We find ourselves in a situation not unlike the one confronted by our founders in the days leading up to the Battle of Bunker Hill and the beginning of the American Revolution.
While the tension between the colonists and England had been building for years, events accelerated rapidly towards violence in 1774 as the colonists began actively resisting the Intolerable Acts that Parliament had passed as retribution for the Boston Tea Party in December 1773. Among other things, the draconian laws shut down the port of Boston and suspended self-government in the colony of Massachusetts. The colonists then began forming their own provincial Congress and organizing for armed resistance to defend their rights and property from the arbitrary authoritarianism of the ruling elites in London.
Some historians have argued that the colonists fought England for economic reasons. While it was a contributing factor, that wasn’t the real reason. The real reason for the division boiled down to a question of “Who governs?” and the idea of transcendent rights and the rule of law.
I detail some of this in my new book, The Adversaries: A Story of Boston and Bunker Hill, describing a scene between Admiral Richard Howe and Benjamin Franklin in London in early 1775. The two men are both eager to avoid violence between Englishmen on either side of the Atlantic, but soon realize compromise is unlikely.
Franklin tells Howe:
‘Parliament claims the right to altering American constitutions and charters at pleasure, which I would point out, they have done repeatedly in recent times. If that is the line drawn in the sand, there can never be an agreement. If Parliament can decide, on a whim, at any moment, which rights Massachusetts or any of the other colonies might, or might not, have, we would be unsafe in every privilege.’
Howe shook his head. ‘So this is the rub? Who decides? Who will govern? You do understand that if there is no peaceful compromise, the King’s ministers are prepared to compel the colonies to accept their acts by force.’
Franklin leaned back in his chair. ‘Massachusetts and the colonies would rather suffer all the mischiefs and hazards of war rather than agree to the alteration of their charters and laws by Parliament. They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.’
Most of that conversation actually took place. And it’s illustrative of what the real tension was: Englishmen had taken English ideas with them when they colonized America’s shores, ideas written down in black and white in the Magna Carta, the 1628 Petition of Right, the 1689 Bill of Rights, and of course the Charter of Massachusetts, all of which had either been passed by Parliament or assented to by English kings.
Those rights were considered sacrosanct, non-negotiable. But the English who colonized America also believed something fundamental about those rights: they might have been spelled out in black and white and part of English law, but they were sacrosanct because they were ideas ultimately drawn from and in harmony with natural, higher law. They truly believed that their rights were given to them by a transcendent Creator, not an earthly power; therefore, no earthly power could revoke transcendent rights. Only the One who gave them their rights could do that.
And those rights, which of course no human document could ever fully spell out, included the rights to property and speech, assembly and free elections, and the right to defense—because, as James Madison would write in his treatise on property in 1792, “There is a right to property and a property in rights.” So property concerns not just physical things, but even such things as one’s conscience counts as one’s property.
These ideas of transcendent rights became the real breaking point with England and her colonies: the ruling class in England—those in Parliament and among King George III’s ministers—viewed such talk as more of a series of suggestions that could be discarded when inconvenient. In the here and now, this elite assumed, the colonists would submit to Parliament’s right to govern them or they would be forced to comply. But the colonists didn’t because as Dr. Joseph Warren, whose story I highlight in The Adversaries, would argue: “The man who will quietly submit to wear a shackle condemns the noblest gift of heaven and impiously affronts the God who made him free.”
So it wasn’t just that the colonists believed they had a right to defend their property, their speech, and every other inherent right: they believed they had an obligation to defend them.
There are many today, especially on the Left, but generally among the ruling class in this country, who have forgotten how the free American republic is supposed to work, how laws are made, and who governs. On this weekend of July 4, in which we celebrate our independence, we should remember that the American Revolution was a restoration of individual rights infringed upon and usurped by an arbitrary, unaccountable government.
We should also remember that in a government of, by and for the people, all power flows from the people. That power and money delegated to our representatives, is to be used to prioritize, advance and protect the interests and rights of the American people. How refreshing would it be to actually get back to a government that, in fact, does those things.