Revolutions and Counter-Revolutions, Conclusion

In South Carolina, at least, states rights was a founding principle of the revolution, a principle that preceded independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. 

The irritants of trade regulation, taxation, and wounded American pride might not have led to serious resistance much less independence if a large number of educated people in Britain and America had not been influenced by the Whig ideology of rights.   While most historians and political ideologues have claimed, over and over, that the American rebels were devotees of John Locke’s theory of natural rights and the social contract, there is very little evidence of this in the historical record.  In recent years, historian John Philip Reid has gone over a huge mass of petitions and proclamations from the colonies, and there is little or nothing in them about the state of nature or the social contract.  Every important statement and virtually all the little manifestos of church parishes and small townships, stake their claim on the Common Law rights of Englishmen.  

A key word was equality, not of all human beings, but the equality of Americans in possessing rights of English.  Patrick Henry put it succinctly: The colonists are entitled “to all the liberties, privileges, franchises that have at any time been held, enjoyed, and possessed by the people of Great Britain.” Provincials resented the fact that Parliament denied them the benefits of several significant statutes, such as the Habeas Corpus Act, the Act of Settlement, and the Bill of Rights.

For the Americans, the main political questions at issue were how to maintain the security of property. If the British government could tax them without the consent of their legislatures and invade their warehouses and homes in search of contraband or unstamped goods, they were mere slaves of the parliament.  The Stamp Act, according to several leading British politicians and jurists, was a violation of Common Law restrictions on the power of the King's agents to enter a man's property without the owner's permission.  

But Merry Old England, in the 18th century, was evolving from a constitutional monarchy required to govern according to law and precedent, into a regime based on parliamentary supremacy.   Much like today, when not only our constitutional law but the basic facts of human life can be declared invalid by courts, or what is just as bad, overturned by  an election, so Parliament, representing the will of the nation, could even in theory make any law that it liked, overturning customs, abrogating charters, and superseding all lesser jurisdictions   This was the revolution against which our ancestors revolted. 

To avoid serious misunderstanding of both the American Revolution and the traditions of the American republic, we must be very clear about what was at stake: England was rapidly evolving from a complex Medieval society with a rich array of overlapping and conflicting rights and privileges, jurisdictions and traditions into a modern state based on unitary and undivided sovereignty.  American provincials, like provincials everywhere, were conservatives, and they were rather late in understanding the revolution that was taking place.  It was this parliamentary theory of unitary sovereignty—later to be recast in America as democratic majority rule—that Carolinians and other Americans were determined to resist.  

Despite the provocations, Charleston’s political leaders were reluctant rebels.  John Rutledge, the heart and soul of independent South Carolina, still wanted to do nothing that would prevent reunification with the empire, and Henry Laurens, writing to a friend from the tower of London, recalled his own reaction to the Declaration of Independence:

When intelligence of that event reached Charlestown where I was, I was called upon to join in a procession for promulgating the Declaration. I happened to be in mourning, and in that garb I attended the solemn and, as I felt it, awful renunciation of an union which I, at the hazard of my life and reputation, most earnestly strove to conserve and support. In truth, I wept that day, as I had done for the melancholy catastrophe which caused me to put on black clothes—the death of a son—and felt much more pain.

The leaders of South Carolin’s revolution—the Rutledges, Pinckneys, and Laurenses—were all property-owners who fully embraced the notion that human happiness is dependent upon the security of property within a constitutional tradition that neither the whim of a King, nor the sovereignty of Parliament, nor the will of the people can be allowed to transgress.  This was the bedrock of American republicanism, not only for the Carolinians, but for Jefferson in Virginia and the Adamses in Massachusetts.  They all feared democracy, which, as they knew from history, led first to anarchy and ultimately to tyranny.  When Southerners heard democracy being invoked to justify the abrogation of constitutional principles, it was not only the loss to their pocketbooks they feared but the destruction of republican liberty.  

The theory of democracy, which is in principle the right of a majority to strip a minority of its rights, was used to destroy the republic 150 years ago, and it is in the name of democratic equality that all the fundamental institutions of human life are under attack.   Once this principle is invoked, there are no barriers to the growth of government and the invasion of private life.  We once had a constitution to defend us from the tyranny of the majority, but the Constitution of the United States, while it can still provide excellent talking points for conservatives, has been nullified by the Supreme Court.  We once had states, whose power to resist the national government was guaranteed by the 10th Amendment, but Appomattox put an end to the rights of the states, along with every other right protected in the Constitution.

The only question on the table these days is the Machiavellian question of power.  Edward Mcrady, to quote this great conservative one more time, understood this well.  In 1899, when his niece asked him how she should go about studying the Constitution, the historian responded:  “If you want to know the Constitution, at present, you need not hear lectures.  It can be written in one word: ‘force.’”  His insight only gained strength in the course of the 20th century.

In the political contests of the 21st century, Americans are asked to choose between the party of treason and self-hatred and the party that spouts the slogans of national greatness that have deprived the American people of their liberties.  The appeal to patriotic unity has been nearly irresistible to decent Americans, even before the Revolution, when British Americans began to feel that they had more in common with each other than they had with people back in the Old Country.  New Englanders manipulated this sentiment skillfully.  During his visit to Charleston in 1793, Josiah Quincy must have been playing this tune at an evening party, when a “hot Tory” informed the Charlestonians that “Massachusetts was aiming at sovereignty over the other provinces”:

You may depend upon it, if Great Britain should renounce sovereignty of this continent, or if the colonies shake themselves clear of her authority, that you all (meaning the Carolinians and the other provinces) will have governors sent you from Boston.Boston aims at nothing less than the sovereignty of this whole continent.

The actual conclusion was worse than the English Tory could have anticipated.  While John Quincy Adams—connected with Josiah Quincy through his mother Abigail—dreamed of breaking up the union and turning it into an empire ruled by New England, the revolution of the 1860’s ended up devastating New England almost as much as it did the South.  What emerged in the late 19th century, as John Quincy’s grandson Henry described it, was a country ruled by speculators, stock-jobbers, and imperialists.  Boston rule would have been infinitely preferable to rule by the set of gangsters who engineered the election of Grant, Arthur, McKinley, and Harding and their moral and spiritual descendants who control both political parties today.  

We know how democracies end up, and a republic, once it falls into the hands of politicians who claim to speak in the name of the people, ends up in the same place.  When there is a single conservative politician or mainstream political pundit who is willing to denounce this 150 year old counter-revolution against republican liberty, that will be the day when we can take national political contests with less than the bushel of salt into which Lot’s wife was converted when she turned back, sighing for Sodom and its lost delights.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

4 Responses

  1. theAlabamian says:

    Dr. Fleming,

    As I read this, at dismay in what I see going on on around me, and seeing others who profess pride or belief in traditions and that of the old South seem to have more pride in the Republican party and mercenary work than belief in actually living or preserving Southern ways, I am grateful for your insight and on many occasions your way of putting things has helped me to put things in better context. I love my home, and my brethren knowing I have much to learn and that many are simply unwilling to listen, I sometimes ponder the best ways to reach even “conservatives”. Having only come into knowledge about a better historical representation of the the Southern War of Independence and what took place with culture and American government starting in 2019, I certainly understand some degree of ignorance, but I don’t understand some of the actions of those who are in the “know” as you said: “When there is a single conservative politician or mainstream political pundit who is willing to denounce this 150 year old counter-revolution against republican liberty…”.
    It is hard to know what to do sometime, as I have gotten off Fcebook partly to simply unclutter my mind, and also to focus on other things more, I still run into times when the progressive mouths provoke me to response. For instance, I recently have joined LinkedIn and the purpose was simply to find a better paying job and network. However, although you will see people saying not to discuss or post politics, or personal thoughts on things they deem “controversial”, that actually means sit there and be quiet on what you represent as people repost progressive perspectives on race, the South, recently with the taking down of his statue the legacy of Robert E. Lee, then there are all the disgusting uses for the rainbow in “professional” profiles..etc. You understand. Well I finally had enough feeling as though I had to remain silent and of course I wrote an article with a much different perspective of General Lee’s legacy than you will see predominately on LinkedIn or anywhere else of course. I tried to submit to an editor for the Epoch Times after we connected, after several days of no interest in my pro-South article he did write an article of his own questioning if it were time for secession. I did wonder if I influenced that I little, but I ended up publishing it on my own.
    My point is this sort figuring out how to live in a society so brainwashed is something to wrestle with, and I can’t stand feeling like I’m being socially coerced to silence. Your work, and your articles are a breath of fresh air, as you are a giant in this area (culture, classics) and you are a compatriot, brother with experience to learn from that I simply is hard to find in this crazy society.

    Thank you.

  2. William Shofner says:

    As Paul Craig Roberts wrote today: “With the destruction of the statue of Robert. E Lee in Richmond, Virginia, no real Southern will ever again fight for the United States. Robert E. Lee is so far superior to any person currently in Washington or Richmond, the Pentagon, state capitols, media, universities, whatever, that to desecrate Lee’s memory is to desecrate the country. Now that America is self-desecrated, it has no future.” Well, contra Mr. Roberts, the US has a future… but it is most dark and bleak, I fear.

  3. Allen Wilson says:

    It will now be my policy, if any young man asks, to simply tell them that the ruling regime is pure evil and openly hostile to them and theirs and intends their destruction, and that no, they should never serve in the military. Do not serve this evil. Chinese or Russian conquest might actually be preferable in the long run to the continuance of this evil regime.

  4. Harry Colin says:

    I concur with Mr.Wilson. Just recently an acquaintance asked me about potential service for her son, given my prior service, and I told her, reluctantly but without hesitation, that I couldn’t recommend it for the same reasons Messrs Shofner and Wilson outline above. I also shared that future armed forces would be turned on American citizens who have not heeded the regime’s call to degeneracy, hostility to tradition and blind acceptance of Stalinist rule.