Monday, March 22, 2010

Words to guide our nation as we face an unsure future

On 3/21/10 at 10:45 pm American capitalism, liberty, and our republic was attacked. Some much needed history and clear thinking in our nation's time of trial is in order as we proceed.

Excerpts: The American Revolution by John Dalberg Acton, better known as Lord Acton

. . . Among the Whigs, who were a failing and discredited party, there were men who already knew the policy by which since then the empire has been reared — Adam Smith, Dean Tucker, Edmund Burke. But the great mass went with the times, and held that the object of politics is power, and that the more dominion is extended, the more it must be retained by force. The reason why free trade is better than dominion was a secret obscurely buried in the breast of economists

Whilst the expulsion of the French from their transatlantic empire governed the situation, the immediate difficulty was brought on by the new reign. The right of searching houses and ships for contraband was conveyed by certain warrants called writs of assistance, which required no specified designation, no oath or evidence, and enabled the surprise visit to be paid by day or night. . .

Then James Otis spoke, and lifted the question to a different level, in one of the memorable speeches in political history. Assuming, but not admitting, that the Boston customhouse officers were acting legally, and within the statute, then, he said, the statute was wrong. Their action might be authorized by parliament; but if so, parliament had exceeded its authority, . . . There are principles which override precedents. The laws of England may be a very good thing, but there is such a thing as a higher law.

The court decided in favor of the validity of the writs; and John Adams, who heard the judgment, wrote long after that in that hour the child Independence was born. The English view triumphed for the time, and the governor wrote home that the murmurs soon ceased. The states, and ultimately the United States, rejected general warrants; and since 1817 they are in agreement with the law of England. On that point, therefore, the colonies were in the right. . .

(why was the argument over the writs so monumental?)

They [the Americans] demanded that the arrangement should be made for their mutual advantage. They did not go so far as to affirm that it ought to be to their advantage only, irrespective of ours, which is our policy with our colonies at the present time. The claim was not originally excessive. It is the basis of the imputation that the dispute, on both sides, was an affair of sordid interest. We shall find it more just to say that the motive was empire on one side and self-government on the other. It was a question between liberty and authority, government by consent and government by force, the control of the subject by the state and the control of the state by the subject.

The issue had never been so definitely raised. In England it had long been settled. It had been settled that the legislature could, without breach of any ethical or constitutional law, without forfeiting its authority or exposing itself to just revolt, make laws injurious to the subject for the benefit of English religion or English trade. If that principle was abandoned in America it could not well be maintained in Ireland, and the green flag might fly on Dublin Castle.

This was no survival of the dark ages. Both the oppression of Ireland and the oppression of America was the work of the modern school, of men who executed one king and expelled another. It was the work of parliament, of the parliaments of Cromwell and of William III. And the parliament would not consent to renounce its own specific policy, its right of imposing taxes.

The crown, the clergy, the aristocracy were hostile to the Americans; but the real enemy was the House of Commons. The old European securities for good government were found insufficient protection against parliamentary oppression. The nation itself, acting by its representatives, had to be subjected to control. The political problem raised by the New World was more complicated than the simple issues dealt with hitherto in the Old. It had become necessary to turn back the current of the development of politics, to bind and limit and confine the state, which it was the pride of the moderns to exalt.

Then an ingenious plan was devised, which would enforce the right of taxation, but which would not be felt by American pockets, and would, indeed, put money into them, in the shape of a bribe. East Indiamen were allowed to carry tea to American ports without paying toll in England. The Navigation Laws were suspended, that people in New England might drink cheap tea, without smuggling.

. . . If it was a grievance to pay more for a commodity, how could it be a grievance to pay less for the same commodity?

Americans should perceive nothing but the gift, nothing but the welcome fact that their tea was cheaper, and should be spared entirely the taste of the bitterness within. That would have upset the entire scheme. . .

(in short) threepence broke up the British empire.

(and history may show the health care vote broke up the republic)

Twelve years of renewed contention, ever coming up in altered shape under different ministers, made it clear that the mind of the great parent state was made up, and that all variations of party were illusory. The Americans grew more and more obstinate as they purged the sordid question of interest with which they had begun. . .

The dispute had been reduced to its simplest expression, and had become a mere question of principle. The argument from the Charters, the argument from the Constitution, was discarded. The case was fought out on the ground of the law of nature, more properly speaking, of divine right. On that evening of December 16, 1773, it became, for the first time, the reigning force in history. By the rules of right, which had been obeyed till then, England had the better cause. By the principle which was then inaugurated, England was in the wrong, and the future belonged to the colonies.

The revolutionary spirit had been handed down from the 17th-century sects, through the colonial charters. As early as 1638 a Connecticut preacher said, "The choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people, by God's own allowance. They who have the power to appoint officers and magistrates, it is in their power, also, to set the bounds and limitations of the power and place unto which they call them." . . .

"The powers of the federal government were actually enumerated, and thus the states and the union were a check on each other. That principle of division was the most efficacious restraint on democracy that has been devised." . . .

The powers of the states were limited. The powers of the federal government were actually enumerated, and thus the states and the union were a check on each other. That principle of division was the most efficacious restraint on democracy that has been devised; for the temper of the Constitutional Convention was as conservative as the Declaration of Independence was revolutionary.

The Federal Constitution did not deal with the question of religious liberty. The rules for the election of the president and for that of the vice president proved a failure. Slavery was deplored, was denounced, and was retained. The absence of a definition of state rights led to the most sanguinary civil war of modern times. Weighed in the scales of liberalism the instrument, as it stood, was a monstrous fraud. And yet, by the development of the principle of federalism, it has produced a community more powerful, more prosperous, more intelligent, and more free than any other which the world has seen.

Lord Acton , 1834–1902 was a leading 19th-century historian in the classical-liberal tradition. He watched the growth of the United States with great interest, and lamented the decline of states' rights and federalism.

This was from a lecture delivered c. 1900 and published in 1906 in Lectures on Modern History.

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