Archive for the ‘american revolution’ Tag

Shot Heard Round the World   5 comments


When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

(Original Draft – When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained, & to assume among the powers of the earth the equal & independant station to which the laws of nature & of nature’s god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the change.)

Our Founders grew up as subjects to the British crown and all that entailed. Some had grown up in England. Others were from the colonies. Many in the colonies, including some of the ones who would be patriots later, had never considered themselves anything but loyal subjects of the Crown. Even those who had read Locke and agreed with his arguments wanted liberty under the Crown, not separate from the Crown.

It’s worthwhile to know that those in England were treated a bit differently than the colonists were. If you lived in England, you had representation in Parliament. If you lived in New York or Virginia, you did not. When we get the simplistic notion that the American Revolution was a taxation revolt, we really are off-base. Taxation was but one symptom of the lack of representation in Parliament.

The patriots had tried for nearly a decade to resolve the issues that stood between them and King George.  Basically, the English fought a war against the French on our land and then asked us to pay for it. It was a war that never would have come to our shores except the English brought it here. When we get to the grievances against King George, we’ll talk more about it, but the English goaded the French into war on American soil and then expected the colonies to pay for England riding to our rescue, when in fact our militias had probably kept them from losing the American theater and it never would have been necessary had the English had simply stayed out of French territory in the Americas. Perhaps that might have been avoided if the colonies had had a voice in Parliament.

There had been countless letters of correspondence and representatives of the colonies crossing the ocean to make an argument for fair treatment under Parliament with the result that the governors in America had been authorized to put their foot on the necks of the colonists. They considered the colonists to be rebellious and in need of guidance. The more they cracked down on the colonists, the angrier the patriots became and it soon because clear to all that the colonists might have to protect themselves against their own government, so they began to store weapons and powder against that possibility.

England had essentially declared war on the colonies more than a year before the writing of the Declaration when British troops marched to confiscate American arms in April 1775. During that entire year, while holding Boston siege, the Americans continued to try to reconcile with the British and received only edicts and ridicule. So, when Thomas Jefferson wrote “it becomes necessary to dissolve the political bands …” it was not done lightly or, indeed quickly. There had been a good faith effort to resolve things peaceably even as the British were being anything but peaceable.

Drawing from John Locke, the Americans considered themselves equal to the British under God’s natural law and they had come to realize that England was never going to grant them the equality that was theirs by right. They weren’t asking for King George’s treasury and privileges. They were asking to be treated in the same manner as British subjects living in England. It had become clear that was never going to happen.

Therefore, separation had become necessary. They wrote their declaration – which was of independence, not war – to explain their reasons to the larger world.  They weren’t seeking to sweep monarchies from the face of the world. They were merely seeking to establish the reasons the American colonies were separating from the British crown. However, they recognized there was a foundation for their reasons for doing this, and thus they put forth a universal message. 

This was not just a treatise on why the Americans were separating from England, but why any group of people joined in governance to another group of people might wish to separate.

In some ways, through setting forth the argument for separation from a despotic government, the Declaration, more than the Battle on Lexington green, was the shot heard round the world.

American Natural Rights   Leave a comment

Issued in July 1776, the American Declaration of Independence was a rhetorical shot meant to be heard around the world. It addressed both domestic and world politics. The Americans believed that the principles of their revolution applied to all people at all times.

Based on John Locke’s belief of natural rights, moderated by the Scottish common sense realism that taught that people were capable of reason because they could trust their senses in the material world and with regard to certain “first principles” having to do with morality and religion. The natural rights of individuals are inalienable because they belong to the individual and not the government. If the government becomes oppressive or tyrannical, the people have the right to alter or abolish that government through revolutionary action against the government. The Declaration then set forth the specific grievances Americans had with the British crown.

The American concept of liberty was very well thought-out. Prior to writing the Declaration, they had spent nearly a decade corresponding with Parliament, trying to rectify their complaints and some of the colonies had already laid out similar arguments for “secession”. They based their arguments on natural rights, prudence, constitionalism and honor. Although the Americans were clear that natural rights must be protected by government, and they believed that republicanism was the best way to do that, they held that universal principles might be applied differently in particular political circumstances. A less than ideal regime might still be tolerable.

Americans understood the doctrine of humans rights as anchored by man’s place between the beasts and God. This is a Biblical concept – there is no Jew or Greek, neither slave nor free – “all men are created equal … endowed by their Creator ….” All men are equal before God, possessing certain unalienable rights. Man is both equal and unequal in the American view. At the level of fundamental rights, we are equal, but the Founders recognized that not every human being has the same talents and capacities. The men signing the Declaration were a special set of risk-takers willing to lead the Revolution and take upon themselves the important and dangerous responsibility of saying that King George III was now a tyrant.

In the American Declaration, there are no “simple” concepts. An example — there is a kind of implicit hierarchy of regimes. A fully republican government might be the very best government possible, but it is evident by appealing to prudence that not every society may be ready immediately for such a government. The American Declaration leaves room for thought about what form of government is best suited to a particular set of circumstances and to a particular people.

The American Founders maintained that the fundamental law (the Constitution) is the expression of public reason, not general will. Our Constitution is a product of “reflection and choice” as Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 1. The public reason is set over and above public passion to govern and limit public passion (James Madison argued in Federalist No. 49). Governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed” (American Declaration). Government is a social contract of free individuals, who retain their freedom even as they cooperate for general good. The purpose of every form of government is to secure the rights of the people so that they might pursue “safety and happiness.”

The signers of the American Declaration were representing the population and appeal to the “good people of these colonies” in the Declaration. Then at the end of the document they pledge to one another “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” It is a pledge of the signers to one another, not to the people. It is a vow that the signers are going to “hang together,” as Benjamin Franklin quipped.

The signers of the Declaration were also well aware that God was watching them and they set forth in the document a fervent hope that He would guide them and keep them from overstepping the limits of natural rights.

The American Founders presumed that the American people are capable of self-government. The American Bill of Rights, enacted 15 years after the Declaration of Independence, does not come attached with a bill of corresponding duties to remind us to live up to these rights or to enforce these rights. They trusted the Americans to govern themselves .

When I was in college, one of my political science professors averred that the American and French revolutions were not essentially different and American had been blessed by wise leadership that prevented liberty from running amok as it had in France, as liberty was wont to do. History shows that the American revolution moved on to a peaceful transformation to a republican form of government based upon natural rights, ordered liberty and reasonable self-government by the governed. We’ll next look at how the French Revolution differed that lead to the Reign of Terror.

Understanding Natural Rights   Leave a comment

America was founded on the principle of natural rights. Many conservatives feel that the country has drifted far from the practice of natural rights in the last century. This concern is now filtering down to those less familiar with the writings of the Founders and the Constitution. A recent Pew poll showed that more than half the population views the federal government as a danger to their individual rights.

In light of the fact that many modern Americans have some odd ideas of what their “rights” are, it seems worth taking a step back to look at what are our natural rights and what they mean to public policy.

There were three great liberal revolutions in the 17th and 18th centuries that continue to shape the modern world and the meaning of democratic politics and, not at all coincidentally, the scope of conservatism. Modern conservatism originated in opposition to the French Revolution, when Edmund Burke sought to write an account of the English Glorious Revolution of 1688 and use it as a critique of the French Revolution.

These revolutions were not all the same and they all three had different outcomes. While the French and American Revolutions espoused natural rights, they actually appealed to very different definitions of natural rights.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 did not call itself a revolution. The English Bill of Rights that emerged from the upheavals of 1688 places very little emphasis on natural rights (it doesn’t even include the term) nor does it appeal to nature or any form of abstract right at all. It almost seems to blur the distinction between natural rights and prescriptive or historical rights.

This pragmatic obfuscation allowed the supporters of the English Bill of Rights to disguise their revolution as a succession crisis. The official story was James II had abdicated his throne, so Parliament filled the vacancy with William and Mary. This avoided the whole difficulty of the divisions of power between Parliament and the crown that had launched a civil war a half century before and the unresolved questions concerning the Protest Reformation.

The English Bill of Rights speaks not of the natural rights of man but of the “ancient rights and liberties” of the “Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons.” The Protestant succession and Parliament’s own vigilance secures “The true, ancient, and indubitable rights and liberties of the people of the kingdom”. Sealing the whole arrangement are two oaths of allegiance: one to William and Mary, the other renouncing the Pope’s influence over English affairs.

The English Bill of Rights is not addressed to the world as such. It is addressed by Englishmen to Englishmen and does not make universal claims or take a stand on divine right or natural right grounds. It really constitutes the final act of the civil war that had been raging in England for much of that century.

The Glorious Revolution bore little resemblance to the liberal revolutions in the United States and France which bore only passing resemblance to one another.

Both the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence were rhetorical shots meant to be heard around the world. Universal in their appeal, their language is clear and their audience is whoever reads it. Yet, they present two very different versions of natural rights and the revolutions they empowered had two very distinct outcomes.


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