This year, as the United States celebrates 242 years of independence, I cannot help but reflect upon the sort of country that the Second Continental Congress hoped to create and, more importantly, the sort of men they envisioned leading it. The men who declared independence were men of their time, as indeed was the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. Thus, Jefferson and his compatriots could not envision women, African-Americans, or Indians, among others, playing a role in the public life of the 13 republics, those “Free and Independent States,” each one a white man’s republic.
Happily, Americans have broadened Jefferson’s original and exclusive vision bounded by sex and race. Despite the groanings of a depraved minority, Americans now welcome, and indeed embrace and celebrate, a more expansive and inclusive view that “all men are created equal.” Jefferson’s “men” are now humankind, and Americans are better for it. The country is better for it. Americans’ embrace of this broader view of “men” in the public space does not, however, suggest that everything in the country’s founding document is contested or has markedly evolved beyond what Jefferson and those other men in Philadelphia accepted as the truths of their age.
In pronouncing the birth of the United States, and by making the promise of the declaration and the United States real, Jefferson drew upon accepted truths, chief among them that character and integrity mattered. The most telling enunciation came when the representatives in the Second Continental Congress signed, “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.” The Second Continental Congress had come a long way from the first intercolonial gathering.
In September 1774, representatives from twelve of the 13 mainland American colonies met in Philadelphia in the First Continental Congress. They had come to organize colonial resistance against what many of them saw as Parliament’s usurpation of British American rights, to remonstrate, and to proclaim their loyalty to George III. Before adjourning in October, the delegates resolved to meet once more in May 1775. When Congress convened the following spring, it faced dramatically different circumstances. Protest had turned to war. By the spring of 1776, delegates spoke openly of declaring independence and in June, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution, “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” Congress had cast its die.
Responding to the Lee Resolution, Congress appointed a “Committee of Five” to draft a declaration of American independence. Written by Thomas Jefferson, lightly edited by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, and revised by the Congress, the delegates adopted the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776. Declaring independence was no small matter. By doing so and by signing the document, these men publicly stepped forward into the unknown. They risked all, including their lives, reputations, and fortunes.
The founding generation, like every one before and since, had feet of clay. These men weren’t angels, and they knew it. Yet, when they “mutually pledge[d] to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor,” they gambled all and aspired to something greater than their own narrow self-interest. The signers’ understanding of classical virtues and their deep desire to be remembered in history helped guide their conduct. In linking their reputations to the founding of the United States, these men publicly demonstrated their disinterestedness, their virtue, their deep and abiding concern with their honor, and their desire for some measure of fame.
Just how deeply the signers had internalized the codes of honor, virtue, or disinterestedness varied. What’s important is that these men understood and accepted the concepts well enough to be led and guided in their conduct. These men were vigilant about their good names and standing. Indeed, honor, virtue, and fame were particularly important in a country that was self-consciously shaking off the trappings of the Mother Country and the Old World, including their hereditary titles and distinctions. Without such frills, the honor and fame gained through virtuous conduct raised and sustained men’s reputations and served as proof of their fitness for public office.
The signers’ recognition of some men’s propensity for corruption was never far from the surface. Theirs was a predatory age, and they were particularly worried about the influence that foreign powers might wield over the fledgling country. Indeed, in Article 6 of the Articles of Confederation, the first draft of which was presented on 12 July 1776, they forbade “any person holding any office of profit or trust under the United States, or any of them, [to] accept any present, emolument, office or title of any kind whatever from any King, Prince or foreign State; nor shall the United States in Congress assembled, or any of them, grant any title of nobility.”
The founding generation’s fear over corruption continued even with the Constitution, which, like the superseded Articles of Confederation, explicitly decreed in Article 1, Section 9 that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” The sentiment was clear: honor, virtue, and disinterested behavior counted, but some men needed reminders. The future and repute of the republic depended on vigilance and upon the law.
I suspect that Americans’ propensity for honorable, virtuous, and disinterested behavior is in roughly the same measure that it was in 1776. Character and deportment matter now, as then they did. The question, therefore, is where are the men and women of character in the republic’s life? They needn’t hold political office, but they most assuredly must be within the electorate in order to safeguard the health of the republic and its independence. The signers’ willingness to stake their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor underpinned their commitment to the republic as much as to their selves. Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor are no less important to the United States. Americans deserve and depend as much upon their political leaders’ character now as did their predecessors in 1776.
Featured image credit: John Trumbull’s 1819 painting depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. The painting can be found on the back of the US $2 bill. The original hangs in the US Capitol rotunda by US Capitol. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.