by Gerald Boerner
As we approach the celebration of the 4th of July American Independence Day festivities, we believe that this is a good time to reflect on how and why we became a new nation over two hundred years ago. To a great extent, it had to do with the abuses of the British colonial system AND the presence at that point in time of great men of vision — the Founding Fathers.
Last year we posted an extensive series on the American Revolution. We will draw upon some of those posts again this year, but with more emphasis on the specific roles selected Founding Fathers played in the quest for independence. But to get our exploration started, we need to look at the context within which the American Revolution occurred and a perspective on the philosophical foundations of this revolution.
We hope that you will follow us through this exploration and come out with a renewed respect for our great struggle in those years in the 18th century. GLB
[ This is Part 1 of 10. ]
[ 2445 Words ]
“Congress is functioning the way the Founding Fathers intended-not very well. They understood that if you move too quickly, our democracy will be less responsible to the majority.”
— Barbara B. Conable, Jr.
“Don’t tire yourself more than need be, even at the price of founding a culture on the fatigue of your bones.”
— Antonin Artaud
“Equality, rightly understood as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences; wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.”
— Barry Goldwater
“For the freedoms our founding fathers not only dreamed about, but made into reality. It is that same pursuit of freedom today that is helping to make our world a safer place.”
— John M. McHugh
“Genetic studies in Iceland have found that many of the women who were the founding stock of Iceland came from England and what is now France. Some were probably captured and carried off in Viking raids only 40 generations ago.”
— Keith Henson
America’s Founding Fathers… The Context of Revolution
I want to provide some reflections of why the American Revolutionary War took place. It was based upon both philosophical and practical foundations. But, above all, it had to do with the way the British Parliament tried to solve their financial problems by taxing the American colonies for the cost of the Seven Years War (here, the French and Indian War). GLB
(The following A Historical Context: Thinking About the American Revolution to this blog on Wednesday, June 24, 2009)
The United States Declaration of Independence is a statement adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, which announced that the thirteen American colonies then at war with Great Britain were now independent states, and thus no longer a part of the British Empire. Written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration is a formal explanation of why Congress had voted on July 2 to declare independence from Great Britain, more than a year after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. The birthday of the United States of America—Independence Day—is celebrated on July 4, the day the wording of the Declaration was approved by Congress.
After finalizing the text on July 4, Congress issued the Declaration of Independence in several forms. It was initially published as a printed broadside that was widely distributed and read to the public. The most famous version of the Declaration, a signed copy that is usually regarded as the Declaration of Independence, is on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Although the wording of the Declaration was approved on July 4, the date of its signing has been disputed. Most historians have concluded that it was signed nearly a month after its adoption, on August 2, 1776, and not on July 4 as is commonly believed.
The sources and interpretation of the Declaration have been the subject of much scholarly inquiry. The Declaration justified the independence of the United States by listing colonial grievances against King George III, and by asserting certain natural rights, including a right of revolution. Having served its original purpose in announcing independence, the text of the Declaration was initially ignored after the American Revolution. Its stature grew over the years, particularly the second sentence, a sweeping statement of human rights:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This sentence has been called "one of the best-known sentences in the English language" and "the most potent and consequential words in American history". The passage has often been used to promote the rights of marginalized groups, and came to represent for many people a moral standard for which the United States should strive. This view was greatly influenced by Abraham Lincoln, who considered the Declaration to be the foundation of his political philosophy, and promoted the idea that the Declaration is a statement of principles through which the United States Constitution should be interpreted.
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Law of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
— Declaration of Independence, 1776
“Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
— Inscription on the Liberty Bell
These words embody the spirit behind the founding of this great country of ours. While many nations and religions took part in the settlement of the original thirteen colonies, these colonies eventually came under the rule of the British parliament and the English monarch. While it was convenient, the settlers were granted a great deal of independence within the British Empire. Most colonies operated under royal charters and were overseen by a British governor. This crated a population that flourished under the hardships of the wilderness; they tamed the country and found a relative amount of freedom to practice their own religious beliefs — England was persecuting all religions except the Church of England at the time.
So, why would this group of strong, resourceful people opt out of the British Empire? Two reasons were predominate: Taxes and Trade Restrictions. The British, with the help of the colonists had just finished fighting the French forces in the Seven Years War (known here as the French and Indian War) by the mid-1700′s. At the conclusion of this war, the British parliament began placing taxes on the essential goods and services needed by the colonists. The colonists, however, felt that these taxes were oppressive and ‘illegal,’ since they did not have representation in the parliament. This is embodied in the expression of “No Taxation without Representation.”
The second reason — Trade Restrictions — resulted in the quest of the British for wealth. Wealth was accumulated by exporting more goods, especially manufactured good, than you import. The triangular trade cycle between England, West Africa (slaves), and the American colonies (slaves and manufactured goods). This resulted in the British restricting manufacturing activity in the colonies; the British wanted raw materials (especially tobacco and cotton) from the colonies. This is based on the monitary theory put forth by John Locke, among others. The goal of the British was to maximize this trade cycle to increase the wealth of the English crown.
Both of these factors produced conflicts between the mother country (England) and the American colonies. When the colonials started to protest both of these impositions, the British started stationing British troops in the colonies, at the expense of the colonists! This resulted in the formation of the ‘Sons of Liberty’ around 1764 and the rise of a strong group of Patriots (those against the crown). Pariament was petitioned to allow the colonies more freedom and independence, but they were turned down. This increased the colonists’ sentiments against the parliament. Eventually, this led to the convening of the 1st Continental Congress in 1774 in an effort to present a united front to the British parliament against the multiple taxes being imposed.
When the situation did not improve, a 2nd Continental Congress was convened in 1775 to discuss the options available to the colonies. They petitioned King George III for relief, but were rejected. They then came up with the following statement of their position:
“Honor, justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us. We cannot endure the infamy and guilt of resigning succeeding generations to that wretchedness which inevitably awaits them if we basely entail hereditary bondage on them.”
— Continental Congress Declaration, 1775
In the mean time, learned men and ministers throughout the colonies began to mobilize the thoughts of the population. Some of the first battles of the revolution were found, especially the Battle of Lexington and Concord (1775), the Battle of Bunker Hill (1775) and several battles in Canada. The anti-British sentiments were encited by many ministers, including John Witherspoon, the president of the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton University). In the early part of 1776 he distributed a collection of sermons and other writings, such as the following:
“There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.”
— John Witherspoon, 1776
The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men. The colonists separted themselves into three camps. There were those who maintained neutrality, the Quakers and native American Indians. There were about 1 out of 5 colonists who remained loyal to the crown, the Loyalists. Finally, there were the Patriots (the rest of the population) who wanted self-government and independence from British rule. As conditions got worse, the 2nd Continental Congress charged Benjamin Franklin, John Adams & Thomas Jefferson to write a Declaration of Independence to be delivered to the British. This was submitted to the 2nd Continental Congress and signed on July 4th, 1776. The document built heavily upon the thinking of John Locke, especially where human Rights were concerned and what a legitimate government consisted of. The following statement reflects these ideas:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and pursuit of Happiness: that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. — Declaration of Independence, 1776
In 1777, the 2nd Continental Congress approved the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. Thus, a new civil government was establish as a confederation of independent states. This became effective in 1781 when the last of the thirteen colonies signed it. It became the definition of governement after the Treaty of Paris of 1783 which ended the revolutionary war. The following is an excerpt from these Articles:
The said states hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their Liberties, and their mutual and general welfare. — Articles of Confederation, 1777
After suffering through growing pains and misunderstandings, it became apparent that the confederation of independent states was not an optimal organizational scheme. Consequently, a Constitutional Convention was called and worked on a new constitution to help solve most of the problems. This new constitution was accepted and ratified by the final state in 1789. This constitution called for a strong Executive Branch, a Legislative Branch with two houses (House and Senate), and an independent Judicial Branch. This became a model on many of the democracies that emerged during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
“We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
— Constitution of the United States of America, 1789
The Constitution of the United States of America is the supreme law of the United States. It is the foundation and source of the legal authority underlying the existence of the United States of America and the federal government of the United States. It provides the framework for the organization of the United States government and for the relationship of the federal government to the states, to citizens, and to all people within the United States.
The Constitution defines the three branches of the national government: a legislature, the bicameral Congress; an executive branch led by the President; and a judicial branch headed by the Supreme Court. The Constitution specifies the powers and duties of each branch. The Constitution reserves all unenumerated powers for the respective states and the people, thereby establishing the federal system of government.
The United States Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787, by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and ratified by conventions in each U.S. state in the name of "The People". The Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times; the first ten amendments are known as the Bill of Rights.
The United States Constitution is the shortest and oldest written constitution still in use by any nation in the world today.
The Constitution has a central place in United States law and political culture. The handwritten original document penned by Jacob Shallus is on display at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.
This starts a series of ‘America’s Founding Fathers…’ postings that will examine the movers and shakers of our American Revolution. It will examine the contributions of many men; most women didn’t do much published writing in those days during the Colonial period. Please join us for this exciting exploration through our country’s intellectual history.
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Wikipedia: United States Declaration of Independence…
Wikipedia: United States Constitution…
Brainy Quote: Founding Quotes…