Ten Key Events
Whenever I tell my American friends that my new book is about 1776 and the way it created the post-Christian West, their initial reaction is invariably one of surprise. Why is an English pastor writing a book about the American Revolution? And how could the War of Independence possibly be blamed for post-Christianity?
I quickly clarify, No, most of the book is not about American independence (although I hope that the parts which are might shed some interesting light on the connection with post-Christianity). But that just amplifies the surprise. There is a puzzled pause. And then, in tones that are part facetious and part serious, comes some variant of the question: Wait, did anything happen in 1776 besides that one thing?
Indeed, something did. More accurately, a whole bunch of things did, in a wide variety of places and with massive long-term consequences that have profoundly shaped the world we live in. Not only that, but the events you’re thinking of, though understandably precious to patriotic Americans everywhere, might not even be the most important ones. A thousand years hence, when historians are writing the story of the late eighteenth century, they will be at least as interested in the ideological, technological, economic, and philosophical developments taking place elsewhere.
So in the interests of defending that claim, and with tongue firmly in cheek, here is a countdown of ten key events from 1776, ranked (as whimsically as I know how) in order of significance:
10. Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes his Reveries of a Solitary Walker in Paris.
Few individuals have matched the diversity, originality, and influence of Rousseau’s written output: the greatest autobiography since Augustine, the most important work on education since Plato, the most influential piece of political thought of his generation, and the eighteenth century’s bestselling novel. But readers today might find his Reveries to be the most beautiful work he ever wrote. They reflect many of the hallmarks of Romanticism—inwardness, imagination, individuality, inspiration, innocence, and intensity are all here in abundance—and there may be no better statement of the “inward turn” that would soon characterize Western society in general than this paragraph from the Reveries, written in late 1776: “Alone for the rest of my life, I must only look for consolation, hope, or peace, in my own breast; and neither ought or will henceforward think of anything but myself . . . I shall forget my misfortunes, disgraces and persecutors, on recollecting and contemplating the integrity of my own heart.”
9. Edward Gibbon publishes the first volume of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
This enormous and hugely erudite work set new standards in history-writing, thanks to its combination of compelling narrative, vast research, intellectual synthesis, and mellifluous prose. But it also told a story about the collapse of the ancient world and the rise of Christianity that endures to this day: a story of pagan light and learning, Christian gloom and dogmatism, “the darkness of the middle ages” (a term Gibbon introduced in 1776), and the implicit need for “enlightened” people to be emancipated from it. Every time someone mutters that something they disapprove of is “medieval,” or that someone is on the “wrong side of history,” they are appealing to the Enlightenment story as told and popularized by Edward Gibbon.
8. Washington’s Crossing.
On Christmas night 1776, the Continental Army attempted three crossings of the Delaware simultaneously. Two of them failed, but George Washington’s northern group, led by Henry Knox, succeeded in ferrying eighteen cannons, three hundred and fifty tons of ammunition, an unknown number of horses, and two and a half thousand men (the vast majority of whom could not swim) across an eight hundred foot river covered in ice floes, in a “perfect hurricane” of snow and sleet, in the middle of the night, on a flotilla of glorified canoes. They then marched ten miles south to Trenton, arriving at eight in the morning on the 26th and taking the Hessian fort completely by surprise. The result was a swift and emphatic American victory, with an advantage that Washington daringly pressed home over the next few days. As one leading historian of the period puts it, “No single day in history was more decisive for the creation of the United States than Christmas 1776.”
7. Immanuel Kant drafts his Critique of Pure Reason in Königsberg.
In 1776, the greatest of all German philosophers wrote his first outline for what would become the foundational text of modern philosophy. In a lengthy note, he lays out an overview of a future work in four sections: “Dialectic of Sensibility,” “Dialectic of the Understanding,” “Transcendental Doctrine of Appearance,” and “Transcendental Doctrine of Experience.” Though it would evolve a great deal in the following five years, this is clearly recognizable as a summary of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781)—a complex, original, and breathtaking book that would thoroughly reframe epistemology and metaphysics by introducing what Kant called “transcendental idealism.” Kant himself described it as a Copernican revolution in philosophy, inverting the relationship between the observer and the observed in such a way that we could never go back. As arrogant as that sounds, he was right.
6. The Stürmer und Dränger gather in Weimar.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Jakob Lenz, Johann Gottfried Herder, and Friedrich Klinger were among the young playwrights and intellectuals gathering in the central German town of Weimar in 1776 (Klinger’s play Sturm und Drang, or “Storm and Stress,” was written that autumn). Like most literary movements, the Sturm und Drang defies precise description, but Romanticism as a movement might never have existed without it. If you believe, or have ever heard it said, that art is only genuine if it comes from deep feelings within (Goethe), or that “we must be true to ourselves” (Herder), you are living in the world the Stürmer und Dränger made, whether or not you have read them or even heard of them.
5. Adam Smith publishes An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
Smith’s book is generally identified as the foundational text of modern economics, and as its full title implies, it was concerned with two key questions: what national wealth actually is, and what causes it to increase. To this day we are deeply shaped by concepts like the division of labor, the need for competitive markets, the idea that a nation’s wealth is a function of all the goods and services it produces (or what we would call GDP), and the famous “invisible hand,” whereby people seeking their own gain are led to create wealth for others without realizing it. “The interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer,” Smith explained. The customer, you might say, is always right.
4. James Watt’s steam engine starts running at the Bloomfield colliery in Staffordshire.
Probably the most important invention in the history of the Industrial Revolution, Watt’s engine worked by using a separate condenser so that the hot and cold parts of the steam engine could be kept apart from one another. This dramatically increased its efficiency and made it useful in numerous contexts that would previously have been prohibitively expensive; it started working on 9th March—as it happens, the day before Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published—and drained a pit of sixty feet of water in less than an hour. It quickly caught on, and before long it had been adapted to turn wheels and eventually power steam trains. Its impact on the modern world is best summarized by Watt’s business partner Matthew Boulton, when the biographer James Boswell visited his factory in 1776. “I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have—POWER.”
3. America declares independence from Great Britain.
Never in history has a nation announced itself on the world stage with such quotable bombast and rhetorical panache: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Whatever else we may say about this sentence (see #2 below), the Declaration of Independence was an epoch-defining document that established a nation and proved to be a fountainhead of numerous other democratic movements, including those in Ireland (1778–1799), the Netherlands (1780–1787), Geneva (1782), Belgium (1789–1790), France (1789–1794), Poland (1791), Haiti (1791–1804), and Switzerland (1798–1803). Today, there are around seven billion people living in countries that purport to be democratic republics. In 1775, there were none.
2. Post-Christianity goes mainstream.
Of all the things I discovered while working on this book, my favorite is that Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration stated that we hold these truths to be “sacred and undeniable,” which Benjamin Franklin crossed out and replaced with the word “self-evident.” It was a portentous edit. Jefferson’s version, despite his theological skepticism, presented the equality of men and the rights they held as grounded in religion: they are “undeniable” because they are “sacred” truths that originate with the Creator. By contrast, Franklin’s version grounded them in reason: they are “self-evident” truths, which are not dependent on any particular religious tradition but can easily be grasped as logically necessary by anyone who thinks about them. This reflected a much wider shift that was taking place among elites in the period, from a Christian to a post-Christian conception of reality; in 1776 alone we could quote Denis Diderot’s Interview, David Hume’s Dialogues, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, d’Holbach’s Ethocratie, Bentham’s Fragment, and many others to reinforce the point. Understanding this shift, and considering how to respond to it, was my major motive in writing the book.
1. The beginning of the Great Enrichment.
A thousand years from now, the most significant impact of the late eighteenth century on world history will surely be the transformation in health, wealth, and prosperity that it launched. Charts that track economic data across human history routinely look like hockey sticks, with the inflection point occurring somewhere in the 1770s: GDP, social development, life expectancy, information technology, and numerous other metrics seem to flatline for thousands of years, then turn a corner within a few years of 1776 and start shooting upwards. Of course, this growth has not been evenly distributed. Some people and nations have become even poorer, widening global inequalities to egregious levels. But the fact remains that beginning in northwestern Europe, economic growth began outpacing population growth, and increasing numbers of people found themselves getting richer than their parents. The world has not been the same since.
Andrew Wilson is the author of Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West.
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