Thank you for reading this essay. It is part of an ongoing series titled Old Friends and this is the third contribution on Barnard Bailyn's The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.
What is the biggest threat to liberty?
Most of us have an affinity for liberty. You can say it is innate. We feel we should be free to think and worship, free to speak and write, free to move about. I have rarely encountered anyone who would argue for the opposite. Rarely, because I have conversed with men behind bars. It brings to light that liberty is a function of boundaries. I like the way the King James Version of the Bible states the words of the Apostle Paul, “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.”
What is the opposite of liberty? Fear to speak, fear to write, fear to think or worship, restricted in our movements, with no hope or opportunity. Some would call that oppression. But the colonists had their focus elsewhere. To them, the antithesis of liberty was power. The exercise of power was a problem. It was a problem, in their eyes, because it was proven by history. And so it continues, to this day to be a problem because the evidence of power is all about us. Oppression is the consequence of unfettered power. Fear is the barometric of oppression.
If there is anything that distinguishes our current situation in the United States it is the rising power of the federal government. It is, in many respects, the one thing that led me to revisit Bailyn because I knew that an integral component of American ideology leading up to the revolution was the rebuttal of arbitrary power as they saw practiced by the British government, and how it affected the liberty of the American people.
“The theory of politics that emerges from the literature of the pre-Revolutionary years rests on the belief that what lay behind every political scene, the ultimate explanation of every political controversy, was the disposition of power.”1
Most everyone agrees that government must exercise power in some degree. But it is important for the modern reader to understand power as the revolutionaries saw it –“ the dominion of some men over others, the human control of life: ultimately force, compulsion.” There was a problem they were attempting to resolve, that power’s “endlessly propulsive tendency to expand itself beyond legitimate boundaries.”2
There is that word again – “boundary.” For liberty to flourish, it must have boundaries. Yet power must also have boundaries or liberty will always be threatened.
Americans are generally optimists. I am a child of parents who held a great deal of confidence in the ability of the federal government (or any government level for that matter) to do a lot of good for all of its citizens. Beginning with Theodore Roosevelt, it became conceivable that the power vested in our governments could check the powers of monopolies, protect us from bad food and build magnificent national parks. Under Franklin Roosevelt emerged many attempts to alleviate the suffering of millions of Americans and one of the lasting legacies of that period is the Social Security Administration. The country showed its ability to suspend self-interest and the open market just enough to concentrate our resources in World War II. But things began to change progressively as the federal government began to appear too powerful. While well-intended, the bottom line was that the noblest of ends required an implementation of power. The debate since 1945 has been whether this is the kind of power we want, much less was it ever intended in the first place.
American revolutionaries had no such optimism in regards to federal power. They were much more guarded about human nature. Power, in 1764, was taken to be in the domain of the government. Any discussion of liberty was the concern of the governed. We take for granted that politicians and government bureaucrats are subject to the same liberties as any ordinary citizen. In 1764, power as implemented from Britain was that of a privileged class, upon “subjects.” A second distinguishing aspect of this debate was the general understanding of human nature. “… what turned power into a malignant force, was not its own nature so much as the nature of man – his susceptibility to corruption and his lust for self-aggrandizement.”3
The nature of man was central to the understanding of power. “[Such is] the depravity of mankind that ambition and lust of power above the law are … predominant passions in the breasts of most men.” 4 It “converts a good man in private life to a tyrant in office.” One thing was clear – you could not expect men to govern with religion and reason. Good people, placed in a position of authority, were no guarantee against the abuse of power. The question of power, how to contain it, was fundamental to any larger discussion on liberty. It is this fear of arbitrary power that would shape the debate on the U.S. Constitution and the reluctance to have a standing professional military. Today, we have a professional military that is clearly under the command of a civilian. There was no such clarity in 1787. Everything from 1776 forward was a grand experiment.
To contain power and to define our liberties the colonists relied on what they understood to be “the constitution” of the English. The English did not have a written constitution. What they had was a common law that had evolved most significantly since the 17th century when Parliament began to assert itself against absolute monarchy. While much attention has been directed to the Protestant-Catholic tensions of the time, the central issue that caused Parliaments to assemble in the first place was taxes. The king felt he had the right to assess taxes as he pleased. Parliament felt otherwise. Thus was born the concept of taxation only through representation. Colonists would argue that the concept originated with the Magna Carta. The concept was certainly central to the tensions that led up to the English Civil War in 1642.5
Ironic that a century later the same debate would be directed at Parliament by their American colonists. Yet the American revolutionaries held out hope that the constitutional “tradition” would win out, convincing members of the Parliament that there was an historical precedent. Alas, Parliament was largely composed of the nobility or the business elite of England. This was the age of the “rotten burroughs” where seats in Parliament could literally be invented if the price was right. The officials sent to govern the colonies, the judges and the bureaucrats who implemented the laws passed by Parliament, were all of the elite class. To them, colonists were no different than the English commoner – they were subjects, not citizens.
Borrowing from British and English philosophers, the colonists recognized that the promise of the English constitution was that it provided a history and precedent of checks and balances, that society was divided between three social estates: royalty, nobility and the commons. History had demonstrated that each, allowed to govern unchecked, could abuse its powers. The trick was how were the founders of the new nation going to replace “royalty” and “nobility” and to guarantee balance. From the outset, the “commons” was profoundly more advanced from that of Britain. The House of Commons in England, in 1776, was essentially composed of sons of the nobility. What the Americans were practicing was generally unthinkable to the British – and what they were proposing is seen today as quite restrictive. The Americans were arguing that men of property and education be allowed to serve in the commons. This was not the universal franchise that would quickly evolve after the U.S. Constitution was established. This was an elitist system, but exponentially much broader in scope than what was commonly practiced in England. For the British member of Parliament, their concept of “property” was an estate with tenants. For the American, “property” was any piece of real estate you held title to, whether it be Jefferson’s Monticello or Paul Revere’s shop or a humble shack on Walden’s Pond. The fear of the commoner was further heightened when the French Revolution of 1789 devolved into a reign of terror and later into an imperial nightmare for the entire continent of Europe. This fear of the common man would dominate the debate between the Federalists and the Democrat Republicans in the formative years of the U.S., but it would tear Europe apart in 1848. So a “commons”, unchecked, was just as capable of being tyrannical as any king. As the hero of The Patriot would state, “Why should I trade one tyrant 3000 miles away for 3000 tyrants one mile away?”
What the colonists did agree on was that all three estates, whatever they were to be, would be essential in the passage of law. Today, we see these three estates as the House, the Senate and the Executive. But in 1776 that was not commonly acknowledged. The colonists had considerable experience with legislation, but the executive was appointed by the crown and was increasingly hostile. So how would the Executive be defined? How would it be restrained? This would continue to be an on-going debate until the U.S. Constitution was formed in 1787.
This concern for power and how to best check its abuse was central before discussing liberty. Proclaiming liberty was pointless unless the primary adversary, power, was first checked. As stated above, it was in the nature of man to advance power. Power, resting in one man or one institution, was a guarantee of tyranny. Liberty, to be meaningful, had to be bounded by law, and law had to be held above that of the governing authority. In 1776, there were few examples of any group of people pulling that off without a king present.
What would evolve from this debate would be the formulation of “rights.” As John Dickinson would state, they
are created in us by the decrees of Providence, which establish the laws of our nature. They are born with us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power without taking our lives. In short, they are founded on the immutable maxims of reason and justice.6
Well said, but even the most ardent rebels knew that formulating on paper a roster of rights was near incomprehensible, if not arrogant. It had never been done before. Yet it would be these rights that would give flesh to the larger, more nebulous, realm of liberty. It would establish the boundaries of power.
John Adams would provide a pragmatic explanation of how and why the colonists were so cognitive of liberty. While many would assign our rights to “the decrees of Providence,” most everyone understood that a more down-to-earth explanation was required. How is it our hearts beat with a passion for liberty? Is this due to the “laws of our nature?” Adams used a real-world explanation – history. As England went through the infernal struggles of the 17th century, America was settled by people who fled the tyranny and violence, who shared “a love of universal liberty, and a hatred, a dread, a horror, of the infernal confederacy [of temporal and spiritual tyranny].”7
This was not just American propaganda or mythology. It was also observed by philosophers in England and France. Something peculiar was happening in America, something unprecedented. For the most part, colonists governed themselves. No nobles. No armies. They made their own laws. They could enforce them without a king present. They were inventive and entrepreneurial, less fettered by rules and restrictions that in Europe determined your station in life, with few chances of improvement.
Yet something broke in 1767. What the colonists perceived in England was a Parliament that had become corrupt, creating a political environment “hostile to liberty. That Jacobite remnants flourished, that effeminizing luxury and slothful negligence continued to soften the moral fiber of the nation, and that politics festered in corruption.”8 The crown and select interests had essentially purchased Parliament.
In essence, the colonists lost faith in Parliament. The crown and Parliament were one and the same. No division of powers, and as a consequence, no assurance of liberty. As Dickinson would record, “But such is the complacency these great men have for the smiles of their prince that they will gratify every desire of ambition and power at the expense of truth, reason, and their country.”9
It is this loss of confidence that is critical to understanding the transition from colonist to American. As Bailyn would conclude, quoting from a sermon, “When government fails to serve its proper ends then ‘a regard to the public welfare ought to make us withhold from our rulers the obedience and subjection which it would otherwise, be our duty to render to them.’ In such situations one is ‘bound to throw off [his] allegiance’; not to do so would be tacitly to conspire ‘in promoting slavery and misery.’”10
“When tyranny is abroad, ‘submission is a crime.’”
What is the big question that has followed me throughout most of my life is how in the world did colonists become revolutionaries? We need to take the list of grievances that reside in the heart of the Declaration of Independence very seriously. This list was not a rhetorical gesture. These were the culmination of real events. Yet colonists seemed to get along well until about 1767. It was the culmination of several trends that stemmed from the advanced corruption of the one institution the colonists had for 150 years trusted – Parliament. The corruption affected the selection of governors and judges that presided over the colonies after 1764, people who had little or no interest in answering to the colonists. Executives who did not answer to the people.
For ten years the colonists endeavored to state their case. For ten years Parliament humored them, then ignored them. The ambassadors that represented the colonists before the Crown and Parliament were not blind. What they reported back was institutionalized corruption, elitism and arrogance. They came to the conclusion that to abide this abuse of power was no longer acceptable.
In 2021, are we seeing the same trends? Does history repeat itself? In our current situation, we at least have a written constitution. But it is evident that the federal government is vastly different than what it was intended to be in 1787. The constitution was written for the express purpose of defining what the federal government could do. The Bill of Rights was added to clearly define what it could NOT do. Today, we ask, “What is it the federal government is NOT doing, and what rights do we have remaining?”
As power is further concentrated at the federal level, the divide between the governed and government has widened. Our voices, loudly heard at the local town hall meeting, is virtually silent in the halls of Congress. The sums of money to win campaigns is astronomical. The revenues expended by the government leave trillions of dollars at stake to be latched up by interest groups. Beyond the laws, we have volumes of regulations that have often suffocated innovation and enterprise. Bureaucrats and many politicians who have never had to survive in the business world rule over the population. Beyond question, the expansion of power is a serious problem in our country.
Is there a point where we lose confidence in the institution of Congress? Congress alone has the power to redefine the executive. We, the people, have the power to say enough is enough and determine to reduce the size and scope of the federal government. When that fails, will there be a series of events that will galvanize a portion of our citizenry to the point where ‘a regard to the public welfare ought to make us withhold from our rulers the obedience and subjection which it would otherwise, be our duty to render to them.’
That very question is today being demonstrated in the resistance to mandatory vaccinations against COVID-19. It is clearly an absolute implementation of power when a regulatory agency can determine what you do with your body, and the consequences could be the denial of employment, mobility and medical services. We are fortunate that we also see being demonstrated the separation of powers that our Founding Fathers put into place, where the judiciary branch has blocked mandatory vaccinations. It shows that the system still works and is still needed. The mandates did not come from an act of Congress, but from the Executive branch through the recommendation of agencies that answer to the Executive and not to the people. The question remains – do we want to place such power in the hands the President? And at what cost to liberty.
1The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, p.55. From this point, Bailyn’s book will be referred to as IOAR.
4IOAR, p. 60 – Bailyn cites Samuel Adams here and includes many others on this subject.
6IOAR, p. 77
7IOAR, p. 83
9IOAR, p. 91
10IOAR, p. 92, 93
Patrick Henry -- Public Domain
Samuel Adams -- Public Domain
John Adams -- Public Domain
By Eric Niewoehner
© Copyright 2021 to Eric Niewoehner.
Want to leave comments? Please link to my Substack page, subscribe (currently at no cost) and leave your comment. You can also connect through Locals. Become a member of the Locals community (subscription required) and comment.
Learn more about Substack and Locals, as well as my other links. There is a method to the madness. :)
If you find something that piques your interest, feel free to select the Contact Me menu item to send a non-spammable message.