Where did our Liberty Come From?

America’s Revolutionary Mind is a detailed history about the self-evident truths in the Declaration of Independence.  It explores how they came to be part of the American ideal in the period before Thomas Jefferson Included them in the Declaration of Independence, and how they then roused the patriots to action in the Revolutionary War.

Its author, a Professor of political science at Clemson University, who earned his doctorate at Brown University, writes real history.  His constant reference to letters and writings of the leaders of the American Revolution paints a sometimes mind-numbing result for those of us who are general readers. But it is worth a dare to read such professorial tomes.

Doing so, he traces the underlying ideas of John Locke into their influence on the premises of revolutionary leaders like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Dickinson, James Otis, Alexander Hamilton and others as they evolved in the decade before the Declaration and beyond.

He finds that the four truths of the declaration are drawn from the moral history in the colonies, under the influence of John Locke’s writings, especially his Second Treatise of Government.    He then traces these truths and how they became self-evident in the heart of his book:

  • “that all men are created equal”;
  • “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”;
  • “that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers form the consent of the governed”; and
  • “that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it; and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Building on these premises, the highlight of his book is the chapter describing how this motivation spread to Washington’s army.  It never seemed to be able to win a battle, yet won the strategic victory of American independence.    James Thatcher, in his military diary, linked it this way:

When we reflect on the deranged condition of our army, the great deficiency of our resources, and the little prospect of foreign assistance, and at the same time contemplate the prodigious powers and resources of our enemy, we may view this measure of Congress as a prodigy.  The history of the world cannot furnish an instance of fortitude and heroic magnanimity parallel to that displayed by the members, whose signatures are affixed to the Declaration of American Independence.   America’s Revolutionary Mind at 335.

 

A farmer in Pennsylvania, upon enlisting in the Army, said more simply:  “We have no alternative left us, but to fight or die.  . . . I will part with my life sooner than with my liberty.”  America’s Revolutionary Mind at 336.   These individual soldiers, citizens now of a country aspiring to the full freedom of the Declaration, changed our history.  They confronted the privileged arrogance and power of Kings and aristocratic military officers, commanding competent mercenary troops, and stood their ground against them.

Thompson ends without much discussion of how these ideas flowed into the Bill of Rights and its freedoms of speech, assembly and religion, though he does trace some of the ways these concepts were implemented with representative democracy, federalism and separation of powers.   He does commend Abraham Lincoln for reinforcing the principles of the Declaration in articulating his defense of the union and the resulting abolition of slavery.

Thompson then questions in his conclusion and epilogue how the rise of industry and a new century has weakened the spirit of liberty under progressive adjustments to internal economic powers and failures.   There is much to discuss in these later developments, but for those who can endure the fine weave of self-evident principles and their origins, the foundations of our love of liberty are made more clear in his book.

 

 

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