Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Thomas Paine: Thinking About the American Revolution

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman… yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”
— Thomas Paine, “The Crisis”

If Patrick Henry was the great orator of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine was the trigger. He has been called “The Father of the American Revolution” because it was he, not the legislators or the philosophers, who reached the minds of the populace. Any revolution requires the common citizen to be willing to take up arms against a perceived enemy and man the trenches. The American Revolution was not fought in Independence Hall in Philadelphia; it took place in the plains of Valley Forge. Yes, great leaders are necessary. Yes, troops must be willing to fight and even sacrifice their temporal lives on the battlefield. But it takes an ‘evangelist’ to stir up the people; that ‘evangelist’ was Thomas Paine!

Who was this man who could turn a phrase and mobilize the people’s army to stand up against the greatest battle machine in the world, the British army and navy? It was Thomas Paine, the Englishman who emigrated to the American colonies in 1774 as the Revolutionary War was starting on the fields of Lexington and Concord. It was not one of our native sons or one of the ‘Sons of Liberty.’ It was a simple English stay-maker, tax agent, and sometime teacher.

Let’s examine more closely his contributions to our American Revolution…

Thomas Paine (1773 – 1809)

“If, to expose the fraud and imposition of monarchy… to promote universal peace, civilization, and commerce, and to break the chains of political superstition, and raise degraded man to his proper rank; if these things be libelous… let the name of libeler be engraved on my tomb.”
— Thomas Paine

Paine was born and reared in the south of England where he spent his first thirty-seven years. Although he was raised in a Quaker home, he was an affirmed deist and a critic of the institutional church. He was a radical, revolutionary and intellectual person who was essentially self-educated. But he was a gifted writer who could present complex ideas in a manner that could be understood by the average reader. He employed a concise, style that spoke to the man on the street or on the farm, if you will. He shunned the formal, learned stylings of a Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton.

He took work as a printer for publisher of the Philadelphia Magazine. He used this publication for a series of articles on “The Crisis” and his most famous track: “Common Sense.” These publications stirred up the colonists with his radical ideas of what true freedom and liberty meant. In later years, he was to write “The Rights of Man” and other tracks that incited the French Revolution. His place in history was that of the ‘firebrand’ and ‘agitator’ of popular revolts, not as a stabilizing force for the development of democratic government. This is unfortunate, since the force of his writing and ideas could have aided the colonies through the period of the Articles of Confederation into the era of the U.S. Constitution. Alas, that was not to be.

“The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected…”
— Thomas Paine, “Common Sense”

Paine’s role in the Revolutionary War was not as a military or political leader, it was as the ‘evangelist’ to urge the colonists to action. His goal throughout was to spur these colonists to fight for their independence from Britain; he wanted to teach the British monarchy a lesson! He left the direction of the colonial army and the quest for a new model of governance to other, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, etc. John Adams was against Paine’s radicalism, his extreme view of democracy, one that bordered on anarchy, and called for a more conservative form of republicanism. Paine was notorious for making enemies of those who had initially supported him, which, in fact, almost led to his meeting the ‘widow maker’ (the guillotine) after offending Robespierre during the French Revolution.

One of his quasi-diplomatic successes was to obtain French financing for the war. He was successful in obtaining substantial financial assistance from the French government. He did this in conjunction with Ben Franklin, then the Colonists representative to the French court. For this, he was eventually given a small farm in upstate New York and some monetary compensation. As the colonies moved from the battlefield to the halls of government, Paine’s interests took him to France for new adventures in that civil war – the French Revolution.

“Often tactless, Paine provoked considerable controversy. He was invariably hard-pressed for money and had to depend upon the generosities of his American friends and the occasional reward from the French envoy in America. When the War came to an end, his financial position was so precarious that he had to campaign to obtain recompense from the government…”
— The History Guide, 2006, “Thomas Paine (1737-1809)”

As a writer, he communicated well with the common man. His ideas of radical revolution were a trigger mechanism that ignited uprisings in both the American colonies and the French capital. As most radicals, he was too ‘out in front’ of his peers who lost faith in him; he was dedicated to support of rebellions against tyranny, the established church, and other institutions in contemporary society. Thus, his vision was accepted at the beginning of the rebellion, but soon became too much of a burden upon his peers. He influenced the colonist to move to become independent of the British crown and parliament, but, thank goodness, he had peers to see through the war and the formation of a new government.

“Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.”
— Spoken of Paine by President Barack Obama, Inaugural Address, 2009

Thank you, Thomas Paine, for your contribution to our freedom. You gave us vision and the wake-up call for which we will ever be grateful.

Next Time: We will continue our examination of the intellectual history of the Revolutionary War with a consideration of the contributions of John Adams. Join us for that adventure…

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Patrick Henry: Thinking About the American Revolution

"Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"
— Patrick Henry

This statement sets forth the radical view of an American Patriot, Patrick Henry, a Virginian. He was speaking to an ex-offico meeting of the Virginia legislature, the House of Burgesses, in 1775, after it was disbanded by command of the British governor. Henry was the leading spokesman for the radical revolution of the Britain's American colonies. He was at once an advocate of both Federalism, in relationship to Britain, and anti-Federalism within the colonies themselves at the Constitutional Convention in the late-1780s.

How could this occur? We can gain some perspective by examining a later federalist movement in Argentina during the mid-1800s. The central government was located in the province that included Buenos Aires and this province was the contact point with foreign trade and export. The other provinces, mostly agricultural, were isolated from the rest of the world. The gauchos in the interior provinces rose up against the centralized government in the Gaucho Revolution to demand that they be enabled to deal directly with other countries and control their own fate. This war, won by the gauchos, became a prime example of Federalism — the equal confederation of all provinces (or stated) within a country for the benefit of all.

Applying this analogy back on the American colonies in the latter half of the 1700s, we see that what the colonies were seeking was a federalist relationship with mother Britain. But the British required all manufactured goods to come from British firms and all of the raw goods from the colonies be sold only to Britain. The British Parliament and Monarch wanted full control of the colonies in terms of governance; the colonies were given charters by previous English Kings that enabled them to form their own legislatures to deal with local issues. To the colonists in the 1760s and 1770s, all the concerns were local and any attempt by the British to tax or legislate on the colonies were illegitimate. This was an example of American Federalism — the equality of the colonies in the control of their own destiny!

After the defeat of the British and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the colonies became legally independent of British rule. They formed a new government that was based upon a loose confederation of the colonies and a weak central government to deal with a limited range of duties. Each colony functioned essentially as relatively independent states, our working of a federalist state. This was working well for the larger, stronger colonies like Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. It did not work as well for the smaller states. This led to the call for a revision to the Articles of Confederation, under which the young country was working within, by a Constitutional Convention in the late 1780s.

Here the definition of Federalism came to be changed! The proponents for a strong central government within the context of Montesquieu's structure came to be called Federalists. Those that supported state's rights and a weaker central government were called Anti-Federalists. A confusing change in designation. As the new constitution was drafted, many Anti-Federalists, including Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, George Mason, and Richard Henry Lee, refused to participate. They were offended by the opening words of the draft constitution — "We the People..." This was taken as a move to remove power from the states and give it to the central government. The new government was to be a republic with a separation of powers between the judiciary, legislature, and executive branches. There was a fear among the Anti-Federalists that the strong executive branch would morph into another monarchy.

"I know of no way of judging the future but by the past."

— Patrick Henry

This is the context that we need to keep in mind as we examine the contributions of Patrick Henry. The ideas of many of the American Patriots of this period were aware of the philosophical seeds that we have been considering over the past few days. These ideas came to fruition in the American Revolution; we will not examine the battles of this revolution, but, instead, will focus on the intellectual and bold actions, speeches, and writings of these patriots. So, let's start our journey through this fertile landscape by considering the great orator of the era, Patrick Henry...

Patrick Henry (1736 – 1799)

"Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First his Cromwell; George the Third may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it."

— Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry was a lawyer and an orator and is considered by many to be the firebrand liberal behind the American Revolution. As a freshman member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, he managed to have his 'Resolutions' pass to negate the legitimacy of the British parliament to levy taxes upon the American colonies, especially the hated "Stamp Tax" that affected all business transactions. This idea was picked up by other colonies, especially Massachusets where the 'Boston Tea Party' occurred in response to the "Tea Tax". These actions reduced the profits of many British companies and eventually resulted in several of these taxes being withdrawn. However, the gauntlet had been thrown and the colonists began their trek down the road to revolution.

During the revolution, Henry was initially in command of the Army of Virginia, but found a more suitable seat in the Governor's Office instead. He became the first American governor of Virginia and served for the first of his three terms at this time. He mobilized the Virginian forces to join Washington's army. After a brief break, he returned to the Governor's Office for one additional term in the mid-1880s. His oratory skills were used to mobilize public opinion and support for the long revolutionary war. Upon its completion, Henry was a strong supporter of the Articles of Confederation and the relative autonomy of the states.

"Perfect freedom is as necessary to the health and vigor of commerce as it is to the health and vigor of citizenship."

— Patrick Henry

His role in the history of this country, however, was not done when he finished his fourth term as Governor of Virginia. When the Constitutional Convention was called in the late 1880s, he was named as one of the delegates from the state of Virginia. He declined to participate and became an eloquent spokesman for the Anti-Federalist position on the proposed Constitution's strong central government and the direct inclusion of the people as the foundation of the new government instead of the individual states.

His oratory came into play during the intense fight for ratification of the new Constitution by the Virginia legislature. He felt that it did not protect the rights of the states or the population against abuses by the central government. The conflict with the British were too fresh for him to give up the independence that was won through a costly war. While the Virginia legislature DID ratify this Constitution, he was successful in getting a "Bill of Rights" included in the new Constitution as the first ten amendments when congress first met. This satisfied many of the other colonies' concerns as well.
Our country has succeeded in this great experiment in democracy. Our constitutional government has weathered this stormy period and Henry's concerns for this centralized form of government has benefited from this experiment.

"For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know this worst and provide for it."

— Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry's strong oratory was an important factor in both the colonies' rebellion against the British and his insistence on the rights of the states and the people — the "Bill of Rights". He was a defender of America's freedom to the end. In the final scene, he was elected for a final term as a Federalist, but died before taking office.

Thank you, Patrick Henry. You arrived on the scene in time to work your magic and help define a better democracy.

Next Time: We will continue to explore the ideas of another American Patriot by considering Thomas Paine. Join us for this exploration...

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Hume & Montesquieu: Thinking about the American Revolution

"...[the Whigs, or believers in constitutional monarchy], by founding government altogether on the consent of the PEOPLE suppose that there is a kind of original contract by which the subjects have tacitly reserved the power of resisting their sovereign, whenever they find themselves aggrieved by that authority with which they have for certain purposes voluntarily entrusted him."
— David Hume, "On Civil Liberty"

Today we will review the contributions of one Scotsman, David Hume, and one Frenchman, Montesquieu, to our founding fathers. Unlike the previous contributors, these two explored not the nature of man's 'natural state', but rather examined the structure of governments. This is not just a intellectual legacy of detached philosophers, but were contributions to the actual structure of the government. Neither of these men were necessarily a 'fan' of democracy; none the less, they identified features incorporated into our new form of government — important contributions to the structure of our country.

So, let's start our exploration with Hume...

David Hume (1711 – 1776)

"The heights of popularity and patriotism are still the beaten road to power and tyanny; flattery to treachery; standing armies to arbitrary government; and the glory of God to the temporal interests of the clergy."
— David Hume

David Hume, a Scot historian, is probably remembered most for his six volume History of Great Britain. He, however, was a prolific writer and scholar. He started attending the University of Edinburgh at the age of the age of twelve. He made significant contributions to the future of the science of psychology in his A Treatise of Human Nature at the age of twenty-six. He was also a life-long atheist and a critic of organized religion. He also did not support the concept of the 'Social Contract' as understood by earlier Enlightenment thinkers; he especially rejected their dependence on their assumptions of the 'nature of man' that was the concept's basis since he was, by heart, an Empiricist. This assumption was not 'reasonable' to him.

"All that belongs to human understanding, in this deep ignorance and obscurity, is to be skeptical, or at least cautious; and not to admit of any hypothesis, whatsoever; much less, of any which is supported by no appearance of probability”
— David Hume

Hume's chief writing on politics was the Political Discourses. He believed in the importance of the rule of law, moderation in politics, and the liberty of the press. He was an optimist about social progress and was sympathetic to an ideal of a 'constrained' democracy. Furthermore, he defended a strict separation of powers, decentralization, the voting (enfranchisement) of those who owned property, and the limitating the power of the clergy. In this context, he did not endear himself to his countrymen; it even prevented him from obtaining a position in the University.

"The great end of all human industry is the attainment of happiness. For this were arts invented, sciences cultivated, laws ordained, and societies modeled, by the most profound wisdom of patriots and legislators. Even the lonely savage, who lies exposed to the inclemency of the elements and the fury of wild beasts, forgets not, for a moment, this grand object of his being.”
— David Hume

Hume was influential on other European thinks of the day (as well as those who followed him). These included Voltaire, Kant, Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Darwin and Thomas Huxley. His ideas about the structure of government were highly influential on James Madison — they were reflected in the Federalist Papers as well as the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution.

Baron de Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat (1689 – 1755)

"If I knew something that would serve my country but would harm mankind, I would never reveal it; for I am a citizen of humanity first, and a citizen of France second, and only by accident."
— Baron de Montesquieu

Montesquieu was a social critic and political thinker within the Enlightenment group of philosophers. He promoted the separation of powers within a government. While he was a lawyer ('avocat') by profession, he helped many countries develop their own constitutions. He, above all, believed in the 'rule of law' within a civil society. He lived shortly after the Restoration of the British Monarchy in England and the unification of England and Scotland into the country of Great Britain. He saw this government structure as superior to the weak monarchy of King Louie XV in France.

While he was admired in the American colonies of Britain, he was not in favor of American independence. He was hightly influential on James Madison of Virginia who later drafted the U.S. Constitution.

"...government should be set up so no man need to be afraid of another..."
— Montesquieu

Montesquieu's thinking resulted in our government's structure of a clearly-defined and balanced separation of powers. He had written about three forms of government: a republic, a monarchy, or a despotism. While he favored the monarchy, the founding fathers opted for a representative republic form of structure with a strong executive, an independent judiciary and a bicameral legislature. This tripartate government, with distributed and balanced power, would be a new experiment in government and it has held up well over the past two plus centuries — democracy can work! This is in spite of a civil war, two world wars, and numerous other local wars. This success can be attributed, in large part, to the concepts of Montesquieu.

"There is no nation so powerful, as the one that obeys its laws not from principles of fear or reason, but from passion."
— Montesquieu

Interesting enough, Montesquieu also advocated several social changes that took many decades to accomplish. These included the abolition of slavery and the idea that women were capable of leading a government. Ironically, he didn't feel that women could be good heads of households! Furthermore, unlike our founding fathers, he believed in a hereditary aristocracy; we still have a pseudo-social class system in this country.

"The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy."
— Montesquieu

With this, we conclude the first part of our examination of the thinking that laid the foundation for the American Revolution. We will not continue our exploration about how these ideas affected the thinking, writing, and actions of our founding fathers.

Next time: We will continue to examine the writings and concepts put forward by our founding fathers. We will start with Patrick Henry. Join us next week...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Voltaire & Rousseau: Thinking about the American Revolution

"The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said 'This is mine,' and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From the many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody."
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1754
Discourse on Inequity

Yesterday we examined the origins of the 'Social Contract' while today we will extend that examination to the French Enlightenment thinkers — Voltaire and Rousseau. While Voltaire was basically a rebel against the Catholic Church and most French institutions (monarchy, aristocracy, and bureaucrats). Rousseau examined what it means to be a citizen within a civil society. Voltaire was a strong advocate of social reform while Rousseau was an advocate of equality within society. Both of these thinkers gave the American Revolution and our founding fathers important concepts upon which to build a new form of government. This, in turn, contributed to the zeitgeist that enabled the French Revolution.

Voltaire (1694 – 1778)

"It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong."

— Voltaire

"The true triumph of reason is that it enables us to get along with those who do not possess it."
— Voltaire

Voltaire was an Enlightenment philosopher and a strong defender of civil liberties, freedom of religion and free trade. Although he lived in France at a time of strict
censorship laws, he was an advocate for social reform. He was especially anti-institutional — against both governmental institutions and the Catholic Church (He was a deist, not an atheist, as many have come to believe). This resulted in many run-ins with the authority and both imprisonment and exile to both England and Switzerland. His writing inflamed the monarchy and aristocracy in France as well as the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the church; he was seen as basically immoral and not accepting of his position in society.

"All men have equal rights to liberty, to their property, and to the protection of the laws."

— Voltaire

He was not an optimist. He saw abuses of the people by both the royalty and clergy, especially in terms of the impositions of 'superstitions' and intolerance foisted up on the populace. This drove him to become an advocate for social reform. During his three-year exile in England brought him in contact with Locke's conception of the 'Social Contract.' But he distrusted democracy which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses. He had been impressed with England's constitutional monarchy that had been established after the 'Restoration' of the King.

"All sects are different, because they come from men; morality is everywhere the same, because it comes from God."
— Voltaire

"Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."
— Voltaire

His major contribution to our founding fathers was probably his indefatigable quest for civil rights. He was an especially strong supporter of fair trials and the freedom of religion. These rights were also held in high esteem by the founding fathers.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778)

"The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Man is born free, but everywhere else he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they."

— Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Social Contract
Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau believed that the natural state of man started with uncorrupted morals. He used a French term that was translated into English as 'the noble savage'; however, the French term used was 'sauvage' which actually meant 'wild,' not 'brutal'. Man responded against suffering that arises from the emotions of compassion or empathy. Man could become civilized, self-reliant, through careful education. This should be the goal of every civil society.

"The person who has lived the most is not the one who has lived the longest, but the one with the richest experience."

— Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau's concept of the 'Social Contract' defines a political social order within republicanism. By coming together as a civil society within this context and releasing one's claims of natural right, man can preserve himself and remain free. Man must be the authors of the law to have legitimate civil society. In his day, he saw the city state, such as his native Geneva, as the ideal model.

"To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties. For he who renounces everything no indemnity is possible. Such a renunciation is incompatible with man's nature; to remove all liberty from his will is to remove all morality from his acts."

— Jean-Jacques Rousseau

So, What did our founding fathers see in Rousseau? He was able to assemble, adapt, and remold some of the features of the 'Social Contract' into a civil society that men need for achieving his best. This included the promotion of equality, a freedom of choice of religion, and the rule of and by the people in a republic. These became essential precepts in the emerging American society that became these United States...

Tomorrow: We will continue our exploration of the intellectual roots of the American Revolution through the works of David Hume and baron de Montesquieu, more properly Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hobbes & Locke: Thinking about the American Revolution

"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

When Jefferson penned these words during the late winter/early spring of 1776, they were not new. They were based on a long tradition of liberalism and empiricism. More importantly, they were heavily based upon a concept of the 'Social Contract' developed separately by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke during the seventeenth century. This concept, in essence, described the ideal nature of government and what it was designed to do. Even more importantly, it defined when the people are entitled to demand a change in government. These thoughts formed the foundation upon which the Declaration of Independence was written and the American Revolution was legitimized.

While both Hobbes and Locke discuss the nature of man and what constitutes a legitimate government the two differed from each other in some very fundamental points. Let's take a brief look at the thinking and assumptions of each of these men.

Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679)

Hobbes believed that the inherent nature of man was " solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." In a word, "BAD." To him, man was not but nature, a social animal and therefore, a society of men cannot exist except by virtue of the power of the state. Man is inherently violent and 'brutish' — so he must be controlled by some master. His notion of the 'Social Contract' is that man will yield one's own freedom to a ruler of the state that then provides an environment in which man can survive. This environment requires that there be a master (Sovereign) who wields absolute power over the populace, including the power of life and death. The people have no right to revolt regardless of how capricious the master might be!

"Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man."

— Thomas Hobbes

In this sense, Hobbes was probably more of attuned to facism than to democracy. Since man was inherently 'bad' and would act in only their self-interest, they need a powerful overlord to keep society operating smoothly. While many of these ideas were developed in seminal form before the English Civil War, the rule in the Commonwealth was chaotic as compared to that under the monarchy! This change, along with his exile to Paris, no doubt led to the consolidation of his thinking. While in Paris, he wrote his most remembered work: The Leviathan.

"...Liberty of disputing against absolute power by pretenders to political prudence; which though bred for the most part in the lees of the people, yet animated by false doctrines are perpetually meddline with the fundamental laws, to the molestation of the Commonwealth..."

— Thomas Hobbes, 1651 Leviathan

This pessimistic view of man's inherent nature and his ability to govern himself was, no doubt, accentuated by the English Civil War and the fall of the monarchy. It may have also been behind the intransience of King George III who was on the throne during the American Revolution. The colonies were his vassels and needed to be ruled with an iron hand. This was the environment that made the colonies' redefinition of the 'Social Contract' necessary and the writing of the Declaration of Independence more or less inevitable...

John Locke (1632 – 1704)

"Freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power vested in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, when the rule prescribes not, and not to be subject to the inconstant, unknown, arbitrary will of another man.”
— John Locke

John Locke approached the nature of man and the 'Social Contract' from almost the opposite view from that of Hobbes. Locke viewed man as a inherently animal whose mind is essentially blank at birth ('tabula rasa'). Man learns through sensory experience with his environment. This is education. Man also is born with certain rights, including those related to his own freedom. Man, being a social animal, seeks to create social groups with others to by giving up certain certain of these freedoms in order to create an ordered society for the common good. When that state no longer serves this common good, the members of that society not only have the right to make changes in that government, but has the obligation to do so — to revolt...

“The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property.”

— John Locke

These ideals were hightly influential on Thomas Jefferson and many other of our founding fathers. As long as the British government preserves 'Natural Law,' it is legitimate. When the British parliament began oppressing the American colonies, as exemplified by the many regressive taxes levied upon the colonies during the second half of the eighteenth century. Therefore the colonists not only had the right to rebel against this oppression, they had the obligation to revolt against the British parliament AND the English monarch (King George III).

“Liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others”

— John Locke

Thus, the colonies, in accordance with this 'Social Contract,' had the basis for throwing off the yoke of bondage placed uoon them them by the British. Jefferson relied heavily upon the teachings of Locke. He also included statements within the Declaration of Independence that used almost exact words found in Locke's Two Treatises of Government (1690). This gave the colonists...

"...the view that the state exists to preserve the natural rights of its citizens. When governments fail in that task, citizens have the right — and sometimes the duty — to withdraw their support and even to rebel."

Grolier Encyclopedia

Thus, the colonies took the drastic action of rejecting, in 1775, the legitimacy of the British parliament and, in 1776, the right of the English monarch (King George III) to impose his dominion over them. We had no choice but to move into a battle against this unjust government and establish a new government for the American colonies!

“Man... hath by nature a power... to preserve his property - that is, his life, liberty, and estate - against the injuries and attempts of other men.”

— John Locke

Tomorrow: We continue to examine the philosophical foundations of the American Revolution by looking more closely at Voltaire and Rousseau. Join me for that adventure.

A Perspective: Thinking about the American Revolution

"'Mankind.' That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can't be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it's fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom... Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution... but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: "We will not go quietly into the night!" We will not vanish without a fight! We're going to live on! We're going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!"
— President Thomas Whitmore,
in the movie "Independence Day"

This is a call to arms. It is amazing how well we get along when we are up against a powerful, common enemy. This happened during World War II. It reminds one of young David went up against Goliath or Boadicea and her peasant armies faced the Roman legions. It happened when the thirteen small, relatively inconsequential colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America faced the powerful British Empire, and her well-trained armies and dominant navy.

As we approach another fourth of July, it would do us well to examine the thought of the founding fathers and the works of literature that influenced our treasonous rebellion against the mighty monarchy of England. Fortunately, King George III was not the strongest of monarchs, but he controlled the most dominant fighting forces in the western world since the Romans. So how did this group of independent-minded settlers, lead by the Sons of Liberty, manage to stand up against this mighty fighting force? They prevailed because they believed in the ideals they were fighting for — liberty — and were commited to a common goal against a common enemy.

A toast? Yeah. To high treason. That's what these men were committing when they signed the Declaration. Had we lost the war, they would have been hanged, beheaded, drawn and quartered, and-Oh! Oh, my personal favorite-and had their entrails cut out and ''burned''!

— Ben Gates, in the movie "National Treasure"

What would be the reward of success? Freedom and Independence. But what would be the price of failure? Death and Oppression. As stated in the quotation above, such a fate for failure would not be death in honor on the battlefield, but would be death on the chopping block or the gallows, with further humiliation to follow. We should be very thankful to those men who met at Independence Hall in Philadelpha that 4th day of July of 1776 so many years ago. By signing that document, they were putting forth a map for the creation of a new nation based upon equality and the rights of man; they were also potentially putting their heads on the 'chopping block' — even if they didn't fight one day in the field.

Where did these ideas come from? Were they unique to the founding fathers? No, they were not! They were adopted by our founding fathers from the English and French philosophers of the Enlightenment period — Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire and Montesquieu. These men laid the foundation for our The Declaration of Independence. These founding fathers built on the concepts of the Right to Life, Liberty, and Property, but they were accepting a revolution in governance according to the ideals of the 'Social Contract' of John Locke and the structure of a 'Republic' in accordance with the ideals of Montesquieu. These thinkers helped shape many of the ideas forged together by these founding fathers; it set a forth a new form of government 'of the people, for the people, by the people'...

"Of all the ideas that became the United States, there's a line here that's at the heart of all the others. 'But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and provide new Guards for their future security.'"
— Ben Gates, in the movie "National Treasure"

So where do we go from here? We will take a journey through the history of political thought that became a part of our republican form of representative government — this bold, American experiment in democracy and equality. We will briefly look at the following contributors to this new form of government. They are listed below, along with their major written works and/or services; they are:
  • Thomas Hobbes... Leviathan

  • John Locke... Two Treatises on Government

  • Voltaire... Candide

  • Rousseau... Discourse on the Arts and Sciences

  • Hume... A Treatise of Human Nature

  • Baron de Montesquieu... Spirit of the Laws

  • Patrick Henry... Bill of Rights

  • Thomas Paine... Common Sense

  • John Adams... Thoughts on Government

  • Alexander Hamilton... Federalist Papers

  • Benjamin Franklin... Poor Richard's Almanack

  • Thomas Jefferson... Declaration of Independence
Why are these men so important? Our revolution was not just fought against the British, it was a revolution in the conception of a new system of governance. It reflected reflected a change in the way governments should be formed and how it must operate to be legitimate. To accomplish this required political theoreticians, it requred diplomats, it required warriors, and it required men who would grapple with how to implement theoretical concepts to concrete organizational structures. [And remember — all of this was done without computes, cell phones, Twitter or Facebook!]

We will then examine the two key documents upon which this nation was formed. These are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. These documents define a structure about how to implement a government in accordance with Locke's concept of the 'Social Contract' and Montesquieu's concept of a 'Republic.' The structure created has been robust enough to serve us for more than two centuries. It has adapted to changing needs, technologies, and sociological pressures. It even survived a major civil war. Even in view of the current economic pressures on our country today, our government does not require armed insurrection to make changes. [The current governmental breakdown in California, not withstanding!]

Are you ready to begin our exploration of this amazing journey through the thinking, literature and personalities the enabled our American Revolution and guided the establishment of our democratic republic. May our flag continue to wave above the land of the free and the home of the brave...

A Historical Context: Thinking About the American Revolution

"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.

I think that most of us get a tear in our eyes and a lump in our throats when we hear the words:

"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

Note: This starts a series of 'Thoughts for the Day...' postings that will examine the philosophical and intellectual roots of our American Revolution. It will examine the contributions of many men (most women didn't do much published writing in those days) from the Enlightenment and Colonial period, including many of the Founding Fathers themselves. In addition, the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution themselves will be featured for the 4th of July itself. Please join us for this exciting exploration through our country's intellectual history.