Each July 4, citizens of Falls Church meet to revisit our founding documents and their historic context. Here, in brief, are this year’s background notes.
From 1774 to 1789, a period of only 15 years, our country and state moved from allegiance to Great Britain to independence, won a war against the most powerful nation on earth, and created a new frame of government. But the origins go back much further in disputes with the mother country over taxation, commerce and human rights. Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, traced the origins of the American Revolution to repeated violations of a 1651 convention signed between Royalist Virginia then under arms and representatives of Cromwell’s England:
“The colony supposed that, by this solemn convention, entered into with arms in their hands, they had secured the ancient limit of their country, its free trade, its exemptions from taxation but by their own assembly, and exclusion of military force from among them. Yet every of these points was this convention violated by subsequent kings and parliaments, and other infractions of their constitution equally dangerous committed….”
In 1765, Parliament and the Crown attempted to tighten their grip on the colonies and impose new taxes. The Stamp Act was repealed, but London imposed harsh new measures, which spawned more resistance and more retaliation. The Intolerable Acts were passed by the Parliament and Boston’s port was closed, triggering coordinated boycott efforts. In 1774, Virginia’s leaders, now acting on their own through “conventions” and without the royal governor, called for county conventions to support and implement non-importation boycotts. The Fairfax Resolves is our local version, drafted largely by George Mason, neighboring landowner and friend of George Washington.
In May 1776, with war now raging, Virginia’s fifth and final convention unanimously voted for independence, directed its delegates to the Continental Congress to advocate for it and ordered the drafting of a Declaration of Rights, under the leadership of George Mason. The state convention also approved a new constitution and elected Patrick Henry as the first governor.
On June 7, Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee moved for independence at the Continental Congress. Thomas Jefferson led the drafting of the Declaration of Independence with heavy influences from George Mason’s writing and Jefferson’s own Summary View of the Rights of British America.
What followed were five more years of war, ending in victory at Yorktown in 1781 and peace in 1783.
Meanwhile, the civil government was barely functioning under the Articles of Confederation. The inconsistent ability to provide support for the national defense, the danger of states taxing each other, and Shay’s rebellion, taught the leaders that they needed a stronger central government.
A federal convention was called, deliberated and recommended not amendments to the Articles, but an entirely new constitution. The necessary number of states adopted the constitution, but it was a close contest. Virginia, for example, only ratified it by 10 votes out of 168 in its convention. The likes of Edmund Randolph, James Madison and George Wythe supported ratification, while the likes of Patrick Henry, George Mason and James Monroe opposed it. Two states refused ratification, demanding a bill of rights as did Virginia and other ratifying states. In response, the Congress proposed 12 amendments in 1789. 10 were finally adopted.
Our own George Mason proposed such a bill of rights. He also argued for the need to abolish slavery and grant the new federal government the power to do so. Mason referred to slavery as “this infernal traffic” and predicted accurately that: “By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities.” Many commentators trace the contents of the Bill of Rights to Mason’s earlier work.
What lessons can we draw from these events?
First, strong human rights principles, and consistent adherence to them, do matter. In fact they are the strongest of all foundations. Second, ultimate success will only occur when people put the common good ahead of their individual comfort and desires. Third, nothing worth achieving is easy, and we must be willing to take a risk and keep at the task. Fourth, we must master a working knowledge of the lessons of history so we can learn from them and not repeat mistakes. Fifth, it is critical to involve diverse people so as to take advantage of their diverse skills and experience. And sixth, friendships count, even among people who strongly disagree with each other.
Why do we gather to read and study on each July 4? The best answer is provided in the words of a later president in the midst of the national calamity predicted by George Mason: “…so this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
David Snyder is the Vice Mayor of the City of Falls Church.