Sarah Palin, short-time governor of Alaska, vice-presidential candidate, and politico-social celebrity, has embarked on a bus tour of America she dubs the “One Nation Tour.” In a blog post on her PAC web site, she describes the tour with a reference to a “declaration” by our founders:
“We’ll celebrate the meaning of our nation’s blueprints, our Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, which are the threads that weave our past into the fabric necessary for the survival of American exceptionalism. Our founders declared ‘we were born the heirs of freedom’, and despite our difficulties and disagreements, we remain one nation under God in freedom, indivisible. Through visits to historical sites and patriotic events, we’ll share the importance of America’s foundation.”
Which founders “declared” this? In what form? And, what did they mean?
The seven words, “we were born the heirs of freedom,” are plucked from a nearly-2,100 word petition from the First Continental Congress to King George III in October 1774. Cherry picking quotes is a timeless ritual in American political discourse. America’s founding leaders were a literate group of men (and some women) who wrote libraries-worth of material; their letters, pamphlets and manuscripts were the common currency of social and political debates. Much of this writing is easily available online, and thus easily quotable.
Unlike the radical words penned in 1776, “all men are created equal,” expressing the idea that “we were born the heirs of freedom” was nothing new to any Englishman at this time. The way Palin casually combines the line into a sentence with a reference to the post-1954 version of the Pledge of Allegiance (“one nation under God … indivisible”) suggests a shallow understanding of the meaning of these words to the men who wrote them. Context is key—without at least considering the contemporary motivations of the members of the Continental Congress, one cannot fully appreciate the state of play in 1774 and the meaning any of their words can or should have for us today.
The letter was one of the last attempts by colonial leaders to appeal directly to their sovereign for redress of their grievances against colonial officials and acts of Parliament, including the Stamp Act and Quartering Act of 1765; the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767; and a series of laws dubbed the “Intolerable Acts” in 1774. During the period between the end of the French and Indian War and the Declaration of Independence, as Parliament continued to aggravate the situation in America, members of the Continental Congress remained divided over whether and when to break with England. Moderate members, including John Dickenson of Pennsylvania, believed that a direct appeal to the king from loyal subjects would induce change in the colonial ministry’s policy toward the colonies.
A committee was formed to draft the petition. Reflecting the geographic diversity present in so many congressional committees, the drafting group included John Adams of Massachusetts; Maryland’s Thomas Johnson; Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry of Virginia; and John Rutledge of South Carolina.
Rutledge’s motion to appoint this drafting committee supplied the original intent of this action:
“Resolved, That the Committee appointed to prepare an Address to his Majesty, be instructed to assure his Majesty, that in case the colonies shall be restored to the state they were in, at the close of the late war, by abolishing the system of laws and regulations—for raising a revenue in America—for extending the powers of Courts of Admiralty—for the trial of persons beyond sea for crimes commited in America—for affecting the colony of the Massachusetts Bay and for altering the government and extending the limits of Canada, the jealousies which have been occasioned by such acts and regulations of Parliament, will be removed and commerce again restored.”
The “late war” was the French and Indian War-—these colonial leaders hoped to return to the status quo of that time—and removing the “jealousies which have been occasioned by such acts and regulations of Parliament” would allow natural commerce between the kindred peoples to be “restored.” As late as 1774, then, the Continental Congress as a whole held out hope that the colonies could avoid a break with their mother country.
The petition opens deferentially: “To the Kings Most Excellent Majesty. Most Gracious Sovereign, We your majestys faithful subjects …” The “heirs of freedom” line comes after a long litany of complaints visited upon his loyal subjects by others, not unlike the “long train of abuses and usurpations” detailed in the Declaration of Independence less then twenty months later:
“Had our creator been pleased to give us existence in a land of slavery, the sense of our condition might have been mitigated by ignorance and habit. But thanks be to his adoreable goodness, we were born the heirs of freedom, and ever enjoyed our right under the auspices of your royal ancestors, whose family was seated on the British throne, to rescue and secure a pious and gallant nation from the popery and despotism of a superstitious and inexorable tyrant. Your majesty, we are confident, justly rejoices, that your title to the crown is thus founded on the title of your people to liberty; and therefore we doubt not, but your royal wisdom must approve the sensibility, that teaches your subjects anxiously to guard the blessings, they received from divine providence, and thereby to prove the performance of that compact, which elevated the illustrious house of Brunswick to the imperial dignity it now possesses.”
In other words, the petitioners were claiming their natural rights as free Englishmen, like any on the sceptered isle or elsewhere, and extolling their king’s “auspices” in securing these rights for them, especially against “the popery and despotism of a superstitious and inexorable tyrant.” J. Michael Waller described the petition this way: “the members of the Continental Congress deferentially addressed their sovereign as any loyal subject would, politely stating their grievances often in the passive voice and blaming the problems on the king’s offices and parliament. They sought the king’s intercession to correct those problems.”
In 1895, founding fathers biographer James Tyson summarized the petition this way: “It is thus clearly seen how earnest and sincere were the colonists to secure a continuance of harmonious relations between the mother country and themselves. Could stronger and more pathetic appeals be made than are contained in these addresses to the people and the king?”
Although Benjamin Franklin, who was in London at the time, called the petition “decent, manly and properly expressed,” King George ignored the entreaty, and may not have even known about it. In April 1775, deadly combat broke out in Lexington and Concord. Still some colonial leaders held out hope of reconciliation with the king, but independence became inevitable by July 1776.
“[W]e were born the heirs of freedom” is a stirring line, alongside Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty or Give me Death,” and Thomas Jefferson’s “Occasionally the tree of Liberty must be watered with the blood of Patriots and Tyrants,” two oft-plucked lines. The passionate patriot Henry really was presenting the options as he saw them, liberty or death, as he exhorted Virginia’s legislators in 1775 to supply troops to the brewing rebellion; Jefferson may or may not have literally meant what he wrote in 1787 about the tree of liberty, but one can at least hear his growing alarm at the breakdown in order underway in his new country under the weak Articles of Confederation. But the First Continental Congress was not, as a body, ready to pursue a total break with England in 1774. And so stating that they were “born the heirs of freedom” was merely an appeal in common language to their sovereign king, the “the loving father of your whole people.”
– by Fred Dews, May 2010