10 Things You Should Know About the American Founding

excerpts from an article published yesterday in Catholic World Report
Bradley J. Birzer
July 03, 2012

On this Fourth of July, 236 years after Congress declared independence from the British Empire through the Declaration of Independence, it’s well worth reminding ourselves of a number of things about the Founding era….

1.  At the time of the passage and signing of the Declaration, roughly 2.15 million persons lived in the 13 colonies.  Of those not enslaved, the vast majority was of Anglo-Saxon-Celtic descent and nearly 100% were Protestant…

2.  Within Parliament and English governance, a debate had raged regarding the nature of the British Empire itself.  Should it exist as a decentralized empire—an extended commonwealth of like-minded peoples held together by language, religion, and economic interests?  King George II, William Pitt the Elder, Lord Newcastle, and Edmund Burke had favored this, believing it essential to keep the colonies as free and productive as possible.  “The Americans are the SONS, not the BASTARDS of England,” Pitt had argued.  King George III had a very different vision for the empire, and he began to push his notions of a centralized empire from the very beginning of his reign.

3.  The first real cry against George III’s centralizing drive came from an unlikely source, lawyer James Otis (1725-83), in 1761.  Interrupting a judicial trial, Otis gave a four-hour oration.  John Adams later described the scene: “… Every man of a crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did ready to take arms against writs of assistance. Then and there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the child Independence was born. In fifteen years namely in 1776 he grew up to manhood and declared himself free.”

4.  The level of education for Americans at the time was astounding.  Though no public schools existed in any recognizable sense in the eighteenth century, some “Common Schools” did.  At a Common School, tutors and teachers drilled students for hours in Greek and Latin.  Even if a student only attended school from, say, ages 6-8, he would learn only classical languages.  Parents were expected to teach their children to read, almost always from the King James Bible.  The colonists met with great success, and the American colonies probably contained the single most literate people in the world at that time.  For those attending one of the several colleges in the American colonies (Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, King’s College (Columbia)), a liberal education was the only real education.  As the grand historian of the period, Forrest McDonald, has revealed, when a student entered college (usually at age 14 or 15), he would need to prove fluency in Latin and Greek…

6. … When asked, for example, where he derived the ideas contained within the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson revealed how historical and “backward looking” the document was.  “… Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.  All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”

6.  The first shots fired in what became the War for Independence were calculated to lead neither to a full-scale war nor to the independence of the colonies from her mother.  Instead, the men of Lexington, Massachusetts, followed what they believed to be the strongest form of protest—not an act of secession… After debating a response to the British march toward Concord for hours in the local pastor’s house, the town pub, and on the town green (all three places adjoining), about forty Lexingtonians stood on the village green at 5:00am, April 19, 1775, arms placed in parade formation.  When the British demanded the Lexingtonians disperse, shots were fired and eight Massachusetts men were slaughtered in full view of the entire community.

7.  The most important and stalwart defender of American liberties and American independence in Great Britain was Edmund Burke, one of the two greatest statesmen of the age…

8.  A friend and disciple of Burke’s, Maryland’s Charles Carroll of Carrollton, was the only Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Maryland had possessed the most anti-Catholic laws in the colonies prior to the War for Independence.  Catholics could not worship publicly, and children could even, by law, be removed permanently from their parents and sent to live with Protestant families in England should the Catholic parents attempt to educate their children in a “Catholic fashion.”  Consequently, Charles Carroll’s father not only refused to claim him as a child, but he also sent him abroad for seventeen years to be educated by Catholics in France and elsewhere.  Carroll earned his B.A. and M.A. while in France, and he studied law in France and England.  For fear of the law, Charles’s father waited to recognize the legitimacy of his son and the son’s mother until Charles had earned his M.A.  When Carroll signed the Declaration of Independence, he did so for reasons of religious freedom and tolerance.  “When I signed the Declaration of Independence, I had in view not only our independence of England but the toleration of all Sects, professing the Christian Religion, and communicating to them all great rights,” he wrote in 1829.  “Happily this wise and salutary measure has taken place for eradicating religious feuds and persecution.”

9.  Maryland had not been the only place harboring anti-Catholic feelings in the colonies.  Indeed, every colony had some form of anti-Catholic law except for Pennsylvania.  The farther north one journeyed, the stronger the anti-Catholicism became…  When New England militia went into battle during the war for independence, their war cry was “No king, no popery!”…

10. None of this should suggest, however, that all Americans held anti-Catholic views.  Some of the most prominent Americans held absolutely no tolerance for intolerance.  The most important was George Washington who accepted, without reservation, Catholics and Jews as fully republican citizens…

Another critic of anti-Catholicism was one of the least religious of the founders, Ben Franklin.  In the spring of 1776, Franklin, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and Jacky Carroll (Charles’s cousin and close friend) traveled to Canada in a failed mission to convince the Canadians to join the American cause.  Along the way, Franklin and the two Carrolls struck up a strong friendship.  After the success of the American war for Independence, the Vatican decided it was time to name a bishop in North America.  No bishop, not even Anglican/Episcopalian bishops, had ever stepped foot in the thirteen colonies (or, states, after 1776).  Hoping not to offend republican sensibilities, the Vatican contacted Franklin through two agents.  Franklin said the man for the job was Jacky, and the Vatican consequently appointed John Carroll as the first archbishop in the United States.

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