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Congratulations, John, for writing about our Christian Forefathers without one time mentioning Christ, Christians, nor Christianity. Instead, you mentioned Thomas Paine, the atheist who died a traitor to his country, you quoted Thomas Jefferson out of context, and you talked about "religious toleration" rather than "religious freedom" :
"Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free"
Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power ...
America's founders developed ideas on liberty that remain with us today.
June 30, 2002
The "Glorious Cause," George Washington called the American Revolution. He and the other founders fought not only for independence from Great Britain, but for a new conception of freedom, of the individual person as someone with intrinsic rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
The revolution included not only brave men and women willing to die for their liberty, but a collection of political thinkers second in rank, for one place and time, only to those of ancient Athens. Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, Madison, John and Sam Adams, Patrick Henry, George Mason and others all continue to be read today by friends of liberty - and especially by those yearning to breathe free of the yoke of tyranny.
The Revolutionary era was a remarkable confluence of people, ideas and debates.
Americans inherited foundations of liberty from their ancestors, especially from England, but from other parts of Europe as well. These included English common law, with its strong basis in individual liberty and private property; Christianity of several denominations and important Jewish contributions as well; and the sense of discovery and adventure that came from the opening of the New World to European settlers and the vast American continent that still was largely undiscovered by Europeans.
The course of the 18th century also saw the advance of the Enlightenment, which involved examining matters more with the critical eye to reason and an emphasis on equality, especially religious toleration. This was different from the societies of Europe, which had established churches that in most cases limited the rights of non-communicants and whose societies were stratified into classes - the monarchy, the aristocracy, the merchants, the peasantry - out of which it was difficult to move.
Fortunately for Americans, they avoided the worst aspects of the Enx lightenment - a tendency to make everything into an abstraction. This led to what Camus later would call "logical murder," or murder for political abstractions, as during the mass murders of the 1789 French Revolution and its sequelae.
The Enlightenment also brought a tendency toward Deism, the belief that God exists but is not personal, but a distant "watchmaker." This belief was held by Jefferson and John Adams in particular. But scholar M.E. Bradford showed that almost all the other founders, including the other signers of the Declaration of Independence, were traditional Christians in belief. The tension between the Deists and theists certainly played a part in the forming of the country.
From England, the founders also inherited the debate over natural law and natural rights that had been going on for more than a century. The natural law element can be seen in the Declaration's reference to "nature and nature's God." That is, just as nature shows us there's a law of gravity, so it shows us that there's a law of liberty. And behind that is the God who created nature.
And from France the founders gathered many ideas of liberty, such as those of the physiocrats, who advocated laissez-faire economics, which is the reduction or limitation of tariffs and other limits to free trade.
The frontier experience itself gave Americans a strong sense of self-sufficiency. The frontier was made of families carving their own homesteads out of the land. Almost every family owned a rifle, which was not the case in well-settled England. And government meant the self-government of families working together in democratic assemblies.
Finally, America at that time was living in the wake of the Great Awakening, the religious revival of the middle of the century that ignited piety and debate in all the colonies. This debate was largely among Protestant ministers of the many denominations and was different from the debate between deists and theists. The Great Awakening debate also helped Americans see themselves as a unique people with a providential destiny.
Founding European thinkers
Even in the early days, Americans were strong readers. Almost every home had a Bible and many had copies of Shakespeare, Milton and Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress." The wealthier and better educated were familiar with the Greek classics, especially Aristotle and Plato, and such Romans as Cicero. They especially were interested in how the Romans struggled, in the end unsuccessfully, to keep their republic from becoming a dictatorship and empire.
In addition to the ancients, here are some of the European thinkers most influential to the founders:
John Locke's "Two Treatises of Government" (1690) established liberty as the basis of any government. He insisted, "Freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power vested in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, when the rule prescribes not, and not to be subject to the inconstant, unknown, arbitrary will of another man." He also said, "Government has no other end but the preservation of Property."
He believed that government existed to protect the rights of "life, liberty and property." That was modified slightly by Jefferson to become the "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" of the Declaration. The Constitution later guaranteed the right to "life, liberty and property."
Jefferson called Locke one of "the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception."
Montesquieu, in "The Spirit of Laws" (1748), wrote that liberty was best safeguarded by three separate branches of government, the legislative, executive and judicial. The system would prevent centralized tyranny, with no one branch gaining too much power. The founders adopted this system in the Constitution.
Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" was published in 1776, the year of the Revolution, and explained how free markets produce wealth precisely because people compete with one another and made famous the "invisible hand" of the market as opposed to the planned economy of governments.
Edmund Burke, the great British conservative parliamentarian, defended the Americans' right to self-government in his speech on "Conciliation with America" (1775), which almost all Americans only a few decades ago studied in school.
"Let the colonies always keep the idea of their civil rights associated with your [the British] government - they will cling and grapple to you, and no force under heaven will be of power to tear them from their allegiance," he said. But if that government becomes a tyranny, "the cohesion is loosened, and everything hastens to decay and dissolution."
Founding American thinkers
Thomas Jefferson, of course, was the principal author of the Declaration. But as early as 1770 he wrote, "Under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the Author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance." And in 1774 he wrote, "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them."
All America was stirred by Patrick Henry's famous speech at the Virginia Convention in 1775: "Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"
Feisty Sam Adams explained the rights of the colonists in "The Report of the Committee of Correspondence to the Boston Town Meeting," Nov. 20, 1772: "Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can."
Old Benjamin Franklin was famous not only in America, but throughout Europe as Dr. Franklin, the inventor, scientist and printer. Americans grew up reading such maxims as, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
In 1776, Thomas Paine wrote "Common Sense," arguing for separation from England. It sold 150,000 copies, the equivalent of about 15 million today. In December, he began a series of pamphlets called "The Crisis" in which he wrote, "These are times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country."
Stoic George Washington was not a political philosopher, but his integrity led the country to victory. As he told his troops on July 2, 1776, just as independence was being declared, "The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own ... . The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us only the choice of brave resistance, or the most abject submission. We have, therefore, to resolve to conquer or die."
Americans in the Revolution took the founders' words to heart and fought to gain their independence. Their words live with us, and in the hearts of all who cherish freedom. The battles for limited government and personal freedom continue.
Mr. Seiler is an editorial writer for the Register. He can be reached at email@example.com or (714) 796-5025.