A NEW NATION
What then is the American, this new man? . . . He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. . . . The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence.-This is an American. . . .
Hector St. John de Crvecoeur, 1782.
Freed from the tyrannical economic, political, and ecclesiastical restraints of the Old World, and blessed with a bountiful environment whose rich and abundant resources, varied climate, and vast domain imbued in him an unquestioned faith in his own future, the American was in truth a "new man." Yet the roots of American society were firmly implanted in the great traditions of Western civilization, and ultimately American nationality was as heavily indebted to its European heritage of ideas and mode of life as it was to the new environment. Indeed, in its inception and its development, American colonial history was clearly a reflection of European experiences. The discovery of America resulted from the breakup of the feudal system, the rise of the nation-state, the revival of commerce, and the search for trade routes to the fabulous riches of the East. Later, the long process of English colonization of the New World was motivated both by the quest for free religious expression stemming largely from the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, and by that desire for economic opportunity which had its origins in the middle-class business ethic peculiar to the modern Western world.
The final chapter of American colonial history was also written abroad, for the restrictive policies of British mercantilism provided an economic impetus to the American Revolution, just as the natural rights philosophy of the European Enlightenment set its ideological framework. Mercantilism, an economic arm of the rising nationalism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, had as its major objectives national self-sufficiency and prosperity for the dominant merchant and banking class. A favorable balance of trade was particularly important to the mercantilist doctrine, for if more goods and services were sold abroad than were imported, gold and silver would come into the country, and the nation's total economic strength would be augmented rather than depleted. Each nation desired a favorable balance of trade, however, and so the great mercantilist powers of Europe soon turned to overseas possessions as a source of economic strength. For these colonies existed solely to be exploited by the mother country-to produce essential raw materials cheaply, to provide an unlimited market for surplus manufactured goods, and to offer a minimum of economic competition.
British colonial policy amply demonstrated the mother country's intention of molding her American possessions into this mercantilist pattern. To free her from dependence upon foreign nations for needed raw materials, the Navigation Acts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries listed various "enumerated commodities" (such as sugar, tobacco, indigo, and naval stores) which the colonials had to export to England alone. And in an effort to retain exclusive control of the rapidly growing American markets for British manufactured goods, all foreign commodities bound for the colonies were required to pass through England, where prohibitive export duties and freight and handling charges made transshipment intolerably expensive. Competition by the industrious colonists themselves was nearly eliminated through laws such as the Woolens Act (1699), the Hat Act (1732), and the Iron Act (1750), which prohibited or discouraged local efforts at manufacturing.
Though mercantilism benefited the colonists in certain respects-generous bounties, for instance, were paid for indigo and badly needed naval stores, and a monopoly of the English tobacco market was insured to the American producer-the economic well-being of the colonies was for the most part harshly subordinated to the needs of the mother country. Even the Southern settlements, whose staple crops-such as tobacco-well suited them for the colonial role, were hard pressed by the one-sided mercantilist system. And by the eve of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson estimated that a persistently unfavorable colonial balance of trade had placed at least half of the tobacco planters of Maryland and Virginia hopelessly in debt to British creditors. At the same time the various Navigation and Trade Acts attempted to restrict severely the trading, shipping, manufacturing, and other economic activities of the settlements in the North, where climate and soil were not capable of supporting the large-scale cultivation of staple crops for the home market. Yet the colonies prospered, at least in the New England and Middle Atlantic regions. Smuggling and other evasions of mercantilist measures were prevalent, and for long decades before the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763, the British were too thoroughly immersed in a bitter imperial rivalry with France to enforce their restrictive legislation.
With the defeat of France, however, the British were able to bring to an end the era of "salutary neglect" and to turn their full attention once again to strict enforcement of colonial policy. Besides, Parliament now strongly reasserted its right to legislate for colonials who had long known virtual independence and self-rule and who were well versed in the liberal philosophy of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Political discontent was thus added to economic dislocation, and economic grievances soon found expression in the loftiest principles of political liberty. Royal (and even Parliamentary) efforts to enforce mercantilist policies were damned as contrary not only to the rights of Englishmen, but to the "natural rights of man" as well, while the colonists' fundamental antipathy to taxation of any kind achieved immortality in the idealistic slogan "no taxation without representation." The British were unmoved by these protests and in rapid succession the Sugar Act (1764), the Currency Act (1764), the Stamp Act (1765), the Townshend Duties (1767), the Tea Act (1773), and the Intolerable Acts (1774) taxed and regulated the colonial economy and imposed the severest restrictions upon colonial self-government.
The colonists were quick to reply. A Stamp Act Congress met in October 1765 to denounce the hated tax on newspapers, magazines, commercial papers, and other documents, and an organization of patriots known as the Sons of Liberty directly forced the resignation of nearly all of the imperial stamp agents. American merchants agreed not to import British merchandise until the tax was repealed, and many persons stoutly refused to buy any stamps at all. Even though colonial pressures finally effected the repeal of the Stamp Tax, the tide of unrest continued to rise. Americans more and more frequently joined together to oppose imperial measures; and after British soldiers had fired into a jeering Boston mob (the "Boston Massacre" of March 1770), popular resentment increased tremendously. Nonimportation agreements, "Committees of Correspondence" (which Samuel Adams of Massachusetts organized to inform patriots throughout the colonies of current affairs), the "Boston Tea Party" of December 1773, and finally the First Continental Congress that met in Philadelphia in September 1774-all of these actions marked a growing sentiment for independence and separation from the mother country. And though there were many who still opposed the final break with England, the Revolution began in earnest in April 1775, at Lexington and at Concord Bridge, where "embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world."
Tom Paine's enormously popular and influential pamphlet "Common Sense," published anonymously in January 1776, quickly helped solidify Americans' rebellious spirit. And in June 1776, a resolution that "these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states" was offered before the Second Continental Congress by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. Then on July 4 the Congress formally adopted (with modifications) Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration expressed certain fundamental precepts: that all men are equally endowed with the self-evident natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that civil government is merely an instrument to guarantee these rights within the framework of social order, that when government becomes tyrannical, the social compact is broken, and it is the "right of the people to alter or to abolish it." These were precepts which clearly embodied the political tenets of the European Enlightenment. Thus for Americans whose intellectual heritage was largely European, and whose free environment as well was conducive to libertarian ideas, the Declaration (as Jefferson himself later wrote) expressed not "new ideas altogether," but rather the "common sense of the matter . . . the harmonizing sentiment of the day." Preeminently it was an eloquent "expression of the American mind," and to those who cherished the democratic faith of their fathers, it was to remain for all times the fountainhead of American ideology.
"Common Sense," Tom Paine, 1776
. . . In the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense: and have no other preliminaries to settle with the reader, than that he will divest himself of prejudice and prepossession, and suffer his reason and his feelings to determine for themselves: that he will put on, or rather that he will not put off, the true character of a man, and generously enlarge his views beyond the present day.
Volumes have been written on the subject of the struggle between England and America. Men of all ranks have embarked in the controversy, from different motives, and with various designs; but all have been ineffectual, and the period of debate is closed. Arms as the last resource decide the contest; the appeal was the choice of the King, and the Continent has accepted the challenge. . . .
The Sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. 'Tis not the affair of a City, a County, a Province, or a Kingdom; but of a Continent-of at least one-eighth part of the habitable Globe. 'Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end of time, by the proceedings now. Now is the seedtime of Continental union, faith and honour. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound would enlarge with the tree, and posterity read in it full grown characters. . . .
I have heard it asserted by some, that as America has flourished under her former connection with Great Britain, the same connection is necessary towards her future happiness, and will always have the same effect. Nothing can be more fallacious than this kind of argument. We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, that it is never to have meat, or that the first twenty years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty. But even this is admitting more than is true; for I answer roundly that America would have flourished as much, and probably much more, had no European power taken any notice of her. The commerce by which she hath enriched herself are the necessaries of life, and will always have a market while eating is the custom of Europe.
But she has protected us, say some. That she hath engrossed us is true, and defended the Continent at our expense as well as her own, is admitted; and she would have defended Turkey from the same motive, viz. for the sake of trade and dominion.
Alas! we have been long led away by ancient prejudices and made large sacrifices to superstition. We have boasted the protection of Great Britain, without considering, that her motive was interest not attachment; and that she did not protect us from our enemies on our account; but from her enemies on her own account, from those who had no quarrel with us on any other account, and who will always be our enemies on the same account. Let Britain waive her pretentions to the Continent, or the Continent throw off the dependence, and we should be at peace with France and Spain, were they at war with Britain. . . .
But Britain is the parent country, say some. Then the more shame upon her conduct. Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families. . . . Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. . . .
I challenge the warmest advocate for reconciliation to show a single advantage that this Continent can reap by being connected with Great Britain. I repeat the challenge; not a single advantage is derived. Our corn will fetch its price in any market in Europe, and our imported goods must be paid for, buy them where we will.
But the injuries and disadvantages which we sustain by that connection, are without number; and our duty to mankind at large, as well as to ourselves, instructs us to renounce the alliance: because, any submission to, or dependence on, Great Britain, tends directly to involve this Continent in European wars and quarrels, and set us at variance with nations who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom we have neither anger nor complaint. As Europe is our market for trade, we ought to form no partial connection with any part of it. It is the true interest of America to steer clear of European contentions, which she never can do, while, by her dependence on Britain, she is made the makeweight in the scale of British politics. . . .
'Tis repugnant to reason, to the universal order of things, to all examples from former ages, to suppose that this Continent can long remain subject to any external power. The most sanguine in Britain doth not think so. The utmost stretch of human wisdom cannot, at this time, compass a plan, short of separation, which can promise the Continent even a year's security. Reconciliation is now a fallacious dream. Nature hath deserted the connection, and art cannot supply her place. For, as Milton wisely expresses, "never can true reconcilement grow where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep." . . .
To talk of friendship with those in whom our reason forbids us to have faith, and our affections wounded thro' a thousand pores instruct us to detest, is madness and folly. Every day wears out the little remains of kindred between us and them; and can there be any reason to hope, that as the relationship expires, the affection will encrease, or that we shall agree better when we have ten times more and greater concerns to quarrel over than ever?
Copyright © 2022 by Richard D. Heffner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.