Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Radical Revolutionary Tradition, Part 1

The United States of America is a constitutional republic born out of a radical revolution in the late 18th century. The US was the first democratic republic since the ancients, Greece and Rome. Our republic was a product of the European and American Enlightenment, it's philosophies, and it's patriots and freethinkers. Unfortunately this great land has abandoned it's revolutionary tradition and embraced the Old World philosophy of war ,realpolitk, and empire. In this essay I will attempt to elucidate and enlighten the reader on our revolutionary past and the benefits of freedom, liberty and republican government over slavery, despotism and empire. Let us begin.

The Intellectual Background

The American Revolution, as opposed to the War of the American Revolution, begun arguably in 1763 with the end of the French and Indian War and the complete domination of North America by the British Empire. The American colonists were a very literate and rural population. In 1765 the Stamp Act caused the opening salvo in the battle for liberty against the British Parliament. In every colony, except Georgia, protests against the act were conducted. Committees were formed to send petitions to Parliament, newly appointed Stamp collectors were threatened, and forced to renounce their offices, and ships carrying English stamps were prevented from landing. Terms like "slavery", "despotism", and "tyranny" were read in colonial newspapers and heard by many colonists from such firebrands as Samuel Adams,
Patrick Henry, and James Otis. Where did these and other revolutionaries find their philosophy?

The American Revolutionary tradition has it's roots in the revolutionary opposition ideology of the 17th century English Revolutions of the 1640's and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Men like Algernon Sidney, Leveller John Liliburne, Richard Rumbold, and John Locke. Sidney, and Locke were the most influential of all, but the English Levellers , who have been greatly overlooked, also provide a radical tradition against power, monarchy, and feudalism.

Sidney and Locke

Algernon Sidney was an English revolutionary who participated in the English Civil wars of the 1640's. Sidney, in addition to being a libertarian, was a believer in republican government. He was a vocal opponent of the Divine Right of Kings, and in his treatise Thoughts on Government opposed the Divine Right of Kings doctrine as articulated by monarchist,Sir Robert Filmer. Locke's First and Second Treatise on government also refuted the doctrines of Filmer and Hobbes. Both Sidney and Locke knew that men with absolute power usually ended up destroying the liberty of their subjects. Power , as Lord Acton would later say, corrupts ,and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This was the doctrine of Sidney and Locke. Both men were revolutionaries of their era. Sidney's Thoughts on Government cost him his life in 1683 for it's radical doctrine of the right of revolution and opposition to unlimited power. Locke was forced to flee to France to protect himself. Both Sidney and Locke espoused the radical ideal of the right to revolution. People, they argued, have the right and the duty to overthrow tyrannical government.
When government established a tyranny it no longer fulfilled it's proper ends: the protection of the natural rights of the people, and the right of people to pursue happiness. If these ends of government were violated, the social contract was broken and the people were under no obligation to obey such a government. They were in a "state of nature" and assumed the right to create a government that suited their ends and protected their liberty.

The English Levellers

The English Levellers were a group of radicals who participated in the radical English revolutions and civil war of 1645-1649. The Levellers were far ahead of their time in their views of the proper role of government. The Levellers believed that men had an absolute right to the freedom of conscience, and that the civil state should play no role in saving the souls of men. They also believed firmly in the right of men to have personal liberty. They rejected the right of the crown to arrest people without due process, or imprison people indefinitely. They were firm supporters of the abolition of the infamous Star Chamber, a council of the crown which imprisoned opponents of the monarch without legal process, the right to counsel, or jury trial. The Levellers stood fast against such unlawful and tyrannical procedures.

The Levellers also rejected the Divine Right of Kings. They did not believe that the king had a right to rule over his subjects by the grace of God. This rejection was extremely radical. The English aristocracy and clergy opposed such radical views and supported the king's "right" to dissolve Parliaments, and rule without any check on his power. Such views are unfortunately coming back into vogue today with the modern Republican Party demanding obedience to the President, our "leader". Many Levellers were devout Christians, some were rationalists and freethinkers, but all agreed in the freedom of men to worship God according to their own consciences, even Roman Catholics. They believed the state had no role in saving the souls of men. They were opposed by Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, the Presbyterian clergy, and the royalists and Tories who supported strong government.Unfortunately history has forgotten them and the Tory views of the royalists and aristocrats have portrayed them as a kind of communist style movement. The Levellers were supporters of assisting the poor, the downtrodden and providing a free society, but they were anything but communists.

Here are just some of the parts of their program for a new England:

1) abolition of the House of Lords
2) abolition of tithes
3) complete freedom of religion and separation of church and state
4) abolition of monarchy
5) establishment of a republic
6)abolition for imprisonment of debt

These are just a few of their ideals. These ideals heavily influenced the American and French revolutionaries. Thomas Jefferson possessed several Leveller tracts in his library, and was distantly related to the great Leveller John Lilburne. One Leveller, Henry Marten was also a radical republican and hater of monarchy. Marten served on the court that condemned James I to death. Marten was an unapologetic, libertarian radical who believed that England should be a republic, have no state religion, and have a wide democratic franchise. His views are a precursor to the views of men like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Marten was tried for his partcipitation in the regicide of 1649 when the monarchy was restored in 1660. Most regicides were executed by being hanged, drawn and quartered. Marten valiantly defended himself at his trial and was spared death. He never apologized or renounced his republican views. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London where he died in 1680.
Here is where royalists and modern conservative Tories lie to reconstruct history. It was not the French, but the English who first beheaded their monarch. It was English radicalism that influenced both the American and French revolutionaries.This radical heritage espoused the rights of mankind against arbitrary government, liberty of the individual, the excellence of republican government, the dangers of aristocracy and monarchy, and the tyranny of a union of church and state. THIS IS OUR HERITAGE! Do not believe the lies of neoconservatives, leftists, Christian Right fanatics or any other groups that promote the fraud of the "conservative" American Revolution, or it's historical background. We must become conservatives in a true sense. A conservative that "conserves" the libertarian radicalism of our forefathers, and their forefathers.

As you can see there is distinct linear heritage of radicalism from the English revolutionaries and their ideals to the American Revolutionaries in the struggle against the Tory English government. It is clear that this heritage is in complete contradistinction from the false neoconservative and Christian Right view. It also totally refutes Marxist and leftist propaganda that the American Revolution was conservative. Both camps view of the American Revolution as conservative or just a simple rebellion are totally false.

The Scottish Enlightenment

Adam Smith, Francis Hutcheson, , Thomas Reid and Henry Home , Lord Kames, are the primary leaders of the radical Scottish Enlightenment. This part of the Enlightenment contributed greatly to the radicalism of both the American and French Revolutions.

Adam Smith

Normally known to all as a philosopher of free trade and capitalism, he was also a profound political and moral philosopher. Smith was a powerful advocate for free trade and the free exchange of goods with minimal government interference. He advocated peaceful trade between individuals and nations, and was opposed to monopolies in commerce, such as the East India Company. Smith opposed all forms of mercantilism and state managed economy. What will surprise many libertarians is that Smith was also a proponent of public education. He felt that a government had an obligation to educate and enlighten the minds of it's citizens. He recognized that an ignorant, poverty stricken populace , like in Britain could never really be free. Smith felt by educating citizens they would be come more public spirited, productive and happy as their knowledge increased. This was shared by men like Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin.

Francis Hutcheson

Hutcheson was the Scottish Enlightenment's moral philosopher. He believed man had a natural moral sense and that human beings were not depraved and decadent as propagated by religionists. Hutcheson also was a firm believer in the right of a people to revolt against tyrannical government, and to overthrow their oppressors. Jefferson had several of Hutcheson's writings in his library and adopted Huutcheson's view of the moral sense as innate in human beings.

This Anglo-American tradition is a gift to not only the United States, but the world. Classical liberalism had it's flaws, but no matter, that is what progress and the progression of history are for. The classical liberals built this great tradition and it is ours to improve upon, as we have over the last two, almost three centuries. Let us move on to Part II.

No comments: