There are three founding texts for Americans, texts treated like sacred scripture. The first is the Declaration of Independence, a stirring document both political and philosophical; in schools and elsewhere, it is read and recited with religious spirit. The second is the Articles of Confederation; a government based on this text was established by the Second Continental Congress; despite the new country’s success in waging the Revolutionary War and in reaching an advantageous peace treaty with the British Empire, this document is not venerated by Americans in quite the same way because this form of government was superseded after thirteen years by that of the third founding text, the Constitution. These three texts play the role of secular scripture in the United States; in particular, the Constitution, although only 4 pages long without amendments, is truly revered and quoted like “chapter and verse.”
Athena, the Greek goddess, is said to have sprung full grown from the head of Zeus (and in full armor, to boot); did these founding texts just emerge from the heads and pens of the founding fathers? In particular, there is the Declaration of Independence. Did it have a precursor? Was it part of the spirit of the times, of the Zeitgeist? Mystère.
Though still under British rule in 1775 when hostilities broke out at Lexington and Concord, the colonies had had 159 years of self-government at the local level: they elected law makers, named judges, ran courts and collected taxes. Forward looking government took root early in the colonies. Already in 1619, in Virginia, the House of Burgesses was set up, the first legislative assembly of elected representatives in North America; in 1620, the Pilgrims drew up the Mayflower Compact before even landing; the 1683, the colonial assembly in New York passed the Charter of Liberties. A peculiar matrix evolved where there was slavery and indentured servitude on the one hand and progress in civil liberties on the other (one example, the trial of John Peter Zenger in New York City in 1735 and the establishment of Freedom of the Press).
In fact, the period from 1690 till 1763 is known as the “period of salutary neglect,” where the British pretty much left the colonies to fend for themselves – the phrase “salutary neglect” was coined by the British parliamentarian Edmund Burke, “the father of modern conservatism.” Salutary neglect was abandoned at the end of the French and Indian War (aka The Seven Years War) which was a “glorious victory” for the British but which left them with large war debts; their idea was to have the Americans “pay their fair share.”
During the run-up to the French and Indian War, at the Albany Convention in 1754, Benjamin Franklin proposed the Albany Plan, which was an early attempt to unify the colonies “under one government as far as might be necessary for defense and other general important purposes.” The main thrust was mutual defense and, of course, it would all be done under the authority of the British crown.
The Albany Plan was influenced by the Iroquois’ Great Law of Peace, a compact that long predated the arrival of Europeans in the Americas; this compact is also known as the Iroquois Constitution. This constitution provided the political basis for the Haudenosaunee, aka the Iroquois Confederation, a confederacy of six major tribes. The system was federal in nature and left each tribe largely responsible for its own affairs. Theirs was a very egalitarian society and for matters of group interest such as the common defense, a council of chiefs (who were designated by the senior women of their clans) had to reach a consensus. The Iroquois were the dominant Indian group in the northeast and stayed unified in their dealings with the French, British and Americans. In a letter to a colleague in 1751, Benjamin Franklin acknowledged his debt to the Iroquois with this amazing admixture of respect and condescension:
”It would be a strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming such a union, and yet it has subsisted for ages and appears indissolvable, and yet a like union should be impractical for 10 or a dozen English colonies.”
The Iroquois Constitution was also the subject of a groundbreaking ethnographic monograph. In 1724, the French Jesuit missionary Joseph-François Lafitau published a treatise on Iroquois society, Mœurs des sauvages amériquains comparées aux mœurs des premiers temps (Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times), in which he describes the workings of the Iroquois system and compares it to the political systems of the ancient world in an attempt to establish a commonality shared by all human societies. Lafitau admired this egalitarian society where each Iroquois, he observed, views “others as masters of their own actions and of themselves” and each Iroquois lets others “conduct themselves as they wish and judges only himself.”
The pioneering American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, who studied Iroquois society in depth, was also impressed with the democratic nature of their way of life, writing “Their whole civil policy was averse to the concentration of power in the hands of any single individual.” In turn, Morgan had a very strong influence on Frederick Engel’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State: in the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan (1884). Apropos of the Iroquois Constitution, Engels (using “gentile” in its root Latin sense of “tribal”) waxed lyric and exclaimed “This gentile constitution is wonderful.” Engel’s work, written after Karl Marx’s death, had for its starting point Marx’ notes on Morgan’s treatise Ancient Society (1877).
All of these European writers thought that Iroquois society was an intermediate stage in a progression subject to certain laws of sociology, a progression toward a society and way of life like their own. Of course, Marx and Engels did not think things would stop there.
At the end of the French and Indian War, the British prevented the colonists, who numbered around 2 million at this point, from pushing west over the Appalachians and Alleghenies with the Royal Proclamation of 1763; indeed, his Majesty George III proclaimed (using the royal “our”) that this interdiction was to apply “for the present, and until our further pleasure be known.” This proclamation was designed to pacify French settlers and traders in the area and to keep the peace with Native American tribes, in particular the Iroquois Confederation who, unlike nearly all other tribes, did side with the British in the French and Indian War. It particularly infuriated land investors such as Patrick Henry and George Washington – the latter, a surveyor by trade, founded the Mississippi Land Company in 1763 just before the Proclamation with the expectation of profits from investments in the Ohio River Valley, an expectation dashed by the Proclamation. Designs by Virginians on this region were not surprising given Virginia’s purported westward reach at that time (for a map, click HERE); even today, the Ohio River is the Western boundary of West Virginia. Washington recovered financially and at the time of his death was a very wealthy man.
Though the Royal Proclamation was flouted by colonists who continued to migrate west, it was the first in the series of proclamations and acts that finally outraged the colonists to the point of armed rebellion. Interestingly, in Canada the Royal Proclamation still forms the legal basis for the land rights of indigenous peoples. Doubtless, this has worked out better for both parties than the Discovery Doctrine which has been in force in the U.S. since independence – for details. click HERE .
The Proclamation was soon followed by the hated Stamp Act, which was a tax directly levied by the British government on colonists, as opposed to a tax coming from the governing body of a colony. This led to the Stamp Act Congress which was held in New York City in October 1765. It was attended by representatives from 9 colonies and famously published its Declaration of Rights and Grievances which included the key point “There should be no taxation without representation.” This rallying cry of the Americans goes back to the English Bill of Rights of 1689 which asserts that taxes can only be enacted by elected representatives: “levying taxes without grant of Parliament is illegal.”
Rumblings of discontent continued as the British Parliament and King continued to alienate the colonists.
In the spring of 1774, Parliament abrogated the Massachusetts Charter of 1691, which gave people a considerable say in their government. In September, things boiled over not in Boston, but in the humble town of Worcester. Militiamen took over the courts and in October at Town Meeting independence from Britain was declared. The Committees of Correspondence assumed authority. (For a most useful guide to the pronunciation of “Worcester” and other Massachusets place names, click HERE. By the way, the Worcester Art Museum is outstanding.)
From there, things moved quickly and not so quickly. While the push for independence was well advanced in Massachusetts, the delegates to the First Continental Congress in the fall of 1774 were not prepared to take that bold step: in a letter John Adams wrote “Absolute Independency … Startle[s] People here.” Most delegates attending the Philadelphia gathering, he warned, were horrified by “The Proposal of Setting up a new Form of Government of our own.”
But acts of insurrection continued. For example, in December 1774 in New Hampshire, activists raided Fort William and Mary, seizing powder and weaponry. Things escalated leading to an outright battle at Lexington and Concord in April, 1775.
Two years after the First Congress, at the Second Continental Congress, the delegates were ready to move in the direction of independence, convening in Philadelphia on May 10, 1776. In parallel, on June 12, 1776 at Williamsburg, the Virginia Constitutional Convention adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights which called for a break from the Crown and which famously begins with
Section 1. That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
This document was authored principally by George Mason, a planter and friend of George Washington. Meanwhile back in Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson (who would have been familiar with the Virginia Declaration) was charged by a committee with the task of putting together a statement presenting the views of the Second Continental Congress on the need for independence from the British. After some edits by Franklin and others, the committee brought forth the founding American document, The Declaration of Independence. The 2nd paragraph of which begins with that resounding universalist sentence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
And it continues
Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed
The ideas expressed in the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Declaration of Independence are radical and they had to have legitimacy. So, we are back to the original mystère, where did that legitimacy come from?
Clearly, phrases like “all men are by nature equally free and independent” and “all men are created equal” reverberate with an Iroquois, New World sensibility. Scholars also see here the hand of John Locke, most literally in the use of Locke’s phrase “the pursuit of Happiness”; they also see the influence of Locke in the phrase “consent of the governed” – the idea of popular sovereignty being a concept closely associated with social contract philosophers of the European Enlightenment such as Locke and Rousseau.
Others also see the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment, that intellectual flowering with giants like David Hume and Adam Smith. The thinkers whose work most directly influenced the Americans include Thomas Reid (“self-evident” is drawn from the writings of this founder of the Common Sense School of Scottish Philosophy) and Francis Hutchenson (“unalienable rights” is drawn from his work on natural rights – Hutchenson is also known for his impact on his student Adam Smith, who later held Hutchenson‘s Chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow). Still others hear echoes of Thomas Paine and the recently published Common Sense – that most vocal voice for independence.
Jefferson would have been familiar with the Scottish Enlightenment; he also would have read the work of Locke and, of course, Paine’s pamphlet. The same most probably applies to George Mason as well. In any case, the Declaration of Independence went through multiple drafts, was read and edited by others of the Second Continental Congress and eventually was approved by the Congress by vote; so it must also have reflected a generally shared sense of political justice.
On July 1, 1776, the Second Continental Congress did take that bold step and voted in favor of Richard Henry Lee’s motion for independence from Great Britain. On July 4th, they officially adopted the Declaration of Independence.
Having declared independence from the British Crown, the representatives at the Second Continental Congress now had to come up with a scheme to unify a collection of fiercely independent political entities. Where could they have turned for inspiration and example in a political landscape dominated by powerful monarchies? Mystère. More to come.