Sam Burnham, Curator
I want to talk about why we are going to be celebrating this week. When you set out to tell a story, it's best to start at the beginning. Sometimes with history that can be tough to do. So we'll start as close to the beginning of this one as is prudent.
In 1607, the first English settlers arrived on the banks of the James River in Virginia. You'll notice I didn't start with The Pilgrims. That's because they took a wrong turn and got lost or something. They wouldn't make it over here for another 13 years. This is where the whole things started. The cross at right serves as a memorial for the people who died establishing the first permanent English colony. That's right, America was born in The South.
Colonization was a good gig for these folks. It was rough at first But Americans aren't descended from pansies. The colonies grew and prospered. Colonization was good for Great Britain as well. So when the French were sneaking around on the frontier making allies with the natives and trying to do some profiting of their own, the colonists and the King all agreed it was time to put the squash on the frog eaters. Seven years of war later and the French were gone, the Indians were friendless, and the British were in debt.
The King decided to get out of debt the same way all governments do. Taxes.
The colonists didn't agree that this was the best idea as they were the ones paying the taxes. The King said the war benefited them most. They said they did most of the fighting (that might be a stretch.) He said he didn't care. They said we have the same rights as any Englishmen, Magna Carta, English Bill of Rights, etc. The King told them to take it up with their Member of Parliament. Which is good advice...if only they had had one.
So the colonists decided to start protesting, to start resisting. They started getting rowdy and running amok. They covered tax collectors with tar and feathers. They burned the King in effigy, they destroyed or captured items to prevent the collection of taxes on them.
So the King sent soldiers.
We live in times when we "support the troops." Service members are regarded as respectable and honorable people. But the troops George III sent were mostly foreigners, hardened warriors following orders with little regard for the rights of the colonists. They were the types of men you'd never want passing by your food garden, walking past your valuables, or quartered under the same roof as your young daughter. On and off duty, they were a menace. And the more the colonists resisted, the worse the situation got.
Rebelling colonists were shot dead on the streets of Boston. The situation continued to deteriorate.
The British moved to disarm colonists at Lexington and Concord. But you never bring city people to a redneck fight. The colonists made a stand and defeated the seasoned warriors at the North Bridge as well as other locations along the road west of Boston. The British were forced to retreat back to Boston without confiscating the weapons they searched for.
With blood spilled on both sides war was not only inevitable, it was a present reality.
Debate about the conditions in the colonies would rage for months. Many claimed that the colonies were bringing the trouble upon themselves. Others said that the usurpation of rights would continue regardless of what the colonists did to avoid them.
In the end, representatives from each colony met in Philadelphia. They debated some more but finally arrived at the unanimous decision to cut ties with Great Britain.
To draft the Declaration, they chose a young and promising statesman from Virginia. He was a graduate of William and Mary, had served Virginia in various roles, and had seen success in business as well as law. He was an intellectual with a gifted pen. They teamed Thomas Jefferson with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston and together they laid out the ideas that Jefferson put to words.
Some of the sentences he crafted:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
"But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."
"A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."
"The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States."
"We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do."
Last, but not least, we find probably the true cornerstone of the United States. We see the American spirit of adventure, the rugged individuality, the fierce commitment to Liberty, the knowledge of the risks and costs involved, the willingness to face, even embrace, the high price of freedom:
"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."
And that is how 13 colonies became 13 States and dared to stare down the barrel at the British Empire to embark on the adventure that is America. It took guts, it took brains, perhaps even a little arrogance. That is what we celebrate. That is what it is to be America. It is to risk everything on what we truly believe in, to prefer death over tyranny, to take a stand, to put trust in the Hand of God Almighty, and to do it with the foreknowledge of the consequences of failure.
The excerpts from The Declaration were taken from the transcript on the website of the National Archives. Taking the 8-10 minutes required to read the entire text of the Declaration is an excellent addition to the observance of The 4th.
Sam Burnham, Curator
With all the hubbub these days about pointing out the connection many of the great men of our past have to slavery it can be easy to throw out the good with the bad. Such rush to judgement has hit Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson, and even the Father of our Country, George Washington.
I fear that the modern progressive urge to us slavery to purge our history of much of the greatness and to paint America in a light that demands apologies at every step in our history we have begun to lose some of what truly makes this nation great. I think Washington is an excellent example of that phenomenon.
I don't think that we should ever ignore, excuse, or forget the fact that George Washington held over 300 people in involuntary servitude in order to make Mount Vernon operate smoothly. That is as real a flaw as a human can have and without this knowledge we never can have a true understanding of the man.
But we must never allow that to become the entire Washington story. Washington was so much more than a slave owner and his actions in life have helped to forge a better nation for Americans of all races.
Washington was a successful businessman, an agricultural scientist, a farmer, a soldier, a surveyor, a politician
He pulled off some of the most storied victories in American Military History. His crossing of the Delaware and subsequent victory at Trenton we works of genius. His actions on the battlefield in both the French and Indian War and the Revolution demonstrated competence, skill, and courage. He inspired a forlorn fledgling nation and led the people to victory.
Through his service in the American Revolution, he gained a lot of power and influence. There we even members of his military circle that suggested a coup, that he seize power and become the military dictator or king. Washington responded to this by reporting to Congress upon the Treaty of Paris and resigning his military commission, handing the military to Congress and returning to Mount Vernon. It was an incredible, selfless act that left power where Washington believed it belonged, with the people.
Washington attempted to retire but was called back to service when the state delegations elected him as the President of the Constitutional Congress. You can see it in the process that the framers had Washington in mind for the President all along. And he did ascend to the presidency. His two terms set several precedents that still stand with the office today.
At the end of his second term, true to form, he hung it up. It was time for America to move forward, to not rely on Washington at every turn. It was time for change and a future. And that is what the nation had because of Washington.
Through courage and humility, Washington truly fathered this nation. He led by example and helped to lay a foundation for our system of government. These are the traits in Washington that we must never forget. We must never let the modern narrative dehumanize this giant of a man or let his influence on the greatness of America from being reduced. We stand on the shoulders of giants and Washington is one of the chiefs among them.
Consider the word of the eulogy given by General Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee:
“First in war- first in peace- and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life; pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere; uniform, dignified and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him, as were the effects of that example lasting.”
By Sam Burnham
On October 19, 1791, exactly 235 years ago today, British General Cornwallis signed the document of capitulation at Yorktown, Virginia. That effectively put an end to the American Revolution and secured Independence for the United States.
The surrender ended the Siege of Yorktown, a military action in which allied American and French forces under the command of Generals George Washington and Compte de Rochambeau pinned the British against the banks of the York River and then used artillery to shell them into submission.
The Allies created a perfect storm. The brilliant young Frenchman, Major General Marquis de Lafayette, had pursued Cornwallis onto the Virginia Peninsula as the British force was attempting to escape to fight another day. Washington heard of this development in New York and recognized an opportunity to put an end to the war. Feigning a siege if New York, he sneaked his army to the south before British commander Sir Henry Clinton could do anything about it.
What followed was one of those legendary American marches that we've seen turn the tide in wars. When an entire division, or even an entire army just gets up and relocates over an "impossible" distance in an "impossible" amount of time - the "we have to do this right now" American feat of military mobility. Washington's army marched from New York to Virginia in time to trap the British.
While the French fleet arrived just in time and clobbered the British naval force sent to rescue the Redcoats, Cornwallis went from facing off against the 24-year-old Lafayette to being outnumbered 2-to-1 and trying to also outwit Washington, Rochambeau, Henry Knox, and Baron von Steuben. And let's be honest, he wasn't trapped on a peninsula awaiting evacuation because he was handling Lafayette.
Parallels, trenches, were dug across the battlefield. Yorktown was not a traditional battle in terms of infantry lining off and firing while trying to outflank each other or break the lines of fire. Yorktown was a siege. The Allies dug trenches to put artillery in and shelled the British. When the Redcoats fell back, the Allies built a closer trench.
The second trench's completion was dependent on the capture of two British redoubts - earthen mini-forts protected by armed Redcoats and abatis. The French took Redoubt 9 and the Americans captured Redoubt 10. The taking of Redoubt 10 is another legendary American military feat. It guaranteed the completion of the second parallel and effectively sealed Cornwallis' fate. (As well as provided one of the few positives you'll ever hear me utter about Alexander Hamilton.)
To take the position, Alexander Hamilton led light infantry armed with unloaded muskets, to avoid having an accidental discharge tip off the British, on a head-on bayonet charge. They went up the slopes, through the abatis, over the top and quickly subdued the British forces inside. Once artillery batteries were put in place, Cornwallis was done.
Washington signed the ceasefire document at Redoubt 10 and the two sides sent representatives to discuss surrender. Capitulation was finalized on the 19th.
One of my favorite stories from Yorktown, probably one of the most American things to happen there, was about the song Yankee Doodle. The British had made the song as an insult to the Americans. The song is a depiction of a stupid and naive American who foolishly thought he could be the 18th century equivalent of a trendy hipster, much less a true gentleman. Lafayette, a fascinating man who deserves his own story here, gave us one of the earliest 'Merica moments. Instead of one of their typical marches, Lafayette ordered his band to play Yankee Doodle. At the surrender ceremony. In front of the defeated and embarrassed British Army. The cocky Frenchman slapped the British with the truth that they didn't just lose and lose badly, they lost the Yankee Doodle.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire