Our View: On the risks and rewards of 1776


Generations of American schoolchildren have been taught the words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

As we mark yet another year separating us from that fateful summer day in Philadelphia, let us not forget what risks the Founding Fathers were taking when they signed their names to the Declaration of Independence.

Estimates vary, but as of 1776, there were no more than 2.5 million people living in the 13 British colonies hugging the Eastern Seaboard. Great Britain was home to between 6.4 and 8 million.

As if that was not daunting enough, several other factors potentially weighed against the colonials, one of their own making: Nearly half a million people in the colonies were slaves, who were initially barred by the Continental Congress from serving in the army.

By several estimates, that left about 200,000 eligible men from whom to draw an army. In practice, its maximum at any one time never exceeded about 48,000.

Despite its vastly larger population and naval superiority, however, the British army was small — around 50,000 in 1775, spread across the British Empire. Only about 8,500 were in America when shooting broke out; those numbers increased over the war, and were bolstered by more than 20,000 American loyalists and about 30,000 paid German mercenaries.

There was a good chance the whole gamble could lead Hancock, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams et. al. to the gallows as traitors if the British prevailed. It was, however, more of a calculated risk than a leap into the dark.

The mother country possessed the world’s largest navy, though its enemies — especially France — were catching up, and only too happy to assist the Americans on land and sea.

No doubt the Founders had a sense of how powerful the desire for self-determination burned in many Americans, who enjoyed the home-field advantage. No doubt, as the war dragged on, they knew how expensive the conflict was for Britain, and how unpopular at home.

They were buoyed by the support of some vocal Britons, including “Common Sense” author Thomas Paine, journalist and politician John Wilkes, and the Irish-born Isaac Barré, a British Army veteran and member of Parliament who championed the American cause. (Luzerne County residents should be familiar with Wilkes and Barré.)

It took five years for the colonists to consummate the Declaration with the joint American-French victory at Yorktown, Va. in 1781. The war formally ended by treaty in 1783. The men who had gathered in Philadelphia in 1776 emerged victorious with the help of many hands, American and foreign.

Those men were, however, flawed. They wrote that all men were created equal before the Creator, yet many kept other humans as slaves, including here in Pennsylvania. They almost completely excluded women from governance, voting and other rights. They viewed Native Americans as subject peoples whose lands were theirs for the taking.

We cannot study our history without reconciling those painful truths to the ongoing fight for liberty and justice for all in this country. Neither can we forget the bravery of those who risked life and reputation to establish the American ideal in a world ruled by kings and despots.

As they wrote: “let facts be submitted to a candid world.”

Let us be candid in celebrating America’s greatness today, but also remember that we have a solemn duty to make it greater still.

— Times Leader