History has been hijacked recently by self-styled “progressives” who would have us believe our nation was founded on injustice and oppression. The so-called “1619 Project” must be viewed as political propaganda intended to incite racial hatred, and every honest and intelligent citizen of the United States ought to oppose this propaganda. Unfortunately, much of the opposition to the 1619 Project has been misguided; the “1776 Project” errs by focusing too much on the Declaration of Independence as the charter of American liberty. This focus omits the history of events that preceded the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, events that shaped the arguments that gave impetus to the Declaration. Without knowledge of that history, well-meaning defenders of America’s founding principles are nearly as much at risk of promoting miseducation as the loathsome Nikole Hannah-Jones.
Our liberty as Americans did not begin with the Declaration to which John Hancock and others affixed their signatures in July 1776. Rather, our rights can be traced to England as far back as the reign of King John, whom the barons compelled to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. Over the course of the ensuing four centuries, before the first permanent English colony in the present-day United States was established, the limitations of royal power and the rights of His Majesty’s subjects had been developed in English law. It is this history that explains why, when the American colonists began to assert their right to self-government in the 1760s, their rallying cry was “No taxation without representation.”
Have our schools stopped teaching this history? When I was a schoolboy, our teachers made this point clear to us: the Stamp Act of 1765 was the spark that lit the flame of American liberty because it was understood by the colonists as a violation of their rights as Englishmen.
Misunderstanding the historic roots of American liberty leads to wrong-headed notions about what Joe Biden and others habitually refer to as “our democracy.”
Judging from the reaction to the 1619 Project, many patriotic (and allegedly educated) Americans are just as ignorant of the history of our liberties as any of the radicals now trying to impose the “woke” notions of Ms. Hannah-Jones upon our children and grandchildren. It is a dangerous error to take the lofty rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence out of context, as if the “unalienable rights” of which that document speaks were really as “self-evident” as Thomas Jefferson’s preamble famously claimed. If our rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were so obvious, and so universal as to be possessed by “all men,” then why was this assertion being written in English — in America, in 1776 — and not in some other language in some other country at any other time? Unless you can answer that question, you are not qualified to speak about the origins of American liberty.
The answer involves Patrick Henry and the Virginia Resolves of 1765. It was Henry who, in the Virginia House of Burgesses, most clearly articulated the understanding (already well-developed among the colonists) that their rights as English subjects had not been left behind in the mother country when they migrated to America. Having brought here with them the rights their ancestors had striven to obtain during centuries of struggle in England, the American colonists saw the Stamp Acts as a violation of their rights under the English common law and constitution. If you weren’t taught about the Virginia Resolves in school, let us now remedy the deficiency of your education:
Resolved, that the first adventurers and settlers of His Majesty’s colony and dominion of Virginia brought with them and transmitted to their posterity, and all other His Majesty’s subjects since inhabiting in this His Majesty’s said colony, all the liberties, privileges, franchises, and immunities that have at any time been held, enjoyed, and possessed by the people of Great Britain.
Resolved, that by two royal charters, granted by King James I, the colonists aforesaid are declared entitled to all liberties, privileges, and immunities of denizens and natural subjects to all intents and purposes as if they had been abiding and born within the Realm of England.
Resolved, that the taxation of the people by themselves, or by persons chosen by themselves to represent them, who can only know what taxes the people are able to bear, or the easiest method of raising them, and must themselves be affected by every tax laid on the people, is the only security against a burdensome taxation, and the distinguishing characteristic of British freedom, without which the ancient constitution cannot exist.
Resolved, that His Majesty’s liege people of this his most ancient and loyal colony have without interruption enjoyed the inestimable right of being governed by such laws, respecting their internal policy and taxation, as are derived from their own consent, with the approbation of their sovereign, or his substitute; and that the same has never been forfeited or yielded up, but has been constantly recognized by the kings and people of Great Britain.
When these resolutions were published — despite the attempt of Virginia’s royal governor to suppress their publication — they were immediately embraced by American patriots everywhere, who in their own colonial assemblies passed versions of the same resolutions and sent delegates to the Stamp Act Congress in New York to organize a united opposition. It is from these events, and the understanding expressed by Henry of the colonists as possessing “all the liberties, privileges, franchises, and immunities” of any English subject, that the movement toward American independence originated.
Since the time of King John, Englishmen had insisted that the authority of the crown was limited and, over the course of centuries, had invested Parliament with the power of taxation. As explained in the Virginia Resolves, at no time prior to 1765 had English colonists in America been expected to pay taxes to the mother country; rather, they taxed themselves, for their own purposes, through the authority of colonial assemblies. Because Parliament sought to impose the Stamp Act upon Americans without their consent, this was an abrogation of their hereditary rights as Englishmen. Hence, “No taxation with representation.”
Various scholars of our history, among them Winston Churchill, have noted that the tradition of self-government in the American colonies took hold because the Crown was too busy with British problems and European conflicts to bother exerting any royal prerogative on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, while the first English settlers were trying to survive amid the wilderness of Virginia and Massachusetts, England was embroiled in the conflict that led to the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the establishment of the Puritan regime of Cromwell. By the time of the Restoration in 1660, the colonists had long since become accustomed to running their own affairs without any interference from London, and Charles II was too busy consolidating his tenure as king to worry much about what was happening in America. It was only after the final British victory over the Bourbon powers in what are known in our history books as the French and Indian Wars that the ministers of King George III decided to assert greater authority over the American colonists, inspiring the resistance that led to our War for Independence.
All this history used to be commonly known by American middle-schoolers, at least where I grew up, but it seems a lot of us have forgotten (or were never taught) the pedigree of our liberty. One becomes accustomed to hearing the preamble of the Declaration (“all men are created equal”) combined with a few phrases from the preamble of the Constitution (“a more perfect Union”) and perhaps a bit of the Gettysburg Address, some lyrics from patriotic songs, and the poetry of Emma Lazarus (“huddled masses,” etc.) as the manifesto of a transcendent universal radicalism our colonial forefathers certainly never imagined. And where does this popular misunderstanding of the American founding lead, as a matter of policy?
Among other things, this radical conception has led to U.S. troops being deployed to conflicts overseas not to protect American interests but rather to spread the blessings of “democracy” to foreigners at the point of a bayonet. Think back about 15 years or so to when Republicans — claiming to be conservative, no less — were celebrating our success in imposing women’s suffrage on Afghanistan. Say what you will on behalf of sexual equality as an abstract ideal, but how did it become a duty of the U.S. military to enforce “women’s rights” in remote villages on the other side of the globe?
Perhaps more importantly, and of more immediate interest, misunderstanding the historic roots of American liberty leads to wrong-headed notions about what Joe Biden and others habitually refer to as “our democracy.” We are expected to believe that skepticism toward elite opinion endangers “our democracy,” so that those who question the government’s COVID-19 policy or who suspect fraud influenced the 2020 election are denounced as a threat to “our democracy.” The liberal politicians and media figures who promote fear of such alleged threats are seldom specific about what the phrase “our democracy” is intended to mean, other than the permanent entrenchment of their own power. It behooves conservatives, therefore, to counter this with some blunt truth about the American tradition of constitutional government, even if the truth makes some people uncomfortable.
Why have we lost sight of the roots of American liberty in the specific tradition of English common law? It has occurred to me that, during the 20th century, some educators and politicians became afraid that emphasizing this history might be offensive to the descendants of more recent immigrants. The Irish, for example, had deep-seated resentments of the English and thus might feel alienated or insulted by history lessons about the American Revolution as being rooted in the colonists’ belief that their rights as Englishmen were being infringed by the Crown. It may have seemed “nativist” or “xenophobic” to emphasize the role of English common-law tradition in shaping American conceptions of liberty. Teachers might have hesitated to believe that the Pole, the Italian, or the Jew could take pride in these things, and politicians didn’t want to risk offending immigrant voters.
But as the American patriot John Adams famously said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Our nation’s political and cultural traditions have specific historical roots. The settlers who established the first colonies were English and brought with them the customs of their native land, including traditions of law in which are to be located the roots of American liberty. Some of these early settlers were Puritans and others were Anglican or Catholic or members of various dissenting religious sects, but practically all of them were Christians from England and thus heirs to a common national culture.
All Americans, whatever their ethnic background, ought to be conscious of this history. What does “our democracy” really mean if it does not refer to the system of government and law that emerged from the colonial uprising against the Stamp Act? Patrick Henry’s bold defense of Virginians as possessing all the “liberties, privileges, franchises, and immunities” their English ancestors had fought to gain in generations of struggle against royal power was an inspiration to American patriots everywhere. It should still inspire us today.
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