It being July 4th, you might want to consider how we got here with some selections from the writings of the men who brought us to be the freest, greatest nation the world has ever known.
Happy Independence Day and God bless America.
William Blackstone – Commentaries on the Laws of England
Many great minds of the enlightenment helped shape the thinking of the Founding Fathers. John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume and many more contributed to the views that would be reflected in the Declaration of Independence.
But the practical, sensible writings of Blackstone had particular appeal to the lawyers, farmers and merchants of the American leadership class.
Out in 1769, the books were vital to not only the development of American law but also for explaining how rights were arranged, derived and protected. It was all well and good for the dandies like Thomas Jefferson to thrill to the French, but the sturdy citizens being swept toward revolution needed more practical stuff.
To know how our Constitution, Supreme Court and, most certainly, our Declaration, work, read Blackstone.
“Hence we may collect that the law, which restrains a man from doing mischief to his fellow citizens, though it diminishes the natural, increases the civil liberty of mankind: but every wanton and causeless restraint of the will of the subject, whether practiced by a monarch, a nobility, or a popular assembly, is a degree of tyranny. Nay, that even laws themselves, whether made with or without our consent, if they regulate and constrain our conduct in matters of mere indifference, without any good end in view, are laws destructive of liberty: whereas if any public advantage can arise from observing such precepts, the control of our private inclinations, in one or two particular points, will conduce to preserve our general freedom in others of more importance; by supporting that state, of society, which alone can secure our independence.”
Samuel Adams -- The Rights of the Colonists
Adams and the other Sons of Liberty in Boston were a little zestier in their calls for separation than his cousin John and the rest of the Founding Fathers. Along with Patrick Henry in Virginia, the namesake of America’s favorite craft beer was pushing hard for full separation before most of his peers and kept spurring the movement toward a full break much harder than the rest.
But, after the abuses of the crown worsened in the early part of the decade – taxes, taxes, taxes – Sam Adams found the political establishment of the day increasingly receptive to his revolutionary message.
Adams’ report to the Boston Town Meeting in November of 1772 was powerful not just because it was the strongest public statement yet of what colonists believed their natural rights to be in specific relation to the mother country, but because of the way that Ben Franklin and others embraced and disseminated. Franklin published the report in Britain as a caution to Parliament about what was brewing in the Americas. After pushing against the tide for so long, Adams’ moment had come.
“Now what liberty can there be where property is taken away without consent? Can it be said with any color of truth and justice, that this continent of three thousand miles in length, and of a breadth as yet unexplored, in which, however, it is supposed there are five millions of people, has the least voice, vote, or influence in the British Parliament? Have they all together any more weight or power to return a single member to that House of Commons who have not inadvertently, but deliberately, assumed a power to dispose of their lives, liberties, and properties, than to choose an Emperor of China? Had the Colonists a right to return members to the British Parliament, it would only be hurtful; as, from their local situation and circumstances, it is impossible they should ever be truly and properly represented there. The inhabitants of this country, in all probability, in a few years, will be more numerous than those of Great Britain and Ireland together; yet it is absurdly expected by the promoters of the present measures that these, with their posterity to all generations, should be easy, while their property shall be disposed of by a House of Commons at three thousand miles' distance from them, and who cannot be supposed to have the least care or concern for their real interest; who have not only no natural care for their interest, but must be in effect bribed against it, as every burden they lay on the Colonists is so much saved or gained to themselves.”
Benjamin Franklin -- An Act for the More Effectual Keeping of the Colonies Dependent
George Washington would become the American ideal, but in the days before the Revolution there was no American so famous and well respected as Franklin. A newspaperman by trade, Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanak were the intellectual currency of the American mainstream. Franklins wit and wisdom were known across the colonies and across Europe. He played the rustic to disarm and charm his European acquaintances, especially the female ones.
Franklin was in England in the years just before revolution began acting as an emissary from liberty-minded Americans to the elements in Parliament and English society who were, in their own Burkean fashions, sympathetic to the idea of a natural law and liberties.
Franklin pleaded for peace and relief, but was increasingly pushed to anger by the low opinion many held for the collection of Englishmen, Scots-Irishmen, Germans, Dutchmen and assorted refugees who made up America. Their snobbery, Franklin felt, was a great impediment for the main American wish of the time: a form of citizenship equal to the subjects of King George III who lived in the mother country.
In June of 1774, as the Brits were weighing what other punitive actions might be taken to keep the colonists in line – a good rap on the snout needed to put us back in our place.
Franklin printed in Philadelphia and circulated in England his own modest proposal for a new law for the colonies. It was wicked – and effective – satire.
“And be it further enacted, that on the birth of every male child, the sum of Fifteen Pounds, and on the birth of every female child, the sum of Ten Pounds sterling money shall be paid to the Governor of the Colony or Plantation in which such children shall be born.
6. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that on the birth of every bastard child in any of his Majesty's said Plantations, the sum of Fifty Pounds sterling money shall be paid by the Mother of such bastard child, to the Governor where such bastard child shall happen to be born, and that in case any person, shall hereafter, either with malice prepense, or otherwise kill or destroy any child or children; such killing or destroying shall not henceforth be deemed or adjudged to be murder in any Court or Courts, nor shall such killing be punished in any way or manner whatever.”
Thomas Jefferson – Declaration of Independence
Talk about opening strong.
The first two paragraphs – first a very logical explanation of the derivation of the right to separate: “When in the course of human events..” and then a clear statement of those rights the new country sought to guarantee: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”
Abraham Lincoln said that there was no political opinion he held that couldn’t be traced to the Declaration, and it makes sense. It encapsulates and pushes forward the ideas that had root in the free Hellenic states, began to blossom anew with Martin Luther in 1517 and continues to bloom today.
But consider most of all what they put on the line. Not just their lives and possessions, which many of the signatories would lose in seven years of war that followed, but also their “sacred honor.”
It’s a hard thought in this era of negative celebrity and shamelessness, but that may have been the most precious pledge of all. There was no turning back.
“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, 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; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. 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.”
George Washington -- Recruiting and Maintaining an Army
Having tasted the first fruits of liberty, there was much terrible work that lay ahead.
The armed rebellion had begun piecemeal – from Concord to the Appalachian backwoods – but the need to put together a real army fell to Col. George Washington of Virginia. History may not know a better man. Despite all the efforts to besmirch him, Washington shines through over and over again as a man of such character, honor and decency that we should never hesitate to call him the father of our country.
But the months after the declaration, Washington, now a general officer, labored hard to make the politicians in Philadelphia understand the difficulties that faced their only means of deliverance, the Continental Army.
This was before the starving time and eventual redemption that would come from January to June of 1777 at Valley Forge. This was when Washington was pleading, demanding, exhorting – anything to get the politicians to take seriously the need for men and materiel.
When Washington wrote to Congress on Sept. 24, 1776 he had just won an improbable victory over Gen. William Howe at Harlem Heights. And the politicians assumed that more wins would follow. But Washington knew he was badly outnumbered, lacked sea power, and had no reinforcements. His army soon retreated to White Plains and was eventually pushed south and west into Pennsylvania where the Valley Forge ordeal that nearly broke and then saved the hopes for real independence.
Washington’s plea to Congress in the fall of 1776 was to not assume that ideas would be enough. Liberty must be secured and it must be secured through force of arms.
How strange it must have seemed to Washington that he, staring down the most powerful military in the world with some rough-hewn troops to have to debate the dangers of a standing army in a republic.
“The Jealousies of a standing Army, and the Evils to be apprehended from one, are remote; and in my judgment, situated and circumstanced as we are, not at all to be dreaded; but the consequence of wanting one, according to my Ideas, formed from the present view of things, is certain, and inevitable Ruin; for if I was called upon to declare upon Oath, whether the Militia have been most serviceable or hurtful upon the whole; I should subscribe to the latter. I do not mean by this however to arraign the Conduct of Congress, in so doing I should equally condemn my own measures, (if I did not my judgment); but experience, which is the best criterion to work by, so fully, clearly, and decisively reprobates the practice of trusting to Militia, that no Man who regards order, regularity, and (e]conomy; or who has any regard for his own honour, Character, or peace of Mind, will risk them upon this Issue.”