The American Revolution was indeed the first true rights revolution in world history, elevating the defense of individual liberty over the authority and power of government. The federal government of the United States is likewise unique in world history. It is created by a written Constitution, a novelty of vital legal import, which mandates a government of expressly delegated and limited powers, the overarching purpose of that delegation, and those limits, to be the protection of individual rights from the government itself.
Indeed, the Constitution of the United States was intended to so cabin federal government power as to make it, in the words of Alexander Hamilton and the view of the Federalists, “in every rational sense, and to every useful purpose, A BILL OF RIGHTS.”
The Constitution creates a federal republic redundantly protective of individual liberty through the addition of a Bill of Rights. At no other time in the history of the world have those with power chosen to reject their own power universally in favor of maximum protection for individual rights. The Founding Fathers abnegated all power which deprived individuals of freedom of choice and states of jurisdiction over all matters outside of those expressly delegated to the federal government. They circumscribed federal government power severely.
It is remarkable in the extreme for political leaders in any age to make it illegal for themselves to act with discretion over matters of political concern; indeed, only in the American Founding have leaders united following a revolution to disclaim and abnegate powers to control, direct, and limit people rather than ensure the perpetuation of their own rule and pursuit of their own interests.
That unprecedented departure from absolute monarchy and centralized government control was an astonishing achievement in defense of the rights of man, an achievement that shocked leaders worldwide. Never before and since has a revolution succeeded so magnificently in overthrowing the yoke of tyranny in favor of the rights of humankind, sending an eternal warning to tyrants everywhere of the power of liberty to triumph over authoritarianism.
That achievement is reflected in Thomas Jefferson’s brilliant definition of American liberty, what he termed “rightful liberty” in his April 4, 1819 letter to Isaac H. Tiffany: “[R]ightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will, within the limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’; because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.”
The 1776 Declaration of Independence, the 1787 Constitution, and the 1791 Bill of Rights caught the attention of the civilized world, causing people everywhere who yearned to be free to agitate for republican revolution after the American example. But the American achievement proved elusive abroad, revealing it to be extraordinarily precious. Ascribing the American triumph to be the product of Divine intervention, Thomas Jefferson hoped that the Founding Fathers’ model would become commonplace. Writing to Tench Coxe on June 1, 1795, Jefferson gave glory to God for the triumph of liberty in America and held out hope that republics would soon arise across the globe: “There is a God in Heaven, and . . . he will not slumber without end on the inequities of tyrants . . . This ball of liberty . . . is now so well in motion that it will roll round the globe, at least the enlightened part of it, for light and liberty go together. It is our glory that we first put it into motion, and our happiness that being foremost we had no bad examples to follow.”
As Jefferson wrote his letter, the Marquis de Lafayette — ever loyal to General Washington, the American Republic, and the cause of liberty — struggled at great personal sacrifice to lead his native France to replicate the American example, but that was not to be. France devolved into bloody tyranny between 1789 and 1799, ultimately leading to Lafayette’s exile, his imprisonment in Olmütz, and Napoleon Bonaparte’s dictatorship.
The Irish Rebellion of 1798 against British rule was also inspired by the American Revolution. It too faltered with Ireland coming under British rule in the newly formed United Kingdom of 1801.
Other countries won independence from colonial powers but were unable to secure the full degree of liberty achieved in the American Revolution. Revolutions aimed at establishing American-style republics arose in Haiti, Brazil, Serbia, Greece, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Mexico, but none secured as high a degree of protection for individual liberty and sovereignty as the American Revolution.
In America, uniquely, Enlightenment Age wisdom filled the minds of what was an assembly of the most precocious and dedicated defenders of individual rights the world had ever known, among them Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Hamilton, and Franklin, founding fathers united in unwavering commitment to secure liberty against government abuse of power. Among the works that influenced their thinking were Locke’s Second Treatise on Government; Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws; Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government; Blackstone’s Commentaries; Smith’s Wealth of Nations; Hume’s History of England; Trenchard and Gordon’s Cato’s Letters; Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments; Edmund Burke’s “Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies;” Pufendorf’s Of the Law of Nature and Nations; and Vattel’s The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law.
The Founding Fathers who drafted, influenced the drafting, and supported the adoption of the Constitution of the United States were among the most gifted intellectuals and architects of government in the world of their time and ever since. At their unified core was a commitment to liberty defined by Jefferson in his letter to Tench Coxe.
In his Autobiography, Jefferson reflected on the degree of intellectual harmony and unanimity that prevailed among those who advanced the American cause on the eve of revolution: “Before the revolution we were all good English Whigs, cordial in . . . free principles, and in. . . . jealousies of . . . executive magistrates. These jealousies are very apparent in all our state constitutions, and in the general government . . .”
In addition to the miracle of combined genius that led to the world’s only government dedicated to the defense of individual rights, miracle after miracle presaged the triumph of American separation from the greatest global power then known, among those miracles the repeated near misses of British and Hessian bullets aimed at General Washington and the failed designs of British spies, saboteurs, and assassins to capture or kill the General; the shift in Louis XVI’s sentiments in favor of French intervention that leds Admiral Marquis de Grasse Tilly to position his fleet off-shore to block the British fleet under Sir Thomas Graves from rescuing Major General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown; and to the remarkable unanimity of opinion reached by the Founders in favor of the Declaration, Constitution, and ultimately the Bill of Rights despite vastly different backgrounds and interests.
The seeds of liberty grew in America as nowhere else because the American people were insistent on their rights. There had been lit within them at the time of the revolution an eternal flame, first ignited in battle but bequeathed thereafter as a precious gift, a “sacred fire of liberty” as George Washington referred to it, one that had to be rekindled by each new generation of Americans or it would be lost.
We are now beset by more threats to the survival and success of liberty than at any point in our nation’s history; threats from within that exceed those from without. The sacred fire of liberty will not be extinguished so long as Americans remain willing (as the signers of the Declaration were) to commit their “Lives, Fortunes, and Sacred Honor” to the survival and success of liberty. Our challenge today is for every American to resolve that the Founding Fathers’ Constitution shall regain its primacy and that this nation shall remain the world’s greatest bastion of liberty, not to perish but to endure forever.
This article was written on June 22, 2023, and published on PJ Media.