Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Part 2- Extralegal Government

In Part two of the Radicalism of the American Revolution we will examine the radical committees of public safety, correspondence, and inspection that became the de-facto government due to the collapse of the "constituted authorities" as the British and Tories called it.

The Collapse of British Authority in America

From 1764 to the total collapse of British regal authority in America in 1774/ 1775 the American colonists undermined the "constituted authorities" in colonial America. British authority was uprooted and destroyed by extralegal means. These extralegal means generally took the forms of committees of correspondence, committees of public safety, congresses like the Stamp Act Congress, and the first and second Continental Congresses. Conservatives of the time ( mostly the wealthy aristocrats, royal government officials, and military leaders) were appalled by these methods of nascent revolution. They denounced the colonists as "factious", "disaffected men", "seditious", "democrats" and "downright republicans" who were intending to "overthrow all government."

With the advent of the Stamp Act crisis, the colonists formed into "Sons of Liberty" who directed resistance to the Stamp Act by petitions to Parliament, petitions to their Assemblies to resist the tyrannical act, and in the case of the Connecticut and New York Sons of Liberty entered into military alliances. Stamp collectors were threatened, effigies of royal officials and stamp agents were burned in public, and newspapers denounced the act as unconstitutional. Supporters of the act were declared "enemies of their country." Royal officials denounced the protests as "mobocracy", " mobs of the lower sort", and "dangerous and designing men". Due to this, extralegal resistance newspapers in Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts, continued their publishing without the stamps. Courts in Rhode Island and Massachusetts stayed open and ships with stamps were not permitted to land. All of this was in defiance of the Stamp Act and the "constituted authorities".

Petitions, Remonstrances, and Declarations

Other extra legal means used were the use of petitions to Parliament, and remostrances and declarations stating the rights of the colonists and declaring that supporters of the British were "enemies of their country".
Town meetings, public gatherings and secret meetings of organizations like the Sons of Liberty were used to apply pressure to Britian.

The words of the Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions ring out resoundingly:

" That the General Assembly of this colony have the only and sole exclusive right to lay taxes and impositions upon the inhabitants of this Colony, and that every attempt to vest such power in any person or persons whatsoever other than the General Assembly aforesaid has a manifest tendency to destroy British as well as American freedom."

And again:

" That any person who shall, by speaking or writing, assert or maintain that any person or persons other than the General Assembly of this Colony, have any right or power to impose or lay any taxation on the people here shall be deemed an enemy to His Majesty's Colony."

These ringing words were the opening salvo of the American Revolution, a revolution for liberty against arbitrary power. Sound like conservatism? Hardly. Conservatives have generally been the defenders of strong government, "law and order", and hierarchy. Back to the colonists. Effigies of royal officers, stamp distributors, and Tories were burned, hanged and given mock funerals to frighten and intimidate the government and rouse the populace.

The Destruction of Property

This may sound like a shock, but the revolutionaries frequently incited crowds to destroy the property of tories, royal officials, and ships of the royal navy. Governors Bernard and Hutchinson of Massachusetts had their homes ransacked and destroyed by revolutionary mobs incensed by the tyrannical acts of the British government. In Rhode Island ,royal navy ships were scuttled and in the case of the Gaspee in 1772, burned to the ground. The captain of the Gaspee was assaulted and shot ( he survived) and no prosecution was ever attempted. In Massachusetts the Boston Tea Party in December 1773 destroyed the tea belonging to the British East India Company by throwing it into Boston Harbor . Government stamps during the Stamp Act crisis were seized and burned , and revolutionary mobs threatened the stamp distributors with death if they accepted their commissions. There were many, many other incidents of violence, property destruction and confiscation, all of which further radicalised the colonists.

Economic Coercion

As the Revolution progressed committees of safety, and inspection were formed in addition to the committees of correspondence. These committees were designed to enforce the economic boycotts proposed in each colony and the Continental Congress. Committees of Inspection forced merchants and businessmen to boycott British goods, and to enter into nonimportation and nonexportation agreements. All merchants who refused the boycott agreements were labeled as "enemies of their country" and "tories". Committees demanded the merchants to turn over their records to the committee for inspection to ensure the agreements were being adhered to. Merchants not in compliance were boycotted and
advertised as "traitors".

Committees of Safety were extralegal bodies which organized communities to defend themselves against the British military and American Tories. These committees forced accused tories and traitors to appear before them to explain any suspected behavior. Any person judged guilty by these committees were usually banished and their property confiscated. Lists of tories were published in public places declaring them as "traitors", "enemies of their country", and calling for them to depart. These committees also assisted in organizing local militias and appointing militia officers. These committees, while elected by the people, were a virtual revolutionary dictatorship.

Nullification of Unconstitutional Laws

In every colony the eventual nullification of British authority took place. Some, like Massachusetts and Rhode Island, were displaying this radical doctrine early on, and others, like Georgia and Pennsylvania came around near the end of the Revolutionary War. This doctrine of nullification was as radical then as it is now. All governments despise challenges to their authority and particularly challenges that defy the "legitimate authorities". Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and other New England colonies were the first to use this doctrine and appeal to the "natural rights" of the colonists. Mobs of angry colonists would confront tories such as stamp distributors, customs offciers, and other royally appointed officials and threaten them with hanging, and other forms of violence. These officials would be forced publically to renounce their office or the policies of the British government. This is in direct contravention of the "consensus" and "conservative" historians which to this day maintain that the American Revolution was a mild, and really non-revolutionary event. The theory of a "conservative" revolution is a fraud perpetrated by conservative elements in the United States to justify their anti-republican views and policies.

Lessons for Today

What do we learn from this radicalism? Is it proper for our society today?
I believe the answer to both questions is yes. All people have a natural right to defend their liberties and freedom from government or private entities. A short example would be the Alien and Sedition Acts during the late 1790's. Just twenty two years after the end of the Revolutionary War, the Federalists passed the most tyrannical acts in the history of the United States. The Alien and Sedition Acts were passed by rabid conservatives, many old Tories and Tory sympathizers, to destroy free speech and opposition to their centralizing policies and schemes. The Federalists used the same rhetoric used by the British governement during the Revolution calling their opponents "disorganizers", "enemies of government", "reptiles", "jacobins", and "traitors". The Federalists, like the modern day conservative movement, loved power and "order". They exaulted then President Washington into a monarchial and almost God-like firgure who should be above political attack.

President Adams, long a believer in aristocracy and "balanced" government was a staunch supporter of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams relished in having his opponents ( the Jeffersonian editors) prosecuted and seemed to embrace a British view of government, by maintaining that people could not critisize their "leaders" or "governors".
The response to this tyranny was Jefferson and Madison's Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. These libertarian resolutions declared the states to be independent and only united in compact for federal purposes. Jefferson's version stated that the States had the authority to "nullify" a unconstitutional federal law, and that such laws were "void" and "of no force". This was the spirit of the American Revolution. As shown above the colonies used such language in the revolution against British authority. The nullification and voiding of unconstitutional federal laws is a radical and revolutionary ideal worthy of the enlightened patriots of the American Revolution. The Alien and Sedition Crisis shows that a populace should be ever vigilent to defend their liberties. Men in power, and who make their living off of that power will normally not part with it without violence or revolution. A revolution, as Murray Rothbard has correctly pointed out in his "Conceived in Liberty" series, must have the support of the mass of the populace to succeed. Violence used by the American revolutionaries was to throw off tyranny and oppression, while violence used by the British was used to defend the oligarchy and their interests, separate frome the people.

In today's climate to oppose the policies of the Federal government, question the Iraq war, or openly critisize President Bush is met with derision and ad hominem attack by reactionary forces. Fanatical right wingers have elevated President Bush to near God-like status, to be held above reproach. Christian Rightists have even admonished their opponents with the tyrannical thoughts of St Paul in Romans 13 to obey government since all are appointed by God. This IS NOT THE DOCTRINE OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION! In the United States the PEOPLE are sovereign, not the government! Howard Phillips of the Constitution Party constantly states that in America "God is the sovereign". No, Mr Phillips, in the United States the PEOPLE are the sovereign as stated in the Declaration of Independence. Government is only valid when having "the consent of the governed".

What we need is a revival of the Spirit of 1776 and Jefferson's Revolution of 1800. We must be on constant watch and jealous of any power delegated to government, especially the central government. As Jefferson stated "free government is founded in jealousy, not confidence."

Confidence in government will result in slavery and the annhilation of the natural rights of the people. Let us harken back to the American Revolution and utilize the path our Founders have laid for us before it is too late.

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