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Friday, May 31, 2013
What most Americans know of how our Founding Fathers made a union of British colonies that then fought against the British war juggernaut and won the opportunity to begin a new nation is a kaleidoscopic montage:
Paul Revere, Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock. Philadelphia, Declaration of Independence, Benedict Arnold, Nathan Hale. Yorktown. Victory and nationhood.
Richard Beeman has crafted a slightly longer and more detailed version of the process by which the Founding Fathers decided to declare the American colonies’ political separation from Great Britain.
Near the end of his new book, “Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor,” Beeman provides a succinct description of the basic challenge facing delegates to the Continental Convention:
“ Congress … sought common ground … some basis for unified action. This was no small task, for the story of America’s agonizing decision for independence is not a single story, but rather, at least 13 separate stories, involving differing conditions and differing responses in each of the mainland North American colonies.”
Beeman, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania (founded by Benjamin Franklin), presents the story of the Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia, and its revolutionary decisions that unveils the difficulty of arriving at those decisions.
This book offers a detailed explanation of the activities of the British colonies in America from the precursory acts that led to the formation of a Continental Congress to the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
Beeman provides profiles of each of the significant players in the two sessions of the Continental Congress along with a timeline from Dec. 16, 1773 (Boston Tea Party), to July 4, 1776 (Declaration of Independence). Together these resources provide a context for the work of the representatives of the several colonies.
It is important to know that when the Congress first convened, a majority of the delegates wanted to find a negotiated solution to the conflict between Parliament and the king’s subjects in America. The Massachusetts delegation, especially cousins Sam and John Adams, came to Philadelphia to campaign for immediate separation from British rule.
Sam Adams, who had orchestrated much of the “mob” activities in Boston that caused the convening of this congress, brought his considerable skills to Philadelphia where couriers from Boston arrived frequently with news of new “atrocities” against colonists at the hands of British soldiers. Often those reports were false or exaggerated, but they had the desired effect of building doubt among the royalists in the hall.
Throughout the two session of the Continental Congress there were tensions among the delegates, and Beeman captures that dynamic in prose that builds suspense — even though the outcome is known. He summarizes that tension:
“The Congress was not, as some have since claimed, divided between patriots and future loyalists … [it] was between those who were advocating independence and those … who were asking for more time to make further attempts at reconciliation.”
As the Congress approaches the date on which they were to debate independence, the tensions build again as the respective states struggle with the pressure from their residents who are pushing for independence.
Beeman’s prose captures those tensions and facilitates the imagination so the reader can feel a part of the debate. His vivid prose also helps remind us that Philadelphia was full of all the sights and sounds and smells — especially the smells — of the 18th century.
An important appendix shows Thomas Jefferson’s complete draft of the Declaration of Independence. As you might see with the first draft of any manuscript, the editors’ marks are included, so we see what Jefferson offered Congress and what Congress accepted.
And therein lies another point of debate since Jefferson “complained about the ‘mutilations’ from which the original draft suffered.” Experts disagree with the peevish young planter from Virginia, noting that the final version is succinct and eloquent.
Beeman’s “Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor” is an appropriate complement to David Stewart’s “The Summer of 1787,” which chronicles the debates that led to formation of the Constitution and a new form of national government to replace the failing confederation created by the Continental Congress.
Together these two books tell the story of the Founders (who established independence) and the framers (who imagined a government that would support independence). Because membership in each group overlapped, it is enlightening to see how these men matured as political leaders as the new nation.
Beeman has produced an authoritative account of how this nation was imagined, and how the members from different sections of the continent were able to put aside their differences and to explore their differing philosophical, political and market needs to form an embryonic government that has grown to be a beacon for other communities seeking self-governance.
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