July 4th is our favorite holiday, as it marks the largest step forward so far in the advance of human freedom.
On July 4, 1776, 56 individuals, including representatives of all thirteen states comprising the British colonies in America, signed the Declaration of Independence, beginning with the following description:
Action of Second Continental Congress, July 4, 1776
The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
The signers were conscious of the importance of their action, as evidenced by the first two sentences of the declaration, which read:
“WHEN in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.
“WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
The Declaration went on to explain the states’ intent to form a new government independent of Britain because: “The History of the present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”
For several years before 1776, discontent with British rule had been growing in America, at times erupting in armed and bloody conflict between Americans and British Troops. However, until 1776 very few Americans advocated independence from Great Britain.
A first Continental Congress was convened in 1774 to consider how to resist and protest actions of Britain that Americans felt were unjustified and intolerable. The sentiment of the time was manifested in the slogan “No taxation without representation” that summarized a primary grievance of the British colonists who believed their lack of direct representation in the British Parliament was an illegal denial of their rights as Englishmen. At the time the population of the American colonies was about half that of England, so that political representation in the English Parliament could have been influential in England’s treatment of America.
A second Continental Congress in July, 1775, again protested British actions, but held out the olive branch of peace in a special petition to King George adopted on July 8, 1775. The King dismissed this petition with contempt. Yet, most Americans continued to profess loyalty to the British King. Among the members of the Continental Congress the pro-independence faction—whom opponents accused of being “violent people”—was still a small minority.
American attitudes changed with the publication of a 46-page pamphlet by Thomas Paine (1737-1809), entitled Common Sense. The lengthy sub-title stated that the work was “Addressed to the Inhabitants of America, On the following interesting SUBJECTS.
- Of the Origin and Design of Government in general, with concise remarks on the English Constitution.
- Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession.
- Thoughts on the present State of American Affairs.
- Of the present Ability of America, with some miscellaneous Reflections.”
Common Sense was published on January 10, 1776. Printers throughout America printed and sold 120,000 copies of Common Sense within the first three months after publication, this in a population of just 3 million. Within a year of publication 400,000 copies had been sold, making Common Sense the all-time best selling literary work in American history, taking into account sales in relation to America’s population at the time.
In 1805 John Adams, second President of the U.S. (1797-1801) and also one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, wrote that “I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine.”
Although most historians have accorded authorship of the Declaration of Independence to Paine’s close friend, Thomas Jefferson, there are so many common elements between Common Sense and the Declaration of Independence that some historians have claimed that Paine secretly wrote the Declaration or that Jefferson copied him so thoroughly that it amounted to the same thing.
The intellectual antecedents of the Declaration precede it by nearly 100 years, to the great scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and the publication of his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. It was Newton’s conception of the Universe based upon natural and rationally understandable laws that became fundamental to the culture of 18th century Age of Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire in France and John Locke (1632-1704) an English friend of Newton.
Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1689) observed that society could be better organized by utilizing the principles and methods of natural philosophy as demonstrated by Newton. Starting from this standpoint, Locke argued that among the “natural rights” of man was the right of the people to overthrow their political leaders should they betray the historic rights of Englishmen.
Thomas Paine was self-educated in science and the political philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment that flourished in the intellectual ferment of London of his young manhood, where the ideas of Newton and Locke were common coin. It is the influence of Newton and Locke that informs the Declaration’s statement about “. . . the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle [Americans].”
In considerable part because of Common Sense, America’s political leaders were absolutely opposed to the idea that America turn to a monarch of its own after winning its War for Independence from Britain in 1781. For example, when in May 1782, a young American military officer, Lewis Nicola, expressed a growing sentiment—that in the interests of social stability George Washington should become King George I of America—Washington rejected the idea most emphatically, admonishing Nicola that he must “banish these thoughts from your Mind,” denouncing the proposal as “big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country.”
Even Washington’s foe, Britain’s King George III, was impressed by Washington’s principled position. When the news reached George III, he was heard to say that, if Washington resisted the mantle of monarch, he would be “the greatest man in the world.”
Although the United States of America has many flaws, it remains the most influential and greatest nation on earth due in large part to the solid foundation laid for the country by its Declaration of Independence, the brilliant writing of Thomas Paine, and the advances in Science and government pioneered by Isaac Newton and John Locke.