Account of a Declaration
From the Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson
“In questions of power, then, let no more be said of confidence in man, but
bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
ON JULY 4TH, 1776, A MOST REMARKABLE DOCUMENT, was delivered to the world by a group of discontented colonists in North America. The Declaration of Independence was a serious affront to Great Britain, the wealthiest & most powerful nation in the world. The authors and signers of this document were variously celebrated as heroes and criminals, but the Declaration itself stands as a clear and dramatic statement of what is right and just in government. It proposed a republican government founded in the collective rights of the people, based on their authority alone, and beholden to them.
Account of a Declaration is an exploration of that splendid act in 1776, an act that severed the political ties of America from the Monarchies of the old world. An act that inaugurated a bold political experiment in the new.
Thomas Jefferson was the author of this Declaration but, as we shall see, it was not he alone who designed it. The American colonies were a hotbed of entrepreneurial and political activity. America was a land of vast untapped resources, practically free for the taking. The European powers, Britain, France, Holland, and Spain, were engaged in competition, and often open warfare, over resources in the old world and the new. So it was that for over 100 years, the colonies experienced a state of relative political autonomy. They enjoyed a hardy indigenous population of Europeans who were born into the struggle of developing new lands and new relationships. From across the Atlantic came pioneering people, merchants, explorers, idealists and malcontents, to establish themselves in a hard & yet seemly paradise. It is in this rigorous environment that a group of intelligent and basically honorable men decided to take a stand. Though the foundation that they fought from was tenuous, there might never be a better opportunity. They would attempt to take a principle born of the Enlightenment, Natural Rights, and apply it to the real world.
This account is based on excerpts from the autobiography of Thomas Jefferson. It incorporates more than thirty important documents from the era, biographical sketches of sixty-seven of the participants, and essays & notes about the landmark events of the day.
Of Colonial Settlement
In 1765 when the first rumblings of challenge to British authority became obvious even to Parliament, the frontier in America consisted of thirteen separate colonies. Each had a native legislature which served on provincial soil, but which served only at the pleasure of a governor appointed by the crown.
British colonization across the Atlantic was a tremendously expensive project. Some surveying and exploration had been undertaken, and knowledge about the New World was available from Dutch, French, and Spanish explorers and colonists who preceded the British. In England, however, there was controversy about who would underwrite the expense of establishing colonial outposts for the crown. Finally a solution was found at the beginning of the 1600s. The mechanism of the joint stock company allowed individuals to pool their resources without fear of liability, and with some promise of a return on investment. In April of 1606, James I issued the first Virginia Charter to a group called the London Company, (later the Virginia Company,) to establish plantations in North American territory claimed by the crown. The Virginia Territory initially extended from the Hudson river to Cape Fear (now in South Carolina). Three ships were chartered and one hundred and four men and boys recruited for the task. The ships sailed in December of that year, with instructions to establish an outpost 100 miles up a large river suitable for ship transport. Jamestown was established some thirty miles up the James river in an area of low-lying swampy land. The first years at Jamestown were an unqualified disaster. Over four thousand people died through disease, starvation, and Indian attack. The settlers were ill-equipped. Many had been lured by promises of quick wealth and an easy life. If the adventurers were deluded, the Virginia Company was criminally negligent.
As late as 1620 settlers arrived to find no food, no housing and no defences. In its rush to turn a profit, the Company simply dumped settlers and supplies into Jamestown with nothing more than martial law, and an opposing appeal to greed, to guide the effort. In 1618 Sir Edwin Sandys (pronounced Sands) formed a group of shareholders who undertook a reform of the Company by establishing a sort of homesteading policy, relaxing martial law, and promising a representative council to be called the House of Burgesses. A flood of colonists followed, most of them paying their own way in order to qualify for headrights, a land-grant of 50 acres for a small annual rent, or as indentured servants to those who would soon have headrights. But more than half of these had died by 1622.
In 1624 James I, embarrassed by the terrible mismanagement of the project, finally interceded. He dissolved the Company and appointed a governor and council, but ignored the House of Burgesses, which had been meeting annually since 1619. The Burgesses continued to meet, though not recognized by the appointed government. In 1639 the King did recognize the Burgesses because their practical influence over the operation of colony could not be overcome. From that point, until the revolution, government in Virginia consisted of an executive (governor & council) and judiciary (magistrates, justices of the peace) appointed by the King, and a legislature made up from the local population. This was to become a common pattern in the colonies, though with some variations and one or two important exceptions. The House of Burgesses was not a democratically elected assembly by any means. It was made up of the wealthiest members of Virginia society who often dictated to the rest of the population.
Maryland, established by a grant to a court favorite, Sir George Calvert (Lord Baltimore,) followed a similar pattern of development. The colony was established ostensibly as a haven for Catholic expatriates from England. Both Catholic and Protestant people emigrated there, under a feudal system designed by Lord Baltimore the second. Lord Baltimore was established by grant as the outright owner and ruler of all the lands of the colony. People who managed to purchase 6000 acres or more of this land were known as Lords of the Manor, and were allowed to create their own local courts of law. People who owned less were granted fewer privileges under the feudal system. Real settlement commenced in 1634 when people of both sexes crossed the Atlantic to Saint Mary’s. There, unlike in Virginia, there was little threat of starvation or Indian attack, however the sort of self-interest that made life so difficult in Jamestown also reigned in early Maryland. The executive authority in Maryland was Leonard Calvert, as deputy proprietor, and a council appointed by Lord Baltimore. The colonists elected a representative assembly which was initially dictated too by the executor.
This did not last long. The assembly insisted on parliamentary process, and, as it gained strength and popular support in succeeding years, the executive lost hold of the business of the colony. As in Virginia, the enterprise was based almost entirely on tobacco agriculture; those who possessed the most land or wealth had the largest influence in assembly. Unlike Virginia, the colonists in Maryland enjoyed friendly relations with the native people and were not required to develop centralized settlements for the common defense. So Maryland long remained, despite it’s “public” legislature, a culture of isolated river-front plantations where the laws depended on the tastes of the local proprietor.
The settlement at Plymouth was quite different. In November of 1620 a group of one hundred and two people landed at Plymouth Rock in northern New England. These were Separatists, religious objectors against the Church of England, who had first left England for The Netherlands, and later decided to emigrate to America to establish a settlement based on their common Christian beliefs. The group contracted with the Virginia Company to settle in Virginia, but due to an error in Navigation, landed at Cape Cod. Their contract was not valid there, but they could not sail south due to the advancing Winter. On November 11, 1620, aboard the Mayflower, they drafted a compact to establish some form of government for themselves. The compact took the place of a charter that they lacked, and is the first example of an independent civil government in the English realms of the new world.
The Mayflower Compact. — November 11, 1620
[November 21 by the old style calendar]
In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereigne Lord, King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britaine, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c.; Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first colony in the Northerne Parts of Virginia; doe, by these Presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civill Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equall Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete and convenient for the Generall Good of the Colonie; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience. In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the Raigne of our Sovereigne Lord, King James of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland, the fiftie-fourth, Anno. Domini, 1620.
Mr. John Carver, Mr. Stephen Hopkins, Mr. William Bradford, Digery Priest, Mr. Edward Winslow, Thomas Williams, Mr. William Brewster, Gilbert Winslow, Isaac Allerton, Edmund Margesson, Miles Standish, Peter Brown, John Alden, Richard Bitteridge, John Turner, George Soule, Francis Eaton, Edward Tilly, James Chilton, John Tilly, John Craxton, Francis Cooke, John Billington, Thomas Rogers, Joses Fletcher, Thomas Tinker, John Goodman, John Ridgate, Mr. Samuel Fuller, Edward Fuller, Mr. Christopher Martin, Richard Clark, Mr. William Mullins, Richard Gardiner, Mr. William White, Mr. John Allerton, Mr. Richard Warren, Thomas English, John Howland, Edward Doten, Edward Liester.
Conditions at Plymouth were harsh. The rocky soil and hard Atlantic winds made agriculture difficult. The first Winter saw half the settlers die of starvation. During the succeeding summer, they learned from the local “Indians” how to grow corn and squash. (This is the origin of the Thanksgiving holiday.) The settlement at Plymouth remained small for many years. All local produce and manufacture were applied to the community. There was little surplus to sell. So, although the settlement was illegal, there was no interest in doing anything about it. The civil government worked fairly well despite the absence of sanctioned authority.
Another example of an Independent civil government, developed surreptitiously, was found in the Massachusetts Bay colony. This group was made up of Puritans. Whereas the Separatists left the Church and State of England, protesting corruption, the Puritans were activists who wished to reform those institutions in keeping with Christian principles. John Winthrop, who was to become Governor of the colony he had a hand in founding, had decided in the early 1620s that England would soon collapse from corruption. He and a handful of more wealthy puritans petitioned the king for a charter to colonize the Massachusetts Bay area. In appearance this colony would be much like the Virginia Company, a joint-stock operation headquartered in England. But a majority of members were Puritans and they met secretly to form a pact, called the Cambridge Agreement, which did not vest allegiance to the king or state of England. Someone also managed to see a common clause was excluded from the charter — a clause that specified where and when the governing body of the colony would meet. No one noticed the omission, the charter was granted, and the Puritans established their own government in the new world, with very little control from the King. Soon after it was established, the Massachusetts Bay colony began “liberalizing” its government. The voting franchise was expanded to include all adult men who became members of a congregational church. This included nearly 40% of the population, an unprecedented example of popular representation. The voters, or “freedmen,” each year selected the colonial Governor, a group of Magistrates, and eventually deputies to represent each town in colonial assembly.
These two patterns were the most common in the American colonies. The Virginia & Maryland pattern essentially established a bicameral government, local representatives (legislature) in check with those appointed representatives (executive) directed by the crown. The independent civil pattern in Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay was more liberal, at least initially, and existed as long as it was tolerated by the King. One should not conclude that either of these forms were “democratic” in the modern (or for that matter, the ancient) sense. Democracy was frowned upon.
In most colonies the privilege of voting was strictly limited to men of wealth and property—those who ran the business of the colony, those who paid the taxes. In all cases the pattern of a local authority, and universally that of a local legislature, was established. This was the foundation for protests against Parliamentary interference in the affairs of the American colonies.
Economy of Empire
Though Great Britain was the last of the great European powers to establish a foothold in the new world, it wasted little time in negotiating an advantageous position there. An elaborate system of trade laws were employed to the benefit of the British Empire. Britain’s system of regulations, tariffs, and bounties were based entirely on Atlantic shipping. No system of over-land regulation or taxation was ever implemented. In the sixteen hundreds the Empire, as such, consisted of Great Britain, Ireland, some outlying islands in Europe; colonies on the Gold Coast of Africa; India, Ceylon, some other minor Asian Islands; Newfoundland, Hudson Bay, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, East Florida, West Florida, some proposed interior colonies in North America; the Bahamas, Bermuda, Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados, the Leeward and Windward groups of minor islands in the West Indies; and the settlements in Belize in Central America. The system of regulation amongst these diverse colonies was something of a marvel in operation.
The objectives of this system were three: to secure advantages in trade against Holland, France, and Spain, ·· to exploit raw materials, commodities, and labor to the best advantage of the Empire and, ··· to establish prosperous industries within the colonies while protecting established industries from competition. Great Britain was willing to go quite far in attaining these goals. For example, it promptly sacrificed a large part of it’s native agricultural market in order to promote colonial agriculture.
Prior to 1660 Holland was the center of the world where shipping was concerned. Dutch ships reached every port in the old world and new, and Britain was alarmingly dependent on Holland, even for trade within it’s own colonial outposts. Nearly all shipped goods arriving in Europe appeared in Dutch ports, and were then re-sold to wider Europe. In 1649 and 1651, the British Parliament passed a series of laws referred to as the Navigation Acts, designed to remedy this situation. In 1660 the laws were refined, amended somewhat and passed again collectively as The Navigation Act.
Effective December 1, 1660, only English ships could transport goods to and from, and between Britain’s colonial outposts. English ships were defined as those owned by an English company, staffed by a headmaster who was an English citizen, and crewed with at least three-quarters English citizens. English, in the terms of these acts, meant residents of Gr. Britain or any of her colonies. The act also prohibited non-English persons from acting as factors, agents, or merchants, in any of the plantations. Goods originating outside of the colonies could only be shipped to England by English ships, or directly from the producing country in its own ships. No such foreign goods could be shipped to any colonial port except through England and on English ships. In less than ten years, Britain gained control from Holland, and built a massive English Merchant fleet. As you might well imagine, the ability to monopolize trade on this scale generated a tremendous amount of wealth for the Empire. The new world colonies especially benefited from this system. Not only did they acquire wealth from the exploitation of raw materials, a huge ship-building industry was developed in the New England colonies. It was the New England merchants (ship owners) who benefited most from shipping traffic between the colonies and with the Caribbean. The southern colonies supplied the vast need for hemp and Virginia in particular enjoyed an Empire-wide monopoly on the production of tobacco. Lumber, ores of copper and iron, rice, animal skins and furs, pot ash and pearl ash, whale derived products . . . all were eventually supplied almost exclusively by the thirteen colonies. Their market was the entire British Empire, and further extended to other nations where Britain re-sold those products from the ports in England.
The Navigation acts were refined over time with the object of developing industry. The second innovation of those acts involves what were called enumerated goods. At first these included only tobacco, sugar, indigo, cotton-wool, fustic and assorted dyewoods. Of these, only tobacco applied to the thirteen colonies, all of the other goods were tropical in origin. These goods could only be shipped to England for re-sale. While this might seem prohibitive in today’s free market climate, one must remember that these were frontier operations. The monopoly secured by England also meant that producers in the colonies had access to brokers, shippers, and creditors from the massive English companies, who could virtually guarantee capital, supplies, and transport for every phase of a producer’s business. This arrangement made it possible to develop plantation operations on a very large scale in a very short time. Added to this system of regulation, the Parliament developed other methods to pump capital into the colonial operations.
Over time and elaborate system of bounties and drawbacks were developed. These were targeted at the development of specific industries that would be most valuable to the operation of empire. The best example, in the early seventeen hundreds, would be in the markets for ships stores. England was dependent on the Baltic nations for tar, pitch, turpentine, resin, and hemp, all essential commodities in ship building and operation. This meant that England was at a disadvantage not only in mercantile shipping, but also in building and operating its navy. With the growth of the ship building industry in the North American colonies these products were in great demand in New England. Colonists set about developing these products locally for their own use. Surplus was shipped to England in exchange for a bounty in addition to the fair market value. Not only were these products not taxed, the colonies were rewarded directly for supplying the British shipping and Naval yards. As the surplus grew, taxes on those products from the Baltic were increased. Thus, the colonies (up until the revolution) supplied nearly all of the British market. Bounties were soon applied to indigo from South Carolina, Georgia, and the Floridas, Raw Silk from Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. Immense quantities of lumber in the form of boards, planks, barrel staves and dimensioned lumber were shipped to England for generous reward. These subsidies were paid directly out of the English treasury. The bounty system was applied almost exclusively to the north American colonies (where Britain had the most catching-up to do, and where competition form France and Holland was most fierce). It is easy to demonstrate that these industries would not have developed so soon, nor on such a massive scale, without the bounties. Following the revolution all of these markets suffered and the production of silk, indigo, and hemp nearly vanished.
The Navigation Acts were indeed beneficial to the colonies as well as to the Empire as a whole, however, they were not as beneficial to England as their design would indicate. On the ground, the system was very corrupt. Many if not most of the Tax Commissioners appointed by the crown did not actually ever set foot in the colonies. They resided in England, enjoyed their pensions, and executed their duties by way of paper shuttled back & forth across the Atlantic. Corruption was the rule. Most traders paid a fraction of the indicated taxes, many paid none at all. Customs officers in America were often involved in the trade themselves, so smuggling was commonplace. In 1763, the newly appointed First Lord of the Treasury Lord George Grenville stated that the customs revenue in America amounted to less than one-quarter the cost of collecting it. The issue of real costs to the English Treasury would become even more severe with the Proclamation of 1763. In the interim, Grenville & the Parliament tried to remedy the revenue problems with the Sugar Act, the Currency Act, and by reinforcing Naval strength in the colonies in order to ensure payment of the taxes.
As late as the outbreak of hostilities between Great Britain and the colonies the only vocal argument against Britain was that Parliament had no right to impose “internal” taxes in America. This implied that “external” taxes would be tolerated, but even the delegates to the Continental Congress found the distinction confusing, if not farcical. Benjamin Franklin, who was in the pleasant habit of cutting straight to the chase, made one of the most succinct statements on the matter in a letter to a colleague:
“I know not what the Boston people mean by the “Subordination” they acknowledge in their Assembly to Parliament, while they deny its power to make laws for them, nor what bounds the Farmer sets to the power he acknowledges in parliament to “regulate the trade of the colonies,” it being difficult to draw lines between duties for regulation and those for revenue; and, if Parliament is to be the judge, it seems to me that establishing such a principle of distinction will amount to little. The more I have thought and read on the subject, the more I find myself confirmed in opinion, that no middle ground can be well maintained, I mean not clearly with intelligible arguments. Something might be made of either of the the extremes: that Parliament has a power to make all laws for us, or that it has the power to make no laws for us; and I think the arguments for the latter more numerous and weighty, than those for the former. Supposing that doctrine established, the colonies would then be so many separate states, only subject to the same king, as England and Scotland were before the union.”
-Bejamin Franklin, Writings.
These comments, made in 1768, were an early reckoning of what would be all too clear to most of the revolutionary leaders by 1772: that to accept the power of Parliament was to cede the authority of provincial legislatures. The argument about internal versus external taxes would not stand careful scrutiny. However, a great deal of speaking, writing, and debate had been spent on the idea, such that many of the leading men of the day were unable to part with the notion without loss of honor. This idea was held out as the object of protest until the actual Declaration of Independence was passed in 1776. (Even then, John Dickinson could not bring himself to sign the Declaration, he retired from Congress instead.) And how could Parliament back down? The colonies suffered from much in-fighting and many jealousies. Great Britain certainly did need to regulate the commerce of the colonies in order to continue their development. No one imagined that the colonial legislatures could coordinate their efforts in such a fashion as would make Parliamentary control unnecessary. In fact, the protest against internal taxes was disingenuous and incomplete. The colonists denied the right of Parliament to tax them and called for the protection of the King; yet at the same time they protested the prerogatives of the King: the authority of the Royal governors and of the Court system. These charges were only laid out clearly in the Declaration, long after the war for independence had ensued. What is more, neither the words “Parliament” or “taxation” appear anywhere in the Declaration. It was not until the actual Declaration that anyone in the American political organs openly challenged the divine rights of the King.
A Republican Government
Monarchy, in various shades and formulations, was the modern government of civilized people. Every European nation was governed by a Monarch, and the British empire was especially proud of its “mixed” form of government—the finest form yet developed. The prevailing political theory of the day was that any pure form of government, be it monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy, would ultimately collapse. Each of these was susceptible to despotism, so the only rational system would be one whereby two or more pure forms were played off each other in order to achieve a sort of balance. Great Britain, with its King (monarchy), its House of Lords (aristocracy), and its Parliament (republican-democracy) was touted as the most perfectly constituted government ever. Two facts were at hand to demonstrate the reason of that claim. First, that the English people, no matter where they lived in the Empire, enjoyed standards of diet, education, and justice, that were hard to attain outside of the Empire. Second, that the Empire itself had been such a successful mechanism, political and economic, for so long. These arguments were good enough for many people, but there were several problems on the ground. For this ideal English government was not so much designed as it was a devils bargain.
For centuries, philosophers, theologians, and rulers pointed to the downfall of the Roman Empire as the final failure of democracy, and of any purely republican form of government. The only answer to government was to be found in Monarchy. The rule of a Monarch, it was agreed, had to be a contract between the ruler and the ruled. But how would the Monarch be accountable to justice? Well, certainly not by recall from the people at large. The Monarch was supposed to be accountable to God, most immediately through God’s emissary in Rome, through the Pope. The balance struck placed God on one side, the King and his subjects on the other. The King had a responsibility to rule the people with justice, and the people a right to expect and demand just rule. When justice failed the people could appeal to the King through his courts and ministers. Ultimately they could appeal through the organ of the church, to the Pope (who was, incidently, even less likely to listen.) This chain of supposed rights was being fractured, however, throughout the century leading up to the Revolution. Henry VIII parted with the Roman Church (because he was denied a divorce) & started his own, presumedly to maintain that required connection to God. Later still the Royal scepter passed from one family to another based on a challenge to the “Divine Right” to rule. Then there was the Protestant Reformation which challenged the authority of the Pope, of any official religious entity for that matter, to interpret the will of God for common people. Monarchy was failing throughout Europe, though this would not become plain for some time yet. It would become common wisdom in America first.
The system of government in Great Britain was not based on a written constitution (and this is still the case today) but on a very complex series of written and unwritten relationships. These included the Divine, Natural, and Common Laws, the charters of the Royal Families, treaties with nations and entities within and outside of the Empire, and the British class system. The American colonies were different. Each colonial entity had started either as a corporate business venture, as a private concern defending itself against the prerogatives of the crown & competing enterprises, or as a group of ordinary citizens faced with the need to justify their place in the new world. The contract (or charter) became the mechanism that all would use to stake a claim. These charters were altered over time. Sometimes they were extended to incorporate new territories by grant from the crown. Sometimes they were curtailed, revoked, or superceded by new agreements. As the colonies developed, each built some sort of native legislature to represent the interests of the local citizens. A “Royal” Governor or Council represented the person of the King, as opposed to the local legislature, forming a sort of mixed government that mimicked that “perfect” instrument in England.
Finally, these relationships were formalized through the instrument of a constitution. But balance was not attained. The Royal prerogative in the colonies included the executive power (Governors and/or privy councils), the judicial power (the vice admiralty courts, courts of common pleas, etc.) and, incidently, the power to dissolve the provincial legislatures at will. The check against local legislative power became especially painful when protests against the authority of Parliament over the colonies began.
The colonists in America had Constitutions, which the British lacked. What the Americans lacked, for the most part, was a Class system like that of the British. By the early 1700s, culture in the Americas had already become distinct from that in Britain. Americans were more independent minded, enjoyed a sort of common familiarity that would not have been tolerated in Britain. Britain had its Lords & Ladies, Dukes & Duchesses, Earls, Barons, Commissioners, and myriad honorary and military titles. In America you were an Englishman, or you were not. The American colonists were very proud of their status as Englishmen. The common plea was that an Englishman was an Englishman no matter where he stood in the world. The colonists increasingly took this to mean that they were equal in status and right to any other English subject.
British people of the upper Classes viewed this idea with some distaste & were often offended when approached with familiarity by an American. However, this was the frontier, so a certain tolerance was in order. Most Americans thought that British attitudes about Class & title were at best laughable, at worst a corruption of the fowlest sort. On the frontier a man was valued for his deeds, not for any sort of social title or family inheritance.
These social attitudes further undermined the notion that a distant Monarch should exercise authority at the expense of the local legislatures. It was only by subjugation to the king that one could be an Englishman, enjoying the protection of King & Emipire—the liberty of a citizen of a free nation. But what happened when the King himself violated that very liberty, by usurping the powers of republican assembly?
In the 1770s the weakening monarchy crashed upon the shores of the weak monarch, King George III. In the view of the radical patriots, George had failed to honor his part of the sacred compact. He had failed to uphold the republican part of the principle of mixed government. Increasingly, this became the view of most American colonists, and that of quite a few citizens of Britain as well.
As you will see in reading the biographies in this work, American colonists had access to a pretty good education. The libraries of many professionally educated Americans were extensive, and the growing colleges and universities gave colonists access to the leading thinkers of Europe. This was the Age of Enlightenment. Sir Isaac Newton had opened the world of science through his masterwork the Principia. It is not that everyone read Newton, but that the work was widely discussed because it seemed to say that all of the known world could be understood, reduced to observable facts. If this were so, then man could quite possibly understand God (Divine law) directly, by observing and understanding his manifestation in the world. Jefferson’s most formidable influence was John Locke, who’s Two Treatises on Government was one of the most influential works of philosophy ever. Locke had reasoned, in 1690, that God’s greatest gift to man, that which differentiates him from all the beasts, was reason. And that therefore all human efforts & institutions should be subject to reasoned examination and practice.
“I easily grant that civil government is the proper remedy for the inconveniences of the state of Nature, which must certainly be great where men may be judges in their own case, since it is easy to be imagined that he who was so unjust as to do his brother an injury will scarce be so just as to condemn himself for it. But I shall desire those who make this objection to remember that absolute monarchs are but men; and if government is to be the remedy of those evils which necessarily follow from men being judges in their own cases, and the state of Nature is therefore not to be endured, I desire to know what kind of government that is, and how much better it is than the state of Nature, where one man commanding a multitude has the liberty to be judge in his own case, and may do to all his subjects whatever he pleases without the least question or control of those who execute his pleasure? and in whatsoever he doth, whether led by reason, mistake, or passion, must be submitted to?”
-John Locke, Concerning Civil Government, Second Essay, 1690.
With the elapse of over sixty years, thinking like this had become common currency. However, few people would openly challenge the authority of a monarch. It was one thing to argue that the rigors of reasoned thought ought to be applied to government. It was another thing entirely to say that a monarch who did not act with honor & reason toward his subjects should be removed or denied. At the onset of the revolutionary war, Thos. Jefferson addressed a most extraordinary communication to King George. That message shows us a lot about American attitudes of the time.
“[… T]hese are our grievances which we have thus laid before his majesty, with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people claiming their rights, as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate: Let those flatter who fear; it is not an American art. To give praise which is not due might be well from the venal, but would ill beseem those who are asserting the rights of human nature. They know, and will therefore say, that kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people. […] The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest. Only aim to do your duty, and mankind will give you credit where you fail. No longer persevere in sacrificing the rights of one part of the empire to the inordinate desires of another; but deal out to all equal and impartial right. Let no act be passed by any one legislature which may infringe on the rights and liberties of another. This is the important post in which fortune has placed you, holding the balance of a great, if a well poised empire. This, sire, is the advice of your great American council, on the observance of which may perhaps depend your felicity and future fame, and the preservation of that harmony which alone can continue both to Great Britain and America the reciprocal advantages of their connection.”
-Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1774.
Not difficult to the modern ear: [Rulers are] …the servants, not the proprietors of the people… but notice also the form of address that Jefferson used. Pleas to the King, such as that by John Adams, Petition of Congress to the King, only used your majesty, his majesty, as terms of address. Jefferson begins his statements using the traditional terms, but then changes his tone. He not only asserts the presumed rights of the American colonists, he uses the terms you and your as if addressing an equal. The tone of this communication was scandalous, even if the content of the message were disregarded. This was not a plea so much as a challenge to the very authority of the King.
Later, in Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote of a form of government that would serve as a model to the world. It would select representatives from every region to assemble for the business of government. Further, it would be free of the yoke of Monarchy, & especially of any hereditary occupancy of office. He called this mechanism a republican government. It would submit to the best reason & would regularly return to the people for authority to govern. The idea was widely derided in Europe, and rather severely in America too — amongst certain classes of people. But this work was extraordinarily popular with the common man in America. It also caught the notice of all, and the admiration of some, of the patriot leaders. Very shortly after Paine’s famous pamphlet the American leaders found a voice to formally assert the rights of self-government in America. The voice that would reject Monarchy & substitute an authority founded in the people themselves.
“The Farmer” is a reference to John Dickinson, who wrote an important series of essays, Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer, regarding the relationships between Gr. Britain and America. Dickinson was a leading advocate for continued allegiance to the King.
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