The American Founding
History's spotlight glanced across the east coast of North America between 1761 and 1815. These "times that try men's souls" saw a great nation emerge from more than a half century of conflict, including heated constitutional debates across the Atlantic; severe economic privation and depression; the dogs of war unleashed in two struggles for independence against the British, as well as in serious conflicts with the Barbary peoples, French, and Indians; the drafting of 13 state constitutions, articles of confederation, and a national frame of government; and testing the civic habits and economic policies that would establish a new republic in a world of ancient monarchies. Politically we had to be recognized by the powers of the earth. More practically we had to be geographically large enough, culturally unified enough, and economically viable enough to make it in a hostile world.
To what extent did the American effort to found a new nation amount to a revolution? It's a controverted question. Some argue that the American cause was "a revolution not made, but prevented." Others proclaim that the American Revolution inspired more lasting, positive changes to the human estate than any similar upheaval.
A Story in Three Acts: Overview
To deal with such an epic event, it is necessary to break the American founding down into intelligible parts. For our purposes, the founding unfolded in three acts:
- Debate over the English constitution, from February 24, 1761 (John Adams observing James Otis in court), to April 19, 1775. Americans felt increasingly aggrieved because they didn't believe the King and Parliament were respecting their ancient rights as Englishmen. When the debates over ideas, rights, and politics could not be peaceably settled in assemblies, courtrooms, and at court, war eventually broke out.
- Armed conflict: For Americans to live by the ideas they believed in, they would have to win on the battlefield. The Wars for Independence unfolded in three bursts of violence over a 40 year time of trial (a good Biblical number): Part I was defined by the Brits' Northern Campaign, breaking out in Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, and ending with the Battle of Saratoga on October 17, 1777; then there was a pause in the action. Part II was defined by the Southern Campaign beginning slowly in 1778 to Yorktown on October 19, 1781; then there was a pause in the action, and a temporary peace settlement reached on September 3, 1783. Taking the long view, I see Part III as the final military campaign needed to confirm independence. It was the War of 1812, sometimes called the Second War for Independence since America needed to fight this war to maintain her independence from Britain. (Wars are not over until the vanquished say they're over.) Taking the long view, armed conflict was intermittent over four decades. Armed conflict between the Brits and Americans finally ends after 40 years, when the British surrendered on Chalmette Battlefield at the Battle of New Orleans, January 8, 1815. Note: there had to be a Second American Revolution (the Election of 1800 and subsequent inauguration) and a Second War for Independence (War of 1812) before both the Brits and Americans believed it was over.
- Establishing the new republic from May 10, 1776, through March 4, 1801 and beyond, when newly inaugurated President Thomas Jefferson explained why the Election of 1800 was a second American Revolution. In the intervening period, statesmen composed the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Northwest Ordinance, and U.S. Constitution. The tone the third president set was significant because Jefferson did not seek revenge in a divided nation. (See Mancall, lecture 35.) Over the next decades, the making of the new republic continued to be defined by a long frontier in space and time -- the Louisiana Purchase -- which pointed the nation west, and by several significant Supreme Court decisions.
Myths and Speculation
So much we "know" about the American founding isn't so, and much that's little known should be better so. I have no intention of debunking the founders, but the truth makes them more human, and thus more accessible, than hagiography or hero worship.
1. The Founders, arguably the greatest generation of political minds ever, were hardly of one mind. In fact, they frequently sparred with one another. I get the question, What would America's founders think of this or that issue today? One of the statesmen at the Second Continental Congress, John Dickinson, refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. Adams accused.... 16 of the 55 framers refused to sign the Constitution; it was not just big states vs. little states but also slavery that mostly divided them.
2. Not only did they not agree with one another on a number of basic issues, but a lot of them did not even like each other. It is ironic that on Mount Rushmore Washington and Jefferson are stuck next to each other for eternity. Both George and Martha Washington ended up with a deep dislike of Thomas Jefferson. Martha called Jefferson “one of the most detestable of mankind.” When Jefferson visited her at Mount Vernon before he became president, Martha said that it was the second worst day of her life—the first being the day her husband died.
Jefferson and Adams spent more than a decade totally estranged from one another before they reconciled enough to pen one of the most remarkable letter exchanges ever.
John Adams couldn't stand Tom Paine.;
3. Don't kid yourself thinking all the founders had sterling characters. Too many accounts of the American founding are filled with tales of buckled-shoed Puritans or boring committee men or prim and proper commercial types. But many had -- shall we say -- colorful lives.
Consider Gouverneur Morris, the "penman of the Constitution," who had a conspicuous limp. Ever wonder why he limped? A good hint comes from the subtitle of Rick Brookheiser's biography in which he calls Morris a "rake." In 1780, at age twenty-eight, Morris's left leg was shattered and replaced with a wooden pegleg. Morris's public account for the loss of his leg was that it happened in a carriage accident, but there is evidence that this was a tall tale concocted to cover for a dalliance with a woman, during which he jumped from a window to escape a jealous husband. Morris was well-known throughout much of his life for having many affairs on both sides of the Atlantic, with both married and unmarried women. He even shared a mistress with the famous French foreign minister Talleyrand. Knowing of Morris's dalliances gives new meaning to his phrase in the Constitution's Preamble about "domestic tranquility"!
Luther Martin is humorously called "Luther Martini" by scholars of the American Revolution because he was such a lush.
4. Although George Washington preferred to be called "general" from 1775 to the end of his life, and was always painted posing in his uniform, the truth is, he was not a great battlefield general. Washington lost more battles than he won. His greatness lay less in battlefield brilliance—he committed some major strategic blunders, e.g., at Brandywine Creek—than in the ability to hold his ragtag army intact for more than eight years, keeping the flame of revolution alive. Washington was also innovative as a general (as he was as a farmer). He ran his own spy network during the war and was often the only one privy to the full scope of secret operations against the British. He anticipated many techniques of modern espionage, including the use of misinformation and double agents.
Then there are the myths.
1. George Washington never had wooden teeth. He wore dentures that were made of either walrus or elephant ivory and were fitted with real human teeth. Over time, as the ivory got cracked and stained, it resembled the grain of wood. Washington may have purchased some of his teeth from his own slaves.
There are a great number of fascinating things people think significant about the American founding:
1. Take George Washington. That Washington was childless proved a great boon to his career. Because he had no heirs, Americans didn’t worry that he might be tempted to establish a hereditary monarchy. Indeed, many religious Americans believed that God had deliberately deprived Washington of children so that he might serve as Father of His Country.
2. Washington stands out as the only founder who freed his slaves. Like their countrymen, however, the Washingtons had a complex relationship with slavery and acted out of mixed motives. When the temporary capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, Washington brought six or seven slaves to the new presidential mansion. Under a Pennsylvania abolitionist law, slaves who stayed continuously in the state for six months were automatically free. To prevent this, Washington, secretly coached by his Attorney General, rotated his slaves in and out of the state without telling them the real reason for his actions. At the end of his presidency, two of their favorite slaves—Martha’s personal servant, Ona Judge and their chef Hercules—escaped to freedom. Washington employed the resources of the federal government to try to entrap Ona Judge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and return her forcibly to Virginia. His efforts failed. Washington freed the 124 who were under his personal control. In his will, he stipulated that the action was to take effect only after Martha died so that she could still enjoy the income from those slaves. Sounds admirable. Here is what happened. After George died, Martha grew terrified at the prospect that the 124 slaves scheduled to be freed after her death might try to speed up the timetable by killing her. Unnerved by the situation, she decided to free those slaves ahead of schedule only a year after her husband died.
The History They Knew (Diachronic Context)
To see and appreciate the view from the 100th floor of the Empire State Building, floors 1 through 99 have to be properly constructed. So some background. Always ask yourself, what history did the participants know and embrace? History was important to the founders. (See John Willson's brilliant article, Was There a Founding? on The Imaginative Conservative blog.) They thought that stable and secure and decent governments, devoted to the protection of liberty, must be based on truths of human nature revealed in experience. To understand the American experience during these four decades, there are several historical things to have some familiarity with:
- The Roman republic, not necessarily wie es eigentlich gewesen, but as interpreted by the Founders -- a history that was rich with analogies, paradigms, heroes, and antiheroes.
- Western Europe's religious history: England's turbulent history from the 1530s to the 1680s. During this 150 year period, England could not decide what it would be: Catholic or Protestant? If Protestant, then Lutheran, Calvinist, or Latitudinarian (so: Catholic in form, latitudinarian in content)? The Wars of Religion would have a great impact on the notion of a state religion. You will see their impact most vividly in the embrace of the Enlightenment. Also in a Constitution that prohibits religious tests for public office, and in the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from establishing a national church. Also in Jefferson's "Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom." (But note tension -- Willson: John Adams said in 1818 (and by that time he was a Unitarian) that the revolution was over before the war began--it was a change in the religious sentiments of the American people. So important was the Great Awakening to later events. The article in the Northwest Ordinance regarding "religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the ...." Also Washington's "Farewell Address.")
- England's political history: An absolute monarchy (Stuarts), a constitutional monarchy with a strong Parliament, or a republic (Cromwell)? Regicide, civil war, revolution -- England experiences it all. Burke on 1688. A revolution not made, but prevented....
- England's cultural history. Decadence of Charles II's court. Commonwealth men on the luxury debate.
- Dutch economic history: the Dutch republic's economic success is stunning
- English economic history: Adam Smith and the early phase of the Industrial Revolution
- European imperial struggles: Seven Years War: the last of four world wars between the English and the French. The segue into Phase I, the constitutional debate.
Contemporary Events (Synchronic Context)Looking back, John Adams believed the revolution began on February 24, 1761, in a Boston courtroom, when James Otis delivered an oration that asserted the Americans' right to question and even challenge not just the writs of assistance, but also the monarch's and Parliament's assertions of supremacy over the Colonies. The Stamp Act and all the other acts would provoke Americans and feed a fierce debate over what it meant to enjoy the rights of Englishmen.
The French Revolution (1789-'99) Napoleon (1799-1815) The Haitian Revolution Spanish America's liberation from SpainPhase I -- overview
Phase II -- overviewApril 19, 1775, Battle at Lexington Green: In the predawn light of April 19, the beating drums and peeling bells summoned between 50 and 70 militiamen to the town green at Lexington. As they lined up in battle formation the distant sound of marching feet and shouted orders alerted them of the Redcoats' approach. Soon the British column emerged through the morning fog. Parker's words as being what is now engraved in stone at the site of the battle: "Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here." The British charged and fired first, and the confrontation that would launch a nation began. Lexington Green has only a handful more of slain Americans (eight killed) than the Boston Massacre (five killed). But look at what had changed. The former led to a trial and acquittals; the latter led to all out war. After the Battle at Lexington Green, the Redcoats were confronted by Minutemen in Concord and were fired upon on their retreat all the way back to Boston. After Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, the British realized that the Americans were fighters. Under General Howe the British moved from Boston, a Patriot hotbed almost totally hostile to them, to a safer base of operations, New York City, where a significant portion of the population was Loyalist. May 10, 1776, Act On May 10th, 1776, the Second Continental Congress drafted an act that instructed each state to establish a new government to grapple with the problems of British military threats. John Adams drafted the preamble that was inflammatory and caused dissension. The revolutionaries are reluctant. They are still holding back, wondering if there is middle ground still. John Adams took notes of the debates. Did the American cause still have friends in England worth keeping? Why pull down the old house to construct an entirely new one, and expose ourselves to all the storms that will come? Declaration of Independence Only by late June 1776 did an overwhelming majority of members of Congress concur that independence was necessary. It took 14 months after armed conflict had erupted for the majority of America's revolutionaries to arrive at the conclusion that there was no longer any room for compromise, no hope for reconciliation. Patriots knew they needed help from others to fight tyranny, and that meant Americans needed to explain clearly and decisively why they were compelled to break the colonies' bonds with the mother country. From the British viewpoint, of course, such action was treasonous. It was also audacious. The "Declaration of Independence" was composed only 100 miles from the British Redcoats' base of operations in North America, in New York City. The Declaration was the critically important document to grow out of Americans' independence movement. It consist of three major parts. The first part exalts individuals who are created by God and possess the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These opening sentences also exalt the corporate body of humans in community. By natural right, by virtue of their having been created by God, human beings possess sovereignty, the right to rule themselves. So government exists not to serve a monarch, but first and foremost to protect humans' God-given natural rights. When a government no longer protects these rights, but abuses the people, the people have a right to dissolve it and begin anew. They should expose the crimes of a tyrant because a candid world should sit in judgment on human actions. The middle part of the document consists of facts submitted to a candid world. It did not set up a plan of government. And its authors had no effective way to organize a military campaign against the most powerful army and navy in the world. Isn't it interesting that the battle of ideas came first??? Justify independence, win ascent from all thirteen colonies, and then set up a government and organize a military campaign. They would be traitors to their king, so they had to show that the king had become a tyrant who would not reform his thinking or ways. He was unfit to be the ruler of a free people. At his hands they had experienced not an occasional or incidental breach of their rights, but repeated, deliberate injuries. A pattern of abuse. The litany of complaints forms the core of the Declaration. It detailed every injury committed by the King, by Parliament, and by generals and governors serving the Crown in North America. Everything that had gone wrong since the early 1760s:
- He had ignored their humble petitions;
- He had dissolved legitimate representative bodies of government;
- He had refused to recognized laws that were passed in these assemblies;
- He had refused to allow new representatives to be elected and to take their place in assemblies;
- He had impeded the administration of justice;
- He had made judges more dependent on him personally;
- He had set up new positions of government bureaucrats to harass Americans and drain their economy;
- He had cut off international trade;
- He had discouraged immigration from Britain;
- He had discouraged colonists from moving West;
- He kept standing armies among them in time of peace, without the consent of America's legislators;
- He quartered his troops on their property;
- He made it difficult to try in American courts any troops who broke the law;
- He did not consistently hold that the military were dependent on and subordinate to civil authority.
Phase III -- overviewNote the incredible difficulty of founding the new republic:
- two wars with Britain
- revolt among the officers at Newburgh
- several wars with the Indians (failure of U.S. in first two campaigns, until 3rd under Mad Anthony Wayne succeeded)
- a quasi war with the French, our former allies
- economic debt, personal privation, and depression
- deep divisions, first between Patriots and Loyalists, then between Federalists and Antifederalists at the Constitutional Convention, then between factions behind Adams and Jefferson. There were two quite different views of what the American republic should be.
Among the major elements of this phase are American constitutional debate (in contrast to Phase I, which was English constitutional debate), plus the Virginia and Kentucky resolves, written by Madison to oppose Adams's Alien and Sedition Acts. Jeffersonians tried to establish a strict construction of the Constitution, and asserted the right of states to declare national laws null and void in a particular state.
In British North America between 1761 and 1815, something remarkable happened. Let's hear the voice of four Brits who reflected on the colonies and "colonials" they lost:
Early in the conflict, soon after the outbreak of hostilities, William Pitt, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, in the House of Lords, December 20, 1775: "I have read Thucydides, and have studied and admired the master statesmen of the world—that for solidity and reasoning, force of sagacity, and wisdom of conclusion, under such a complication of different circumstances, no nation or body of men can stand in preference to the general congress at Philadelphia. I trust it is obvious to your lordships, that all attempts to impose servitude on such men, to establish despotism over such a mighty continental nation—must be vain—must be futile.”
King George III was apprised by his American painter, Benjamin West, that his nemesis, George Washington, would be prepared to resign his commission -- give his sword back to Congress and return to his farm -- if the Americans won their independence. “They say he will return to his farm.” “If he does that,” the incredulous monarch said, “he will be the greatest man in the world.” William Gladstone, British Prime Minister, writing in the North American Review, 1878: “As the British Constitution is the most subtle organism which has proceeded from the womb and long gestation of progressive history, so the American Constitution is, so far as I can see, the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”
Alfred North Whitehead stated that the generation of men and women who saw the American Revolution and Founding through to the end was the greatest display of political genius since the Age of Augustus and the beginning of the Pax romana.
There are many topics to explore in greater depth -- e.g., are we a Christian nation? John Willson writes: "That Christianity (and the Bible) was at the heart of the Founding is simply undeniable. The controversy over a resident Bishop consumed at least as much ink as the Stamp Act. The constitutions of the states and the United States are nothing if not written expressions of the Christian view of human nature. In every one of the first twenty years of independent national existence governments at all levels proclaimed days of fasting, prayer, and thanksgiving. The churches (even a majority of Anglican priests) overwhelmingly supported the War for Independence. The definition of liberty preferred by Americans was Biblical: "They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid" (Mi4v4). Broader Context of North American Revolutions At the end of the course, it is useful to compare the three North Atlantic revolutions -- American, French, and Haitian revolutions. John Adams once said about the American and French revolutions, "Ours was resistance to innovation; theirs was innovation itself." A flippant comment, certainly; it nevertheless captures an important truth: insofar as it was successful, the American Founding was rooted in ancient truths, it was not attempting to 'touch-off' a transfiguration of the world." Source: John Willson, "Was There a Founding?" Imaginative Conservative blog.
Other topics and themes will be explored in subsequent essays.