In the very first history of the American Revolution, published in 1789, David Ramsay wrote:
“In establishing American independence, the pen and the press had merit equal to that of the sword. As the war was the people’s war, and was carried on without funds, the exertions of the army would have been insufficient to effect the revolution, unless the great body of the people had been prepared for it, and also kept in a constant disposition to oppose Great Britain. To rouse and unite the inhabitants, and to persuade them to patience for several years, under present sufferings, with the hope of obtaining remote advantages for their posterity, was a work of difficulty: This was effected in a great measure by the tongues and pens of the well informed citizens, and on it depended the success of military operations.”
That this should be disputed—especially given the mass of extant pamphlets, speeches, lectures, sermons, and books defending the American cause—seems somewhat absurd. And, yet, for nearly a century, historians and political scientists have searched relentlessly for deep economic and structural causes of the war for independence.
In the end, it came down to two very simple things. 1) Ideas matter. 2) Real men defend their most cherished beliefs, even if it meant (or means; this is a timeless truth) to the death.
The great Calvinist pastor and patriarch of Lexington, Massachusetts, Jonas Clarke, said as early as 1765:
“And it is a truth, which the history of the ages and the common experiences of mankind have fully confirmed, that a people can never be divested of those invaluable rights and liberties which are necessary to the happiness of individuals, to the well-being of communities or to a well regulated state, but by their own negligence, imprudence, timidity or rashness. They are seldom lost, but when foolishly or tamely resigned.”
John Dickinson made a similar call to arms in his Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer, 1768:
Some states have lost their liberty by particular accidents: But this calamity is generally owing to the decay of virtue. A people is travelling fast to destruction, when individuals consider their interests as distinct from those of the public. Such notions are fatal to their country, and to themselves…..Let us consider ourselves as MEN—FREEMEN—CHRISTIAN FREEMEN—separated from the rest of the world, and firmly bound together by the same rights, interests and dangers. Let these keep our attention inflexibly fixed on the GREAT OBJECTS, which we must CONTINUALLY REGARD, in order to preserve those rights, to promote those interests, and to avert those dangers. Let these truths be indelibly impressed on our minds—that we cannot be HAPPY, without being FREE—that we cannot be free, without being secure in our property.
Prior to Tom Paine’s Common Sense, no words by a contemporary influenced average American colonists more. The letters spread widely and wildly throughout the English North American colonies.
As historian Bernard Knollenberg explained, it would be hard if not nearly impossible to exaggerate the importance of these letters for unifying the colonies around a common theme. As one royal governor wrote: the letters are “artfully wrote and…Universally circulated should receive no Refutation….It will become a Bill of Rights of the Opinion of the Americans.”
Even Parliament offered no real refutation; nor did any English writer. The letters stood.
As one historian, the great Forrest McDonald, has written of these:
Their impact and their circulation were unapproached by any publication of the revolutionary period except Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (Indeed, because they were a crucial step toward transforming the mass circulation pamphlet into the soberest forum for debating public issues, they helped make Common Sense possible). They were quickly reprinted in newspapers all over the colonies, and published in pamphlet form in Philadelphia (three editions), Boston (two editions), New York, Williamsburg, London, Paris, and Dublin. Immediately, everyone took Dickinson’s argument into account: Americans in assemblies town meetings, and mass meetings adopted revolutions of thanks; British ministers wrung their hands; all the British press commented, and a portion o fit applauded; Irish malcontents read avidly; even the dilettantes of the Paris salons discussed the Pennsylvania Farmer.
John Dickinson concluded with an ominous note of brilliance. “Let us take care of our rights, and we therein take care of our prosperity. ‘SLAVERY IS EVER PRECEDED BY SLEEP.’”
It’s worth repeating. Slavery is ever preceded by sleep.
By the Numbers
Of all scholars, Donald S. Lutz has done the best work on the intellectual influences on the Founding of America. Period. Indeed, his work is simply outstanding: hard, complicated, tenacious–all performed and executed with excellence. Here are his results:
SOURCE 1760s 70s 80s 90s 00s TOTAL
Bible 24 44 34 29 38 34%
Enlightenment 32 18 24 21 18 22%
Whig 10 20 19 17 15 18%
Common Law 12 4 9 14 20 11%
Classical/Antiquity 8 11 10 11 2 9%
Peers 6 2 3 6 5 4%
Other 8 1 1 2 2 2%
36 Most Cited Authors by Founders, during Founding Period
1. St. Paul
3. Sir William Blackstone
4. John Locke
5. David Hume
7. Cesare Beccaria
8. John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon
10. Samuel Pufendorf
11. Sir Edward Coke
13. Thomas Hobbes
14. William Robertson
15. Hugo Grotius
16. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
17. Lord Bolingbroke
18. Francis Bacon
19. Richard Price
20. William Shakespeare
22. Alexander Pope
23. John Milton
26. Abbe Guillaume Raynal
27. Abbe Gabriel Mably
28. Niccolo Machiavelli
29. Emmerich de Vattel
30. William Petyt
32. John Robinson
33. Algernon Sidney
34. John Somers
35. James Harrington
36. Paul de Rapin-Thoyras
In his 1988, The Origins of American Constitutionalism, Lutz sums up his argument, following painstaking research.
Unlike political philosophers’ treatises, which can contain hidden or esoteric meanings, public documents that are the basis for common commitments must, under close textual analysis, be read for surface meaning. If the meaning is not apparent to the average reader, then the document does not perform the function for which it was written. Those writing political tracts must be well aware of their audience. Novelty is acceptable only if its basis is already understood and approved. The rhetoric and symbols in the document must be familiar and widely shared. Therefore we would not likely accept interpretations of the Declaration that would differ from how it was generally read at first.
The Bible, Lutz argues, provided the foundational work of thought–a touchstone and fountainhead, if you will–more important, by far, to the founding generation of Americans than almost anything else. The bible’s influence was so pervasive that no other single work come even close in terms of influence. Between 1760 and 1805, the years Lutz covered, “the biblical tradition accounted for roughly one-third of all significant secular publications.”
The influence of ministers, though, reached its height in the 1770s, during the thick of war. Still, their reach was considerable. Roughly four out of every five “political pamphlets published during the 1770s were reprinted sermons.”
Non-biblical European and western thought accounted for much of the influence on the founding generation, especially the ideas and works of John Locke and Baron Montesquieu. “Locke’s rate of citation, which during the 1760s and 1770s was the highest for any secular writer, fell of drastically and did not recover.” Simply put, Locke had nothing useful to write when dealing with the formation of a government, only its destruction. “Finding him [Locke] hidden in passage of the U.S. Constitution is an exercise that requires more evidence than has hitherto provided,” Lutz concludes. Of the non-biblical European influences on the founding generation, the most important were in order (over the 45 year period, 1760-1805): Montesquieu, Blackstone, Locke, and David Hume.
One school of thought often ignored by professional historians is that of the Commonwealth Men. These were mostly non-Puritans who were coming to grips with the events of the 17th century in England: the Civil War, the brief and intolerable Republic, the Restoration, and the Glorious Revolution.
Certainly the Commonwealth Men were never totally unified, and they always represented a very small minority of English. But, all were men of letters, and they published frequently. So, importantly, their legacy lived well beyond their lives.
They went by different names: Real Whigs, True Whigs, Commonwealth Men. The label “republican,” though accurate, would prove too radical, as it might seem treasonous to their fellow English. In England, especially after Cromwell, “republican” had come to mean “anti-monarchical.”
Most Commonwealth Men, though, were not anti-monarchical. They simply desired to keep the monarch in check and the government in balance.
As Caroline Robbins, the historian and sister of Lord Lionel Robbins, argued, December 1693 (publication of Robert Molesworth’s Account of Denmark) and 1723 (the publication of the final letter of Cato) marked the time period of their greatest influence.
Publish, they did. In essence, these varied men created a small republic of letters, as they constantly challenged one another privately and publicly. They also debated and talked publicly, especially in clubs and taverns.
Their books and essays were printed over and over again in the colonies, and their ideas appeared in sermons, newspapers, and political pamplets throughout the 18th century in America.
From the American viewpoint, there existed, at least by common consent, a canon of thinkers in the Commonwealth Men pantheon: James Harrington; Marchamont Needham; John Milton; Algernon Sidney; Henry Neville; and John Locke. Later Commonwealth Men and Americans tried to reconcile the often disparate ideas of these thinkers, but they also tried to make the thought, often radical and secular, palatable for a very Protestant audience.
Perhaps, first and foremost, the Commonwealth Men and their followers saw much to be gleaned from history and experience. From history, and really from history alone, could one find claims, etc., against present power-holders.
As the American historian, Trevor Colbourn, has written:
The historical whigs were writers seeking to support Parliamentary claims and by asserting that their political ambitions had solid foundation in ancient customs. They presented an idealized version of an Anglo-Saxon democracy, which they usually found overturned by Norman treachery and feudalism.
For the Commonwealthmen,
all the past was a storehouse, not of mere example, but of authoritative precedents. This was the heritage of the eighteenth-century American colonist, raised and educated to think of himself as an Englishman, and eager to learn his history.
From the ancient world, the Commonwealth Men especially drew from Tacitus. In the Germania, for example, Tacitus presented the idea that the “witan” would be the forerunner to Parliament. Again, from Colbourn’s 1965 Lamp of Experience (an absolute “must own” for anyone interested in the American Revolution):
Tacitus described how the Saxons chose their kings and generals, how they restricted the authority of those they set up to rule, how frequent assemblies were held for discussion of tribal affairs. ‘About matters of higher consequence,’ Tacitus wrote, ‘the whole nation deliberates,’ and at regular intervals there were conventions in which the people drafted their own laws.
Closely following Tacitus, at least in the minds of the Commonwealth Men, stood Polybius, Virgil, Cicero, Livy, and, more recently and more English, King Alfred. “For the whig historians,” Colbourn wrote,
The nemesis of Saxon liberties was feudalism, generally held to have been introduced into England by William ‘the accursed Norman’ in 1066. Hence the idea of a ‘Norman Yoke.” The conquest deprived Englishmen of their liberty, established the tyranny of an alien king and landlords, and replaced the Saxon militia of Alfred’s time with the odious form of holding land of the King in return for military service.
The Magna Carta of 1215, in the Whig mind, especially reaffirmed the ancient, pre-Norman traditions of liberty and common law in the western, classical, and Anglo-Saxon tradition.
Overall, the Commonwealth Men embraced five major ideas as true.
1. Natural Rights–but existed a serious divide among the Commonwealth Men: whether natural rights were universal or only for Englishmen. But, all agreed that Englishmen had natural rights–and these applied equally to those who lived at home or abroad in the colonies.
2. Reform would almost always prove better than revolution, as revolution tends to destroy too much of the past. Instead, the duty of a real Englishman was to preserve, purify, and augment the checks and balances of the Constitution.
3. The Commonwealth Men embraced the “Gothic” constitution of England, believing it to be, in Hayek’s understanding, a part of the common law, evolutionary, and non-systematic. Men discovered (importantly, did NOT create) it through history and through trial and error.
As one historian (legal scholar and The Imaginative Conservative contributor), Bruce Frohnen, has argued: Englishmen “sought to maintain a political structure based on local rule and providing only limited, derivative authority to central political institutions. The freedom of local communities to arrange their lives in common with relatively little interference from the central government was considered crucial, important enough to spark rebellion when violated by either King or Parliament. Historically, rebellions tended to succeed more often in England than on the continent. A principal reason for this relative success was the traditional strength of English localities. Many of the common law rights Englishmen held dear belonged, not to individuals, but to corporations, towns, and counties. Local charters (including colonial charters in America) were considered sacred by the English.”
4. Believed greatly in individual liberty and dignity, especially in matters of conscience. This included religious tolerance for “Jews, Atheists, Unitarians, and Mohammedans.” But, only for “well-behaved Catholics,” as Robbins has argued. While certainly not believing in radical equality, the Commonwealth Men argued for “the equality of man before God.”
5. Only virtue would allow a society to survive. Drawing heavily upon the thought and history of Livy, the Commonwealth Men believed that luxury led to self-absorption, pursuit of self-interest and effeminated men.
The Legacy of the Commonwealth Men
Though 19th century “radicals” (a term first used in English in 1819) and utilitarians would call upon the Commonwealth Men as ancestors, this is false. The Commonwealth Men rejected utilitarian notions (despite bringing in aspects of Locke), and they believed in fundamental reform and purification of the constitution rather than the overthrow of the existing order.
The American patriots, in fact, have the best claim to the legacy of the Commonwealth Men, but they ultimately, of course, decided on revolution, something the Commonwealth Men would have rejected as simply too dangerous for any society.
To give the last word to Caroline Robbins:
In the constitutions of the several United States many of the ideas of the Real Whigs found practical expression. A supreme court, rotation of office, a separation of powers, and a complete independence from each other of church and state fulfilled many a so-called utopian dream. The endless opportunities of the new World brought about a considerable degree of social equality, if not an equality stabilized by agrarian law. The democratical element in the state was much extended. Neither in the New nor the Old World was the widely held ideal of a partyless government achieved. In the new republic of the West nearly all the other aspirations of the classical republicans or Real Whigs found a measure of fulfillment which would have astounded and delighted them could they have lived to see this.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.