By Howard Hyde
In July 2011 I hosted a lecture-screening of the 2nd episode of HBO’s series on the American Revolution, John Adams (this episode showing the events and debate leading to the Declaration of Independence), in Spanish, at La Iglesia en El Camino (Church on the Way) in Van Nuys, California. There were about 50 in attendance. During the same week I had been an in-studio guest on a radio program on Univision, guest-hosted by Pablo Kleinman (the regular host would have been Fernando Espuellas).
I chose HBO’s John Adams because it is one of the best Revolutionary War films ever made, presenting in intimate detail the struggle for the founding of our unique nation as seen through the eyes of a heroic couple and their family. I highly recommend it to anyone, immigrant or native, who wants to understand the origins of our nation (I don’t get paid to say this, but I should).
Below is the translation, back into English, of the lecture. Write to me if you are interested in the Spanish version.
I describe in [square brackets] a few of the visuals from the slide show that accompanied my talk.
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Good morning and thank you for joining us today.
In anticipation of our great patriotic holiday, Independence Day, which is the Fourth of July, with its festivities and fireworks, we are going to get to know better the men and women who have given us the gift of this day, through the HBO film ‘John Adams’.
[One Dollar bill] You may know George Washington. Well, it was John Adams that nominated Washington to be commander-in-chief of the Continental (Revolutionary) army and years later became President Washington's Vice President.
[2 dollar bill] Perhaps you have heard of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. Well it was John Adams that nominated Jefferson to write this document, since Adams did not have time while conducting the verbal debate in the Continental Congress in favor of independence.
[$100 bill] perhaps you know Benjamin Franklin. Adams worked together with Franklin for independence and later in France to get the indispensable support of the French in the war against the British.
For all this I call Adams the greatest of the founders who never got his mug on a dollar bill, or, the greatest lesser-known founder.
[Circa 1770 map of British colonial America] 250 years ago in the 18th century there were on the east coast of North America 13 colonies ruled by King George the Third of Great Britain (or England). The colonies were not proper states, nor were they by any means united. There did not exist at that time any ‘united states’.
The subjects of the British crown lived in these colonies were already well-accustomed to governing themselves without interference. But the king and the British Parliament tried to force the colonies to comply with an increasingly intolerable regimen of taxes, prohibition of trade outside of the British Empire, the obligation to get official stamps and approvals for the most minor articles of commerce; to accept that British soldiers should be quartered in any American’s house that the British might order (soldiers whose numbers grew ever larger). All that without the colonies having a voice or rights or American representatives in the British Parliament. For that the cry "no taxation without representation" was heard with increasing frequency, and tensions between the colonies and Britain increased.
In 1770 John Adams lived in Boston, capital of the colony of Massachusetts. Humble lawyer, son of a farmer, man of principles, family man, Christian of confession and conviction, Adams became known when he defended in court a group of British soldiers accused of murder in what the colonists called the Boston Massacre, but what Adams judged to be a riot or mob disturbance in which the soldiers had acted in self-defense. His defense of the despised soldiers did not at all please the colonists, least of all his own cousin the political activist Samuel Adams.
Adams hoped that his demonstration of justice would be recognized and appreciated by the king and that the heavy hand of the empire would have been lightened. But George III decreed that any trial of British officers accused of capital crimes in America in the future could not take place in the colonies, but only in Great Britain, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
The disappointments and provocations continued, and the time the frequency of disturbances like the Boston tea party which tons of English tea were thrown into the waters of the port of Boston in protest against restricted trade with England.
You are going to share John Adams experience of all of these events. And also you work you will get to know John Adams family, his wife and his children. You will see Abigail advising her husband with wisdom, balancing his character defects such as his vanity, his stubbornness and his inability to keep his mouth shut when he should. By John Adams’ own admission, if not for Abigail, instead of becoming one of our most important leaders, he never would have amounted to anything.
In 1774 the good faith between the colonies and the king and Parliament had deteriorated to such a point that Adams, together with his cousin Samuel Adams and representatives of all the 13 colonies began to meet at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, capital of the colony of Pennsylvania, 400 miles from Boston (traveling days and weeks by horse, not hours by Continental airlines!) to discuss their common defense against British tyranny. Such a reunion was unprecedented in the prior 150 years of the colonies.
The citizens of the colonies and their delegates to the Continental Congress were by no means united on the question of how to respond to the tyranny of the king of England, and much less on the question of independence. Some advocated an armed rebellion for separation; others felt, as loyal subjects of the king of England, that they did not want to break with the mother country, or considered that a military confrontation against the most powerful empire in the world which was Great Britain at that time. was destined to fail catastrophically. And so the contentious debate dragged on for more than two years.
Reconciliation between the colonies and the king became less and less possible after military battles between the rebels and the British forces broke out in Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts in 1775, followed by the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Siege of Boston. In October of that year the king declared before Parliament that the colonies were in rebellion and that he was sending a military expedition sufficient to suppress the rebels (which is to say, massive; more than 400 ships).
At that time Adams’ family lived on his farm in the town of Braintree, south of Boston. During the battle of Bunker Hill and the siege, the thunder and flashes of the cannons could be seen from his property.
His wife Abigail managed the farm and cared for their 4 young children during the frequent absences of her husband in Philadelphia. The Adamses were not rich and life was not easy. Because of the blockade of Boston, outside trade was interrupted and the most necessary goods for daily life were in short supply. To make matters worse, infectious diseases were killing many citizens and soldiers, and threatening even Adams’ own family. So while John was debating independence in Philadelphia, Abigail was having herself and her children vaccinated against the Smallpox, which in those days signified risking death; suffering the disease itself during a few weeks.
When it became apparent that there were no doubts about the intentions of the king to impose his will without mercy or compromise over the colonies, Congress united over the question and elected Thomas Jefferson, a wealthy 33 year-old landowner and representative of Virginia, to write the Declaration of Independence.
The document that Jefferson delivered surpassed all expectations. The Declaration not only separated the American colonies from the king of England; it proclaimed universal ideals of human rights, principles that would threaten any despot or tyrannical regime in any country, in any time.
Lamentably, the institution of slavery survived the American revolution not only in the southern states but in the very estates of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and other prominent American revolutionaries. Even so, the Declaration in effect established a civilization irreconcilable with slavery. The full cost of this incompatibility would be paid in full, 87 (“four score and seven”) years later in the Civil War under President Abraham Lincoln.
The Declaration of Independence is more than 1000 words long. But there is one phrase that has become immortal that summarizes all of its meaning. It begins: "We hold these truths to be self-evident..."
What was so powerful in these simple words was the fact that no head of state in those days, no king, nor aristocrat, nor Emperor in any way considered such ideas to be self-evident.
It continued: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness".
This was, and continues to be, the creed of the United States, an imperfect country but among the most free, most prosperous, most just and most enduring that has ever existed in all the world and in all of human history.
[Screen Episode 2, Independence.]
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