When in the course of human events it becomes necessary . . .
It being the 4th of July weekend, I picked up our home volume (VIII) of the History of the United States written by George Bancroft way back in 1863. I wanted to review all the reasons Pennsylvania’s delegate John Dickinson gave for NOT declaring Independence in 1776. By July 2nd of that year all 13 colonies had allowed their delegates to support the declaration, even though the revolution was not going too well. An American army had been thwarted in Canada and even more threatening, a British fleet had arrived outside New York harbor, landing 32,000 hardened soldiers on Staten Island – and Washington’s army was still a hardly organized militia.
So Dickinson had good reason to be cautious. Indeed, his reluctance to sign made sense:
1. A declaration of independence would not add one soldier or any amount of supply to the small and poorly equipped American army.
2. To win in the field we would need experienced allies, like France and Spain with whom we had hardly begun to negotiate.
3. And why would they gamble on us in our present state of unreadiness, with no real victories to speak of?
4. And do we really want to lose our privileged place in Britain’s
world wide commercial empire?
5. If we break with England we may only unify against us British public opinion, much of which is now sympathetic to our grievances.
6. Indeed a declaration of independence will alienate many of our own countrymen.
7. Is it prudent to declare independence when the various governments of our states differ in so many ways? Don’t we need some uniformity, a constitution before we launch out into the unknown?
8. What about the boundaries of the thirteen states - as we advance west? Won’t there be competition, some expanding and others confined - without some rules of the game after we leave Britain behind? Will we end up at war with one another?
Obviously Dickinson was a man of logic. Impetuosity in the midst of vast uncertainties hardly seemed the right course to take. Like many down through history he used reason to erode the enthusiasm of his peers. He absented himself from signing the declaration. True, he contributed to the revolution in other ways and eventually helped frame the Constitution – but he anticipated he would forfeit the esteem of his countrymen when he wrote, "My conduct . . . , I expect will give the finishing blow to my once too great and . . . now too diminished popularity."
All of which reminds me of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles – when the original disciples of Jesus still were a hesitant bunch, attending services at the Temple, requiring that Gentile converts go through the hoops required to be Jewish first – when almost out of nowhere came St. Paul to snap them out of their tentative selves – to see that the time was ripe, that the Church must be a universal community where neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female distinctions should prevail – for all were one in Christ. Indeed, may we not say that in some way the 4th of July was triggered by the Gospel movement of long ago?