actual work of writing the declaration to Thomas Jefferson, the tall gentleman farmer from Virginia, who they felt was the best writer among them. Jefferson was only thirty-three at the time but his views were well known. He believed it was better “to die free men rather than to live slaves.” In one of his papers he had written that “God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.”
It took Jefferson eighteen days to write the Declaration of Independence. Later, he recalled that he had written it “without reference to book or pamphlet.” He did not think it was his duty to “invent new ideas.” The Declaration, he said, “was intended to be an expression of the American mind.”
American ideas about government and politics were not new, nor were they invented by radical leaders to bring about revolution. The seeds of these ideas had come from such widely different things as religion, the “rights of Englishmen,” life on the frontiers and from a hundred and fifty years of colonial experience in self-government.
The Puritans who landed at Plymouth Rock, for example, brought with them the religious idea that all men are equal before God. This led them to the political idea that all men should be treated as equal by the law. In the minds of the colonists, America meant freedom. They had found freedom in the colonies because they lived so far away from the British king that he could no longer control their daily lives. They had to pay for this new freedom by suffering the hardships of frontier life. They had to organize their own kind of society, set up local governments, make their own laws and settle their own community problems. They had learned how to care for themselves and took pride in what they had accomplished. In time, they came to look upon freedom as something they had earned, something which now belonged to them and which no one could take from them.
In England, where the rich owned the land, freedom of choice was limited for ordinary people. The only choice most of them had was whether to work for one rich person or another rich person. Their pay, in either case, would be very small. Freedom of choice in England, therefore, meant almost nothing, for it rarely gave anyone an opportunity to better himself, but in America, freedom of choice meant almost unlimited opportunity. Every man– except slaves had a chance to better himself and to use his ability in a way that would pay him well.
Thus freedom gave the colonies a new and richer way of life. It gave them confidence and dignity and a feeling of independence. It led them to recognize the importance of the individual and his rights. It gave them a chance to discover that ordinary people could govern themselves.
Freedom was something the colonists lived and felt but at first their lives were so active that they had little time to think about it. They never tried to put these feelings into words until England threatened their liberty. Then they struggled to explain their feelings. Colonial writers and speakers turned for help to an old book by John Locke, an Englishman. His book had nothing to do with America, but some of his political views were exactly like those held by the colonists and could be used to support the colonial cause.
Locke based his arguments on the natural rights of man, rights given by God to all men everywhere. He wrote that the power to govern came from the people. They gave that power to the government. Therefore it was the government’s duty to serve the people and to act for the good of all. If it failed to do so, the people could do away with it and set up another government that would serve them better.
Locke’s ideas were very popular among the colonists in 1776. Jefferson knew this. He also understood the wordless feelings the colonists had about freedom and life and government. These were the things he tried to put into words so that the Declaration of Independence would be an “expression of the American mind.” At the beginning of the Declaration, Jefferson listed some great truths that applied to all men everywhere. This listing was important because the Declaration was written for the peoples of all the world, so that they would understand, approve and be inspired by the American Revolution.
JU LY 4, 1776
The first of the great truths listed is “That all men are created equal . . .” They are equal before God and equal before the law. Jefferson and the other delegates knew that the slaves were not treated as equals, but the fact that some men were being denied equality did not change the great truth. Congress was saying, in effect, that all men had the right to be recognized and treated as equals. Congress was setting up a goal, pointing the way toward a more perfect form of society.
Another of the great truths set forth is that God gave all men certain rights which cannot be taken from them; and that among these rights are life, liberty and the chance to search for happiness.
The Declaration states that people organize governments to protect these rights and that such governments receive their power from the people themselves. Whenever a government fails to protect these rights the people can make changes in the government, or do away with it and set up some other form of government to provide for their safety and happiness.
The Declaration then continues with a long list of complaints against the king, showing how his government failed to protect the rights of the American people. The list was intended to prove that King George III “is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”
On July 2, Congress voted for a separation from England. It then considered the Declaration of Independence and passed it on July 4, 1776.
Now at last Americans knew exactly what they were fighting for: independence, the natural rights of man and the kind of self-government under which all men could be free and equal.