The Emergence of American Principles and Tempers

Thomas Paine. By: Laurent Dabos.

As the American Revolution approached “most Americans had become convinced that they were ‘aptly circumstanced to form the best republicks, upon the best terms that ever came to the lot of any people before us.'” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 98 quoting Phila. Pa. Packet, Feb. 12, 1776; Purdie’s Wmsbg. Va. Gazette, May 17, 1776.

What made Americans so “aptly circumstanced” to form a great republic? Josiah Quincy said Americans “never were destitute of discernment; they have never been grossly deficient in virtue.” Quincy, Observations on the Boston Port Bill, Quincy, Memoir, 320. John Dickinson proclaimed that Americans “in general are more intelligent than any other people whatever, as has been remarked by strangers, and it seems with reason,” and further, they were “strangers to that luxury which effeminates the mind and body.” Dickinson, Letters from a Farmer, Ford, ed., Writings of Dickinson, 349.

These circumstances appeared to transform American society, priming it for revolution. According to the Whigs, in the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence, Americans “ceased to extort and abuse one another, . . . families and communities seemed peculiarly united, . . . the courts . . . were wonderfully free of that constant bickering over land and credit that had dominated their colonial life.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 102.

Throughout these years, Americans began to appreciate republicanism, realizing that they embodied that ideal. John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail Adams, in 1780  that Paris had everything “that can inform the Understanding, or refine the Taste, and indeed . . . that could purify the Heart. Yet it must be remembered there is every thing here, too, which can seduce, betray, deceive, corrupt and debauch it.” John Adams to Abigail Adams, Apr. 1780, quoted in Butterfield, ed., Family Correspondence, II, ix-x. Americans were rejecting the “high life” of Europe and especially England. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 105. While the British had mostly characterized Americans as “savages and barbarians,” Americans embraced their unsophisticated, unrefined lifestyles. See id. quoting Elijah Fitch, A Discourse, the Substance of Which Was Delivered at Hopkinton, on the Lord’s Day, March 24th, 1776 . . . (Boston, 1776), 22-23.

Thomas Paine, in contemplation of this dynamic stated that “[i]t was equally as much from her manners as from her injustice that she lost the colonies.” Paine, Letter to the Abbe Raynal, Foner, ed., Writings of Paine, II, 220. According to Paine, it was Britain’s “abuse of American rights” that provoked the emergence of “American principles” and it was Britain’s arrogance that “had worn out” American tempers. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 107 quoting Paine, Letter to the Abbe Raynal, Foner, ed., Writings of Paine, II, 220.

These developments showed two things: (1) the beginning of America’s embracing of republicanism and (2) how oppression can embolden and strengthen those oppressed. Britain’s oppression of Americans and demeaning of American culture united Americans, brought Americans to appreciate their less sophisticated culture, and culminated in Americans declaring independence and fighting the Revolutionary War against Britain.

All of this built confidence. Rather than endure the oppression, Americans did a good bit of introspection and observed that they were well-equipped to establish perhaps the best republic the world has known. Whether Americans were so virtuous as to create a better republic is debatable, but the virtues that can be attributed to republicanism likely helped to found a better government as a whole.

These founding principles helped frame the boundaries for American government while also showing the separation between America and Europe. While strict adherence to these principles, such as the modesty of republicanism, may not be necessary, an awareness of them is necessary.

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