Most people associate the likes of George Washington and John Adams with American independence; however there were many contributors who were not present at the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the formation of the Constitution, but who played important roles. Due to the increasing tension between the American colonists and Great Britain, which was fueled by the Stamp, Quartering and Townshend Acts, which taxed paper products, quartered soldiers in private houses and taxed lead, glass and tea respectively, shifted public opinion towards revolution. This new nation in the Americas needed a legitimate basis upon which it could be developed. The first attempt at government which was personified in the Articles of Confederation failed, due to complex and contradicting laws.
The second government which is still in use today was founded on three documents which declared independence, gave people individual rights and created the law of the land. The three articles which form the basis of the United States of America; the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights are dotted with ideas and theories of the European philosophes. Great thinkers like John Locke, Voltaire and Baron de Montesquieu influenced the writers of these documents, with their ideas of undeniable rights, freedom in life and the division of power respectively. Others such as Mary Wollstonecraft whose ideas where not immediately accepted, where acknowledged in later years, and their ideas added to the Constitution via amendments.
In 1776 after years of tension and violence between Great Britain and its American colonists, the newly formed Continental Congress which comprised of wealthy colonists, approved a movement which would make them as politically separate as they were geographically. In the spring and summer of 1776 as the Declaration of Independence was being drafted, the writers turned to the inspiration of the great European thinkers of the time. The Declaration of Independence was shaped mainly around the ideas of John Locke. Locke, an Englishman who was heavily influenced by the English Civil War, believed in the goodness of humanity and that citizens had rights, among them the right to overthrow unjust governments, and the right to life, liberty and property.
Locke’s statement that citizens have the right to overthrow unjust or abusive governments, and his criticism of absolute monarchs, helped strengthen the position of the federalists. Locke’s three rights had to be adjusted because of the socio-economic situation of the time in relation to the status of African-Americans and women. The colonists kept life and liberty, but changed the statement on property to pursuit of happiness. Locke was also a supporter of government which is comprised of the people, whose duty was to protect the rights of the people. After the War of Independence, two more documents were written to complete the foundation of the USA; the Constitution and a document which was included to make opponents of the new constitution, more at ease; The Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights was originally not going to be written because supporters of the constitution thought it redundant, since everyone knew what their rights were. Some colonists whose confidence had been shaken with the miserable failure of the Articles of Confederation, wanted their constitution to include the rights of the people. John Locke’s ideas on the three undeniable rights and the right to overthrow unjust governments have been added to the Bill of Rights. Other philosophes such as Cesore Beccaria and Francois Marie Arouet better know as by his pen name Voltaire, have also contributed to this document. Beccaria was a strong supporter of the theory that the punishment should fit the crime and for the abolishment of capital punishment. Beccaria’s views turned into the 8th Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment. Voltaire’s input can be seen in the 1st Amendment with his support for freedom of speech and religion. Voltaire sums up his view on freedom with his famous quote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Many of the amendments were instituted to prohibit problems which fueled the American Revolution in the first place. The 2nd Amendment states the right to bear arms in a militia. This is a measure to effectively counter any future attack. The 3rd Amendment prohibits the quartering of soldiers in private homes; a major sticking point along with the taxes for the colonists. The Bill of Rights is only a small section of the Constitution of the United States of America, an article which has been in use for over 200 years and which was been adapted by many countries. In 1784 shortly after the War of Independence had been waged and won the American colonists decided to write the groundwork for a new government. Their first attempt in the form of the Articles of Confederation had failed, but the supplementary article which they produced; the US Constitution became valid and has been in service ever since. Its purpose was to lay down the laws of the land and to further strengthen the validity of the American nation.
Locke’s idea that the people have the right and duty to overthrow unjust governments can be found in this document as well, yet it is Baron de Montesquieu whose influence is felt the most. Montesquieu, a French citizen was impressed with the British system of division of power with Parliament split up to prevent one individual or side gaining too much. This way of government was starkly different to the France he lived in with the autocratic Louis XVI in power dictating as had his predecessors the country to his liking. Montesquieu’s work coupled with the British system with which the colonists were already familiar helped bring the separation of power to the American nation. To prevent any power seizing attempts, the power of government was divided into three sections; executive, legislative and judiciary. The executive branch, of which the President is head of, makes decisions and draws up plans and certain planes of action. The President is also Chief of State, Chief Executive, Commander-in-Chief, Chief Diplomat and Chief Legislature. The legislative branch decides if these actions are to be ratified or not. The House of Representatives and the Senate make up the legislative branch of the US government.
The House of Representatives may bring about impeachment charges and concerns itself with issues of money. Senate approves or rejects presidential nominations and treaties and acts as the court and jury during impeachment cases. The judiciary branch is headed by the Supreme Court and trickles down to state and local courts. The Supreme Court can accept cases on request from lower courts. Montesquieu also pushes for a system of checks and balances which keep the branches separate and uninfluenced by the others. Montesquieu also states that giving either state or federal government too much or too little power will make the system fail. He suggests that federal and state governments should balance each other out.
These three documents helped shape not only the history of the United States of America, but the history of many countries that also opted for a similar system of government. The influence of the philosophes back in Europe and the inspired leadership of the founding fathers created a government which up until that point had only been successful on a very small scale. Although many ideas of the philosophes were added into these three articles, some thinkers and influential people would only later be recognized and acknowledged. One such person is Mary Wollstonecraft who, many consider the first feminist started a movement which centuries later in 1920 helped grant women the vote in the form of the 19th Amendment. The actions and visions of these men and women have certainly already outlasted them and perhaps will even outlast the articles, with which, despite not being present at their formation, changed the world.
J.D. Luedi is a listener from Switzerland and contributing writer for Stimulatedboredom.com
Images & minor edits by Dana