7 American Rev
Dangers of Covenant Theology, Part 7: A Critique of Gary North’s Anti-Constitutionalism.
1. The Founders: Tradition or Common Sense?
2. The Ideas of the American Revolution
3. First Crisis: The Stamp Act
4. Virtual Representation vs. Actual Representation
5. Second Crisis: The Townshend Acts
6. Third Crisis: The Intolerable Acts
7. The Course of War
8. Early North
9. Later North
1. The Founders: Tradition or Common Sense?
James Burnham, in his book Congress and the American Tradition, claimed that the success or failure of government included a “non-rational factor.” He said that this non-rational factor could be called “chance, luck, accident, magic, or Providence” and the choice of description was dependent upon our “metaphysical habits.” (Ibid., 1959, p. 7.) According to Burnham, “Both the theory and the practice of government are incomplete without the introduction of a non-rational element.” (Ibid., p. 11.)
This is a disturbing viewpoint. As we will see, it makes a roundabout use of an old church doctrine known as “implicit faith.” This doctrine posited an analogy between children and church members. Just as children do not have the knowledge to make mature decisions, and must rely on their fathers, so also church members do not have the knowledge to make mature decisions in theological matters, and must rely on their spiritual fathers, the priests. Protestantism rejected the notion of implicit faith within the context of the ecclesiastical sphere, holding that men should not sacrifice their intellects to an authoritarian church but should know why they believe. Doctrines, traditions, and customs could just as well mislead as lead, and it was necessary that individuals test every doctrine, tradition, or custom by the ultimate standard, which for Protestants was the Bible. Children, of course, must trust and obey their parents for the simple reason that children are not fully rational (i.e., mature). Men, on the other hand, are fully rational and therefore responsible, and for a man to give up his reason—no matter what the issue–is to behave like a child.
The Protestant emphasis on reason did not assume any Kantian distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal, but saw a continuity of knowledge between the things of nature and the things of faith, both deriving from God. Protestant hostility to authoritarianism and traditionalism, the emphasis on the tangible, revealed word of God in Scripture, accessible to everyone, provided the background for the common sense philosophy of the moderate wing of the Enlightenment. Perhaps unintentionally, lefist historian Peter Gay calls attention to the unoriginality of the Enlightenment: “As I shall show over and over again…ideas and attitudes generally associated with subversive, atheistic philosophes—the disdain for Gothic architecture, the rejection of metaphysics and of Scholasticism—were the common property of most educated men in the eighteenth century. The philosophes did not lack courage, and their place in history is secure, but the war they fought was half won before they joined it.” (The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism, 1966, p. 23.) There is very little in the Enlightenment critique of the Middle Ages that one cannot find in humanists such as Erasmus, or in Luther, Calvin or other Protestant critics of Roman Catholicism. (Ibid., pp. 274; 280.)
The reliance on reason combined with experience (i.e., common sense) was basic to the development of constitutionalism in America. According to John Adams:
“The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history.” (A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States; quoted in Burnham, p. 25.)
Adams goes on to say that the writers of the state constitutions did not have interviews with the gods, nor were inspired by Heaven, any more than common laborers are inspired by Heaven in their building of ships or houses, or in the selling of merchandise or agriculture. Therefore, “[I]t will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses….Neither the people nor their conventions, committees, or subcommittees, considered legislation in any other light than as ordinary arts and sciences, only more important.” (A Defense, in Burnham, p. 26.)
Burnham, however, does not like this reliance on reason and experience. He claims that Adams “knew that the rising nation was lucky in the occasion of its constitutional formation.” (Congress, p. 26; emphasis added.) Luck, in Burnham’s view, is a non-rational factor. James Wilson is adduced as proof of the importance of luck in the formation of good government, though what Wilson said is just the opposite of what Burnham claims. Contrary to Burnham, the United States was the first instance of a nation that was formed, not on the basis of non-rational factors, but on the basis of calm, rational deliberation. Wilson said:
“After a period of six thousand years have elapsed since the creation, the United States exhibit to the world the first instance, as far as we can learn, of a nation, unattacked by external force, unconvulsed by domestic insurrections, assembling voluntarily, deliberating fully, and deciding calmly, concerning the system of government under which they would wish that they and their posterity should live.” (Quoted in Burnham, p. 26.)
Burnham then cites Benjamin Franklin that more than luck was needed for the successful completion of the U.S. Constitution—i.e., divine aid was needed. Franklin asked the convention, during a difficult moment in the deliberations, to pray to the Father of lights for enlightenment, to remember that “God governs in the affairs of men.” Franklin, however, spoke of this divine help as “concurring aid.” In that sense, the providential help of God was not seen as a substitute for hard work and effort, but was seen as a concurring work of God, something that accompanied the work of man. Alexander Hamilton also saw the “finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical states of the revolution.” (Quoted in Burnham, p. 28.)
While the framers saw the hand of God in their revolution, and in the history of their country, they did not see this as a non-rational element that led to the success of their government. As Wilson pointed out, the formation of government in the United States was a calm, deliberative enterprise, voluntary entered into, without any external threats or (colony-wide) domestic rebellions. Franklin and Hamilton, and many others of course, gave honor to God for the success of past endeavors and looked to him for the success of future endeavors. Probably, everyone had heard of what had happened to Herod for not giving glory to God (Acts 12:23). Nevertheless, in seeing the hand of God in the affairs of men, they did not throw up their hands and say “take over Lord.” They knew well the idea of the doctrine of providence, or the “invisible hand” of God, for as Washington said, this invisible hand “conducts the affairs of men.” This, however, was not interpreted as an excuse for quietism and passivity, anymore than (say) Cromwell’s providentialism had provided such an excuse.
Burnham claims that because the fathers were indeed reasonable, they “admitted the limits of reason.” But the framers did not hold to anything like Kant’s concept of the limits of reason. For them, any limitations on reason were not based on pre-conceived epistemological grounds, but were part of what it meant to be an imperfect and limited creature.
It appears that Burnham’s main interest in playing up “non-rational” factors in the formation of the American republic is so that he can say the framers were not “ideologues,” that they were “protected from ideology not only by piety, and a native skepticism toward abstract reason, but by their persistent sense of fact, of the specific.” (Ibid., p. 29.) Contrary to Burnham, hostility to “abstract reason” does not require the appeal to a “non-rational” element, and he admits, unintentionally it appears, that it was the founders’ emphasis on fact, on the specific that protected them from ideology. He claims that the “phrases of Locke, Montesquieu, Cicero and the others often figured in the Philadelphia debates, but they were never divorced from the specific problems that had brought the delegates together.” (Idem.) The latter claim is a rather obvious fact. The writings of Locke and others dealt with universal (or abstract) issues, not with specific or local issues in America. But what kind of inference is Burnham trying to draw from this? He says that government is a “miracle,” that “reason merges with what is beyond or outside of reason,” and that the problem of government “becomes solved by social experience acting through time—that is, by tradition.” (Ibid., p. 31.)
So here we have it—tradition. It was one of the reasons for the doctrine of implicit faith, for if traditions or the like have no basis in the Bible, it is held that trust should be given implicitly to the (Roman) church as collectively wiser in such matters than are individuals. For Burnham, tradition in the more secular sense is the non-rational factor that is the solution to the problems of government, i.e., tradition is to be trusted implicitly rather than abstract reason. Yet the founders—as Wilson’s comments show above–thought of their revolution and system of government as something new in the world, not based upon superstition or unreasoned tradition, but based upon calm deliberation. To be sure, the founders learned what they could from the past (e.g., from British institutions, etc.), but as Burnham admits in another context, “the Fathers were the masters, not the victims, of these inherited ideas….” (Ibid., p. 29.)
There is a tendency in Burnham, also recognizable in the writings of other conservatives, to play down the influence of Locke or Montesquieu in the formation of the Constitution and to play up “experience and tradition.” (Ibid., p. 32.) In another paper, we have ascribed this view to the influence of Catholicism on many conservative writers, who have a natural tendency to favor traditionalism, given how important and decisive such a concept is in Catholic thought. Nevertheless, a Protestant nation could not be expected to look upon tradition with the same degree of favor as would a Catholic nation. Moreover, vis-à-vis Burnham, experience is not the same as tradition, and for the American founders, experience was seen as critical of tradition, just the opposite of Burnham’s understanding of its role.
We agree with Burnham, however, that an isolated, magisterial reason was not the basis of government. The founders, for instance, did not agree with Thomas Paine’s attacks upon Christianity in his book The Age of Reason, wherein he claimed that in a supposed age of reason, biblical Christianity had no place. When Paine returned to America in 1802, he was not welcome:
“Paine was no longer the celebrated author of the pamphlet [Common Sense] so influential in its day. He was now the notorious author of the godless Age of Reason with its assault on Christianity. Jefferson was man enough [sic] to renew his old ties with Paine, but to most Americans Paine was evil personified.” (Ed., Michael Foot & Isaac Kramnick, “Editors Introduction,” The Thomas Paine Reader, 1987, p. 17.)
Paine did not grow up in America but was only a recently arrived immigrant from England (1774) when he wrote Common Sense (1776). He nicely captured the spirit of American resistance to England in his first two years of residency, and he also served the cause of the revolution as an aid to General Greene, also writing defenses of America that were later compiled into the book, The American Crisis. But he did not understand the religious character of the American people, that their revolution was for the freedom of religion, not for its abolition. Paine spent his last years in America “ignored or mocked” and he ultimately died in obscurity. His housekeeper noted the disparity between his former fame and his “obscure grave on an open and disregarded bit of land.” (Foot & Kramnick, p. 19.)
2. The Ideas of the American Revolution
Gary North claims that the Declaration of Independence was the first step in a “covenantal declaration of independence from the God of the Bible.” (Conspiracy, p. 6.) The Declaration was, in this view, the first step, but the U.S. Constitution was the final step. North offers no real evidence, and his assertions are simply exercises in myth-making, or worse. Nothing in the Revolutionary War era, or in the Constitutional period, indicates any anti-Christian agenda on the part of Americans, and any public hostility to Christianity would have been unthinkable at the time. This is why North is forced so often to appeal to hidden conspiracies in order to make his (ridiculous) case. (North practically admits this in his discussion of the handful of anti-trinitarians, such as Jefferson, who kept their views largely to themselves; Conspiracy, p. 28.) As we will see, the Revolution was not fought over religious or theological issues, but even so there was a strong religious component to the Revolution—unplanned and unexpected perhaps—but it jolted Americans like nothing else before. I refer to the Quebec Act, which will be discussed below (Section 6).
The U.S. Constitution was not formulated in a vacuum, and it owes a great deal to the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and to the state constitutions that were drawn up at the time. This is why it is important to understand the American Revolution, and this is best done through examining the major sources of Revolutionary thinking in the colonies. We do not agree that the Declaration was “incorporated” into the U.S. Constitution, though the Declaration was certainly presupposed by the framers. The purpose of the Constitution was to form a more perfect union, and liberty was a large component of that union. The Constitution did not fully realize the principle of liberty enunciated in the Declaration—e.g., its compromise with African slavery—but from a realistic point of view liberty was still what the colonists had fought for, and what they wanted to preserve in the Constitution. While the original issue in the Revolution involved the question of Parliament’s sovereignty over the colonies with regard to taxation, this was only symptomatic of a larger issue. Bernard Bailyn says,
“What was essentially involved in the American Revolution was not the disruption of society, with all the fear, despair, and hatred that that entails, but the realization, the comprehension and fulfillment, of the inheritance of liberty and of what was taken to be America’s destiny in the context of world history.” (The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, 1967, p. 19.)
The inheritance of liberty. None knew better what this meant than the social contract theorists of the previous century. In the pamphlet wars just before 1776, American writers quoted John Locke on the social contract and on natural rights, and quoted Montesquieu on the institutional conditions necessary to secure those rights. (Bailyn, p. 27.) One could almost say—though not quite–that the American Revolution was a footnote to Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Does this mean the framers of the Constitution were overly influenced by the Enlightenment? It does not seem likely. The “virtuosi” of the American version of the Enlightenment were Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson, and while these men played a large part in the Revolution, neither Adams nor Jefferson played a part in the constitutional convention. In fact, they were diplomats in Europe at the time, an ocean away from Philadelphia. To be sure, Franklin was there, but his main work was not with the content of the Constitution, but rather with the smooth running of the convention. (Cf., Gordon Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 2004, pp. 216; 220.) Franklin did, however, make the proposal that members of the executive branch should serve without pay, a proposal that was not accepted. He also made the recommendation—to the embarrassment of those wanting to make Franklin a patron saint of deism—that the convention be opened with daily prayer. Historically, Franklin was really only popular in France at the time of the Convention, and most Americans did not quite know what to make of him, and he nearly died in obscurity (in America). It was only after his Autobiography was published that Americans re-discovered Franklin, and his reputation became as great in America as it had been in Europe. (Cf., Wood, Revolutionary Characters, 2006, pp. 88, 89.)
The framers learned what they could from the past, or from other thinkers, but they forged a new government on their own. This was true not only with respect to their quotations of Enlightenment writers, but of ancient writers as well (e.g., Cicero) As Bailyn says, “The classics of the ancient world are everywhere in the literature of the Revolution, but they are everywhere illustrative, not determinative, of thought.” (Ideological Origins, p. 26.)
The social contract theorists were quite well known to both the revolutionists and to the Tories, and ironically enough both appealed to Locke as authoritative. Bailyn says, “Writers the colonists took to be opponents of Enlightenment rationalism—primarily Hobbes, Filmer, Sibthorpe, Mandeville, and Mainwaring—were denounced as frequently by loyalists as by patriots….” (Ideological Orgins, pp. 28-29.) The colonists did not like Hobbes or Filmer [the subject of Locke’s First Treatise], because these were defenders of absolute monarchy, or the divine right of kings, which Locke had denounced. They did, however, respect philosopher David Hume, though his history of England was regarded as too favorable to Stuart authoritarianism, especially of Charles I. (Idem., ftns. 8 & 9.) As noted, Enlightenment writers and classical authors were cited frequently as authorities in debate, but their thinking was not ultimately decisive in the thought of Americans. According to Bailyn:
“Referred to on all sides, by writers of all political viewpoints in the colonies, the major figures of the European Enlightenment and many of the lesser, contributed substantially to the thought of the Americans; but except for Locke’s, their influence, though more decisive than that of the authors of classical antiquity, was neither clearly dominant nor wholly determinative.” (Ideological Origins, p. 30.)
The English common law was another source for Americans, especially Sir Edward Coke, Francis Bacon, Sir Matthew Hale, and also Blackstone’s Commentaries. The common law provided a repository of legal wisdom: “The law,” says Bailyn, “was no science of what to do next. To the colonists it was repository of experience in human dealings embodying the principles of justice, equity, and rights; above all, it was a form of history—ancient, indeed immemorial, history; constitutional and national history; and, as history, it helped explain the movement of events and the meaning of the present.” (Ideological Origins, p. 31.)
Covenant theology was also a major influence, having been derived from the earlier Puritans. This Puritan concept, however, had been “softened” in its denominational strictness and became the view of the “entire spectrum of American Protestantism.” (Bailyn., p. 32.) In addition, covenant theology saw America as the new chosen people, that it had a special place in the purposes of God, and that everyday events could be seen in “cosmic” dimensions. (Ibid., pp., 32; 33.) Obviously, the covenant theology of Revolutionary America was a more generic form of covenant theology, not the strict, one-to-one correspondence between the Old Testament and modern polities, as advocated by Knox and some of the Presbyterians in Scotland and in England, or the Puritans in America. Yet it still served the same purpose in undermining any supposed divine right of kings, or any theory of absolute government. (For a discussion of covenant theology and the role of New England ministers in the American Revolution, see Alice Baldwin, The New England Clergy and the American Revolution, pp. 7ff.)
So what brought all these disparate elements together? What brought Enlightenment thought, the common law tradition, and covenant theology into the same fold? It is Bailyn’s opinion that the Whig political tradition in England cemented these ideas together. The ultimate origins of this movement of thought were in the 17th century, “in the radical social and political thought of the English Civil War and of the Commonwealth period….” (Ibid., p. 34.) In other words, during the days of Pym—and we might add, Cromwell, Milton, and Algernon Sidney. The Whig tradition was further developed after the later Glorious Revolution by the anti-court independents such as John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, who produced the Independent Whig, and wrote the influential Cato’s Letters. “[T]he writings of Trenchard and Gordon, ranked with the treatises of Locke as the most authoritative statement of the nature of political liberty….” (Bailyn, p. 36.)
Other influential Whig writers included Anglican bishop Benjamin Hoadly, whose rejection of sacerdotalism, and acceptance of religious toleration, caused him to be greatly admired by the colonists. (Ibid., p. 37.) Lesser, though important, writers known to Americans, were Francis Hutcheson, Thomas Hollis, and younger writers such as Richard Price, Joseph Priestly, and John Cartwright. Americans were also acquainted with Whig historians, including Bulstrode Whitelock, Gilbert Burnet, and Paul de Rapin-Thoyras. Bailyn says that this tradition of Whig thought in England was rapidly transmitted to America where it was “devoured” by the colonists. Whig political theory was essentially a popularization of the views of Locke, Pufendorf, Milton, and Grotius. It was essentially about natural rights, contract theory, and England’s mixed constitution.
From the above discussion, we can see that the political philosophy of the colonies had its ultimate origins in the English civil war of the mid-1600’s, in views that were elaborated by the social contract theorists, and were then popularized and applied by the Whig critics of English politics during the 1700’s. “Within the framework of these ideas,” says Bailyn, “Enlightenment abstractions and common law precedents, covenant theology and classical analogy—Locke and Abraham, Brutus and Coke—could all be brought together into a comprehensive theory of politics.” (Ideological Origins, p. 54.)
Excursus–A major point in Whig thought was hostility to standing armies. It is hard for us to grasp this since in our day we have a standing army (and navy and air force). Aren’t we far from the thought of the founders with such large armies in existence? To some extent, the answer is no, for the problem was not with an army, but with the nature of an army. A standing army, in the earlier sense, was not an army controlled by civilian government, but just the opposite. Jefferson wrote that such an army made the civil power subordinate to the military power, “instead of subjecting the military to the civil powers.” (Quoted in Bailyn, p. 61.) In post-Constitutional America, the military is under civilian control, and protects the country from foreign foes. It does not, however, function as a police force. The type of army envisioned by the founders as a “standing” army—a threat to liberty in their view—combined the war-making trait with police powers and authority over civilian government (e.g., the British army ensconced in America after the Seven Years’ War). A standing army all too often became the personal troops of despots. (Bailyn, p. 63.)
Nevertheless, of all the ideas held by the colonists, this fear of standing armies (even in peacetime) was the most flawed, in our opinion. For instance, it was an English standing or regular army that led England to victory over Charles I, and helped Cromwell prevent anarchy in the months following the British civil war. It was also the English regular army (with colonial help) that defeated the French army during the French and Indian War. A few years later, it was only after George Washington was able to maintain a core of regiments—i.e., a regular army—that he could put up an effective fight against the British.
“Washington was quick to see the folly of relying on militia and other short-term troops, and after the battle of Long Island he wrote to Congress declaring that ‘our liberties’ might be lost ‘if their defence is left to any but a permanent standing army.’ He had seen the militia flee, disappearing ‘almost by whole regiments,’ while Haslet’s Delawares and Smallwood’s Marylanders had stood firm, holding off some of the finest troops Europe had to offer.” (Ed. R. Ketchum, American Heritage Book of The Revolution, 1958, p. 168.)
An army made up primarily of militia-men obviously suffered from the problem of temporary service, i.e., such men had the tendency to desert in droves—to go back to the farms, so to speak—when planting or harvest season came around. This is why British regular troops looked down upon the colonial militia-men during the French and Indian War for precisely the same behavior that plagued Washington’s forces. For a critique of the view that a standing army would necessarily undermine freedom, or that a militia would supposedly protect freedom, see Edmund S. Morgan, Inventing the People, 1988, pp. 160ff., who provides several historical examples showing that the opposite was often the case. In our view, a standing army, even in peacetime, is not necessarily a threat to liberty, but can in fact be a guarantee of it. It is true that the combined military of the United States in our day could be used to oppress the American people, but the greater likelihood is that its presence serves to instill fear in the hearts of any who would attempt to invade the country. The real problem with the British army in 18th century America was, as Jefferson intimated, that it was controlled by Britain rather than by America. End Excursus.
3. First Crisis: The Stamp Act
It is an understatement to say that the colonists did not like Parliamentary interference in their internal affairs. After all, one of the main reasons their ancestors immigrated to America was to escape religious persecution in England and to set up a city on a hill in America. The new country would be a place where the Puritans could show their erstwhile countrymen how to establish a godly order, a light not only to the savage Indians of America but also to the cultivated savages back home living under Charles I. Thomas Paine, in Common Sense, saw the irony of Parliamentary interference in the colonies:
“This new world has been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still.” (Quoted in, Thomas Pain Reader, pp. 81-82.)
The earliest English settlers in America had governed themselves over the years without much interference from the Crown or Parliament, in what has been called a policy of “salutary neglect.” The was all to change, however. Paine’s argument had been made before, but fell on deaf ears. Before passage of the Stamp Act, Charles Townshend claimed in Parliament that Americans were “children” who had been planted by English arms, and who should therefore pay a “mite” to relieve England’s heavy burden of defending them. He was contradicted by Colonel Isaac Barre, a veteran of the Seven Years’ War, who had a missing eye to prove it:
“They planted by your care? No! Your oppression’s planted ’em in America….They nourished up by your indulgence? They grew up by your neglect of ’em….They protected by your arms? They have nobly taken up arms in your defence….And believe me, and remember that I this day told you so, that same spirit of freedom which actuated that people at first, will accompany them still….They are a people jealous for their liberties and who will vindicate them if ever they should be violated—but the subject is too delicate and I will say no more.” (Quoted in Tuchman, p. 152; for full text, see R. Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause, 1982, p. 75.)
Ingersoll recorded that these words were said “so forcibly and firmly, and the breaking off so beautifully abrupt, that the whole House sat awhile as amazed, intently looking and without answering a word.” It was Barre who first used the term “sons of liberty” in this speech, a phrase later picked up by Sam Adams. Tuchman comments: “It may have been the first moment when perhaps a few realized what loomed ahead.” (The March of Folly, p. 152.)
Undoubtedly, British help was more significant than either Barre or Paine would admit, but they also spoke true words. For while the Crown helped (or interfered) to some extent in the colonies, it (ironically enough) encouraged the power of the colonial assemblies as a way to hamper the big men of the colonies, the rich proprietary families, whose interests were not always the same as the king’s. (Morgan, Inventing, p. 133.) Thus, the colonies had a long tradition of representative government—even crown-encouraged representative government—and the English “neglect” of America had worked well up to that point. The Stamp Act of 1765 was therefore seen as an attack upon the colonists’ right to govern their own affairs as they had always done. To acquiesce was to give up what the colonists had always jealously guarded as their fundamental right—the duty to resist tyranny. (Cf., Bailyn, pp. 92-93.)
The issue of taxation came about after the French and Indian War (or Seven Years’ War in Europe). The Grenville administration wanted to keep a large force of British regulars on American soil after the war. In order to do this, Grenville proposed what some called an “internal” tax to pay for the upkeep of the troops—even though Americans did not see the need for such large numbers of troops, and were not asked whether they wanted to pay the costs of feeding and quartering them. Previously, if the English government needed money from the colonists, the colonial legislatures would requisition the desired sums. The colonists were willing to admit British sovereignty with respect to the regulation of trade and commerce, but not with respect to taxation for the purpose of raising revenue. Almost from the beginning, Americans objected to paying any sort of tax without representation. In the year the Stamp Act was announced, the Assembly in Charleston, reflecting Locke’s view, said: “It is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people and the undoubted rights of Englishmen that no taxes be imposed upon them but by their own consent.” (Quoted in R. M. Ketchum, American Heritage Book of The Revolution, p. 56.)
We can be thankful to historians such as Robert Brown, Forrest McDonald, and Bernard Bailyn for undermining the Progressivist or Beardian theories that dominated the historiography of the American Revolution for so many years. This view saw the cause of the Revolution in terms of social, class, or economic interests. Bailyn especially, by his researches into the hundreds of pamphlets published in the pre-war period, reoriented a generation of historians away from such notions to see the Revolution as the result of real constitutional or philosophical principles, many of them derivative of the “anti-authoritarianism bred in the upheaval of the English Civil War.” (Ideological Origins, p. viii.) Nevertheless, one of the main problems with relying on pamphlets is that these often reflect a variety of opinions, even by those on the same side. Edmund S. Morgan has warned against this reliance on pamphlets and has argued that it is better to look to the official documents of the various colonies for the main arguments of the Revolutionists. Morgan points out that the consent idea of taxation was not a later, ad hoc argument, but was present from the very beginning in almost all the acts of the colonial assemblies. (Cf., essays reprinted in The Challenge of the American Revolution, 1976, pp. 10ff.)
Thus, we cannot accept Bailyn’s claim that the colonists did not see the main idea from the beginning. (Ideological Origins, p. 209.) The notion that the colonists went from one idea to another, with no real principle other than the desire to escape English taxation, was a Tory charge. Morgan says:
“The modern historian…has tended to accept the Tory analysis of American resistance to taxation….[H]e agrees with Charles Townshend that it was the Americans who distinguished between internal and external taxes, that they abandoned this distinction for another, which likewise proved untenable, and so on until they reached the Declaration of Independence.” (Challenge, p. 6.)
While Americans certainly understood the ideas of internal or external taxation, and taxation for revenue or for trade, etc., it was the consent doctrine—no taxation without the consent of the taxed—that was included in most of the official documents from the very beginning of the dispute with Parliament.
The colonists resented any infringement on their liberties, and taxes were naturally greeted with great hostility. This was not just an American trait, as if Americans are the only ones who do not like being told what to do. It was in fact a British trait. A couple of years before the Stamp Act, Lord Bute managed to pass a tax on cider in Britain. Barbara Tuchman notes:
“Like the Writs [of Assistance] in America, the act empowered inspectors to visit premises, even live with owners of cider mills to keep count of the number of gallons produced. So loud was the English cry of tyranny at this invasion and so violent the protest that troops had to be called out in apple country….The cider tax provided the final tumult in unseating the hated Earl of Bute….He resigned in 1763, to be succeeded by [William] Pitt’s brother-in-law George Grenville. Although the cider tax had clearly failed and was repealed within two years, the Government in its search for revenue was to attempt the same method of taxation in America.” (The March of Folly, 1984, p. 132, 133.)
The idea that Americans would react any differently from Englishmen was perhaps the crowning folly of England’s imperial mode of government with respect to its colonies. As Tuchman says, “[T]he English could not visualize Americans in terms of equality. Should uncouth provincials, the ‘spawn of our [prisoners’] transports,’ rabble-rousers ‘with manners no better than Mohawks,’ be invited, asked the Gentleman’s Magazine, to occupy the ‘highest seats of our commonwealth?’ To the Morning Post, Americans were ‘a mongrel breed of Irish, Scotch and Germans leavened with convicts and outcasts.’” (Ibid., p. 156.)
This arrogance continued on throughout the years. Rockingham, friend to the colonists, thought of Britain as the parent, and America as “children [who] ought to be dutiful.” (Quoted in Tuchman, p. 194.) It would later be seen at its worse in the case of Benjamin Franklin, famous scientist and inventor, who for a long time had a favorable attitude to the British throughout all the controversies. His ultimate break with England came only after he was viciously trashed by the Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn before the Privy Council. Even then, Franklin stayed in England for another year, hoping for reconciliation, but his carefully formulated peace proposal was rejected by the Parliament without serious consideration. The sheer ignorance and arrogance of the British legislators brought Franklin to conclude that they were not fit “to govern a herd of swine.” (G. S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 2004, p. 150.)
4. Virtual Representation vs. Actual Representation
Almost everyone who has gone to school in America has heard of the slogan “No Taxation without Representation”—and that it was the reason for the American Revolution. Nevertheless, it was only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, for the underlying matter was that Americans believed in actual representation, rather than in England’s concept of virtual representation. The latter view ends up with government by experts, looking to serve only the national interest. It meant that politicians from small, backwater towns in England could make laws for large, thriving cities in England. In America, actual representation meant that voters expected their politicians to represent their local interests, and national goals were achieved through coalitions of local representatives. When England began to make laws for Americans, even though the latter had no actual representation in Parliament, Americans looked to their own experience of representative government and found the English theory of representation wanting, even absurd. (Bailyn, pp. 161ff.) In October 1765, American lawyer Daniel Dulany, reacting against the Stamp Act, spoke for many in rejecting the British concept:
[T]he notion of a virtual representation of the colonies must fail, which, in truth is a mere cob-web, spread to catch the unwary, and entangle the weak….There is not that intimate and inseparable relation between the electors of Great-Britain and the inhabitants of the colonies, which must inevitably involve both in the same taxation; on the contrary, not a single actual elector in England, might be immediately affected by a taxation in America….” (Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes in the British Colonies, for the Purpose of raising a Revenue, by Act of Parliament, 1765; reprinted in R. Hofstadter, Great Issues in American History, Vol 2, 1958, p. 24.)
The Stamp Act was a direct tax on Americans and precipitated the formation of the Stamp Act Congress in 1765. This congress did not intend to declare independence from Great Britain but it did bring the colonies together for the first time on the—by no means inevitable—road to independence. Patrick Henry gave a truculent speech at Virginia’s House of Burgesses against the Stamp Act, but despite worries about overstating the case, the Virginia Resolves were issued. These said that only Virginia could tax Virginians. Soon, the other colonies joined in by saying that Parliament’s taxes were illegal because the colonists were not truly represented in Parliament. (Cf., Ketchum, p. 57.) As Alan Axelrod says, the idea of taxation without representation was “a central cause of the Revolution. The colonists didn’t enjoy paying taxes, but most were willing to pay their share of the costs of government—provided they had a voice in that government. Representation was a basic English right, guaranteed in the Magna Carta in 1215.” (See his useful The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the American Revolution, 2000, p. 67.)
The Stamp Act Congress met in New York’s Town Hall. Men from all over the colonies—men like Timothy Ruggles, who favored obedience to Parliament, or Christopher Gadsden, who did not—for the first time were able to size one another up. They were as different from each other as one would expect from a diverse country, but they all believed in natural rights and in English rights. They would not have understood any (modern) charge that they separated natural from English rights, for as Gadsden said, the delegates must “stand on the broad and common ground of natural and inherent rights…as men and descendants of Englishmen.” (Ketchum, p. 58.) The rights of man and the rights of Englishmen were one in their view.
After the meeting, the Stamp Act Congress signed a Declaration of Rights and Grievances (Oct. 19, 1765) reiterating their position that the British had no right to tax the colonies since only the colonies had that right. In this document are found such expressions as “the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them, but with their own consent”; that “the only representatives of the people of these colonies, are persons chosen therein by themselves”; and that “trial by jury is the inherent and invaluable right of every British subject in these colonies.” The colonists acted both as Protestants and as loyal subjects to the Crown: “The members of this Congress, sincerely devoted, with the warmest sentiments of affection and duty to His Majesty’s person and government, inviolably attached to the present happy establishment of the Protestant succession…esteem it our indispensable duty to make the following declarations…respecting the most essential rights and liberties of the colonists, and of the grievances…by reason of several late Acts of Parliament.” (Quoted in R. Hofstadter, Great Issues in American History, Vol 2, 1958, p. 8.) Axelrod comments: “Parliament should have taken heed of the significance of this protest [of the Stamp Act], for it was a united protest.” (Guide, p. 69.)
This protest involved a boycott of British goods, which sent merchants in England howling for the removal of the act. Eventually, the tax was removed, but not everything was to the good. The British legislators arrogantly claimed the right to “bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever.” Even the British friends of America adopted a condescending attitude to the colonists. Middlekauff says:
“More ominous was the curiously patronizing, even arrogant, attitude of the so-called friends of the colonies. The merchants, for example, who had organized support outside of Parliament seemed more than smug over their success—they acted as if the colonists were under great obligation to them, when everyone knew that they had favored repeal in order to get trade flowing again, and profits flowing too….The British merchants, however, persisted in talking as if they had saved the foolish Americans from themselves and not from a policy which the Americans regarded as subverting their rights….” (The Glorious Cause, 1982, p. 138.)
This smugness and arrogance would blind the British legislators to their own country’s best interest, and no amount of pleading from Pit or Burke could remove the veil from the eyes of Parliament. They wanted money from the colonies, and were determined to get it at all costs.
5. Second Crisis: The Townshend Acts
After the problems with the Stamp Act, the English government just could not leave well enough alone. In 1767, the Townshend Acts, which included Writs of Assistance (unlimited search warrants), were enacted. The British government, ignoring the consent doctrine enunciated in the Virginia resolves and other colonial documents, accepted the argument of some Americans that they objected only to internal taxes, and that England had the right to levy external duties on commerce. However, it was the wrong time to be raising taxes, external or otherwise. John Dickinson (otherwise known as “Farmer John”) began to publish his essays, “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies,” in which he rejected the Townshend Acts, arguing that Parliament had no power to tax the colonies for revenue. Speaking of acts and regulations before the earlier Stamp Act, Dickinson said:
“All before, are calculated to regulate trade….[T]hose duties were always imposed with design to restrain the commerce of one part, that was injurious to another, and thus to promote the general welfare. The raising a revenue thereby was never intended….” (Letter II, 1768; cf., Hofstadter, Great Issues, p. 22.)
For this reason, Dickinson held that the Townshend Acts were just as unacceptable as the Stamp Act, in that both were impositions on the colonists for the purpose of raising revenue (regardless of whether one called them “internal” or “external” taxation). For Dickinson, such duties on trade were supposed to be used to promote the general welfare, not to raise revenue. A tax for the raising of revenue was still unacceptable to Americans, even if disguised as commercial duties or external taxes.
The Massachusetts legislature rejected the Townshend Acts and published their Massachusetts Circular Letter. They, too, rejected the concept of taxation without representation, as well as the concept of “virtual” representation, for as Ketchum says, they held that “the very idea of making colonial judges and governors independent of the electorate was utterly intolerable.” (Ketchum, p. 61.) The British government proceeded to disband the Massachusetts assembly, and threatened to dissolve the assemblies of the other colonies if they did not reject the Circular Letter. British troops landed in America in greater numbers and quartered in Boston.
In 1770, the Townshend Acts were repealed, though the tax on tea remained in effect. The British government still maintained its right to tax the colonies. In the same year, the Boston Massacre occurred. Despite popular misconceptions, this was not the first uprising in America, or even in England. In the late 17th century and on into the 18th century, popular uprisings were a familiar sight;—they involved vandalism, brawls, tobacco riots, punishment of outlaws, rescuing colonists from impressment (naval kidnapping), punishment of informers by tarring and feathering, etc. “In circumstances such as these,” says Pauline Maier, “uprisings occurred only after the normal channels of redress had proven inadequate….Violence broke out for the most part only in local situations where no alternative was available.” (From Resistance to Revolution, 1991, pp. 3ff.; 11.)
In both England and in America, such rioting and mob violence seldom resulted in death, since mob action was targeted to specific grievances. Maier says: “The Boston mob was so domesticated that it refused to riot on Saturday and Sunday nights, which were considered holy by New Englanders.” (Ibid., p. 13.) Many who died as a result of these uprisings (usually in England) died at the hands of the British regular army, not at the hands of rioters. (Bailyn, p. 115.) The Boston Massacre followed the same pattern. A mob began to harass British regulars, and in the process, some of the Bostoners were shot by the troops. John Adams defended the soldiers, who as a result were either acquitted or given light sentences. Ironically, John’s cousin Sam used the event to stoke up opposition to British rule.
Parenthetically, as an American, the only aspect of the American Revolution that I find difficult to defend is the harassment of British troops by colonial patriots. We have learned in our day that soldiers have no choice as to where they are stationed, and while it is obvious that soldierly misconduct or arrogance cannot be condoned, it is also important to realize that soldiers should always be treated with the utmost respect, regardless of political circumstances. Soldiers are usually homesick and bored, far away from where they might want to be, and low paid. It is simply a matter of civility. (Not to mention that British soldiers were regularly brutalized by their officers and commanders for various infractions.)
In 1772, the British government announced that superior court judges in Massachusetts would be paid out of customs receipts rather than from colony funds. This would make the salaries of the judges dependent upon the collection of British taxes, giving them a financial incentive to rule in favor of the Crown. Bostoners reacted by calling town meetings and appointing Sam Adams and others to a committee of correspondence. The committee drafted a resolution regarding “the rights of the colonists, and of this province in particular, as men, as Christians, and as subjects.” (Quoted in J. R. Alden, A History of the American Revolution, 1969, p. 132.) The Bostoners, Christians all and loyal to the king, appealed to natural law, and listed many of the usual grievances against British government, and also worried about the possible appointment of an Anglican bishop in the colonies. Alden, summarizing the committee’s reason for suspicion of this ecclesiastical move:
“Had not the ancestors of the people of Massachusetts fled from England to escape the ‘prelates’?” (History of the American Revolution, p. 132.)
As the writings of the committee make clear, Americans considered themselves to be subjects of England. Whatever Sam Adams’ private opinions might have been, his official position shows that he considered himself to be a British subject as late as 1772, and was concerned only for his rights, and the rights of his fellow Americans.
6. Third Crisis: The Intolerable Acts
In May of 1773, Lord North removed part of the duties on East India Company tea, making it cheaper in the colonies. This may have been an innocent gesture on North’s part (emphasis on “may”), but the patriots in America interpreted it differently. In their view, American merchants connected with the East India Company were being tempted with profits at the expense of principle, and would ultimately admit the right of England to levy a revenue-raising tax on America. A London merchant, John Norton, warned the British government that this would backfire. Alden summarizes his position: “The [East India Company] would be able to undersell Dutch tea in America, even though their product was Townshend-taxed. The colonists would certainly conclude that they were being offered cheap English tea in order to persuade them to pay the Townshend duty. They would see the Tea Act as a sinister device to weaken their stand against Parliamentary taxation.” (Ibid., p. 137.)
As if to prove Norton a prophet, the Sons of Liberty organized against the Act, and tea ships were prevented from unloading. Bostoners went even further. They dressed up as Mohawk Indians and dumped the contents of tea ships into Boston Harbor—albeit in a peaceful manner. Despite the lack of violence, however, many Americans were shocked by the destruction of property. If the British had any political competence with respect to American affairs—which they did not—the incident could have been exploited, and a wedge driven between the colonists and the radicals. Nevertheless, as their “march of folly” continued, the British government managed to unite the colonies as never before by a series of blundering acts known as the Coercive Acts in England, or as the Intolerable Acts in America.
The thoughtlessness of these acts is that they precipitated the formation of the first Continental Congress. The first Act, the Boston Port Bill, closed off Boston harbor until the lost tea was paid for. The other Coercive Acts essentially gave the Crown control over much of the colonial government of Massachusetts. A final measure, though not part of the Coercive Acts, was called the Quebec Act and was instituted in June of 1774. The borders of Canada were expanded to reach down into the Ohio Valley and into areas that Americans had planned on settling. The official language was to be French, and French law would be the law of the land. In addition, Roman Catholics would be allowed religious freedom.
Some modern historians see American opposition to the Quebec Act as an example of bigotry. They do not see the creation of a Catholic nation next to America in the same way that the Americans saw it. Even Barbara Tuchman implies that the fears of Americans were exaggerated:
“Roars of ‘Popery’ thundered. The Inquisition was forecast for Pennsylvania, the ‘carnage of St. Bartholomew’s Day’ foreseen in Philadelphia, the whore of Babylon invoked, a ‘Popish army’ and ‘Popish hordes’ pictured….” (March of Folly, p. 198.)
Nevertheless, Americans remembered the murder of thousands of French Protestants in 1572, and the rise of Bloody Mary in England, who murdered hundreds of Protestant leaders. There was also the Parliamentary revolt against Charles I as well as the Glorious Revolution against James II—both of which involved suspicions of popish designs—and even the late war, where French and Indian cruelty had not been forgotten.
Modern historians fail to understand the history of the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism, and merely see Catholicism in light of its later, or post-Vatican II history. They forget that Catholic nations were Inquisitorial powers. Consider that the Council of Trent decreed that the pope (indirectly) has “all power on earth” and that “All temporal power is his; the dominion, jurisdiction, and government of the whole earth is his by divine right. All rulers of the earth are his subjects and must submit to him.” Moreover, consider that Catholics have stated, among other things, that heretics may be put to death, that Protestantism can have no rights where Catholicity is triumphant, that the Roman “church” must demand freedom for herself alone, that no Catholic can give an unconditional approval of separation of church and state, that the pope is the supreme judge even of civil laws, and that individual liberty is a deadly anarchy, and so on.
These are based on quotations of Roman Catholic sources from Loraine Boettner’s book, Roman Catholicism, 1962, pp. 407, 408. What is remarkable about them is that most are taken from Catholic writings published well into the 20th century. Given how authoritarian and pretentious Roman Catholicism was even this late in its history, it is no wonder that America at the time of the Revolution recoiled at the Quebec Act. So concerned were they about this, that it was mentioned in three separate official documents. The First Continental Congress declared, inter alia, that the Quebec Act was an infringement on colonial rights in that it established “the Roman Catholic religion in the province of Quebec, abolishing the equitable system of English laws, and erecting a tyranny there, to the great danger, from so total a dissimilarity of religion, law, and government of the neighboring British colonies….” We also see the same concern in the declaration of the Second Continental Congress, which listed as a “pernicious project” of Parliament, the “erecting in a neighboring province, acquired by the joint arms of Great Britain and America, a despotism dangerous to our very existence….” The Declaration of Independence also states as a reason for separation: “For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring 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 in these colonies.”
It would be a mistake, however, to think that the Quebec Act was the primary reason for American anger, or that the Act changed the Revolution into a religious war. The basic issue remained the same for the Continental Congress as it did for the earlier Stamp Act Congress—Americans were being taxed without their consent. In the First Continental Congress (Oct. 14, 1774), a committee (which included John Adams) drew up a “Declaration and Resolves” which appealed to English rights and natural law. Those conservatives who see the American cause only as a “conservative counter-revolution” are only half right, and therefore half wrong. The colonists did appeal to their rights as Englishmen, and protested the subversion of their “religion, laws, and liberties.” There was a strong conserving or preserving element in the American Revolution. However, the appeal to natural law showed that Americans were Lockeans, too, and believed their cause transcended tradition and custom. They declared that the inhabitants of the colonies had rights according to “the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts….” Among these rights were “life, liberty, and property.” Further, “[T]hat the foundation of English liberty, and all free government, is a right in the people to participate in their legislative council: and as the English colonists are not represented…in the British parliament, they are entitled to a free and exclusive power of legislation…in all cases of taxation and internal polity, subject only to the negative of their sovereign….” The Congress granted that the colonies accepted Parliamentary acts for the regulation of commerce, but “excluded every idea of taxation, internal or external, for raising a revenue on the subjects in America, without their consent.”
The Second Continental Congress met on July 6, 1775, after hostilities had already begun, and Thomas Jefferson, John Dickinson, and others, wrote the “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms.” This document appealed to the “Divine Author of our existence,” “reverence for our great Creator,” “Divine favor,” “Providence,” “God,” “our beneficent Creator,” and the “supreme and impartial Judge and Ruler of the universe.” These were polite ways of referring to God in the 18th century. While the colonists were not deists, the language of deism was found to be useful in expressing public piety. It provided a way of referring to God without stirring up sectarian passions.
This declaration provided something of a history of America, about how America’s forefathers left England to seek “civil and religious freedom,” who made settlements in the “wilds of America,” who constituted legislatures, and obtained charters from the Crown. In time, America augmented the wealth of the British empire, and helped Great Britain in its war against France, but was rewarded with “innovations” and a “pernicious project” of assuming a new power over the colonies. The document then goes on to list American grievances with respect to Parliament’s Coercive acts, and the Quebec Act, then strenuously objects to Parliament’s claim to make laws for America “in all cases whatsoever.” The declaration says, “Not a single man of those who assume it, is chosen by us; or is subject to our control or influence….” From there, the recent history involving General Gage and the encounters at Lexington and Concord are discussed, the mistreatment of the citizens of Boston, and also fears that the people of Canada were being encouraged to invade America. Nevertheless, Congress denied that it had dissolved the union with England, and affirmed that it had only taken up arms in self-defense. Its last paragraph was an appeal to the Judge and Ruler of the universe to grant reconciliation and “relieve the empire from the calamities of civil war.”
After this, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was published, which galvanized Americans into thinking more openly of independence. Even Benjamin Franklin, at first favoring reconciliation, subsequently had his fill of the British legislature, and even felt that continued union with Britain was harmful to America. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. The contents of the Declaration are too familiar to repeat, but the essential importance of this document is that it was the first time America absolved itself from any allegiance or political connection to the Crown. The bonds of affection and loyalty with the English government had been broken irreparably, and the colonies were now to be regarded as “free and independent states.” Despite the confederation of the states against Great Britain, the Declaration did not set up a national government. Indeed, the looseness of this alliance would later become of source of difficulties for the colonists, and would eventually lead to the U.S. Constitution.
7. The Course of War
We must be brief in our description of the course of the American Revolution. The Revolutionary War began at Lexington and Concord, April 19, 1775. General Thomas Gage led a march from Boston to Concord and on the way killed some Americans at Lexington Green, then went on to Concord. Americans came out from houses, hills, and woods and fired on the British, thus beginning the Revolution. A couple of months later, the British won the battle at Bunker Hill, but at a great cost of British dead. Some revenge came upon the Americans in December, 1775, when a large force of Americans, led by Benedict Arnold, contrived to invade Canada. As General Richard Montgomery was taking reconnaissance of the town of Quebec, a British cannon fired, killing him instantly. Shots rang out and Arnold himself was wounded. The leadership of the Americans having been smashed, the troops lost their morale and were either shot, or managed to surrender or to retreat. It was a temporary disaster, and Canada remained a separate nation from that point on, but at least it ended any real threat of an invasion of America from that direction.
The Americans were to suffer more defeats, but also some surprising victories, e.g., at Trenton and Princeton. On October 3, 1777, Washington’s army marched toward the village of Germantown, and engaged the British, and while the battle did not result in victory, the Americans did a creditable job, and Washington noted their gallantry. So did the French, who were considering making a formal alliance with the Americans. The major turning point of the Revolutionary War, however, did not come until General John Burgoyne surrendered to the Americans at Saratoga, September 16, 1777. Burgoyne’s campaign had started well when he came down Lake Champlain and captured the recently deserted Fort Ticonderoga. But he quickly bogged down in the thick forests south of Ticonderoga in pursuit of the elusive Americans. When his men finally engaged the Americans in fierce conflict at Freeman’s Farm, it was a disaster for Burgoyne. Long American rifles turned the tide of battle, leading to a British death rate more than double that of the Americans. Driven north to the heights of Saratoga, and surrounded by overwhelming American forces, Burgoyne had little choice but to admit defeat.
The battle at Germantown and the defeat of Burgoyne finally convinced the French to make an open alliance with the Americans. Unfortunately, the French were primarily interested in capturing English islands in the West Indies. Nevertheless, the Comte de Grasse, disobeying orders, eventually sailed his fleet up to Yorktown. The Comte de Rochambeau also gave a large amount of gold and troops to Washington’s practically bankrupt army, and Washington, along with the Duc de Lauzun’s French infantry, joined Lafayette at Yorktown. Thus, with a French fleet on one side, and the colonial army on the other, Lord Charles Cornwallis surrendered the British army in America. In 1783, the British signed the Treaty of Paris, and hostilities ended between the major powers.
We have told all of this very quickly, but in fact the Revolution lasted for many years, and with much suffering and savagery during the course of the war. Sometimes war is a sad necessity, and the Revolutionary War was even sadder, because it was fought—like the American Civil War—between a people of common blood and heritage. It is one of the ironies of history that Britain would one day, for a time, stand alone against the dark night of totalitarianism, and that the leader of this great nation—Winston Churchill—was born half English, half American.
8. Early North:
Gary North edited a journal back in the 1970’s called the Journal of Christian Reconstruction. The Summer, 1976 issue of the journal was entitled Symposium on Christianity and the American Revolution (Vol. 3, No. 1). Here are some of the chapter titles: “The Christian Roots of the War for Independence,” by Archie P. Jones; “The Myth of an American Enlightenment,” by R. J. Rushdoony; and “The Declaration of Independence as a Conservative Document,” by Gary North. It is obvious that North’s views have changed radically from the mid-70’s, and I will argue later that this change started when North came under the influence of a certain church that he attended in Tyler, Texas during the 1980’s. In the “Editor’s Introduction” North comments on the difference between the French and American revolutions, explicitly favoring the American Revolution:
“The American experience lacked the ideology, the elements of terror, the political centralization, the break with political traditions, the reshaping of law, the conscript armies, and the mass executions of the French Revolution. Edmund Burke…recognized the differences between the two revolutions.” (JOCR, Vol. 3, No. 1, p. 1.)
We would point out that there is a difference between the first part of the French Revolution (which was very similar to the American) and the second part. Burke’s criticisms were directed against the first or good part of the French Revolution, since he was writing before the second or bad part of the French Revolution, which commenced mainly at the time of the executions of the king and queen, and the subsequent reign of terror. Burke was a traditionalist and supported the American cause for pragmatic reasons, not on the basis of any of the principles enunciated by Americans.
In reference to the essay by Archie Jones, which attempts to link Christianity and the American Revolution, North summarizes as follows: “The historic and religious origins of the war were distinctively Calvinistic—covenantal, anti-statist, nonutopian, distrustful of human nature, and law oriented.” It sounds as though North is agreeing with Jones. Furthermore, North says the “Great Awakening” that occurred after 1740 is “far more important than Locke” in providing the background to the Revolution. North again summarizes Jones without appearing to disagree with him:
“Without Christianity, in short, the War for Independence would not have been fought.” (JOCR, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 3-4.)
In our opinion, this is misdirected. The Revolution was not a religious war in any real sense of the term, and cannot be traced to any injunctions from Christian teaching, or from the Bible. The issues in the Revolution were political, not theological. What has become clear from our previous discussion is that America was a Protestant nation at the time of the Revolution, and that Americans never thought of themselves as deists or atheists, nor did they think their Revolution was an anti-Christian undertaking. A careful reading of Jones’ essay will show that this is all he really proved, that the Revolution was not anti-Christian. While he spent a lot of time talking about Darwinism, Freud, the religious makeup of the colonies, the theology of Calvin, covenant theology, the social contract, the concept of higher law, the teachings of Locke, the Great Awakening, and the Declaration of Independence, Jones did not prove that the Revolution was caused by Christianity, or that it had anything to do with Christian teaching per se. Our view is that the Revolutionists did not rebel as Christians (i.e., because of their Christian beliefs). Rather, it was the other way around;—Christians rebelled as Revolutionists (i.e., because of their Revolutionary beliefs). These two views are as different as night and day. The American Revolution was indeed a “secular” revolution, as some claim, but only if one does not become too adventurous in how one defines the term “secular.”
There are actually some very fine chapters in this volume of the Journal. J. Murray Murdoch’s “1776: Revolution or War for Independence?” presents a capable overview of the events and ideas leading up to the Revolution. (JOCR, Vol. 3. No. 3, pp. 74ff.) He does not make the mistake of tracing the Revolution to Christian teaching, but he unfortunately downplays the revolutionary nature of the Revolution. He advocates what might be termed the “conservative” position, that the Revolution was merely a way of preserving the rights of Englishmen. The Revolutionists, however, were not merely defending the status quo, but were also applying the principles of (Lockean) social contract theory to their cause.
North’s chapter on the Declaration of Independence as a “conservative” document is also a good overview of the meaning of the Declaration, that it was not a “deistic” document, etc. (Ibid., pp. 94ff.) Unfortunately, North denigrates the importance of the Declaration, claiming that it had little impact during the Revolution, and that it was considered a “commonplace document during the war years.” North also claims that “religious issues” were at the heart of American opposition to Parliament, but he even admits that the Declaration “does not treat religious issues directly.” Or even indirectly, we might add, except possibly with respect to the Quebec Act. Contrary to the “conservative” view of the Declaration, North unintentionally provides evidence of its “radicalism”:
“Jefferson succeeded in bringing some important ideas into the Declaration—new ideas in substance, but familiar in language to conservatives and liberals alike—and these new ideas, such as equality, were used by later generations of true American radicals to justify their own activities.” (JOCR, Vol. 3. No. 1, p. 100.)
Still, North tries his best to interpret the Declaration as a strictly conservative document that later radicals could quote but “only by reading into those terms ideas that would have been foreign to the majority of the members of the Continental Congress, and probably foreign to Jefferson himself.” (Idem.)
There are some exceedingly bad chapters. C. B. Currey’s essay, “The Franklin Legend” implies that Franklin was interested only in greed, and was a facilitator of English spies. (JOCR, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 120ff.) North goes a little beyond this: “The evidence points to a startling conclusion: Franklin may have been a double agent.” (“Editor’s Introduction,” in Ibid., p. 4.) Of course, the evidence points to nothing of the sort. For a balanced portrait of Franklin, see Gordon Wood’s The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 2004. A fairly good essay is by Mark Wyndham (JOCR, Vol. 3. No. 1, pp. 152.ff.) who surveys the issue of religious freedom, and comments upon the fear among Americans of the setting up of an Anglican bishop in America. Wyndham also points out that established churches continued on in the states well beyond the time of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The separation of church and state only applied at the federal level, and states had the right, even under the U.S. Constitution to decide for themselves whether they would have an established church or not. The Journal ends with North’s valuable discussion of Weber’s “Protestant Ethic” theory (Ibid., pp. 185ff.), and with John W. Robbins’ surprisingly good book reviews of the compilation, America’s Continuing Revolution, Kirk’s Roots of American Order (both published in 1974), and Lakatos & Musgrave’s Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, 1970. However, Robbins’ attack on natural law theory and his instrumentalist view of science cannot, in our opinion, be taken seriously (Ibid., pp. 208ff.)
Everything suggests, then, that the early Gary North was happy to associate the American Revolution with Christianity, and was also happy to defend the Revolutionists against the charge of deism. Things did not remain the same, however, and North would go on to repudiate his earlier views.
9. Later North
North’s current position is that the American Revolution was an anti-Christian undertaking that was covenantally illegitimate. “In their act of unitarian political rebellion,” says North, “the colonies committed treason, not just against Great Britain, but against God.” (Conspiracy, p. 317.) In other words, his current views are the opposite of his earlier views. North’s earlier position is somewhat understandable, since many others besides North wanted to appeal to the “sanctifying power of the Revolution” (Morgan) to give legitimacy to their own causes—liberals, Stalinists, whoever. North was merely following a well-worn trail, and allowed himself to adopt an extreme position—which is why his current view seems like such a summersault. In the Journal North comments on Rushdoony’s chapter, which downplays the idea that the European Enlightenment influenced Americans to any great degree. Of the Americans, North says, “Their Deism was mild, when held, and very few colonists held to the position. Even their Deism was covered by the language of Protestant orthodoxy.” (JOCR, Vol. 3. No. 1, p. 3.) North does not express any disagreement with Rushdoony’s view, so we can regard it as his own—at least during the 1970’s.
Something changed, however, in the early 1980’s. North had moved to Tyler, Texas, a small town east of Dallas, Texas, and while there became a member of a “reconstructionist” church called “Westminster Presbyterian.” Near about the same time, James B. Jordan, a recent graduate of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, became a teacher at the church’s seminary. North became embroiled in a local controversy sometime in 1982 or 1983, which involved the subsequent excommunications of several church members (later overturned by the Presbytery of which the Westminster church was a member). North really had nothing to do with the excommunications and was something of a victim in the dispute, having invested in a business that did not live up to his investment expectations. Nevertheless, he became friends with the leaders of the Tyler church, and before long began to adopt some of their positions, especially on church government.
The Tyler church became the source of what would later be called the “Federal Vision.” This theological model, sometimes associated with oddball “symbolic” interpretations of the Bible, and sub-Christian views on the doctrine of justification, also involves—by way of its hyper-objectivist ecclesiology—a totalitarian view of church government. This results in a concept of servile obedience to authorities.
To get an idea of it, let us peruse a journal published in the 1980’s with North’s help called Christianity & Civilization, the relevant volume being the 4th, called “The Reconstruction of the Church.” James B. Jordan, the editor of this volume (with North as an associate editor) starts out in his chapter, “The Church: An Overview,” by speaking of the “centrality of the sacraments” (C&C, p. 2). A reading of the New Testament, however, shows that there is not really any “centrality” of the sacraments. The doctrine of (a) justification by faith alone and (b) the ethical life, seem more central in the New Testament (aside from the history of Christ in the four gospels). Moreover, if we look at St. Paul’s ministry, it is rather interesting that he denies baptizing very many people, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” (1 Cor. 1:16). In other words, some were boasting about the number of people they baptized, creating a party spirit. Instead of focusing on justification by faith alone and the need for ethics, these pastors focused too much on the sacraments, perhaps thinking of them as “central”—the result being an overemphasis on their own status and power. Nevertheless, according to the New Testament, the only thing needed for salvation is belief in the Lord Jesus (Rom. 10:9). Accordingly, the being of the church is constituted by all who believe, while other characteristics of the church, such as baptism, communion, preaching, discipline, are for the well-being of the church, and are thus not “central” to the church. The most common example provided by Protestants as an illustration of this, is the thief on the cross, who repented and asked Jesus to remember him. The repentant thief, however, was never baptized, never received communion, nor was ever a church-member, but according to the Bible, was on the day of his death with Jesus in paradise (Luke 23:43).
Jordan says, “God commands all to draw into His presence on the Lord’s Day for special worship….” (Ibid., p. 3.) It would be interesting to learn where in the New Testament one can find a command for worshiping on the Lord’s day (i.e., Sunday), or even to meet on the Lord’s day. The Book of Revelation 1:10 is the only place where the phrase is used and does not say anything about public meetings or worship. One can use the verse to make (precarious) inferences about early Christian practice but that is certainly not the same as deriving a command. Jordan continues: “The sabbath day was the day of rest and worship.” However, the sabbath in the Old Testament was a day of rest only, not a day of public worship. Moreover, even if one could prove that public worship or public gatherings were required for the Lord’s day, this would not prove that the Lord’s day was a sabbath. Paul specifically rejects judging one another with respect to sabbaths (Col. 2:16). Thus, there is a rejection of “sacred time” in the New Testament era, and attempts to revalorize the Christian Sunday into a sabbath day appear to be problematic.
In Jordan’s view, public worship should be “command performance worship.” (C&C, p. 5.) It is difficult to find any textual warrant for this, certainly none for complicated liturgies. He then criticizes the Reformation for emphasizing preaching and for not requiring frequent Communion. (Ibid., pp. 6, 7.) The New Testament, however, teaches that when Christians gather together for a meal, and the breaking of bread and drinking of wine takes place, then they should do it remembrance of Christ. This is a purely informal institution, not a bureaucratic ritual to be observed on a clockwork time schedule (1 Cor. 11:25, 33). In fact, the analogy with Passover might suggest infrequent observance. Jordan then goes on to criticize the Great Awakening, apparently because preachers held meetings in areas where regular ministers were already ensconced. There is nothing in the teachings of the New Testament, however, that supports the notion of parish boundaries, and in any case, the apostle Paul warned against contentions among ministers, and Jesus forbade jealous inquiries about other men’s ministries (1 Cor. 12; John 21:21-22). With regard to the Great Awakening, Russell Kirk mentions that it helped prevent Americans from sliding into deism and Arminianism. (Roots of American Order, pp. 340, 342.) Even if one were to reject its revivalism and excesses, it would be an injustice to see nothing good in the Awakening, or to focus only on its shortcomings.
Jordan claims that belonging to the Christian Church is “not an option in Christian life.” (C&C, p 10.) Protestants would argue that Jordan fails to distinguish between the church as an eschatological body of believers, and the church as a fallible, local, institution. In Jordan’s view, God commands us to “submit to some particular body of elders in a local Church….” (Ibid., p. 11.) However, it is the nature of that submission that needs clarification. In Jordan’s view, apparently, servile submission is what is meant. He says, “[E]ven if the [church] court renders what we think is the wrong decision, we are still to submit, awaiting God’s perfect judgment at the last day.” (Ibid., p. 13.) Jordan sets up a contrast that Protestants would likely find unacceptable: “The government of the Church has real authority,” he says. “It is not merely administrative.” (Ibid., p. 14.) Protestants, however, would say that the church has real authority only because it is ministerial. Any other sort of authority is not real, but only pretended authority. Pastors are ministers because they administer an already given Word (in Scripture and in sacrament). They do not make it up on their own authority.
The relation between church-government and members is likened by Jordan to a mother-child relationship: “Even if the leadership in the Church makes a mistake,” says Jordan, “the Father will always back up the Mother to the children, unless the Mother turns into a Whore (as in the Book of Revelation).” (C&C, p. 14.) According to Jordan, “Submission to this government is not optional.” (Idem.) There is no distinction here between important or unimportant issues. One of the deacons of the Tyler church gave a notorious sermon known as the “Whitewall Tire” sermon. In this address, it was stated that the church has the authority to tell a man whether to buy whitewall tires or blackwall tires, and that thinking for oneself was “rot.” It is not surprising that this individual later entered into the Roman Catholic sect, which teaches that a mater fidelium (mother of believers) precedes the communio fidelium (community of believers). (Cf., L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 1941, p. 563.)
The Protestant view is this: In the order of salvation, the believer comes before, not after, the church, for Christ meets the believer one on one. In other words, no one stands in the way between Christ and his children, not Mary, the Pope, nor bishops nor ministers, nor mother church. Protestants see the mater fidelium as the heavenly Jerusalem, i.e., the “Jerusalem above” which is “the mother of us all” (Gal. 4:26). In the order of history, however, the empirical church comes before the believer, since the gospel ordinarily comes to the believer through a messenger or preacher (whether directly or indirectly). The gospel is the key to the kingdom of heaven, and how can anyone enter therein if they do not hear the good news of salvation? And how can they hear if there is no preacher? (Cf., Rom. 10:14.) This power of the keys, however, this historical priority, gives no grounds for ecclesiastical smugness, nor for church meddling. For against all institutional pretension and pride, Christ can raise up children to Abraham from the stones on the ground (Matt. 3:9)
Various adiaphora-texts in the New Testament appear to forbid motherly or managerial views of church authority (e.g., Gal. 4:10-11, Col. 2:16, Rom. 14). It is sometimes claimed, however, that such texts only refer to individuals not judging individuals, and do not constrain the church’s judgment upon its members over trivial matters. However, in Galatians, Paul was not just referring to individuals, but was also referring to the church. He says:
“To the churches of Galatia….I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel….You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain.” (Gal. 1:1, 6; 4:10-11; emphasis added.)
Tyler ecclesiology was thus a form of authoritarianism, and like all forms of authoritarianism, it was deeply paternalistic. A paternalistic attitude means that rulers are treated as akin to fathers or mothers, and that subjects as akin to children, and the subjects must submit to government in the way that children must unquestioningly submit to parents. This sort of paternalism informed the political philosophy of Filmer—the subject of Locke’s First Treatise. A similar form rises again in the views of southern defenders of African slavery, men such as Calhoun and Dabney. In their view, liberty is not a natural right but an attainment. Since the slaves, like children, had not attained sufficient “mental” or “moral” development, they were not ready for the privilege of liberty. (Cf., John Calhoun’s Senate speech of June, 27, 1848, and his Disquisition on Government, discussed in H. V. Jaffa’s A New Birth of Freedom, 2000, pp. 403ff.; cf., also R. L. Dabney’s interesting, though paternalistic, discussions of the habits and qualities of freed African slaves, in his Discussions, 1897.)
Of course, none of this means that one should despise the teachings of the church. In refuting an extreme position, one sometimes ends up sounding as though one is advocating the opposite extreme, say Lone Ranger ecclesiology—though the example of Elijah shows that flight and independence may sometimes be necessary (1 Ki. 19). Nevertheless, as long as the church is viewed in its proper lights, the accumulated wisdom of the church, and the fellowship that can be had with other Christians, is beneficial. A totalitarian construal of church authority, however, is just wrong, for it is legitimate rather than arbitrary authority that should be obeyed. We agree with Locke that to despise lawful or just government is a great crime (Second Treatise, Ch. XIX, Sect. 230.), but contrary to Hobbes, the Bible does not teach “absolute obedience to human authority.” (De Corpore Politico, Ch. XXV.) Loraine Boettner expresses it well: “[The Christian] cannot surrender his conscience to the church or to a priest, but must think, speak, worship, and act in such a manner that he can given an account to God for what he is and does.” (Roman Catholicism, p. 30.)
For Protestants, church government is basically democratic (Acts 6:1-6). When questions arise, there is freedom of discussion (Acts 15:7), and disputes are resolved when the whole church—not just a select few—is pleased with a course of action (Acts. 15:22). It is true that a number of “obedience” texts can be found in the Bible, though they can scarcely survive the mangling they receive from political and ecclesiastical absolutists, who ruthlessly escalate them into justifications for tyrannical rule. Such texts cannot be construed to require servile obedience to human authority, but the Bible’s wise counsels of submission to just and righteous authority are always a propos,. (Cf., Luke 22:24ff.)
We bring all this up in an attempt to explain North’s change of view regarding the Revolution. Nothing else happened to North during the 1980’s, or later, that would bring about this change, other than the influence of the Tyler church. He did not go through divorce or bankruptcy, or come down with any terrible disease, as far as I know. In addition, no major changes have come about in the scholarly world’s understanding of the Revolution, and recent work has tended rather to focus on irrelevant issues such as race, gender, or identity politics. None of the facts have changed, and no great revisionist work has brought turmoil to current studies of the Revolutionary period. The only causal factor in North’s change of view that makes any sense is the influence of Tyler ecclesiocentrism. This does not mean that North could not have changed his mind on his own, nor does the association with totalitarian ecclesiology mean that North is necessarily wrong in his later views of the Revolution. However, it does provide some context for what seems an inexplicable volte face on the subject of the Revolution, which the earlier North praised and the later North came to reject.
The Articles of Confederation
The Constitutional Convention