Updated: Sep 2, 2020
“Declaring Independence —An Unthinkable Necessary Revolt”
“it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new guards for their future Security.”
“We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”
“for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
Ink on a page. The American Revolution did not begin with Paul Revere’s midnight ride, or the shots heard round the world at Lexington and Concord. It did not begin with the Boston Tea Party. It didn’t even begin with Crispus Attucks’ blood pooling out on the cold ground. It didn’t begin with messy riots and accidental slaughter. It began with ink on a page.
Think about that for a moment. The unthinkable, unlikely, unnerving rebellion that begat the United States began with ink on a page. The scrape of a steel pen against an inkwell, the faint thud as a typesetter’s fast moving hands clipped lead type into a printer’s frame… those were the sounds of a revolt in the making in the 1760s.
In retrospect the American Revolution seems inevitable… something that simply happened in “the course of human events.” In fact, the signors of the Declaration of Independence described their actions as a “right” a “duty” and a “necessity.”
It is grand language. In our era archaic and poetic. In any era bold, astoundingly bold.
Words have power. Some words may as well be written in blood and carved in bone.
When the signors of the original Declaration of Independence pledged their “Lives” their “Fortunes” and their “Sacred Honor” to the cause of “future Security” they weren’t just indulging in a bit of poetry. They were signing a document that at the time was considered nothing short of an act of treason against their lawful monarch. They were radicals willing to throw the lot of their lives like dice on the field of war.
If their revolt was crushed their fortunes would be forfeited —homes, farms and businesses destroyed, looted and seized, wives and children homeless and destitute— their family names would be reviled —they could very well end up like Guy Faulkes, a failed anti-monarchist plotter of the early 17th century who to this day is burned in effigy by British schoolchildren— and their lives would be forfeit. When captured, 18th century traitors were typically tortured before being executed.
On paper there is little about the signors of the Declaration of Independence to suggest that these men were radicals, gamblers or wild-eyed revolutionaries. By and large the early rebels were pragmatists. Sober hardworking farmers. Practical merchants. (I am speaking metaphorically of course. Most colonial North Americans liked a stiff drink. And the practical realities of trade in the 18th century included war, pirates, bad weather on sea and land and rapacious tax collectors everywhere.) The signors —they weren’t “Founding Fathers” yet, think of them as men with pens— were, by and large, successful. They weren’t desperate men on the edge of starvation, impoverished and ground down by a distant tyrannical monarch.
John Hancock may have been the richest man in the thirteen colonies. Few Londoners' matched Hancock’s wealth. His fellow signors certainly didn’t, but they were mainly all prosperous men. They were educated too, if not formally they were self educated. Some had travelled extensively. A few had already fought in a war —the “Seven Years War” or the “French & Indian War.”
They were colonials. They weren’t hicks. They understood the potential consequences of their actions. They understood the bloody human cost of war. They also understood that what they proposed had almost no modern precedent in the 18th century. There had been Federations before, city states, a handful of tradesmen and burgers attempting to run their own governments and choose their own leadership through elections. But the 17th and 18th centuries were truly the eras of the great monarchies. Britain, with its Parliament, was probably the most "democratic" western power of the mid 18th century. But Britain was --and still is-- a monarchy with subjects rather than citizens. In the 18th century to rebel against a king anointed by God was radical, revolutionary and dangerous.
They were sailing into dangerous uncharted waters. Their eyes were open, they had options, they understood the likelihood of failure and the brutal punishments that could be consequences of their actions. And yet, they chose the unthinkable, necessary revolt.
Why? Ink on paper. It is that simple and that complex. Paper wasn’t cheap in Colonial North America. Ideas were precious and meant to be shared.
To a London trader the Colonies were a source of fur, hides, wide leaf tobacco and cheap grain. The Colonials were, well, Colonials. They sold raw goods, bought finished goods and fought messy frontier wars with the French. Other than that, unless you were a botanist or naturalist nothing very interesting happened in Colonial North America in the 1760s. At least… that was the view from London.
And, not for the first (or last) time the view from London was wrong. By the 1760s something truly remarkable had been happening in the Colonies for at least a generation. The literate, curious, self educated Colonials had almost accidentally developed a free press.
The 18th century was very much a century of print in the urban English speaking world. London had newspapers, gossip rags, political news, business news. Newspapers were big business in British cities. Fashionable people went to fashionable coffee shops in London in the 1760s to be seen reading newspapers by other fashionable people.
The Colonies barely had any coffee shops. Think about that, George Washington fought a war, forged an army, put steel into the idea of a citizen soldier and fought a revolution almost wholly without the benefit of coffee shops.
But what the Colonies may have lacked in coffee shop society they more than made up for with taverns, newspapers and ideas. It was a perfect storm. The Colonials of North America in the 1760s were by and large the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of radical religious dissidents. They were pre-disposed to put their faith in their “Creator” and not their monarch. They had also been, to a certain extent, intellectually overlooked by the mother country for half a century.
Economically the Colonies mattered. Strategically the Colonies mattered —particularly during the war with France. But intellectually very few people in the British government thought the Colonies mattered and hardly any seemed to think the Colonial press mattered. London printers had to deal with the continual presence of official government censors. By contrast, in general the American press’ primary interaction with the agents of the king involved paying (or complaining about) the tax on paper.
Intellectually at least, Americans were writing the arc of their rebellion for decades before a shot was ever fired. The war began with paper and ink. It began with ideas. And it is fitting thus that free speech, the concept of free speech, would be written into the foundation principles of this new nation.
Without free speech, without ink on paper, without the ferment of ideas that spread through Colonial North America like a wildfire there would not have been a United States of America in 1787. If we give up on the concept of free speech today there may not be a United States of America in 2027. Free speech, free thought, the free flow of genuine ideas —not just data— are at the heart of what it means to be a citizen of the United States of America.