When John Adams left Philadelphia after the first Continental Congress in 1774, he didn’t expect to come back.
“Took our departure. . . from the happy, peaceful, elegant, hospitable, and polite city of Philadelphia. It is not very likely that I shall ever see this part of the world again, but I shall ever retain a most grateful, pleasing sense of the many civilities I have received in it.”
Two years later in 1776, not only did he return but he also made the boldest move of his life. He called on the members of the second Continental Congress to declare independence from England, which we now celebrate each July 4.
Adams also asked one of the most probing questions about our nation’s founding.
“What do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war?”
An eyewitness, he knew the answer. The American Revolution began long before the first musket flared.
“The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations.”
The American Revolution was a transformation of their hearts, souls and minds. For a few, that change was instant. For most the conversion came after a long wrestling over allegiances and beliefs about government.
As I wrote Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War, I wondered: when did this change begin in the lives of our founders, such as George Washington?
The seed may have started when Washington was 22 years old. A colonel in a Virginia regiment, he fought with regular British redcoats against the French and Indians in July 1755. The battle went terribly wrong, leading Washington to step in for his dying general. By the time he arrived at Maryland’s Fort Cumberland, most of his surviving comrades were shocked to see him. They thought he was dead. He quickly corrected the record and wrote his mother:
“I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me, and yet escaped unhurt.”
Though struggling with survivor’s guilt, Washington was also hot. They weren’t just defeated but “scandalously beaten.”
“We were attacked by a party of French and Indians, whose number, I am persuaded, did not exceed three hundred men; while ours consisted of about one thousand three hundred well-armed troops, chiefly regular soldiers, who were struck with such a panic that they behaved with more cowardice than it is possible to conceive.”
The British redcoats abandoned the Virginia regiment.
“In short, the dastardly behavior of those they call regulars exposed all others . . . they ran, as sheep pursued by dogs, and it was impossible to rally them.”
Weren’t the American colonists as equally British subjects as their London counterparts? Didn’t they serve the same king? Something was amiss. The disparity and disloyalty pierced his heart. Washington was not ready to take up arms against his king the next day, but the seed of patriotism was likely planted then. It grew over the years as the king took away the colonists’ constitutional charters, rights to assemble, receive jury trials, and much more.
By 1774 he was ready. Martha perhaps best described her husband’s commitment on the morning he left for Philadelphia’s first Continental Congress. To a colonel accompanying him, she said, “I hope you will stand firm–I know George will.”
Nearly 20 years after witnessing the redcoats’ abandonment, General Washington emerged ready evict the British army once and for all. He did in 1781, completing the war at Yorktown but not the revolution.
That came in 1787, when Washington returned to Philadelphia to preside over the Constitutional Convention. Today, the U.S. Constitution is the most tangible proof that the American Revolution was not merely a war but a change in the minds of the people. Gone was “Long live the king.” Replacing it was a preamble of the public will: “We the People of the United States.” America traded royalty for representation. Patriots shed blood for the rights given them by their Creator. Union, not a single monarch, now governed the people’s will.
Because he had experienced that change along with Washington and so many others, John Adams understood the true meaning of the independence we celebrate this July 4: “This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.”
Jane Hampton Cook is author of seven books including her just released book, American Phoenix, which chronicles the story of John Quincy and Louisa Adams during the War of 1812. She is also the author of Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War and her children’s book What Does the President Look Like? Jane served President George W. Bush as a webmaster for five years. A frequent guest on the Fox News Channel, she is a member of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. She lives with her family in Fairfax, Virginia. www.janecook.com