Is it the American Revolution or the War of Independence?

July 4, 2014 § 11 Comments

Dear colleagues:

It seems to me that every year around the 4th of July I get the same question from friends and colleagues: What do you say when you are interpreting an event and the speaker brings up the 4th of July? Sometimes they refer to this event as the revolutionary war; sometimes they call it the war of independence, and to some it is just the American revolution. Which one is the correct term to describe what happened in the United States of America at the end of the 18th century?

Those of you who know me personally have seen how much I like history, so this is an issue that I have studied and researched in the past. We should start by going to the dictionary to see what the difference between the terms revolution and independence is. According to the Oxford dictionary, a revolution is: “A forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system.” It also defines it as: “A dramatic and wide reaching change in conditions, attitudes, or operation.” Webster calls it: “A total or radical change,” and “A fundamental change in political organization, or in a government or constitution; the overthrow or renunciation of one government, and the substitution of another, by the governed.” Oxford defines independence as: “The fact or state of being independent,” and independent as: “Free from outside control; not depending on another’s authority.” Webster tells us that independence is: (the) freedom from outside control or support,” and also as: “The time when a country or region gains political freedom from outside control.”

The American revolution (or war of independence) was the very first of its kind. It emerged at a time when most of the world was ruled by monarchs, and most of the people were confined to a place in society they had inherited and could not leave. It was also a movement led by wealthy intellectuals who organized, debated, compromised, and reached decisions by majority of votes.

The American movement was triggered by resentment of the economic policies of Britain, particularly the right of Parliament to tax the colonies, and by the exclusion of the colonists from participation in political decisions affecting their interests. This has come to be known as “taxation without representation.” After the end of the costly French and Indian War of 1763 the British Crown needed money, so it imposed new unpopular taxes such as the Stamp Act and the Sugar Act, as well as trade restrictions on the colonies. For over a century the colonies had been fairly unattached to the Monarchy because of geography and religion. The people of the 13 colonies had made a life with very little help from the British monarch who now wanted even more of the colonists’ hard earned money, fueling growing resentment and strengthening the colonists’ objection to their lack of representation in the British Parliament.

Determined to achieve independence, the colonies formed the Continental Army, composed chiefly of minutemen, to challenge Britain’s large, organized militia. Following disturbances such as the Boston Tea Party of 1773, the war began when Britain sent a force to destroy rebel military stores at Concord, Massachusetts. After fighting broke out in 1775 in Lexington and Concord, rebel forces began a siege of Boston that ended when the Americans forced out the British troops in 1776 during the battle of Bunker Hill. The Crown’s offer of pardon in exchange for surrender was refused by the Americans, who declared themselves independent on July 4, 1776. British forces retaliated by driving the Continental Army of George Washington from New York to New Jersey. On December 25, Washington crossed the Delaware River and won the battles of Trenton and Princeton. After winning the battle of Saratoga, Washington quartered his troops through a terrible winter at Valley Forge, where they received the military training that gave them victory in Monmouth in 1778. British forces in the north were concentrated near New York, and France, which had been secretly furnishing aid to the Americans since 1776, finally declared war on Britain in June 1778. French troops assisted American troops in the south, culminating with the British surrender in 1781, bringing an end to the war on land. War between Britain and the U.S.’s European allies continued at sea. The navies of Spain and the Netherlands contained most of Britain’s navy near Europe and away from the fighting in America. The last battle of the war was won by the American navy in March 1783 in the Straits of Florida. With the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783 Britain recognized the independence of the U.S. east of the Mississippi River and ceded Florida to Spain.

This would be the story of a successful war of independence like many others throughout history. However, the military campaign is only part of what happened in America in 1776. Perhaps the most important event of the war of independence happened in a Philadelphia hall, away from the battlefield.

You see, unlike other nations that have obtained their independence from a foreign power, the thirteen original colonies were not a single entity. This was not a country trying to be independent from another. These were thirteen distinctively different peoples; they had different economies, different religious practices, different geographical circumstances, even different ethnicity. Unlike other independence movements, this was a decision made by a population with very little ties to their European monarch. Spanish and Portuguese nobility established in the rest of the Americas, they were governed by a king through a viceroy. The thirteen colonies had none of that. The immigration to what is now the eastern United States consisted of laborers, farmers, people who had been oppressed and persecuted by their European government. ) We can now see a similar situation with some of the 21st century immigration into the United States from Latin America). These people owed nothing to the crown. Ignored by the Crown, they took advantage of that freedom and successfully built a country where hard work and creativity gave them a lifestyle unimaginable for them in Europe. Two kinds of Americans participated in the movement of independence: the common hard-working individual who knew that it was wrong to give his hard-earned money to the British Monarch who had done nothing for him, and the well-educated, wealthy American segment of the population who were able to articulate this general desire shared by all Americans, and produce a blueprint for a government never seen before where all thirteen colonies, now states, would keep their independence while at the same time would unite with the other colonies for two fundamental purposes: to defend themselves from more powerful foreign nations, and to facilitate commerce and free trade among the thirteen states. They designed a system of government as far away from the powers of the monarch, with a very limited role for the government, with a divided power for checks and balances, and with an inverted pyramid structure where the government closes to the people would have more power than the government more removed from the American citizens. They elaborated this master plan in order to achieve three goals: the protection of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and they made it clear that the government would never be able to take any of that away from the people because the people created the government to serve it, because no authority or power, or rights ever came from the government; they made it clear that all this inalienable rights came from a higher power, by the Creator. In doing so, they doomed all potential tyrants for eternity, because in the United States the government gave nothing to the people and therefore, it cannot ever take it back. It is true that in 1776 blacks were considered property, and women and also men who did not hold land could not vote. It is true that it took an even bloodier war to eliminate slavery, and another century to begin a process of true equality; it is a work in progress; but the Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the true American revolution.

Therefore, my friends and colleagues, when asked the question is it the American Revolution or the War of Independence, you should pause and remember that it was a military war of independence because it severed the ties between the United States and the British crown, but it was also a revolution because it went far beyond breaking away from the monarch, it created a brand new system with a limited role by the government, with checks and balances, and with the triple goal of protecting life, liberty, and guaranteeing the pursuit of happiness to all those in the United States. Therefore, as you answer the question, remember John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, signing his name at the bottom of Jefferson’s master piece, with huge letters so that King George III “could see it all the way across the ocean” and answer that it depends on what you are addressing: the military movement or de fundamental change in government; and if they ask you for a term to describe it all, then in my opinion you should say: The revolutionary war. Now I ask you all, limited to the question posed in this post, to share your opinion and comments about this issue.

The American Founding Fathers and their Foreign Languages.

July 4, 2012 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

On this Fourth of July all Americans celebrate our independence.  We know that on this day we recognize the immense wisdom and unlimited courage of a group of men who lived in the same right place at the same right time.  Although most of us will spend the better part of the day watching baseball, having a hot dog, and attending some local fireworks tonight, I thought it would be interesting to talk about a little known aspect of the founding fathers’ lives: Their knowledge of foreign languages.

It is undisputable that they were all bright, well-educated, and visionary heroes who crafted an idea and implemented a concept never attempted before: a country with no monarch where the people were in charge.  We have read about their political, diplomatic, scientific, and military qualities, about how gifted they were. It is time to review their knowledge of foreign languages.  George Washington did not speak any other language. No doubt because of his very little formal education and humble beginnings he just spoke English.  Abraham Lincoln would fit the same bill. The emancipator was a self-educated attorney with a very modest upbringing and he never learned any foreign languages either. These two American heroes did not travel abroad in their lifetime.

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, first Secretary of State under Washington, and our third President spoke English, French, Italian, Latin, and he could read Greek, and Spanish. Benjamin Franklin, America’s first diplomat and well-known genius spoke English, French and Italian.   Our second President: John Adams spoke English, French and Latin. President James Madison spoke English, Greek, Latin and Hebrew.  James Monroe spoke English and French.

Although Samuel Adams and John Hancock did not speak any foreign languages, Hancock, the wealthiest of our founding fathers, and perhaps the most generous, founded a Professorship of Oriental Languages and Hebrew in Massachusetts.  All in all, 21 of America’s 44 Presidents have known at least a second language, and if you consider that America’s first Nobel Peace Prize recipient: President Teddy Roosevelt spoke French and German,  then we can say that two out of four Presidents sculpted on Mount Rushmore spoke a foreign language.

This may not be the most relevant aspect of a hero’s life, but it is a good way for a linguist to wish all of my friends and colleagues, together with their families, a happy Fourth of July!

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