I love liberty, properly understood as something that also entails personal responsibility. I’m also alert to attempts to undermine genuine liberty and have been so most of my adult life. Yet I want to clearly differentiate what is a real threat to liberty and what is not.
One conservative commentator recently posted this on Twitter:
Dropped by a department store to buy a toaster oven. Mandatory hand sanitizer squirt and mask. One way aisles and if you deviate from the approved zone for customers—they sternly lecture you. The country as we know it has been destroyed. And I still don’t have a toaster.
At first, I thought maybe it was satire. But it wasn’t. This individual is basing the loss of American liberty on having to use hand sanitizer and a mask during a pandemic. Then he has to recuperate from being told he’s going the wrong way down an aisle. His conclusion: the country as we know it has been destroyed. I’m really sorry, though, that he didn’t get his toaster oven.
This is not the stuff of historic tyranny. The word “liberty” has become so hollowed out that even an attitude that asserts, “you can’t tell me what I can do” uses the word “liberty.” Yet responsible liberty and that attitude are not the same.
How about a history lesson using the American Revolution as an example? Who were the leading lights in the move toward independence and how did they conduct themselves? Just how revolutionary was this revolution?
At the end of the French and Indian War, American colonists were proud to be members of the British empire. They weren’t seeking to overthrow the system. Even when the attacks on their liberties as British citizens began, the goal was only to retain those liberties. Principles were at the foundation of what I call the Constitutional Debate Period, which lasted from 1761 until the day independence was declared.
The Stamp Act of 1765 was the first action that brought a stout defense of liberty. There were some hotheads, as exist in all protest movements, but the official response to this attempt to impose a tax without representation was a meeting of delegates from most of the colonies to consider what to do. The result was a sober and reasonable document, Resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress. Look carefully at the wording of the opening paragraph and see if you can detect the attitude of those delegates:
Notice the “warmest sentiments of affection and duty” to King George III. Notice also wording like “considered as maturely as time would permit,” “humble opinions,” and “essential rights and liberties.” Then when we get to the final paragraph, we see similar wording:
Here we see that the king is called “the best of sovereigns” and that what they have laid out in these resolutions is “a loyal and dutiful address to his majesty, and humble application to both houses of parliament.” This assemblage of delegates was dominated by cool heads and affection for the Mother Country. Yet they made their point.
The 1767 Townshend Acts imposed taxes again without representation, and added the insult of sending troops to watch over the citizenry, something that was not supposed to happen in a time of peace.
A confrontation with those soldiers became known as the Boston Massacre in 1770. In this instance, it was a mob that led to the problem. In the chaos of the moment, some soldiers thought they heard the captain give the command to fire. Five colonists were killed.
The city of Boston was in an uproar over what had occurred. The soldiers were put on trial. What lawyer would want to risk his reputation to defend those soldiers with emotions running so high? John Adams took on the challenge and was able to clearly point out the complexity of the situation so that the captain and most of the soldiers were acquitted. Two were convicted of manslaughter, which got them demoted and sent back home. I’ve used this Adams quote before, but it’s worth highlighting it once more, when he said to the jury,
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
Adams, though, as a patriot who was opposed to what Britain was doing, made sure that this point was made: this massacre never would have happened if Britain hadn’t sent those soldiers over in the first place. The policy, he warned, was wrong.
Three years of relative peace came to an end with the passage of the Tea Act in 1773. The earlier Townshend Acts had been repealed, except for the tax on tea. To help the East India Tea Company, the British government allowed the importation of tea directly to the colonies, thereby cutting out some costs and providing America with cheaper tea. Most people today wouldn’t look any further than having cheaper goods. Not so with those who thought about principles. The tax—without representation—still remained on the tea.
This led to the famous, or infamous (depending on one’s view) Boston Tea Party in December of 1773. The captain of the ships had been told by the governor to land the tea or his ships would be confiscated. The impasse ended with the tea being tossed into the harbor. The participants in the Tea Party dressed as Indians, for possibly two reasons: first, to conceal their identities; second, as a little bit of sarcasm because the money from taxes was supposed to protect them from an Indian threat.
Regardless, those who witnessed the action testified that this was no riot. It was carried out quietly with a specific purpose. No other property was touched or harmed. Then they all went home. The captain didn’t mind; he was now free to leave and go on to his next assignment.
Some colonial leaders, like George Washington, had mixed feelings over the incident. Was it right to destroy private property? Yet there was the other side of the debate: was it right to tax without representation? Benjamin Franklin, still in Britain as a colonial agent, attempted to work out a means of redress for what had occurred, but the British government decided on harsh measures instead. The result was the Coercive Acts.
The Boston Port Bill closed the harbor and sought to cut off all trade to the colony. The Massachusetts Government Act basically suspended representative government. The Administration of Justice Act would send soldiers back to Britain for trial if they were accused of a capital offense and anyone who opposed the royal governor would also be sent to Britain for trial. The Quartering Act could put soldiers in private homes without asking permission.
This led to the First Continental Congress, which vocally opposed the Coercive Acts as unconstitutional and set up a boycott of British goods that was 90% effective. It must be understood that despite the emotions of the time, the response was clear-headed and based on constitutional concerns.
When fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord, the colonists were taking a stand for the right to defend themselves. The British troops’ goal that night was to remove stores of guns and ammunition from Concord. On the way, they were met by 70 Minutemen on the Lexington Green. There were 700 troops. Those Minutemen weren’t going to start a battle; they were simply making a statement. Yet shooting began (there is a dispute who started the shooting) and the result was eight dead colonists. As the troops went on to Concord and began taking things out of downtown buildings and setting them on fire, Minutemen on the bridge saw smoke arising from downtown and feared the troops were burning down the town. A battle commenced, one that went badly for the troops as they hurried back to Boston.
John Adams, writing to his wife about those events, commented,
When the Second Continental Congress met shortly afterward, it sent two documents to the British government.
The first one, on the left, was an explanation for why the colonists had been forced to take up arms. Parliament had exceeded the bounds of the British constitution, it stated. Further, it had taken arbitrary control of the colonists’ property and lives. Peaceful reconciliation, which had been attempted for many years, had not worked. But even though fighting had occurred, there was an appeal for peaceful reconciliation. That’s why the second document accompanied the first. An olive branch is an appeal for peace.
King George III didn’t care about those documents. Instead, he took action.
His Proclamation of Rebellion, in effect, declared war on the colonists. Yet even after this, it took almost another year for them to take the fateful step for independence. All along the way, their protests were largely peaceful and based on principle.
They faced genuine loss of liberty and handled it with the hope of reconciliation, and only turned to independence when all other options closed. Americans today, in the middle of a pandemic, don’t really face a genuine loss of liberty. Yet far too many of us seem to be reacting emotionally and giving in to hyperbole. Let’s learn from those who have come before us. They have a lot to teach us.