Carl L. Becker

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Carl Lotus Becker (September 7, 1873, near Waterloo, Iowa, U.S. – April 10, 1945, Ithaca, N.Y.) was an American historian of early American intellectual history and on the Enlightenment.


  • Virginia was in fact a landowning aristocracy, without nobility or merchant class, or any considerable small peasant farming class; and the other Southern colonies, except North Carolina, were on the whole similar to Virginia in these respects.
    • The United States: An Experiment in Democracy (1920)

The Eve of the Revolution (1918)[edit]

  • The average Briton, as well as honorable and right honorable members of the House, had known that England possessed colonies and had understood that colonies, as a matter of course, existed to supply him with sugar and rice, indigo and tobacco, and in return to buy at a good price whatever he might himself wish to sell.
  • A million and a half of people spread over the Atlantic seaboard might be thought no great number; but it was a new thing in the world. ...which had in fact been carefully noted by Benjamin Franklin in a pamphlet on The Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.—that within three-quarters of a century the population of the continental colonies had doubled every twenty-five years, whereas the population of Old England during a hundred years past had not doubled once and now stood at only some six and a half millions. ...With these facts in mind, one might indeed say that a people with so much vitality and expansive power was abundantly able to pay taxes; but perhaps it was also a fair inference, if any one was disposed to press the matter, that unless it was so minded, such a people was already, or assuredly soon would be, equally able not to pay them.
  • If Americans were not always aware that they were rich men individually, they were at all events well instructed, by old-world visitors who came to observe them with a certain air of condescension, that collectively at least their material prosperity was a thing to be envied even by more advanced and more civilized peoples. Therefore any man called upon to pay a penny tax and finding his pocket bare might take a decent pride in the fact, which none need doubt since foreigners like Peter Kalm found it so, that "the English colonies in this part of the world have increased so much in ...their riches, that they almost vie with old England."
  • During the summer of 1765 the happy phrase of Isaac Barré—"these sons of liberty"—was everywhere repeated, and was put on as a kind of protective coloring by strong patriots, who henceforth thought of themselves as Sons of Liberty and no traitors at all. Rather were they traitors who would in any way justify an act of tyranny; most of all those so-called Americans, accepting the office of Stamp Master, who cunningly aspired to make a farthing profit out of the hateful business of enslaving their own countrymen.
  • Men of repute, including the staunchest patriots such as Samuel Adams and Jonathan Mayhew, expressed their abhorrence of mobs and of all licentious proceedings in general; but many were nevertheless disposed to think, with good Deacon Tudor, that in this particular instance "the universal Obhorrance of the Stamp Act was the cause of the Mob's riseing." It would be well to punish the mob, but punishing the mob would not cure the evil which was the cause of the mob...
  • Scarce a month had elapsed since the law was to have gone into effect before it was clear to the discerning that, for all their professions, most of the "better sort" were not genuine Sons of Liberty at all, but timid sycophants, pliant instruments of despotism, far more intent upon the ruin of Mr. Adams and of America in general than any minister could be shown to be.
  • Mr. Soame Jenyns, a writer of verse and member of the Board of Trade... In twenty three very small pages he had disposed of the "Objections to the Taxation of Our American Colonies" in a manner highly satisfactory to himself and doubtless also to the average reading Briton, who understood constitutional questions best when they were "briefly considered," and when they were humorously expounded in pamphlets that could be had for sixpence. ...The heart of the question was the proposition that there should be no taxation without representation; upon which principle it was necessary to observe only that many individuals in England, such as copyholders and leaseholders, and many communities, such as Manchester and Birmingham, were taxed in Parliament without being represented there. "...are they only Englishmen when they solicit protection, but not Englishmen when taxes are required to enable this country to protect them?" As for "liberty," the word had so many meanings, "having within a few years been used as a synonymous term for Blasphemy, Bawdy, Treason, Libels, Strong Beer, and Cyder," that Mr. Jenyns could not presume to say what it meant.
  • Government had not even denied the expediency of taxing America, the total repeal of the Stamp Act and the modification of the Sugar Act having been carried on a consideration of the inexpediency of these particular taxes only. Taxes not open to the same objection might in future be found, and doubtless must be found, inasmuch as the troops were still retained in America and the Quartering Act continued in force there.
  • The duty on British teas was slight. Americans might have paid the duty without increasing the price of their much prized luxury; ministers might have collected the same duty in England to the advantage of the Exchequer. That Britain should have insisted on this peppercorn in acknowledgement of her right, that America should have refused it in vindication of her liberty, may be taken as a high tribute from two eminently practical peoples to the power of abstract ideas.
  • No one, in the year 1770, was better fitted than Samuel Adams, either by talent and temperament or the circumstances of his position, to push the continent into a rebellion. Unlike most of his patriot friends, he had neither private business nor private profession to fall back upon when public affairs grew tame, his only business being, as one might say, the public business, his only profession the definition and defense of popular rights. ...the serious business of a man who during ten years had abandoned all private pursuits and had embraced poverty to become a tribune of the people.
  • Samuel Adams had not inherited poverty nor had he, after all, exactly embraced it, but had as it were naturally drifted into it through indifference to worldly gain, the indifference which men of single and fixed purpose have for all irrelevant matters.
  • To John Adams he [Samuel] said on one occasion, "he never looked forward in life; never planned, laid a scheme, or formed a design for laying up anything for himself or others after him. This was the truth, inexplicable as it must have seemed to his more provident cousin.
  • From the days of Anne Hutchinson, Boston never lacked clubs; and the Caulkers' Club was the prototype of many, rather more secular and political than religious or transcendental, which flourished in the years preceding the Revolution. John Adams, in that Diary which tells us so much that we wish to know, gives us a peep inside one of these clubs, the "Caucus Club,"… "There they smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one end of the garret to the other. There they drink flip, I suppose, and there they choose a moderator who puts questions to the vote regularly; and selectmen, assessors, collectors, wardens, fire-wards, and representatives are regularly chosen before they are chosen in the town.

The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922)[edit]

  • June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, on behalf of the Virginia delegation, submitted to the Continental Congress three resolutions, of which the first declared that "these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. This resolution, which may conveniently be called the Resolution of Independence, was finally voted by the Continental Congress on the 2 of July, 1776. Strictly speaking, this was the official declaration of independence; and if we were a nation of antiquaries we should no doubt find an incongruity in celebrating the anniversary of our independence on the 4 of July.
  • Three days after Richard Henry Lee introduced the Resolution of Independence, it was voted to appoint a committee to "prepare a declaration to the effect of the said first resolution." The committee, appointed on the following day, consisted of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. On the 28 of June, the committee reported to Congress the draft of a declaration which, with modifications, was finally agreed to by Congress on the 4 of July. This is the document which is popularly known as the Declaration of Independence.
  • The primary purpose of the Declaration was not to declare independence, but to proclaim to the world the reasons for declaring independence. It was intended as a formal justification of an act already accomplished.
  • The Declaration was essentially an attempt to prove that rebellion was not the proper word for what they were doing.
  • What they needed, in addition to many specific grievances against their particular king, was a fundamental presupposition against kings in general. What they needed was a theory of government that provided a place for rebellion, that made it respectable, and even meritorious under certain circumstances.
  • To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false is essentially a meaningless question. (p. 277)

The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-century Philosophers (1932)[edit]

  • Great as our differences are, all of us—professors, politicians, preachers—would no doubt find that we had much in common after all if it were possible to meet in the flesh some distinguished representatives from a former age.
  • Professor Whitehead has recently restored a seventeenth century phrase—"climate of opinion." The phrase is much needed. Whether arguments command assent or not depends less upon the logic that conveys them than upon the climate of opinion in which they are sustained.
  • Since eighteenth century writers employed reason to discredit Christian dogma, a "rationalist" in common parlance came to mean an "unbeliever"… But this use of the word is unfortunate since it obscures the fact that reason may be employed to support faith as well as to destroy it.
  • We have, among innumerable other works, the Summa theologica, surely one of the most amazing and stupendous products of the human mind. ...never before or since has the wide world been so neatly boxed and compassed, so completely and confidently understood, every detail of it fitted, with such subtle and loving precision, into a consistent and convincing whole.
  • We look about in vain for any semblance of the old authority, the old absolute, for any suitable foothold from which to get a running start.
  • The questions we ask are "What?" and "How?" What are the facts and how are they related? If sometimes, in a moment of absent-mindedness or idle diversion, we ask the question "Why?" the answer escapes us.

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