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Ulster Roots August-September 2004

Their Rights and Liberties
Richard K. MacMaster

Books about our Founding Fathers have topped the bestseller lists in the last few years.  David McCullough's readable life of John Adams has sold more than 1.6 million copies in hardback.  Biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington are doing almost as well.  The Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2004, called it "America's infatuation with the Founding Fathers".

T. H. Breen, Professor of American History at Northwestern University, commented on this publishing phenomenon in an article on "Ordinary Founders" published in The Times Literary Supplement, May 28, 2004.  He wrote that: "Missing from the tales of the Founding Fathers are the ordinary men and women who made a revolution possible.  They appear as little more than bit players in narratives organized around the lives of the great men.  One result of this shift of focus is that the lexicon of revolution has changed.  We hear of courageous leadership, hard decisions and bold vision, but little about popular mobilization, widespread sacrifice for a shared political goal, or popular resistance to the abuse of power." 

Professor Breen quoted freely from the diary of Matthew Patten, "a solidly middle-class farmer living in southern New Hampshire" to make his point.  The Diary of Matthew Patten 1754-1788, originally published by the Town of Bedford in 1903 and reprinted in 1993 by Picton Press, is a lively portrait of the Scotch-Irish community of Bedford, New Hampshire with a wealth of information about the people who settled there.  Professor Breen concluded that "Matthew may have taken political advice from the local gentry, but one suspects after reading his diary that he and his family came to a full understanding of the 'just Rights of America' on their own."  They may have admired the theoretical arguments of some of the Founding Fathers, but "At the moment when they made the most difficult decisions of their lives, they spoke the plain language of rights."

It was not just in Scotch-Irish settlements like Bedford, New Hampshire, that ordinary men and women demanded their rights and liberties.  Resolutions adopted in town and county meetings, petitions to the legislatures, and agreements drawn up by merchants, and town and county committees of  observation in the 1760s, 1770s, and 1780s, all "spoke the plain language of rights."

Only a few of them would have been familiar with the philosophical and legal arguments of the great thinkers like John Locke and Francis Hutcheson, but they were all convinced that there were certain rights of Englishmen that belonged to all of King George's freeborn subjects.  The Bill of Rights issued by King William III (William of Orange) in 1689 spelled out some of them:  the right to petition, freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, trial by jury, no excessive bail or cruel and unusual punishments and others that can be found, word for word, in our own Bill of Rights today.  A separate Act of Toleration in 1689 provided for freedom of religion.

Scotch-Irish settlers were quick to appeal to this tradition of liberty and inalienable rights.  One group of Pennsylvania settlers informed Governor Thomas Penn that they had been "oppressed by under land lords in our own country" and did not intend to put up with any such oppression here, such as paying more for their lands than they had bargained for.  Another group, asking for a very large grant of land, pointed out that they had done Penn a great favor by coming over and improving his property, so he owed them what they wanted.  They petitioned the colonial authorities in Massachusetts and North Carolina for exemption from paying taxes to support the church established by law.

The so-called Paxton Boys carried "A Declaration of the distressed and bleeding Frontier Inhabitants" when they marched on Philadelphia in 1764.  They admitted they were "Flying in the Face of Authority" in doing so, but insisted that "we have an indisputable Title to the same Privileges and Immunities with his Majesty's other subjects."  They argued that the under-representation of frontier counties in the Pennsylvania Assembly was an "Infringement of our natural Privileges of Freedom and Equality."  Trying individuals for offenses outside the jurisdiction in which they were committed "deprived British Subjects of their known Privileges."  They asserted that no government could "contradict the well known Laws of the British Nation , in a point whereon Life, Liberty and Security essentially depend." A few years later North Carolina and South Carolina regulators made the same arguments.  

Newspapers in all the British Colonies published resolutions from meetings of freeholders in nearly every county in 1774 invoking the same sentiments and directing their representatives how to vote.  The resolutions of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, a Scotch-Irish stronghold, foreshadowed the Declaration of Independence.  During the period of constitution making in the different states from 1776 on, newspapers again published ringing instructions to their representatives.  Many of them would be considered radical two centuries later.  After the Revolution, the Virginia General Assembly received many petitions from Presbyterians and Baptists demanding separation of church and state.  Other Scotch-Irishmen in Pennsylvania and Maryland made the case for a Bill of Rights.

You may find more than one ancestor's name on some of these petitions that have survived in the different state archives.  They tell a story of individuals who were willing to be counted in the struggle for their rights and liberties.  Each of them was as important in leaving us a heritage of freedom as the major figures who shaped our Constitution and Bill of Rights.

This emphasis on national leaders, rather than ordinary Americans, is just the latest swing of the pendulum in understanding the American Revolution and ourselves.  J. Franklin Jameson's four lectures on The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (1926) influenced a generation of historians to look beyond the winning of independence to the impact of revolutionary ideas on American society. Twenty-five years later others asked "How Revolutionary Was It?" and wrote of the essential conservatism of the Founding Fathers.  Influenced by the emerging New Social History, the next generation read history from the bottom up and explored the world of Philadelphia working people and Massachusetts farmers in order to understand the Revolution they made.  The current crop of books about the Founding Fathers is part of a shift in the other direction, away from the notion of self-directed patriots from the farm or the shop. 

As T. H. Breen pointed out, "The heritage of the American Revolution encourages the people to participate in political debates on their own terms."  They need not assume that their leaders will do what is right.  "They are not obliged to wait for the Founding Fathers."

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