I once heard it said that history is one of the subjects you study after you know everything else. Well, I don’t know everything else — and not as much history as I would like. But I do find myself captivated by studies in-depth of the goings-on many years ago — especially during the founding of this nation. As a consequence, I have been reading a good bit of American history of late.
One of the better books I have come across is Gary Wills’ Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. I have not finished the book yet, but I have already learned some things I did not know.
I did not know, for example, that Samuel Adams (cousin of John) was a bit of a sleeze-ball. He would fit in nicely with today’s politicians since he liked to slink about and make deals behind closed doors. He kept a very low profile, not making speeches or drawing attention to himself while he plotted with like-minded radicals to help bring about independence from England. (One must wonder about his motivation.) He also apparently manipulated his cousin and John was only too happy to comply as he saw Samuel through rose-colored glasses. But he did get things done. Like the Boston Tea Party.
There is not much known about the folks involved in that event, but there is fairly sound evidence that Sam Adams was one of the major players — if not the one who initiated the event in which ninety thousand pounds of tea was thrown into the Boston harbor to protest the tea tax. No sooner was the event completed then Samuel “went immediately to work spreading his version of the incident” (as he himself admitted later). This is what he did: he spread word — including “false facts” (as we now call them) and huge exaggerations — coining the term “massacre” later on to describe the shooting of “several” people in Boston. Both Sam and John were frustrated that the other colonies were not paying close attention to what was going on in Boston and Sam saw it as his job to spread the word — true or not. He was Machiavellian to the core, committed to the notion that the end justifies the means.
I was also surprised to hear that the various colonies were completely separate and distinct political entities — each with its own charter with the King and even separate constitutions — not to say coinage in many cases. In fact, they thought of themselves as separate countries — like those in Europe. Separate and distinct. John Adams said they spoke different languages and each colony had its own culture. When it was time for representatives of the thirteen colonies to meet in Philadelphia for a second time they appeared, but there was still an undercurrent of distrust. After all, these men were planning the separation from the most powerful country on earth and they would be regarded as traitors, or at the very least rebels (which is what the English called them). They worried that among them there would be spies who would go to the authorities and reveal who was involved and what their plans were. They were risking their lives and had to find ways to trust people who were in every sense of the word foreign to them. So deep was the distrust of one colony for another during the first Continental Congress that one delegate from New York told John Adams:
“If England were to cast us adrift, we should instantly go to civil wars among ourselves to determine which colony should govern all the rest.”
It is one of the wonders of the eighteenth century that those thirteen colonies were able to cooperate enough to fight against the much more powerful England, not to say fight successfully. This was a fight they would not have won, of course, without the assistance of France who supplied them with gun powder, weapons, and eventually naval power. The French hated the English and were only too happy to help anyone who was willing take them on! But, still, England at the time ruled the world.
In the end, despite the distrust and perhaps with the help of the machinations of people like Samuel Adams, the colonists did cooperate because they realized that compromise was essential to their cause. The Southern states would not hear any talk about abolition of slavery and the North was peopled by hundreds of abolitionists and generally tended to think they were superior to all the other colonies. But they were willing to compromise, to come together in a common cause and unite such disparate elements into one union — which Lincoln later struggled desperately to hold together.
How alike we are as individuals; the descendants of Samuel Adams can be found slinking about Washington D.C. today — even occupying positions of great power. And yet we have forgotten how to compromise, to cooperate with one another in order to bring about what is best for the nation and its people.