Which countries had democratic governments in 1775?
I. Applied education
Like no other text in modern political history, the United States' Declaration of Independence proclaims the ideals of freedom, equality and popular sovereignty in a rhetorical and unsurpassed manner as a signal that the Enlightenment was translated into political practice. How did this text come about and what political ideas found expression in the document venerated in the United States as a providential mandate to the nation?
On July 2, 1776, representatives of twelve of the sixteen British colonies on the American mainland, which in Philadelphia as the Continental Congress coordinated the resistance to English colonial rule, resolved: "These United Colonies are, and are legal, free and independent states. They are all oaths of allegiance relieved from the British Crown, and any political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and is legal, completely severed. It is now time to take the most effective measures to forge alliances with foreign powers. A plan of confederation is to be drawn up and to submit it to the colonies concerned for advice and approval. "
The decision was made in favor of the radical solution. The advocates of further negotiations with the aim of reconciliation and remaining within the global British colonial empire had finally lost. The patriots, determined to continue the war that had begun in April 1775, had prevailed in twelve colonies and authorized their delegates in Congress to declare independence. To compensate for the rebels' hopeless military inferiority to the greatest naval power of the time, the next step had to be an alliance with the King of France. At the same time, the provisional government of the Continental Congress had to be replaced by a well-designed, permanent confederation.
Why these unprecedented resolutions were necessary, the delegates meeting behind closed doors wanted to publicly justify and proclaim. They did not know how many of their fellow citizens, as whose representatives they acted, were actually ready to break with the king and parliament and endure a war with great sacrifices. Therefore a referendum on the declaration of independence would have been too risky. The patriots first had to create facts and publicly justify why the break with the king and parliament did not violate the oath of allegiance and the duties of the subjects and why it had already been carried out by the king and parliament. The Americans also wanted to testify and explain to the enlightened public in Europe, their previous fellow subjects in Great Britain and the monarchs and princes on the continent, their determination to be independent.
After a two-day debate, the resolution of the Congress of July 2nd was followed by the explanation of the reasons why the representatives of the American political elite gathered in Philadelphia met on July 4th, 1776 under the evocation of divine providence and with the use of "life, fortune and holy honor" confessed to popular sovereignty as the sole source of legitimate governance. By repeatedly disregarding basic human rights, they argued, the monarch and parliament had violated their contractual obligations and forfeited their claim to rule over the colonies. The colonists therefore believed they were entitled to govern themselves as "free and independent states", "to declare war, make peace, enter into alliances, conduct trade and do everything else that independent states are entitled to do."
The world-historical significance of the European Americans' declaration of independence is beyond dispute beyond national pride: For the first time, European settlers outside Europe declared their country of origin to rule the colonies as forfeited and declared themselves to be an equal people (one people) without whose consent there would be no legitimate Governance could give more. The assertion of the right of a nation to self-government and the commitment to the sovereignty of the people had to go hand in hand in the American case, because the violation of popular sovereignty through arbitrary rule justified the renunciation of the English nation. One of the founders of modern national historiography in Germany, Leopold von Ranke, saw this core of the American Revolution with an eye sharpened by the failed revolution of 1848. He declared in 1854:
"Because the North Americans, falling away from the constitutional principle in force in England, created a new republic based on the individual rights of each individual, a new power came into the world. Until now, it had been thought in Europe that the monarchy was the benefit of the nation best understand, now the theory emerged that the nation must govern itself ... This was a greater revolution than any previous one in the world, it was a complete reversal of the principle. It used to be the king of God's grace, around which everything was grouped; now the idea emerged that violence must rise from below ... These two principles oppose each other like two worlds, and the modern world moves in nothing but conflict between these two In Europe the antithesis of these principles had not yet arisen; but it broke out in the French Revolution. "
Just as the political ideas of the French revolutionaries addressed by Ranke were influenced by the decades-long discussion of the French Enlightenment, the English, Scottish and French Enlightenment shaped the political theory of the insurgent colonists. Its political core was formed by the British constitution, praised as liberal throughout Europe, as it emerged in 1688/89 from the glorious revolution of the parliamentary majority against the absolutist tendencies of the ruling family of the Stuarts and justified by John Locke and numerous other Whig journalists.
What was new about the epoch-making Declaration of Independence and the republican constitutional order that followed it arose from the implementation of British legal and constitutional thinking, including the Whig radicals' vehement public criticism of the corrupt practices of representation in Great Britain, under the new conditions of cheap land, new economic development opportunities and out of it following more egalitarian social structures in America. Earlier than in Europe, at least some of the political ideals of the Enlightenment were put into practice in North America, not because spokesmen of the colonists had developed a new, purely American political ideology, but because of the economic success of the colonists and the Anglo-American political culture by the 17th century had created a broad middle class of owners and a politically active ruling class capable of self-government. The Europeans in America could therefore use Kant's imperative "Dare to know!" transferred to the level of action and increased to “Dare to rule yourself!” In his large account of the Enlightenment, Peter Gay rightly headed the America chapter “The Program in Practice” (1969), and Ralf Dahrendorf presented his historical-sociological views of America under the title "The Applied Enlightenment" (1963).
On both sides of the Atlantic, critical questions about the performance and legitimacy of ecclesiastical and secular authorities increased in the second half of the 18th century. The key words of the dissatisfied sounded similar in many places in Europe: the traditional prerogatives of aristocrats and privileged citizens of the class society were opposed to new ideas of the natural rights of all people, of freedom, equality, common good and general well-being, of félicité or happiness. Clearly written structures of responsibility and the rule of generally applicable laws were publicly discussed as ways and means to a more just social order. Historians such as Robert R. Palmer and Jacques Godechot have therefore characterized the last third of the 18th century in Europe and North America as an era of democratic revolution. The publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the anciens regimes between Versailles and St. Petersburg, Edinburgh and Naples took extremely different forms. The struggle of the colonists across the Atlantic for self-government in their own state was one of the various revolutions that ushered in the age of struggles for the institutionalization of popular sovereignty in the modern, liberal constitutional state.
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