Bradley C.S. Watson’s recent essay in The Intercollegiate Review, "Creed and Culture in the American Founding," establishes a false choice between an America "founded upon a principled understanding of natural rights" and an America that "grew primarily from a set of inherited or customary understandings." In fact, the American Revolution did not establish a unified American perspective at all.
The reason is that there was at the time of the Revolution no "America," in the political, intellectual, or religious sense, because there was no "America" in the constitutional sense. There was no American nation, only a federation. That federation was first informal (in the days of the Second Continental Congress), and then formal (first under the Articles of Confederation, then under the federal Constitution of 1788). Its content was dependent entirely upon the wills of thirteen "free and independent states," to borrow a phrase from a much-cited, though often misunderstood, authority.
Why does Watson offer us an alternative reading? Apparently because he is a proponent of a (Straussian) creedal understanding of the United States. Thus, he says that "Our Creed" "by the common assent of supporters and detractors both, is most notably expressed in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence with the assertion that u2018we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’"
Watson certainly is correct that this is a widely held view. It is an odd one, nonetheless, to draw from a document whose point is that people in a geographic section (the colonies) of a larger political community (the British Empire) have a right to break with that larger community in case they judge the government of the whole to be behaving in a way that is inimical to their rights. How, precisely, did the statement to which Watson draws attention, thus decontextualized, come to be "our" creed? Watson does not ever exactly say — and with good reason.
Consider the case of Virginia. At the onset of the Revolution, the Old Dominion, oldest of the king’s colonies, extended to what is now Wisconsin. It had the largest population of whites and the largest population of blacks of any colony, and it already stood foremost in provision of talent and manpower to the cause of independence.
Virginia established its independence of Great Britain on May 15, 1776, by the May Convention’s resolutions to craft a declaration of rights, draft a constitution, and enter into federal and treaty relations. On June 29, 1776, Patrick Henry assumed the governorship of newly republican Virginia. Since Virginians were loyal to the dispensation of 1688, they first adopted the Declaration of Rights, and then implemented their new constitution — the first written constitution adopted by the people’s representatives in the history of the world.
Did Virginia do these things at Congress’s bidding, or in cooperation with any other colony? No, it did not. Rather, it behaved as an independent republic, a state on a par with Sweden, Spain, France, and Britain herself.
Watson mentions that the Virginians’ Declaration of Rights included a statement of the idea that all men are born free and equal. His intention here is to attempt to homogenize the experience of the thirteen colonies-cum-states in subscribing to an American creed.
How can one tell? Because he does some interesting bowdlerizing on the way. Thus, Watson says, "The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) claims that u2018all men are by nature equally free and independent,’ with certain u2018inherent rights’ that they cannot by u2018compact’ divest themselves of.’" Watson’s account is faithful to the draft language submitted by George Mason’s committee to the full Convention, which proposed having the Declaration of Rights say, "THAT all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity …."
What Watson omits from his account, however, is the fate of Mason’s language in the full Convention. On being reported, it met with the immediate objection of Robert Carter Nicholas — who, as the last colonial treasurer, was the highest-ranking colonial Virginia official to take the Patriot side. Nicholas said that if the statement that all men were born equally free and independent were true, he would have no problem recognizing it, but it was untrue. Thus, adoption of such language at the birth of republican Virginia would place Virginians in the very unenviable position of having to choose between ignoring their own professed principles, on one hand, and enduring enormous social convulsions, on the other.
What Nicholas meant, of course, was that this language was inconsistent with the continued existence of slavery in Virginia, where an enormous portion of the population (as much as two-thirds in Tidewater and neighboring Southside counties) consisted of African slaves. His colleagues had a ready solution: they inserted Edmund Pendleton’s Lockean language "when they enter into a state of Society" before the statement that government was responsible for protecting men’s rights.
What is one to make of this? Simply that republican Virginians, who at the time inhabited the only colony of the thirteen that was already independent, decided even before July 4, 1776 to exclude blacks from their society. Since they were not entering into a state of society with the whites, but were being kept as what Jefferson called a captive nation, the republic’s government need not concern itself with their rights.
What relationship did the Declaration of American Independence have to this discussion? Specifically, how did Congress’s promulgation of the famous second sentence affect the shape of the newly republican Virginian polity?
Simply, not at all. Virginia’s congressmen had been instructed to have Congress declare "that these colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states." In giving its ambassadors to the Congress ("congressmen") this instruction, Virginian leaders must have been thinking along the lines of Benjamin Franklin’s famous statement on another occasion that revolutionaries must all hang together, or they would surely all hang separately. They wanted other states to establish their permanent independence, as none joined Virginia in doing before July 4, because being the only colony to have broken with the Empire was not a comfortable position; hence the third of those May 15, 1776 resolutions.
Virginia’s congressmen, like their colleagues from several (but not all) of the colonies, had authority to enter into such a declaration. Let us remember, however, who these congressmen were: they were attorneys from their states. They had limited authority to speak for their states in exactly the manner their states told them to. As John Adams put it, Congress was a meeting place of ambassadors, not a proper legislature. It did not have any authority independent of the states’ instructions.
It certainly did not have authority to launch the separate polities from which Congress’s members came on some common enterprise on behalf of a half-baked formulation of Lockean theory (which, of course, everyone knew perfectly well to be nothing but a fantasy, a legal fiction, a politicians’ fairy tale) first concocted in Thomas Jefferson’s bedroom, then revised in a committee meeting room, and finally burnished by the full Congress.
Watson notes that there is in the Declaration of Independence a long list of accusations against King George, and that that list is commonly overlooked today. Also commonly overlooked today is the gravamen of the Declaration: that the thirteen former colonies "are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states." That was the only thing the Congress was entitled to declare. It was not empowered to create a single nation of the thirteen nations (that is what a "state" was in the eighteenth century — a nation). It certainly was not in a position to bequeath a creed upon the rest of us, nonsensical or not. Even if we did not know that the philosophical predicate of the Declaration would not have been accepted unanimously by the states if they had been asked to accept it — and we absolutely do know that — we certainly do know that no one empowered the Congress to draft a creed, acceptable or not, or to bind the states to it.
Watson’s essay is distorted, from start to finish, by the assumption that there was a single American people speaking through a single American state, apparently informed by a single colonial tradition, in the time of the Revolution. It is full of phrases such as "the founders," "the founding," and "our culture," when what one must understand to apprehend the Revolution are the divergent (often completely contradictory) motives impelling different states first to establish their independence, then to participate in the Revolution, and finally to create the federal Constitution.
Historians understand, for example, that many people in Virginia were led to break with George III not by devotion to some universalist philosophy inconsistent with the continued existence of slavery, but by considered determinations that after Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation of 1775, continued allegiance to the British Empire actually threatened slavery. William Byrd III, Landon Carter, and others became Patriots in part to protect slavery. Knowing this, one is unsurprised that not Abraham Lincoln’s attitudes about natural equality, but Robert Carter Nicholas’s, carried the day.
Virginians, having launched their republican ship of state in defense of their inherited ways — including taxation only by the General Assembly, trial by jury, self-government, and slavery, among other elements — remained defensive of their patrimony ever after. Thus, they refused to be absorbed into some great mass even when the idea pressed upon them. They ratified the Constitution only after being assured that they would remain as one of thirteen parties to a contract under it, that the new congress would have only the powers it was "expressly delegated," and that they could withdraw from the new Union just as they had withdrawn first from the British Empire, then from the Confederation. They formulated the Principles of ’98 in resistance to Alexander Hamilton’s "Anglican System in Fact." They insisted in Congress and in their state government that their state remained perfectly sovereign. Thomas Jefferson, while president, reflected this tradition in referring to the federal government as "our foreign government." Finally, when Abraham Lincoln unconstitutionally called for volunteers to enforce his creed on the Deep South, Virginia exercised its reserved right to withdraw from the Union in case continued membership in that federation proved undesirable.
So when did Virginia accept some federally enforceable creed? When did it agree voluntarily to be bound by a Western Hemisphere version of Jacobinism, forever finding new demons to conquer in the name of "Equality with the capital u2018E’"? Never.
Virginia’s experience is not unique.
There are some practices and principles to which people in the separate states subscribed during the Revolution. There were elements of shared experience in the struggle that was the Revolution. One might say the same things about various other groups of sovereigns engaged in common enterprises from time to time — say, about the Allies of World War II, the members of the Third Coalition a century earlier, or the denizens of crusader states centuries before that. The existence of significant commonalities should not blind us to the main point, however.
There is no American creed.
Kevin R. C. Gutzman, J.D., Ph.D. [send him mail], Associate Professor of History at Western Connecticut State University, is the author of Virginia’s American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776—1840 (newly available in paperback) and The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution.