The Declaration of Independence Sealed a Shotgun WeddingRoundup
tags: American Revolution, Independence Day, colonial America
Merritt is a political historian at Vanderbilt University. He writes the Substack newsletter American Commonwealth and is the author of Disunion Among Ourselves: The Perilous Politics of the American Revolution.
During our own time of troubles, it is important to remember that in 1776 the men in powdered wigs who drew up the Declaration of Independence overcame political difficulties far more perilous than our own. Throughout the 1770s and 1780s, in fact, one wrong move in the Continental Congress might well have led to the secession of a regional bloc of states, whether New England, the Middle states, or the Southern states, with possibly cataclysmic consequences for all thirteen: continental civil war.
An apt metaphor capturing the spirit of the early republic is that of a shotgun wedding. If the New England, Middle, or Southern states had split apart into separate confederacies, civil wars would have broken out over finances, commerce, and, most of all, land. For this reason—the prevention of bloody mayhem—the founders reluctantly bound themselves into one Union. They united with the guns of civil war pointing at their backs, but, to their everlasting credit, they also practiced the art of cooperative political maneuvering in order to save the Union from self-destruction.
Consider early July 1776. American founding myth would have us believe that after years of British abuses and usurpations, the leaders of the thirteen colonies amiably adopted the “unanimous” Declaration of Independence.
In fact, the battle over the Declaration of Independence was an epic tale of secession threats, fears of intercolonial bloodshed, and furtive politics engineered to rescue the Middle states from tragically falling into civil war against New England and the Southern states.
Observers of the American scene had long since forecast that an independent America would self-destruct in civil wars. As James Otis, patriot and author of the influential “The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved,” averred in 1765, “Were these colonies left to themselves tomorrow, America would be a mere shambles of blood and confusion.” An English traveler visiting the colonies in 1759 and 1760 concurred, warning, “Were they left to themselves, there would soon be civil war from one end of the continent to the other.”
These were hardly isolated forebodings. After the British Parliament enacted the Coercive Acts in 1774 to punish Boston for its wreckage of more than 340 chests of tea in the harbor, newspapers were filled with anxious prognostications about the consequences of independence: American civil wars.
“Whenever the fatal period shall arrive,” Reverend Samuel Seabury of New York asserted that year, “in which the American colonies shall become independent on Great Britain, a horrid scene of war and bloodshed will immediately commence. The interests, the commerce of the different provinces will interfere: disputes about boundaries and limits will arise. There will be no supreme power to interpose; but the sword and bayonet must decide the dispute.”