- Published: 08 January 2012
for Individual Liberty and for Independence
The key goals in America in 1776--for which the colonists had been gradually prepared to fight by their generations-long strivings governmentally and spiritually--were expressed in that period's popular slogan: "Liberty and Independence." This meant Individual Liberty--Freedom from Government-over-Man--and Independence from foreign rule. This slogan was later adopted as the motto on the seal of the State of Delaware.
In the pre-1776 years, the primary goal of most Americans was Individual Liberty--that is, Freedom of Man from Government-over-Man--not by occasional favor of King or Parliament but assured governmentally. They were determined, if possible, to attain this goal within the framework of the existing system--within the British Empire--but, if necessary, through America's Independence from foreign rule. Being thus determined to attain Liberty in any event, they were equally determined to attain it at all cost--if need be, in last resort, through gaining Independence by revolting against tyrannical rule by King and Parliament. Such exercise by an oppressed people of the right of revolution against tyrants would be, they were convinced, in keeping with the sound philosophy of government--the philosophy long propagated in America and, for some decades prior to 1776, most emphatically by leaders among the New England clergy.
The above-noted priority, of Liberty over Independence, in the minds of the American people and their leaders prior to 1776 was expressed in the closing words of an Address (to the American people) submitted to the Continental Congress on February 13, 1776 by James Wilson as follows: "That the Colonies may continue connected, as they have been, with Britain, is our second Wish: Our first is--THAT AMERICA MAY BE FREE." (Emphasis Wilson's)
This determination of most Americans, prior to 1776, to gain Individual Liberty at all cost needs to be kept in mind whenever attention is given to the fact that relatively few Americans were in this period openly devoting their activities to seeking revolution against British rule. Yet some leaders, notably those in Boston such as Samuel Adams, had long realized that Liberty could and would be gained in no way other than through revolution and America's Independence. It was not until late 1775 that a great many Americans, and not until early 1776 that a multitude of them, were compelled by events to give up hope of peaceable achievement of the goal of assured Liberty and became convinced of the need of, openly committed to, Revolution: the remedy of last resort. This is entirely understandable because of the dreadful risks involved not only for each Individual--including risk of Life and all else held dear--but also for the great Cause, due to the then poor prospect of ultimate victory against the massive armaments of the powerful British Empire. Some of the leaders argued up to the last moment for more time in which to work for a peaceable achievement of the desired goal.
The Declaration's principles meant that there was another revolt in 1776, in addition to the one against rule over America by Great Britain; that is, a revolt by Man against being governed and in favor of being self-governing. This was what might be called the Twin Revolution of 1776, though this formal date had been preceded by several years of steadily widening rebellion by the American people against royal tyranny--even by some actual fighting against the tyrant king's troops.
The core-concept of the philosophy of the American revolutionaries in 1776 was the product of the long and bitter experience, of the endless debating and thinking, of the American people in general as well as of their leaders. This core-concept was that there need not be, that in fact there is not, any Controlling Authority on earth to whom the people are justly answerable. That no such Authority exists, and no such pretended Authority should be tolerated, was their firm conviction. This was of the essence of the 1776 Declaration.
This fundamental truth--a basic element of the traditional American philosophy--was phrased by James Wilson during the debates in the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention as follows (his emphasis):
"The truth is, that, in our governments, the supreme, absolute, and uncontrollable power remains in the people. As our constitutions are superior to our legislatures, so the people are superior to our constitutions."
Otherwise stated, from the standpoint of the Natural Law upon which the American philosophy rests, according to the thinking of The Founders: the pretense that an absolute, irresistible, despotic power exists in every government somewhere, is incompatible with the first principle of Natural Right. (Note again J. Q. Adams' quotation page 74, ante.) It was merely a sound rephrasing of this traditional, American principle which was included in the Bill of Rights of the 1850 Constitution of Kentucky in words reminiscent of 1776:
"Sec. 2. That absolute, arbitrary power over the lives, liberty, and property of freemen exists nowhere in a republic, not even in the largest majority."
The proclamation of the unprecedented principles in 1776, as the basis of the American people's philosophy and system of self-government, was the greatest act of faith in Man's spirit and mind in all history. It shocked and shook the world and continues to do so to this day. Witness the current upheavals globally among peoples, whose surge toward freedom from colonialism's chains--always so degrading and oppressive, however disguised and however allegedly beneficial or superficially "benevolent"--has convulsed the mid-20th century.