I’ve been reading quite a bit about the Founders and the American Revolution lately (per my New Year’s resolution), and as I learn more and more about the extraordinary men who led the charge for independence and the challenges they faced, I find it impossible not to juxtapose those tumultuous, uncertain times with our own. The events of our revolution weren’t necessarily extraordinary when laid against modern times; Parliament levied overburdensome taxes upon the colonists that restricted their ability to transact business and conduct trade, without the consent of the colonists themselves. After an overwhelming outcry from the colonists, some of these taxes were repealed, but others were implemented for the sole sake of assertion of the Crown’s authority over the colonies. When the Americans grew even more restive, the Crown suspended colonial legislatures and stripped the colonists of rights due even the lowest of British citizens. Colonists were, for instance, faced with the compulsory provision of quarter for British troops sent to occupy their own cities.
It isn’t really until the British pushed the American colonists to this extent that the events became extraordinary, not of themselves, but because extraordinary men rose up to defy the Crown and the greatest empire of the day. They did not know they would win. In fact, many expected they would end up dangling from a gallows. But they chose to challenge tyranny rather than quietly bear their heavy chains, not because they saw a betterment of their immediate fortunes (again, the gallows), but because the principles of human dignity and the tradition of British rule of law, which the Crown had now forsaken, demanded it. You (should) know their names: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, Henry, Rush, Hancock, etc. They rose up and gave birth to a nation that has, despite it all, endured now for 233 years. But of course, you (should have) learned all this in American history class. What am I getting at?
What I’m getting at is a powerful and potentially depressing point. As I read the history of our nation’s birth, I look about our modern political landscape and ask the question: would any of our political leaders today have had the courage and wisdom to have risen up and challenged this sort of tyranny? Would they have even recognized it as tyranny? Would they have instead tried to bargain with tyranny, as many delegates to the Continental Congress hoped to do? I look around and find myself able to point out perhaps a handful, out of the 545 representatives, senators, justices and the president that make up our federal government. You may feel differently, but in the nation we have become, a nation of taxation, government largesse and intrusion, I fear that we may have already passed the threshold that our Founders would have tolerated. And even as I write that, I can hear the jeering of people of both political stripes: that the nation and the world was different then, that this country belongs to the living and not to the dead, and that the Founders never meant to have us be enslaved to their particular thoughts and systems.
While those criticisms are correct to a certain extent, they also miss the central argument and betray an unsatisfactory answer to my prior question on the part of the respondent. Our circumstances today, with burdensome taxes (borne most heavily by business), federal intrusion into every aspect of government, state government dependent upon federal subsidy, government surveillance of law-abiding citizens without warrant, and repeated overstepping of government authority, are very near to what the Founders observed in their time. Those who would say that we should ignore the Founders in changing times, that we should calm down and cool it, are implicitly stating that they would not have stood up alongside them and challenged the tyranny of the Crown had they been there. Today’s politicians would probably not stand up to heavy taxes or think them tyrannical, as they themselves levy them freely upon the citizenry. They clearly will not stand up to inordinate federal control, as they have seen to its entrenchment. They would not have stood up to King George and pledged their Lives, Fortunes or sacred Honor to the defense of liberty.
I’m not advocating armed insurrection, as I’m sure many of you are worrying. Thankfully the Founders did that heavy-lifting for us and established a system of government by which revolutions are bloodless. What I’m advocating is that revolutionary spirit fostered by men like Jefferson, that readiness to challenge government and be unyielding in the protection of our rights. I’m basically reminding you all that we must remain steadfast and not “calm down and cool it,” as I’m sure the Founders were advised to do by many (not least of all King George himself). Stay vigilant and steadfast. Don’t shy away from debate. Don’t assume the benevolence of government. Don’t give up the fight just yet. We have a lot of work to do together. Let’s start by asking our politicians, “Would you have affixed your signature to the Declaration of Independence, or would you have hanged those that did?” And make sure they tell you why.