by Jeff Polet
In our enthusiasm to declare our independence from England, we Americans often forget that the American Revolution is a development of English political history and not a rejection of it. Writers during the revolutionary period often quoted Magna Carta, the historic English document that was an early articulation of the idea that human beings possessed basic rights. Many American “founders” regarded 1688 (The Glorious Revolution) and not 1776 (The Declaration of Independence) as America’s true birth year. Nor should it be forgotten that Jefferson’s document appealed to the historic rights of Englishmen.
Russell Kirk liked to remind readers that the so-called American Revolution was a revolution avoided, not accomplished, precisely because the Americans saw themselves as acting in continuity with English history and developing the English constitutional traditional. It contrasted sharply with the French Revolution, one which saw itself as starting the world anew, rejecting the French past and its organization around throne and altar. We recall Diderot’s admonition that “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
The greatest critic of the French Revolution, Irishman Edmund Burke, was also one of the great defenders of the interests of the American colonies. In an impassioned speech to Parliament in 1775, dealing with last-ditch efforts to reconcile with the colonies, Burke reminded his compatriots of the colonies’ English heritage, and continued:
“In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole: and as an ardent is always a jealous affection, your colonies become suspicious, restive, and untractable [sic], whenever they see the least attempt to wrest from them by force, or shuffle from them by chicane, what they think the only advantage worth living for. This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies probably than in any other people of the earth; and this from a great variety of powerful causes; which, to understand the true temper of their minds, and the direction which this spirit takes, it will not be amiss to lay open somewhat more largely.”
By the time we get to the Declaration of Independence, the colonies already had 150+ years of history behind them, and in those years they had operated quite independently of the English government, having established popular assemblies and inculcated the habits associated with elected government.
But Burke pushes his argument beyond history and habit. He takes note of the role of religion in the colonies and the fact that the colonists are overwhelmingly Protestant and thus have dissent in their blood.
“But the dissenting interests have sprung up in direct opposition to all the ordinary powers of the world; and could justify that opposition only on a strong claim to natural liberty. Their very existence depended on the powerful and unremitted assertion of that claim. All Protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion. This religion, under a variety of denominations agreeing in nothing but in the communion of the spirit of liberty, is predominant in most of the northern provinces; where the Church of England, notwithstanding its legal rights, is in reality no more than a sort of private sect, not composing most probably the tenth of the people. The colonists left England when this spirit was high, and in the emigrants was the highest of all; and even that stream of foreigners, which has been constantly flowing into these colonies, has, for the greatest part, been composed of dissenters from the establishments of their several countries, and have brought with them a temper and character far from alien to that of the people with whom they mixed.”
The early history of America is unthinkable without reference to religion in general and Protestant Christianity in particular. Efforts by scholars to downplay religion’s role tells us more about them and our present than they do about our past.
Finally, Burke reflected on the logistical difficulties associated with intercontinental imperial rule.
“The last cause of this disobedient spirit in the colonies is hardly less powerful than the rest, as it is not merely moral, but laid deep in the natural constitution of things. Three thousand miles of ocean lie between you and them. No contrivance can prevent the effect of this distance in weakening government. Seas roll, and months pass, between the order and the execution; and the want of a speedy explanation of a single point is enough to defeat a whole system.”
In an observation that is as relevant today as it was then, Burke shrewdly argued that the British Parliament could not deny liberty to the colonists without undermining the very idea of liberty itself.
“For, in order to prove that the Americans have no right to their liberties, we are every day endeavouring to subvert the maxims which preserve the whole spirit of our own. To prove that the Americans ought not to be free, we are obliged to depreciate the value of freedom itself; and we never seem to gain a paltry advantage over them in debate, without attacking some of those principles, or deriding some of those feelings, for which our ancestors have shed their blood.”
- What are the defining features of a political revolution? Do they describe the American Revolution?
- What are the main differences between the American and French revolutions?
- Where do rights come from?