Module 01 Sections
When did the United States begin? Should we date the birth of the nation with the Declaration of Independence? The Constitution? Some time before?
There is no universally accepted answer to this question. It is nearly impossible, though, to speak of the birth of the United States in a vacuum. A series of events led to the Founding of the nation, beginning with the first English settlements in North America in the late 16th century.
By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, there had been nearly 200 years of British involvement on the North American continent, most of it quite peaceful.
THE SEVEN YEARS’ WAR
The tension between the British and the colonists did not heat up until 1763 with the culmination of the Seven Years’ War, also known as the French and Indian War. The causes of the war, while interesting, are not nearly as important as what happened in its wake. This event, more than any other, set the colonies on a collision course with the British Empire which would result, just 13 years later, in the War for Independence.
The first thing to realize is that the war was the pivotal event that allowed the British to solidify their control over the North American colonies. And although the British had all but ignored the colonies prior to the war, electing to allow them to grow without much influence from the mother country, things began to change immediately after the war. The Seven Years’ War, like all wars, was a costly affair, and it resulted in a massive debt for the British. That debt would have to be paid, and the British were of a mind that since the colonists were the beneficiaries of the war, they should bear the brunt of the cost. The British also decreed, in the Proclamation of 1763, that the colonists could not settle west of the Appalachian Mountains. This proclamation was duly ignored by the colonists, which would come to be important in the years that followed, as the colonists developed a clear and rational theory about why they had every right to ignore just about everything that the British Parliament did. Finally, and indirectly, this period saw the influence of both republican, and, more importantly, liberal political philosophy on the rise.
John Locke and Liberal Philosophy
The liberal thinker who was most influential to the American Founders, especially Thomas Jefferson, was John Locke. Locke’s Second Treatise became a blueprint of sorts for Jefferson as he wrote the Declaration of Independence, for reasons that will become clear.
In the early portions of the Second Treatise, Locke attempts to ascertain and explain the foundation of legitimate government. The world had seen any number of governments after all, but how many of them had been legitimate?
In order to address this, Locke asks his readers to imagine a place in which there is no government. Following Thomas Hobbes, he referred to this place as the state of nature. In the state of nature, according to Locke, all men are free and equal, and can do as they choose “within the bounds of nature.” All this means is that no one can harm another in his life, liberty, or property. The law of nature, he believed, is reason itself.
Listen to 60-Second Civics: “Episode 2099: John Locke and the state of nature” for a brief treatment of Locke’s state of nature:
Because life in the state of nature is inconvenient at best, people come together to form government. But because all are free and equal, none can rule over the others without “the consent of the governed.” This is a phrase that Jefferson borrowed directly when writing the Declaration of Independence, but he also borrowed a great deal more, and Locke’s thought came to frame a good deal of colonial political thought during the period.
Read chapters eight and nine of Locke’s Second Treatise to get a sense of what informed the colonists at the time:
What we see in these two short chapters represents the basis upon which Locke builds, and what the Americans ultimately found to be persuasive. First, political society must be voluntarily entered. This happens when people come together in the state of nature to escape the inconveniences of that situation. After all, despite the relative freedom and equality of the state of nature, one’s life and property are never completely secure. There are still those who would steal and murder. Second, once political society is freely entered, all those who joined placed themselves into a system of majority rule, for obvious, practical reasons.
So in order for a political system to be just, it must exist only as a result of the consent of the governed. The people simply must agree to live in the commonwealth and abide by the decisions reached therein. This emphatically does not mean that people are permitted to consent to each decision the collective makes; it only means that they consent to become part of that collective in the first place. The majority rules, for better or worse.
Listen to 60-Second Civics: “Episode 2102: Human Equality” for a brief summary of Locke’s thought regarding human equality and what that comes to require in the political realm:
The Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and Parliamentary Authority
But these philosophical ideas were just beginning to take root at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War. It would be another decade before they would take hold of the public consciousness. In 1763, things were just beginning to turn. And as is so often the case when political fortunes begin to sour, taxes were at the center of the debate. The first tax that caused friction between the colonies and Great Britain was the Sugar Act of 1764.
The Sugar Act was, not surprisingly, a tax on sugar. But what most people do not know is that there was already a sugar tax fully operative in the colonies, and it had been on the books since 1733. This prior tax had never been much of a problem in the colonists’ minds because they had simply ignored it for so long. The tax was nominally six cents a gallon on molasses. Over time, a pervasive system of tax avoidance resulted in approximately only 10% of the tax being collected. British officials in the colonies would board ships to assess taxes, and would offer what was known as “indulgences.” Simply put, they would turn a blind eye toward most of the cargo on board, and assess a tax on only a small percentage of it. As if this weren’t enough, when people were charged with tax evasion, they were tried in colonial courts instead of courts controlled by the crown. What resulted was a system under which no one paid anything close to the taxes they owed.
The British let this continue for decades, right until the war ended and they needed to raise revenue in the colonies. They then passed the Sugar Act of 1764, which actually cut the stated tax by half, hoping that the colonists would actually pay it. The Act also stipulated that tax avoiders could no longer be tried in colonial courts.
The colonists were furious…over a 50% tax cut.
They immediately questioned by what right the British could tax them at all.
But the British were not done there. They also implemented the Stamp Act of 1765, which required that all paper goods include a government stamp. This included everything from newspaper and legal briefs to playing cards. If the colonists were furious over the Sugar Act, they were downright apoplectic over the Stamp Act.
The long and the short of it is that the American colonies came together for the first time (in the form of the Stamp Act Congress), and the Stamp Act was ultimately repealed. The British, though, passed the Declaratory Act at the very moment they rescinded the Stamp Act. This second Act asserted the right of the British to tax the colonies at any time in the future.
The colonists and the British were simply acting according to two different understandings of the nature of the British Empire. The colonists asserted that because they were a settled land, as opposed to a conquered land, their colonial legislatures were the only legislative bodies to which they were subject. Parliament, in their understanding, had no business legislating for the colonies. They owed allegiance only to the king. The British, for their part, believed quite completely that Parliament could, and indeed should, legislate for the colonies as it saw fit.
Take a look at this video to put it all in perspective:
As you see, there were a number of issues which came after the Sugar and Stamp Acts, but the central issue in all of them was the question of the status of the colonies in the British Empire. As we all know, “No taxation without representation” was the rallying cry of the colonists throughout this period. The British were simply trying to recoup some of their losses to pay off a massive war debt, and the colonists were having none of it. Moves and counter-moves followed from this period until the eve of the Revolution, but there was really never any turning back.
And by 1772, the thoughts of John Locke were bubbling up in the colonies in a serious way.
The first great colonial example of this was Samuel Adams, who was perhaps the greatest radical of the Founding generation. He was involved in virtually every aspect of revolutionary activity in the colonies, and was particularly despised by the British. He was one of America’s original voices for freedom and independence, and served in the Massachusetts Legislature, the Continental Congress, and as governor of Massachusetts. His 1772 piece, “The Rights of the Colonists,” captures both the difficult tenor of the times and the growing American unity in the face of what the colonists perceived as unjust British machinations in the colonies.
Adams began as Locke did, with a brief consideration of the state of nature, before examining the idea of natural rights. All of the colonists, he contended, possessed rights to life, liberty, and property. These three rights, in turn, gave rise to the natural rights of self-defense and preservation. Although he held that we have the right to remain in the state of nature as long as we please, the only way out is by voluntary consent.
Read Adams’s short piece here:
We give up some of our rights when leaving the state of nature, according to Adams, but those rights that are not explicitly given up by the people are retained. In the fight with the British, this would come to be the controlling thought. The colonists claimed repeatedly that their rights had been violated. They could only make this claim if the government of England was bound by a set of rules, and the English government could only be bound by a set of rules if government is a contract between the government and the governed. This is precisely the point of state of nature theory.
Adams clearly believed that the government of England had an obligation to the American colonists, and that they were entitled to all of the same rights as their counterparts in England. Parliament had, in Adams’s estimation, made itself arbitrary in its dealings with the colonies. It had passed new taxes, interfered with the internal politics of the colonies, and disallowed colonial representation. All of this was intolerable for Adams in 1772, and would come to be intolerable in the eyes of many of his fellow colonists in the years that followed. According to Adams, the British Parliament had run afoul of the natural law, and as far as the colonists were concerned, no government that routinely violated the natural law could be considered legitimate.
Revolution was fast becoming an option for the colonists.
Samuel Adams was a revolutionary of the first rank, but Thomas Paine was in a class by himself. Whereas Adams was a career politician, Paine was a career agitator. He came to America just in time to foment revolution with the publication of Common Sense. As soon as the American War for Independence was finished, Paine hopped the first ship to France to take part in their revolution. Things didn’t go nearly as well for him in France, and he ultimately ended up in prison. Being a career revolutionary, it seems, is not without attendant dangers.
Be that as it may, Paine was extraordinarily influential in the colonies. Common Sense was published in 1776 and achieved a massive audience, with 150,000 copies sold in a country of about three million. While there is very little in Common Sense that can be said to be unique to Paine, he captured the American mind in 1776. Have a look at Common Sense now. It is a bit long, but it is an American classic. Read it here:
Like Adams, Paine begins with a sort of state of nature theory and works forward from there. He has quite a lot to say about the King of England, and kings in general. The most important element of his argument, though, is his assertion that self-government is a natural right. Like Adams, Paine believed that the only legitimate form of government is one in which people have a hand in ruling themselves.
Both Adams and Paine take as a given that people are indeed capable of governing themselves. Just how capable are people of self-government? While this is a huge question, it was a question that the Founders would wait to answer.
The sticky matter of declaring independence from Great Britain was at hand. By the time Paine wrote in 1776, there was no longer any chance at reconciliation with the British. The colonists were about to take a very bold step.
The Declaration of Independence
June 11, 1776: The Continental Congress appoints a committee of five to draft the document: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Roger Livingston. This committee asks Jefferson, age 33, to write the first draft.
June 28, 1776: Draft goes to Congress for approval.
July 2, 1776: Independence is voted on.
July 2–4, 1776: Independence is debated.
July 4, 1776: Independence is approved.
The Declaration is without question one of the most important documents to emerge from the 18th century, and probably the whole of human history. The principles espoused within the Declaration have been used by virtually every revolutionary movement which has appeared on the world stage since. Consider that the French Revolution, the American civil rights movement, and 20th century feminism all rely, either explicitly or implicitly, on the Declaration for their moral authority. Even Ho Chi Minh took the Declaration of Independence as a template for the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in 1945.
Abraham Lincoln offers one possible answer to the opening question, namely, when did the United States come into being? He opened the Gettysburg Address with the phrase “Four score and seven years ago,” thus locating the birth of the American republic in 1776. The principles of the Declaration are invoked almost universally whenever the question of rights arises in America.
For all of its importance, many people have never read the document in its entirety. Fewer still have read the draft that Jefferson produced. One thing you will find in the original draft is Jefferson blaming the practice of slavery on King George III when he wrote:
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who have never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of INFIDEL powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.
You can read the first draft, reported draft, and final version side by side here:
So what does the Declaration of Independence actually say?
The opening is straightforward; the Declaration is to be the colonists’ declaration to the world of their motives for separation, but from the first sentence, “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” are invoked. Everything that follows is informed by natural law doctrine. Important too is the manner in which the first paragraph ends. Why is “a decent respect of the opinions of mankind” relevant? Does opinion matter at all in matters of the natural law? Here we see the intersection of politics and philosophy. Politics, of course, is always somehow based on opinion, as is philosophy, but philosophy aims at something higher. Truth is the ultimate goal. Does (or can) politics aim at truth? The Declaration is best understood as both a political and philosophical document. We will likely be more concerned with the political elements of the Declaration, but the philosophical statements within the text are just as important.
We can see Jefferson’s emphasis on truth in the second paragraph when he speaks of self-evident truths. The term “self-evident” is a term of art, not unlike “state of nature,” which was long in use by the time the Declaration was written. It means that the truth of a given conclusion is contained within its premises. If one knows adequately what the premises mean, the conclusion can be only what it is. Thomas Aquinas said in the Summa Theologica that it is self-evident that man is a rational creature. If one knows what a man is, and what the term rational means, one can only conclude that man is a rational creature. It is not a matter of opinion, and any debate on the matter would be silly. Similarly, if one knows what the terms “all,” “men,” and “equal” mean, then the statement “All men are created equal” is true simply, or self-evident.
The second half of this sentence contains the first mention of rights in the Declaration. Man is “endowed” with “certain unalienable rights.” An endowment is a gift, but it is a gift that must be used in a specific way. A college’s endowment, for example, is money freely given in the form of donations, but it must be used according to stringent guidelines. So too must man’s rights be used. This wording implies that there are limits to the free exercise of man’s rights.
And what are these rights? Jefferson says that “among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” This clearly implies that there are any number of rights not mentioned, property rights among them.
What are we to say at this point of the relationship between rights and equality? Equality is the primary American political idea, and it is here very clearly tied to the notion of rights. Following Locke, and later Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine, we enjoy our rights precisely because we are equal. Because of the basic equality of mankind, no one man has a natural right to rule over any other man without his consent.
But all of this talk of philosophy and rights tends to obscure the fact that we are reading a political document that had an immediate political purpose. The colonists were declaring their independence from a great power, and giving their reasons for that separation to the world. This was not a step to be taken lightly. On this point, the term “prudence” is the word most often used by the colonists generally, and in the Declaration specifically. Politics is the art of the possible. Prudence then dictates, as Jefferson contends, that a governmental system not be tossed aside in favor of another for “light and transient causes.” He previously stated that it is acceptable for a people to alter or abolish a government when it becomes destructive of the ends for which all governments exist, but here he asserts that replacing a government is also a matter of prudence. Here again, the link between politics and philosophy is evident. The link between what is, what can be, and what should be is crucial. Notice here what Jefferson does not say. We can replace one government with another, but we cannot enter into a condition of no government. Anarchy is not possible. There can be no return to the state of nature.
Jefferson also equates rights and duties explicitly. It is both the right and the duty of an oppressed people to throw off their oppressors. This raises the question of whether it was the right and the duty of the oppressed within the states, i.e. the slaves, to revolt against the newly independent government as well. Slavery was a question to be left, justly or unjustly, for another day.
After the high-minded opening of the Declaration comes the section that very few people read: the list of offenses committed by the king, which comprises the central section of the Declaration.
The first listed offense is very telling. Jefferson accuses the king of placing himself above the law. Contrary to well over a thousand years of thought centering on the role of the king, Jefferson implies that there are some things which no man can do. Insofar as this flows from the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration, it is understandable. Without the natural rights doctrine, what imposition on regal will could there have been? Were this merely a political document which said something to the effect that we don’t much care for the king in these parts, and because of this sentiment, we choose not to submit to him any longer, what force would the document have had? This list of offenses makes the point that there is a higher law to which even kings are subject.
The section detailing the offenses committed by George III represents more than half of the total document. In this section there are a total of 18 charges leveled at the king. In numbers 1-7, acts against the colonies are detailed. Numbers 8-13 take up constitutional/legal violations, and numbers 14-18 concern warlike acts. The issues here go from least to most serious. The deleted section concerning slavery was to be the 19th indictment, leading a careful reader to conclude that slavery was understood by Jefferson to be the worst offense of all. By the end of the list, it doesn’t seem like revolution as such is even at issue any longer. It seems more as if the colonists are responding to a war that has already begun.
The Declaration of Independence ends, famously, with the signers’ pledge of their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to the cause of independence. And with that, the die was cast. There was no turning back.
It is difficult to overestimate the odds the colonists faced in this. They faced the greatest military power the world had ever known, and this with only a makeshift army that realistically had little hope for success. Aided by the great distance between the countries, and more than a little luck, they prevailed. And a nation was born.
Take a look at this video for an overview of the war, and of the aftermath: