AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
This July 4th will represent the 247th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence from the British Crown. Two and a half centuries is a long time, more than long enough for the revolutionary to have become normal. Former colonies have gained independence so regularly over the past century, with little expectation they would become anything other than republics, that the genuinely revolutionary nature of America’s founding has been lost. But what happened in America in 1776 and the years leading up to it was in fact a new type of rebellion, one by the people, but based upon the defense of rights, not privileges.
Americans did not revolt against King George and his ministers because they believed British policies were incompetent or inefficient. They revolted because they were illegitimate, and in defense of the principle that policies cannot be justified on efficacy or expertise, but rather by whether they legitimately respect the rights of the governed.
There had been rebellions before 1776. Arguably, the concept of rebellion is as old as human society. The moment one hunter-gather conceived of placing himself above others, his followers began scheming methods of arranging accidents which would allow them to displace their new master.
Prior to the American Revolution, however, rebellions tended to fall into a subset of categories.
First were coups. In these, one individual or set of individuals sought to displace another. A Roman general sought to make himself emperor. A Chinese general sought to seize the Mandate of Heaven. There might be appeals to a wider principle or grievance, often that the existing monarch was simultaneously too tyrannical to be tolerated and too weak to rule effectively. These might promise much, but ultimately change little.
Second were rebellions from the bottom. They often were the result of local grievances. Poor harvests, the deprivations of local officials, or high taxes leading to a war. At their simplest, these rebellions were violent cries of pain with no wider agenda. At their most serious, they often represented not an effort to overthrow the king or ruler through violence, but to gain his attention.
The Reformation added an additional type of rebellion to the European catalogue: the religious rebellion. The Protestant Reformation and the lack of separation between Church and State raised the question of whether religious dissent could exist without sedition.
If the Catholic subjects of a Protestant monarch gathered every Sunday for Mass to hear how their ruler was an excommunicated heretic condemning the nation’s population to hellfire or vice versa, that could not be interpreted as anything but a call for rebellion. The result was religious conflicts which manifested in secession, such as the Dutch revolt of the 1580s.
The American Revolution fits none of these models. The Continental Congress had not thought of marching on London to depose the king or enforce its will on Parliament.
Nor was there a primary religious element. It was not a rebellion driven by poverty, even if taxes were part of the cause. The American colonies had never been more prosperous, and the taxes proposed by parliament, were, as historians continue to tell us, miniscule, and never collected on a regular basis.
Nor was it a revolt against misgovernment. There were many complaints to be leveled against the revolving door of parliamentary ministries of the 1760s and 70s, but when it came to North America, British administration had done well. France had been driven off the continent. London ruled the waves. The worst excesses of corruption, such as the sale of offices in the British Army and East India Company, hardly affected America until they arguably aided in securing military victory.
Rather, the American Revolution was the first secular, ideological revolution on a mass scale. The use of “mass-scale” is relevant because there were precedents for monarchies to be deposed and replaced by republics, most prominently in the minds of the Declaration’s signatories, in Rome and Athens.
But these were cities. America, at the time of its founding, had no core city. It had New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond, and Charleston. While Philadelphia became the seat of the Continental Congress, and New York briefly the capital, no one would have argued that America was an extension of any of these cities. The leading Virginian politicians hailed from plantations far from Richmond. Those of South Carolina from upstate. New York’s elite lived along the Hudson. Only in Boston did geography and power coincide, which is why its control was so fiercely contested, and unlike in New York, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania, the largest city became the capital of the future state of Massachusetts. The British gained little politically from occupying New York City, Charleston, or even Philadelphia.
What then was America? It was thirteen colonies to be sure, but they needed a new basis of legitimacy. Rome and Athens had based it upon being cities, and the Netherlands upon the Protestant faith and the House of Orange.
For the American colonists, they chose to make their political grievances into their new common identity. No taxation without representation became more than a grievance they expected the king or parliament to concede to. Rather, the idea of self-government became the justification for a new nation. Had the King and British Parliament dropped the taxes, it would not have settled the matter because the Americans would still be governed by a king and parliament that did not represent them.
This was revolutionary – so revolutionary, in fact, it seems to have escaped many at the time.
The Declaration of Independence did not justify itself on the basis that the King’s choices were incompetent or wrong, but rather that they were illegitimate. And not just illegitimate for Americans, but for everyone.
The American position was that America existed because Americans had the right to exist, and America would exist as long as it upheld the rights of Americans. It would extend over the territory of those who identified as American, and that would over time come to exclude no race or creed.
Progress was imperfect, as Justice Thomas eloquently wrote recently when striking down affirmative action in higher education, but the idea that the existence of a state rested on its people was new. Not only was this different from France or England, which existed as legal and national entities, but from Rome and Athens, which existed because well, they physically existed as cities.
America existed as a nation because it had a mission.
This was the key. The American message and identity, developed into a broader conception of individual rights by the Constitution and Bill of Rights, became a universal language, one which both defined domestic identity and set a model internationally.
America was the first ideological state. It was of course not to be the last. The French tried to follow it up in 1789-93, and there were repeated efforts to do so into the 20th Century. Marxists even try to argue that Marx himself and figures like Mao and Ho Chi Minh were “inspired” by the American example.
In an abstract sense, perhaps they were. America justified itself on a mission, to defend the rights of its population to self-government. The French revolutionaries sought to base their position on the idea that all men “should be free.” Marxists based their mission on the idea that class enemies should be destroyed. Nationalist Marxists based their mission on the same principle, but added national groups instead of economic classes.
All of these were ideological projects, but they missed the core of the American one. The American position had never been that all taxes were illegitimate, but rather that they could only be legitimate with consent.
Freedom of religion was not freedom from religion. The American conception of non-establishment was adopted not because religion was bad, but because a government associated with only one religion made religious dissent into political sedition.
The French were the earliest and most tragic example, having taken direct inspiration from the American project. Their error was expressed in the words of one of their leaders that the French people must be “forced” to be free. Their secularism involved the persecution of the Catholic Church and the murder of priests and nuns. Their defense of what they believed to be universal rights was to treat anyone who disagreed as a traitor subject to the guillotine.
Here lies the truly distinct aspect of the American project, still revolutionary to this day: America was founded on the right to be wrong. There is no governmental duty to implement the “optimal” policies, because the founders were wise enough to realize no such concept existed. It was an invitation to not just tyranny by elites, but to violent conflict as different groups of elites and experts fought a war between themselves.
The French revolutionaries featured some of the greatest mathematical and scientific minds of the era. Jean Bailly, the mayor of Paris, was one of the world’s leading astronomers. The Marquis de Condorcet was a mathematician whose models still inform electoral systems using proportional representation today. Both sought to impose scientific government, including the metric system. Both died on the guillotine at the hands of colleagues.
America, by contrast, was built on the premise that the people were right. (There are, of course, some limits on this, like the Electoral College, and most importantly the Bill of Rights.) But it was incumbent that individuals must be able to speak freely if the people are to be sovereign, and uncomfortable views must be heard if proper debate is to take place.
Arguments that cause someone to question their own views are always uncomfortable. Europeans would scoff at Americans for rejecting the Federalists for Jefferson’s Republicans, for rejecting the brilliant John Quincy Adams, who would have been at home in Paris, for the uncouth Andrew Jackson, and for Henry Clay never becoming president. But the lesson that rights are eternal whereas the views of the expert elite are transient and temporary is taught by the successful history of America and the failures of its rivals.
The tragedy of modern American discourse, especially on the left, is that too many now buy into the traditionally European critiques of America; namely, that it was too little like revolutionary France. They see America’s creation of an environment in which Americans can choose to be free as a bug, not a feature, and an obstacle to their goal to make everyone “free.”
Here, in their demands for mandatory pronoun usage, for the transformation of concepts of gender, and for judicial control of abortion and for a separation of Church and State which treats religion as a heresy to be stamped out, they echo the Jacobin arguments that mankind must be “forced” to be free.
Their justifications also echo those of the Jacobins. When it came to COVID-19 or gender therapy for minors, they argue we should “trust the experts” or “follow the science,” forgetting that experts are merely politicians unencumbered by a mass electorate. Rather than freeing them from the need to justify themselves to the “uninformed” masses, the deference frees them to pursue their much more brutal internecine struggles.
It follows Sayre’s Law that “academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low,” by bringing that viciousness to mainstream politics. The same viciousness various adjunct professors of Gender Studies wielded against each other are now directed at parents opposed to explicit sexual instruction in the schools. The pettiness with which senior medical practitioners dealt with graduate students who questioned their current theories was applied to those who questioned COVID lockdowns. Dr. Fauci became invested in his approach to COVID as scientifically correct as much because it was his academic and scientific brand, as because even he continued to believe in it.
America was founded on the idea that “rebellion,” or at least intellectual rebellion, does not need to be violent or treason. It is good and healthy. That authority must be based on the consent of the governed, not appeals to science or the idea that proposed policies are “correct.” That America exists among its people, not in a specific city or physical institution.
These are lessons that contemporary Americans should reflect on this July 4th. We should not avoid politics or differences of opinion. Rather we should respect others and consider that we may be wrong. Freedom cannot coexist with anyone being forced to be free.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.