Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776, by Richard R. Beeman (Basic Books, 2013)
The Declaration of Independence is a document more revered than understood. Unlike the Constitution, the framing and ratification of which produced volumes of contemporary commentary that continue to inform political and legal debate, the Declaration is often regarded as an aspirational document setting forth principles that were largely detached from—and in some cases directly in conflict with—their particular historical context. The Declaration is “American Scripture,” as the historian Pauline Maier described it in her book of the same name. It was created in a moment of intense military, political, and commercial crisis, and yet it transcended that moment. The process by which the document was created has always seemed less important than the incantatory vision of a nation that its phrases conjured. Ever since November 19, 1863, when Abraham Lincoln famously used the Declaration’s birthdate of 1776 to calculate the nation’s age in the first line of his Gettysburg Address, that vision has centered on liberty and equality. In the late eighteenth century, as David Armitage has shown, the Declaration was viewed as a document of international law, announcing the arrival of the United States among the nations of the world.
But before it could make any such announcement, the document itself had to be drafted. Words had to be put on a page, and votes had to be counted and coaxed—by a committee, in true British North American fashion. How did the members of that committee, themselves a subset of a larger group that called itself “congress,” manage to agree that independence, not reconciliation with Britain, was their goal? Why did a group of colonies with vastly different economies, religions, and political identities decide that it was in their interest to band together in a single union rather than to split into three, or thirteen, separate leagues? In 1818, John Adams—a vocal member of the Massachusetts delegation to the Continental Congress and a member of the committee that drafted the Declaration—described the events of 1776, in typical Adams understatement, as “perhaps a singular example in the history of mankind. Thirteen clocks had been made to strike together—a perfection of mechanism, which no artist had ever before effected.”
As Richard R. Beeman vividly depicts the scene in Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor, Adams’s mechanical metaphor was more apt than his reference to artistry. Prof. Beeman’s book tells the story of the Continental Congress with the Declaration as the endpoint, but his focus is mapping the debates rather than assuming independence as a goal. Indeed, one of the great strengths of the book is its insistence on the uncertainty and instability that surrounded the Continental Congress between 1774 and 1776. The legal status of the congress was dubious. It purported to represent the colonies, but throughout the period most of the colonies were reconstituting their colonial assemblies into state legislatures—itself an unlawful act from the perspective of Crown and Parliament—and in any event the congress had no formal power to bind those legislatures. As Prof. Beeman notes, in the eighteenth century the term “congress” referred only to “a meeting of representatives from separate, autonomous, political entities, gathered together for a limited purpose of formulating a common position on specific issues.” (83) (Similarly, “president”—one who presides—was not yet a term inspired with majesty.) A central theme of Prof. Beeman’s argument is the shifting meaning of “congress” between 1774 and 1776, which prefigured the Constitution’s use of the term to refer to the powerful lawmaking arm of the national government.
Prof. Beeman’s book thus fills an important gap in recent studies of the Revolutionary and founding periods by depicting the members of the Continental Congress navigating the uncomfortable transition between colonies and states, which would eventually lead to the shift from membership in an empire to quasi-sovereign status in a republic. The key leap for Prof. Beeman’s subjects, who include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Dickinson, Sam Adams, John Adams, and John Hancock, is from the periphery of empire to the center of a new polity with a new, highly experimental form of government. In the arc of the story, the colony-states—and the individuals who constitute them—start out connected through the imperial hub and become increasingly united. Even early holdouts such as Georgia eventually send representatives to the Continental Congress. To be sure, they feared dismemberment by France and Spain if they stood alone, but they also sought connection with other inheritors of the British constitution, to which the colonists steadfastly clung throughout the Revolution.
In telling the story of the Continental Congress between 1774 and 1776, Prof. Beeman gives concrete examples of the novel ways in which the lines of political and legal power were being redrawn in the period. Some of the most compelling sections of the book focus on the “local committees”—popularly elected grassroots bodies that “effectively took control of local government in nearly all of the American colonies.” (185) The local committee’s main remit was to enforce the Articles of Association, a set of non-importation and non-exportation provisions approved by the Continental Congress in October 1774. The “Association,” as the agreement came to be known, was a crucial early step in establishing the congress’s authority to bind the colonies. At one level, then, the Association helped establish a measure of centralized authority in the Continental Congress. But the Association also bolstered local authority by empowering the local committees to “observe the conduct” of their neighbors and, if needed, to publish the name of anyone who violated the boycott (185). The Association is vital to understanding the period, for it demonstrates the growing authority of the Continental Congress over external affairs such as foreign trade and war, as well as the congress’s power to compel local enforcement of those policies. Moreover, the local committees that the Association created were, Prof. Beeman argues, the “agents of revolution,” insofar as they galvanized Americans to conceive of independence as a viable alternative to continuing under imperial rule. (190)
Mr. Beeman, the John Welsh Centennial Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, is adept at offering the reader colorful scenes that capture the physical overlaps during the period between local, colonial power on one hand, and growing congressional power on the other. While the Continental Congress was meeting on the first floor of the Pennsylvania State House, for example, the Pennsylvania Assembly—a much more conservative body that favored reconciliation—was meeting upstairs in the same building. In July 1776, while Thomas Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence, he was also drafting language for the Virginia constitution. Other members of the Continental Congress left Philadelphia to return to their state conventions, which they regarded as more pressing business. And Beeman also notes one final example encompassing both the colonies and the international realm. At the same time that the congress created the committee to draft a declaration of independence, it created two other committees: one to draft a plan of confederation among the colonies, and the other to draft a set of treaties. The Continental Congress was the engine that transformed the “United Colonies” of 1774 into the “United States” of 1776.
Prof. Beeman’s narrative does not highlight themes of constitutionalism or imperial structure, however. Indeed, at times the book explicitly rejects casting the debates of the early 1770s in these terms. In discussing the views of Joseph Galloway, speaker of the Pennsylvania legislature and an advocate of reconciliation with Britain, Prof. Beeman notes that while “Galloway was firm in his defense of American rights,” his “legalistic instincts” led him to “view that conflict in narrowly constitutional terms and to disapprove of much of the popular opposition to British policies occurring on the streets of Philadelphia.” (124) Prof. Beeman seems here to take an unduly narrow view of legal and constitutional argument, especially in light of work by Daniel Hulsebosch, Mary Sarah Bilder, and other legal historians who have emphasized the creative and pluralistic nature of the constitutional landscape of British North America. Hulsebosch’s conception of the “multiple constitutions” of the British Empire and Bilder’s “transatlantic constitution” proffer usefully broad definitions of constitutional discourse in the late eighteenth century. Such approaches bring the insights of intellectual and cultural history to bear on legal history, with fruitful results that yield a richer picture of the varied landscapes of this generative period in constitutional thought and practice. Legal modes of argument lent themselves not only to Galloway’s conservative views, but also to John Adams’s radicalism and John Dickinson’s conciliatoriness.
Moreover, at several other points in the book, Prof. Beeman notes that the Continental Congress shifted from a largely executive function to operating as more of a legislature—an insight about institutions that sounds in the tradition of constitutional history. Although Prof. Beeman has clearly chosen to focus on narrative more than analysis, this discussion could have been made even more rich by engaging with the work of scholars who have explored the role of the Continental Congress as inheritor of royal legitimacy and popular adulation of the Crown, including Jerrilyn Greene Marston, Brendan McConville, and Eric Nelson. British North Americans remained loyal to the Crown well into the 1770s, long after many of them had dismissed Parliament as the seat of power-mad revenue collectors. McConville finds evidence of “royal America” as late as 1775, at which point a “potent but decentralized terror against those loyal to the empire” took over, culminating in “iconoclasm against royal emblems” and “a series of symbolic regicides” in the summer of 1776. By that key moment, Marston observes, many Americans had come to regard the Continental Congress as the “successor to the king’s imperial authority.”
Prof. Beeman’s story is a compelling narrative of the crucial years between the first meeting of the Continental Congress and the announcement of the Declaration on July 4, 1776. He acknowledges the lack of evidence surrounding the events of the final vote on the Declaration on July 2, although he notes one contemporary’s statement that twelve colonies voted to adopt the Declaration, while one (New York) abstained. By the end of the book, the conflict between Prof. Beeman’s main characters—the radical John Adams and the conciliatory John Dickinson—has ended in victory for Adams and defeat for Dickinson. Yet, Dickinson’s response to independence was to become a brigadier general in the Pennsylvania militia. Prof. Beeman’s story thus ends in the middle of the Revolutionary chronicle. Independence has been announced, but there is still a war to fight, leaving the duration and durability of independence uncertain.