(Editor’s note: For the past several years, the Times has published a version of the talk that Genevan Paul Kirsch delivers either on the Declaration of Independence or the Revolutionary War to the local Rotary Club at its meeting right around July 4. This year, Kirsch is delivering his talk at the July 3 Geneva Rotary Club meeting.)
Today’s presentation is the story of the Founders choosing to proclaim independence “with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence.”
Divine Providence refers to God’s intervention in the universe, that what occurs in the universe is under God’s guidance and control. In plain words, the Founders entrusted their fate and that of the cause of American independence to God’s will.
A concern about religion was not one of King George’s “abuses and usurpations.” The Founders were religious and quite content with the established religion as interpreted and practiced in the colonies. Their debates on and the Declaration, itself, were influenced by their shared religious values and experiences, which included a respect for and reliance on Divine Providence.
Americans still have a reliance on Divine Providence: we stand, right hand on heart, and affirm that we are “one nation under God” when we “Pledge Allegiance to [our] flag”; we print “In God We Trust” on our currency; and in what has become our national hymn, “America the Beautiful,” we sing “America, America, God shed his grace on thee …”
Religion was not the only influence on the Declaration. There was also the Enlightenment, the significant 18th Century European philosophical and intellectual movement.
Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment: intellectually gifted, statesman, diplomat, architect, founder of the University of Virginia, library builder, voracious reader, politician, president, inquisitive mind, founder of one of the first two political parties, and even more.
His masterpiece, even as amended by the Founders during debate, was the Declaration of Independence, a reasoned and rational Enlightenment document that proclaimed “self-evident” “Truths” and detailed “the causes [for] the Separation” from Britain. It was not a diatribe, nor was it meant to be. Jefferson understood that it was a seminal document meant to explain to and persuade the world and his fellow colonists why American independence was a necessary and reasonable step. There would be time, I imagine him thinking of the future, for anger and emotion during the war that was sure to follow.
In their Declaration of Independence, the Founders expressed their religious beliefs by allusion. They acknowledged their belief in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” They avowed that people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” And on July 4, 1776, they declared independence “with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence.”
The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were well-educated, highly ethical, religious; not men we ordinarily would think of as revolutionaries. One was Catholic, the rest were Protestants with a mixture of backgrounds, including Episcopal, Anglican, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Quaker, Unitarian, Deist.
The influence of Deism is suggested by the use of “endowed by their Creator” in the Declaration. Deism is a religious philosophy that emphasizes knowing God through the use of reason and the observation of nature.
The debates on the wording of the Declaration were sometimes contentious, but the Founders were of one mind about independence. So it was that their Declaration of Independence had this final sentence: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
The Revolutionary War began on Lexington Green and at Concord’s “rude bridge” on April 19, 1775 and did not end until 1783. Was there an event during the war that the Founders might have taken as a sign that their fight for independence had the protection of Divine Providence? Well, let’s look at the first major battle of the Revolutionary War.
On Aug. 27, 1776, Washington lost the epic Battle of Long Island. It was a defeat so devastating that on that day the Founders’ bold dream of independence might have ended. Was what happened three days later, on Aug. 30, a sign for them that they were under the protection of Divine Providence?
Gathered on Long Island from several colonies, Washington’s column of the Continental Army consisted of about 10,000 raw, poorly trained, and poorly equipped troops. They were no match for a force of about 20,000 British regulars. By the time the British outflanked them, as many as 2,000 of the Continentals had been killed, wounded, or captured. Facing sure defeat, Washington retreated to his defenses on Brooklyn Heights. Pressed hard by the British, Washington’s only escape would be to cross the rough, mile-wide East River to reach safety in what is now Manhattan. But waiting for him on the river were British warships. Washington’s army was, in effect, surrounded, its position critical, its defeat imminent.
Gathering all available boats, on the stormy night of Aug. 29-30, under cover of darkness and with an ordered silence, those troops left in Washington’s command began their retreat across the river. The darkness hid them from the cannons of the warships, and as many of his men as possible were ferried safely to the New York side of the river. But come dawn there might be a different end for those remaining in Brooklyn as they tried to escape.
At daybreak a heavy fog settled over Brooklyn and the East River, a fog so thick it completely concealed Washington’s small boats from the British guns. However, on the New York side of the river, where Washington’s troops were safely gathering, there was no fog at all. Indeed, Washington was able to move all his remaining troops to New York without the loss of any supplies or even a single life. It was as if on the morning of Aug. 30, 1776, the Founders’ reliance on the protection of Divine Providence was realized.
Well, Washington may have lost the Battle of Long Island, but in the end his Continental Army won the war. I suggest that to the Founders, their escape at Long Island may have seemed to have been achieved with the protection of the Divine Providence to which they had pledged their “Lives … Fortunes, and … sacred Honor” in the Declaration of Independence.
I also suggest that the Founders declaring independence has additional significance for us today in that it was itself an act of American exceptionalism, the creed that we are a special people and nation chosen by God to be great and to accomplish great things.
Now, here are the core statements in our Declaration of Independence, the ones as relevant for us today as they were for the Founders in 1776:
“WHEN in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.
“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 — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed ...
“We … solemnly Publish and Declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES …”
And now for all of us I say: Happy 243rd birthday, America, “Land of the free and home of the brave!”