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What Is America?

“Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.” – Thomas Paine

In his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, historian Bernard Bailyn collects the writings of American colonists, often published in the form of pamphlets, to understand the American psyche during the time of the Revolution. Most of the pamphlets he examined were published between 1750 and 1775, the start of the American War of Independence. 

He analyzes these documents to uncover what he calls “the ‘great hinterland’ of belief” in the English North American colonies, or the “notions which men often saw little need to explain because they were so obvious.” It is from this book that most of what follows is derived. I’ve also leaned on John C. Miller’s , Origins of the American Revolution, for further insights into the American mind. 

The American Revolution was not the War of Independence. The latter was merely a consequence of the Revolution. So what was the Revolution? According to John Adams in an 1815 letter to Thomas Jefferson, the Revolution “was in the minds of the people” and persisted for fifteen years from 1760 to 1775 before the first blood was shed at Lexington. 

“The records of thirteen legislatures, the pamphlets, newspapers in all the colonies, ought to be consulted during that period to ascertain the steps by which the public opinion was enlightened and informed concerning the authority of Parliament over the colonies,” wrote Adams. 

In the essay called Cato’s Letters, authors John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon (who wrote under the pseudonym Cato in reference to the conservative Roman senator who had lived from 95-46 BC) warned repeatedly that “public corruptions and abuses have grown upon us; fees in most, if not all, offices, are immensely increased; places and employments, which ought not to be sold at all, are sold for treble value; the necessities of the public have made greater impositions unavoidable, and yet the public has run very much in debt; and as those debts have been increasing, and the people growing poor, salaries have been augmented, and pensions multiplied.” 

Colonists had begun to see their ministers as “wicked” and “desperate,” intent on ruining and enslaving their country. While in Europe, liberty had been granted by power, in the American mind, power had been granted by liberty.

As James Madison penned in 1792: “We look back, already, with astonishment, at the daring outrages committed by despotism, on the reason and the rights of man; We look forward with joy, to the period, when it shall be despoiled of all its usurpations, and bound for ever in the chains, with which it had loaded its miserable victims.”

Jonathan Mayhew saw power as of a “grasping, encroaching nature.” “… If at first it meets with no control [it] creeps by degrees and quick subdues the whole.” And, alternatively, power “is like the ocean, not easily admitting limits to be fixed in it.”

While at other times it is “like a cancer, it eats faster and faster every hour.” Power is “restless, aspiring, and insatiable” and like “jaws … always opened to devour.” The writers at the time of the Revolution saw power as everywhere in public life, threatening, pushing, and grasping; and too often in the end it destroys its benign victim.

Power was a constant theme in the pre-1776 colonies. As Jonathan Mayhew wrote, “It aims at extending itself and operating according to mere will wherever it meets with no balance, check, control, or opposition of any kind.” 

And, as the Newport Mercury published in July 1764: “Power is like avarice, its desire increases by gratification.”  Such discussions of power appear across the political literature of seventeenth to  mid eighteenth-century. The Boston Gazette and County Journal in 1756 printed a discourse on power and liberty. The New York Mercury in October 1753 printed an essay on balance in government “as the firmest barrier against unlimited power … our whole constitution, so nicely poised between too much power and too much liberty.” 

In a speech in the year 1741, John Wright, quoting a law professor, said that power “may justly be compared to a great river, with, while kept within due bounds, is both beautiful and useful, but when it overflows its banks … brings destruction and desolation where it comes.”

The nature of power seems to be a continuous theme in Cato’s Letters, as the authors wrote: “Unlimited power is so wild and monstrous a thing that however natural it be to desire it, it is as natural to oppose it; nor ought it to be trusted with any mortal man, be his intentions ever so upright … It is the nature of power to be ever encroaching.”

Cato’s Letters quote Cornish churchman Humphrey Prideaux’s doubt “whether the benefit which the world receives from government be sufficient to make amends for the calamities which it suffers from the follies, mistakes, and maladministration of those that manage it.”

In his Second Treatise of Government, John Locke, who in the same text outlined his view of property as “life, liberty, and estate, wrote on the natural state of nature: 

To properly understand political power and trace its origins, we must consider the state that all people are in naturally. That is a state of perfect freedom of acting and disposing of their own possessions and persons as they think fit within the bounds of the law of nature. People in this state do not have to ask permission to act or depend on the will of others to arrange matters on their behalf. The natural state is also one of equality in which all power and jurisdiction is reciprocal and no one has more than another. It is evident that all human beings—as creatures belonging to the same species and rank and born indiscriminately with all the same natural advantages and faculties—are equal amongst themselves. They have no relationship of subordination or subjection unless God (the lord and master of them all) had clearly set one person above another and conferred on him an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.

John Adams saw liberty as always weak and always defensive, “skulking about in comers … hunted and persecuted in all countries by cruel power.” 

The writers of pre-Independence colonies reiterated routinely the inability of mankind to withstand the temptations of power. So is “the depravity of mankind,” said Samuel Adams while speaking for the Boston Town Meeting, adding “that ambition and lust of power above the law are…predominant passions in the breasts of most men.” These instincts have “in all nations combined the worst passions of the human heart and the worst projects of the human mind in league against the liberties of mankind.” 

Power corrupted men, rendering “a good man in private life to a tyrant in office.” It is like alcohol, “know to be intoxicating in its nature”––”too intoxicating and liable to abuse.” Not even “the united considerations of reason and religion,” have historically “been sufficiently powerful to restrain these lusts of men,” Sermon Eliot put it. 

In a 1772 pamphlet out of Boston, it was written: “…mankind are generally so fond of power that they are oftener tempted to exercise it beyond the limits of justice than induced to set bounds to it from the pure consideration of the rectitude of forbearance.” 

Further explicating upon human nature, which had tirelessly held the attention of pre-Independence thinkers, a writer in the New York Mercury in 1755 penned: “A lust of domination is more or less natural to all parties; and hence the stupidity of entrusting any set of people with more power than necessity requires. Ambition and a thirst for sway are so deeply implanted in the human mind that one degree of elevation serves only as a step by which to ascend the next; nor can they ever mount the ladder so high as not to find the top still equally remote.” 

Similar writings appear in Cato’s Letters, as well as later English radicals, such as Catharine Macaulay, who, in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, published in London, wrote in 1770: “All systematical writers on the side of freedom plan their forms and rules of government on the just grounds of the known corruption and wickedness of the human character.”

Josiah Quincy wrote that power “in proportion to its extent is ever prone to wantonness,” and analyzed that “the supreme power is ever possessed by those who have arms in their hands and are disciplined to the use of them.”  Indeed, the colonists were obsessed with standing armies, for the supremacy of a “veteran army” posed an absolute danger to liberty by making “the civil subordinate to the military,” wrote Quincy. 

In 1697’s An Argument, Shewing, that a Standing Army Is Inconsistent with a Free Government, Trenchard was in agreement with colonists on the matter that “unhappy nations have lost that precious jewel liberty . . . [because] their necessities or indiscretion have permitted a standing army to be kept amongst them.” There could exist no “worse state of thraldom than a military power in any government, unchecked and uncontrolled by the civil power.” 

In J.G.A Pocock’s, “Machiavelli, Harrington, and English Political Ideologies in the Eighteenth Century,” who in 1675 put forth the argument that, by the close of the seventeenth century, standing armies were instruments of fear designed to ensure the “systematic corruption of Parliament by the administration and hence of the overthrow of the balanced constitution.”

The colonists concurred, and Simon Howard defined a standing army as “a number of men paid by the public to devote themselves wholly to the military profession,” who, though “really servants of the people and paid by them,” in reality view themselves as the King’s men, and thus “the means, in the hands of a wicked and oppressive sovereign, of overturning the constitution of a country and establishing the most intolerable despotism”

The evolution of the constitution can be tracked through the writing of the colonists. In their minds, the word “constitution” did not refer to a written document, but, rather, the government’s design and the rights beyond the power of legislation to change. The constitution referred to the existing design of government––its institutions, laws, and customs––combined with the principles and goals that gave them life. 

John Adams penned that a political constitution is akin to “the constitution of the human body”; “certain contextures of the nerves, fibres, and muscles, or certain qualities of the blood and juices” some of which “may properly be called stamina vitae, or essentials and fundamentals of the constitution; parts without which life itself cannot be preserved a moment.”

Adams wrote that a government’s constitution is “a frame, a scheme, a system, a combination of powers for a certain end, namely,—the good of the whole community.”

The concept of a constitution as the existing arrangement of laws and practices of government exists in the literature of the early seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1748, the Maryland Gazette published essays outlining the idea that parliaments “are the very constitution itself,” and that “our constitution is at present but in a series of alterations made by the Parliament,” dismissing the idea that “the Parliament cannot alter the constitution”

Henry St. John Bolingbroke insisted the constitution was immutable, subjecting even kings to their declarations. Obedience could only be expected insofar as magistrates conformed to the constitution. He did, however, defined the constitution as “that assemble of laws, institutions, and customs, derived from certain fixed principles of reason, directed to certain fixed objects of public good, that compose the general system according to which the community hath agreed to be governed.”

Adams described a constitution as a “natural or political body . . . composed of springs, wheels, and ligaments,” and of the “stamina, first principles, or original constitution,” as outlined in Cato’s Letters

Tied to the preservation of this balance of forces was the political liberty of the nation, which is distinguished from theoretical liberty encompassed by being in a state of pure nature. Political liberty was considered to be “a natural power of doing or not doing whatever we have a mind” so long as the actions were “consistent with the rules of virtue and the established laws of the society to which we belong.” 

Political liberty was “a power of acting agreeable to the laws which are made and enacted by the consent of the PEOPLE, and in no ways inconsistent with the natural rights of a single person, or the good of the society.” 

Liberty represented the capacity to exercise “natural rights” within limits set not by men but by non-arbitrary laws enacted by legislatures designed in the vision of a proper balance of forces. 

John Dickinson stated that rights “are created in us by the decrees of Providence, which establish the laws of our nature. They are born with us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power without taking our lives. In short, they are founded on the immutable maxims of reason and justice.”

In what’s considered to be the most influential pamphlet published in America before 1776, Dickinson wrote that “Nothing is wanted at home but a PRECEDENT, the force of which shall be established by the tacit submission of the colonies . . . If the Parliament succeeds in this attempt, other statutes will impose other duties . . . and thus the Parliament will levy upon us such sums of money as they choose to take, without any other LIMITATION than their PLEASURE.” 

Dickinson also wrote: “Who are a free people? Not those over whom government is reasonably and equitably exercised but those who live under a government so constitutionally checked and controlled that proper provision is made against its being otherwise exercised.” 

As early as 1768, a rumor circulated that the salaries of the colonial judges would be “appointed for them by the crown, independent of the people.” The Boston Town Meeting said this would “complete our slavery,” for “if taxes are to be raised from us by the Parliament of Great Britain without our consent, and the men on whose opinions and decisions our properties, liberties, and lives in a great measure depend receive their support from the revenues arising from these taxes, we cannot, when we think of the depravity of mankind, avoid looking with horror on the danger to which we are exposed!”

The Boston Massacre happened a few weeks later in March 1770, in which British soldiers shot and killed Bostonians. Patriots such as Paul Revere and Sam Adams publicized the event. By 1773, Sam Adams argued in Boston that Americans  had no need for constitutional arguments: “All men have a natural right to change a bad constitution for a better whenever they have it in their power.” 

Any doubt among the colonists that the troops stationed in Boston represented a standing army designed to strike fear into the populace so they would comply with tyrannical wills nearly vanished thereafter. As Eliot wrote to Hollis, the Boston Massacre “serves to show the impossibility of our living in peace with a standing army. A free people will sometimes carry things too far, but this remedy will always be found worse than the disease. Trenchard’s History of Standing Armies, with which you formerly obliged me, is excellent . . . Unless there is some great alteration in the state of things the era of the independence of the colonies is much nearer than I once thought it, or now wish it.”

An assault upon the liberty of the colonists had commenced. Unconstitutional taxes, a standing army, infiltration of placemen, a compromised judiciary, and standing armies all demonstrated power assaulted liberty. The passage of the Tea Act and the Tea Party in Boston in 1773 was a turning point. The powers that be in England ditched legal pretense––as John Adams said, they “threw off the mask”––had moved into a phase of taking the colonies over. 

Over just two months during the spring of 1774, Parliament embarked upon numerous coercive measures the liberty-loving people of the colonies would ultimately not tolerate. There was the Boston Port Act, which sought to stymy the economic life in the Massachusetts metropolis. One goal of the Declaration of Independence would be free trade with the world. 

And then, the Administration of Justice Act crippled permitted trials to be held in England for offenses committed in Massachusetts; the Massachusetts Government Act stripped the people of Massachusetts the protection of the British constitution, handing over all the “democratic” elements of the province’s government, including popularly elected juries and town meeting, to the executive power; and, the Quartering Act, implemented throughout the colonies, permitting the seizure for the use of troops of all buildings, public and private, deserted and occupied.

Revolutionary leaders had no doubt that “a settled, fixed plan for enslaving the colonies, or bringing them under arbitrary government, and indeed the nation too” was now certainly afoot. 

By 1774, the notion “that the British government—the King, Lords, and Commons— have laid a regular plan to enslave America, and that they arc now deliberately putting it in execution” had solidified, and Samuel Seabury this was being done “over, and over, and over again.”

Of the utmost importance to the colonists was the ministerial conspiracy against liberty, which, in their minds, resulted from corruption. “[S]tand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression,” proclaimed Paine. “Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”

In Common Sense, anonymously published in January 1776, Paine outlined his view of the king: 

In England a king hath little more to do than to make war and give away places; which in plain terms, is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears. A pretty business indeed for a man to be allowed eight hundred thousand sterling a year for, and worshipped into the bargain! Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.

In the pamphlet, which placed the issue of Independence squarely at the feet of the American people, Paine also outlined his thoughts on religious freedom: 

“For myself, I fully and conscientiously believe, that it is the will of the Almighty, that there should be diversity of religious opinions among us: It affords a larger field for our Christian kindness. Were we all of one way of thinking, our religious dispositions would want matter for probation; and on this liberal principle, I look on the various denominations among us, to be like children of the same family, differing only, in what is called, their Christian names.”

The American cause, detailed Samuel Williams in A Discourse on the Love of Our Country, was no “cause of a mob, of a party, or a faction.” Rather, the cause of America “is the cause of self-defense, of public faith, and of the liberties of mankind . . . ‘In our destruction, liberty itself expires, and human nature will despair of evermore regaining its first and original dignity.'”

As Adams hammered home in a letter to Hezekiah Niles in 1818, “The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations . . . This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.”

Charles Inglis demanded to know in his triggered reply to Common Sense:  “What is the constitution…that word so often used—so little understood—so much perverted? It is, as I conceive—that assemblage of laws, customs, and institutions which form the general system according to which the several powers of the state are distributed and their respective rights are secured to the different members of the community.” For him, it was still, as John Adams described ten years prior, “a frame, a scheme, a system, a combination of powers.” 

Benjamin Rush wrote in 1787 about how, although the war is over, the American Revolution was not. “On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government, and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens for these forms of government after they are established and brought to perfection.”