A Revolution and a Coup
On the frigid morning of January 30, 1649, Charles I, the king of England, was led out onto a scaffold erected outside the Palace of Whitehall in Westminster. Below him, a swarming crowd of his subjects waited with bated breath to witness the murder of their king. Charles declared himself a martyr, restated his right to the crown, and placed his head upon the waiting chopping block. After the king signaled his preparedness to die, a masked executioner beheaded him with a swift blow of the axe and lifted the bloody head of the deposed monarch for all the crowd to see.
Charles had been convicted of treason following the English Civil War, in which his loyalists had battled with forces aligned with Parliament, then an advisory body with limited influence. Following the execution, general and protofascist Oliver Cromwell seized power and ruled the empire as a protectorate, asserting for himself a right to govern through military force in what the British have come to call the Interregnum. The monarchy was restored in 1660, but more instability followed in 1688 when King James II was ensnared in the Glorious Revolution, which shifted power to Parliament.
As the supposed embodiment of God's will on Earth, England's monarchy had long been held as unquestionable. This perception of the divine right of kings was forged in the centuries following the fall of Rome as civilization in Western Europe languished in apocalyptic ruin and struggled through the so-called Dark Ages. In this time, the one uniting tether of humanity was religion; from that unification came the concept of God's will as manifest in the chosen race of kings and queens, who, through their very existence and judgment, had come solely to determine the future of the world as guided by an all-knowing deity.
By the mid-seventeenth century, the philosophical foundations of the monarchial system were being questioned by developing philosophical thought and emphasis on reasoning. This skepticism prompted Robert Filmer, an English philosopher, to author his 1680 work Patriarcha; or The Natural Power of Kings, a full-throated defense of unimpeded monarchy that maintained God had given kings authority over Earth beginning with Adam, the first man. Similarly, Thomas Hobbes's seminal work Leviathan, a treatise prepared in the midst of the chaos of the English Civil War, championed the necessity of the monarchy by offering a pessimistic portrait of humanity as a greedy, fearful, and vain species that has "no pleasure, but on the contrary a great deal of grief in keeping company where there is no power able to overawe them all." According to Hobbes, who proved highly influential in matters of government and governing, humans were self-interested creatures who could only prosper if they were to give absolute sovereignty to a force larger and better suited for it than themselves.
In response, English philosopher John Locke published his Two Treatises of Government in 1690 and summarily dismantled the case for unfettered monarchy, making the argument that when a king is in "breach of trust" with his subjects, he is in a state of war and no longer king, thus requiring his removal. Locke's belief in individual rights and views on the nature of just government not only inspired succeeding philosophers and challenged monarchial rule but exerted a heavy influence nearly a century later on America's Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson.
Perhaps no one encompasses the contradictions of American principles and actions more than Jefferson, a Virginia-born plantation owner who championed "inalienable rights" while enslaving more than six hundred human beings and preached that all men were created equal while his writings dripped with shocking bigotry. As a self-styled man of reason, Jefferson blended the thought of several philosophers, including Locke's view on revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's idea of the social contract, and Richard Price's faith in the goodness of mankind and its ability to self-govern.
Jefferson made an effective figure in the eighteenth century as philosophers and budding scientists were coalescing and questioning the orders of the day. Called the Enlightenment, this time period was marked with rampant curiosity and ever-present challenging of existing institutions, with the notable exceptions of racism and patriarchal power, and men like Jefferson were central to the push to overthrow those institutions and improve upon them to progress past tired and flawed traditions.
The era was ripe for change as the British Empire and others colonizers' expansion left them vulnerable to uprisings. The difficulties with the English monarchy reflected that vulnerability, and it isn't surprising that colonialists in America saw an opportunity to challenge the authority of a king when hardly a century had passed since one had been executed in full view of his subjects.
In 1774, Jefferson penned A Summary View of the Rights of British America, a forebearer to the Declaration of Independence that shared much of its structure and philosophy. That tract laid forth a set of indictments against British rule and continually appealed to the idea of the colonies' holding indisputable rights. Much to his dismay, the Continental Congress did not act upon Jefferson's suggestions or adopt the philosophy, instead choosing to stay the course while much of the country called for revolution.
In two years' time, however, the colonies were ready for independence. Traditional narratives tend to paint the inspiration as one of great patriotism, a moment of unrestrained pride that changed history. People writing those idealized histories have tended to downplay any other motivations for the Revolutionary War, instead choosing to focus on the patriots and Founding Fathers as figures who inspired an entire country to rise up and realize its destiny, including nineteenth-century historian George Bancroft, who wrote, "The people of the continent with irresistible energy obeyed one general impulse, as the earth in spring listens to the command of nature," leading to a revolution "which Divine wisdom ordained."
Despite Bancroft's romantic assertion, the entire continent did not rise up as one in favor of divinely inspired freedom. Some were inspired by the philosophy of and vision for a new society based on liberty and freedom, while others saw it as a decision predicated on economic and political grounds, creating a complicated coalition that has been largely ignored in favor of constructing a myth of divine inspiration and purpose.
In reality, the American Revolution wasn't exclusively tied to Jefferson's personal convictions but instead relied on a collection of colonialists with differing motivations for severing ties with England. Some, like Jefferson and Thomas Paine, who authored the pamphlet Common Sense and attacked the British as an "aristocratical tyranny," supported the war as a means of liberation of the individual from oppression, while others, particularly the wealthy, resented British taxes. There were myriad reasons for Americans to rebel: For some it was unrestrained patriotism and for others a purely economic desire to be free of British control. In fact, upwards of at least a third of the population opposed independence altogether.
As the Second Continental Congress debated severing ties with Britain, Jefferson began drafting the Declaration of Independence, an indictment of British rule that simultaneously espoused the new nation's belief in "inalienable rights" and dedication to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," institutionalized the concept of a government receiving its sovereignty from the people, and argued that when authority becomes "destructive" it is "the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it."
In every sense of the word it is a revolutionary document. Jefferson's argument is the enactment of Enlightenment principles, a nod to Locke's assertion of the right of the governed to overthrow despots. In a world that functioned by the logic of the Declaration of Independence, governments would operate with the explicit purpose of serving their citizens while understanding that any violation of that trust might result in revolution. The new world that Jefferson hoped to create would fundamentally serve as a clean slate that prioritized liberty and fostered continuous improvement and progress. In his drafting he laid out these principles while intending to concurrently indict the British for their offenses and shape the nature of the future United States.
Jefferson himself believed in perpetual revolution and saw a need for succeeding generations to overthrow their rulers and continually improve government. A decade later, in a 1787 letter to William Smith, Jefferson addressed concerns over Shays' Rebellion, an uprising in Massachusetts that frightened the framers of the Constitution into devising a covert system of control, saying, "God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion . . . What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance . . . the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants."
When Jefferson delivered his initial draft of the Declaration to Congress on June 28, 1776, the document read fairly similarly to the iconic manuscript with which Americans have become so familiar, but with one notable exception. In that first draft, in the section of indictments against England's King George III, Jefferson had crafted a long and passionate condemnation of slavery:
he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's [sic] most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
The importance with which Jefferson viewed this condemnation is undeniable, as he reserved it as the final indictment of the king and it is decidedly longer than any of the accompanying text, comprising nearly a quarter of the entire section.
Before adopting the Declaration, Congress struck the slavery section of the indictment and with it any trace of Jefferson's proposal for an America free of the scourge of human bondage. From that moment, it was immediately clear the revolution would be limited in terms of its scope and influence. Exiting the British Empire meant a new sovereignty, but it wouldn't mean an entirely new society, as past hierarchies predicated on race and wealth remained firmly in place, and the country that would be birthed from the Revolutionary War entrenched those hierarchies in its laws and foundations.
The disconnect between the rhetoric of the American Revolution and the operation of the United States is a glaring inconsistency that critics have cited since the founding, and though America boasted of its dedication to the rights and liberty of its people, its construction begged to differ. At the moment of America's independence, slaves accounted for roughly 20 percent of the country's population, and the rights and the liberties that the country was dedicated to remained those of wealthy white men served by the subsequent constitutions of the states of the Union and the eventual Constitution, at the expense of slaves, women, and other minorities.
For the American Myth to survive it is necessary for this inconsistency to be both excused and overlooked, for Jefferson's rhetoric of liberty to serve as the basis for America's moral authority while conveniently circumventing the innate contradictions of a band of liberty-loving patriots' intentionally perpetuating the enslavement, exploitation, and systematic torture, rape, and murder of a people for the purposes of economic profit.
That paradox is made possible by an intrinsic American belief in white supremacy with roots in the legacy of Western civilization and its empires, a narrative that positions the United States of America as the paragon of that tradition and the definitive arbiter of right and wrong. This belief has engendered the great majority of America's mistakes but has also allowed the country to consolidate power through manipulation, conquest, and oppression of supposed "lesser peoples." This mindset justified slavery as a means of economic necessity, the displacement and genocide of the Native American as a catalyst to realized destiny, the subjugation of foreign peoples and the exploitation of the Third World, and ultimately a worldview in which the white race has been minted as superior by the universe, a worldview inherited from the overthrown monarchial system.
The revolution succeeded in the sense that Americans earned their independence by means of war and bloodshed. England's dominion over the colonies was refuted once and for all and colonialists, particularly the white property-owning males, were free to chart their own course. In a sense, though, the revolution, as defined by its espoused principles, would fail. Just as it had been in the past, one king had been overthrown only for another to take his place.
In January of 1787 an article penned by Benjamin Rush appeared in the magazine American Museum, a publication read by the Founding Fathers. A signer of the Declaration of Independence who served as a doctor in the Revolutionary War while concurrently a member of the Continental Congress, Rush titled the piece "Address to the People of the United States" and cautioned, "There is nothing more common than to confound the terms of the American Revolution with those of the late American war. The American war is over: but this is far from being the case with the American revolution."
Rush advised that there was still much work to be done to fortify the country and solidify its democratic principles, including an address of the deficiencies found within the Articles of Confederation, the original binding document of the United States of America, and the establishment of an educational system necessary to illuminate the citizenry. Rush lamented a loss of energy and drive in the decade since he'd lent his name to the Declaration of Independence, saying, "I am extremely sorry to find a passion for retirement so universal among the patriots and heroes of the war," before comparing them to sailors who had survived a turbulent storm only to retire "in the middle of the ocean" and leave the rest of the voyage to lesser men. Their country was calling to those patriots, "proclaiming, in sighs and groans, in her governments, in her finances, in her trade, in her manufactures, in her morals, and in her manners, 'THE REVOLUTION IS NOT OVER!'"
Likewise, Thomas Jefferson had seen America's revolution not as the fulfillment of a plan but as the beginning of a movement, a means of unraveling a past system of oppression. The very definition of a revolution is to continue and change, to move like a fire until the entire world is engulfed, and a revolution could only end once the flames die out. For Jefferson, eternal and unimpeded change was necessary to continue the revolution's blaze. Jefferson's belief led him to France, where he played an integral role in defining their coming revolution, a role that precluded him from participating in the framing of the American Constitution.