Fourth of July Lecture: The American Revolution Was Neither

The most important date in the history of English-speaking peoples is not July 4, 1776 but June 30, 1688. The former commemorates a fit of pique among some affluent and well-placed colonists who had digested too much Rousseau and not enough Thomas Hobbes. However, the latter, the acquittal of the Seven Bishops, is the punctuation to the final sentence of the establishment of a political order — separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, the legislature as the source of law, and the subjugation of established religion — that we still recognize today as readily as we do its portrayal in the School House Rock cartoon

That people in this country think anything different and might be convinced that the Seven Bishops were a doo wop band from the 50s is an immense and historic travesty. And the ignorance of Americans about the origins of their own country will perhaps also yield tragedy, as angry childlike factions from left and right push and pull a rapidly aging, fragile, and brittle written constitution that may have made sense in 1789 but has failed to evolve for the world of the 21st century. 

How did this dislocation of American origins from its British context happen? Winners always write history, and as America emerged from its “revolution” it had to cast itself as independent not just from the old country but from history itself. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are to the American republic what Tudor government was under Henry VII and VIII, a creative take on the genealogy of power written by those who prevailed over the existing order with force (some would even say Henry VII was a liar). Like Tudor government, all that has mattered for the American Constitution is that it worked. But the distinction between the two is the English Constitution was not amended, it evolved. The American document hasn’t evolved, a source of pride rather than regret for most Americans. 

Each July 4th I try to remind my fellow Americans that no, we didn’t invent democracy on July 4th. Most of the hallowed assumptions we learned as children are just plain false. Here’s some examples.

Americans were heavily taxed — False. The colonists were not heavily taxed and were likely undertaxed given that Britain paid for defense against hostile native tribes and the French. 

Americans had no representation — False. The Tory party was hawkish on American grievances but the opposition Whig party supported the Americans. Edmund Burke, a father of conservative thinking, made two notable speeches one On American Taxation in which he advocated for the repeal of taxes on the Americans, and another urging conciliation with America. In the second speech, Burke notably said of the colonists,

They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles.

Burke’s greatest work, in contrast, was a demolition of the French Revolution, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke’s writing is dense, but throughout there is a consistent defense of institutions, the evolution of them, and criticism of upending society for the purposes of starting from scratch.

Others spoke in favor and voted for the American cause in Parliament and against the government’s policies. They just didn’t have enough votes. Somewhere I read that Charles James Fox entered the House of Commons dressed like George Washington. So, while they didn’t elect members, colonists had smart and aggressive representation in parliament. 

King George was a tyrant — False. The myth of absolute monarchy is a grade school teacher’s convenience, setting up a battle of wills between scrappy rebels and an evil dictator. There never was an English king that was an absolute monarch in the way that other European monarchs were. From the very beginning, the monarchy had an interdependence with barons and feudal lords that would morph into one that would resemble today’s legislative and executive “branches.”

By the time George became King, the struggles between king and parliament look much like an executive and legislative relationship today. George was dependent on parliament for taxation to generate revenue to run the country. And in spite of his dislike of some members of legislature, he had to tolerate them. By the 18th century the British monarchy began to look like the one we have today with more power but absolute power. It’s worth watching The Madness of King George, an accurate and sympathetic portrait of George III.

Was there an American Revolution? – The American Revolution was neither. For sure, the war that was fought between 1775 and 1783 was fought in America. Geographically the dispute was American, but it the war that was fought from 1775 and 1783 was between English people in the British Empire. And it wasn’t really a revolution. Rather, it was an assertion of rights under the settlement and social contract established in 1688. The Declaration of Independence has a remarkable similarity to the Bill of Rights of 1689 which settled the transfer of power from James II to William in Mary and codified the end of James’ rule in 1688.

The Bill of Rights lists out the abuses of James II just like Jefferson’s list of abuses of King George after the following statement:

“King James the Second, by the assistance of divers evil counsellors, judges and ministers employed by him, did endeavour to subvert and extirpate the Protestant religion and the laws and liberties of this kingdom”

The Declaration says, “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States,” before listing the colonist’s grievances.

One must read the Declaration as Englishmen’s assertion that the King had failed uphold the Bill of Rights which it is worth quoting at length,

“It may be declared and enacted that all and singular the rights and liberties asserted and claimed in the said declaration are the true, ancient and indubitable rights and liberties of the people of this kingdom, and so shall be esteemed, allowed, adjudged, deemed and taken to be; and that all and every the particulars aforesaid shall be firmly and strictly holden and observed as they are expressed in the said declaration, and all officers and ministers whatsoever shall serve their Majesties and their successors according to the same in all time to come.”

These “rights and liberties” were what the Americans in Philadelphia were declaring had been violated, and having been violated justified an end to the relationship. The Declaration of Independence therefore was not an assertion of abstract rights drawn from a misty Mediterranean posterity, but a very recent English one. And so the “revolution” was not a reordering of society like the French one 13 years later, but a replanting of the accepted English Constitution in American soil.

Separation of Church and State – The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States is, among other things, called the disestablishment of the church in America. It is often asserted that the separation of church and state is not only unique to the United States but an essential ingredient of our freedom. Such arguments neglect two key points.

First, the Church of England, while the official state church, was significantly “disestablished” after 1688. The history of England from the time of Henry VIII to the end of James’ efforts to impose Roman Catholicism on England, was a history of religious conflict. The result of 1688 while giving institutional primacy to Protestantism, once and for all ended the Anglican Church’s role in politics. After the end of the 17th century and to the present day, the Anglican Church is a subsidiary of the government in power.

Second, while the subjection of the church is not the official separation articulated in the First Amendment, which says that the government will “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” would anyone argue that England is less free because of it? Some might argue that controlling the church actually allows the church to function as a more accommodating civil institution.

Unwritten and written constitutions – When James II ordered Bishops to read a statement from their pulpits that tolerated Roman Catholicism and they refused, he set the stage for a final resolution of the political and religious conflicts that cost his father Charles I, his life and set off the English Civil War. Which institution would be dominant, the Monarchy or Parliament? The answer was parliament’s power as an equal partner would be preserved and it would eventually be ascendant in the 18th century. Would the courts be able to overrule the King? The answer in the Seven Bishops case was a resounding, “Yes!” Would the King be able to abrogate ancient rights set out in Magna Carta like Habeas Corpus? No, the King would be subject once and for all to the laws established in Parliament.

All of this was established when the Bishops were found not guilty not in a document but as a precedent. Then, a year later when leaders of the country asked William and Mary to rule the country, the Bill of Rights explained that decision and the conditions of the new regime; but it did not write down the procedural rules of how this would function. The institutions were left in place, and as I said earlier, the relationships between them evolved. The first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole was really only known as such years after the office evolved. There is no established constitutional office called “Prime Minister” in Great Britain.

When the Americans succeeded in breaking away from Great Britain, they had no choice in many respects but to write down the system they had known best and actually believed in. They had no King, but established a President. There was no House of Commons or Lords, so they devised a House and a Senate. There isn’t much innovation in the Constitution of the United States except for the fact that it is written down and is very hard to change.

Conclusion: What are we celebrating?

The United States of America has shaped the life of most of the world for the better part of the last century. This is no accident since it inherited the influence and soft and hard power of the British Empire. The English language, common law, and democratic institutions that have their deepest roots in Magna Carta, Tudor government’s modernization of feudal government, and the final resolution of religious and political conflict, are the basis of the world’s admiration of the United States, not what happened in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.

What is worth celebrating is the American chapter of the longer history of our great patrimony from a small island country on the edge of Europe some people still call “Old Blighty.” Why is it that a group of German immigrants in the ruins of the Roman Empire would, through the course of their history, evolve the greatest and most sustainable democratic institutions ever known?

That’s a longer story and open to debate. But freedom and democracy as we know them aren’t an American innovation, and thinking of them as such both deprives us of the benefit of the deeper history, but also limits our view of what’s possible in the future, including evolving our Constitution and political institutions for a new millennia. In order to keep you thoroughly confused, I won’t end this by quoting Rule Britannia, but with a few lines from the Professor Poet from my own home state, who I call a New Mexican Burke, Sabine Ulibari,

Si eres hombre sin historía,
Serás hombre sin futuro.
Si reniegas de tus padres,
¿Que esperarás de tus hijos?

If you are a person without a past
You will be a person without a future.
If you deny your parents
What do your children have to hope for?