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.