How different our world would be today… if the answer had been “Yes.”
Since the Stamp Act in 1765, thirteen of Great Britain’s North American colonies had been governed increasingly by laws passed in the British Parliament in London about fifty miles south of where I type this. Those laws which many colonists considered unjust, or simply beyond the legitimate power of Parliament, were being enforced increasingly harshly by growing numbers of British soldiers dispatched across the ocean by that Parliament. For one, in the aftermath of the December 1773 “tea party,” the port of Boston had been shut by parliamentary decree the following March – leading to the disruption of livelihoods and the impoverishment of thousands.
Fighting had broken out openly between British troops and local militia outside Boston in April 1775. In June, a (illegal, according to British law) “Continental Congress” of colonial representatives had decided it was time they formed their own “continental” colonial army. Its command was entrusted to a colonial former soldier and Virginian named George Washington.
In November 1775, British King George III had announced in a public address that his Government was done “negotiating” and if they refused to submit entirely to the will of Parliament the colonies would be subdued by force.
By the spring of 1776 fighting was underway from one end of the thirteen colonies to the other and even into Canada. With his troops in New York, George Washington received word that the British had hired German mercenaries to join in the subjugation of the colonies. It is said he barked at staffers, “If I had any doubts that we should be independent, they’re gone!”
By 1776 colonials had also argued for at least a decade that they should be granted their own elected members of that British parliament in order to have the say they believed they were entitled to as “Englishmen” in the making of laws applicable to them. London’s response had been emphatically “No.” With the fighting worsening, realistic hopes of a negotiated settlement gone, seeing no alternative that same Continental Congress 244 years ago today announced that their colonies were colonies no more:
We Americans know these famous words that formed part of that announcement:
What was expected to have been a lawyer-like formality document was turned by its well-read thirty-three year old crafter, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, into a trumpet blast declaring the self-evident equality of humanity. Those who first read (among them, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin) what young Jefferson had written alone while laboring at his desk during the spring of 1776 were stunned by that “rough draft.” It was not entirely original, for lots of men (it was of course just mostly men in public stations in those days) had been writing and talking for decades about “equality” in some form or other; but no one had before framed such ideas in quite that fashion in a major colonial or British public document.
Parts of his “rough draft” were struck out and some of his language was altered in other places. (He wrote sometime after that he had been pained at every one of the changes to his prose and particularly the deletions – like most of us writers would probably feel.) However, in the end it was adopted largely as he had written it. (His main authorship would not be widely publicly known for over a decade.) It set those now former colonies that would become the “United States of America” on a course as a new country that today we continue to attempt to put into reality.
Far less known, written separately by that same Jefferson, are these varied other thoughts:
One line from those is now also relatively famous, and it comes from this sentence he wrote in 1782:
The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.
That ended up in the only full book he would ever author, Notes on the State of Virginia. He had started it in 1781 as his response to the same sorts of questions posed over and over in letters from Europeans. It was printed in France in 1785 anonymously and privately (he had had only about two hundred copies printed in Paris to give to friends) while he was U.S. trade envoy and then minister (meaning U.S. ambassador) to the country.
He probably never intended for it to be read widely. Yet some of it was intellectually explosive – particularly on race and slavery (although he was a slaveowner himself, he criticized slavery) and on religion (his political opponents would eventually call him a non-believer) – and he must have known it was bound to get out from his small circle of “enlightened” acquaintances. However, given it was published anonymously in Paris likely he also thought that few in the U.S. – no internet back then, remember – would either ever see it or even if they did they would not know that it had been authored by him.
Jefferson consented to a proper London publication of Notes and admission of his authorship in 1787 after his original private version had been translated from English into French (by one of his French friends), and then someone else who read that version had it translated from French into Italian, and some unauthorized English publisher then translated it from Italian back into English. When that pirated Italian to English version was brought to Jefferson’s attention the translation horrified him. That bad translation was made even worse to him by the fact that it was also getting around by now that he was the “anonymous” author.
Respect for “copyright” as we now understand it also did not really exist for writers back in the late-1700s and early-1800s. “Hit” books were often openly reprinted by booksellers without the author’s permission. Victimized authors never saw a cent from such sales, had a tough time pursuing copyright infringers in court or simply could not afford to do so, and often the then existing laws were unhelpful to them.
Modern fiction writers can thank early-19th century author Washington Irving – Rip Van Winkle, Sleepy Hollow, and much else – for modern “copyright” protections. Irving’s writing was, to him, his business: he was the first American author to support himself by writing, so every unauthorized version cost him income. Therefore he defended his authorships vociferously (often taking unauthorized reprinters to court here in England, where he lived for many years), and the publicity he generated helped change perceptions of an author’s rights and even eventually laws.
In 2020 as Americans yet again we are extra-engaged in reflecting upon what we were and what we are, what we believe, whether we really act on what we state we believe, and how we may put such beliefs into better practice. We have to do that because that is what we are and what we do. When we decide to stop doing that is when we are truly lost.
In these extra-difficult and even extraordinary times, have a good 4th, wherever you are. 🙂