I often ask y’all questions when I write fully knowing that unless you answer via e-mail or Facebook I’ll never get an answer; and most of the time that’s okay with me. However, this time I want to ask a question, and I truly wish I was there to ask you in person so I could get an answer, “What do you think the American Revolution was about?” Was it about all the taxes that Great Britain was levying against the Colonies? Was it about the Redcoats trying to take their guns? Or, could it have been the fact that the Colonists weren’t allowed to coin their own currency, as some believe?
Like I said, I have no idea how you answer that question; I can only hope that you paused your reading long enough to ask it of yourselves to come up with an answer. You see, I don’t think the Revolution was about any of those things. Sure, they may have been contributing factors which led to the Revolution, but the Revolution itself was not about any of them; at least in my opinion.
I’m more inclined to agree with John Adams, who in a letter written to Thomas Jefferson said, “As to the history of the revolution, my ideas may be peculiar, perhaps singular. What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected … before a drop of blood was shed.”
If Adams, and I for that matter, are correct, then the real revolution was in the way people thought and felt about something; but what was that something they changed their opinions on? I think the real revolution was a change of opinion over the fact that some men are born to rule over others to the belief that people are the ultimate rulers and should be allowed to decide for themselves what form and shape their government should take.
This idea, or belief, has a name; it is called self-determination. While pondering the idea for this article I researched various sources for definitions of self-determination and found this: Self-determination: noun; the process by which a country determines its own statehood and forms its own allegiances and government.
I think the Colonies finally decided that they wanted to determine for themselves what form of government they should live under, and what powers that form of government should be allowed to exercise; instead of being bound, without any say in the governing process, to a system that could ‘bind them in all cases whatsoever.’
With that thought in mind, I want you to now read through the following, taken from the Declaration of Independence. Hopefully you will read these words with a new perspective:
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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Now that you have read through that, let me ask another question of you; does the Declaration of Independence establish a system of government for America? I’ll answer that first, no, it does not establish a form of government; it merely outlines the principle that the people should be allowed to choose their own form of government, that government derives its authority from the consent of the people, and the whenever government no longer serves its intended purposes it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.
My God I wish y’all could understand the significance of that! We do not have rulers, or leaders, we have public servants. We are the true sovereigns, or masters of the government, and they are bound by a written law; a constitution, as to what powers they can exercise on our behalf. They do not get to decide what is in our best interests, we do; and when they overstep their authority it is our right to either disobey the laws they pass, alter the government so that it cannot overstep its authority, or to abolish government entirely.
Now, since the Declaration of Independence does not establish any system of government, what were the first systems of government that were established after those 56 brave men affixed their signatures to that document, and untold others died defending the principles within it? It certainly wasn’t the government we have now, as that did not come into existence until years after the Revolution ended.
What happened was each Colony wrote its own constitution, deciding for themselves what form of government they wanted, and what powers those systems of government would be allowed to exercise. When the war ended, and peace was declared, each State, (as they ceased being British Colonies after the war), became a sovereign and independent political entity; much like Ireland is sovereign and independent from Sweden…at least it was until they bonded together in the European Union.
What I’m saying is that each Colony became a nation unto itself at the conclusion of the war for independence, and that they had all established their own systems of government. Yet they were not naive enough to believe that they could stand alone against the might of empires like France and Spain without some bond joining them together for their mutual protection. So they formed a confederation in which each State retained its sovereignty and independence from each other, while pledging their friendship towards each other and to assist the others in their mutual defense.
You could easily verify that if you would just Google the Articles of Confederation and read them for yourselves. But seeing as how some of you probably won’t do that, let me provide you with Articles II & III of the Articles of Confederation so you can read them for yourselves:
Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.
The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.
So if they had already established a confederation, which created a Congress that acted as the managing body, why the need for a new constitution that created an entirely new system of government? Some, among those who may be a bit more educated than the average person, might say, “Well Neal, Congress couldn’t effectively regulate trade or collect taxes, so they needed a stronger government.” If that’s so, why didn’t they just alter, or amend, the Articles of Confederation; thereby giving Congress the necessary power to do so?
Now this next concept might sound complicated, but let’s try and make sense of it. Yes, each State was sovereign and independent, but the people had given their consent to a system of government for each State. Those States, acting on behalf of the people had ratified the Articles of Confederation which created our country’s first government.
This system of government only had the power to make proposals for the States, proposals which had to be agreed to by all 13 States before they became binding upon any of them. This is found in Article XIII of the Articles of Confederation, “And the Articles of this Confederation shall be inviolably observed by every State, and the Union shall be perpetual; nor shall any alteration at any time hereafter be made in any of them; unless such alteration be agreed to in a Congress of the United States, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State.”
So the State Legislatures were the ones who acted on behalf of the people of each State; deciding what became federal law. If they wanted to increase the powers held by the Confederation Congress, why didn’t they just amend the Articles of Confederation to grant Congress whatever powers they felt it might require?
I know I’ve spoken about it, but let me refresh your memory; that is why delegates were sent to Philadelphia in 1787, to come up with proposals for amendments that would strengthen and improve the Articles of Confederation, and the Congress they had established – that, and nothing more was the purpose of that convention.
Yet the moment that convention assembled the doors were locked, the delegates were sworn to secrecy, and a plan for an entirely new system of government was presented to them. The debated the virtues and defects of this new system of government throughout the summer, and by September most of the delegates agreed to accept their newly written constitution. I say most, because 2 delegates had left the convention because they felt it was overstepping its authority; John Lansing and Robert Yates, (something they ALL should have done the moment Madison made his proposal for a new system of government). I also say some, because 3 delegates refused to accept this new system of government; George Mason, Edmund Randolph and Elbridge Gerry.
Yet when this convention finally adjourned, all they had done was to write a proposal for a new system of government, nothing more. The States were still under the legal authority of the Articles of Confederation, so how in the world could they be compelled to accept a proposal for a new system of government by the terms included in that proposal?
If you recall, for any alterations to, (and I’m assuming that you understand that the abolishment of the confederation was an alteration), had to be approved by all 13 of the State Legislatures for it to be binding upon any of them. So how could Madison and his cronies demand that only a 3/4 vote of approval was all that would be required to implement their plan for a new system of government? Not only that, but Madison & Co. told the States that no alterations or amendments would be allowed; they must accept or reject it as it was written.
So what we had was, delegates chosen by their respective States, given specific instructions, turning around and disobeying their instructions and then turning around and dictating to the States how they must proceed to either accept or reject their proposal for a system of government – sound about right to you?
So, while the ink was still wet on the parchment, so to speak, this newly written constitution was presented to the States for their consideration. What they should have done, and oh how I wish they had, was give it right back to the delegates and say, “This isn’t what we sent you to Philadelphia to do. Go back and try again, and stick to your instructions this time.” But they didn’t; whether it was for fear that the problems facing the States over trade and taxation might get worse, or whether they just accepted that the convention couldn’t agree on anything other that what they already had agreed to, they chose to submit the proposed constitution to assemblies consisting of the people of each State; known as Ratifying Conventions, or Assemblies.
On June 21 New Hampshire cast the deciding vote by ratifying the proposed document; fulfilling the requirement that only 9 States need to adopt it for the government it outlined to go into effect. But what if only 9 chose to adopt that new system of government; how would that affect the other 4 who didn’t? Would those States have retained their sovereignty and independence? Would the new United States of America treat them with the same degree of friendship as they had enjoyed under the Articles of Confederation?
You might be saying we’ll never know Neal. Oh, but yes we will if we would just do a bit of research! Are you aware that Rhode Island not only refused to send a single delegate to the Constitutional Convention, it also held off ratifying it until well after the government outlined by the constitution went into operation? So we do have an example of what might have happened had 4 States chosen not to agree to this new system of government.
Are you aware that Rhode Island held 11 sessions of their State Legislature which discussed ratifying the constitution, and each time the measure was defeated? The Congress established by the new constitution was losing patience with Rhode Island, and when they refused to ratify the constitution in 1790 the Senate passed a resolution banning all commerce with Rhode Island; effectively making it an island that could not sell its goods outside its own borders. In short, they put an embargo upon Rhode Island; giving them the ultimatum, accept the constitution or remain isolated from the rest of us.
Even in Congress there was division over the treatment of Rhode Island. John Page of Virginia compared the embargo of Rhode Island to the Boston Port Act prior to the War for Independence. Nevertheless, Rhode Island was stuck between a rock and a hard place; either continue to reject the constitution and remain a pariah, or accept it and become a member of the Union. On May 29, 1790 Rhode Island voted to ratify the constitution, by a vote of 34 to 32; showing how divided the State was.
So, on that date we fully became a Union under a new system of government. Whether or not we were still a nation based upon the principle of self-determination will be the topic of Part 2 of this series.