People who sing America’s praises often picture the United States as a country built on new ideas, beginning with a novel notion about freedom for humanity. One could detect this theme in President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
At least the American revolutionaries had a good idea, whether it was brand new or not. There have been many other political revolutions since 1776. The French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 are examples of upheavals that intended to reform society, and did, but produced much bloodshed and eventually failed.
What was different about the American Revolution that allowed it to produce a stable, free society instead of mayhem and a dictatorship? Some people believe it was due to distinctly unrevolutionary thinking by the American colonists. In this view, compiled by M. Stanton Evans in The Theme is Freedom, the colonists fought for independence because they believed freedoms they already had as British subjects were being taken away by the British government. “The patriots of this province,” John Adams said, “desire nothing new, they wish only to keep their old privileges.”
If the patriots were defending their freedom, where did they think it came from in the first place? Let us review some milestones in the history of freedom to find out. The classic examples of individual liberties in the ancient world are the democracy in Athens, Greece from 594 B.C. and the Roman republic from 509 B.C. to 27 B.C. Then a supposedly unproductive period passed, called the Dark Ages, and in 1215 English nobles forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. About 200 years later, the Renaissance promoted humanist thought in opposition to Christian beliefs that had dominated western countries for one thousand years. In 1517, Martin Luther touched off the Protestant Reformation, which undermined the power of the Roman Catholic Church. Then King Henry VIII smashed the monasteries in the 1530’s and drove the Catholic Church underground. He installed in its place a state church, The Church of England, answerable to his royal highness. But English kings met their match in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Parliament permanently wrested power from them. In this summary, it appears that freedom might increase as the power of religion decreased, and as legislatures took power away from kings.
But any argument based on historical facts is open to the charge that pertinent events have been left out. M. Stanton Evans observes that the outline above is lacking some facts that would make the motives of the American revolutionaries more understandable. To begin filling in the gaps; life in ancient Athens and Rome was pretty good, but only if one was a citizen. About one-third to one-half of the populations of those places were slaves. Life was cheap, and slaves were bargain basement goods that were not credited with being human. They could be abused or killed by their owner and no one would say a thing. The democracy in Athens was founded on a balance of power among classes of people, not on an idea that each person had intrinsic value. The Roman republic deteriorated into a dictatorship, leaving the motto, repeated by Justinian of Constantinople, “Whatever has pleased the prince has the force of law, since the people […] have yielded up to him all their power and authority.”
The centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire have been called the Dark Ages, or as Mel Brooks would say, when times were rotten. Fans of big government can only blanch in horror at the notion of a Europe made up of hundreds of little warring principalities overseen by only one international organization, the Roman Catholic Church. Anyone who aspired to the title of king had to be a combination of warrior and horse trader. The tough independent men called nobles who had managed to claim a territory for themselves weren’t likely to give their power away. So kings had to bargain with nobles, and nobles had to bargain with the serfs. Warlords quickly discovered that their lands provided a poor living without the aid of tenant farmers and tradesmen called peasants, vassals, or serfs. The serf was not known for being tidy or well- educated, but his or her existence illustrates the progress humanity made during the so-called Dark Ages. Unlike the cringing slave of ancient times, the serf was known to be a human being; as much a human being, in fact, as a noble. The Church said so. He had an eternal soul and was made in the image of God. The Church insisted this was true. The Church taught laborers how to take responsibility for performing a day’s work. The serf was a being considered capable of making and keeping a promise. So an understanding was reached: each serf would provide a portion of his harvest or goods he or she made to the local lord of the manor. In return, the noble would provide protection from raiding parties and would treat the serf with at least a minimum level of respect. As an example, in the late 700’s the French king Charlemagne listed rights of serfs. Scholar Carl Stephenson stated the rights as follows.
“A vassal is justified in deserting his lord for any one of the following reasons: if the lord wishes to reduce him to servitude, if the lord plots against his life, if the lord commits adultery with his wife, if the lord attacks him with drawn sword, if the lord fails to protect him when able to do so.”
By 1215, when King John signed the Magna Carta at Runneymede, kings were sadly aware that their powers were limited. Englishmen did not accept the idea that a king was above the law or the Church. A law book of that time stated “Against the command of God and the Catholic faith no order is valid.” Not only were the king’s powers limited by God, they were limited by the need for money. The king did not have the ability to simply grab what he desired. He had to call the nobles together and ask them to raise funds.  The nobles usually had some things they wanted the king to do before they would consent to this. The ability to raise money was their lever to obtain and defend their rights. The meetings of the nobles to raise funds became known as Parliament. Eventually, merchants and artisans who were not big landowners gained a voice in the government when the House of Commons was created. When each new king or queen was crowned, they had to reaffirm the rights of their subjects, much as it displeased them to do so.
In addition, centuries of wrangling among landowners, between the king and nobles, between the Church and king, and even between lords and commoners were recorded in the common law of England. This vast history of court decisions, the evidence of thousands of compromises between legal adversaries, became an unofficial guide to the rights of English citizens. In 1628, many parts of the common law were used to form the Petition of Right, a sort of bill of rights for the English people.
The Renaissance revived study of ancient civilizations’ contributions to art and science. Unfortunately it also spread ancient ideas about a king’s right to rule as a dictator. Kings throughout Europe were delighted. King Henry VIII used the Reformation as an opportunity to rid himself of the Catholic Church. He set up a state church that was dependent on the government for money, where he had the power to appoint some church leaders. European kings did the same. The state churches of Europe were the result of kings desiring a docile clergy and not necessarily an indication of desire for political power by the churches themselves. In spite of the work of many honest pastors, the Christian religion in Europe became tainted with the suspicion that it was used by governments to keep the common people in line.
Many Christians in Britain refused the bait offered by their king. No sooner had the Catholics been suppressed, but some Protestants in England and Scotland became dissatisfied with the Church of England. It was too much like the Catholic Church, they said. The Puritans loudly voiced their displeasure with the Church of England and the king’s meddling in it. Persecution against Puritans grew for decades. Many Puritans decided to leave England for a fresh start. In 1620, the first shipload of Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Mayflower Compact was a history-making agreement between the leaders of the group and the citizens. It showed that the Pilgrim leaders were not dictators, though any person settling in a Puritan town was expected to live by Puritan rules. By 1640, 20,000 Puritans had arrived in America, forming a European population in the New World that was not displaced by disease, hunger, or Indians.
Kings could be tyrants, but in England it became apparent that legislatures could become tyrants too. The English Civil War was a contest between Puritans who supported Parliament and the Cavaliers, who sided with King Charles I. Charles had tried to raise money on his own without consulting Parliament, and had forced homeowners to provide rooms for soldiers. The Petition of Right was one response to Charles, another was that “Magna Carta is such a fellow that he will have no sovereign.” Charles lost the war, was put on trial, and beheaded. Even though English Puritans were responsible for overthrowing the king, Puritans in America were critical of Parliament’s actions. They seemed to understand that tyranny was not far off when one party could put its opponent to death.
Another reason American colonists had sympathy for Charles was that he had ruled America with a light hand. Charles did not allow Parliament to meet for eleven years, but all the while the Virginia General Assembly was conducting business and Charles did not object. The colonists felt loyalty toward King Charles, who allowed them to govern themselves, but they had no enthusiasm for Parliament, where they had no vote.
After the Glorious Revolution, kings took a back seat to Parliament. The British legislature was in control, and it had power to tax the people. Parliament also whittled away at the common law. By that time the American colonies were accustomed to taxing themselves to provide defense and to support the colonial governments. The English government made its money from America by demanding that the colonies buy English-made goods which had been taxed before leaving the home country.
To American eyes, Parliament began a power grab in the 1760’s. The French and Indian War had been drawn out and expensive. Members of Parliament began to look to America to contribute more taxes. Trade with America was worth much more to England than just the taxes that were collected, but people who said so were drowned out by those who said America was freeloading. Several taxes were imposed, one that was especially disliked was the Stamp Act, which required a British revenue stamp to be attached to any legal document, newspaper, and pack of playing cards. Much worse was the Quartering Act, which forced people to provide room and board for British soldiers. This act broke one of the guarantees in the Petition of Right of 1628, causing Americans to see Parliament as a would-be dictator.
Americans grumbled about the English government’s attempts to take away the “rights of free- born Englishmen.” Though the colonists tried to compromise with Parliament on several occasions, some members of the British legislature forced the issue. By 1776, people in America had been watching England and Europe for 150 years. Freedom appeared to be shrinking, and neither kings nor legislatures could be trusted to respect the peoples’ rights. James Madison said “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”Most of the American revolutionaries were reluctant to break with England and wondered if they could form a government that would be better than the one they were leaving. Thomas Jefferson, George Mason and several others were asked to write a law book for the newly independent commonwealth of Virginia. Jefferson put in as much of the English common law as he could. Though he was fascinated by new ideas, he realized that the common law had  protected citizens from over reaching by both kings and legislatures.
Jefferson shared the belief that power corrupts, and that no candidate or party could be found that was pious enough or generous enough or wise enough to be trusted with unlimited authority. He wrote, “it would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fear for the safety of our rights; that confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism–free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence…In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief with the chains of the Constitution.”
So the reluctant revolutionaries of 1776 had their revolution, and the nation it formed has endured. Much as we respect leaders like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson for their willingness to seek a better way of governing, we should not forget that their motives were based in beliefs from long ago—that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.

Brent Cornell

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