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since June 19, 2001


The Intellectual Foundations of the American Revolution

A speech by Lorne Gunter

Posted with permission:

For those of you unfamiliar with the Conceived in Liberty events, they are organized irregularly by Edmontonians Matthew Johnston and Bruce Armstrong. The only one on a set day and theme each year is the Fourth of July lectures. Nearly 200 attended this third annual celebration in Alberta's capital. And for the first time, Johnston and Armstrong took their show on the road to Calgary and Vancouver this year.

Vin Suprynowicz, the well-known libertarian columnist and author from Las Vegas, was the keynote speaker at all three, and I was fortunate enough to give a lengthy prattle at the one in Edmonton.

It appears below.

Lorne Gunter
Columnist, The Edmonton Journal
Editorial Board Member, The National Post

The Intellectual Foundations of the American Revolution

A speech by

Lorne Gunter

to the third annual

Conceived in Liberty

Thursday 4 July 2002
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Whenever I see a group such as this one, I am reminded that in the 19th Century people often did this – that is, gather together in the evening to hear lectures – as a form of entertainment. There were, of course, no movies, no television, no radio; lectures were the WWF of their day.

At the height of the lecture-as-diversion era the highest paid public speaker in the world was Mark Twain. As much money as he made from selling books and newspaper articles, he nearly doubled with his speaking engagements. And he would frequently shock and appall audiences with his opening remark.

At the time in the United States, George Washington was close to a god in people’s estimation, or at least a saint, he was considered to be without sin. And Twain would thunder after he took the stage, “I am a better man than George Washington.” When the gasps faded, he would explain, “He could not tell a lie. I can, but I refuse to do so.”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am a newspaper columnist. You’re on your own deciding how honest this address will be.

Permit me to begin tonight by reading the opening paragraph of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which was passed 226 years ago today.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Later, Vin will no doubt enlighten us as to how the American Republic has lost its way -- freedom-wise -- from the heady days in which that heady document was written. (At least that better be what he’s going to talk about, his speech is entitled [sic] “The War on Freedom: America's Betrayal of the Founding Fathers.”)

But I have the happier task. I get to explain what America’s Founding Fathers were thinking more than two centuries ago, what were their motivations, what was their purpose.

Why is a two-centuries old foreign document important to Canadians? In one way or another, I imagine all of us in this room have had to answer that question when friends and families have learned we were coming here. My answer is simple: The Declaration of Independence is one of the seminal statements on the natural right to freedom in human history, and the American Revolution one of the seminal acts – perhaps the foremost act – in the long struggle for freedom from repression. To permit their significance and spirit to be lost would be to speed the diminution of freedom everywhere, including here in Canada.

And believe me, the intellectual significance of the American founding is under attack. Everywhere the revisionists are attempting to make us believe that the American War for Independence was not what it appeared to be, that was not a struggle for individual liberty.

Permit me to name three fairly recent books as examples of what I mean: Garry Wills’s A Necessary Evil, Michael Bellesiles’s Arming America, and Richard Matthews’s The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson.

All of these volumes, frankly, are trash, and laughably so. Each seeks to justify some modern perversion of freedom – Marxism, gun control or big government – by insisting the American Founding Fathers were a) collectivist, b) indifferent to right to bear arms or c) not especially suspicious of government.

Matthews’s Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson is the dumbest of this trio and Bellesiles’s Arming America far and away the most fraudulent. But it is Wills’s book, A Necessary Evil, on whether or not Americans possess an innate suspicion of government, that is the most dangerous.

Matthews claims Jefferson was not a Lockean advocate of minimal government, property rights and maximum individual liberty, but rather a prophet for the coming of Karl Marx. At the very least, Matthews sees Jefferson as a sort of Robin Hood of Monticello, entirely in favour of taxing the rich and expropriating their lands to give to the poor.

It is true Jefferson was dubious of the concentration of power in private hands. But it was the concentration of power within government that he feared. He opposed a standing army and a strong federal government, among other manifestations of central power, because he trusted no government institution to keep its mitts off the people’s liberty. He was also among the strongest advocates ever for the virtue of private property.

Yes, I mean the virtue of owning and enjoying property. Jefferson believed deeply that property ownership improved a man’s character and that that improvement was vital to proper functioning of a republican democracy.

But I’ll let Tom defend himself:

To take from one because it is thought that his own industry…has acquired too much, in order to spare others who…have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association (notice that – the first principle) – the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.

He also said “Our wish is that …[there may be] maintained that state of property, equal or unequal, which results to every man from his own industry or that of his father’s.

Oh yeah, that sounds pretty much the same as “From each according to his means, to each according to his needs.” Yeah, Jefferson was pretty clearly making a path for the coming Marxist messiah.

See what I mean, Matthews revisionist history of Jefferson is just dumb.

Bellesiles, a professor at Atlanta’s Emory University, is, rather, just dishonest. In Arming America, he insists that guns were uncommon in Revolutionary America -- basically, they were owned only by rich white men. So the notion that ordinary American’s have always believed in the right to own guns is, in Bellesiles’s thesis, a fantasy and a dangerous one. The implication is that working class Americans have always been at least indifferent to guns, if not downright afraid of them. Therefore modern gun control efforts – not the Second Amendment – are the natural fit culturally and constitutionally for the United States.

Aside from the fact that Bellesiles work is fraudulent, his assertion that America’s so-called gun culture is a relatively modern development is ridiculous. What exactly does he think the Continental Army used to defeat the British, insults and flatulence?

For one thing, there is the Second Amendment, itself, guaranteeing the right of individuals not just to keep, but to keep AND bear arms. It was added to the Constitution shortly after the Revolution. And it was presumably added second for a reason, after only freedom of speech and religion. When you’re making a list it's human nature to list the most important items first.

For crying out loud, the Americans had just fought and won a shooting war for their freedom from oppressive government. They had no intention of ever permitting those freedoms to be taken from them again, so they were equally intent on keeping their guns as a deterrent to anyone covetous of their liberties.

By now, though, Bellesiles should be completely discredited purely on academic grounds. He claimed to have discovered this hitherto unknown scarcity of guns by searching probate records of the post-Colonial era, during which he found fewer than a quarter of the wills bequeathing guns to the deceased’s children or friends.

But many of these probate records aren’t where Bellesiles claimed they were. Indeed, some of the ones he cites don’t exist at all. Important collections in Vermont and San Francisco, on which Bellesiles based many of his more strident conclusions, cannot be found. The San Francisco example is the funniest. Bellesiles claimed in his book that California records from the 19th Century vindicate his thesis – i.e. few Californians owned guns, even though the state was a chaotic, gold rush frontier. But, of course, most of San Francisco’s records were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Oops.

Finally, when challenged on the glaring holes in his work, Bellesiles claimed to have saved none of his research to his computer, and that his handwritten notes had been destroyed when his university office was flooded. Despite this dog-ate-my-homework excuse-making, Columbia University refuses to strip him of the prestigious history prize it awarded him last year, Emory University still employs him (although they have at long last launched an investigation into his honesty) and his book is a bestseller.

But if you doubt whether the American Founders thought the right to own guns was an individual right versus one reserved only for the states’ militias, as is often claimed these days, consider these quotations from the Founders at the time of the Revolution or during the ratification of the U.S. Constitution:

To strip citizens of the right to own guns and “use them at their individual discretion,” John Adams wrote in1787, would be to “demolish every (state) constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by no man.

James Madison defended the U.S. Constitution against skeptics in Federalist paper No. 45 by explaining that it preserved “the advantage of being armed which Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation...(where) the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.

And Noah Webster rejoiced that “The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be…raised in the United States.

Now that seems pretty clear to me. But then I don’t have a Ph.D.

Which brings me to Garry Wills, on of America’s most successful academic historians. Like Bellesiles on gun culture, Wills insists the American cultural mistrust of government is a fairly new phenomenon. “It is a tradition that belittles America,” Wills wrote, “that asks us to love our country by hating our government, that turns our Founding Fathers into unfounders…that obliges us to despise the very people we vote for.

So what’s wrong with hating government a little…or a lot? My government hates me. It doesn’t trust me with a firearm. It doesn’t trust me to spend my own money, which is why it confiscates half of it every year. It doesn’t trust my charity or my stewardship of my own land or my self-control. So it taxes and regulates me with impunity, while it devises schemes to reengineer my mind, muzzle my speech and gain control over my property.

I now have one question I ask most politicians: Can government be made to work better? If they answer ‘yes,’ as nearly all of them do, I know they are lost causes. The correct answer, of course is ‘No, government cannot be made better, therefore it must be made smaller.’

But I digress.

Wills wrote Necessary Evil in response to Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America Congressional triumph in 1994. You can read Wills' bias for the Democratic party and for big government on nearly every line. He insists America’s founders were not suspicious of big, central government. Like Bellesile, he insists the right to bear arms is not an historic right, and he concludes government is actually “a necessary good.”

Of course, the American Founders were deeply suspicious of government. Many were downright hostile to it. Consider this line from the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [life, .liberty and the pursuit of happiness], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.

It was common through the first two centuries of the American republic to hear liberties defended as a bulwark against “tyrants foreign AND DOMESTIC.” It has only been in the past 30 years that the attitude represented by Wills has prevailed, in which the majority of academics, journalists, politicians and other opinion leaders have been blind to the possibility that their own government might become the biggest threat to their freedoms.

Jefferson uttered that famous anti-government quotation, one of his best known quotations, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

Patrick Henry exhorted “Give me liberty or give me death,” not “Give me more efficient prescription drug benefits for the elderly or give me death.”

For more a decade before the American colonists fired the first shots at the British Army in 1775, their leading thinkers wrote pamphlets and tracts, declarations and entreaties outlining the injustices being done against them by the government in London – by their government, their king. It took more than a decade for the concept to take hold that their own state and federal governments were THEIR governments and the English Parliament a foreign or even enemy legislature.

Jefferson wrote the Summary View long before he penned the Declaration. George Mason, a Virginian like Jefferson, wrote the Fairfax Resolves. Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense. Even the line from the Declaration that I quoted off the top tonight is another example of how the American Founders sought to justify their sedition by appealing to world and legal opinion.

These were men incensed by the Sugar Act, which regulated the importation of molasses (mostly for rum) into the colonies; the Currency Act, which forbade the colonies from issuing their own money, the Stamp Act; the Proclamation Act, which blocked their colonies westward expansion, the Declaratory Act, which invalidated colonial laws; the Quartering Acts, the Intolerable Acts, and on and on and on.

In the Declaration itself, 24 separate grievances are set out, and not one of them blames the colonies’ woes on inefficient administration in London. If anything, they blame too efficient government for keeping them down.

The Patriots did not start shooting at Red Coats because they wanted a chance to improve government. They wanted relief from government.

Wills is clearly trying to rewrite American history – the history of liberty – to rationalize all the modern misconceptions on freedom.

Forest McDonald, the great conservative historian of the Revolutionary period and of the U.S. Constitution, enumerates that after the Colonists had dispatched the British and were debating a new constitution, “Locke was repeated iterated (often) without reference to source.” Six delegates cited Montesquieu. Alexander Hamilton and Madison frequently quoted David Hume. George Mason quoted James Harrington. And the very first speech at the Constitutional Convention referred approvingly to William Blackstone, the eminent British constitutionalist who identified three ancient rights of freeborn Englishmen: self-defence, freedom of movement and association, and the right to own property. Blackstone also argued it was part of the ancient Common Law that subjects had the right to own guns to defend these three ancient and absolute rights.

Robert Sherman of Connecticut, who helped Jefferson draft the Declaration, argued government is “instituted for those who live under it. It ought therefore to be so constituted as not to be dangerous to their liberties.” Hamilton claimed “the one great objective of government is personal protection and the security of property.

Founding Father after Founding Father argued that government existed only to ensure no one’s personal security or property was infringed upon by anyone else’s -- only for that reason.

There is no doubt in my mind that the American Founders were deeply suspicious of government and of the expansive instincts of politicians, and that they would be appalled by Prof. Wills’s use of their good names to advance his modern desire for velvet totalitarianism. Jefferson might even identify Wills as a candidate for some of that liberty-tree refreshing.

I am absolutely convinced that more American Founders were aware of the dangers of government, and articulate about why it was dangerous, than any modern group of U.S. politicians, and certainly than most supposedly educated academics or Canadian politicians.

Why do I care about the American spirit of individual liberty? Because it is a beacon that shines well beyond the border of the United States. Our own politicians would be even more rapacious towards the freedoms we Canadian have left, if there weren’t the example of the U.S. to point to. And if their beacon dims, the first places to lose the light will be outside the United States.

I want to close with a toast. It is my favourite quotation from the Revolutionary period, by Massachusetts Patriot Sam Adams.

If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.

The toast is: To Freedom!

Index to some of Lorne Gunter's articles

On global warming

On other issues

See also:

THE WAR ON PROPERTY RIGHTS & WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU, by Dr. Michael S. Coffman Ph. D.;  August 23, 2006, NewsWithViews.com

whiterose.gif (6796 bytes)The White Rose
Thoughts are Free

Posted 2002 07 10