In a time when virtually the entire world lived under the rule of kings and queens, a group of men living in a far-flung colonial possession made a political statement that shook the established order of things to its foundations. They declared thus,
“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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
“All Men Are Created Equal”
This statement turned the notion of where political rights resided upside down. Under the monarchies, the king or queen was selected to rule by God, not by his subjects. This was known as the Divine Right of Kings. Your ruler has been given his throne by God; all political rights were resident in him. Your king might lend his people some rights and privileges so they could do things for him, but he owned you outright. Your life, property, and every morsel of food you put in your mouth belonged to him. And he could end your life with just his signature on a piece of paper.
To oppose such a ruler was to break with and oppose God Himself. So rebellion was the worst political, social, and religious crime you could commit. Not only would you be excommunicated from your religion, but you would also lose your head. You would not just die, but die forsaken by God. This represented two deaths: one physical and the other spiritual. Your soul would be cast into Hell.
That was a pretty strong incentive to just go along with the established order. But not to the men who began our Revolution. They correctly reasoned that all political rights resided in the individual. Individuals then loaned some of their rights to a government empowered to use the loaned and limited power to protect the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of the People. It was not the People who were the servants of the State; but the State that was the servant of the People. That was and remains even today a revolutionary and totally unique political philosophy.
“A Revolution by the Wealthy and Privileged”
Our Revolution was truly revolutionary in another respect. It was a revolution by the wealthy and privileged, not the starving poor with nothing left to lose. Men like Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Madison, Dickenson, Romney and the other Founding Fathers mostly represented the wealthy privileged class of American Colonists. They enjoyed just about all of the benefits that serving the king could bestow but found that without freedom and liberty a full belly and a life of material ease was worthless. In 1776, these men anticipated and rejected the promise of socialist governments that came more than 200 years later which also offer a measure of material prosperity in exchange for individuals surrendering all political rights to the state.
By the end of the Revolutionary War, many of these men would find their fortunes destroyed. But they attained their freedom and made us a new country too.
“The Father of Our Country”
At the end of the American Revolution, George Washington was not only the most popular man in America but was also marching at the head of a victorious army. Washington could have had his own army proclaim him King George I of America and there is nothing the Continental Congress could have done to prevent it. Who knows how powerful that temptation might have been to Washington, but what he did was quite extraordinary. At the very height of his popularity and power, when he held the fate of America directly in his hands, Washington came before the Continental Congress, resigned his commission, and returned to his farm in Virginia a private citizen.
The symbolism of Washington laying his sword at the feet of the legislature established for our country a powerful precedent: that civilian-led government would always have control over the military. It is for this reason that George Washington is called the “Father of his country.”
Most of the American Revolutionaries Died in Bed of Old Age
This is pretty extraordinary because the history of rebellions and revolutions is pretty dark. Time after time, the animating principles that cause revolutions are lost at the moment the people overthrow their old masters and the liberators become the enslavers. Marxist revolutions are pretty famous for this. Once they seize all the power of the state, the authoritarians among them engage in a violent internal purge of their own supporters to consolidate their own power. After our War of Independence, there was no internal purge. Rather, the founders worked together to create a new Republic for America.
So, unlike so many revolutionaries that ended up being shot or hung by their own comrades in a power struggle, our Founding Fathers mostly died in bed of old age peacefully. They all left behind an extensive written record of what they did and why they did it for future generations to study and learn from. This written record was in George Washington’s mind when he wrote,
“A primary object should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing than communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”
We learn that the Declaration of Independence expressed the political philosophy of the Revolutionaries which then became a system of government under the Articles of Confederation, then our Constitution, and the Bill of Rights added to it.
These revolutionary views about the Rights of Man and the limits of government may be the thing that makes Americans truly American. One could move to a country like France, China, Japan, or Germany, learn their language, customs, and forms of government, and even become a citizen. But you will never be accepted as truly French, Chinese, Japanese, or German unless you are born there and come from native stock. America isn’t like that at all.
Tens of millions of Americans have come here from every corner of the planet to find that their adoption of the principles expressed in the Consitution is all that is needed to claim true citizenship here. But we will not tolerate those who come here and maintain political allegiance to ideas that are alien and foreign to our Founding Principles. Being American is more about the ideas you believe in and not your race or where you were born. After the Civil War, Confederate General Robert E. Lee seemed to express this idea in replying to a letter from a bitter widow of a Confederate soldier. Rather than urging her to cling to the treasonous political ideas of the Confederacy, he wrote to her, “Dismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring [your children] up to be Americans.”
Being an American Is More About What You Believe in
What makes American citizenship almost unique and revolutionary today is that our oath of citizenship asks that you give allegiance to the ideas expressed in the Constitution and to the rule of law:
“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
Focus on this sentence: “I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” It does not call on the citizen to defend the government, but the ideals that it operates under. Should our government no longer operate under the Constitution, it requires the citizen to defend the document and laws that emanate from it, even, and especially, against a government that tries to overthrow them. This was what the Civil War was about: a fight against states that overthrew the Constitution and the laws of the United States to maintain the enslavement of human beings.
And why did we even choose a republican form of government at all, instead of direct democracy? Our Founders studied these forms of government, especially as they were practiced by the Greeks and Romans. They found that a direct democracy offered the danger of a “tyranny of the majority,” wherein 51 percent of the voters could impose anything they wished on the minority. Such a system really only protected the rights of that 51 percent, at the direct expense of the 49.
But in a republic, the rights of all could be protected. Not even the government could deprive the citizens of their rights. A number of the constitutions in the world today express a sense of negative freedom to their citizens. Our own Constitution is revolutionary in that it expresses positive freedom by saying, “Unless it’s expressly forbidden by law, then it is permitted.” Our Constitution goes even further in that it exists to tell the government what it is allowed to do and where its limits are.
The revolutionary spirit of Americans is still evident today as most of our political controversies involve our opposition to what government tries to do for us and whether it has the constitutional authority to do so.
So Happy Independence Day, America, and here’s to current-day American Revolutionaries sticking to the Constitutional principles that made our revolution in 1776 a beacon for the world.