We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution.
–John F. Kennedy
On 23 December 1783 General Washington surrendered his sword to what he called the “august body” of Congress. In this act he made a deliberate (and graceful) point about the primacy of the civil authority over the military and established a crucial precedent. Despite the ability, energy, and devotion of many of its members, however, said body was hardly august. This was not the old Roman Senate in its glory. The United States in Congress assembled was frankly in disarray. Only twenty members were in attendance that day. Nearly half the states–six–were not represented at all. The treasury was exhausted. Congress had no power to impose tax or tariff, hence no means to meet its pressing immediate needs or to repay its massive debt–except to print more worthless paper. Its armies, on the cusp of mutiny very recently, were all but disbanded now. Very few soldiers felt that they were carrying home with them the thanks of a grateful nation. No one could say when or if those unpaid wages or pensions would provoke the veterans to march again on their own government. In eight years of war Congress had been unable to raise anything like a navy, though active and aggressive privateers had done the British some damage (most notably John Paul Jones, who captured or sank a half-dozen enemy ships on Britain’s very doorstep). Now that the French fleet had sailed, a naval arm was urgently needed. The balance of power had shifted somewhat in the great imperial contest, but an American victory had not changed the nature of the game. In this power struggle, the republic remained a loose string of highly vulnerable states clinging to the seaboard. On their northern frontier the British were posted in Canada. To the south the Spanish held Florida and continued to nurture designs on the Mississippi. The Franco-American alliance was unravelling, and it seemed then unlikely that royalists would long remain friends with republicans who had defied a rightful king. Former friends might well be future foes. Out of revolution America had founded a republic, but it was beset by domestic malice and foreign levy.
If in the noisy press of events the founding fathers could take a moment for quiet reflection, they might ruefully acknowledge that the new nation owed its freedom as much to Britain’s failure as to their own exertions. Britain in its hour of imperial crisis lacked vision and leadership at the highest levels. In the aftermath of Napoleon a generation later, the Prussian theorist, Carl von Clausewitz would argue that war is simply the extension of political struggle by other means. The British government from beginning to end never managed to clearly articulate its political purposes in the struggle. Did the empire mean to conquer a peace as against a foreign enemy, or did it mean to use armed force to compel the colonists to a reconciliation with the old order? The statesmen were not sure, and their indecision affected every phase of the disjointed, often aimless military struggle. Nor was it an easy matter for the military men, both in the high command and on the firing lines, to wage remorseless war to total victory. These colonials might be ragged peasants and ungrateful rebels, but they were cousins, cousins who had gone to war claiming their right to English liberty. It was too late now to remember Sir Edmund Burke’s wise words about English liberty in the days when a political solution was still a bright possibility. Grant the colonies a measure of home rule and commonwealth status, he argued before Parliament, and both Britain and America would be richer for it. The cause of liberty would be richer for it.
Once the battle was fully joined, the British government underestimated the enormous difficulties of command and control over such vast distances. Three thousand miles of stormy Atlantic surged between the policy makers in London and the commanders who must prosecute the war in America. It was nearly the same distance from the northernmost fighting front at the frozen walls of Quebec to the subtropical jungle on the St. John’s River in Florida. Between those two points and from the tidewater to the wild Illinois country below the Great Lakes, there was hardly a road worthy of the name, and over much of it no roads at all. Britain’s first commander-in-chief in America, Thomas Gage, was among the very few to see clearly what a successful war effort would demand, the immediate commitment of thousands upon thousands of soldiers and seamen and millions in treasure. The ministry turned a blind eye to that hard truth, relieved the highly capable Gage, and pinned its hopes on a decisive victory under Sir William Howe. Howe, bold and combative in the field, was not, however, a great strategist. Even so, he had his opportunities–and let them slip through his fingers. He was not, as he later wrote, “a volunteer in that war,” and perhaps in his heart of hearts this was a war he did not want to win.
By the time the high command came to Sir Henry Clinton, the French had joined the contest and the real opportunity to end the rebellion on British terms had probably come and gone. Cautious and indecisive by nature, Clinton did not in any event use the forces at his command purposefully or aggressively. He was unable or unwilling to secure the cooperation of the Royal Navy, his most crucial advantage, and the navy left to its own devices was as cautious and indecisive as Clinton. Neither Arbuthnot nor Graves after him proved eager to carry the fight to the French or to the Americans. Probably the best of the lot on the battlefield was Clinton’s chief lieutenant, Lord Cornwallis, but Clinton disliked and mistrusted him, gave him no direction, and left him to make a miserable end at Yorktown. None of Britain’s top commanders could devise a strategy beyond fighting a decisive battle that would somehow give them America, which was in essence no strategy at all. Battles they had won, many of them quite easily. Cities they had taken. America had just five cities to speak of in the eighteenth century–Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Savannah. At one point or another all of these cities had fallen. Yet neither tactical victories in the field nor urban conquest subdued the rebellion. No part of Britain’s failure properly belonged to her fighting men. The British tar was the same powder-grimed stalwart who had helped batter the French fleet into submission in the Seven Years War. The redcoat in the ranks with the Brown Bess on his shoulder was the same tough campaigner who had climbed the cliffs to the Plains of Abraham to help win a continent a generation earlier. But they had not been ably led in this contest. For the ministry and the high command the American war was clearly not their finest hour.
If British defeat was a top-down failure, American victory was both a top-down and bottom-up success. From the bottom up, the Regulars of the Continental Line became–over time–equal to the British in skill and spirit if not in spit and polish. The regiments of the Maryland and Delaware Line were every bit as battle-worthy as the ancient and fabled Welsh Fusiliers or the Highlanders. At the Battle of Monmouth Court House in 1778 Washington’s Regulars squared off with the redcoats in a punishing, straight-ahead, stand-up fight in suffocating heat and held their ground and more. (Had it not been for the shameless incompetence of the professional, Charles Lee, Washington might have won a smart success at Monmouth.) By Yorktown the American army was capable of conducting a formal siege by the book. Their French comrades sneered at first at the shabby appearance they made but soon came to respect the Americans’ steady performance on the firing line and at the point of the bayonet. The British army was for the most part superior to the American at the level of junior and non-commissioned officers, the spine of an army in battle, but man for man the Continentals and the Regulars were well matched. The American militias, by contrast, were amazingly erratic in performance. On the slopes of Breed’s Hill in the first summer of the war, raw militia held their ground with grim resolve and poured a murderous fire into the British battle lines. Of course here they were dug in and did not need to maneuver in the open field. (Breed’s Hill had one unfortunate consequence for the American cause; it made many in Congress and in the states believe that the war might be won with militia and hence slowed the recruiting and training of the Line regiments.) Elsewhere, most shamefully at Camden, the militia simply broke and ran like sheep at the first shock. Even at their best, the militia from beginning to end were an exasperation to American commanders. Greene said they were simply “ungovernable.” Yet in close and careful cooperation with the Continentals they gave weight to the American army and often struck telling blows–as at Cowpens and Guilford Court House.
The American soldier, Continental or militia, fought at long odds. He faced well-trained and battle-tested professionals, nearly always superior in numbers and always superior in supplies and equipment. He was ill-fed, ill-shod, ill-clothed, a raggamuffin with a musket. But he had one intangible but potent advantage over the redcoat, and that was a cause. Washington called it the “Glorious Cause.” The redcoat (or more painfully, the Hessian hireling) had come three thousand miles simply because his prince had sent him to fight his battles. He did so out of professional pride and personal honor. These were powerful motivators but not the same as a cause deeply held. Indeed, when the redcoat in the ranks thought about why he was in America at all, it would be hard for him to say, for his leaders were not sure. Americans, on the other hand, reached broad general agreement about the purposes of the war and the principles by which it might be won. It is probably true that at the outset of the fighting in Lexington American opinion was equally divided: a third leaning toward resistance, a third toward loyalty, and a third not yet committed. By the second summer of the war, however, a substantial and steady majority of Americans was committed to independence and liberty. Achieving these ends would mean raising and maintaining a regular army and seeking foreign aid and recognition. If the Patriots could stay the course long enough, they could compel the British to sue for peace. In articulating this sense of purpose, Americans enjoyed top-down leadership that the British did not. John Adams would later write that the American Revolution “was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.” Adams here touched on a profound truth, for the Revolution certainly took root in the Americans’ passionate devotion to the ideals of liberty and self-government. Americans had been governing themselves in their local assemblies quite capably for a century and a half before the shot heard ’round the world was fired. But these convictions were given richest expression in the Declaration of Independence composed in the fiery heart of the contest. The struggle was in the name of civil liberty, the belief that governments derive their just powers only from the consent of the governed. It was nothing less than the cause of human equality and human dignity, an affirmation of the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
These lofty ideals would have remained so many noble words in a Philadelphia hall if it had not been for ultimate success on the battlefield. In the end the margin of victory was a hair’s breadth, for by 1781 hardship had just about exhausted the will of Americans to continue the struggle. The British war effort collapsed not a moment too soon for the American cause. In this victory America owed two great debts; to the many and to the few. The many are difficult to count with precision, but something like 200,000 Americans served either in the Line or the militia. The cost of that service was severe. For every hundred men who served more than a dozen died. In eight years of struggle 6,284 were killed in action, more that 10,000 died of disease, and another 8,500 died in the miserable captivity of the prison ships and camps. That is more than 25,000–a conservative estimate–out of a total population of 2,640,000: a death rate of nearly one per cent. To put this loss in perspective, if America were to suffer a calamity of the same proportion today, its dead would number almost 3,000,000–more than the total white and black population of America at the time of the Revolution. In all of America’s wars down to the present day, only the Civil War, in which Americans tried to conquer Americans, were the costs more grievous.
The debt America owed to the few is easier to number, harder to weigh. Certainly her debt was in part international, to that tough old Prussian, Steuben, to the remarkable youth, Lafayette, to the steady and capable Rochambeau. But of her native sons two above all stand out: the Rhode Island Quaker, Nathanael Greene, and the tall Virginian, George Washington. Greene came to war as a complete amateur, and just as Washington was teaching himself the art of command, Greene was learning from him at his side. He was tenacious, resourceful, and flexible. Taking up the fragments of Gates’ broken army in the Carolinas, he hit and ran, marched Cornwallis all over the map, and by feinting and fighting wrested nearly the entire south from British hands. Washington brought some military experience with him when he came to the high command, but the largest body of troops he had ever led was a regiment of militia. He had a gift for organization and logistics right from the start, and even in the earliest stages of their training, his army was brisk and deliberate on the march. Consider by way of comparison the great gang of amateurs Union General Irwin McDowell led in the opening months of the Civil War; it took them the better part of a week to stumble twenty-five miles to the banks of Bull Run. Washington got his entire green and demoralized command over the East River to Manhattan in a single night after the Long Island disaster with hardly the loss of a man or gun. Indeed, speed and discipline on the march were indispensable qualities, because Washington’s army would do more than its fair share of retreating. It had to do so in part because it was overmatched and in part because it was outgeneraled on many occasions. Washington suffered two smarting defeats from the same error, having an exposed flank turned and crushed at both Long Island and Brandywine Creek. At Germantown, his most ambitious offensive stroke apart from Yorktown ended in stalemate because he had asked his army to execute a plan beyond its limited skills.
His genius was defensive, making a virtue of necessity, a gift all the more impressive because he was by nature combative. He was patient, not passive, husbanding his meager resources and preserving the army that kept his cause alive. When opportunity offered or when dire necessity demanded, he could be audacity itself. In the bitter December of ’76 one more defeat would probably have meant the end of the Revolution. Indeed, simply holding his ground on the Delaware probably meant the end. But he crossed the ice-choked river in the dark, struck hard at first light, and soldiered on. Trenton points to Washington’s greatest gift. We might call it character. We might call it moral courage. Having come to the “Glorious Cause” after careful reflection, once committed he was unshakable in his devotion to it. More than this, he constantly communicated by word and deed the meaning and value of that cause to the men he led. His personal bravery, without which an eighteenth-century field commander was wholly lost, was uncommon. the musket balls whistled over his head on many fields and on at least one occasion zipped through his coat. But he was never more courageous than in defeat. A beaten and bleeding column would trudge from the field fought-out, but at the roadside there was always the big man in blue and buff on horseback, calm, impassive, unshaken. The men would look up a moment and, without wasting a breath on an idle cheer, march on. As long as that horseman was not beaten, neither were they.
With his work accomplished and his reputation secure, Washington took his “leave of all the employments of public life” in the last days of 1783 and returned to Martha and Mount Vernon. But his Virginia contentment and his retirement from “the great theatre of action” were to be a brief interlude, for the republic he helped found needed his services as urgently in peace as it had in war. The republic had been lurching along under the loose-jointed Articles of Confederation drafted in 1777 and finally ratified by the states in March of 1781. Washington had seen from the beginning the nation’s need for an effective union. There was no nation properly speaking in 1783, just a “general Confederacy” (in the words of Richard Henry Lee) of increasingly contentious states. One of Washington’s last official acts as commander-in-chief had been a circular letter to the governors of the thirteen states, urging them to give Congress the powers it needed to govern. Failure to do so, he warned, will make America “the sport of European politics, which may play one state against another.” In the immediate post-war years Washington’s worst fears were realized. With no army, no navy, and no money, the country was all but impotent. Britain refused to withdraw troops from posts in the American west (in violation of the Paris treaty) and barred American ships from the West Indian trade. Spain was already working to tighten its grip on the Mississippi, choking off American trade from New Orleans. Arab pirates attacked and seized American ships on the Mediterranean with impunity. “To be more exposed in the eyes of the world and more contemptible than we are,” Washington wrote a friend in disgust, “is hardly possible.”
The greatest threat to the new nation, however, was very much of America’s own making. Each of the thirteen sovereign states cast its own policies, printed its own money, made its own bargains both with each other and with foreign powers. This was states’ rights with a vengeance. The result by 1786 was political and economic chaos followed by the nation’s first severe depression. The states, scrambling for revenue to cover immediate needs as well as war debts, continued to tax, but with the price of agricultural goods in free fall and thousands of artisans and mechanics out of work, neither country folk nor city folk could pay them. The economic crisis cut hardest on farmers for whom an unpaid tax bill meant dispossession and desperation. Among these desperate men was one Daniel Shays. In war he had been a captain in the Continental Line, a veteran who had done his bit and more at Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Stony Point. In peace he was a western Massachusetts farmer one step away from foreclosure and debtor’s prison. In fact, eight of every ten prisoners in the county’s keeping were debtors. In the last two years in Worcester County alone 4,000 men were in court to answer for unpaid debts.
Shays and his fellow veterans had shouldered muskets not so long ago in resisting what they held to be unjust taxation. They began drilling again on the village greens. Soon turbulent mobs were closing courthouses all over Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. In Massachusetts, Governor James Bowdoin called out the local militia to restore order and reopen the courts. Shays and the protesters responded by threatening to march on Boston and overthrow the government. The American Revolution was hardly ended, and it seemed that counter-revolution was at hand. Thoroughly alarmed now, Bowdoin called on Congress for help, but Congress’ helplessness was the fundamental cause of the crisis. Congress in turn asked the states for a half-million dollars to raise an army. Only Virginia sent something. Bowdoin was now forced to go hat in hand to wealthy individuals to preserve the integrity of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the end an army of 4,400 was raised, and Benjamin Lincoln led them forth to meet the Shaysites. Shays little band had ambitious plans. They intended to seize the arsenal at Springfield where 15,000 muskets and any number of cannon would put teeth into their rebellion. But 400 loyal militia were there to beat back the attack, and soon afterwards Lincoln caught up to the retreating rebel column, capturing many and scattering the rest. Yet Shays’ Rebellion persisted. A guerilla war raged in the hills of western Massachusetts into the spring of 1787, with sniping, burning, and kidnapping. Bowdoin was discovering what the last royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson, had discovered to his sorrow: the course of civil government in the province was all but at an end. Nor was this a New England rising. In every state mobs burned court houses, destroyed tax rolls and records, intimidated and overwhelmed sheriffs and judges. Three years of peace had brought the country to the precipice of civil war. “I am mortified beyond expression,” Washington wrote, “when I view the clouds that have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned upon any country.” Only a Tory could have foreseen or a Briton have predicted such chaos, he thought.
Shays’ Rebellion had at least one happy consequence: it revealed the dangers of a weak national government so palpably that even Congress was now willing to admit them. Washington, a believer in ordered liberty and a strong federal government from the first, now urged his fellow Virginian James Madison to push Congress toward a convention to consider reform of the national government. Short, slightly built, and in uncertain health, Madison had a powerful mind and surprising powers of persuasion. As spring gave way to summer in 1787, delegates from the thirteen states were once more gathering in the State House in Philadelphia, where the Second Continental Congress had declared independence in ’76. Their ostensible purpose was to revise the Articles of Confederation, but a visionary few had a more ambitious design. As Washington put it, “My wish is that the convention may adopt no temporizing expedients, but probe [our] defects… to the bottom and provide radical cures.” What he and a handful of likeminded federalists wanted was a genuine national government, strong enough to preserve its integrity against enemies foreign and domestic but not so powerful as to trample on the liberties of the people. In Washington’s words, it would be “an indissoluble union of states under one head.” It would take nearly four months of difficult and delicate deliberation, but out of it would come a remarkable achievement, the Constitution of the United States.
Washington was chosen to preside over the convention. As president he could take no active part in the debate itself, though he would be a tireless advocate for the Constitution behind the scenes. The debate itself would take place in strict secrecy, a fortunate agreement on rules that made flexibility and compromise possible. With so many competing interests and ideologies in the hall, it was going to be compromise or failure. Among the fifty-five delegates were men of uncommon ability and long service to their country, either in Congress or on the fields of battle. Jefferson would call them “an array of demi-gods.” Perhaps in the end two delegates above all were most decisive in the ultimate success of the constitutional movement: the aged statesman Benjamin Franklin, past eighty now, and the youthful Madison, just thirty-six. Madison would be chiefly responsible for drafting the document and Franklin for negotiating the compromises that would make its passage possible. The draft that Madison composed and Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph introduced was in fact the “radical cure” Washington cherished. The Virginia Plan began with the assumption that the old Articles were simply not revisable. A new federal government would be established composed of three institutions: a legislative branch of two houses, upper and lower; a strong executive branch; and an independent judicial branch superior to the state courts. The powers of each branch would be precisely articulated and enumerated, and these powers would serve to check and balance the action of the other branches.
Debate began and dragged on all summer, noisy, contentious, passionate. At times it looked as if the entire effort had reached an impasse and would collapse in failure. The issues were many and complex, but at the heart of the argument was the bedrock issue of the sovereignty of the states. The states in general were keenly reluctant to surrender their powers to a federal government, and the small states in particular feared subordination in the national legislature to the large states. Agreement to an upper house, the Senate, in which each state would have equal representation, and a lower house, the House of Representatives, in which representation would be in proportion to population, moved debate forward again. There was more wrangling, more compromise, but by the middle of September a document fairly close to the outlines of Madison’s original draft had taken shape (for which Madison justly deserves the title of “Father of the Constitution”). The essence of the new federal system was a Congress in two houses, a strong executive branch headed by a president, and a Supreme Court. Without exception, all fifty-five delegates harbored grave reservations about the document they had produced and were about to approve and send to the states for ratification. On 17 September Franklin, too ill with a bladder stone to stand, asked friend and fellow delegate James Wilson to read a brief speech before the convention. In it Franklin candidly admitted that there were parts of the Constitution that he did not approve, perhaps never would approve. His long experience had led him to change his views on other fundamental matters, however, and he was willing to keep an open mind on these. If other gentlemen in the hall entertained their own objections, he suggested, they might likewise “doubt a little of [their] own infallibility.” The Convention had done the best it could. They must look to the future with confidence and affirm the ringing words of the Preamble: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, to establish justice, to insure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The ultimate ratification of the Constitution by the states was as contentious as the Convention itself, and for a time it seemed the Constitution would die a-borning. The Federalist Papers, a series of penetrating essays on ordered liberty penned anonymously by Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, helped push the cause of the Constitution forward. The anti-federalists, fearing that a strong central government would simply replace a royal tyranny with a republican tyranny, had their say in the debate loud and long in every state assembly. In the end, however, the states came on board, slowly, reluctantly, and by very narrow margins. Ratification achieved, preparations were made for the first federal elections in 1788. It was inevitable that George Washington would stand for the first presidential election and no surprise that he would win a unanimous vote of the Electoral College. On 30 April 1789 he stood on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City, placed his hand on a bible, and swore to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
This oath-taking may justly mark the end of the American Revolution and the beginning of America’s great and often turbulent political and social experiment. In the crucible of war were forged the ideals of the American republic: human equality and civil liberty. The chaotic and dangerous peace that followed, however, had demonstrated that ideals were nothing without institutions to give them measured form. The Constitution established these institutions, and they would prove both durable and flexible. In a sense Americans had been peering for years through the fog of war and the confusion of peace to see that bright April morning dawn at last. As early as July of 1776 Congress had been considering a Great Seal of the United States. Adopted in 1782, the seal presents on its face an eagle bearing the arrows of war and the olive branch of peace. On its reverse is a pyramid and the all-seeing eye of God. Above is the Latin motto, Annuit Coeptis: God favors our undertakings. Below, Novus Ordo Seclorum: a new age now begins.
It was altogether fitting that the obscure congressional committee charged with designing the Great Seal would think of the American experiment in millennial terms. The millennial vision had come to these shores with the first generation of English-speaking settlers. A compelling religious purpose brought William Bradford and his Pilgrims to Plymouth in 1620 and John Winthrop and his Puritans to Massachusetts Bay a decade later. They saw themselves as a “saving remnant” who, fleeing a corrupt church and state in the Old World, kept the promise of the Covenant alive in the new. As Winthrop said in his 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” their community must be a “city upon a hill.” Rejecting the despotism of princes and bishops, they would build the “due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical” and establish the New Jerusalem in the wilds of America. True reformers, they aimed at the perfection of mankind in this world and his salvation in the next. The first great revival of that Puritan enterprise, the Great Awakening, came in the middle of the eighteenth century. Two decades of religious and social upheaval shook the old Puritan churches to their foundations, but out of the ferment came a new understanding of the Protestant mission: to shape a church and state that respected both the needs of the community and the sanctity of individual religious experience. Their congregations preached and practiced religious democracy and spiritual liberty.
This is not to say that the American Revolution was an extension of that religious revival, but it had an unmistakable spiritual dimension. The political ideas that inspired the Revolution arose from the Age of Reason, from the doctrine of natural law and the rights of man. But the Protestant spirit fired by the Great Awakening led Americans to see political action as a profoundly moral enterprise. A self-governing religious community nourished the ideals of individual piety and Christian charity. A self-governing secular nation served the ideals of liberty and the common welfare. Washington, not himself a Christian, shared with his Christian countrymen a belief in a Providential God who had a special destiny for the American people. The republic would be a city upon a hill dedicated to the dignity of man. The experiment looked not only to the happiness of Americans in this time and place, but ahead, as Abraham Lincoln would later write, to “man’s vast future” everywhere.
As the nation approached the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Americans were broadly confident about the success of their republic and in a mood to look backward in celebration of the revolution that brought it into being. By 1826 most of the revolutionary generation were gone, but two of the greatest founders survived: Thomas Jefferson, who had penned the deathless words of the Declaration, and John Adams, whose stormy speech had persuaded Congress to affirm it. They had been friends and comrades in overthrowing British rule, but the political struggles of the early Federal period had deeply divided them. In 1800 Jefferson and his anti-Federalists unseated President Adams and his Federalists in what would be the most bitterly contested election until the fateful presidential canvass of 1860. The two remained enemies until their retirement from public life, but in their last years they renewed their correspondence in a series of warm, thoughtful, honest letters and restored their old friendship. Americans wanted very much to see these revered warriors take part in the celebration of the fiftieth Fourth of July, but Adams at ninety and Jefferson at eighty-three were failing fast that summer. At Monticello Jefferson took up his pen one last time to speak to the meaning of the Fourth:
May it be to the world what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government…. All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God. These are the grounds of hope for others; for ourselves, let the annual return to this day forever refresh our recollection of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
In this vision Jefferson and Adams were of one accord. A few days before the Fourth several of Adams’ Quincy neighbors called on him. If he could not participate, perhaps he could offer a toast to be read at the celebration. “I will give you,” he said simply, “Independence forever!”
As the anniversary of the Declaration drew near, both men turned in spirit to that long-ago July. On the evening of the third, Thomas Jefferson awakened to say to the watchers by his bedside, “It is the Fourth.” Assured it would be soon, he slipped back into sleep. He lived to see the Fourth, spoke briefly to his family, and passed on about midday. John Adams would follow that evening. Late in the afternoon he gathered up the last of his strength to say, quietly but clearly, “Jefferson still survives.” In truth, both Jefferson and Adams survive in the life of the republic they helped to found. John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address did a measure of justice to the great achievement of that generation, both to the heroic few and to the heroic many: “We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution.”