Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Declaration of Independence - Part One: "Every Man is Born Free" (1644) = "All Men are Created Equal" (1776)

It's well established, but little-known today, that in the 13 Colonies of America (during their decade of activism and protest from the Stamp Act of 1765 through to the summer of 1776), what the colonists sought were their full British liberties, but not independence. When the Crown rejected those demands, independence was the necessary last resort for the colonists to secure their liberties. 

In Professor Garry Wills' landmark 1978 book Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence he says that independence was only eventually agreed by all of the representatives of the colonies on the 2 July 1776. The book is a brilliant phrase-by-phrase analysis of the language in the 1776 Declaration of Independence, the story of its development, and of the literary influences which shaped the thinking of 33 year old Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson wasn't the sole author of the Declaration - there was a Committee of Five - but he is credited with being the key figure among them.

It takes many streams to form a river, and as Wills shows, the Declaration can be seen as the confluence of a wide range of classical thought.

It's not a purely Scottish / Scotch-Irish / Ulster-Scots document (but the many preceeding, regional, Resolves and Resolutions from across the 13 Colonies are). Of the three names printed on the first edition, two were Ulster-born - Charles Thomson and John Dunlap. But the Scotch-Irish / Ulster-Scots, of all of the British Isles immigrant groups in the 1700s, brought with them a 'lived experience' which made them uniquely equipped to insist upon liberty, before loyalty. They had been, literally, scarred by the Siege of Derry, and were instilled with philosophical fortitude. As my old slogan says, they were Mined in Scotland, Forged in Ulster, Exported Worldwide.

So, I'm piecing together a brief outline of the Scottish and Ulster-Scots philosophical strain - not just airy-fairy hypothetical cerebral concepts, but from actual documents which had already been written down at previous key moments of conflict between the Crown and the People.


There had long been a tension between the reach of the Crown and the rights of the people, and two centuries before the Declaration of Independence that tension was a central theme of the Scottish Reformation. John Knox and Andrew Melville confronted Scottish monarchs, at risk of their lives.

The publication of the Geneva Bible in 1560 included marginal notes, which, around 400 times, informed its readers that the word king can be translated as tyrant. The Bible is packed with kings and rulers who were precisely that, so all that the Geneva translators were doing was emphasising the point. Over and over and over again.

Back in 1579, in his De Jure Regni: The Rights of the Crown in Scotland, the 73 year old Scot George Buchanan (Wikipedia here) defined the limits of the monarchy. This was radical stuff in that he was the highly-educated personal tutor of both Mary Queen of Scots and also her young son and future King, James. Buchanan asserted that a monarch only reigns with the consent of the people. So, 'loyalty' is always conditional in that it is based upon a two-way bond. A 'social contract'. A covenant. One translation from Buchanan's original Latin puts it like this –

"... the people, from whom he derived his power, should have the liberty of prescribing its bounds; and I require that he should exercise over the people only those rights which he has received from their hands."

Or, as this book explains

"... the Scottish people have always retained the right of calling bad kings to their account. In virtue of their relation to the law, the people may deal with the king who breaks it. There is one law for king and private citizen. If the king refuse to submit to a trial, force may be applied, as in that case he has broken his compact with the people and become a tyrant."

It's impossible to understate Buchanan's influence. He was a major figure in Scottish society - not only for his roles with the Scottish Royal family, but also as a Principal of one of the colleges at St Andrews University, and also Moderator of the Church of Scotland.


These Crown v People issues simmered away for decades, and reached boiling points when various kings interfered in how the people wanted to operate their local churches, resulting in The King's Confession of 1581, and the two national momentous declarations of Scotland's National Covenant of 1638 and the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. These two covenants had Ulster fingerprints on them, and were circulated and signed at public events in Ulster too.

In the heat of these times, in 1644 a Scottish Episcopalian bishop, John Maxwell (Wikipedia here - who was from Kirkcudbright, was a graduate of St Andrews University, and who held various clerical positions in Ireland) published Sacro-Sancta Begum Majestas, or the Sacred and Divine Right, and Prerogative of Kings (online here). 


In response to this, 44 year old Rev Samuel Rutherford went to print. He was a Scottish Presbyterian who had been minister of the tiny rural hamlet of Anwoth between Kirkcudbright and Dumfries, close to Bishop Maxwell's birthplace.

Rutherford had already tangled with the King and bishops, and had been sent to Aberdeen for six months exile, during which he was banned from preaching. Soon after, Rutherford's impressive intellect saw him appointed Professor at John Maxwell's alma mater of St Andrews University; around this time Rutherford married for a second time – a widow called Joan McMath/Montgomery, who had lived among fellow Scots settlers near Newtownards in County Down for a while. 

Rutherford's reply to Maxwell was the momentous 1644 book Lex Rex, the format of which was 44 questions followed by detailed answers to each. In it, Rutherford pulled no punches. He specifically named Bishop John Maxwell and invoked the memory of George Buchanan: "Buchanan and Mr Melvin were doctors of divinity; and could have taught such an ass as John Maxwell... Buchanan knew the power of the Scottish parliament better than this ignorant statist".

Rutherford had worked on Lex Rex when he had been in London taking part in the Westminster Assembly. He asked Rev Robert Blair, formerly of Bangor, to review and critique the manuscript. Blair told him to not waste his energy on it, and to stick to theology.

Rutherford had it published anyway. Lex Rex developed the arguments that Buchanan had laid out 65 years before, back in 1579. It included this statement –


Another response to Maxwell written by Rutherford was subtitled A plea for the peoples rights (see here). Rutherford had shaken the kingdom and was accused of treason.

A new King, Charles II, came to the throne in May 1660. Almost immediately he began arresting his opponents. On 19 September 1660, a royal proclamation was published against Lex Rex for 'laying the foundation and seeds of rebellion', and a one month deadline was issued for anyone who owned a copy to deliver it to Robert Dalgliesh, the King's solicitor. Anyone who retained a copy would be 'esteemed enemies of the King, and punished accordingly'.

Copies of Lex Rex were publicly burned at the market cross in Edinburgh, at the gate of the New College of St Andrews University, in London and at Oxford University. 

Rutherford was charged with high treason. Soldiers were sent to his home to arrest him, only to find him already on his death bed - his message to them was ‘I have got a summons already from a superior Judge’. 

Rutherford died of natural causes on 29 March 1661, before he could be put on trial. His grave is at St Andrews. Two months later, royal-decreed public executions began in Edinburgh, commencing with the beheading of the Marquess of Argyll at Edinburgh's Grassmarket. This began the 27 years known as 'The Killing Times'.

In 1664 the state banned Buchanan's writings too – by then De Jure Regni had been translated into English by Rev John Crookshanks of Raphoe in Donegal. Crookshanks would be killed on the slopes of the Pentland Hills outside Edinburgh in 1666.


Many of Rutherford's writings are known to have made their way to New England in America, because he corresponded directly with people on that side of the Atlantic who were grappling with similar issues over there, such as Cotton Mather. Rutherford was also aware of the 1636 voyage of Eagle Wing from County Down to Massachusetts, and wrote to the minister of Holywood in County Down, Rev Robert Cunningham, that “if I saw a call for New England, I too would follow it”. Rutherford didn't cross the Atlantic, but his ideas did.

Rutherford's 1644 statement – "Every Man is Born Free" – is almost identical to a part of the Declaration of Independence's opening sentence in 1776, "All Men are Created Equal".

Here is a 2016 article by David Kopel in the Washington Post: 'Origins of the Declaration of Independence: Samuel Rutherford’s ‘Lex, Rex’

• Part Two to follow soon.....