On July 4, 1776, the United States of America was founded. On that day, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. A committee consisting of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman wrote the Declaration. Jefferson did most of the writing, and his draft, with some changes, was approved by the members of Congress. The historic document began with the formulation of fundamental principles concerning the rights of man and the duty of the people to alter or abolish governments that destroy said rights. It proceeded to list the numerous acts of tyranny committed by the King of Great Britain in the North American colonies. And it concluded with the declaration “that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.”
The road to independence began in 1763, when the British Parliament enacted a series of measures designed to raise revenue for the British government in order to pay debts accumulated during the Seven Years’ War (known in the United States as the French and Indian War). The measures involved taxes and duties on trade with the North American colonies, favoring British over American merchants and undermining the commercial and political power of the American elite. They included the Proclamation Line of 1763, the Currency Act of 1764, the Sugar Act of 1764, the Stamp Act of 1765, the Quartering Act of 1765, the Declaratory Act of 1766, and the Townsend Duties of 1767. The measures stimulated a movement in opposition to British commercial policies, and the conflict came to a head from 1773 to 1776. The Tea Act of 1773 led to the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, which led to the Coercive Acts of 1774, leading to the summoning of a Continental Congress, which emitted a Declaration of Rights. The King made no concessions to the demands of the Declaration of Rights, leading to armed confrontation in Lexington and Concord in 1775.
The opposition movement in the North American colonies was led by the American elite, a wealthy educated class consisting primarily of merchants and large planters. Lawyers, editors, and merchants of the upper class mobilized popular energy through writings and speeches that used the language of liberty and equality. Utilizing newspaper editorials, pamphlets, and mass meetings, the educated elite rallied the mass of ordinary citizens from the urban middle class (small merchants, lawyers, ship captains, and clergy) as well as the urban working class (artisans, seamen, and laborers) and small farmers. The use of writing and publication to reach the popular classes was a new step for the educated elite, who had previously confined themselves to writing solely to an audience of fellow gentlemen. They wrote pamphlets primarily, usually from 5,000 to 25,000 words printed in ten to fifty pages, although some extended to sixty or eighty pages. Most were responses to the great events of the time, such as the Stamp Act or the Boston Massacre. Some generated a series of replies, rebuttals, and counter-rebuttals. Some were published in commemorations of the anniversary of particular events.
The ideology of the American Revolution was derived from many sources, including the writings of classical antiquity, the Enlightenment concept of natural rights, English common law, New England Puritanism, and American Protestantism. But it was especially influenced by the radical social and political thought of the English Civil War and the Commonwealth period, which focused on the freedom of the individual from the suppressive misuse of power, from the tyranny of the state. The American revolutionaries identified with the seventeenth century English defenders of liberty, who advocated at various times such political reforms as adult manhood suffrage, representative government, freedom of the press, and no government involvement in the practice of religion. These English radicals were concerned with the capacity of the executive branch to seduce Parliament with positions and pensions, thus persuading them to support standing armies and national debts. Although the English radicals had relatively little influence in England, they were enormously influential in the colonies, where their notions seemed particularly reasonable and relevant.
The American revolutionaries sought to persuade. In The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn writes, “The American writers were profoundly reasonable people. Their pamphlets convey scorn, anger, and indignation; but rarely blind hate, rarely panic fear. They sought to convince their opponents, not … to annihilate them.” He notes that this reasonable approach was a political necessity for the American revolutionaries in the context of their situation. Therefore, the perfection of the art of persuasion was integral to the revolution and its ultimate triumph. “The communication of understanding . . . lay at the heart of the Revolutionary movement, and its great expressions, embodied in the best of the pamphlets, are consequently expository and explanatory: didactic, systematic, and direct, rather than imaginative and metaphoric. . . . The reader is led through arguments, not images. The pamphlets aim to persuade.”
In the period 1763 to 1776, under the pressure of events, American revolutionary leaders forged what Bailyn describes as “a comprehensive view, unique in its moral and intellectual appeal.” Among the important notions that emerged in the American revolution was that of government by the people. Government by the continuous and active consent of the people, in which the people are present through their representatives in the conduct of public affairs. Government by the people and for the people. Government whose legitimacy rests on the continuous assent of the people.
During the revolutionary period, there also emerged the notion of a constitution, distinct from and superior to legislative bodies, a fundamental law that limits and controls other institutions. In the view of the American revolutionaries, the purpose of the constitution is to protect rights; universal and inherent rights, in accordance with the laws of nature and God. These rights have to be specified and proclaimed in a written constitution, in order to ensure that they are never taken away. This concept of a constitution protecting God-given and natural rights emerged during the entirely of the American colonial experience, and they were unique to America. As expressed in the constitutions of the various colonies, they include prohibitions of unlawful arrest and imprisonment and arbitrary taxation; and guaranties of due process of law, especially trial by jury.
The 1776 Declaration of Independence formulated important principals: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable 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 abolish it, and to institute new Government.” Here important concepts are expressed: there are self-evident truths; all citizens have inalienable rights; state power has legitimacy to the extent that it has the support of the people; and the people have the right to revolution against a tyrannical government.
The American Declaration of Independence had universal appeal, touching the hopes of people throughout the world. Anti-colonial movements in all regions of the world would cite the Declaration of Independence in defense of their cause. In 1945 in Indochina, for example, the pronouncement by Ho Chi Minh of the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam began by citing the “undeniable truths” of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” And Fidel Castro, in his historic 1953 self-defense at his trial for his leadership of an attack on the Moncada military garrison, repeated in full the above-quoted paragraph, as an illustration of the widely held recognition of the right of rebellion against despotism
The declaration that all men are created equal and endowed by inalienable rights was not intended as a description of empirical reality, but as a philosophical foundation that was to guide the newly proclaimed Republic. In fact, the declaration of equality and rights for all was contradicted by reality on many fronts. In the first place, the leading members of the Continental Congress belonged to an upper class, an “educated gentry” of big merchants, large landholders, investors, and lawyers, who declared the rights of artisans and small farmers only as a matter of political expediency of the moment. Moreover, blacks and women were not intended to be included. Slavery existed in a systemic form in two of the colonies, and indentured servitude in one of them, although there was consciousness among the Founders of the contradiction between the proclamation of equality and the existence of slavery and indentured servitude. (For more on American slavery, see “US Slavery in historical and global context,” June 1, 2021).
The principle of equal rights for all did indeed become in practice the foundation of the Republic, not all at once but step-by-stop, demanded in practice by popular movements formed by the people of the United States. This gradual implementation began in 1787, when the educated elite drew up a constitution that was designed to check the power of the people and did not include a bill of rights. The proposed constitution provoked a reaction from the people. Ordinary farmers, traders, artisans, and workers formed associations and published pamphlets and newspapers. In reaction to repression of the anti-Federalists by the government, the popular organizations advocated freedom of speech, press, and association. They were able to compel the adoption of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The debate over the Constitution and the manner in which it was resolved established the American way of democratic progress in the nation. Limitations in the original constitution were to be overcome through constitutional amendments, demanded by social movements formed by sectors of the people, whose social conditions enabled them to see the need for change.
And so it was that the abolitionist movement culminated in the Thirteenth Amendment (1865), which abolished slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), which affirmed rights of citizenship to the freed slaves and their descendants; and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), which declared that the right to vote could not be denied on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. When states in the Jim Crow South systematically violated the constitutionally protected citizenship and voting rights of blacks, a situation that the Congress of the United States had tolerated unjustly from 1876 to 1965, the African-American movement defended its demands for equality on the basis of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. At the first mass meeting of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1954, a young, not-yet-known Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., invoked the principles of American democracy and the Constitution of the nation. When the Civil Rights Movement reached maturity in 1963, King at the March on Washington quoted the Declaration of Independence, declaring that the full meaning of the American creed was expressed in the words, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” When the Congress of the United States enacted the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, it was doing nothing more than implementing the Constitution in accordance with the foundational principle of equality for all, and therefore a fundamental change in customs and attitudes could proceed with the support of the majority of the people.
The Seneca Falls conventions of 1848, initially called the Woman’s Rights Convention, drew upon the Declaration of Independence to proclaim its advocacy for the social, civil and religious rights of women and for women’s equality in politics, family, education, and employment. Its Declaration of Sentiments asserted. “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.” During subsequent decades the movement for women’s rights included liberal reformist efforts to extend the concept of individual rights and liberties to women, radical critiques of the structures and ideology of patriarchy, and syntheses of feminism and socialism. The movement attained the passage of the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution in 1920, which stipulated that the right to vote shall not be abridged on account of sex. And it had a significant impact on the U.S. culture from the 1960s to the 1980s, as many feminist ideas, especially from liberal feminism, became widely disseminated. Fundamental principles of the movement, principles such as equal educational and occupational opportunity and the right of women to full participation in the public sphere, became widely accepted.
A proposed Equal Rights Amendment affirmed equal legal rights for all citizens, regardless of sex. It was approved by the required 2/3 majority by the House of Representatives in 1971 and the Senate in 1972, and thus sent to the states for ratification. It was supported by Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter. As of 1977, it was ratified by 35 of the necessary 38 (3/4) of the state legislatures. The ERA seemed destined for ratification until Phyllis Schlafly mobilized conservative women in opposition. These women argued that the ERA would disadvantage housewives, cause women to be drafted into the military and to lose protections such as alimony, and eliminate the tendency for mothers to obtain custody over their children in divorce cases. Successfully exploiting issues such as abortion rights and gay rights, the anti-feminist counter movement portrayed the women’s movement as opposed to “family values” and as contributing to a moral decline in the nation.
When a movement fails to attain a consensual majority in support of its cause, the appropriate course of action is NOT to press the judicial branch for interpretations of the Constitution and federal laws that go beyond what was intended by constitutional framers and congressional legislators. Such an approach has the result that important decisions are made by lawyers and judges, with the elected representatives of the people, and the people themselves, excluded; a sure remedy for provoking division and conflict. The necessary task is to persuade the people to support the proposed changes, forging a popular consensus, so that constitutional amendments and new laws can be passed. In this way, the changes would enjoy wide support, because even those citizens who had been opposed would see that a strong majority of the people support them. Moreover, this approach would reinforce popular respect for the constitutional foundation of the nation, thus providing the basis for a common belief system, in spite of ideological, political, cultural, and religious differences; thereby enhancing the unity and the political stability of the nation.
In the process of change that seeks an expansion and a deepening of democratic rights, narrow majorities are not enough. In light of the requirements for constitutional amendments and new federal legislation, a consensus or clear majority is necessary. Which is as it should be. When a cause does not enjoy the consensual support of the people, it must perfect its means of persuasion. It must write pamphlets that explain, which today are easily disseminated by Internet. It must organize meetings in homes, schools, churches and other public places, making the appeal through person-to-person dialogue. It cannot antagonize; its goal must be to persuade. This was the way of the American revolutionaries, the founders of our nation.
For a nation to be unified, it must have unifying narrative. Today in the United States there are competing, superficial narratives. The task of journalists, academics, politicians, and leading institutions is to formulate a well-informed comprehensive narrative, rooted in history and science, based on the principles of the Republic. Such a task faces the challenge of overcoming significant omissions in U.S. public discourse.
In the first place, the comprehensive narrative has to come to terms with the implications of the emergence of big industry and finance during the second half of the nineteenth century, driven by the Robber Barons (see “The robber barons and monopoly capitalism,” June 25, 2021). The concentration of capital meant the emergence of a power not taken into account by Founders in the formulation of the Constitution. How can this new power be checked, without constraining its productive capacity? In the era of the anti-Trust movement, the Wilson administration submitted a package of proposals, approved by the Congress, which may have found the necessary balance. But its constraints on big industry and finance were cast aside by the demands of hot and cold wars and an emerging arms industry. Today the national narrative has to has arrive to a consensual understanding on this issue, which is, in effect, the issue of the relation between the state and the economy.
Secondly, the comprehensive narrative has to formulate an understanding of the spectacular ascent of the United States from the 1790s to the 1960s. Former President Donald Trump attained a following among the people with the slogan, Make America Great Again. But before we can make the nation great again, we have to understand the factors that made possible its earlier period of greatness. These factors are: the market for food and animal products in the slaveholding Caribbean island, generating the accumulation of capital in New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies; the core-peripheral economic relation between the Northeast and the slave South, providing markets and raw materials for northeastern manufacturing, stimulating its development; the conquest of the indigenous nations of the West and the war against Mexico during the nineteenth century, providing a material foundation for further economic development; the concentration of industry during the second half of the nineteenth century, increasing the productive capacity of the nation; U.S. imperialist policies during the twentieth century, provide access to new markets and natural resources in Latin America and the Caribbean; and the world wars of the twentieth century, hot and cold, which drove the development of the arms industry. As can be seen, these factors were a consequence of particular dynamics that are no longer present, at least in the same form. Moreover, other factors have emerged, which have facilitated a U.S. economic decline relative to other nations, aided by the unpatriotic policies of the political establishment and their corporate sponsors, who were on their knees before the false gods of money, personal gain, and profits.
Moreover, in understanding these dynamics, the comprehensive national narrative also has to come to terms with the fact that a world of competing imperialisms in no longer tenable, because the world-system has reached and overextended the natural limits of the earth. Accordingly, the USA must reformulate its foreign policy, based on the principles of cooperation and mutually beneficial trade among nations, integrating this alternative foreign policy into its comprehensive narrative.
In reformulating the American narrative, all of this must be understood. American greatness must be redefined, taking into account the real conditions and challenges that the nation today confronts, and the possibilities for the nation in playing a leadership role in the development of a more just, politically stable, and prosperous world-system.
In the face of the profound divisions and confusions of the nation today, let us dedicate ourselves to the reformulation of the American narrative on the basis of a global, historical, and comprehensive understanding of the real conditions that the nation confronts; and rooted in the philosophical and constitutional foundation of the nation, whose independence was declared by the Founding Fathers on July 4, 1776, who pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
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