• Pt. 2: How The Declaration Of Independence Birthed Our Greatest Civil Rights Movements

    Abigails' "Spirit of Liberty" and Phillis Wheatley's "Heaven-Defended Race"

    Declaration of Independence (1819) by John Trumbull.

    Each year there seems to be an increase in attacks on Independence Day from those who scorn America’s birthday on July 4.

    ‘‘Americans’ false belief that this country has been on a steady progression toward granting equal rights to all since its founding is exactly what inspires complacency in this hour as the Supreme Court replaces the constitution with themselves,’‘ tweeted Bree Newsome Bass.

    Fox News reported that Bass was a progressive activist who gained national attention when she removed the Confederate flag in front of a monument at the South Carolina statehouse in 2015. She continued her attack on Independence Day in 2023 with this tweet.

    ‘‘The July 4th holiday has nothing to do with the freedom of Black people which is why White Americans have blithely, without irony, celebrated the holiday all the way through two centuries of slavery, Jim Crow & now the nullifying of the 14th amendment by SCOTUS,’‘ she wrote.

    In truth, the July 4th holiday has everything to do with the freedom of black people, white people, and all colors in between. From the beginning, Americans, such as Abigail Adams and Phillis Wheatley, saw the spirit of liberty as an aspiration for all and called for it to be put into practice.

    Sunday Best, Edward Percy Moran

    A year before America declared independence from England, Abigail wrote a business associate in London and pleaded for him to support America in the colonies’ conflict with the king and Parliament. She explained that liberty appealed to both men and women of all social groups.

    ‘‘The spirit that prevails among men of all degrees, all ages and sexes is the spirit of liberty,” she wrote on May 22, 1775, a month after the first shots of the War for Independence rang out at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts.

    “For this they are determined to risk all their property and their lives ‘nor shrink unnerved before a tyrant’s face but meet this luring insolence with scorn . . .Tis thought we must now bid a final adieu to Britain,’” Abigail continued.

    Abigail Adams, Massachusetts Historical Society

    By this time, the British military had locked down Boston, which prevented Abigail and John Adams from accessing their townhome in the city, where he had practice law. Instead, Abigail took care of their children at their farm outside of Boston while John attended the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

    The months that followed were tense. She and her son John Quincy Adams watched the Battle of Bunker Hill from a distance in June 1775.

    By March 1776, Abigail once again had hope. General Washington had driven the British redcoats from Boston. The action would soon move to New York. She could relax and think about what the future could bring under a new government whose muse was the spirit of liberty.

    As pleased as she was with General Washington’s success, she saw the contradiction of slave ownership in his home state of Virginia with the spirit of liberty and called it out in a letter to John on March 31, 1776.

    “I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for liberty cannot be equally strong in the breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow creatures of theirs.”

    She believed that slavery was incongruent with her Christian faith along with American principles.

    “Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and Christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us,” she continued.

    With these thoughts about slavery in mind, she then made a request.

    “I long to hear that you have declared an independency.”

    She knew that if the Continental Congress declared independence, they would make a new code of laws.

    ‘‘ . . . I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors,’‘ she bluntly wrote.

    ‘‘Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation,’‘ she warned.

    Her wish for independence from England was granted on July 4, 1776, when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. Her husband John, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson served on the committee for drafting the declaration. The clause for abolishing slavery that Jefferson drafted as part of the declaration did not make the final cut.

    As Abigail demonstrated, in its purest form, the spirit of liberty was intended for all. Her opposition to slavery was passed along to her son, John Quincy Adams, who spent the last decade of his life fighting against slavery as a member of Congress. Her call to remember the ladies was taken up as a mantel by suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and others, who explicitly claimed the Declaration of Independence for women.

    Abigail Adams was not the only Bostonian to hold a wide view of freedom from the start of the nation. Former slave and poet Phillis Wheatley wrote a poem about Columbia, the goddess guiding America, in 1775. Wheatley was the first black American to become a published author.

    Phillis Wheatley wrote a poem about Columbia and mailed it to George Washington in 1775. He responded by writing her a letter and asking a secretary to arrange for the poem’s publication in newspapers.

    “And so may you, whoever dares disgrace; The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!” Wheatley wrote, defining race not by skin color but by a commonly shared hope of liberty. “Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales, For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.”

    An actress depicted Columbia in a suffragist parade in 1913 in Washington DC.

    For centuries now, the eyes of the nation have been fixed upon liberty. The work of civil rights activists have perfected and put into practice the principles of the Declaration of Independence that all men and women regardless of color, ethnicity, or religion are created in the image of God. They have equal worth in the eyes of God. This belief is as patriotic as it is religious.

    In this way, July 4 has everything to do with freedom for black Americans. Freedom would not have come to black Americans without the Declaration of Independence; without Americans like Abigail Adams and Phillis Wheatley, whose faith drove them to believe that all men and women are created in the image of God and deserved to be free. Starting in 1776, more and more Americans have sought to put the Declaration of independence, the spirit of liberty, into practice, which ultimately led to abolishing slavery and implementing civil rights. That is something to celebrate.

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    Jane Hampton Cook

    Jane Hampton Cook is a presidential historian, former White House staffer and author of 10 books, including Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War. Janecook.com.

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