There are many heroes in the story of the American Revolution, and the historian is at a loss to name the greatest of this first generation of Americans. But over the years since 1776, four leaders consistently come to mind in terms of the road leading to the Declaration of Independence approved by the Continental Congress 237 years ago today.
To be sure, two were congressional members who approved and signed the document; two others simply worked assiduously to accomplish the break with Great Britain, as in the instance of Thomas Paine, whose publication of a 46-page pamphlet, “Common Sense,” in January 1776 was widely distributed and read, perhaps the first literary volley for independence. Paine didn’t arrive in America until 1774 at age 37, following a disastrous life in Britain, where he was unsuccessful in every endeavor he engaged in, including failed business ventures and unsatisfactory service as a government excise officer.
In the New World, Paine didn’t fare much better after “Common Sense” was published and had little to pledge of what the Declaration of Independence called “our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor.” But his pen against a corrupt mother country was mighty. Calling the king “the Royal Brute,” Paine challenged “the warmest advocate for reconciliation to show a single advantage that this Continent can reap by being connected with Great Britain … . But the injuries and disadvantages we sustain by that connection are without number, and our duty to mankind at large, as well as to ourselves, instruct us to renounce the alliance … .”
Virginia’s Patrick Henry, like Paine, didn’t sign the Declaration, but he was pro-independence long before the idea was broached in the Continental Congress. Also, like Paine, Henry had little prestige before rising to political prominence. He was an unsuccessful farmer and businessman, and his subsequent legal training extended for a mere six weeks or so. In an age of rationalism and cooled emotions, Henry had the golden tongue that appealed to the hearts of average people. His critics note that Henry became a mass-production lawyer (he handled about a thousand cases in one three-year period) and may well have been dominated by love of money.
Yet the litmus test of Henry’s significance is the evaluation by his contemporaries. Virginians thought so highly of him that they elected him as their first governor, and they re-elected him five times. A fierce critic of Britain’s policies before the first shots were fired, Henry is perhaps best known for his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech on March 23, 1775. His most significant accomplishment, though, came after the war, when he fought vociferously for the adoption of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution.
Two other Revolutionary leaders, actual signers of the Declaration, need little introduction. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia and John Adams of Massachusetts not only served in the Continental Congress, but directed the body toward the break with Britain. Although Jefferson was one of five members assigned to write the Declaration, he essentially did the job alone, with only a few changes suggested by other committee members. Once the Declaration was presented to Congress, it was debated for three days, other revisions were made, and approval came, of course, on July 4, although the formal signing didn’t occur until Aug. 2.
The amazing aspects of Jefferson were his literary skills, as illustrated by the Declaration. As a speaker, he was awkward and inept. So he rarely made a speech in Congress. No matter, the Declaration, the masterpiece he penned in two weeks, spoke for him.
As for John Adams, he was probably the least respected of the major Revolutionary leaders. Benjamin Franklin, for example, spoke for many of his colleagues when he wrote, “I am persuaded … that [Adams] means well for his Country, is always an Honest Man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”
The problem was that Adams was of man of contrasts. (He might be dubbed bipolar in today’s terminology.) He had an inordinate sense of optimism for his country, which he reflected by helping to co-author the congressional resolution of June 7, 1776, that led to the separation from Britain. He became despondent as well, believing he was the intellectual better of any man, although was rarely recognized as such.
“The only thing I fear,” he wrote as a rising lawyer, “is that all my Passions … will go down into an everlasting Calm.” However, society required that his passions — especially evident in outlandish speech — follow the proprieties of his day. Thus, Adams suffered physical and mental collapses that, fortunately, had no untoward effect on his life. He lived to be 90. No doubt, Adams was the real loner among the Revolutionary generation. “I must think myself independent,” he wrote, “as long as I live.”
Not until his ebbing years did Adams strike up a warm friendship through letters with Jefferson. Quite appropriately, they both died within a few hours of each other on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.