In so many ways, the American founding era (1761-1793) is a time period without equal in all modern history, as a dedicated group of citizens attempted to create and sustain the first republic on any large scale since the collapse of the Roman Republic with the assassination of Senator Marcus T. Cicero (43B.C.). They did so with an astounding amount of bravado and audacity, though certainly not without error and, at times, gut-wrenching compromise. What allowed such an audacious moment? The founding generation—one of the single most literate generations in the history of the world—wrote much and, almost always, for public consumption. Indeed, they considered the writing out, the debating of, and the transmission of ideas, a crucial component of their own cherished republicanism and Protestantism. To put it simply, they loved the word, and, as such, they loved the Word.

“The Revolutionary leaders were men of substance—propertied, educated. They read. And what they read made it easier for them to become rebels because they did not see rebels when they looked in the mirror,” historian Trevor Colbourn has written so eloquently. “They saw transplanted Englishmen with the rights of expatriated men. They were determined to fight for inherited historic rights and liberties.”[1]

Words and ideas permeated every aspect of republican and Protestant American culture. We know several things about the Founding, all of which confirm this. First, there were roughly 5,000 separate titles of books in the American colonies. Second, there were a number of private and college libraries, all of which seem to have been rather generous in their attitudes of lending. Third, given their reliance and faith upon the King James Version of the Holy Bible, the American population was probably as literate or more so than any other single population on earth at that time. Fourth, printing presses were readily used, and wood for pulp overwhelmed the American settlements.

When I was researching for my dissertation—way back in the mid-1990s—I came across a cache of letters from John to Abigail Adams, intercepted by the British invasion and occupying forces. This was in the William Clements Library in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan. Within one of the letters, John had inserted a revolutionary broadside. It moved me as much in 1995 as it does in 2020.

AMERICA

Fellow Countrymen,

be not intimidated at the Sight of Soldiers, mercenary Soldiers, who for a penny a day addition to their Wages, would serve Mustaphay 3rd as soon as George ye 3rd. You know their Number: 1000 Slaves are not to give Laws to a brave and free people. They have already began to shew their Insolence. There is now no appeal but to God. Extirpate them Root and Branch, be sure their Chiefs are the first Victims, rise my Countrymen. Throw off the first Fetter of Slavery, a Standing Army – remember your brave Forefathers, men of whom, the world was not worthy. They purchas’d this Land with much Treasure and Seas of their Blood, let them not in this day rise up and see their posterity less brave, less resolute, and less virtuous. My Countrymen we either must unsheath our Swords or be Slaves. Your understandings would be affronted were the Last to be put to you. The day is come. Strike these Invaders of your Liberty, these Enemies of your God and not let them any longer pollute this “Insulam Sacram,” ye that have got no swords, sell your Garments and buy one. You fear not Death, only Slavery. The Anniversary of our last Stroke to their underhand plots was the 14th August. Let our last and effectual stroke to their open Hostilities be the same. My Countrymen, be Freemen or Slaves, or die, or die. [Unsigned broadside, covered with Masonic symbols; Gage Papers, William Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan]

This broadside was, unquestionably, the typical (if extraordinary in the context of world history) type of argument, written as pamphlets and posted on Liberty Poles throughout the patriot areas of the colonies.

Not surprisingly, when writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson explained that he drew on ancient sources:

This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. 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.[2]

John Adams, the first American to argue for independence, as early as 1765, said the same as Jefferson in 1774:

These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, of Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason [the Logos].

A leading Anti-Federalist:

We do not by declarations change the nature of things, or create new truths, but we give existence, or at least establish in the minds of the people truths and principles which they might never have thought of, or soon forgot. If a nation means its systems, religious or political, shall have duration, it ought to recognize the leading principles of them in the front page of every family book.[4]

The founders, it should be remembered, wrote intelligently and perceptively, but they wrote for public consumption. They were not Gnostics, and they hid neither their love for the Word nor their love for the word.

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Notes:

[1] Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution (1965; Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1998), xviii-xix.

[2] Quoted in E. Christian Kopff, “Open Shutters on the Past: Rome and the Founders,” in Gary L. Gregg, ed. Vital Remnants: America’s Founding and the Western Tradition (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1999), 86-7.

[3] Quoted in Kopff, “Open Shutters on the Past,” 87.

[4] Quoted in Graham Walker, “Virtue and the Constitution,” in Vital Remnants, 117.

The featured image is “Books and Pamphlets” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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