John Adams referred to July 2, 1776 as a day of Deliverance which a grateful people ought to observe by showing their devotion to God. This was because the Continental Congress declared the 13 Colonies independent on that day. However, the Declaration written by Thomas Jefferson was approved and signed two days later, and the publicity that it deservedly received determined that the Fourth, rather than the Second, would be the date universally remembered.
Adams, who died on July 4, 1827, as did his political rival and great friend Thomas Jefferson, had in mind deliverance from tyranny. There was no need for him to specify the types of oppression against which he had gone into rebellion; they were known, debated throughout the Colonies; the Declaration catalogued them in careful detail, as befit the founding document of a nation of lawyers, or rather a nation committed to respect for the rule of law, which is not necessarily the same. What we must remember is that in its origins and in some ways in its deepest political meaning, the American Revolution was a tax revolt.
From the earliest years of the Great Republic, many Americans — not John Adams — have indulged a certain pride, by no means unattractive but arguably misconceived, about the universalist claims of the Declaration, beginning of course with the famous line about equality. We are happy when an African or a European refers to the founding document as an inspiration to all. No doubt there are Africans and Europeans who partake of the classical liberal underpinnings of the Founders’ ideas. Rare are the instances, however, when their positions or parties prevailed during an upheaval in their countries.
The historical evidence suggests that when an African or a European has gone into revolution mode, it has been in pursuit of aims that are anything but classically liberal or universalist. They have gone after their religious or tribal enemies (national as the Europeans usually say, Croats, Serbs, Flemish, Walloons); class became a mobilizing entity in the 19th and 20th centuries, although at showdown time group solidarity always trumped class — Slav over Teuton in the clash between Russia and Germany for control of central Europe, and, internally, Georgian over Jew for control of the Soviet communist apparatus.
The American Revolution was a quarrel among people whose mutual dislikes may well have included various levels of religious or national resentments, but for the most part they not only were of the same stock, but of a shared political culture.
The Stamp Acts and duties on tea that the British government imposed from afar from the 1760s onward were not symptoms of a deep hatred and mistrust between the center and periphery of the English-speaking world; they were not flash points for anger swelling up from deeper causes. The taxes — illegal in the English tradition, according to the Colonists, since they violated the rights of free Englishmen to make their own fiscal rules through representatives in Parliament — were themselves the specific issue on which the Colonists staked their lives and their honor. They would not be browbeaten or oppressed or enslaved, they would not be taxed.
They would not be hijacked and mugged to serve ends about which they had not been consulted. And the Crown knew what they were saying; but it needed the money.
It is remarkable, but the Revolution really was, in this sense, a misunderstanding: had George III and his ministers been more respectful of their own national customs — had they been, Edmund Burke might have said, more conservative — the whole disagreeable episode might have been averted. It is worth recalling, as we commemorate the tenacity of the founding generation and its pride in its liberties, that in terms of casualties-to-population, the War of Independence was the bloodiest in American history, the north-south conflict excepted.
However, it does seem important to keep transmitting, from one generation to the next, that the Revolution was in an essential sense a revolution within the liberal political tradition, not against it or outside it, as almost all other political upheavals have been and still are. And one reason to keep transmitting this is that even within our own history, the appeal to go outside the liberal tradition, raising banners other than the flag of liberty, rarely fails to tempt political and social passions.
When we say that freedom is not free, we mean it must be defended, with ideas and treasure and even blood; it must be transmitted, the values and customs that insure its success must be taught, which comes at a cost. The rationale for the expense of public education always includes the notion that an uneducated citizenry will not defend a free society.
To pay taxes, to vote, to be drafted are the rights of free men, which makes them obligations. What I have a right to do, I should do, for it is part of my identity as a member of a nation. The American colonists understood this very well. To be told to pay taxes, to be given a governor, to be ordered to support the troops (the Quartering Acts), these were the very opposite of rights. You did not need, as you still do not, a degree in political science or law to grasp this; you needed a cultural tradition that made any thing less than self-government feel like oppression and tyranny.
The quarrel over taxes, the arguments about liberty and tyranny, were well understood on both sides of the ocean. There were Colonists who thought that, all things considered, it might be better to let the Crown claim some unsavory privileges for the sake of preserving order and peace. On the other side, William Pitt defended the liberties of the Colonists against Lord Grenville. The Stamp Act was never enforced, other tax measures were repealed. But the British Empire was in a period of over-reach; it could not sustain its policy goals; or perhaps one should say, the Crown did not have the patience to build a consensus for them and acquire broad consent from its subjects.
This crisis hits any government whose legitimacy is based on respect for liberty, from which the rights and dignity of citizens are derived. The American government, in the past two and nearly a quarter centuries, often frayed this legitimacy. The unrelenting growth of government made this inevitable. We have been spared revolutions — Jefferson mused they might be salutary from time to time — because our common sense, reinforced by the transmission of our history — something our schools are not doing very well nowadays — reminds us to honor the line between the arrogance of power and respect for individual authority.
When individual authority is widely perceived to be lost to authorities to whom it was only lent by way of elected representatives, government begins losing its legitimacy. It is difficult, in the heat of a crisis, to pinpoint the moment at which a point is passed beyond which it is impossible to return to generalized consensus on how to run current affairs. Though fighting had been taking place for the better part of a year — there was a war on — George III still did not quite get it in that first week of July. (The same sort of befuddlement, albeit against a quite different historical background, struck the King of France about 15 years later, when he was informed the Bastille fortress had fallen to insurgents. “What is this, a revolt?” he asked. “No, Sire, it’s a revolution.”)
In way, it can be said that nothing better shows the vibrancy of American freedom as a living, pulsating, practical concept for the organization of human society than our periodic tax revolts. That those who govern us are wary of Tea Partiers, Prop 13 men, outside-the-Beltway candidates, and others who, sometimes with some haziness around the edges but usually with a very clear and coherent focus on doing away with unapproved taxes for unapproved government purposes, shows that they know enough to fear the consequences of emulating George III.
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