|"Declaration of Independence," John Trumbull, 1826, U.S. Capitol, Washington D.C.|
Standing in front from left to right John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, presenting the document to John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress
England emerged on the world stage in the 17th and 18th century, but went through a devastating civil war in the mid 1640s, and religious war within England and its colonies. These tensions continued after Charles II was crowned king in 1660, reigning until 1685, succeeded by James II. In 1688, England goes through a second revolution, the "Glorious Revolution." The king was overthrown and a new king was crowned, William III or William of Orange who was actually Dutch, and his wife Queen Mary, usually referred to as William and Mary. The revolution is not as important for putting a new king on the throne as it marks the point where Parliament, the legislature, becomes the supreme authority in the land over the king (something the new king encouraged, thus making it "glorious" because there was relatively little violence).
These views were reflected by the political theorist John Locke (1632-1704) in his work Two Treatises of Government (1689). In this work he sets down what could be called the basic principles of liberalism: representative government, individual liberty, private property–all connected under the idea of "natural rights" that cannot be taken away. John Locke is the most important philosophical influence on the American political system today.
Locke was among the many influences upon the American colonists but not the only one. Other major influences were Montesquieu (1689-1755), English Republican activists from the 17th century like Algernon Sidney (1623-1683) and James Harrington (1611-1677), and their own distinct Puritan religious tradition, and even some influences from the Native American nations like the Iroquois in Western New York. Locke is also considered one of the founding figures of The Enlightenment (circa 1701-1789).
The Enlightenment was a product of the advances in science, technology, and communication in the 18th century and found its way to the shores of America through its ports and through its foreign travelers as well as the many Americans who had travelled to Europe. It is important to remember the Puritans predate the Enlightenment by almost a century.
Some of the major Enlightenment influences on the Americans were:
1) The environment was seen as the major source of change and variation in human behavior. Enlightenment theorists claim that there was a common human nature that was universal but that this nature was shaped and influenced by all sorts of factors in the natural environment: geography, climate, population density, just to name a few. Environmental factors can help explain the colonists' contradictory views on race. Most of them spoke more highly of Native Americans than they did of African-Americans. The colonists believed that the tough environment that they lived in brought out their inner strengths and made them better people. Since the natives had to deal with all the same factors but even more exposed to the environment they were tougher. Culturally, they believed the Indians were inferior and the colonists saw their supremacy resting in their developed political institutions which they inherited from England, but were also free from the corrupting influences of England. In other words, they believed they had the best of both worlds: superior culture and an open environment (same as the Puritans). They believed that people from warmer or tropical climates were not used to working as hard and did not have the "nobility" of the Indians. Within that logic many of them did believe that Africans brought to America would go through the same "toughening up" process from the environment.
2) A mechanical understanding of nature influenced by the theories of Isaac Newton (1643-1727). The natural world and the planets and the stars move in a regular pattern that can be observed and measured (these views would later be overturned but not till the 20th century). When we discuss the Federalist and the Constitution we will see they emphasized the "machine" like qualities of the government. Government was supposed to be self-regulating and almost automatic and would not need the direction of a strong leader to make it move; also government was supposed to balance out the competing interests in society like gears in a machine that together make the machine move. The basis of the idea of the rule of law comes out of this mechanical understanding, and is the basis for later bureaucratic theories of social organization.
3) Individualism, specifically the doctrine that states that the individual is a self-sufficient and complete organism that is the bearer of certain specific rights that are intended to guarantee its self-preservation. This belief was itself based on the ideas of "empiricism" associated with Locke. Empirical refers to experience, empiricism is a theory of knowledge that states that only knowledge verified by experience is legitimate. The natural rights of an individual can be learned from experience: all humans even all animals will resist attempts to be captured or killed, therefore there must be something that compels them to seek survival and security.
Individualism dissolves the strong communal bonds of traditional society. It tends to assume that humans are self-sufficient entities instead of being interdependent on the larger community. Instead of religious obligation, morality comes to be based in theories of utilitarianism which stresses that whatever provides the greatest happiness, or utility, or use, to the greatest number is "good" or moral. This usually takes the form of measurements of economic well-being, something that can be measured, or verified by experience. Moral obligations then are based more on a calculation of self-interest: it is beneficial to your own preservation to follow the law.
4) Although empiricism and individualism seem to undermine religious belief, most of the major European and American thinkers associated with the Enlightenment were not atheists. They tried to resolve this contradiction by the separation of the public and private, however it was never entirely clear how they could maintain these distinctions in what they thought.
Ancient societies like the Greeks and even the Puritans did not see such a distinction or tended to minimize it, there was no difference between public and private. This changes in the liberal age. The right to privacy is one of the chief attributes of liberal thinking, and becomes sacred in liberal philosophy. In the public realm science and rationality should reign supreme; but in the private realm people were free to hold any belief they wanted to. By isolating "reason" only in the public realm, "the rational public," however, they essentially made the private realm irrational and allowed the patriarchal family structure to continue. You will probably notice they exclusively talk about "man" when we would refer to "humanity" today or something like that. This underscores another aspect to the public sphere: leisure. Participation in the public realm or public sphere assumed a certain amount of leisure time to engage in public affairs so besides women this effectively excluded the lower classes, most "Free Blacks", and obviously all slaves. However some free blacks like Prince Hall or the poet Phillis Wheatley did reach a public.
There were areas of overlap between the older religious tradition and the scientific Enlightenment. Both stressed the idea of equality and natural law. However while the religious equality is based on an sense of being equally flawed and equal in the eyes of God that is modified by degrees of spiritual development; the enlightenment stressed the idea of "original equality" that is modified by environment and by degrees of scientific understanding. Also while the natural law referred to what is good for human development, the natural law in the enlightenment tradition is redefined to refer to self-interest, what is natural is what is closest to our self-interest.
It it also important to emphasize that socialism which also developed at the end of the 18th century came out of Enlightenment philosophy especially the emphasis on the environment and a mechanical understanding of human nature. Both liberalism and socialism can be grouped together as "materialist" political philosophies.
By the mid 1700s, England had continued to grow and to consolidate its power in North America and the West Indies. After the French and Indian War (1754-1763), British control over Canada was secured as well. To pay for this war and the maintenance of forts and soldiers in a still hostile environment, the British Parliament began to levy taxes on the colonists without their consent: Stamp Act (1765), Sugar Act (1764), Townshend Acts (1767) and the Tea Act (1773), the latter led to the "Boston Tea Party" (1773). Besides the increased taxes, the colonists resented the limitations on trade, immigration, and expansion ordered by the British.
The colonists were prevented through tariffs and other devices from trading with the Dutch, French or Spanish as were the number of immigrants coming into the colonies restricted as well thus limiting its growth. Also restrictions were placed on Westward expansion in areas that were still occupied by the French and their Indian allies. The British had settled on the Atlantic coast, while French settlements in North America were further inland concentrated around the Mississippi River Valley which stretches almost from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The French influence can be seen in names like the state of Louisiana; New Orleans is named after the French dynasty the "House of Orleans"; St. Louis, Missouri; Louisville, Kentucky all named after the line of French kings like Louis XIV(just the fact there were thirteen before him should tell you a lot, nor was he the last Louis). The cajun and creole cultures in Louisiana are heavily influenced by French culture. There is even a rare French dialect known as "Missouri French." The French would continue to hold this area until selling it to the Americans in the early 1800s, The Louisiana Purchase.
|Mississippi River Valley|
There was no area in the original 13 colonies however, that more fiercely resisted the abuses of the British Crown (even though Parliament reigned people would still refer to the king who did in name still rule the country) than in Massachusetts around Boston and the surrounding areas and no one person more than Samuel Adams (1722-1803). Adams was a key figure in organizing resistance to the British through organizations like the "committees of correspondence" which set up communication networks between the colonies, or the "Sons of Liberty" which was basically a secret society devoted to revolutionary agitation. From the perspective of the British, the Sons of Liberty were traitors and terrorists. Adams also embodied the contradictions of what is now sometimes called "irrational Lockeanism." The "instinctive belief" in Lockean values, basically an attempt to explain the strong religious beliefs of the colonists mixed with empiricism and individualism which as I already said tends to undermine religious belief.
In the short essay "The Rights of the Colonists" (1772), Adams lays out his critique of the British abuses which he says violates the colonists rights on three levels: as men (natural rights); as Christians; and as subjects of the British empire. The idea of natural rights developed by John Locke was meant to place limitations upon the government; also it reduced the government into a tool that is used to protect our rights, in other words our relationship to the government is determined by self-interest. Notice, however the strong language Adams uses to make this claim:
All Men have a Right to remain in a State of Nature as long as they please: And in case of intollerable [sic] Oppression, Civil or Religious, to leave the Society they belong to, and enter into another.–When Men enter into Society, it is by voluntary consent; and they have a right to demand and insist upon the performance of such conditions, And previous limitations as form an equitable original compact. (p. 40)
This idea, is usually referred to as the "social contract" and as stated is a voluntary agreement we enter into with the government to protect our rights. This might seem commonsense today, but in an age where the "divine right of kings" was still practiced this idea was very revolutionary. It is known that Locke had to originally publish his work in secret and anonymously and only explicitly admitted to authorship of the text in his will. It does also undermine the idea that the political community is a "natural community" and that its chief purpose is to remove the obstacles that prevent human development. Some kind of natural society may form by itself, people might cooperate to hunt, or to get certain things from nature, but the transition from natural to civil society is entirely artificial and accidental. This contrasts, with Winthrop's view, which stresses the opposite: civil society is "natural" too in that it is natural for human development. In the enlightenment theory there are no real obstacles to human development except what blocks our self-interest.
The classical liberal argument for the government or the state is summed up by Adams which he refers to as a referee or an arbiter (one who settles disagreements between conflicting parties. He even argues taxes should be paid to the government to provide protection to show he is not anti-tax just opposed to "taxation without representation":
In the state of nature, every man is under God, Judge and sole Judge of his own rights and the injuries done him: By entering into society, he agrees to an Arbiter or indifferent Judge between him and his neighbours [sic]; but he no more renounces his original right, than by taking a cause out of the ordinary course of law, and leaving the decision to Referees or indifferent Arbitrations. In the last case he must pay the Referees for time and trouble, he should be also willing to pay his Just quota for the support of government, the law and constitution; the end of which is to furnish indifferent and impartial Judges in all cases that may happen...(p. 40)
This is not to say that enlightenment were anti-social or did not believe in values like "fraternity" (brotherhood or kinship) between people. However the crucial difference is that while the Puritans realized the value of fraternity people between as a means to an end: minimizing sin or human development; enlightenment thinkers tended to believe if you eliminated all barriers to individualism it would produce "universal fraternity" as an end, in other words the importance of fraternity and its relation as a means or an end of human conduct is reversed in Puritan and Enlightenment thinking. This goes along with a privatized view of religion that sees spiritual matters only as a private matter and puts off the achievement of spiritual values till the afterlife. Again, this makes it all the more stranger that the colonists attempted so long to maintain the balance between the two.
Adams concludes by noting how rapidly the colonies are growing and how it even contradicts British law for the colonists to be subjected to taxes and restrictions without the ability influence these decisions themselves. In the process he makes a good argument for the dangers of government when it is "out of touch" with its people:
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 distant 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. Hitherto many of the Colonists have been fee from Quit Rents; but if the breath of a British house of commons can originate an act for taking away all our money, our lands will go next or be subject to rack rents from haughty and relentless landlords who will ride at ease, while we are trodden in the dirt (pp. 42-43).
One of the major issues of the revolution was the question of slavery. Although slavery had been established in all parts of the colonies including the North almost from the beginning there was a strong reaction against it because of its obvious contradiction of Christian values. Although scientific reason in this period did stress the original equality of humanity it did emphasize the differences in the appearances between people and their environment. This is consistent with empiricism since racial differences can be learned through direct experience. It also elevated the concept of "private property" and "self-interest" to such an extent that it made it difficult to ignore the claims of Southern plantation owners whose private fortunes and the economic system of the South rested on slavery. Scientific rationality also tends to create the kind of "prudent and cautious" attitude that would not support "radical" solutions like abolishing slavery immediately. In any case, the North was much more dependent on slavery, even if indirectly, because much of the trade of New England merchants was in the agricultural exports coming from the South, especially cotton so its own "self-interest" was threatened as well, or involved in international trade like rum-manufacturing which was heavily dependent on slave labor.
Thomas Jefferson who was the chief author of The Declaration of Independence also owned slaves. A contradiction that has been repeated by many historians, just because it seems like a blatant hypocrisy, to write "all men are created equal" at the same time in which you own slaves. Jefferson was known to have had as many as 200-600 slaves working on his plantation at any given time. A very common practice among slave owners was to have relations and to father children with slaves, and Jefferson was no exception to this as well. Jefferson was well known, even in his own time, for his relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings, and very likely had children with her, who were also his slaves. We will talk more about Jefferson in future lectures.
The writings from Paine include two of his most important pamphlets and his later work The Rights of Man (1791). Paine like many others of his generation vigorously opposed religious persecution and stressed the natural rights revealed through empirical reason. Paine in the 1790s would go to France and would become one of the only people to participate in both the American and French Revolutions (the only other one I think is the Marquis de Lafayette).
The first pamphlet Common Sense (1776), presents a case for why the colonists should seek independence from Great Britain. As the title implies it is meant to be sober and logical, presenting a "common sense" analysis for why it is obvious the colonies should be independent. In this short essay, Paine also outlines the classical liberal argument for the government as arising out of natural needs:
In order to gain a clear and just idea of the design and end of government, let us suppose a small number of persons settled in some sequestered part of the earth unconnected with the rest; they will then represent the first peopling of any country, or of the world. In this state of natural liberty, society will be their first thought. A thousand motives will excite them thereto; the strength of one man is so unequal to his wants and his mind so unfitted for perpetual solitude that he is soon obliged to seek assistance and relief of another, who in his turn requires the same. Four or five united would be able to raise a tolerable dwelling in the midst of a wilderness, but one might labor out the common period of life without accomplishing anything; when he had felled his timber, he could not remove it, nor erect it after it was removed; hunger in the meantime would urge him from his work and every different want call him in a different way. Disease, nay even misfortune, would be death; for though neither might be mortal, yet either would disable him from living and reduce him to a state in which he might rather be said to perish than to die. Thus necessity, like a gravitating power, would soon form our newly arrived emigrants into society, the reciprocal blessings of which would supersede and render the obligations of law and government unnecessary while they remained perfectly just to each other, but as nothing but Heaven is impregnable to vice, it will unavoidably happen that in proportion as they surmount the first difficulties of emigration, which bound them together in a common cause, they will begin to relax in their duty and attachment to each other, and this remissness will point out the necessity of establishing some form of government to supply the defect of moral virtue (p. 50).
However, Paine was writing also for a wide audience and so he is writing to motivate the people to want revolution. He tries to get his audience to think of this event in terms of world history and is significance throughout time:
The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. 'Tis not the affair of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent–of at least one-eighth part of the habitable globe. 'Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end time by the proceedings now. Now is the seedtime of continental union, faith, and honor. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound would enlarge with the tree, and posterity read it in full-grown characters (p. 53).
The second pamphlet The American Crisis I (1777), was written after the revolution had been underway for two years. The language in this pamphlet is much stronger and is meant to rally the soldiers to fight.
In the final reading, Paine writing in the 1790s long after the American revolution has ended and the Constitution has been established writes of the dangers of not adapting institutions to changes in the world:
Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generation which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow. The Parliament of the people of 1688, or of any period, had no more right to dispose of the people of the present day, or to bind or to control them in any shape whatever, than the Parliament or the people of the present day have to dispose of, bind, or control those who are to live a hundred or a thousand years hence. Every generation is and must be competent to all the purposes which it occasions require. It is the living, and not the dead that are to be accommodated. When man ceases to be, his power and his wants cease with him; and having no longer any participation in the concerns of this world, he has no longer any authority in directing who shall be its governors, or how its government shall be organized or how administered (p. 57).
The ideas and sentiments expressed by all of these thinkers are captured in The Declaration of Independence written chiefly by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, and according to G.K. Chesterton the source of the "creed of America." Jefferson who owned slaves but was anti-slavery in thought, had anti-slavery passages omitted from pressure by Southern delegates. The revolution actually began the year before in and around Boston. As early as 1774 the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to discuss possible actions against Britain, however, no action was taken at the time. In 1775 the Second Continental Congress met again in Philadelphia, and this was the body that formed the committee to draft the declaration: Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Sam Adams' cousin and future second president, John Adams. This was the body that declared independence from Great Britain and functioned as the government for the colonies during the revolution.
The most famous phrase from the declaration and what would be the creed Chesterton refers to is:
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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness (p. 59).
All of these writers stress a clear "right to rebel" if the government violates the rights of its people or if it fails to protect the rights of people from other groups in society. These ideas are supposed to be based on experience and on the laws of nature which supposedly can be learned from experience. They are hostile to traditional beliefs and superstitions which justify authority that cannot defend itself on rational grounds, i.e. cannot provide arguments for to justify itself. This hostility to irrational ideas would eventually be called "ideology" in the 19th century.
Without the "revolutionary liberal ideology" of thinkers like Adams, Rush, Paine, or Jefferson or before them Locke it is hard to imagine the American revolution ever taking place. Much more than the Puritans, the American Revolution still forms the core beliefs of American "civil religion" today. The ideology within the Declaration has even made an impact in the different parts of the world. Ironically, Ho Chi Minh leader of the communist forces and the government in North Vietnam from 1945 to his death in 1969 is known to have written several letters to then President Harry Truman urging his government to support the Vietnamese then fighting against the French who had colonized their land. Minh pointed to the Declaration and the American Revolution as an example of the common cause they were both fighting against colonialism and imperialism. Truman never responded and in less than 20 years the U.S. would be dragged into the Vietnam War. Next class we will see how the founders tried to moderate and tone down this revolutionary ideology when faced with the task of not breaking away from government but establishing a new one.
Assignment (Due 10/1 ): Choose a passage from one of the readings (Adams, Rush, or Paine) and one from the Declaration of Independence. Write out both passages. Under that interpret the meaning of what the author is saying, and why they are saying it. Explain why you chose this passage and how it relates to the lecture.