The spirit of Free Men such as Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, the pioneering Daniel Boone and other frontiersmen, for example, is expressive of the true spirit of traditional America. To those benighted souls who cry for "security"--either that of the subjects of a benevolent king, or of a paternalistic system of Government-over-Man with its government-provided economic "security" accompanied inescapably by only a limited degree of Liberty, namely a system of Man subservient to Authority--The American Spirit replies.
Better Liberty with the challenge
And dangers of the untried, unknown,
Than Servitude's deadly certainty
Of economic security.
The principles stated in the Declaration of Independence were truly expressive of the deep-rooted convictions in 1776 not only of its signers and other American leaders but of the people in general. As its chief draftsman, Jefferson wrote later that in it he sought to express no new ideas but only those commonly prevailing throughout the country. As he put it in 1825 (letter to Henry Lee), the Declaration was designed not to present new principles, or arguments, but "to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, . . . intended to be an expression of the American mind . . ." In the same year (letter to Dr. James Mease) he stated that the Declaration was ". . . the genuine effusion of the soul of our country at that time." The same sentiments, in substance, were expressed in 1822 by John Adams--one of the drafting committee's members and chiefly responsible for insisting that Jefferson do the actual, initial drafting--(letter to Timothy Pickering) stating:
"As you justly observe, there is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before. The substance of it is contained in the declaration of rights and the violation of those rights, in the Journals of Congress, in 1774. Indeed, the essence of it is contained in a pamphlet, voted and printed by the town of Boston, before the first Congress met . . ."
As noted in the Introduction to this study-guide, a somewhat similar observation had been made by John Adams in a letter to Samuel Chase in July, 1776. The records fully bear out these concurring statements by Jefferson and John Adams. The sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence were, indeed, those of the American people in general--loyal to the aims of the two Revolutions of 1776: the Revolution for Independence and the Twin Revolution in support of Individual Liberty: Freedom of Man from Government-over-Man.
The deep-seated and long-developing nature of "the common sense of the subject"---of the thinking of the American people expressed in the Declaration--is illustrated by the striking fact that a book published over half a century earlier by one of the New England clergy, Reverend John Wise, expounded and espoused with remarkable clarity and great assurance, born of firm conviction, most of the principal ideas, or principles, presented in this 1776 document. The idea of Equality was discussed--for instance, there is a "natural equality of men amongst men," which must be "favored" (respected). The fundamental rights: "life, liberty, estate" (property) were commented on. The fact that the primary role and aim of Government is the protection of these rights and to serve the common good, as well as the topic of Man's relationship to Government, were also discussed. For instance, he noted that Man delegates power to government--(part of) his "original liberty" is "resigned"--not unconditionally but "under due restrictions" (namely, permitting government to possess only limited powers) and that Man's reserved rights "ought to be cherished in all wise Governments; or otherwise a man in making himself a subject, he alters himself from a freeman, into a slave, which to do is repugnant to the law of nature." Here he noted, in effect, not only the limited-power nature of Government, by grant of power under "restrictions" by the people, but also the fact that its granted powers should be such as to be consistent with a Freeman's Liberty. He also emphasized the "Compact" theory: that Men enter into Society, form their governments, by contract freely entered into and "not of divine institution" (not in keeping with the rejected theory of the Divine Right of Kings), and that government "is the produce of mans reason, of human and rational combinations . . ." Furthermore, this book stressed the fundamental, political tenet of the 1776 Declaration: that the source of Government's power "is the People."
All of this advanced and forward-looking political thought, and much more, is found in this Ipswich, Massachusetts, clergyman's 1717 book, A Vindication of the Government of New-England Churches. It is unexcelled among all such writings of the Colonial period. Although he did not discuss that other great political idea of the 1776 Declaration: the people's right to revolt against tyrannical government, yet he observed that "the prince who strives to subvert the fundamental laws of the society, is the traytor and the rebel"--that is, public officials who act outside of their granted authority and violate its limits as prescribed by the people under the fundamental law are the traitors and rebels and not the people who resist their tyranny. It is also noteworthy that this clergyman was in the lead of the revolt of the Town of Ipswich in 1687 against Royal Governor Andros and his tax levied without consent of the popular legislative body--a revolt based upon the principle of popular sovereignty as to taxation; the Town-meeting refused to authorize collection of the tax and, for his refusal to pay the tax, Clergyman Wise was tried, fined and suspended from the Ministry--also jailed during the proceedings. This is commemorated by the inscription on the town's official seal: "The Birthplace of American Independence, 1687."
This 1717 book of Reverend Wise emphasized the relationship of Man to the Law of Nature and his capacity to understand it through use of his faculty of reason; the Law of Nature is "the dictate of right reason." Note also the statement in an oration on July 4, 1787 by Joel Barlow at Hartford, Connecticut, in celebration of the anniversary of the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence, that:
"The present is an age of philosophy, and America the empire of reason. Here, neither the pageantry of courts, nor the glooms of superstition, have dazzled or beclouded the mind. Our duty calls us to act worthy of the age and the country that gave us birth. Though inexperience may have betrayed us into errors--yet they have not been fatal: and our own discernment will point us to their proper remedy."
This "discernment"--the capacity to reason--was considered by The Founders and their fellow leaders of that period, as well as those like Reverend Wise of earlier generations, to be self-governing Man's salvation, if soundly exercised. His 1717 book makes it clear that this "age of philosophy" and this "empire of reason" in America did not originate in the 1776 period but was in bud, if not in flower in remarkable degree, in Wise's day--based of course upon much older roots in American thinking and experience in government, with the benefit of wide reading of Old World writings.
The steadily developing American character of this early thinking, of these precepts, stemmed from the fact that the American people were applying them in practice, living by them, in increasing degree; though some abstract ideas, or ways of expressing them, were selectively adapted from theoretical writings of foreign authors. Ideas applied governmentally became uniquely American principles.