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The American Revolution was a pivotal moment in history. It was carried forward by an innovative new concept of individual rights: rights by nature.

What has been all but ignored in the reporting of the American Revolution is the fact that the concept of natural rights that underpinned it was not John Locke’s; it was Samuel Adams’s! He introduced it in his essay “Natural Rights of the Colonists as Men,” which he presented to the people of Boston in their November 1772 town meeting.

Adams’s interpretation of Natural Rights was essential to his rebellion because it recognized that King George III’s American subjects had rights independent of England’s celebrated (unwritten) constitution and its Common Law.

Adams and his fellow patriots invoked these new “natural” rights to justify another faux Lockean concept, which Adams also devised. This was the “right to revolution.” Because the despotic English monarch was violating the natural rights of his American subjects, Adams argued, they had a “natural right” to overthrow the King’s government and create their own. Thomas Jefferson famously invoked this right in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence.

This blog draws attention to revisions Samuel Adams made to John Locke’s concepts of Natural Law and Natural Rights and underscores that he made these revisions to provide a rationale for establishing independent governments in the King’s American colonies.

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The Foundation of Natural Rights

The idea that life, liberty, and property were “natural rights” did not originate with John Locke! It originated with Samuel Adams. This is explained in Chapter 6 of the First Revolutions in the Minds of the People:

“Sam Adams transformed Locke’s concept of Natural Law as a moral precept into the pseudo-Lockean political principle. He did this while reorienting the patriotic movement in the fall of 1772.”

In an essay entitled “Natural Rights of the Colonists as Men,” which he presented at Boston’s November 1772 town meeting, Cousin Sam converted what for Locke had been the “common good” individuals pursue as members of political society into “inherent” political rights. Said the leading authority on John Locke in British America:

  • Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can. These are evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature. All men have a right to remain in a state of nature as long as they please; and in case of intolerable oppression, civil or religious, to leave the society they belong to, and enter into another.
  • When men enter into society, it is by voluntary consent; and they have a right to demand and insist upon the performance of such conditions and previous limitations as form an equitable original compact.
  • Every natural right not expressly given up, or, from the nature of a social compact, necessarily ceded, remains.
  • All positive and civil laws should conform, as far as possible, to the law of natural reason and equity. [See page 106.]
  • Contrast this claim to what John Locke said in Paragraphs 6 and 95 of his Second Treatise of Government. In Paragraph 6, Locke says:
    • The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. . . . Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind.

In examining contrasting philosophies on natural rights, one perspective, rooted in the Colonists’ beliefs, underscores the inherent rights of life, liberty, and property within a structured society.

It emphasizes voluntary social compacts and the duty of self-preservation. In contrast, the second viewpoint, anchored in the state of nature, promotes equality and independence. Here, reason guides individuals to refrain from harming others and emphasizes a duty to preserve both oneself and humanity. The divergence between these perspectives highlights the nuanced discussions on individual autonomy and societal constructs.

American Revolution – A Manifestation of Natural Rights

Sam Adams and his fellow insurgents needed a political logic to justify declaring independence. They could not use their rights as Englishmen because neither the English Common Law nor the British Constitution recognized a right to rebel against the King’s government. Therefore, when the 1st Continental Congress convened in 1774, Sam Adams and his cousin John undertook to win passage of a colonial bill of rights that recognized Natural Law as a source of rights belonging to the King’s American subjects.

The Congress refused to approve the bill John Adams drafted, but this did not prevent his compatriot, Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson, from incorporating it into the Journal of Congress as part of the mysterious Declaration of Rights and Grievances.

This Declaration, with its orphan bill of rights, proved to be unnecessary for launching the American Revolution because, on 23rd August 1775, four months after the shot was fired and heard around the world at Concord Bridge, King George III issued his “Proclamation, for suppressing Rebellion and Sedition.” This proclamation marked the formal beginning of the War for American Independence. As the King’s armies endeavored to re-establish their authority in the colonies, beleaguered Americans took up arms to defend their homes and families. France joined them four years later. Their help decided the conflict in favor of the Americans.

Comparative Analysis

The eventual success of the American Revolution understandably impressed reformers in France. Many wanted to institute a constitutional government that would give the people a legal means to control their King. Men like George Washington’s adopted son, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Thomas Jefferson, then America’s Ambassador to France, supported ratifying a bill of rights that would underpin a new constitution. In due course, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was ratified. Its first article recognized that all men have natural rights. It said, “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”

Challenges and Legacy

Sam Adams’s “right to revolution” justified virtually every rebellion by every faction against every legitimate government. Because this was so, it provided the political logic underpinning innumerable revolutions up to the present day. This shows us how disruptive and dangerous it is.

In this regard, the American Revolution was distinctly unLockean because it validated division and conflict rather than the unity and peace John Locke intended to facilitate.

Frequently ignored in the embroidering of the American Revolution is the generation-long economic depression it triggered. This depression eventually led to a “nation revolution” and the abandonment of the confederation government patriots established during the War for American Independence. As the newly independent states wavered on the brink of collapse, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison led their fellow citizens in creating a democratic republic under the Constitution of the United States of America.

James Thompson’s The First Revolutions in the Minds of the People is groundbreaking, offering a novel perspective on the origins of the American Revolution. This innovative work delivers profound historical insights, emphasizing the importance of transatlantic connections and intellectual exchanges in shaping history.

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