OTD: Why we should remember July 20, 1775

Guest blog post by Katherine Carté, author of Religion and the American Revolution: An Imperial History

John Adams described the American Revolution as a time when “thirteen clocks were made to strike together” when he reflected on the era in 1818. Though he did not say it, if that description could be applied to a single moment, the best candidate would likely have been July 20, 1775.

Most people have never heard of that date, but the time delays in early modern transportation made it nearly impossible for people across the country to share in Revolutionary events that weren’t planned in advance. For that reason, the July 20 national day of fasting declared by the Continental Congress, in effect our first national holiday, was probably one of the only moments of the Revolutionary War that Americans experienced simultaneously. Held just over a year before the Declaration of Independence, it was an explicit effort by political leaders to create national unity at a time of crisis and division. The Second Continental Congress passed the resolution calling for the fast on Monday, June 12, 1775, just a few weeks into its sessions and while Boston was still under siege from British troops. The revolutionary governments in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire supported the precarious and extralegal Continental Congress by declaring concurrent fasts. So too did British North America’s largest Presbyterian body, the Synod of New York and Philadelphia.

The day was widely commemorated, even if it was not universally celebrated. As Adams wrote of Philadelphia: “The Fast was observed here with a Decorum and solemnity, never before seen ever on a Sabbath.” In Newport, minister Ezra Stiles noted that the day saw “the most crouded Assembly that I ever preached to in my Meetinghouse. It has been a serious and solemn and I hope sincere Fast!” Another preacher, William Piercy, reported from New York that he “never remembered to have seen a Day that was observed with so much seriousness and solemnity as in this City. Every Thing and every Person wore the Appearance of Mourning and Lamentation.” On the other hand, many Anglican clergy who had sworn allegiance to the King either avoided the day or marked it in protest.  As historian Spencer McBride has described, Samuel Seabury (of Hamilton fame) closed the doors of his church in protest on the date. The event was widely shared, but its meaning was disputed.

Why did so many people mark that day? The key point here is that the moment of unity achieved in 1775 was a relic of the colonial era, not a harbinger of political or religious unity in the future United States. When Congress proclaimed the fast day in 1775, its members banked on the fact that religious leaders in the rebelling colonies would support them.  It was a safe gamble, because in 1775, the Congress was still operating within the British Empire’s structures of religious establishment. In that system, political leaders determined the boundaries of legitimate religion by supporting certain denominations, tolerating others, and outlawing religious behavior that was disruptive or divisive. Colonial religious leaders had embraced the privileges they gained from Britain’s Protestant establishment, and they had eagerly supported Britain in its endless wars against Catholic France and Spain. In 1775, colonial clergy were quite accustomed to addressing political crises from the public pulpit, and residents of the colonies were used to having political agendas—even war—cast in religious terms. The scale of the shared experience produced on July 20, 1775, and the success of the national fast resulted from the structures of the ancient regime, rather than (principally) from enthusiasm for the Revolutionary cause.

Tracing national days of fast and thanksgiving forward through the Revolutionary era helps explain why the widespread commemoration of July 20, 1775, was not repeated. Although numerous such days were proclaimed by Congress between 1775 and 1784, the process of the Revolution wrenched Americans away what British called their “Constitution in Church and State.” Amidst the disruptions of war, political leaders chose not to attempt the establishment of a national church for the United States. A major reason for their reticence was the knowledge that public religion, while an important inheritance from the British empire, could also be divisive at a time when unity was essential. For example, in a much earlier usage of the “thirteen clocks” metaphor, John Adams told a correspondent shortly before the Declaration of Independence: “remember you cant make thirteen Clocks, Strike precisely alike, at the Same Second.”  With the next breath he advocated for “Toleration of all Denominations of Religionists,” and said that he “hope[d] that Congress [would] never meddle with Religion, further than to Say their own Prayers, and to fast and give Thanks, once a Year. Let every Colony, have its own Religion, without Molestation.” 

The fact that the most dramatic moment of unity during the Revolutionary era came about through the deployment of a colonial era tool provides important evidence of how disruptive the American Revolution was to political and religious structures. In the absence of institutional links between governments and Protestant institutions, both sides in that equation had to find new ways to legitimize their actions and shape a public agenda. As they struggled to build a new nation, the founding generation left public religion by the wayside and, eventually, severed all formal ties between religious institutions and the federal government with the First Amendment in 1791. When they did so, they forced Americans to find new ways to create a shared culture.

Katherine Carté (who previously published as Katherine Carté Engel) is associate professor of history at Southern Methodist University, with affiliations in the Religious Studies department.