— John Adams, Thoughts on Government, 1776
Today we are going to quickly review our recent meanderings through the philosophies, thoughts, and key players behind the American Revolution. As we have seen for the past weeks, our Founding Fathers took a common situation of that time (the last half of the eighteenth century) — colonies established in distant lands from a ruling European empire — trying to control those colonies. In our case, this empire was the British Empire.
Philosophical Foundations of the American Revolution
"History affords us many instances of the ruin of states, by the prosecution of measures ill suited to the temper and genius of their people. The ordaining of laws in favor of one part of the nation, to the prejudice and oppression of another, is certainly the most erroneous and mistaken policy. An equal dispensation of protection, rights, privileges, and advantages, is what every part is entitled to, and ought to enjoy... These measures never fail to create great and violent jealousies and animosities between the people favored and the people oppressed; whence a total separation of affections, interests, political obligations, and all manner of connections, by which the whole state is weakened."
— Benjamin Franklin
We have seen that our revolutionaries acted upon a long philosophical tradition of the European ‘Enlightenment’ as reflected in a number of developments that occurred during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We examined traditions in a several philosophers, including:
- Thomas Hobbes… Hobbes was not one of the ‘Enlightenment’ philosophers or a supporter of a democratic process. He worked from the premise that man was inherently evil and needed a strong ruler to create a civil society; thus, he was basically a supporter of a strong monarchy. His contribution was found in his concept of the ‘Social Contract’ in which man gives up some of his/her individual rights to a strong ruler in order to create a civil, ordered, society.
- John Locke… Locke believed in the inherent goodness of human nature and started life with certain basic rights and a blank mind (‘tabula rasa’) which could be molded through sensory experience (learning). He continued the concept of a ‘Social Contract’ which created a civil society by each individual giving up some of their inherent human rights, those of ‘life, liberty, and property,’ to a government so to establish ‘order.’ However, he added the concept that if this government reached a point where it no longer provided a civil society for the people, they had the right (or even the obligation) to rebel against that government — the very concept used in the formation of our new nation!
- Voltaire… Voltaire contributed to our Founding Fathers the notion of ‘Civil Liberties’ within a society and was a life-long opponent of the traditional institutions he found in society, especially the French society, of those of the institutional church (and clergy) as well as the traditional nobility class with their special privileges.
- Jean-Jacque Rousseau… Rousseau advanced the idea of a republican government based on the model (pattern) of the ancient Greek city-states. This extended the concept of the ‘Social Contract’ to include a representative government.
- David Hume… Hume was not part of the ‘Enlightenment’ tradition and focused his thinking upon the rule of law in a civil society. In particular, he believed in the need of moderation in politics and the need of a free press in a civil society.
- Baron du Montesquieu… Montesquieu was a political theorist who presented the concept that the ‘Social Contract’ required a governance structure that included a balanced separation of power between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of a republic. This balanced approach to governance extended the concept of ‘Social Contract’ to require a government that could continue to provide a civil society through changing times.
These ideas provided the basis upon which our Founding Fathers designed a new experiment of government in the American colonies during the latter half of the eighteenth century. These concepts were adapted and molded into a set of precepts to provide these thirteen colonies with a roadmap to a new, democratic, republican form of governance that had never been tried in the past. It also provided the justification for their rebellion against the British tyranny imposed on these colonies.
Our adventure this world of ideas has been through the examination of many individuals who took various roles in the creation of our new nation through the process known collectively as the American Revolution. We shall summarize these explorations of the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, and the Constitution of the United States.
The Declaration of Independence (1776)
"Resolved: That these colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, that they are absolved of all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective colonies for their consideration and approbation."
— Richard Lee, Resolution in Congress, June 7, 1776
We have seen that the colonists became disenchanted with the British oversight in the latter half of the eighteenth century. England and France were embroiled in the ‘Seven Years War’ on the European continent; this was manifested in the ‘French and Indian War’ in the American colonies. This was costly for the British government and it went about taxing its citizens to replenish the British treasury; the British Parliament also attempted to impose these taxes on the American colonies. These latter taxes were considered illegal by the colonists due to their lack of representation in Parliament — ‘taxation without representation.’ Furthermore, the American colonies were chartered by the British crown, not be the Parliament. Therefore, these colonies were given certain self-government rights in these charters that the Parliament was now trying to appropriate to itself.
Further provocation was felt by the treatment of the colonies as a market for British manufactured goods and a source of inexpensive raw materials. This lead to the imposition of policies that lead to a positive balance of trade with England, giving the British more wealth and suppressing colonial industry. This monopoly held by the British and the imposition of taxes upon these commodities created an intolerable situation with colonial leaders. The Founding Fathers were forced into action.
"…In defence of the freedom that is our birthright… we have taken up arms. We shall lay them down when hostilities shall cease on the part of the agressors, and all danger of their being renewed shall be removed, and not before."
— John Hancock, in his pamphlet, Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of taking up Arms, July 6, 1775
The taxes imposed by the British Parliament during the period of 1765 to 1776 were also an attempt by the Parliament to exert more explicit control over the activities and governance in the colonies. The Founding Fathers created two Continental Congresses to discuss these issues were convened — the first in 1774 and the second in 1776. The first congress declared its independence from the control of British Parliament while the second declared its independence from the British Monarchy. The net result of the second congress was the creation of a Declaration of Independence in 1776. This document was written by Thomas Jefferson and edited by John Adams. It was accepted on July 2, 1776 and signed on July 4, 1776, our Independence Day.
We have examined individually four of the Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence. They include:
- John Adams
- Samuel Adams
- Benjamin Franklin
- Thomas Jefferson
The American Revolutionary War (1775 – 1783)
"They tell us Sir, that we are weak — unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature has placed in our power."
— Patrick Henry
While the first battle between the colonists and the British occurred on the plains of Lexington and Concord (Massachusetts) in 1775. However, after the Declaration of Independence was signed, the American colonies formed a confederation of states independent of the British Empire. This relationship was formalized with the Articles of Confederation and the Revolutionary War was fought under this new government. This war ran from 1775 to 1781 with the ‘Treaty of Paris’ in 1783 formally ending the conflict.
During the war, the superior training, discipline and supplies saw the British winning more battles than the colonists under the Commander-in-Chief General George Washington. However, two key battles changed the course of this war. The first of these, the Battle of Sarasota (1777), saw the colonist defeating the British army. The significance of this battle was found more in the diplomatic consequences than in the military consequences. This victory enabled Benjamin Franklin to negotiate a support treaty with the French crown that resulted in financial backing as well as military and naval forces. This treaty was completed in 1778. The second victory, the Battle of Yorktown (1781), defeated the British forces through the combination of the French naval victory over the British navy and the colonial forces, with the French officer, the Marquis de Lafayette, forcing the British army to surrender to colonial forces.
The ‘Treaty of Paris’ (1783) provided the American colonies with two hard-earned consequences: political independence and undisputed territory. The British agreed to recognize the independence of the former American colonies from British rule. It also ceded to the Americans all colonial territories east of the Mississippi River, south of the Great Lakes (Canada), and north of the Spanish claims in Florida. This treaty established our independence which was finalized by our victory in the ‘War of 1812.’
Constitution of the United States
"The American war is over; but this far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government, and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens for these forms of government after they are established and brought to perfection."
— Benjamin Rush, May 25, 1786
Following the ‘Treaty of Paris,’ the new America was governed as specified by the Articles of Confederation. This provided for a relatively weak central government that was dependent upon the individual states for tax funds and military forces. This arrangement gave each state essentially the freedom to govern themselves in their own affairs, but was not robust enough to stand among the nations of Europe on an independent footing. International debts had not been repaid and there was no standing army or navy to protect our new nation.
Our nations created a situation that lead to a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 to create a more stable government. Much debate between competing factions and required many compromises. These included, in part, between the industrial northern states vs. the agricultural southern states. It also involved attempts to balance states’ rights vs. a strong central government. In its final form, it resolved these many conflicts to create a new type of democratic republic designed upon the philosophical ideas delineated above. This model would have three subdivisions, each with equal weight; these included a bicameral legislature elected directly by the people, an executive branch (President and Vice President) elected by an Electoral College, and a judicial branch appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. These elements attempted to create a system of checks and balances among the branches and a government ‘…of the People, by the People, and for the People’ as stated in the preamble to the Constitution.
In support of this new Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay published a series of eighty-five essays in support of the Constitution. These became known as the Federalist Papers. These essays presented the case for the ratification of the new Constitution which was ratified by the thirteenth state in 1789. The first President, George Washington, was unanimously by the first Electoral College. He served two terms in that office and is the only President ever elected by a unanimous vote. Washington set the tone for the office and we will be forever grateful to him for that accomplishment.
Among the Founding Fathers that we have examined in more detail in this series included three signers of the Constitution of the United States. These include:
- Benjamin Franklin
- Alexander Hamilton
- George Washington
Other Founding Fathers
"Our own Country's Honor, all call upon us for a vigorous and manly exertion, and if we now shamefully fail, we shall become infamous to the whole world. Let us therefore rely upon the goodness of the Cause, and the aid of the supreme Being, in whose hands Victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble Actions -- The Eyes of all our Countrymen are now upon us, and we shall have their blessings, and praises, if happily we are the instruments of saving them from the Tyranny mediated against them. Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and show the whole world, that a free man contending for Liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth."
— George Washington, 1776
Many more men attended and signed the documents referred to above. Likewise, many others helped spark the revolution, mobilize the colonists, and provide military and diplomatic service to this emerging nation. The Founding Fathers that were not signatories to either the Declaration of Independence or Constitution of the United States deserved the more in-depth examination covered in this series. These include:
- Aaron Burr
- Patrick Henry
- John Jay
- John Marshall
- Thomas Paine
- Marquis de Lafayette (French)
- Baron von Steuben (Prussian)
During our exploration of the roots and development of ideas (and ideals) in the formation of this new nation, one formed a nation ‘…of the People, for the People, and by the People’ distinctive from any other in the then-known civilized world. We have attempted to focus on the Founding Fathers who made significant contributions during the period of the Revolutionary War through the War of 1812. The omission of other Founding Fathers does not mean that they were unimportant or did not contribute to the founding of this country, but it means that they were representatives of the people during very important deliberations. They did not make the ‘A List,’ so to speak, but they should not be forgotten.
We are not alone in being selected in our examination of the Founding Fathers. In recent years (1973), Richard B. Morris, a noted Revolutionary War historian, studied seven of the Founding Fathers in his book: Seven who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries. He included:
- Benjamin Franklin
- George Washington
- John Adams
- Thomas Jefferson
- John Jay
- James Madison
- Alexander Hamilton
“It's time we asked ourselves if we still know the freedoms intended for us by the Founding Fathers. James Madison said, 'We base all our experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.' This idea that government was beholden to the people, that it had no other source of power, is still the newest, most unique idea in all the long history of man's relation to man. This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves. ”
— Ronald Reagan, October 27, 1964
Note: In closing, you might be interested in the source of the term ‘Founding Fathers.’ It was first used by Warren Harding in his Keynote speech to the Republican Nominating Convention in 1916.
Next Time: Closely ties to our Independence Day, our French allies celebrate their equivalent holiday on July 14th — Bastille Day, or as it is better known, La Fête de Nationale. Join us for that examination and then for our series on the French Revolution that will follow…