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Monday, October 16, 2017

Resolving the paradox of the American Revolution

Was the American Revolution a Real Revolution? The American Conservative raises that question by re-publishing this essay by the late Robert Nisbet, a sociologist and one of the leading conservative thinkers of the post World-War II period: Was There An American Revolution? Nisbet covers a lot of ground in this essay, touching on everything from class and property to religious liberty. Nisbet's conclusion, contra other conservatives like Russell Kirk and M.E. Bradford, is that the American Revolution was indeed a real revolution, impacting social, cultural and religious aspects of American life, leading to a profound change not only in the formal political institutions of the country but also the underlying spirit of the nation. As Nisbet concludes:
I would argue, then, that there was indeed an American Revolution in the full sense of the word–a social, moral, and institutional revolution that effected major changes in the character of American society–as well as a war of liberation from England that was political in nature. 
The line from the social revolution of the 1770s to the civil rights revolution of the 1960s is a direct one. It is a line that passes through the Civil War–itself certainly not without revolutionary implication–and through a host of changes in the status of Americans of all races, beliefs, and classes. The United States has indeed undergone a process of almost permanent revolution. I can think of no greater injustice to ourselves, as well as to the makers of revolution in Philadelphia, than to deny that fact and to allow the honored word revolution to be preempted today by spokesmen for societies which, through their congealed despotisms, have made real revolution all but impossible. 
The linkage between the revolutionary work of the American founding generation and the civil rights movement of the 1960s is one that was made repeatedly by many in the civil rights movement at the time, perhaps most notably by Martin Luther King, Jr. in The Letter From a Birmingham City Jail

Yet, at the time of the Revolution -- and it was a revolution in the sense that it cast off one set of political obligations and substituted another set -- its principles were grounded not in an abstract embrace of ideology but in constitutional premises and practices that tracked back deep into English common law. This common law patrimony was known to the colonists through their colonial charters and law courts, and through the study of the works of Sir William Blackstone. And yet, Blackstone's work furthered the cause of American Independence by dividing the colonists and the British government ever farther apart on the issue of representative government.

It is difficult to overestimate the impact that Blackstone had on the American Founding era, during both the revolutionary period and the formation of the American Republic afterward. For men of those times, Blackstone served as the source of their knowledge of the English common law tradition, as well as one of the major theorists of natural law. The close study of Blackstone was for many American lawyers their only academic exercise before qualifying for the bar, and more copies of Blackstone's mammoth Commentaries on the Laws of England sold in the American colonies and the early United States than sold in England itself.

With all that in mind, head on over the The Imaginative Conservative and read Richard Samuelson's essay on Blackstone's influence on our nation's struggle for independence: The Blackstonian Causes of the American Revolution. Samuelson does a very good job of demonstrating how the American Founders were shaped by Blackstone's theory of English constitutionalism while at the same time Blackstone's embrace of parliamentary supremacy made reconciliation between the rising American colonies and the Mother Country all the more problematic.

This eventually forced the colonists into the position of either submitting to Parliament without the limitation of the traditional rights and liberties of the colonies, or throwing off the authority of the King in Parliament to assert their own independence. As Samuelson writes:
Blackstone made colonists choose between being free and being British. The necessities of an empire run by Parliament from the imperial center became incompatible with the liberties of British subjects living on the imperial periphery. In his essay, “The Irrelevance of the Declaration,” Reid points out that once one gets past the first two paragraphs, the Declaration of Independence is nothing more than a common law indictment of King George. In other words, declaring independence from Great Britain was a final act of devotion to the Whig constitutional principles that Anglo-Americans had imbibed since their settlement. Americans assumed a separate and equal station with their mother country so that they could enjoy the rights of Britons, and continue the mission of a free, protestant people in America. 
That last observation cannot be emphasized enough. For the American patriots, Protestantism was a key feature of American political economy. No less a statesman than Edmund Burke recognized this in his famous analysis of the role that dissenting Protestantism played in the American commitment to liberty, given in his Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies, dated March 22, 1775:
Religion, always a principle of energy, in this new people is no way worn out or impaired; and their mode of professing it is also one main cause of this free spirit. The people are Protestants; and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. This is a persuasion not only favourable to liberty, but built upon it. I do not think, Sir, that the reason of this averseness in the dissenting churches, from all that looks like absolute government, is so much to be sought in their religious tenets, as in their history. Every one knows that the Roman Catholic religion is at least coeval with most of the governments where it prevails; that it has generally gone hand in hand with them, and received great favour and every kind of support from authority. The Church of England too was formed from her cradle under the nursing care of regular government. But the dissenting interests have sprung up in direct opposition to all the ordinary powers of the world; and could justify that opposition only on a strong claim to natural liberty. Their very existence depended on the powerful and unremitted assertion of that claim. All Protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion. This religion, under a variety of denominations agreeing in nothing but in the communion of the spirit of liberty, is predominant in most of the northern provinces; where the Church of England, notwithstanding its legal rights, is in reality no more than a sort of private sect, not composing most probably the tenth of the people. The colonists left England when this spirit was high, and in the emigrants was the highest of all; and even that stream of foreigners, which has been constantly flowing into these colonies, has, for the greatest part, been composed of dissenters from the establishments of their several countries, and have brought with them a temper and character far from alien to that of the people with whom they mixed. 
And it is in Burke's analysis that we find the resolution of the paradox of the American Revolution -- that it was a revolution that changed everything, while at the same time being a revolution "prevented and not made" (to use Russell Kirk's phrase). The American principles vindicated by the Revolution where themselves principles grounded in heritage of most of the colonists -- a heritage that valued the stability of English law but which also chaffed at the restrictions of English government, particularly those restrictions that were felt in the religious sphere. There was, in Burke's wording, "the principle of resistance" met with the "spirt of liberty." And it was this spirit of liberty that drew in immigrants from non-British lands, immigrants who more often than not were dissents of the religious establishments in their native countries.

So, Nesbit, Kirk, and Bradford were all right -- although in different ways. The American Revolution was indeed a true revolution, a casting off of the old in favor of the new, while at the same being being a revolution grounded in the established practices and perspectives of colonial society. The keys, as in so much of understanding the American Revolution, are found not only in the work of the American Founders, but in Burke and Blackstone as well.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ah, I had just posted this quote from key American Founder James Wilson [D of I, Constitution, Supreme Court justice] on your other, similar post. Why I adore the Ninth Amendment, that "the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

Rights exist before the creation of governments, not as a result of them and their capricious recognition of them.

"Man, says Mr. Burke, cannot enjoy the rights of an uncivil and of a civil state together. By an uncivil contradistinguished from a civil state, he must here mean a state of nature: by the rights of this uncivil state, he must mean the rights of nature: and is it possible that natural and civil rights cannot be enjoyed together? Are they really incompatible? Must our rights be removed from the stable foundation of nature, and placed on the precarious and fluctuating basis of human institution? Such seems to be the sentiment of Mr. Burke: and such too seems to have been the sentiment of a much higher authority than Mr. Burke -- Sir William Blackstone."