Ideas Have Consequences
Many people think of the American Revolution as a war. It was that, but it was much more than that. There would not have been a war, with all of its associated risks and penalties, were it not for the ideas that preceded it.
Actually, there were more than just a few. They came to our forefathers from three sources: (1) European Enlightenment, (2) Traditional British legal and political values, and (3) A unique “American experience.” It was from these sources that we arrived at a distinctly American worldview, a unique American philosophy, and an exceptional set of values. As an off-shoot of the European enlightenment, our founding fathers also incorporated a careful study of human history, from the ancient Greek through the Roman Republic and Imperial period, and finally pre-colonial British history.
The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that began in the 1600’s. It involved the greatest thinkers, such as Isaac Newton, who became key figures in modern history. It also included the so-called Renaissance period, which evolved at different places, at different times, and in diverse ways. The thinkers of the Enlightenment challenged old views, values, and traditions. In particular, these men believed that in order for something to be factually valid, it must be rational, logical, debated, and carefully examined; it must not depend on superstition, or dogma, or simply matter of what has long been accepted. Who were they, these thinkers?
They were, in addition to Newton, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Francois-Marie Arouet (who was known as Voltaire), Denis Diderot (co-founder of the Encyclopedia), and Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brede et de Montesquieu. They questioned such things as the divine right of kings. They championed humanity by developing such notions that mankind is essentially of good character and intelligence; they believed that such men (and women) were capable of self-government.
Were all the revolutionary ideas new?
Not all revolutionary ideas were new, however. Some of our founding fathers believed that traditional British customs had value, as well. These were values that our founding fathers believed had been ignored or corrupted by King George III and his parliament in the 1770s. So that rather than introducing new ideas, some of our ancestors thought it might be worthy to reintroduce values and traditions that they knew had worked previously. The First Continental Congress produced their Declaration and Resolves, which offered a discussion about the rights of colonists as “freeborn Englishmen.” In particular, that they should be entitled to equality before the law and parliament, that they deserved protection from unfair taxation, and the absolute right not to be confronted by tyranny, misuse of standing armies, or any denial of their God-given right to liberty.
The people who occupied the British colonies in North America for 160 years prior to the American Revolution also developed a unique set of attitudes, gained from living in America. From our frontier experiences, these Americans became fiercely independent, in thought and in deed. It made the self-sufficient. It made them capable of governing themselves; it taught them that they need not rely upon Parliament (or any other government body) for sustenance or survival.
They learned that the British government may not be able to protect them from the depredations of Indians or French troublemakers, but they could band together when necessary and protect themselves and the things they valued and cherished most. The American experience came from people taking on a vast wilderness, one fraught with danger from natives, wild animals, natural storms, and frigid climates. In that America, there were more landowners than there were tenants. This gave people confidence in themselves, and it made them resistant to British (government) interference.
Most of the early Americans were resistant to taxation without adequate representation in the United Kingdom. Now, ordinarily, I might argue that if the British sent soldiers to protect the colonists from the French and their Indian allies, it makes sense that the people who received this protection ought to be willing to help pay for that protection. This was certainly the view of the British parliament, but as the French and Indians burned their homes, raped their women, murdered the men, and kidnapped the children, Americans might have wondered, “What protection.” These notions would lead citizens to imagine that they might just as well form their own American government—for certainly, these frontiersmen were capable of forming organizations for the common good (militias).
The Americans developed their own representative bodies where each voting citizen could see that his particular view could be channeled to the executive. In the pre-Revolutionary period, the chief executive was a governor, the representative of the King. Yet few of the resolutions passed by colonial legislatures were ever approved by the British Parliament. In the absence of true representation, then how could there be a robust debate about anything? By the way, this wasn’t unique to the American colonies. The city of Manchester, England had no representation in Parliament, either.
Americans wanted sovereignty, particularly after 1774. One may recall how eloquent Thomas Paine was about pressing the need for independence. The American colonies had grown through trade and commerce, and the Americans owed much of this to England’s imperial protection, but with growth and economic strength, Americans realized that they no longer needed to depend on England. Slowly, but steadily, Americans gained personal wealth through the effective use of America’s vast resources. These were men who were politically mature and intellectually engaged.
Another unique American idea was a genuine concern about military rule and tyranny. Great Britain hosted the world’s strongest military and naval force. This army and navy were greatly feared by England’s enemies, and by the people who populated British colonies. Since most American cities didn’t have a visible police force, what most people saw on any given day, was a military garrison and patrolling soldiers. Americans came to view this situation as an imposition on “our” homeland. The British Army oppressed Americans; it was the use of threats of violence to make the colonies obey British authority.
And then there was this notion of “natural rights.” The ideas of John Locke became an integral part of the American revolutionary ideology. We agreed with Locke: We are born with rights that no government, no king, no potentate, could ever take away—and these included the right to life, liberty, and property. Americans came to believe that it was the duty of a responsible government to protect these rights—to guarantee their continuance to the people.
And so, the American Revolution was not a cause of, but the consequence of enlightened ideas that incorporated British traditions and our own unique experiences. Today, there are other ideas floating around—ideas foreign to the American experience. They are the so-called progressive ideas of the Democratic Party. We should be willing to listen to these ideas, provide a platform or an environment whereby the people can debate their ideas, and we ought to consider them carefully —but we must at the same time understand that there are significant consequences to adopting Marxist ideas.
The question before the bar of the American people today is this: Do we change for the sake of change, or do we reject Marxism’s obsession with identity politics and cling to our God-given natural rights to remain a free and independent people?