Memo from your government: the Founding Fathers were not radical.
So stop glorifying radicals.
July 4th is approaching, so we’re bound to get more articles such as “10 Things You Might Not Know About America’s Independence.”
Most of the list is innocuous and well-known to anyone who knows much about the Revolution, but number five, “Our Founding Fathers Were Not Radicals,” is such an atrociously ill-informed knot of non-facts that it warrants rebuke.
“all of their ideas and philosophies were rooted deeply in history”
Natural rights? Consent of the government? Feudalism generally and parliament specifically was based on neither. At best, parliament was based on “virtual representation,” which held that the members acted in the best interest of the nation as a whole, not as the direction of the particular geographic area they represented. In the decades prior to the revolution, many growing English cities (Manchester) were not represented in Parliament at all. No one can (or did) argue that Manchester consented; rather, they argued that Manchester was virtually represented.
And rights in a feudal society flowed down from God to the King, and from the King to the aristocracy, and so forth, with each level limiting the rights of those below them. The idea that all men were created equal with rights invested in them by a Creator was laughable in most of Europe in the mid-18th century. This is precisely why, at the Stamp Act Congress and in the colonial assemblies, the most heated debates arose over whether to use the term “rights” or “privileges.” The lower levels of the hierarchy had privileges granted to them by the higher levels; they had not a broad array of rights. (Often, the opposing sides in the debate would compromise and employ the term “liberties.”)
“Ideas of people’s rights, liberty, and social contracts can be traced all the way back through our colonial history, most famously with the Mayflower Compact, and even further through British history and English common law. These ideas can even be seen at work in the medieval era with Magna Carta first established 1215.”
This statement is pure fantasy. First, any colonial historian knows that many Founding Fathers completely rejected the idea of the “social contract” — James Otis thought it was laughable. He pointed out that no one could be born into a contract; one must agree to it. Being born into a contract is a feudal concept. Further, if women, slaves and children could not enter into contracts, then how would any contract apply to them? It was, as Otis observed, absurd.
Conflating the Magna Carta and “people’s rights” is a truly notice maneuver; the Magna Carta delineated the working relationship between members of the highest level of the feudal hierarchy; in essence, it was a peace treaty among the lords. Just ask Wat Tyler and Hannibal Rumbold about the people’s rights (if you happen to be in Edinburgh on June 26, 1685, you would find Rumbold standing atop a scaffold … you might want to pose your query before his understanding government executes him).
And the Mayflower Compact discusses in most vague terms the character of the government, but it contains not a word about the people’s rights or liberty. And it’s worth observing that it didn’t take long before the Puritans rejected the Mayflower Compact’s most compelling feature: “the general good of the colony.” Originally, Plymouth was a commune, but that was quickly rejected when it became obvious that market forces and private property create a far more productive environment.
And sure, some of the rebel’s “not radical” ideas had been discussed in Europe. And often those who discussed those ideas were hunted down and killed by their governments (e.g. Algernon Sidney). Of course, much of colonial political theory had previously been discussed, but the difference is that much of it hadn’t been put into practice. Prior to the Revolution, it was mere theory. But at the same time, the philosophies of our Founding Fathers had many unique components; many rejected not only the social contract but property as a foundation of government. Many rejected the Glorious Revolution and the elevation of Parliamentary Supremacy. And perhaps most importantly, they infused their political philosophy with a new religious concept — Arminianism — to develop an entirely new principle for social order. This new principle posited that society was constructed of individuals, not strata. If that doesn’t seem profoundly revolutionary, then I invite you to review a few thousand years of history.
“Though it is true no colony had ever succeeded from the mother country before and the British were quick to call it treason, everything our Founders did was, in fact, legal.”
This is the most inconceivably obtuse statement ever written by a carbon-based life form. So mobs ruling Boston for nearly a decade, destroying the Lt. Governor’s house and demolishing the stamp distributor’s business was legal? So commandeering and burning customs ships was legal? Amassing weapons in a church in Concord in direct violation of martial law was legal? And when highly regarded British officer Major Andre was caught attempting to facilitate Benedict Arnold’s treachery, Washington’s officers, most notably Hamilton, recommended that Andre be held prisoner for the length of the war — the accepted (and legal) practice for prisoners of war. But Major Andre was hanged as a common murderer. Even at the time, this was considered against custom — and, dare we say, illegal? The order to hang Andre came from General Washington.
Everything our Founders did was legal? Are we still on Earth?
I’m fairly certain that under the law that governed the colonists on July 4, 1776, seceding from the government was illegal. Generally, seceding from any government to which you’re a party is illegal. Just ask the Confederate South about that.
Rebellions of the poor are common; rebellion of the wealthy is unique. In any iteration of feudalism, the Founding Fathers were the aristocracy. They had the most to lose if the highly unlikely effort to defeat the world’s greatest empire failed. They would not only forfeit their vast wealth and estimable honor, but they’d find themselves on a scaffold next to Rumbold.
The most important lesson anyone can take from July 4 is the nature of the Founder’s profound radicalism. The rebels of the 1760s developed a philosophy from which was derived a purpose-built set of demands that they knew their government could not satisfy, leaving only a single option — an appeal to heaven and the longest sword, as Otis phrased it. It’s a philosophy and a tactic rarely witnessed in history and certainly foreign to most Americans today — ignorance brilliantly articulated in many July 4th articles.
Just how radical were the Founders? Barnstable, Massachusetts rejected the Articles of Confederation and eventually the war. Barnstable did not want to support any centralized organizations of control outside of Barnstable. For Barnstable, independence did not mean transferring power from Britain to Boston. By 1782, Barnstable even refused to pay state taxes. Samuel Allyne, James Otis’s younger brother, wrote of Barnstable that after opposing the “infringement of their liberty and property from abroad, will suffer them to be overturned by licentious abandoned people at home, is to suppose like causes produce directly contrary effect.” Barnstable viewed taxation from both Britain and Boston as “like causes.”
On April 30, 1789, the same Samuel Allyne Otis who was paranoid of centralized government held the Bible to swear in George Washington. Samuel then served as Secretary of the Senate for 25 years. You think Julie Adams will become enraged about being taxed by “licentious abandoned people at home?”
About Nathan Allen
Formerly of Xio Research, an A.I. appliance company. Previously a strategy and development leader at IBM Watson. His views do not necessarily reflect anyone’s, including his own. (What.) Nathan’s academic training is in intellectual history; his next book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense….