Most of us know what year it was (1776), who independence was declared from (Great Britain), and the names of some of the founding fathers (Adams, Franklin, Hancock, Jefferson, Monroe, Washington, etc.). A refresher on some of the finer points couldn’t hurt, however, so here goes.
A. Colonial grievances – Some Americans include a reading of the Declaration of Independence in their holiday observances. It’s relatively short (about 8 minutes reading time), beautifully written (by Thomas Jefferson), and makes some inspiring points.
The Declaration begins with its own rationale. When it becomes necessary for “one People to dissolve the Political Bonds which have connected them to another,” they should “declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.”
Then comes an oft-quoted section, which begins “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.” Governments are established with the consent of the governed to secure these rights, and when a government gets out of line it is the people’s right to opt for some other government. This right should not be exercised impulsively, but it’s ultimately the only safeguard against tyranny.
There follows an enumeration of the alleged “Abuses and Usurpations” of the British crown, “all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” Here’s the list (in a condensed format), which makes King George III sound pretty bad.
HE has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good - has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them - has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to Tyrants only.
HE has called together Legislative Bodies at Places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the Depository of their public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his Measures - has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his Invasions on the Rights of the People - has refused for a long Time, after such Dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and Convulsions within.
HE has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands - has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers - has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their Offices, and the Amount and Payment of their Salaries - has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance.
HE has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the Consent of our Legislatures - has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power - has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our Laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation: FOR quartering Large Bodies of Armed Troops among us - protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States - cutting off our Trade with all Parts of the World - imposing Taxes on us without our Consent - depriving us, in many cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury - transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended Offences - abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries, so as to render it at once an Example and fit Instrument for introducing the same absolute Rule into these Colonies - taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments - suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with Power to legislate for us in all Cases whatsoever.
•HE has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us - has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People - is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the Works of Death, Desolation and Tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation.
HE has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the Executioners of their Friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands - has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.
“There are two sides to every story,” as the saying goes, so could it be that the colonies contributed to these problems by their own behavior? Not according to the Declaration, which avers that the colonies repeatedly “Petitioned for Redress in the most humble Terms” and appealed for support from “our British Brethren” [presumably Parliament and the general public as opposed to the King and his ministers], all to no avail.
Accordingly, the colonies are declared to be “Free and Independent States,” which are “absolved of all allegiance to the British Crown.” And “for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we [the 56 signers] mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
This pledge was more than rhetorical; many of the signers would suffer grievous personal losses before the war against Britain was finally won. Here’s a dramatized account that is worth watching. Signers of the Declaration of Independence, vimeo.com (5:38), 2010.
B. No compromise – Armed conflict with British forces had broken out the previous year, e.g., in Massachusetts. Battle of Bunker Hill (6/17/1775), history.com.
Most colonials did not envision seeking full independence from Great Britain at first, but support for this goal grew after it became clear that the British intended to crush the opposition. Declaration of Independence, history.com.
In his message to Parliament in October 1775, King George III railed against the rebellious colonies and ordered the enlargement of the royal army and navy. News of his words reached America in January 1776, strengthening the radicals’ cause and leading many conservatives to abandon their hopes of reconciliation.
One of the most influential advocates for independence was firebrand Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense came out in 1776 and sold an estimated 150,000 copies (versus a colonial population of some 2.5 million). Ibid.
Paine’s opus covered a lot of ground, but his basic argument was simple. The time had come to forget about reconciliation with the British crown, as there weren’t any compelling reasons for such a course. Common Sense, Philadelphia, February 17, 1776.
The colonies might have been settled by Britain for the most part, but they didn’t owe Britain anything.
Britain had a monarchy, which was inherently inferior to a representative democracy so the relationship didn’t offer any political benefits.
There wasn’t anything the British could do for the colonies, which the colonies wouldn’t be able to do for themselves.
There were numerous injuries and disadvantages of the relationship, such as a tendency to involve the colonies in European wars and quarrels.
Britain was an island nation, while the colonies had continental possibilities; why should the small nation rule a much larger one?
Protection of the British fleet could prove valuable in some instances, but this force might come too late if there was an attack by other powers and in any case it would be employed for British versus American benefit.
The colonies could and should build their own fleet, which would be ever at hand and could be employed as they saw fit. The cost could be recouped by not paying taxes to Britain.
While it might be possible to exist under British rule for a while, the relationship clearly wouldn’t work for the colonies over the long term. Since a change was inevitable at some point, it might as well be made now rather than later.
Many colonials agreed with Paine, and all 13 colonies subscribed to the Declaration of Independence when the moment of decision arrived.
To state the obvious, this was not a case of basing policy on compromise and consensus. No one was sure how the revolution would turn out, and the founders risked disaster to back it. Also, it was far from clear that the new political order would work better in practice than the old one had – perhaps the colonies were “jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.”
Incidentally, Thomas Paine went on to champion other causes that were less appealing from a conservative standpoint than the American Revolution. Thomas Paine, history.com.
Returning to Europe in 1787, Paine soon entered the political debate launched by the French Revolution. His Rights of Man defended the revolution against the attacks of Edmund Burke and proffered a new vision of the republican state as a promoter of the social welfare, advocating such policies as progressive taxation, retirement benefits, and public employment. An even greater success than Common Sense, Rights of Man transformed English radicalism, linking demands for political reform with a social program for the lower classes.
C. The beat goes on – Fast forward to 2016, when several arguably analogous situations are playing out – with something of a role reversal.
On a global level, the established power is the US hegemon, which various countries seem determined to challenge. Longer term, the most lethal threat may be from China. The hundred-year marathon: China’s secret strategy to replace America as the global superpower, Michael Pillsbury (a long-time China hand who concluded that he had been duped), 2015.
Re the battle for global supremacy, our main thought is that this is no time for the US to keep slashing military budgets – if anything, said budgets need to be increased (with more than offsetting spending cuts in other areas). Lofty aspirations without the means to support them could prove a disastrous combination. Defense budget, 12/15/14.
Domestically, the political establishment is running the show with the support of the social/academic/media elite. And to the dismay of the establishment camp, political candidates channeling popular discontent with current policies have been attracting attention and winning support. Status quo crisis in Washington, Robert Merry, Washington Times, 11/2/15.
Meanwhile in Europe, the UK has become the rebel. The British just voted in a national referendum to exit the European Union and put paid to open border requirements and endless regulations devised by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. Brexit due to the failure of elites, not bigotry of the masses, Michael Barone, townhall.com, 7/1/16.
Both the state of the US presidential race and the Brexit vote in the UK appear to have stemmed from a populist revolt against the supposedly enlightened manner in which national/supranational elites have been promoting their own interests. And while scrutiny of proposed policy changes is essential, we tend to favor the rebels – surely they deserve the right to be heard rather than being endlessly patronized and ignored. It’s the freedom, stupid, Monica Crowley, Washington Times, 6/29/16.
•It took a quarter-century, but the British people finally put their collective feet down. They want their independence, economic liberty and national sovereignty restored. They want to rid themselves of the stultifying socialism of Brussels. They want to be Britain again.
•Like the British, Americans will take a lot, but they will not tolerate the dilution of their nation by the forces of a discredited redistributionist ideology. And like the British, they reject it even more intensely when they believe their own leadership is deliberately diluting American exceptionalism in order to serve a global redistributionist scheme.
Some observers go overboard, however, by interpreting the Brexit vote and success of “outsider” candidates in the 2016 presidential race as evidence that “we the people” are taking over. Brexit shows us the future – and it’s great, Scott Rasmussen, townhall.com, 7/1/16.
Brexit did more than confirm British unhappiness with the European Union. It also reminded us -- in a dramatic fashion -- that the culture leads and politicians lag behind. It gives us hope that the global trend to decentralization will shift even more power to ever more people. In the United States, families, communities, and local governments will be empowered at the expense of federal bureaucrats. Around the world, elite control will continue to unravel.
There were no easy answers in 1776, when King George was doing his best to push the colonials around, and we don’t expect easy answers now. Digital revolution or no, the expectation of a power shift back to families, communities, and local governments – reversing a pronounced trend over the past century or so – seems unrealistic.
Also, support for turning back the clock seems far stronger in upper age brackets than among younger voters who will exercise growing influence as time goes on. Brexit, sovereign kingdom or little England, Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, 6/30/16.
The most prominent disparity in the British vote was generational. The young, having grown up in the new Europe, are more comfortable with its cosmopolitanism and have come to expect open borders, open commerce and open movement of people. They voted overwhelmingly— by 3 to 1 — to Remain. Leave was mainly the position of an older generation no longer willing to tolerate European assaults on British autonomy and sovereignty.
So what’s the answer for visionaries who are trying to imagine and support a better future? Understanding and celebrating achievements of the past is a start, and what better time for that than today, but there’s also a need for viable solutions.
Looks like we have our work cut out for us.