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Today, once again, we celebrate our independence from Britain, accomplished with the decisive aid of Britain’s arch-enemy France.
It should be noted that the legal declaration of independence was not on July 4, but July 2, when the Virginian Richard Henry Lee’s resolution that “these United Colonies” were thirteen “free and independent states” was passed by the Continental Congress.
Jefferson’s document dated July 4 — his authorship was not generally known at the time — was in effect the press release announcing the July 2 resolution. It was first presented to the public as a broadside, printed in an edition of 200, of which 24 copies are known to survive. It was read to the insurgent troops, who responded in state after state much like the Georgia battalion, “who, after the reading of the Declaration, discharged their field pieces, and fired in platoons.”
The move to independence was undertaken for different reasons in accordance with different sectional interests, but in Virginia (the oldest, largest, and wealthiest of the colonies), Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, an urgent motive was to protect slavery from the growing power of abolitionism in Britain, as manifested in Lord Mansfield’s Somerset decision of 1772.
In the years between Lord Dunmore’s November 7, 1775 emancipation proclamation that offered freedom to “all indentured servants, Negroes, or others . . . that are able and willing to bear arms” and Cornwallis’s invasion of Virginia, tens of thousands of enslaved Americans decamped to the British, including people who had legally belonged to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. No one knows how many escaped; Jefferson estimated thirty thousand in Virginia alone, though he apparently made that number up. In an era when disease routinely killed more soldiers than combat, many died of smallpox and other maladies.
Perhaps twenty percent of the American population remained loyal to the King, with Loyalists especially strong in New York. Stigmatized as “Tories,” they were subject to taunts and harassment by mobs, and on occasion were tarred and feathered and run out of their towns. Another twenty percent were enslaved, and were overwhelmingly on the side of the British, who promised them freedom from their slavery to the self-proclaimed Patriots. With that many people opposed to it, the “American Revolution” was frequently referred to the time as a “civil war.”
Jefferson’s Declaration was written with the strategic intention of pleasing France, in the hope that that monarchy would pull the slaveowners’ chestnuts out of the fire. Which, ultimately, his Christian Majesty Louis XVI did. After concluding a commercial treaty and a treaty of alliance with the United States in 1778, France in 1780 sent 6,000 troops in ten ships of the line and thirty transports, with one of France’s most distinguished generals, Jean-Baptiste Ponton de Rochambeau, at the head, all to be placed under Washington’s command. In gratitude, Thomas Jefferson, by then Governor of Virginia, signed the charter for a new Ohio River settlement named Louisville, the county seat of the newly organized Jefferson County.
Talk about your freedom fries — as every student of American history knows, French soldiers formed the majority fighting against the British at Yorktown, the decisive battle of the War for Independence.
Louis XVI, of course, was guillotined on January 21, 1793 by the other revolution Jefferson championed, and his Austrian wife, Marie Antoinette, suffered the same fate on October 16.
Happy Fourth of July. Be careful discharging your field pieces.