A culture of independence
On May 4, 1776, the colony of Rhode Island declared its independence from Great Britain. That was two full months before the Continental Congress got around to issuing the document we now revere as the Declaration of Independence.
But, even though Rhode Island acted on its own, they were thinking big. To emphasize that official proceedings should be performed in the name of the state, they replaced the phrase “God save the King” with “God save the United Colonies.” They knew Independence was coming to all of Britain’s North American colonies.
Ironically, in addition to being the first colony to declare independence, Rhode Island later became the last of the original 13 colonies to ratify the Constitution. That document was approved by the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787. Nine states ratified it by June 21, 1788, enabling the new government to be launched on March 4, 1789 with the inauguration of George Washington. Rhode Island didn’t join the new nation until over a year later on May 29, 1790.
These timetables remind us the political steps leading to American independence grew out of a larger cultural movement. That movement created the belief every American has the right to live our own life as we see fit, so long as we do not interfere with the right of others to do the same.
In my forthcoming book, Politics Has Failed: America Will Not, I note that this attitude did not begin with nobles and royals, or even colonial political legends. “The Revolution began quietly in homes and schoolrooms across the colonies in the reading lessons women gave to children.” Utah Professor of English Gillian Brown has described a dynamic colonial conversation conducted through “primers, readers, fables, fairy tales, political rhetoric, and novels through which Americans developed a sense of themselves as a sovereign people distinct from England.”
Brown added, “Long before Revolutionary sermons and speeches, the ideal of self-determination resided intimately in the colonial imagination.” The ideals that we now cherish as the American Creed were nurtured and passed on by unknown leaders in households and communities throughout colonial America.
This distinct culture came about because colonial Americans had more pragmatic experience with freedom and self-governance “than any part of mankind in the eighteenth century.” Pulitzer Prize winning historian Gordon Wood put it like this: “While the speculative philosophers of Europe were laboriously searching their minds in an effort to decide the first principles of liberty, the Americans had come to experience vividly that liberty in their everyday lives.”
In early 1776, Thomas Paine’s publication of “Common Sense” tapped into this rich cultural heritage and quickly became “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era.” Declaring government to be a “necessary evil” and calling for independence, the provocative document crystallized the public mood. Paine envisioned lofty goals for the new nation, believing that the colonial fight for freedom and self-governance was “in a great measure the cause of mankind…. We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
It was only after all of this cultural leadership, and after fighting had forced the British to leave most of colonial America, that Rhode Island declared its independence. That’s the way it’s always been in America: The culture leads and the politicians lag behind.