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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

“Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776”, by William Hogeland

288 pages, Simon & Schuster, ISBN-13: 978-1416584094

On May 1st, 1776, Pennsylvania said NO to independence when voters turned out and, in the nearest thing to a referendum on independence, voted it down. In reality, they voted for a form of state government that, in and of itself, precluded support of the colony’s representatives to the Continental Congress for independence. It had been a long and difficult battle for John Dickerson and marked the beginning of a series of behind-the-scenes meetings and actions by Samuel Adams that could be considered nothing short of a conspiracy to declare independence.

This is only one of the many little-known stories told by William Hogeland in Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776. Fascinating, beautiful, eloquent and timely – this is how men accomplish greatness when ambitions rise above greed and the shared good of the common all replaces privileges for an elite few. Hogeland outlines the clash between two great ideas: the Tory commitment to the status quo of banks, business and property; and the Whig rights of workers, farmers and the militias. The focus is on one topic: the right to be independent of a government that ignored the best interests of the people and instead supported an old and unresponsive Establishment.

Hogeland deftly outlines two powerful forces for independence: the Southern aristocratic desire for a kingless state; and the Northern quest for virtuous and least corruptible government based on town meetings. The differences, resolved from May 1st to July 2nd, 1776, overcame the Virginia opposition to independence which otherwise would have doomed the colonies. Without union, the British could have pitted colonies against each other to crush the conflict which had begun the spring of 1775. Delegates who debated independence or reconciliation met under the immediate threat of a British invasion fleet carrying at least 13,000 Hessian mercenaries.

Some of the men who advocated independence include Benjamin Rush, who later became the chief doctor of the Continental Army and who wanted “to improve diet and reduce drinking among the American poor, to help them rise from squalor by bettering themselves”, and Herman Husband, a preacher and Pennsylvania assembly member in 1776, who “wanted taxes on income and wealth, and he wanted them to be progressive…[h]e wanted a public program to make old people financially secure”, and John Adams, an elite lawyer from Massachusetts who “wanted above all to prevent democratic populism there…in the end Adams succeeded” (incidentally, Pennsylvania’s new constitution “regulated monopolies…refused to charter a bank they believed served the rich at the expense of the poor…pushed back against predatory credit and foreclosure, forcing the lending class to accept discounted payments”).

Such was the diversity of independence; the issues they debated are still at the heart of American politics, and this book is a superb introduction to those arguments, passions and triumphs.

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