John Adams wrote, “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”
How did a revolution commence in the minds and hearts of Americans? It germinated in pulpits and taverns, and from pamphleteers and newspapers. By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, there was a colonial consensus on a few key principles. Today, we call these the Founding Principles or First Principles.
These principles did not suddenly emerge in the American colonies. They had been incubating for a hundred years as the philosophical underpinnings for the Age of Enlightenment. Our Founders took the musings of the brightest thinkers of the Enlightenment and implemented them in the New World. Our founding was simultaneously an armed rebellion against tyranny and a revolution of ideas– ideas that changed the course of world history.
Prior to the Declaration, a consensus had to be developed within the colonies to seek independence; otherwise there would never have been enough volunteers to fight the powerful British Empire. The Hitchcock sermon was important because it presented First Principles in an Election Day Sermon, which by custom would be printed and distributed across the land. It was also remarkably brave. Some believe Hitchcock was the first to use the term “American cause.” Probably not, but he was likely the first to publically use the phrase in front of a colonial military governor.
The sermon was highly controversial. First, Hitchcock’s repeatedly denied the legitimacy of “Divine Right of Kings” in front of the King’s emissary.
“civil authority is the production of combined society–not born with, but delegated to certain individuals for the advancement of the common benefit.”
“No individual has any authority, or right to attempt to exercise any, over the rest of the human species, however he may be supposed to surpass them in wisdom and sagacity.”
“rulers have their distinct powers assigned them by the people, who are the only source of civil authority on earth”
But if nobility has no natural right to rule, then who does? One of the First Principles is that every person is born equal and has an inalienable right to self-government.
“In a state of nature men are equal, exactly on a par in regard to authority”
The denial of “Divine Right” was heretical. Hitchcock’s claim that people had a right and duty to change a despotic government was treasonous.
“And as its origin is from the people, who have not only a right, but are bound in duty, for the preservation of the property and liberty of the whole society, to lodge it in such hands as they judge best qualified to answer its intention; so when it is misapplied to other purposes, and the public, as it always will, receives damage from the abuse, they have the same original right, grounded on the same fundamental reasons, and are equally bound in duty to resume it, and transfer it to others.”
Hitchcock went further, hinting that the colonies had received damage from the abuse.
“we need not pass the limits of our own nation for sad instances of this.”
“Our contention is not about trifles, but about liberty and property and not ours only, but those of posterity”
And in this type of case, he claimed that rebellion was lawful.
“With respect therefore to rulers of evil dispositions, nothing is more necessary than that they should believe resistance, in some cases to be lawful.”
Was Hitchcock a rogue pastor, more foolhardy than brave? He didn’t believe so. He said he spoke “the united voice of America.”
“If I am mistaken … all America is mistaken with me.”
Gad Hitchcock presented this sermon two years before the Declaration of Independence. By his own admission, he was not presenting original ideas. As evidenced by the second paragraph of the Declaration, he was indeed speaking “the united voice of America.”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. … But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
The scholars of the Enlightenment audaciously proposed that individuals, not kings, were endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. This simple principle is the earth-shaking idea that guided the Founders’ actions before, during, and after the Revolution.
March 7, 2013 – Essay #14
Read An Election Sermon by Gad Hitchcock here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3477
James D. Best is the author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and Principled Action, Lessons from the Origins of the American Republic.