04 July 2008

Land of Liberty

America's Independence Day, for whatever reason, always makes me think of Samuel Johnson's wryly rhetorical question of 'how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?' It usually gets me thinking too of France's astounding contribution to the colonies' war for independence; it never ceases to amaze me how this tends to be forgotten, glossed over, or ignored.

The American War of Independence could not have been won without the support of foreign volunteers like Lafayette, without French supplies in the first two years of the war, without the threat to Britain's flank that France posed after France formally declared war on Britain in 1778, and without the crucial involvement of French manpower, money, and military expertise at the Battle of Yorktown, the War of Independence's decisive encounter.
'The strategy of the campaign was Rochambeau's; the French fleet was there as a result of his arrangements; the tactics of the battle were his; the American army was present because he had lent money to Washington; in total naval and military participants the French outnumbered the Americans between three and four to one. Yorktown was Rochambeau's victory.'
The Statue of Liberty is a reminder of how, thanks to the courage of men like Lafayette, 'Humanity has won its battle. Liberty now has a country.'

And, to be fair, on balance he was right.

A few years ago I had a very odd conversation on a bus with a former head of the F.B.I., as you do, and among other things we got into discussing history and the ways historians work; he recommended me to read Pauline Meier's American Scripture: How America Declared its Independence from Britain, a book he suspected was a superb example of historical craftsmanship. It's certainly a fine piece of work, and a marvellous explanation of how the Declaration of Independence came to be written, and rewritten, and canonised as holy writ. It's well worth the reading, if you ever get a chance.

One thing that Meier picks up on is how Congress adjusted Jefferson's original draft to add a couple of extra references to God in the final paragraph of the Declaration; despite that, though, the reference in the second paragraph to our having been endowed with inalienable rights by our Creator was Jefferson's own, although its final form too was modified by Congress. It's something to remember, though, when we talk about rights -- if our rights do not come from God, whence do they arise?

No comments: