I’m writing today as Charles Thompson, Secretary of the 2nd Continental Congress. I became Thompson in the production of the musical “1776″ that people from across the Bighorn Basin (pulled together by my real-life wife Lynne) performed in Cody over the Fourth of July holiday weekend. There’s a certain appropriateness to me being Charles Thompson in that Thompson, like me, was a historian. Or at least he certainly turned out to be one, since we owe to him the details we know of what went on with the people who were, during our Revolutionary War, essentially the government of what became the United States. We know them and what they said and did due to Thompson’s obsession with saving every document that came across his desk — including nearly 2,000 dispatches from George Washington in the field with the Continental Army.
This special service where I was allowed to give a talk followed a wonderful tradition at Christ Church of services performed in the historic traditions of the time. The service fell on the 240th anniversary of the founding of America. Rituals, prayers and the music we used date back more than two centuries.
But, I think there’s a special significance to 240th Independence Day in a time of political turmoil and rapid change to remind ourselves of what lessons those earlier times might teach us about our promise and purpose as a nation — and as a distinct people living in the first long-enduring republic in human history.
Miracle in Philadelphia
The creation of this nation is a historical phenomenon that Joseph Ellis, the author of “Founding Brothers,” called “the miracle in Philadelphia.” But, he does not deify the founders. He describes their basic humanity — their ambitions, their talents, their flaws, their often vastly different backgrounds in education, in birth and in livelihoods — and their self-interest as inhabitants of highly differentiated parts of the continental seaboard, from the indigo, tobacco and cotton growing southern colonies, to farming and agriculturally-focused middle America, to New England merchants and shipbuilders and seafaring folks.
But, one thing they all shared was a crucial world-view that they were different from the mother country. Though not in thought, but in fact, they were Americans with more than 150 years of experience building a new world an ocean away from England. Americans in these colonies had been living there for five and six generations. It was an identity built into their DNA; but, subordinate, in all their hearts, to their identity as Englishmen loyal to the same crown, the same traditions and the same culture that held sway among citizens of the British Isles.
The rub came in the 12 years between the triumphant victory of the British in the French and Indian War, or “7 Years War” as it was called on the continent, after which Britain gained Canada, the subcontinent of India and many Spanish possessions in both the old and new worlds. England in 1763 stood astride the world like a colossus. The British Empire was the new Rome and Englishmen on both sides of the Atlantic swelled with pride at that accomplishment.
Those in America, however, also had a strong sense of parity with Great Britain. The American colonies had become de facto every bit the equivalent of a nation in their own right. They had an expanding world economy, prized exports for worldwide consumption and a booming market for British goods and services, plus large financial institutions and a vibrant culture. Why then should they be considered any less than equal citizens with the same rights and privileges as their brethren overseas?
That posture had not really been tested in any serious way. Yes! There were imposts and taxes, duties and tariffs, but only loosely enforced when things were going well. And, Americans were talented smugglers as well as legal arguers when things were not going so well. But, in a short 12 years it all came crashing down. Why? After all — all those “Acts” that drove us all mad in History 101 in high school and college — the Stamp Act, the Tea Act, the Townshend duties, the Boston Port Act, the Quartering Act and the Intolerable Acts — all the mother country wanted was for the colonies to help pay for the war Britain had fought on their behalf. Of course, it was a whopping 120,000,000 pounds, which was no small amount; but, didn’t we owe the mother country some help? The problem was England didn’t ask the colonies to participate in the process. And, here I’ll revert to a human metaphor. They didn’t see that their children were fully grown and capable of being equal partners in the affairs of the family.
So, to the moment at hand! 1776! And, the Declaration of Independence! The musical play presented this past weekend was written from detailed and careful research by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards; and the arguments and debates are brought full blown onto the stage. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania derides John Adams calling him an incendiary madman. Edward Rutledge, a slave owner, shames his New England merchant peers for their hypocrisy in making profits from transporting slaves from Africa. And, Thomas Jefferson, after withstanding amendment after amendment to his precious declaration, slams his fist on my desk and demands an end to it.
These are not the demigods of portraiture and statuary — and from that reminder, I think we can draw some hope.
So, let’s look at the declaration they adopted after tortuous months of soul-searching, angry debates and endless frustrations — months of despair and shattered hopes of reconciliation with the the mother country. Severing the ties with Britain carried a psychological cost for many that would be hard to imagine today, short of considering the cost of such a break demonstrated by our own civil war. But, once all other efforts failed and the only course seemed left to them was independence, they determined unanimously to explain to the world the reasons. And, explain it they did — in eloquent words that Jefferson himself said would “determine our fate and the fate of the world.”
“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 those rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it…”
These words were to be then, and have been since that time, the foundation of revolutions, of nations aborning and of the worldwide common-sense assumption that nationhood and freedom should always be synonymous.
But, I’d like to delve into its roots. This remarkable document has both philosophical and spiritual roots — roots in the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and Romans; roots in the Enlightenment and Deism and roots in Christianity. Let me emphasize here the sources from Christianity. In the Great Courses lectures on the history of freedom, University of Oklahoma Professor J. Rufus Fears, cites the teachings of Jesus and his consequent gift to all humanity of individual freedom — freedom from sin; and, freedom from death. The professor emphasizes not the freedom of the community of mankind; but, the emancipation of the individual who is created free by almighty God. When the declaration says “ … and they are endowed by their creator [by God] with certain unalienable rights,” it is saying that the God who has created mankind free is the God that gave mankind rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And, with those pronouncements, the divine right of kings is destroyed forever.
We are in polarizing times, as they were in their times. But, our country has gone through worse. We are not pinioning our brothers with bayonets as we did in the Civil War. But, if there is a difference that places that time on a separate plane, it might be contained in Joseph Ellis’ assessment of the miracle in Philadelphia. He cites the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton (whose biography has been the rage of Broadway recently). And, he explains the duel as a matter of honor — “honor mattered because character mattered.” In the epilogue of the Declaration of Independence is the pledge the signers made — they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their “sacred honor.” In Ellis’ assessment, “the fate of the American experiment with republican government required virtuous leaders to survive. Eventually, the United States might develop into a nation of laws, established institutions capable of surviving corrupt or incompetent public officials. But, it was not there — not then. It still required honorable and virtuous leaders to survive.”
It’s the virtue John Adams displays in the play when he, in a moment of his own despair, calls on Abigail for help and advice. His law practice is down the pipe, his farm mortgaged to the hilt, and the entire southern delegation has walked out over the slavery issue. But, Abigail reminds him of his commitment to the cause. He goes back to the chamber alone at night and asks “is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?” And, as his song gathers power so does his vision, his dream of the America he wants to see and he cries out “through the gloom, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory.”
Adams’ song and his stance are an act of faith — faith in something that can lead to a better world — an aspiration to be more than what we are — a spirit that frees us from tyranny. The belief he had in that most profound of political phrases “that all men are created equal” spurred him — that phrase — the phrase that Abraham Lincoln four score and seven years later powerfully re-affirmed at Gettysburg when he reminded the crowd how “our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
In these times we, too, we need to re-affirm that faith; and, we need to mine our history to rediscover public virtue;
As John Adams asked then; he asks us Now:
Is anybody there?
We are today’s Americans! We are here!
Does anybody care?
We are your progeny! We must care!
Can we see “the rays of ravishing light and glory?”
If we cleave to “the spirit of our fathers,” we will; and, our lives and our world can again look for realization of the promise and purpose of our country.
We have a lot to do — to recognize each other as equals (always a tough task, for us humans), to act upon that and call upon others to do the same, finding a way forward in a world full of dangers — to look for and empower leaders who have virtue.
Wyoming is only a small part of the nation, and of the world. But we need to do that here too. We’re in challenging times; we need to draw on our best traditions, including political dialogue that is both impassioned and respectful, to find our way forward here.
— Dr. Peter Kooi Simpson is a University of Wyoming professor emeritus who taught political science for more than 12 years. A University of Wyoming basketball player and veteran of the Navy, Simpson earned his doctorate in history from the University of Oregon. He later worked in administration at Casper College and Sheridan College and chaired the University of Wyoming Foundation. The son of Gov. Milward Simpson and the older brother of Sen. Alan Simpson, Pete served as a state representative from 1981-1984, and ran for governor against Democrat Mike Sullivan in 1986. Pete and his wife Lynne are active supporters of the arts, having collaborated on numerous theatrical productions throughout their lives. He lives in Cody.
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