The observance of US (self-declared) independence day on July 4 always feels like something of an odd day here in the United Kingdom. Any of the rancor in Britain about US independence and the two wars we fought after is of course long gone. In fact any bitterness had dissipated as long ago as the 1820s – in the wake of the 1812-1814 conflict between the by then independent US and Britain that arose largely because of Britain’s naval policies that it had adopted in its battle with Napoleon Bonaparte.
Our two countries have generally had excellent relations (with a few touchy moments) since then. They are now probably closer than ever since that date of US independence. That they are is something those who fought for US independence would now almost certainly applaud.
Americans are raised with a degree of “heroic” gloss tossed over independence – as if the country was of “one mind.” In reality it was nowhere near “united” on the issue: lots of Americans – possibly well more than a third – did not want independence and some even fought hard for Britain. In neighbors occasionally facing neighbors, the war for independence between 1775-1783 was in many respects also an ugly and brutal “civil” war.
Just before and immediately after the September 1783 peace treaty that ended the war and in which Britain recognized US independence, tens of thousands of “loyalist” American supporters of the British fled or were chased into exile. Some ended up here in Britain, where they lived out their lives hoping perhaps American independence would fail. (One of the Duke of Wellington’s military aides who would die at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 had been born in New York City of a family that left for Britain.) Others headed for British islands in the Caribbean. Many Canadians today have American ancestry passed down from “loyalist” refugees who arrived in that region that was still under British control.
Also less known is an often loud minority of British were sympathetic to the Americans and felt the war that had more or less broken out in April 1775 in Massachusetts (the “battles” of Lexington and Concord, and then Bunker Hill in June) was idiotic and risked wrecking Britain, too. The new town of Foxborough, Massachusetts (home to the NFL’s New England Patriots) was in 1777 named by Americans after British prominent MP Charles James Fox; they had become aware he vocally supported the American cause. He and some supporters even went so far as to turn up in the British House of Commons wearing the blue and teal colors often worn by General George Washington’s American Continental army.
As we know by 1776 George Washington no longer considered himself British. Neither did those who signed the Declaration of Independence document. (Washington did not sign the Declaration. He was not in Philadelphia in Congress in July 1776. He was in New York City with the army, tensely awaiting an expected landing of British troops there.) July 4, 1776 essentially marked the end of the British colonial era in the US and the start of where we find ourselves now.
As a document the Declaration would probably have long been relegated to historical curiosity and footnote had it just been another legal paper. Instead its primary drafter, thirty-three year old Thomas Jefferson, who had been tasked in June 1776 with writing it, shocked the rest of the Congress when they saw what he had produced: he had fashioned it also into a literary statement on universal freedom. As a result it would take on a life of its own well-beyond its immediate need, and would be cited by French revolutionaries two decades later and countless other revolutionaries and reformists in the centuries since…
And of course what Jefferson wrote has never been fully achieved in the US or anywhere else. But it provides us with a perpetual and noble horizon at which to aim. As an American in particular, it is worth re-reading the Declaration on this day every year. (It is also worth reading June 1776’s Virginia Declaration of Rights. From that, we can see a major source for Jefferson’s opening and the later Constitution’s Bill of Rights.)
Have a good day, wherever you are in the world. 🙂