Introduction

As the Continental Congress moved towards and then declared Independence, it became increasingly important to consider those who would (and would not) benefit from the new nation’s commitment to the proposition of human equality. Abigail Adams urged her husband to consider the rights of women; Thomas Jefferson recognized that the existing institution of slavery presented not only a theoretical but a moral conundrum that would plague the young nation; religious minorities, like the Jewish Synagogue members in Philadelphia, asserted their right to be included as well. The principles of the Declaration – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – seemed as though they should be open to all.

As John Adams and Benjamin Rush observed, the very headiness of freedom might prove to be the new nation’s downfall. While in theory liberty and equality were open to all, for the sake of political prudence, the number of those who enjoyed full civil rights had to be more limited in practice. Rush appealed not only to prudence but to Providence, observing that these principles were only secure when the citizenry were firm in their commitment to virtue, and would otherwise become dangerous.


The American Gazette, or the Constitutional Journal (Salem, Mass.), July 23, 1776.


WATERTOWN, July 22.

Thursday last, pursuant to the orders of the honorable council, was proclaimed, from the balcony of the State House in Boston, the DECLARATION of the AMERICAN CONGRESS, absolving the United Colonies from their allegiance to the British crown, and declaring them FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES. There were present on the occasion, in the council chamber, the committee of council, a number of the honorable House of Representatives, the magistrates, ministers, selectmen, and other gentlemen of Boston and the neighboring towns; also the committee of officers of the Continental regiments stationed in Boston, and other officers. Two of those regiments were under arms in King Street, formed into three lines on the north side of the street, and in thirteen divisions; and a detachment from the Massachusetts Regiment of Artillery, with two pieces of cannon was on their right wing. At one o’clock the Declaration was proclaimed by the sheriff of the county of Suffolk, which was received with great joy expressed by three huzzahs from the concourse of people assembled on the occasion. After which, on a signal given, thirteen pieces of cannon were fired at the fort on Fort Hill, the forts at Dorchester Neck, the Castle, the Nantasket, and Point Alderton, likewise discharged their cannon. Then the detachment of artillery fired their cannon thirteen times, which was followed by the two regiments giving their fire from the thirteen divisions in succession. These firings corresponded to the number of the American states united. The ceremony was closed with a proper collation to the gentlemen in the council chamber; during which the following toasts were given by the president of the council, and heartily pledged by the company:

  1. Prosperity and perpetuity to the United States of America.
  2. The American Congress.
  3. The general court of the state of Massachusetts Bay.
  4. General WASHINGTON, and success to the army of the United States.
  5. The downfall of tyrants and tyranny.
  6. The universal prevalence of civil and religious liberty.
  7. The friends of the United States in all quarters of the globe.

The bells of the town were rung on the occasion; and undissembled festivity cheered and brightened every face.

On the same day a number of the members of the council (who were prevented attending the ceremony at Boston, on account of the small pox being there) together, with those of the House of Representatives who were in town, and a number of other gentlemen assembled at the council chamber in this town, where the said Declaration was also proclaimed by the secretary, from one of the windows; after which, the gentlemen present partook of a decent collation prepared on the occasion, and drank a number of constitutional toasts, and then retired.

We hear that on Thursday last every king’s arms1 in Boston, and every sign with any resemblance of it, whether lion and crown, pestle and mortar and crown, heart and crown, etc., together with every sign that belonged to a Tory was taken down, and made a general conflagration of in King Street.

The king’s arms, in this town, was on Saturday last, also defaced.

Study Questions

A. What sort of expectations do the authors of these documents have for those who will participate in the “self-governing” society they are creating? What groups or categories of people are to be included among the “self-governing citizens” of the new republic? What groups or categories appear to be excluded? What qualifications or attributes are required for citizenship? What is the relationship between virtue and republican citizenship? How is virtue to be measured? How is it to be promoted? What do these documents suggest about the complexity of America’s founding ideals and their application?

B. What is the relationship between citizenship and labor? Where else do we see the concern for national virtue raised as a matter of political consequence?

C. How does the discussion of citizenship, and the understanding of the groups included in that concept, compare to that in other periods of American history?

Footnotes

  1. This name and those that follow were typical Pub names.