The Founders’ Vision for American Independence

COMMENTARY American History

The Founders’ Vision for American Independence

Jul 6, 2023 9 min read
Brenda Hafera

Assistant Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Simon Center

Brenda is the Assistant Director and Senior Policy Analyst for the Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Despite our nation’s problems, America’s core principles remain true. Douglas Sacha / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

This Independence Day, it is worth reflecting on what the Founding Fathers meant when they used the term “independence.”

The Founders’ understanding of what individuals can and cannot do was always placed in the broader context of a moral order consistent with the life well lived.

Forming and maintaining an independent country composed of an independent people was never an easy task and always a continuous and impermanent one.

This Independence Day, it is worth reflecting on what the Founding Fathers meant when they used the term “independence.” On one level, July 4th is about our national independence, securing for America the “separate and equal station” befitting of a sovereign country. On another level, the founders sought to recognize and promote the political and economic independence of the American people, setting forth the continuous project of maintaining an independent American mind. 

For a first glance at what the Founders meant by “independence, it may actually be helpful to consider Noah Webster’s 70,000-word American dictionary from 1828, which is often cited by the Supreme Court to evidence the original meaning of the Constitution and is credit with, “capturing the language of the new nation.” That dictionary offers these varying definitions of independence:

1. A state of being not dependent; complete exemption from control, or the power of others; as the independence of the Supreme Being.

2. A state in which a person does not rely on others for subsistence; ability to support one’s self.

3. A state of mind in which a person acts without bias or influence from others; exemption from undue influence; self-direction. independence of mind is an important qualification in a judge.

These versions of independence are related, interact in important ways, are grounded in nature, and have limits, as can be discovered by examining the writings of the Founders further. Exemption from control is the right of self-government, which is accompanied by corresponding duties. Economic independence is freedom to use one’s talents and abilities to obtain property and support one’s self, but also to secure the good life. Independence of mind, which enables one to direct the will toward justice, is the culminating freedom of an economically independent, self-governing citizen. 

While Founders like Thomas Jefferson, James Wilson, and Mercy Otis Warren used “independence” in varying ways, none of their definitions is synonymous with the radical autonomy that progressives push today. When considering the conditions of the time and place that the Founders found themselves in—that is, putting their ideas in the proper context—this becomes obvious. Individual independence for the Founders is always situated within a transcendent moral order, human nature, and an understanding of what enables human flourishing.

>>> Stuck With Freedom, Stuck With Virtue

The first usage of the term “independence” refers to the right of self-government. In Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he wrote that, “all men are created free and independent,” reflecting the language of the Declaration of Rights in his home state of Virginia. “Equal,” which was the word used in Jefferson’s final draft, is related to this understanding of  “independence.” Both carry with them the connotation of self-ownership or self-government. As James Wilson explained, “All men are, by nature, equal and free: no one has a right to any authority over another without his consent: all lawful government is founded on the consent of those who are subject to it: such consent was given with a view to ensure and to increase the happiness of the governed, above what they could enjoy in an independent and unconnected state of nature.” The Founders considered that mankind’s independence exempted him from the arbitrary rule of fellow human beings and that his nature fortified him with the dignity of self-government.

But exemption from undue human rule does not elevate mankind above the dictates of nature. As Wilson further explained, “Justice, I tell him, is a part of the law of nature; give me a reason drawn from human authority… Humanity is a duty; generosity is a virtue; but neither is to be referred to human authority.” In other words, citizens are obliged to fulfill the obligations they have consented to undertake through the social compact. However, certain virtues and duties are not derivative of consent but rather ingrained in the nature of human beings, meaning that men and women can never will themselves to become independent of a higher order. As Jefferson succinctly articulated, the people “are inherently independent of all but moral law.” While each individual is free to govern his or herself, he or she is also obliged to aim towards virtue and strive for reason to govern passions, impulses, and desires.

This understanding of man’s nature forms the basis of another kind of independence the Founders believed characteristic of republican citizens: economic independence. Per the Declaration of Independence, all citizens, being naturally equal, have the right to pursue happiness. That is, they have the right to pursue “something like occupying one’s life with the activities that provide for overall wellbeing,” as professor of political science James R. Rogers put it. What it doesn’t constitute, though it is often taken to mean as much, is a prescription to a licentious or morally relativistic pursuit of economic success at all costs.

Of course, economic freedom includes a right to “material things,” but—as always with the Founders—this freedom is imbued with an ethical dimension and thus goes beyond the material to touch on “humanity’s spiritual and moral conditions.” Individuals’ talents and abilities are justly utilized in securing temporal prosperity and security, but also in fostering virtues within themselves so they are more capable of fulfilling the obligations of self-government. The Founders’ understanding of what individuals can and cannot do was always placed in the broader context of a moral order consistent with the life well lived. In short, the pursuit of happiness is both a right, and prescription to live the good life.

This understanding of the pursuit of happiness, and American natural rights more broadly, is especially clear in James Madison’s view of property. As he put it, property is not just physical land. An individual also has “equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them. In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.” As noted in Federalist 10, the primary object of government is to protect the faculties of men, which are diverse and naturally give rise to differences in property. Which is to say, because men and women are equal, they own their unique talents and abilities, and should be able to utilize those gifts without any hinderance by arbitrary barriers.

This definition of economic independence is brought into clearer focus when we place it in context by contrasting the American regime with the British aristocratic system the Founders were seeking to replace. In aristocratic societies, gentlemen rely on those under their auspices to work; having leisure time is a mark of status and labor is looked down upon. Republics, in contrast, elevate the dignity of honest work and merit-based achievement. The many are independent and free to rely on their own talents and abilities rather than being dependent on the patronage and whims of a few aristocrats whose rule results from an accident of birth. Consequently, individuals in the American system were far more economically independent and upwardly mobile than was possible or permissible in the United Kingdom. 

This emphasis on individual talents, however, did not lead to radical autonomy. The absence of aristocratic hierarchies in America demanded interdependence within families and communities. French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed that:

In aristocratic societies men have no need to unite to act because they are kept very much together. Each wealthy and powerful citizen in them forms as it were the head of a permanent and obligatory association that is composed of all those he holds in dependence to him, whom he makes cooperate in the execution of his designs. In democratic peoples, on the contrary, all citizens are independent and weak; they can do almost nothing by themselves… They therefore all fall into impotence if they do not learn to aid each other freely.

Clearly, being an independent American is not equivalent to being an autonomous individual, but rather a competent and industrious one who labors to take responsibility for him or herself, family, and community. With the severing of feudal ties and the rise of nuclear families over intergenerational ones, the republican citizen is, in a sense, even more dependent on those closest to him. 

The third definition of independence invoked by the Founders was independence of will, which is a mind directed towards justice and supported by the moral qualities fostered by self-government and economic independence. The first two definitions of independence are prerequisites for independence of will, the culmination of their interaction. 

Historian and Founder Mercy Otis Warren provided a robust description of people who achieved this independence of will. Writing approvingly of a Boston assembly, she noted that it was “composed of the principal gentlemen and landholders in the province; men of education and ability, of fortune and family, of integrity and honor; jealous of the infringement of their rights, and the faithful guardians of a free people. Their independency of mind was soon put to the test.” Individuals with independent minds know what they are about. Their self-direction (a qualifier in Webster’s third definition) can survive being tested by others because it is fortified by and directed towards a justice  superior to human will. Such citizens have upstanding characters, are committed to republican principles, and put the common good above their own self-interest. By pursuing a liberal education and being well-informed about public affairs, they can be elevated above the deception of conniving, self-interested individuals. 

>>> Returning to Deliberation

As economic independence and political self-government inculcate and reinforce one another, independence of will gradually forms. Equal citizens, for example, are free to use their talents to secure their stability and advance prosperity to better fulfill the obligations of self-rule. In turn, those who are economically free tend to develop the spiritedness characteristic of republican citizens. As Warren (and John Adams) argued, “both public and private virtue sink with the loss of liberty, and that the nobler emulations which are drawn out and adorn the soul of man, when not fettered by servility, frequently hide themselves in the shade, or shrink into littleness at the frown of a despot.” Living under tyranny enfeebles men and women whose behavior and spoken opinions are influenced by those upon whom their livelihoods depend. Individuals who cannot freely set their opinion against others can be deprived of a deliberative mind. Being economically free helps guard citizens against political tyranny and supports the development of an independent will.

Independence of will had serious implications for voting regulations, but many such regulations were matters of condition. To be clear, the Founders did not believe any human being is naturally inferior, but they did believe that some people were more likely to be subject to undue influence. As Alexander Hamilton, wrote: 

If it were probable that every man would give his vote freely, and without influence of any kind, then, upon the true theory and genuine principles of liberty, every member of the community, however poor, should have a vote… some who are suspected to have no will of their own, are excluded from voting; in order to set other individuals, whose wills may be supposed independent, more thoroughly upon a level with each other.

Hamilton felt, in other words, that the circumstances necessary to insulate the everyday individual from undue influence had not been realized and remained infeasible prior to America’s founding. Indeed, without the Revolution—not to mention America’s expansive territory, which Madison and Jefferson suggested introduced the possibility of everyday citizens becoming landowners—aristocratic societies might have remained the norm. But that’s what makes the American story so remarkable, and the Fourth of July worth celebrating. Declaring that “all men are created equal” (and by “men” they meant “mankind”) at the nation’s birth provided the philosophical reasoning to extend full citizenship to all. 

Today, we enjoy the fruits of that founding vision. Despite our nation’s problems, America’s core principles remain true. Suggesting otherwise, and reading radical autonomy into the founding, is to read the story out of context. Forming and maintaining an independent country composed of an independent people was never an easy task and always a continuous and impermanent one. America has been secured as a sovereign nation, a nation that respects economic freedom and enjoys unprecedented prosperity. Citizens’ political rights of self-government have been recognized. The work of fostering a people replete with the moral resolve, spiritedness, and character of an independent will perpetually remains unfinished. For its ever-invoking realization is dependent on the choices and conduct of each generation of Americans.  

This piece originally appeared in Law & LIberty on July 4, 2023