November 12, 2012
THAT WOULD BE ITS ENGLISHNESS:
The Americanness of the American Revolution : Why the Founders succeeded (MYRON MAGNET, Autumn 2012, City Journal)
Vitally, by demanding of fellow Englishmen that we be treated as Englishmen we drained them of the will to fight us. Our cause was too much their cause for a total war.A key reason the revolution succeeded was its strictly limited scope. The Founders sought only liberty, not equality or fraternity. They aimed to make a political revolution, not a social or an economic one. Their Lockean social-contract political philosophy taught them that the preservation of individual liberty was the goal of politics. Its basis was the surrender of a portion of man's original, natural freedom to a government that would protect the large remainder of it better than any individual could do on his own--the freedom to make your own fate and think your own thoughts without fear of bodily harm, unjust imprisonment, or robbery. The Founders' study of history taught them that the British constitution under which they had lived--"originally and essentially free," as Boston preacher Jonathan Mayhew described it--was the ideal embodiment of such a contract. It was "the most perfect combination of human powers in society," John Adams wrote in 1766, "for the preservation of liberty and the production of happiness"--until George III began to violate it. So Americans didn't take up arms to create a new world order according to some abstract theory. They sought only to restore the political liberty they had actually experienced for 150 years, and they constructed their new government to preserve it.The Protestantism of the Founding Fathers also helped the Revolution succeed. Their Protestant worldview placed an intense value on the individual--his conscience, the state of his soul, his understanding of Scripture, his personal relation to God, his salvation. It was an easy step for them to assume that, as each man was endowed by his Creator with an immortal soul immediately related to God, so he was similarly endowed with rights that are "not the Donation of Law," as Constitution signer William Livingston put it, but "prior to all political Institution" and "resulting from the Nature of Man." It was easy for them to assume, therefore, that the individual, not the state, took center stage in the human drama. They saw the state as merely instrumental to the fate of the individual.But their Protestantism also gave them a history that helps explain why the colonists didn't need or want a social revolution. The many non-Anglican dissenters among them had already had such a revolution: they had been forced to uproot themselves from their relatives and friends, from "the fair cities, villages, and delightful fields of Britain," fleeing religious persecution into "the arms of savages and barbarians" in pursuit of liberty of conscience, as Mayhew put it in 1763. The Plymouth Pilgrims, who wrote a literal social compact in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, were only the first wave of a tide of such immigrants fleeing persecution: English and Scottish Presbyterians, Baptists, and Quakers; German pietists; French Huguenots; and others followed. In the eighteenth century, their offspring--John Jay, for example, who descended from New York's huge contingent of Huguenot refugees from Catholic oppression, and Livingston, whose Presbyterian great-grandfather had fled Scotland for Holland after the Stuart restoration--had as lively a sense of lucky escape from the Old Country's murderous religious tyranny as American Jews whose forebears had escaped Russian pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust had in the twentieth century. They had as acute a sense of having had to start their lives over again in a land that afforded them almost providential religious and political freedom, safety, and opportunity. [...]So when, after 150 years of letting Americans run their own affairs, the British government began to meddle malignly with their liberty once 22-year-old George III became king in 1760, following the death of his grandfather, George II, the colonists unsurprisingly responded to the interference with outrage. After decreeing new colonial customs duties and stricter enforcement in 1764, London imposed its first direct levy on the colonies in 1765 in the Stamp Act, taxing every colonial newspaper, journal, legal document, almanac, playing card, and other paper product, in flagrant contravention of the "standing Maxim of English Liberty," as Livingston had quoted it more than a decade earlier, " 'that no Man shall be taxed, but with his own Consent.' " As Washington wrote to a friend, "I think the Parliament of Great Britain hath no more Right to put their hands into my Pocket, without my consent, than I have to put my hands into your's, for money." Property doesn't belong to the government, and the social contract gives government no right to tell you what to do with your own.The American Revolution, then, was doubly limited in its aims: limited to making only a political change without altering social or economic arrangements, and determined to set strict limits to its new government, fearful that any governmental power beyond the barest minimum necessary to protect liberty too easily could become a threat to liberty itself. So apprehensive were the Founders on this score that the governmental structure they erected after the Declaration of Independence proved too weak to perform its essential function of protecting their lives, liberties, and properties adequately, prolonging the Revolutionary War and increasing the hardships of the men who fought it. With great misgivings, the Founders had to create a new constitution to give government the necessary powers, but their most urgent concern was to make those powers limited and enumerated, hedged around with every check and balance they could think of to prevent tyrannical abuse.With similar prudence and modesty, when they wrote the new constitution, the Founders nursed no grandiose illusions that they were going to change human nature by altering the structure of government. Except for Thomas Jefferson, they didn't believe in human perfectibility, as did some of the French philosophes whose worldview Jefferson had absorbed in his years in Paris as well as from his voluminous reading. The Founders certainly didn't aspire to create something like the New Soviet Man. They had a very clear-eyed assessment of human nature. After all, their social-contract theory rested on a psychology that acknowledged what Patrick Henry called, conventionally enough, "the depravity of human nature," with its lusts, aggression, and greed no less inborn than its rights. They tried to create a republic that would flourish with human nature as it is, with all its cross-grained passions and interests. They never forgot, as Alexander Hamilton cautioned, "that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious."
Posted by Orrin Judd at November 12, 2012 5:31 AM