A Close Look at the American Revolution

Saturday, March 14, 2009

When in the 1660’s, the English Parliament began its first halting attempts at regulating the external commercial traffic of the colonies across the Atlantic, regulation of external commerce was not a new idea. Europeans governments had always kept a mistrustful grip on business. In societies where monarchs and land-owning noblemen were understood to have a heaven right to rule, merchants and entrepreneurs were regarded as a pretty suspicious, maybe even subversive lot. After all, the profit of merchants and entrepreneurs and businessmen were not based on land. They did not rise or fall according to the nobility or their forbears. In a world that praised stability, commerce and enterprise meant instability. So, kings regularly shackled it by handing out monopoly charters over large stretches of their economies.

But the Enlightenment put its faith in measurable realities. The most obvious measurable reality was that commerce could do the empire a whole lot more good if it was directed intelligently and with the due respect for the numbers rather than for some chicken-brained duke or earl. So, hand in hand with Isaac Newton’s effort to reduce motion in the universe to equations, Enlightenment’s imperial planners in London began fashioning regulatory legislation over the colonies and their transatlantic commerce, which would reap profits in taxes and duties for the empire. They were not particularly successful, at least at first. Regulation may generate revenue, but it also costs money to enforce. The Crown was pathologically reluctant to pay the kinds of troops and ships it needed for the proper enforcement of the regulation of transatlantic commerce.

The Cost of War and the New Taxation

Then began the great imperial wars with France, during seven years from 1755 to 1763. Britain emerged from those imperial wars as the victor over France and the world’s first super-power, but at a hideous cost in public borrowing to finance the wars. In casting its eyes around for potential sources of servicing its war-time debts, Parliament’s eyes fell on the American colonies. Regulation, up to this point, has after all only taxed the colonies’ external trade across the Atlantic Ocean. Nothing had been done about extending the hand of the taxman into the internal economies of the colonies to raise taxes, because taxation of the colonies’ domestic economies was something which was done by the colonial legislators. However, the Parliament was the legislature of the Empire, and the colonies were technically simply plantations. If Parliament had needed to raise funds to meet the costs it incurred defending those plantations, why not exercise Parliament’s lawful right to tax the internal colonial economies as well as their commerce over the high seas.

And so, in 1764 began that long and dreary procession of confrontations over tax bills; between the Parliament on one hand, which could not comprehend through its fury why the colonials thought they enjoyed some sort of immunity from taxation of their economies; and the colonies, who could not comprehend through their even greater fury why Parliament would think it could simply take the rights that their legislators had built up without any serious questioning over the course of more than a century.

To the party of the King in Parliament, the Tories, the answer to this conundrum was a simple, traditional and pre-Newtonian one: Americans were rebels by nature and needed to be subordinated to the will of their God-given master, the King. To the colonies, the answer was equally simple, a good deal of it was found in John Locke: societies emerge from the State of Nature, as individuals agree to sacrifice a part of their natural liberty in order to protect the remainder of their liberty and property, a process more than confirmed by the experience of their own settlements. They had never been plantations, for the very obvious reason that Britain had never treated them that way, or at least never bothered to offer the funding and support which would had made the claim that the colonies were only Parliamentary plantations believable.

So, the colonial legislators were in the mind of the colonists the one true creation of the people of the colonies for their own government. In the first great revolutionary tract, James Otis’ “The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved” in 1764, Otis insisted that these supreme powers of legislation should be free and sacred in the hands where the community has once rightfully placed them. That meant the colonial legislators, and not Parliament.

All of this, as the Scottish common sense realist would have said, was open and self-evident to anyone with an unperverted moral sense. But the moral sense can, of course, become perverted if, as John Locke warned, sufficient corruption and degradation occur on the part of the government. Americans who read Whigs satire, or who had long-time beliefs that Anglican bishops were the emissaries of the Antichrist, or that who had to put up with snobs of blue-blood English officers and tax officials, not to mention those who knew the behavior of the average English soldier during his posting in the colonies during the French and Indian wars; did not require much convincing that the mother country was swiftly descending into the mother of whores, and that the whole controversy over taxation was a plot by what Mercy Otis Warren called the “intrigues of artful and ambitious men”.

The Beginnings of the Revolution

It only remained for Thomas Paine, in the revolution’s most sensational pamphlet, “Common Sense”, to conclude that a King had little more to do than to wage war and give away places, which in plain terms is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears. However, old habits and sentimental attachments to the old country did not die quickly. It took ten years, from 1764 to 1774, for the mounting cycle of accusation and confrontation to turn into violent resistance on the part of the colonials in the infamous Boston tea party of December 1774. After that, though, the trajectory of violence turned sharply upwards.

In April, British troops stationed in Boston tried to seize arms and ammunition stored by the colonial militia at Lexington and Concord. They found themselves trapped in a full-scale firefight that became the first battle of the revolution against British authority. In July 1776, the representatives of 13 of the British North American colonies, called together as the Continental Congress, announced that their allegiance to Great Britain was at an end, and declared the formation of an independent league, known as the United States of America.

The American Revolution managed to carry along with it almost all the desperate streams of intellectual resistance that set the stage for it, whether or not those streams were like oil and water. Presbyterian preachers, who saw in the new imperial taxation schemes the entering path for an American-Anglican episcopate, turned out in such numbers for the continental army that the Chief Justice of Massachusetts referred to the dissenting clergy who took so active a part in the rebellion as Mr. Otis’ black regiment walking straight out of the days of Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan hosts.

Out of the other stream, John Adams, the most talented theorist of what are called Revolution Principles, rejoiced to see in the Revolution the dawning of Enlightenment politics.

The Secular Principles of America

For the time being, the principles of nature and eternal reason, not Puritanism, would have the upper hand in the shaping of the new American order. When the Continental Congress finally casted its vote for independence, it delegated the writing of a legal declaration to preface the independence motion. The independence motion read “that these united colonies are and ought to be free and independent states”. Congress delegated the writing of that declaration to Thomas Jefferson, who in less than two days produced a draft declaration which is one of the most memorable political documents in the English language and a monument of Lockean simplicity and Scottish moral sense philosophy.

One reason why Thomas Jefferson was delegated to write that declaration was that in one sense he had already done so. In 1774, Jefferson had made his first public mark in defense of American rights with a summary view of the rights of British America, which listed in detail the offences of which the imperial government was guilty. To compose a declaration for the independence motion really required little more of Jefferson than the crafting of a series of statements of those offences which justified independence. In fact, a list of 21 such offences forms the bulk of Jefferson’s declaration. The really memorable part of the declaration grew out of Jefferson’s decision to write a preamble to the list. That lifted this otherwise pedestrian document into the realm of Enlightenment political philosophy.

In one long sentence, Jefferson captured the core of the Lockean and Scottish critique of tradition and hierarchy, and made it the nuclear core of the American Revolution.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident”, self evident at least to anyone, as the Scots insisted, possessing an uncorrupted moral sense.

“That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. These, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are what we find in the State of Nature, that is what people are born with naturally.

“That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men”. In other words, in an environment of scarcity with lack of security, to preserve these rights, people create governments. Now, governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. They don’t come from God and heaven, they don’t come from history and tradition, they don’t come from the nobility or whoever your parents might have been. They come from the consent of the governed.

“That whenever any form of government becomes disruptive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

These words of Jefferson are so familiar that we are no longer shocked by their frankly secular tone, or by the ease with which Jefferson folded so much of the territory of Enlightenment and Whig thinking into one single sentence. Nor are we shocked any longer at the sheer audacity with which the Declaration of Independence propelled American revolutionaries into the front rank of the Enlightenment’s experiment in rewriting the foundations of human society. More than merely signaling America’s political dissolution from the British empire, these words pegged the republic Americans would create to the expectations and principles of the Enlightenment: to Locke, to the classical and liberal republicans, to Harrington and others. Thus Americans dissolved not only their political ties to Britain, but their intellectual ties to the long train of the traditional European past.