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For many in the American colonies, it was an open question: Should you favor independence, are you also willing to surrender your lives, your honor, and your sacred fortunes?
One of my greatest duties at Hillsdale College is teaching an upper-level course entitled Founding of the American Republic. My colleague, David Raney, and I share these glorious duties. And, one of my greatest privileges in teaching this class is getting to talk about historians I deeply admire who have also written about the Founding, such as Mercy Otis Warren, Trevor Colbourn, Caroline Robbins, Russell Kirk, Forrest McDonald, Paul Rahe, J.C.D. Clark, Kevin Gutzman, and a number of others. Of all of these authors, one of my favorites is Pauline Maier (1938-2013), and I especially admire her 1996 masterpiece, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, I wish I had reached out to her when she was alive and corresponded with her. There’s something quite beautiful in her research and writing that, I assume, rather wonderful reflects the soul of the author. For example, at the beginning of American Scripture, she gives us great detail about her standing in line to see the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta as sacred documents. While in line, she overheard another family talk about the influence of George Washington on the Declaration. Should she, or should she not, she wonders, burst their bubble and interfere with their historically-oriented vacation. As far as we know, Maier restrained herself! And, for this, I admire her even more.
Though her book is a must-read for any student of the American founding (meaning, every American!), there are parts of this excellent work that are better than others. (Of course, we’re talking about excellence versus excellence-plus here.) In American Scripture, Maier notes that there were at least 80 declarations of independence long before our national American Declaration of Independence. To understand these more local declarations, we have to place ourselves in a colonial and revolutionary mindset. English tradition—especially as understood by such wonderful scholars as Bruce Frohnen—often reflected the most local and particular of communities. London Town, for instance, might very well have rights and duties particular to it and not to East London. In the same way, one might very well understand the common law of Boston as something slightly different than the common law of Braintree (home of John Adams). Regardless, each locality and particular interest—at least in the British tradition of localities and particularities—had the right to assemble and to petition (now, guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution).
And, here, we arrive back at Maier’s outstanding book. Prior to the writing, passage (July 4, 1776), and signing (August 2, 1776) of the American Declaration of Independence, there were—as stated above—at the very least 80 separate declarations of independence. These came from New England townships, from Virginia counties, from groups of artisans and militias (especially, it seems, Pennsylvania militias and the New York Mechanics), from Grand Juries, and from the various colonies. The first one, it seems, came from North Carolina (though, of course, it’s worth remembering that John Adams had called for independence as early as 1765), April 12, 1776. Regardless, when the U.S. Congress declared independence, it was, at best, playing catch-up with the localities and communities of America.
For many in the American colonies, it was an open question: Should you favor independence, are you also willing to surrender your lives, your honor, and your sacred fortunes? On May 10, 1776, for example, the full assembly of Massachusetts asked its townships “in full Meeting warned for that purpose” if the Second Continental Congress wants to break from Great Britain, would “the said Inhabitants . . . solemnly engage with their Lives and Fortunes to Support the Congress in the Measure?” Connecticut, though, simply asked its citizens to swear allegiance to the Colonies rather than to the king. Malden, Massachusetts, reminded its citizens of the horrors of the opening shots fired on Lexington Green, April 19th of the previous year. “We remember the fatal day! The expiring groans of our country—met yet vibrate on our years. . . . We hear their blood crying to us from the ground for vengeance; charging us . . . to have no further connection with” such a king who would allow such horrors in his kingdom.
The New York Mechanics, on May 29, 1776, declared: “When we cast a glance upon our beloved continent, where fair freedom, civil and religious, we have long enjoyed, whose fruitful fields have made the world glad, and whose trade has filled with plenty of all things, sorrow fills our hearts to behold her struggling under he heavy load of oppression, tyranny, and death. But when we extend our sight a little farther, and view the iron hand that is lifted up against us, behold it is our King, he who, by his oath and station, is bound to support and defend us in the quiet enjoyment of all our glorious rights as freeman.” Both Maryland and Pennsylvania, in their respective declarations of independence, reminded their citizens that, in the end (and in the beginning), God is sovereign, loving, and merciful.
Of all the declarations, though, George Mason’s in Virginia might have been the most abstract, thoughtful, and powerful:
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.
That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants and at all times amenable to them.
That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community; of all the various modes and forms of government, that is best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration. And that, when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community has an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.
Jefferson, it is presumed, had a copy of Mason’s handy when he wrote the American Declaration of Independence.
Regardless, the movement toward independence was nearly universal in the American colonies. Congress might very well have been late to the game in July and August of 1776, but that body, amazingly enough, reflected the feelings of patriotism and the hearts of patriots.
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