Empire of Reason

Washington Crossing the Delaware River. By: Emanuel Leutze.

The American Revolution is one of the most extraordinary revolutions to have taken place in world history. Not only would it result in the birth of one of the most influential and most powerful nations ever known, but it would also be a revolution with seemingly peculiar triggers.

As Gordon Wood in The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787 explained, “[t]here was none of the legendary tyranny of history that had so often driven desperate people into rebellion.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 3. Daniel Leonard concluded that “[n]ever in history . . . had there been so much rebellion with so ‘little real cause.'” Id.

Some analysts have speculated that Americans had learned “how to define the rights of nature, how to search into, to distinguish, and to comprehend, the principles of physical, moral, religious, and civil liberty,” so as to prevent tyranny before it occurred. Id. at 4. Because of these actions and considerations, some would call America the Empire of Reason. Id.

In 1768, John Dickinson wrote that colonists did not ask “what evil has actually attended particular measures,” instead asking “what evil, in the nature of things, is likely to attend them.” Id. at 5 quoting John Dickinson, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies (Philadelphia, 1768) in Paul L. Ford, ed., The Life and Writings of John Dickinson (Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Memoirs, 14 [Philadelphia, 1895]), 392, 389.

The spirit of the American Revolution, framed this way, raises questions about how and why the colonists insisted on pursuing a revolution. For example, why were the colonists unified in fearing all forms of tyranny? In modern times, this question seems hardly worth asking, but in the late 1700s, tyranny so permeated the nations of the world that it would likely have felt unchallengeable. Nonetheless, the colonists were persistent in achieving the society they dreamed was possible.

Perhaps the colonists’ actions in these years planted the seeds for future generations of Americans to question everything around them. Whether that is hyperbole or not, it is clear that Americans would become obsessed, and still are obsessed, with defining the contours of their rights and liberties. The project of creating an ideal society with all of its accompaniments can never cease.

Consequently, it is only fair to say that the Empire of Reason is still alive and well.

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