Friday, December 18, 2009

America the Progressive

Conservatives have a new conceit: that the Colonial revolutionaries were not liberals promoting or endorsing the ideals of the European Enlightenment but conservatives wishing to maintain the status quo.

They are right about at least one thing: retaining the status quo - returning to the status quo - is a conservative position.[1] As we are told by the Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (2004), "The colonists were conservatives - they wanted to maintain the rights they enjoyed from tradition and custom." (It is entirely beside the point, but interesting nonetheless, that conservatives now laud established custom and tradition, but when Pagans wished to maintain theirs - or to return to them now - it is an entirely bad thing).

But is that all the colonists wanted? Would the status quo satisfy them?

First we should ask, what was the nature of that 18th century status quo?
  • Monarchy -Rule by the Crown
  • Hereditary Distinctions
  • Crown-appointed "Royal" governors
  • British military garrisons
  • Colonists subject to Crown law
  • North America belongs to the Crown - not to the colonists
There is one additional items that should be mentioned. It is often pretended that it is a late "innovation" (Incorrect Guide 2204: 11) but it is not - Taxes. Taxes were always a feature of Colonial America under British rule. So we will have to add one more item to our list:
  • Taxes paid to the Crown
If the Colonists wanted to maintain the status quo, they would have supported all the items on our first list. After all, maintaining the status quo - as this conservative publication has just admitted - is a conservative position. One might say it is the hallmark of conservatism. It is not by accident that Barack Obama, during his presidential campaign of 2008, accused the McCain/Palin team of representing the status quo - in other words, "more of the same."

Did the colonials revolt for "more of the same"? And isn't that question itself oxymoronic?

We shall return to that question momentarily, but first we should look at taxes.

The tax issue is a bit more complex then it would seem on the surface. Every school-child knows the cry, "No taxation without representation!" But as I said, taxes were always paid by the colonials. Taxes were so much a part of the status quo that the colonials did not at first balk at the paying of them.

It is not as if taxes were just invented after all - they've been around for as long as prostitution, if not before. Of course, the colonials had never been heavily taxes; burdensome taxation would have discouraged immigration and the Crown wanted its colonies settled and prosperous - meaning tax incentives.

Taxes were less troublesome at times than at others, for example, 1714 to 1739. And even the "Currency Act" of 1751, by which Parliament asserted its authority over colonial monetary power, did not greatly burden the Colonies, as the force of the imposition was partly offset by Parliament’s war reimbursement grants later in the decade (in the wake of the French-Indian War, or as it was known in Europe, the Seven Years War).

If it was all about taxes, the colonials would have jettisoned England in 1751, wouldn't they?

So it was not as if the taxes to come - The Sugar Act of 1764, the Sugar Act of 1765, the Townshend Acts of 1767 and the Tea Act of 1773 - were extraordinary or unique. The claim that these taxes were "innovations" (and therefore to be despised) has some merit - they were new taxes certainly - but to draw the conclusion from this that John Adams (Braintree Instructions, 1765) felt that innovation was itself an evil is outright dishonesty.

John Adams was a whig. He, like his fellow revolutionaries, was a child of the Enlightenment. As such, he embraced innovation. The Democratic society he endorsed was itself an innovation. For Adams, in his Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765), the illumination and emancipation of mankind came not by way of the Bible, but by way of the ideals of the Enlightenment.[2]

Facts can be inconvenient, which is why they are so often skirted around, and cherry picked by the ideologically-minded. What Adams said in 1765 was this: that people - ordinary people, have rights:
RIGHTS, for such they have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government, — Rights, that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws — Rights, derived from the great Legislator of the universe.
Conservatives will no doubt pretend his deist reference to the "great Legislator of the universe" is Jesus, but this is not so, as Adams makes clear. Adams cannot be made into a champion of another conceit of today's conservatives, that Christianity made America. In speaking of the puritans who fled the tyranny of the state-sponsored religion today's conservatives wish to return us to, Adams said,
It was not religion alone, as is commonly supposed; but it was a love of universal liberty, and a hatred, a dread, a horror, of the infernal confederacy before described, that projected, conducted, and accomplished the settlement of America.
As Senator Al Franken has recently said, "We are entitled to our own opinions; we are not entitled to our own facts."

In fact, innovation was a hallmark of the European Enlightenment, the ideals of which were endorsed by the 18th century landed gentry which produced the Colonies' "Founding Fathers." It is not without reason that Adams separates "religion" from "a love of universal liberty" - the latter of which he recognizes as the product of the Enlightenment. We shall return to these natural rights below, and to what conservatives thought about the idea.

Another part of the status quo was religion. Thomas Jefferson's proudest achievement was not authoring the Declaration of Independence - it was The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which he drafted in 1779 - three years after he wrote the Declaration of Independence. The act was passed by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1786.

Perhaps the best context in which to understand Jefferson's sense of accomplishment is the Theodosian Code, Codex Theodosianus, a collection of laws passed by the emperor and his successors “was presented to the empire as a Christmas present in 438,” relates Ramsay MacMullen. “In it, decrees from Constantine forward were gathered in rational categories, including a book given to religion, and a section therein of twenty-five titles all concerning “Pagans, sacrifices, and temples.”[3]

If you want to look at the restrictions placed on non-Christian forms of religiosity by the Theodosian Code, you may do so, or you may read from Jefferson's own hand, a description of how things stood in Virginia at the dawn of the 18th century:
By our own act of Assembly of 1705, c. 30, if a person brought up in the Christian religion denies the being of God, or the Trinity, or asserts there are more gods than one, or denies the Christian religion to be true, or the Scriptures to be of divine authority, he is punishable on the first offense by incapacity to hold any office or employment, ecclesiastical, civil, or military; on the second, by disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian, executor, or administrator, and by three years' imprisonment without bail. A fathers right to the custody of his own children being founded in law on his right of guardianship, this being taken away, they may of course be severed from him, and put by the authority of the court, into more orthodox hands. This is a summary view of that religious slavery under which a people have been willing to remain, who have lavished their lives and fortunes for the establishment of civil freedom. (Notes on Virginia, 234-237).
This might sound familiar to some modern readers. Senator Kay Hagan might serve as a witness, as might a North Carolina City Councilman named Cecil Bothwell. Both of these public figures have something in common. They are victims of the Theodosian Code (C.Th. 16.10.21), a code passed 16 centuries ago, still in force three centuries ago in the form of the act of Assembly of 1705, and still being appealed to today - in 2009 :

Article 6, Section 8 of the North Carolina Constitution reads: “The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”

This is the status quo. So let's add another item to our list:
  • State Sponsored Religion (Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, Anglican Church, etc)
The Constitution of the United States of America, adopted on September 17, 1787, by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and ratified by conventions in each U.S. state in the name of “The People,” like the Virginia Act of 1786, does away with such religious tests. Article VI states,
(Section 3) The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
And this brings us to the crux of the matter. Our revolutionaries, and they were revolutionaries, whatever the Historically Incorrect Guide insists (remember, we are not allowed our own facts), did not support the status quo.

The status quo was what the British fought to maintain; the status quo was what the Tories fought to maintain when they remained loyal to the Crown. The revolutionaries fought against the status quo. They fought to free themselves from the status quo.

The Politically Incorrect Guide (p. 14) insists that,
In a certain sense, there was no American revolution at all. There was, instead, an American War for Independence...the colonists did not seek the total transformation of society that we associate with other revolutions, such as the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, or the Russian Revolution. They simply wished to on on enjoying self-rule when it came to their internal matters and living as they always had for so many decades before British encroachments began.
This is apologia. As such, it is crap. One has only to look at the results of the American Revolution to see the extent to which society was transformed.

Do you remember the story of Rip Van Winkle? Washington Irving's character went to sleep before the American Revolution. He slept 20 years. The world he woke up to, post-Revolution, was unrecognizable. A simple "War for Independence" would not have resulted in such disorientation - after all, as we are assured, the status quo had been preserved. But Rip was aghast. Gone was "drowsy tranquility" and people were even speaking an entirely different language - "rights of citizens," "elections," "liberty," "members of Congress" - all words that Irving assures us were "babylonish jardon to the bewildered Van Winkle." Things had changed so greatly that the newly awakened sleeper could only stare "in vacant stupidity."[4]

It is true enough that different people fought for different reasons - this is true of any war in history. But the People - not just the landed gentry, but the masses - changed society and changed it drastically, and they did so together, through state and federal legislatures, and through the federal government.

The Declaration of Independence is not an appeal to the status quo, it is a rejection of it. The Constitution is not an appeal to the status quo, it is a rejection of it. The Bill of Rights is not an appeal to the status quo, it is a rejection of it. The United States of America was the ultimate achievement of that liberal movement known as the European Enlightenment. The United States, in and of itself, is a rejection of the Old World and the Old Order - divine right, state-sponsored religion, nobility and aristocracy and serfdom.

The United States of America was a huge leap forward, not a lurching step backwards. A move towards the 21st century, not a step backward into the 13th.

As Gordon Wood puts it,
Nearly all Americans...knew that by overthrowing monarchy and adopting republican government in 1776 they had done more than eliminate a king and institute an elective system of government. Republicanism gave a moral, even utopian, significance to their revolution that made their separation from Great Britain much more than a simple colonial revolution.[5]
As for what would be better to ask, what didn't? The colonies were not only transformed from dependencies to a nation, but society and culture were transformed as well. The status quo had not only been pushed aside, it had been shattered, as Rip Van Winkle discovered. If the author of the Politically Incorrect Guide went through a time-machine and told the revolutionaries his findings, they'd have stared at him like Van Winkle stared at them.

Let's look at the changes:
  • Monarchy replaced by elective "popular" government
  • Hereditary Distinctions replaced by egalitarianism
  • Crown-appointed "Royal" governors replaced by elected governors
  • British military garrisons replaced by homegrown citizen militia
  • Crown law replaced by American law backed up by the Constitution and Bill of Rights
  • North America belongs to the Crown replaced by ownership of an elected government
  • Taxes paid to crown replaced by taxes paid to local, elected government
  • State-sponsored religion replaced by a wall of separation
Finally, we should dispense with Edmund Burke. The Politically Incorrect Guide incorrectly aligns this English political philosopher with the colonials. Burke, of course, was "the father of modern conservatism" in the words of the Guide (p. 13) and we are told that "Burke...a man who did understand the issues at stake...considered himself perfectly consistent in his sympathy for the Americans of the 1770s." By the Guide's reckoning then, the colonials he was in sympathy for must by definition be conservatives as well.

This reasoning is disingenuous at best.

It should be obvious by now that the concept of "natural rights" was central to the revolutionaries - these are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, after all - a founding principle, you might call it:
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.
As Wood points out, "The liberal ideas that society was naturally harmonious and that everyone possessed a common moral and social sense were no utopian fantasies but the conclusions of what many enlightened thinkers took to be the modern science of society."[6]

But Burke, conservative that he was, blocked revolutionary projects founded upon reason and natural rights. "The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are the greatest possible complexity; and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man's nature or to the quality of his affairs."[7]

The Guide might argue that these feelings are subsequent to and motivated by the French Revolution, but as Burke's speech of April 19, 1774 demonstrates, this is untrue:
Again and again, revert to your old principles—seek peace and ensue it; leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, nor attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them.[8]
In other words, metaphysical principles like "natural rights" have no place in politics.

Look for a moment at the possible answers to this question.

"What lies behind the stability of political affairs?"

A liberal will say, "Reason"

But a conservative can never give this answer. For a conservative, the answer is "Tradition" - yes, our old friend - the status quo.[9]

Where the lie comes in (and the Politically Incorrect Guide is more than simply incorrect, it is an attack on history itself), is the suggestion made that while Burke supported the Americans he opposed the French (a real revolution, according to the author).

Needless to say, Burke's sympathies did not go so far as to promote or endorse outright revolution or the turning of the status quo - tradition - on its head. He wanted reconciliation, not revolution. And once it had begun, Burke was, if anything, ambivalent on the subject of American independence - ""I do not know how to wish success to those whose Victory is to separate from us a large and noble part of our Empire. Still less do I wish success to injustice, oppression and absurdity"[10]

No, he defended tradition and an appeal to the French Revolution (and the French, by the way, were ancient enemies of England while the colonials were English) does nothing to change this fact.

Significantly, Burke was not a deist. But Thomas Paine was; The entire first volume of Age of Reason (1794) was all at once an assault on revealed religion (Christianity), the atheism of the French Revolution, and a defense of deism. And Thomas Paine was the author of Common Sense (1776), a book George Washington observed was "working a powerful the minds of many men."[11] Modern conservatism tries to co-opt Thomas Paine, ignoring the central differences between the radically liberal Paine and the conservative Burke.

Put simply, you can't have both Burke and Paine as conservatives, and the attempt to say 18th century liberalism is actually found in modern conservatism automatically ejects Burke out the airlock.

All this brings us back to the French Revolution. The Guide's objections aside, American support for the French revolutionaries was overwhelming. The January 24, 1793 celebration in Boston, held at "the center of conservative Federalism" was the largest celebration ever held in North America up to that point.[12]

The difference between the two revolutions was not one of essential differences, but one of degrees. The Guide claims that the French Revolution "sought to make everything anew." They gave new government structures (so did the American revolutionaries), new provincial boundaries (so did American revolutionaries), a new 'religion' (in a sense, in throwing off the mantle of state-sponsored religion, so did the American revolutionaries, and if we did not guillotine those who objected, we took from them their property, their livelihood, and then exiled them.

If we are going to examine history, we should examine it honestly. As Al Franken says, we are not entitled to our own facts. There is little point in even preserving the historical record if we are going to make it the slave of ideology. The conservatives today so often claim that liberals have done this, but if you look at the facts on their own merits, the conservative argument falls flat and dead on the ground, deflated and impotent.

The Americans in 1776 were revolutionaries. To those American minds, our Nation had reached a new level of development - and as should be obvious - one does not reach a new level of development by maintaining the status quo. As the New York Constitution of 1777 said, the Revolution had been designed to end the "spiritual oppression and intolerance wherewith the bigotry and ambition of weak and wicked priests"had "scourged mankind."[13]

It is to this intolerance, from which we escaped in 1776, that today's conservatives wish to return us. It is a strange mode of thinking then that makes the Revolutionaries of 1776 conservatives. The men who freed us from the Old World and the Old Order, who broke free of the status quo in so earth-shattering a way, would not dreamed of returning us to it. You cannot be a conservative and wish to destroy the status quo. But as the historical facts demonstrate - unarguably so - the revolutionaries did destroy the status quo - and not only with great gusto, but with malice aforethought.

And Burke? Does the appeal to Burke prove the revolutionaries were conservatives? As Lock demonstrates, Burke rejected every tenet upon which the Revolution was based: Burke denied that a majority of "the people" had, or ought to have, the final say in politics and alter society at their pleasure. People had rights but also duties, and these duties were not voluntary. Also, the people could not overthrow morality which is derived from God.[14]

Any revolution that may come from the Right will not come with the intent of restoring freedom, but returning to the status quo that was lost, and it will not break chains of servitude, but place them. If America has a hope in these bleak times, it is the hope of the European Enlightenment whose ultimate achievement the United States is - and remains.


[1] William Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary (Oxford, 1993), 144.
[2] John Adams, "Dissertation on the Feudal and Canon Law" (1765), cited in Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republican, 1789-1815, The Oxford History of the United States (Oxford, 2009),
[3] Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 20
[4] Washington Irving, The Sketch Book, in Washington Irving: History, Tales and Sketches, ed. James W. Tuttleton (New York, 1983), 770-81.
[5] Wood (2009), 6-7.
[6] Wood (2009), 11.
[7] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)
[8] James Prior, Life of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. Fifth Edition (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854), 142-143.
[9] Paul Edwards, ed. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Macmillan, 1967) 2:197.
[10] F. P. Lock, Edmund Burke. Volume I: 1730–1784 (Clarendon Press, 1999), 399.
[11] Thomas Paine, The Thomas Paine Reader (Penguin, 1987), 65.
[12] Wood (2009 The), 193.
[13] Wood (2009), 47.
[14] Lock, (1999), 2:384.


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