July 8, 1776 The Liberty Bell 

The Philadelphia Public Ledger reported the last clear note ever sounded by the Liberty Bell, on George Washington’s birthday, 1846 .

Philadelphia’s city bell originally hung from a tree near the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall. The date is uncertain, but it probably dates back to the city’s founding in 1682. The bell would ring to alert citizens of civic events and proclamations, and to the occasional civic danger.

The “Liberty Bell” was ordered from the London bell foundry of Lester and Pack (today the Whitechapel Bell Foundry) in 1752, arriving in August of that year. Weighing in at 2,080 lbs, it has written upon it a passage from the Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Hebrew Bible; the third of five books of the Torah. “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”.

Mounted to a stand to test the sound, the first strike of the clapper cracked the bell’s rim. Authorities tried to return it, but the ship’s master couldn’t take it on board, so the bell was re-cast by two local founders, John Pass and John Stow. It was broken into pieces, melted down and re-cast, with the addition of 10% copper to make the metal less brittle.

The Bell’s First Note, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Pass and Snow bragged that the bell’s lettering was clearer on this second casting than the original. The newly re-cast bell was ready in March 1753, when City officials scheduled a public celebration to test the sound. There was free food and drink all around, but the crowd gasped and started to laugh when the bell was struck. It didn’t break this time…it sounded like two coal scuttles being banged together.

Pass and Stow hastily took it away, again breaking the bell into pieces, and again melting it down to be recast.

The whole performance was repeated in June 1753.  This time most thought the sound to be satisfactory, and the bell was hung in the steeple of the State House. One who did not like the sound was Isaac Norris, speaker of the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly. He ordered a second bell in 1754, though he was unsuccessful in his efforts to return the original for credit to the Lester and Pack foundry.

The new bell was attached to the tower clock, while the old one was, by vote of the Assembly, devoted “to such Uses as this House may hereafter appoint.” One such use of the old bell occurred on July 8, 1776, to announce the public reading of the Declaration of Independence.

Bells are easily melted down for ammunition, so the bell was taken down and hidden before the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777. The distinctive large crack began to develop some time in the early 19th century, about the time when abolitionist societies began calling it “The Liberty Bell”. Some say it cracked while ringing after the death of Chief Justice John Marshall in 1835.

The Liberty Bell is paraded through the streets of Philadelphia, 1908, in a recreation of its 1777 journey to Allentown

The Philadelphia Public Ledger reported the last clear note ever sounded by the Liberty Bell, in its February 26, 1846 edition:

“The old Independence Bell rang its last clear note on Monday last in honor of the birthday of Washington and now hangs in the great city steeple irreparably cracked and dumb. It had been cracked before but was set in order of that day by having the edges of the fracture filed so as not to vibrate against each other … It gave out clear notes and loud, and appeared to be in excellent condition until noon, when it received a sort of compound fracture in a zig-zag direction through one of its sides which put it completely out of tune and left it a mere wreck of what it was.”

“#23”, Benjamin Harrison

The bell would periodically travel to expositions and celebrations, but souvenir hunters would break off pieces from its rim, and additional cracking would develop after several of these trips. The bell’s travels were sharply curtailed after it came back from Chicago with a new crack in 1893, and discontinued altogether in 1915.

Former President Benjamin Harrison may have had the last word as the Liberty bell passed through Indianapolis in 1893. “This old bell was made in England”, he said, “but it had to be re-cast in America before it was attuned to proclaim the right of self-government and the equal rights of men.”


July 7, 1798 XYZ

In the UK, the ruling class appeared to enjoy the chaos.  A British political cartoon of the time depicted the United States, represented by a woman being groped by five Frenchmen while John Bull, the fictional personification of all England, laughs from a nearby hilltop.

Imagine that you’ve always considered yourself to be somewhere in the political center, maybe a little to the left.  Now imagine that, in the space of two years, your country’s politics have shifted so radically that you find yourself on the “reactionary right”. So much so, that you are subject to execution by your government.  And all that time, your politics haven’t changed.

Our strongest ally in the American Revolution lost its collective mind in 1792, when France descended into its own revolution.    17,000 Frenchmen were officially tried and executed during the 1793-94 “Reign of Terror”, including King Louis XVI himself and his queen, Marie Antoinette.  Untold thousands died in prison or without benefit of trial.  The monarchical powers of Europe were quick to intervene and for the 32nd time since the Norman invasion of 1066, England and France found themselves at war.

Execution of Marie Antoinette

Both sides in the European conflict seized neutral ships which were trading with their adversary.  The “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation” between Great Britain and its former colonies, better known as the “Jay Treaty”, all but destroyed relations with the French Republic.  France retaliated by stepping up attacks on American merchant shipping, seizing 316 vessels in one 11-month period, alone.

France had been the colonies’ strongest ally during the American Revolution, now the Jay treaty infuriated the French, who believed the agreement violated earlier arrangements between the two nations.  Making matters worse, America repudiated its war debt in 1794, arguing that it owed money to “L’ancien Régime”, not to the “First Republic” which had overthrown it and executed its King.

In 1796, France formally broke diplomatic relations with the United States, rejecting the credentials of President Washington’s Ambassador, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.

The following year, President John Adams dispatched a delegation of two.  They were future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, and future Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, the man who later became the 5th Vice President, lending his name to the term “Gerrymander”.  Their instructions were to join with Pinckney in negotiating a treaty with France, with terms similar to those of the Jay treaty with Great Britain.

The American commission arrived in Paris in October 1797, requesting a meeting with the French Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.  Talleyrand, unkindly disposed toward the Adams administration to begin with, demanded a bribe for himself and substantial ‘loan’ to the French Republic, before so much as meeting with the American delegation.  The practice was not uncommon in European diplomacy of the time.  The Americans were appalled.

Believing that the Adams administration sought war by exaggerating the French position, Jeffersonian allies in Congress joined with more warlike Federalists in demanding the release of the commissioner’s communications. It was these dispatches, released in redacted form, which gave the name “X-Y-Z Affair” to the diplomatic and military crisis to follow.

Nicholas Hubbard, an English banker, was identified in the transcripts, only as “W”.  W introduced “X” (Baron Jean-Conrad Hottinguer) as a “man of honor”, who wished an informal meeting with Pinckney.  Pinckney agreed and Hottinguer reiterated Talleyrand’s demands, specifying the payment of a large loan to the French government, and a £50,000 bribe to Talleyrand himself.  Met with flat refusal by the American commission, X then introduced Pierre Bellamy (“Y”) to the Americans.  Lucien Hauteval (“Z”), Talleyrand’s personal emissary, was then sent to negotiate with Elbridge Gerry.  X, Y and Z, each in their turn, reiterated the Foreign Minister’s demand for a loan, and a bribe.

American politics were sharply divided over the European war.  President Adams and his Federalists, always the believers in strong, central government, took the side of the Monarchists.  Thomas Jefferson and his “Democratic-Republicans” found more in common with the ‘liberté, égalité and fraternité’ espoused by French revolutionaries.

In the UK, the ruling class appeared to enjoy the chaos.  A British political cartoon of the time depicted the United States, represented by a woman being groped by five Frenchmen while John Bull, the fictional personification of all England, laughs from a nearby hilltop.

John Bull cartoon

At this point, the United States had little means of defending itself.  The government had disbanded the Navy along with the Marine Corps at the end of the Revolution, selling the last warship in 1785 and retaining only a handful of “revenue cutters” doing customs enforcement.  The Naval Act of 1794 established a standing Navy for the first time in US history.  In October 1797, Congress authorized the construction of six frigates.  One of them, USS Constitution, saw its first combat in the Quasi-War with France, and remains in service to this day, the oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy.

Quasi War

Adams’ commission left without entering formal negotiations, their failure leading to a political firestorm in the United States.  Congress rescinded all existing treaties with France on July 7, 1798, authorizing American privateers to attack French shipping. The undeclared “Quasi-War” with France, had begun.

Four days later, President John Adams signed “An Act for Establishing and Organizing a Marine Corps,” permanently establishing the United States Marine Corps as an independent service branch, in order to defend the American merchant fleet.

For the United States, military involvement proved decisive.  Before military intervention, the conflict with France resulted in 28 Americans killed, 42 wounded, and over 2,000 merchant ships captured.  Following intervention, the US suffered 54 killed and 43 wounded, with only a single ship lost, and that one was later recaptured.

The undeclared naval war with our former ally was settled with the Treaty of Mortefontaine, also known as the Convention of 1800, and ratified the following year.

July 4, 1826 Founding Fathers

The letters between Adams and Jefferson together constitute one of the most comprehensive historical and philosophical assessments ever written about the American founding.

Thomas Jefferson met John Adams at the 1775 Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the two forming a close personal friendship which would last for most of their lives.   They were two of the committee of five assigned to write the Declaration of Independence, and worked closely together throughout the era of our founding.

The friendship between the two men came to an end during the Presidential election of 1800.  Mudslinging on both sides rose to levels never before seen in a national election, an election in which both sides firmly believed the election of the other, would destroy the young nation.HamJeff

Jefferson defeated one term incumbent Adams and went on to serve two terms as President.

On Jefferson’s retirement in 1809, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, took it upon himself to patch up the broken friendship between the two founding fathers. Dr. Rush worked on his personal diplomatic mission for two years.  In 1811, he finally succeeded.

There followed a series of letters between Adams and Jefferson, which together constitute one of the most comprehensive historical and philosophical assessments ever written about the American founding.

Their correspondence touched on a variety of topics, from the birth of this self-governing Republic, to then-current political issues, to matters of philosophy and religion and issues of aging. Both men understood that they were writing not only to one another, but to generations yet unborn.Letters

Each went to great lengths to explain the philosophical underpinnings of his views.  Adams the Federalist, the firm believer in strong, centralized government.  Jefferson was the Democratic-Republican, advocating for smaller federal government and more autonomy for the states.

In 1826, Jefferson and Adams were the last of the founding fathers.  In an ending no fiction writer would even dare to contemplate, both men died on this day in 1826, fifty years to the day from the birth of the Republic they had helped to create.

Adams was 90. His final words as he lay on his deathbed were “Thomas Jefferson still survives”.  Adams had no way of knowing that Jefferson had died five hours earlier, at Monticello.  He was 82.

Daniel Webster spoke of the pair a month later, at Faneuil Hall, in Boston. “No two men now live” he said”, (or) any two men have ever lived, in one age, who (have) given a more lasting direction to the current of human thought. No age will come, in which the American Revolution will appear less than it is, one of the greatest events in human history. No age will come, in which it will cease to be seen and felt, on either continent, that a mighty step, a great advance, not only in American affairs, but in human affairs, was made on the 4th of July, 1776″.

July 3, 1775, Washington’s Sword

General Washington rode out in front of the troops gathered at Cambridge Common on July 3, 1775.  Washington drew his sword under the branches of an ancient elm, by that act formally taking command of the Continental Army.

The American Revolution began with the battles of Lexington and Concord on the 19th of April, 1775. Thousands of armed colonial militia followed the British columns as they withdrew, and there they remained, hemming the British occupiers up in the city of Boston.

Within days, more than 20,000 armed men from all over New England had gathered from Cambridge to Roxbury. Tories’ vacant homes, empty Churches, even the brick buildings of Harvard College served as barracks, officers’ quarters, and hospitals. Soldiers camped in tents and other makeshift shelters, while Harvard canceled classes on May 1. Classes would not resume at the Cambridge campus until June of the following year.

The Continental Congress created the Army on June 14, 1775, appointing George Washington to lead it. General Washington rode out in front of the troops gathered at Cambridge Common on July 3, 1775.  Washington drew his sword under the branches of an ancient elm, by that act formally taking command of the Continental Army.

Washington Elm marker

Interestingly, 150 years of de facto independence from Great Britain seems to have suited the American colonist.  If inheritance records are any indication, the average American enjoyed a better standard of living, than the average Brit.  Average heights of the time bear that out.

The average American colonist had a full three inches on his British counterpart. At a time when the average male stood 5’8′, Washington towered over the crowd at 6’2″.   George Washington was a hard man to miss.

For Washington to draw his sword against King George III, was itself an act of magnificent courage.  According to British law of the time, one of four definitions of High Treason was “If a man do levy war against our lord the King in his realm”.  By drawing that sword against the crown, Washington was clearly committing High Treason.  He surely understood that such a prominent person as himself would be dealt with harshly, if caught.

At that time, the centuries-old penalty for High Treason was as savage as it was gruesome. Even now the language of the death sentence is difficult to read.  You may consider that to be my warning if you don’t care to read what follows.

The full sentence as read to the condemned was: “That you be drawn on a hurdle (a sledge) to the place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck and being alive cut down, your privy members shall be cut off and your bowels taken out and burned before you, your head severed from your body and your body divided into four quarters to be disposed of at the King’s pleasure”.

These were the terms of employment under which George Washington accepted his assignment.  He even declined to accept payment, beyond reimbursement for his personal expenses.

The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence would show the same brand of courage, by signing that document a year later. It must have been a supreme in-your-face moment when John Hancock put his pen to that parchment, which ended: “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”.


At the signing, Ben Franklin famously said “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately”.  This was no empty philosophical statement they were signing.  Should circumstances turn against them, the founding fathers well understood. Each was signing his death warrant.

July 2, 1776 Founding Document

Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

Richard Henry Lee’s resolution was taken almost verbatim from instructions from the Virginia Convention and its President, Edmund Pendleton.  As presented to the second Continental Congress on June 7, 1776, Lee’s resolution read:

“Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation”.

Several colonies were not yet ready to declare independence at that time.

Committeof 5Representatives agreed to delay the vote until July 1, appointing a “Committee of Five” to draft a declaration of independence from Great Britain. Members of the committee included John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. The committee selected Jefferson to write the document, the draft presented to Congress for review on June 28.

Debate resumed on July 1, 1776, with most of the delegates favoring Lee’s resolution.Declaration of Independence

The final vote was taken on July 2, when delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies voted in favor. Delegates from New York abstained, having had no clear instructions from their constituents.

The Pennsylvania Evening Post reported on July 2nd that “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States”.

The Pennsylvania Gazette followed suit on the third with “Yesterday, the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS declared the UNITED COLONIES FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES”.

John Adams thought that July 2 would go down as the country’s Independence Day.

This day has been mostly forgotten in favor of July 4, when the final edits of Jefferson’s Declaration were adopted, the final document engrossed (handwritten onto parchment), and sent off to the printer.

The 56 signers were never together at the same time.  Many of the signatures we see on the Declaration of Independence, would not be affixed to the document until August 2, possibly even later.

Happy Independence Day.





June 17, 1775 Bunker Hill

“On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.” – Dr. Joseph Warren

Charlestown, Massachusetts occupies a hilly peninsula to the north of Boston, at the point where the Mystic River meets the Charles. Like Boston itself, much of what is now Charlestown was once Boston Harbor.  In 1775 the town was a virtual island, joined to the mainland only by a thin “neck” of land.

Thousands of Patriot Militia poured into the area following the April battles of Lexington and Concord, hemming in the British who controlled Boston and its surrounding waterways.Bunker Hill, 2

Reinforced and provisioned from the sea over which the Crown held undisputed control, British forces under General Sir Thomas Gage could theoretically remained in Boston, indefinitely.

The elevation of Breed’s and Bunker’s Hill across the river, changed that calculation.  Should colonial forces obtain artillery of their own, they would be able to rain down hell on British forces bottled up in Boston.  It was just this scenario that led Henry Knox into a New England winter later that year, to retrieve the guns of Fort Ticonderoga.

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress received word on the 13th that the British planned to break out of Boston within the week, taking the high ground of Dorchester Heights to the south and Charlestown to the north. Major General Israel Putnam was directed to set up defenses on Bunker Hill, on the northwest end of the Charlestown peninsula.

Colonel William Prescott led about 1,200 men onto the peninsula on the night of the 16th. Some work was performed on the hill which gives the battle its name, but it was farmer Ephraim Breed’s land to the southeast, which offered the more defensible hill from which to defend the peninsula.Bunker_Hill_by_Pyle

Shovels could be heard throughout the night.  The sun rose on June 17 to reveal a 130′ defensive breastwork across Breed’s hill. Major General William Howe was astonished. “The rebels,” he said, “have done more work in one night than my whole army would have done in one month.”

The warship HMS Lively opened fire on the redoubt shortly after 4am, with little effect on the earthworks. 128 guns joined in as the morning bore on, including incendiary shot which set fire to the town. Militia continued to reinforce the high ground throughout the morning hours, as Regulars commanded by General Howe and Brigadier General Robert Pigot crossed the Charles River and assembled for the assault.

First Assault

The British line advanced up Breed’s Hill twice that afternoon, Patriot fire decimating their number and driving survivors back down the hill to reform and try again. Militia supplies of powder and shot began to give out as the British advanced up the hill for the third assault.

“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”. The quote is attributed to Prescott, but the order seems to have originated with General Putnam and passed along by Prescott, Seth Pomeroy, John Stark, and others, in a desperate attempt to conserve ammunition.

Finally, there was nothing left with which to oppose the British bayonets.  The Militia was forced to retreat.

Second Assault

Most of the colonists’ casualties occurred at this time, including Boston physician and President of Massachusetts’ Provincial Congress, Dr. Joseph Warren.  Dr. Warren had been appointed Major General on June 14, but the commission had not arrived as of yet.  On this day, he fought as a private soldier. He had been  but the commission had not yet taken effect.

Two months before the battle, Dr. Warren had spoken to his men. “On you depend the fortunes of America”, he said. “You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”

Act worthy of yourselves.  That they did.

Final Attack

The Battle of Bunker Hill ended in victory for the British, in that they held the ground when the fighting was over. It was a Pyrrhic victory. Howe lost 226 killed and 828 wounded, over a third of their number and more than twice those of the Militia.

One Eighth of all the British officers killed in the Revolution, died on Ephraim Breed’s Hill. General Henry Clinton wrote afterward, of the battle:  “A few more such victories” he said, “would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America”.

June 14, 1775  Happy Birthday, United States Army

The Continental Congress established the ‘American Continental Army’ on June 14, 1775, authorizing 10 companies of ‘expert riflemen,’ to serve as light infantry in the siege of Boston.

On May 10, 1775, twelve colonies convened the second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  One colony was absent at the time, Georgia would come later, arriving on July 20 following their own Provincial Congress.

The Revolution had begun in April that year, with the battles of Lexington and Concord.  A primary focus of the Second Continental Congress was to manage the war effort.Regulars

The fledgling United States had no Army at this time, relying instead on ad hoc militia units organized by the colonies themselves. At this time there were approximately 22,000 such troops surrounding British forces occupying Boston, with another 5,000 or so in New York.

ContinentalThe Continental Congress established the ‘American Continental Army’ on June 14, 1775, authorizing 10 companies of ‘expert riflemen,’ to serve as light infantry in the siege of Boston. The next day the Congress unanimously selected George Washington to be General and Commander in Chief of all continental forces.

Most of the Continental Army was disbanded after the Treaty of Paris ended the war in 1783. The 1st and 2nd Regiments remained to become the basis of the Legion of the United States in 1792, under General Anthony Wayne. These two became the foundation of the United States Army, in 1796.

The formation of other branches of the Armed Forces was quick to follow. The first organized merchant marine action had taken place two days earlier on June 12, 1775, when a group of Machias Maine citizens boarded and captured the schooner British warship HMS Margaretta.

The Navy was formed later that year, in October 1775, the Marine Corps in November. 18th century revenue cutter and rescue operations led to the formation of the United States Coast Guard in January 1915.  The Air Force spun off of the Army Air Corps in September 1947.Military Branches

Speaking on Armed Services Day in 1953, President Dwight David Eisenhower said: “It is fitting and proper that we devote one day each year to paying special tribute to those whose constancy and courage constitute one of the bulwarks guarding the freedom of this nation and the peace of the free world.”

On the other days of the year, you might say that you can thank a teacher if you can read this essay.  Today, you can thank a soldier that you can read it in English.  Happy birthday, United States Army.