USA

What Exactly Was the Spirit of ’76?

'Washington Crossing the Delaware' by Emanuel Leutze, MMA-NYC, 1851.

July 4 is typically a day when Americans celebrate the meaning of 1776 and reflect upon its relevance. Independence Day 2020 will no doubt have a different feel to it. Over the last month, Americans have watched their cities destroyed and their history canceled. 

This much seems certain: once all the statues and memorials are torn down, Antifa and the rest of the anarcho-socialist SJWs will come for July 4. By this time next year, Independence Day may very well be a day of national mourning—a day in which we declare our independence from America’s evil past. The goal of the new Vandals is to cure us of what the Khmer Rouge called “memory sickness.”

During these dark times, it is critical that Americans understand, defend, and restore the principles on which this country was founded. It may be even more important that we resurrect the actions of the Patriots who defended those principles. 

To that end, consider the opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

What could it possibly mean to say that independence—which meant war, destruction, and death—was necessary? Surely the Americans had a choice! 

To understand why the American revolutionaries thought it was necessary to separate from King and country, we must examine a phrase they used often during the 1760s and 1770s: the “spirit of liberty.” To modern Americans, the notion of a “spirit of liberty” might seem like little more than flowery rhetoric. To 18th-century Americans, however, it meant something real and important.  

The word “spirit” as used in the phrase signifies an action in defense of a principle, and was defined by American patriots as a sentiment, a mindset, a disposition, and a virtue. As a sentiment, it loves freedom and hates slavery; as a mindset, it is watchful, suspicious, and skeptical; as a disposition, it is restless, protective, and vigilant; and as a virtue, it is defined by integrity, fortitude, courage, and patriotism. Taken together, the “spirit of liberty” is a sense of life defined by independence in the fullest sense of the term.

The spirit of American liberty served as a kind of moral and psychological tripwire that was first triggered by the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 and kept active with every piece of British legislation aimed at the Americans in the decade before 1776. During these years, American Whigs developed objective standards by which to measure the justice and injustice of British legislation. These standards, when combined with the “spirit of liberty,” provided the Americans with an early warning system that alerted them to the growth of arbitrary power.

By the early 1760s, this emerging moral awareness was taking root in the political consciousness of the colonists. Thus their contest with Great Britain was not to create new freedoms de novo, but to restore and maintain lost freedoms. The American “spirit of liberty” meant discovering and resisting the forces of despotism before such forces could sink roots in the New World. It was common for colonial Americans to view power as restless and sleepless, which meant they must be ever alert to its machinations. The colonists frequently invoked Machiavelli’s famous dictum, “Obsta princiipis” (i.e., to resist the first beginnings).

The keepers of America’s vestal flame recognized that political power is an omnipresent force in all societies, which is why the liberty-loving temper of the people must be ignited, nurtured, and kept on alert. No infringement of their rights could be seen as too small to protest or resist. Built into the Americans’ grammar of liberty was the notion that tyranny always begins with some seemingly small and insignificant violation of rights that goes unnoticed at first but that sets a precedent for further violations.  

Rekindling and stoking the spirit of American liberty became a central theme repeated over and over again in the writings of leading American Patriots. Even British observers of American affairs, such as Edmund Burke, took note of, and attributed causal force to, the colonists’ “spirit of liberty.” In his 1775 speech on conciliation with the colonies, Burke was moved to explain that the single most important factor in understanding the Americans’ resistance to British legislation was their “temper and character.” Burke thought he had located the deepest source of their behavior over the course of the previous decade. He wrote:

a love of Freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole: and as an ardent is always a jealous affection, your Colonies become suspicious, restive, and untractable, whenever they see the least attempt to wrest from them by force, or shuffle from them by chicane, what they think the only advantage worth living for. This fierce spirit of Liberty is stronger in the English Colonies probably than in any other people of the earth.

The Americans’ “spirit of liberty,” according to Burke, provided the primary, causal explanation for why they reacted to the Stamp, Declaratory, Townshend, Tea, Coercive, and Prohibitory Acts, as well as the advancing British Deep State, in such a determined way. Failure to do so meant a concession to tyranny, which could only result in oppression and then enslavement.

The Declaration of Independence announced to the world that the Americans could not and would not renounce their most deeply held convictions, and that they must act on their chosen values. They are impelled by moral necessity, according to the Declaration, to “alter their former Systems of Government.” The words written by John Adams to a friend during some of the darkest days of the Revolution serve as a kind of motto to describe who the revolutionaries were as men and as patriots: “Fiat Justitia ruat Coelum (i.e., Let justice be done though the heavens should fall). 

Having made their case against despotism and for freedom, it should be clear now why revolution was necessary for the Americans, why they would not compromise, why it was their duty to act, and why they were impelled to dissolve the political bonds that had connected them to Great Britain. They had no other option. They had to act because of who and what they were, because of the choices they had already made, because of the values they held, because of the moral law they chose to live by, because of the kind of society they chose to live in, and because George III and the British Parliament threatened to rob them of all that. 

The Declaration of Independence required action, the kind of action that leads in the short term to hardship, penury, and possibly even death, but in the long term to the blessings of a free society. That is the American spirit.

Bradley Thompson is the executive director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism and the author ofAmerica’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It.

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