The emergence of the individual as a sovereign entity was both a precursor to, as well as a result of, the American Revolution. The Magna Carta had initially acknowledged that individuals had rights and had taken power from the king, placing it in the hands of the parliament, and to some extent, the people. This idea was not lost on the colonists. Though loyal subjects of the king, the colonists couldn’t help but feel oppressed by England’s unwillingness to negotiate. It was during this period when the mysticism of spiritual belief was in large part replaced by the individual’s own sense of morality The necessity of the will of the individual to actualize prevailed and the importance of, and reliance upon, both God and the king were diminished. Roles are reversed: instead of man serving God, pre revolutionary speeches depict a God who is justly serving man. It was the job of the Framers of the Constitution to assign their new power wisely. As a result, society is reordered and the power is placed in the hands of the people, or so it seemed.
No one is foolish enough to believe that when the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution they intended to create a utopia. However, their word of choice is interesting. They did not say they wanted to create “a better union” or “a new and improved union.” The phrase in the Constitution’s preamble, “a more perfect union,” suggests that although one may not have had a clear vision of a perfect state there existed somewhere, in someone’s mind, the notion of perfection, an ideal, perhaps a utopia. What follows this phrase are the values necessary to build a more perfect place: justice, peace, security, and liberty. When the Founding Fathers added liberty to the list, they were responding to their recent history under Britain’s tyrannical rule and wanted to protect their sovereignty. However, this principle could not pertain to the government alone. In order to create free nation, the individuals had to be free.
Franklin’s work is a direct reflection of the age in which he lived. A sharp contrast to Puritan ideology, one of Franklin’s most famous aphorisms is, “God helps them that help themselves.” The idea is that the individual has control over his condition. Franklin’s God is benevolent and understanding. His aphorisms teach social values and promote capitalism.
reveals the human spirit free from authoritarian strictures. Even when Franklin’s brother was imprisoned for printing offensive political material, there was no real fear of the government. Franklin jokes that when his brother is told that he “should no longer print the Paper called the New England Courant” some friends suggest that he simply change the name of the paper (Franklin 59). Franklin thrives outwardly as he reflects inwardly. His lists of virtues and precepts indicate a spirit that is self-governing, and in format and content they are much like the Bible’s Proverbs. Interestingly enough, Franklin explains his virtues are a result of his desire to strive for “moral perfection,” a drive to avoid committing any fault. This drive is virtually identical to the Puritan conviction of living a pure life, yet in Franklin’s case, it is self-imposed. If humans are left to their own devices, will they do the right things? Maybe.
Henry’s God is Franklin’s God; and God is reasonable and sees things as man does. Henry asserts that the colonists are “not weak, if [they] make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in [their] power.” God’s power is delivered into their hands. The individual is responsible for his condition. What happens is a result of the individual’s action. Henry’s,
Speech in the Virginia Conventio
n, represents a pivotal moment in American ideological development. The seat of authority is shifting from God and king to, well, perhaps the people. One has the power, the liberty, in fact the responsibility to make a decision for himself how he wants to be ruled. Henry ends his speech by speaking on his own behalf. He recognizes that liberty is the heart of life: without liberty one is dead, whether his blood is flowing or not. Without choice, consultation, or the sovereign nature of the individual acknowledged life is not one’s own.
was in effect the formulation of the emotion, anger, resentment, and oppression felt by the colonists. They had suffered, labored, and created a prosperous place from which they and the king could equally benefit.
The Declaration of
demonstrates a movement from ideology to legality. This document is written form of the colonists intentions not only to break from Great Britain but also their commitment to establishing a particular kind of society. The text is organized in a way that first defines what ought to be; it describes the ideal. Life and liberty, as in Henry’s speech, are seen as equal partners; without one the other cannot exist. And without liberty, one cannot expect to pursue his happiness. Additionally, the language is strong and passionate. It then goes on to list the king’s offenses, providing rationale explaining why the colonists can no longer be ruled by the whim of the king. After all, they were subjects, not slaves. The spirit of the individual, like a child, rises up and seizes its liberty. And liberty is a difficult thing to wrestle away when it is newly won.
James Madison and Alexander Hamilton
Factionalism is the major theme of Madison.s
Federalist No. 10.
and a major concern of the Framers of the Constitution. When “happiness” can be perceived in so many different ways, how can one maintain social cohesion in determining the nature of a society’s government? What is best and for whom, and who should decide? The two opposing schools of thought were debated in public through the publishing of the Federalist Papers. Hamilton had less faith in the individual’s ability to self-govern and pushed for an authoritarian type of government. Madison, on the other hand, felt strongly about the need of the individual to assert himself and his ideas, to have self-control. If the law was created, interpreted, and judged by one entity, the likelihood of corruption was high, and the individual would feel estranged and ruled. However, if the power was spread equally among different entities, and extended to the people, no one voice decided the fate of another. Sharing power encouraged debate, the exchange of ideas, self-examination and an educating of those opposed to a particular perspective. Without the “consent of the people” government was suspect. The Framers understood that the people had to believe that the government’s actions were condoned by the population. It was this system of shared power that was to keep government honest. Madison argued that, although not perfect, his proposal for a popular form of government protected by a balance of power was an improvement upon former popular governments. “The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principle task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government” (Madison 2). Dispersed power required a public forum and the involvement of many. In this way, the nature of the government would be one that encouraged exchange between competing interests.