10 Things You Should Know About the American Founding

On this Fourth of July, 236 years after Congress declared independence from the British Empire through the Declaration of Independence, it’s well worth reminding ourselves of a number of things about the Founding era.

In 1776, numerous individuals, families, committees, congregations, localities, and states had already proclaimed their independence, and almost no remaining imperial structure could continue to operate with any legitimacy in what would very soon become thirteen states.  By the very beginning of July of 1776, it became clear that members of Congress would have to catch up quickly to the more activist localities, hoping to rein in the movement of independence before it got out of hand and splintered from lack of central direction and a coherent philosophy. 

While the passage of the Declaration came on July 4, the members of the Second Continental Congress did not sign the venerable document until August 2.

Here are ten facts about the American founding that are worth knowing and contemplating as our country celebrates its independence on the Fourth of July.

1.  At the time of the passage and signing of the Declaration, roughly 2.15 million persons lived in the 13 colonies.  Of those not enslaved, the vast majority was of Anglo-Saxon-Celtic descent and nearly 100% were Protestant.  The “fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English Colonies probably than in any other people on the earth. . . . Religion, always a principle of energy, in this new people is no way worn out or impaired,” Edmund Burke stated publically in 1775.  “The people are Protestants; and of that kind which is most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion.”

2.  Within Parliament and English governance, a debate had raged regarding the nature of the British Empire itself.  Should it exist as a decentralized empire—an extended commonwealth of like-minded peoples held together by language, religion, and economic interests?  King George II, William Pitt the Elder, Lord Newcastle, and Edmund Burke had favored this, believing it essential to keep the colonies as free and productive as possible.  “The Americans are the SONS, not the BASTARDS of England,” Pitt had argued.  King George III had a very different vision for the empire, and he began to push his notions of a centralized empire from the very beginning of his reign.

3.  The first real cry against George III’s centralizing drive came from an unlikely source, lawyer James Otis (1725-83), in 1761.  Interrupting a judicial trial, Otis gave a four-hour oration.  John Adams later described the scene: “But Otis was a flame of fire with a promptitude of classical allusions, a depth of research a rapid summary of historical events and dates, a profusion of legal authorities.  A prophetic glance of his eye into futurity and a torrent of impetuous eloquence, he hurried away every thing before him. American independence was then and there born.  The seeds of patriots and heroes were then and there sown to defend the vigorous youth . . . . Every man of a crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did ready to take arms against writs of assistance. Then and there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the child Independence was born. In fifteen years namely in 1776 he grew up to manhood and declared himself free.” [n.b. all punctuation added]

4.  The level of education for Americans at the time was astounding.  Though no public schools existed in any recognizable sense in the eighteenth century, some “Common Schools” did.  At a Common School, tutors and teachers drilled students for hours in Greek and Latin.  Even if a student only attended school from, say, ages 6-8, he would learn only classical languages.  Parents were expected to teach their children to read, almost always from the King James Bible.  The colonists met with great success, and the American colonies probably contained the single most literate people in the world at that time.  For those attending one of the several colleges in the American colonies (Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, King’s College (Columbia)), a liberal education was the only real education.  As the grand historian of the period, Forrest McDonald, has revealed, when a student entered college (usually at age 14 or 15), he would need to prove fluency in Latin and Greek.  He would need to “read and translate from the original Latin into English ‘the first three of [Cicero’s] Select Orations and the first three books of Virgil’s Aeneid’ and to translate the first ten chapters of the Gospel of John from Greek into Latin, as well as to be ‘expert in arithmetic’ and to have a ‘blameless moral character.’”  Keeping this in mind, Americans should not be surprised to see the seventy-plus classical references in The Federalist Papers or the architecture of the Capitol building.  Americans were, second only to their Protestantism, a classically oriented people.

5. The revolution was, therefore, not surprisingly, a “revolution prevented, not made,” as Burke explained it.  When asked, for example, where he derived the ideas contained within the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson revealed how historical and “backward looking” the document was.  “This was the object of the Declaration of Independence,” Jefferson explained in 1825, not long before his death. “Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.  Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.  All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”

6.  The first shots fired in what became the War for Independence were calculated to lead neither to a full-scale war nor to the independence of the colonies from her mother.  Instead, the men of Lexington, Massachusetts, followed what they believed to be the strongest form of protest—not an act of secession.  Jonas Clarke, the Calvinist pastor at the Lexington church and one of the leading intellectuals of the colonies, had been exploring Christian notions of liberty for well over a decade.  “And it is a truth, which the history of the ages and the common experiences of mankind have fully confirmed,” he stated in 1765, “that a people can never be divested of those invaluable rights and liberties which are necessary to the happiness of individuals, to the well-being of communities or to a well regulated state, but by their own negligence, imprudence, timidity or rashness.  They are seldom lost, but when foolishly or tamely resigned.” After debating a response to the British march toward Concord for hours in the local pastor’s house, the town pub, and on the town green (all three places adjoining), about forty Lexingtonians stood on the village green at 5:00am, April 19, 1775, arms placed in parade formation.  When the British demanded the Lexingtonians disperse, shots were fired and eight Massachusetts men were slaughtered in full view of the entire community.

7.  The most important and stalwart defender of American liberties and American independence in Great Britain was Edmund Burke, one of the two greatest statesmen of the age.  Indeed, the issue of American independence dominated the first seventeen years of his career in Parliament.  From his first speech delivered to the august body in 1766 to the signing of the Peace of Paris in 1783, Burke defended the rights of Americans as he also defended the rights of the Irish, Roman Catholics in Great Britain, and the Asian Indians.  Burke went so far as to secede from Parliament in protest of the war in the Americas, and he even openly implied that King George III was satanic for waging war against the Americans.

8.  A friend and disciple of Burke’s, Maryland’s Charles Carroll of Carrollton, was the only Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Maryland had possessed the most anti-Catholic laws in the colonies prior to the War for Independence.  Catholics could not worship publicly, and children could even, by law, be removed permanently from their parents and sent to live with Protestant families in England should the Catholic parents attempt to educate their children in a “Catholic fashion.”  Consequently, Charles Carroll’s father not only refused to claim him as a child, but he also sent him abroad for seventeen years to be educated by Catholics in France and elsewhere.  Carroll earned his B.A. and M.A. while in France, and he studied law in France and England.  For fear of the law, Charles’s father waited to recognize the legitimacy of his son and the son’s mother until Charles had earned his M.A.  When Carroll signed the Declaration of Independence, he did so for reasons of religious freedom and tolerance.  “When I signed the Declaration of Independence, I had in view not only our independence of England but the toleration of all Sects, professing the Christian Religion, and communicating to them all great rights,” he wrote in 1829.  “Happily this wise and salutary measure has taken place for eradicating religious feuds and persecution.”

9.  Maryland had not been the only place harboring anti-Catholic feelings in the colonies.  Indeed, every colony had some form of anti-Catholic law except for Pennsylvania.  The farther north one journeyed, the stronger the anti-Catholicism became.  As early as the 1640s, for example, the New England colonies had passed a law that a man could enter a congregation only if armed with his weapon and firearm, in case of a Catholic or Indian attack.  Along the same lines, the men exited Sunday service in scouting formation, securing the area for the defense of the women and children.  When New England militia went into battle during the war for independence, their war cry was “No king, no popery!”  As General John Sullivan of the Continental Army had claimed, the Quebec Act, which gave rights to Canadian Catholics, was the “Most dangerous to American Liberties among the whole train.”  Should the Catholics gain power, he continued, “no God may as well exist in the universe.”

10. None of this should suggest, however, that all Americans held anti-Catholic views.  Some of the most prominent Americans held absolutely no tolerance for intolerance.  The most important was George Washington who accepted, without reservation, Catholics and Jews as fully republican citizens. In a March 1790 address to the Roman Catholics in the United States, he stated:

“As mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government.  I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality.  And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed. . . . And may the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.”

Another critic of anti-Catholicism was one of the least religious of the founders, Ben Franklin.  In the spring of 1776, Franklin, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and Jacky Carroll (Charles’s cousin and close friend) traveled to Canada in a failed mission to convince the Canadians to join the American cause.  Along the way, Franklin and the two Carrolls struck up a strong friendship.  After the success of the American war for Independence, the Vatican decided it was time to name a bishop in North America.  No bishop, not even Anglican/Episcopalian bishops, had ever stepped foot in the thirteen colonies (or, states, after 1776).  Hoping not to offend republican sensibilities, the Vatican contacted Franklin through two agents.  Franklin said the man for the job was Jacky, and the Vatican consequently appointed John Carroll as the first archbishop in the United States.

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About Bradley J. Birzer 14 Articles
Bradley J. Birzer is Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies and Professor of History, Hillsdale College and author of several books, including noted biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Christopher Dawson, and Russell Kirk. His latest book is Beyond Tenebrae: Christian Humanism in the Twilight of the West (Angelico Press, 2019).