22 September, 2008

Revolution Against a New Order

Two great revolutions shook the foundations of the Western world near the turn of the eighteenth century. The first took place in America. Its leaders demanded both their natural rights as human beings and their particular rights as Englishmen; debate, legislation, and the battlefield were the means by which the struggle proceeded. The second transpired in France, and its leaders initiated a reign of terror to achieve their purposes, invoking the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity as they “pulled down to the ground their monarchy, their church, their nobility, their law” and every other traditional institution (Edmund Burke, quoted in John Adams by McCullough, p.418). Both in character and motivation the two could hardly have been more different. Yet it is common among historians to portray them as being of essentially the same mold, whatever the contemporary testimony to the contrary. Thomas Jefferson's “Summary View of the Rights of British America” is just such a contemporary account. In it we find evidence to contradict Hugh Brogan's thesis that the American Revolution parallels that of the French in its attempts to overthrow an “old order” and to create a new, democratic system.

Despite the fact that the origin of the British empire was approximately simultaneous with the origin of the American colonies, Brogan's first move is to equate it and its mercantilist political and economic system with the old order of Europe (Brogan, 80-81). Thomas Jefferson has no such illusions. He lucidly marks out the various “encroachments” which imperial Britain had begun to make on the traditional rights of Englishmen in the colonies and is careful to draw attention to the lack of historical precedent for such usurpations, calling them “instance[s] of despotism to which no parallel can be produced in the most arbitrary ages of British history” (Jefferson, Para. 2). Invoking the natural rights of man and the customary privileges of English citizens, he accuses a new set of Parliamentary legislation of oppressing the colonies and thus forfeiting any rights it may have had over them.

Nor does Jefferson advocate the creation of the type of new democratic order which the French would later resort to, though Brogan, with his focus upon the activity of the “democratic” American mob, believes this to be the common aim of American Revolutionaries (Brogan, 126-27). Though objecting to the officious meddling of Parliament, Jefferson goes no further than to insist upon the colonists' right to their own legislature. This body of law makers would not have to be completely independent of England but could submit, together with Parliament, to the common executive authority of the King. Even the desire for an independent legislature, little as it had been implemented in previous centuries, was not new in principle. The English Parliament was, at least in theory, representative of the people of that kingdom. The sending of delegates from each part of the country accomplished a fairly comprehensive representation; America, however, had no representatives in Parliament at all. 'Can any one reason be assigned,” Jefferson asks, “why one hundred and sixty thousand electors in the island of Great Britain, should give law to four millions in the States of America?” (Jefferson, Para. 6). The Americans had a right to representative legislatures both as men and as British subjects. With Parliament's encroachments on this right “one free and independent legislature, hereby [took] upon itself to suspend the powers of another, free and independent as itself” (Jefferson, Para. 6). The Revolution would right this wrong, not bring about a new era of unbridled democracy, which the majority of American founders saw as dangerous to the health of any nation.

Demolition of an old order was not at the heart of the Revolution which Thomas Jefferson and his compatriots led. Far from being the “final shape” of the old order of Europe, eighteenth-century England was in fact the fruit of its relatively recent Protestant reformation and the resulting birth of the political concept of the hegemonic nation-state (Brogan, 76). While the similarly Protestant colonies were by no means advocating a return to the Catholic Middle Ages, they were willing to take a stand against attempts to build a unified state at the expense of personal liberty. Revolutionary as their implementation of their ideals may have been, the Americans drew inspiration not so much from vague concepts of liberty, equality, and fraternity as from a firm conviction that they were, both as men and as British citizens, owed their traditional right to a representative legislature and the freedom to conduct their lives without arbitrary interference of an over controlling government - “rights which God, and the laws, have given equally and independently to all” (Jefferson, Para. 1).

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