The revolution of the American colonies against British rule was not a movement that sprang to life overnight. The seeds of the movement were planted decades earlier, as the era of the Enlightenment changed the way that many people viewed the very nature of life and of human purpose. The notions of Republicanism espoused by the radical British Whigs in the 1600s, for example, would greatly influence the ideals that formed the basis of the new American government a century later. When Thomas Jefferson asserted 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,” it was a statement based on the emerging belief that natural law, rather than the divine laws or rules of Kings, guided the nature and purpose of life.
Despite the growing unity of the colonies as the American revolutionary movement developed in the 1700s, the colonies had little in common besides the mounting resentment of British rule. Colonists in the four primary regions lived very different lives, and had very different ideas about politics, economics, and religion. There is a notable contradiction between Jefferson’s words about “liberty” and the fact that much of the colonial economic power was built on the backs of slave labor. These contradictions were the source of much discussion and concern at the time, and would eventually serve to underpin the American Civil War a century after the American Revolution.
It must be understood, however, that at the time Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the idea that “all men are created equal” was itself a revolutionary concept. It marked a break between the pre-Enlightenment beliefs that people were bound by divine law to their stations in life, and it was the very nature of life in the colonies –where many people were able to create their own destinies through hard work and determination- that served as evidence that the Enlightenment ideals about natural law could serve as the basis of a new form of government of, by, and for the people. While the ideals about “all men” did not yet include the Blacks and others who were enslaved in the colonies, that does not lessen the significance of the fact that they formed the ideological basis of a new nation.
Schultz, K. M. (2012). HIST2, Volume 1. Retrieved from The University of Phoenix eBook Collection.