To Secure the Blessings of Liberty: The Making of the Consitution - the Infant American Nation Weathered Tremendous Obstacles in Order to Form a Constitutional Union

By McDonald, Forrest | The World and I, February 2003 | Go to article overview

To Secure the Blessings of Liberty: The Making of the Consitution - the Infant American Nation Weathered Tremendous Obstacles in Order to Form a Constitutional Union


McDonald, Forrest, The World and I


Forrest McDonald is professor of history at the University of Alabama and author of Novus Ordo Seclorum.

On the eve of independence, the American people were sorely divided against themselves; but the patriots of 1776 were, at least in principle, nearly unanimous in their understanding of what independence entailed. The short-range necessity was to win on the battlefield what they had proclaimed in the halls of Congress. The longer-term necessity, in the language of the Declaration of Independence, was "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."

Patriots were also agreed that the proper ends of government were to protect people in their lives, liberty, and property; and that liberty was the most precious of these, for men were willing to sacrifice the other two for its preservation.

It is important to understand the intensity of their passion for their heritage of freedom. Listen to the words of Joseph Warren, a leader of the Sons of Liberty who was soon to be killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill:

"Our fathers having resolved never to wear the yoke of despotism, and seeing the European world...a prey to tyranny, bravely threw themselves upon the bosom of the ocean, determined to find a place in which to enjoy their freedom, or perish in the glorious attempt. "

Public speakers echoed this sentiment again and again: "The voice of your fathers' blood cries to you...we bled in vain, if you, our offspring, [lack valor] in your exertions for the preservation of your liberties." Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut later recalled the spirit of 76: "When we rushed to arms for preventing British usurpation, liberty was the argument of every tongue. This word...is sacred, next to those we appropriate for divine adoration."

When the Revolution began, a great many Americans believed that liberty or freedom required no definition. Liberty trees could be planted, liberty poles could be erected, chapters of the Sons of Liberty could be formed, and Patrick Henry could declare, "Give me liberty or give me death"--all without having to give deep thought to what was involved in the concept. But an astonishing number of Americans did devote deep thought to the subject. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that, for two decades prior to the meeting of the Constitutional Convention, American political discourse was an ongoing public forum on the meaning of liberty. In town meetings and country conventions, at sittings of the grand juries, in the newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides, from the pulpits and on the streetcorners, Americans expressed their views. And there was a wide range of opinion--almost the only thing generally agreed upon was that liberty was something that everybody wanted. Everything else--what liberty was, who deserved it, how much of it was desirable, how it was obtained, how it was secured--was subject to debate.

A related matter, likewise the subject of an ongoing forum, was the origin or source of the professed "right" to liberty. Americans liked to believe that their rights were founded not on mere will, or caprice, but upon some broader legitimating principle. Prior to July 1776 they could properly claim that their rights derived from the British constitution and from their colonial charters, and those claims had standing in law; but independence dissolved both those foundations. In their stead, the Declaration of Independence postulated the doctrine of natural rights: that all men are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

To many Americans, most notably Thomas Jefferson, that doctrine seemed adequate, inasmuch as it was reinforced by the companion doctrine of the right of revolution. Most Americans, however, sought a firmer and more stable fount of rights in civil society. …

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