The Causes of the American Revolution

By John C. Wahlke | Go to book overview

Carl Becker:


THE SPIRIT OF '76

Carl Lotus Becker, professor of history at Cornell from 1917 to his death in 1945, is as widely known as any American historian. He was the author of classic works in the history of ideas (The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers) and in the writing of history (Every Man His Own Historian) as well as in American history itself. The essay reprinted here presents his imaginative recreation of the thoughts of the American colonists on the eve of the Revolution.

Last October Mr. Lyon asked me to come down to the Brookings School and tell you about the Spirit of '76. I suspected that he hadn't any clear notion of what was meant by the phrase "Spirit of '76," and I was positive I hadn't. I was therefore about to decline the invitation when, rummaging among my papers, I came upon an old and imperfect manuscript which seemed providentially designed to throw some light on this obscure subject. The manuscript bore the date of 1792, but who may have written it I was unable to determine. There are obviously some pages missing, and the tale ends suddenly as if never quite finished. But such as it is I have transcribed it, and I give it to you for what it may be worth. The title of the manuscript is "Jeremiah Wynkoop."


JEREMIAH WYNKOOP

During the war of independence I not infrequently heard zealous patriots say that Mr. Wynkoop was not as warm in the cause as he should be. The charge has lately been revived by those who had no great liking for Mr. Wynkoop's Federalist principles. Mr. Wyncoop was of course not alone in being thus distinguished. It is now said of many men who were never suspected of being Tory that they look back with regret to the old days before the breach with Britain. It is said of them, to employ a phrase now becoming current, that they were never really inspired by the true spirit of '76. For my part, I suspect that, in recalling the desperate days of the war, we are likely to invest the so-called spirit of '76 with a glamor which it did not have at the time. Be that as it may, I knew Jeremiah Wynkoop as an honest man and a genuine patriot. I was his closest friend, intimate enough to know better than most the difficulties that confronted him and the sentiments that determined his conduct. And so I think it worth while, now that the man is dead, to set down a plain tale of his activities and opinions from the beginning of the quarrel in 1763 to the final breach in 1776. This I do, not only for old friendship's sake and as a justification of Mr. Wynkoop, but as a contribution to the history of those troubled times; for Jeremiah Wynkoop was fairly representative, both in his station in life and in his opinions, of that considerable class of substantial men who did as much as any other class, and I think more than any other class, to enable these states to maintain their liberties against British tyranny.

Born of rich middle class parents of genuine Dutch-American stock, Jeremiah was educated at Kings College, then recently established. In fact we both entered the College the year it was founded, and graduated with the first

____________________

From The Spirit of '76 and Other Essays by Carl Becker, J. M. Clark, and William E. Dodd. Copyright 1927 by The Robert Brookings Graduate School of Economics and Government. Used by permission of the Brookings Institution.

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