In a Gallup poll conducted in September of 2011, 50% of respondents answered “yes” when asked, “Do you think the federal government poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens?” This could be an illustration of the tiresome and nebulous complaint against “big government.” It could be an example of the famously paranoid style of American politics. But it could also be evidence that the American people are wiser than is sometimes believed.
The Founders left the American people with the advice that, when it is believed that the government has gone off course, it is time to return to “fundamental principles.” These are conveyed, in abbreviated form, in the phrase, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Of course, there is no proof that Americans still revere the ideals. This is an age, after all, when noble-sounding ideals are seen as unsophisticated. For some, talk of life, liberty, and happiness is a relic of antiquated Enlightenment thinking. Liberal intellectuals who follow Richard Rorty will dismiss Enlightenment philosophy as essentialist: that is, dogmatic and proselytizing. Multiculturalists may believe that the Founders were too uniformly white and male to be taken seriously today. The critics of the Founders are less damaging to their memory, though, than the praise of that peculiar breed of modern American who is notable for his beer belly, tricorn hat, and an unhealthy obsession with the Second Amendment.
But before it is even possible to consider whether the ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are still meaningful to Americans, it is necessary to consider whether the words are widely understood. After all, language has changed since the 1770’s. The press of day-to-day life gives little cause or opportunity to reflect on these merely historical, academic notions.
It’s doubtful that Americans still learn this antique vocabulary. The American Pageant for example is a widely adopted high school textbook and may give an indication of what young people are being taught. The book does not explain what the Founders meant by “liberty,” “property,” “equality,” “natural law,” “anarchy” or “tyranny.” John Locke, who was probably the single most important influence on the political thinking of the Founders, is only mentioned once – and then it is to credit his contribution to 19th century transcendentalist philosophy. Nothing is said about Cato’s Letters, a collection of writings that helped articulate the fears of the American colonists, rally them around fundamental principles, and spark the War of Independence.
There are also plenty of misconceptions. People are mistaken about the word “liberty.” The libertarian may believe, with Ayn Rand, that “liberty” means, “Man’s right to individual action, individual choice, individual initiative, and individual property.” But the Founders were never drawn to radical individualism; in their eyes, what Rand describes is not liberty but anarchy. John Adams defined anarchy as a state in which, “Every Man will do what is right in his own Eyes.” Where there is anarchy, Adams warned, self-serving justifications will be offered for every sort of offense against another human being, and “no Man’s life or Property or Reputation or Liberty will be secure.” Anarchy leads, ultimately, to the explosion of buildings and public property.
|Faces of Anarchy. As noted here, "fringe" elements have traditionally been employed as "bogey-men" to frighten a naive populace into submission, either when they are protesting injustices, or asked to accept further usurpations of their freedoms. (Update to post, May 2nd, 2012)|
|Wall Street, bombed by anarchists in the year 1919. The ensuing "Red Scare" provides an historical example of how extremists and their extreme acts are used by government to impugn the motives of peaceful dissenters.|
“Liberty,” as the Founders knew it, refers to the “happiness to live under laws of our own making.” It comprises a set of rules that the people create and agree upon and that allows them to live together amicably. Locke said that liberty, like the law, must be “equal and impartial.” Liberty, in other words, only exists in the sense that unanimity exists, when it applies to everyone.
|The coiled snake defending liberty (symbolized as a tree).|
The Founders were certainly not Puritans, although historian Forrest McDonald is justified in characterizing the government they created as a “puritanical republic.” McDonald was referring specifically to the Puritans’ pessimistic – or merely unsentimental – view of human nature. Jefferson, sounding a bit like Cotton Mather, wrote, “in every government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover, and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate, and improve.” Puritans and Whigs both understood that insatiable greed and self-interest are the norm rather than exception; they are the inevitable consequence of exposure to wealth and influence. To resist the encroaching nature of these vices, people rely on one another for mutual encouragement and watchfulness.
Tyranny grows by stages. Like a cancer, it is dangerous before symptoms are detected. It starts as petty corruption. The longer this corruption is allowed to continue unimpeded, the more ravenous and destructive it becomes. Yet, it is only after the corruption has reached an advanced stage do the signs become unmistakable; then, it will resist any efforts on the part of the people to eliminate it. Thus, it is possible for tyranny to exist and the only indication one has is the feeling that, no matter who wins an election, the promised and most urgently needed changes will not occur. And it is only after many small compromises that cruelty and oppression, in the form of unlawful imprisonment, unreasonable searches of law-abiding people, suppression of freedom of speech, and punishing the innocent, manifests.
Today, for a lot of people, “equality” means the absence of discrimination. To the 18th century mind, equality meant the absence of privilege. In monarchies, privileged citizens swayed elections and had their own separate more lenient and accommodating system of justice. The poor could literally be hanged for stealing a loaf of bread, but the privileged could evade punishment for far more destructive crimes – such as taking public money for private gain, or causing banks to fail.
Today, the word “property” means “something that is owned.” It is often considered to be synonymous with “private property.” When it was used in the Founders’ era, especially in a legal context, the word meant “a claim to possession.” People did not say “I have property,” but instead, “I have a property in it.” Justice John Vaughan, in the 1673 case of Thomas v. Sorrell, ruled that “every man … has a property and right … in life, liberty, and estate … which the law allows him to defend, and if it be violated, [the law] gives an action to redress the wrong, and to punish the wrongdoer.” And, “To violate men’s properties is never lawful.” These ideas were later championed by John Locke in his claim that property consists of “lives, liberties and estates.”
Then, as now, “property” meant different things to different people. For Tories – many of whom were landholders – the word “property” meant property in land. Anything other than land was chattels. For Whigs, who represented the commercial and professional classes, the word “property” meant property in rights, among which, the right to possess the products of one’s own labor without fear of confiscation by the government or by landlords.
The distinction between property in land and property in rights is essential to understanding the origins of the fundamental principles revered by the Founders. To appreciate this, some historical background is necessary. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the king exerted political and economic influence by conferring land grants, offices, and honors. Some saw this as a vestige of seigniorial monarchy. This refers to a Feudal Era theory of government in which property in land is the origin of political authority and a kingdom remains in the possession of the king and his heirs in perpetuity. Through a system of tenure certain individuals –usually wealthy and privileged aristocrats – were allowed to hold a piece of land as though it were theirs for a period of time. This arrangement consigned the remainder of the population to the status of renters; their lives and livelihoods depended on the forbearance of the aristocrats.
When Cato’s Letters was written, remnants of this feudal vision still animated political thinking. Therefore, they were expressing bold and fairly new ideas when they said, “every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body had any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his.” And Locke, in his explication of natural rights, said that mankind is God’s handiwork, and is made to last “during his, not one another's pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us … as if we were made for one another's uses.”
In the context of Great Britain’s legacy of feudalism and the hardship that it imposed on so many people, Jefferson felt he could replace the word “property” with “the pursuit of happiness” without causing too great a change in meaning. On the subject of happiness, as it pertains to the body politic, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “the true principles of the happiness of nations” will be achieved when “The causes, which tend continually to accumulate and concentrate landed property and wealth in a few hands, may be diminished” and “the remains of the feudal system may be abolished.”
Even though property qualifications prevented many of them from voting, and still fewer from sitting in Parliament, many Britons believed that they lived in a royal monarchy. The king, by this view, acts as a protector, rather than owner, of the kingdom. So he does not regard the county casually as something he rents out over the holidays or loans to a friend. Thomas Paine noted the British disdain for seigniorial monarchy in a letter: “When it was reported in the English Newspapers … that the empress of Russia had given to one of her minions a large tract of country and several thousands of peasants as property, it very justly provoked indignation and abhorrence.” Yet, Paine added, the situation was not so different in Great Britain. Even the poorest citizens had to pay taxes, and a large portion of the public revenue became gifts, grants, pensions and bail-outs that the king and his ministers exchanged for the purpose of personal profit, political loyalty, or extracting favors.
John Adams saw history in a similar light. Writing about Queen Elizabeth, he noted that, “her private interest and the importunity of her avaricious favourites, betrayed her into the measure of granting monopolies, and of creating exclusive companies with exclusive privileges, fatal to the interest of her most industrious subjects.”
The Evolution of the Idea of Property, in Relation to the American Revolution
The Evolution of the Idea of Property, in Relation to the American Revolution
Royal prerogative at the time extended to foreign trade. King Charles II, for example, granted a corporation by the name of The Royal African Company exclusive trading rights for portions of modern-day Libya. And, the company was given authority to confiscate the ships of unauthorized traders.
Commander Bridges’ ship was confiscated by this company. He believed he had a right to carry out trade, and took the matter to court. His lawyer, a man named Bartholomew Shower, questioned whether the king had the power to bestow properties on a private company. Citing Thomas v. Sorrell as precedent, Shower argued that property encompasses “life, liberty, and estate.” Property is not the king’s to give. Instead, it belongs to every law-abiding British subject. Hence, decisions regarding the alteration or transfer of properties require parliamentary approval.
Shower’s winning the case did not prevent parliament from granting exclusive trading rights. The East India Company continued to exercise its trading rights in India and elsewhere, on the condition that its stock consistently paid a dividend of 12%. The government received a yearly fixed return of £ 400,000 but earned considerably more by stimulating 4 million in trade per year; the company became “the great money-engine of state.” Many citizens were unconcerned by or resigned to the fact that the king and members of parliament owned stock in the company.
The government sent thousands of soldiers to India, both to collect revenues on behalf of the company and to suppress rebellion. Muslim provincial rulers, the nawabs, were given fiefdoms and an ambitious revenue target each year. The targets were met by means of rack-rents and revenue agents. Revenue agents entered cities and villages to collect exactions: meaning, the payments required of Indian people to cover the expenses of British soldiers as well as a growing army of British civil servants, many of whom were political appointees. If the nawabs fell short of the target, they had to borrow the money to pay. The British exploited the opportunity to become lenders and charge high interest rates. In time, new bonds were issued to pay for earlier bonds, and revenue mortgages (borrowing against future revenue) were signed. If they met the revenue target, the target would be raised. This left the nawabs with little time to spare for the “exertions of honest industry” (as one observer put it), as they were forced to focus their attention on speculative financial schemes.
The East India Company was also involved in engrossing domestic products – meaning, they purchased goods in such supply that they could control prices, so as the Indians were asked to pay more, they were also forced to sell for less. According to Macaulay’s historical account, “Enormous fortunes were thus rapidly accumulated at Calcutta, while thirty millions of human beings were reduced to the extremity of wretchedness." And not only were the Indians earning less money, hard currency was steadily being taken out of their economy and sent abroad. Edmund Burke observed, at the time, “Every rupee of profit made by an Englishman is lost forever to India.” Domestic investment in manufacturing and infrastructure fell into steady decline, and credit became increasingly hard to come by.
In Bengal, after a drought had led to a poor crop, company administrators made up the lost revenue by charging a rate of 60% on tax and tariffs. The Bengalese farmers were left with no other alternative than to stop growing food and start to growing opium poppies, a far more lucrative crop, thus inaugurating the modern pattern in which the creation of fiefdoms creates the violent trade in drugs. When the farmers abandoned the production of food crops, it created a famine, and several million Bengalese people died of disease and starvation. Over time, the effect of the company’s policies on farming and manufacturing led to lost production. This caused the company to struggle financially, even as directors and managers enjoyed great wealth.
Having read about the events in India, Britons were appalled by the newly and ostentatiously wealthy East India Company employees who returned to England. Still, many managed to buy their way into parliament – by 1780, there were 27 of these so-called “nabobs” in office.
It is likely that 18th century Americans were avid readers of Cato’s Letters because this collection of writings provided insight into current affairs. Copies were distributed in every colony, some coming directly from Benjamin Franklin’s presses. The authors of Cato’s Letters posed the question, “What has [the East India Company] done for the benefit of trade, which they were established … to promote? They have suffered numbers of our manufactures to rot … hindered private traders from carrying on an advantageous commerce … and, it is said, by their wise conduct, have lost a million or two of the Company's principal.” As the fortunes of the East India Company foundered through their “extravagance and folly,” the directors of the company conspired to inflate (or “job”) the price of their company stock. When they “wound up the cheat to the highest pitch that it can go,” they will, “like rats, leave a falling house,” and allow “multitudes of people to be crushed by it.”
And once they have earned their latest windfall by manipulating the price of stock, they will finally “bring themselves into the legislature with their peddling and jobbing talents about them, and so become brokers in politics as well as stock, wanting every qualification which ought to give them a place there.” Through forestalling, buying, and selling votes, they will, “fill their private purses with many thousands [in profit] … load the people with many millions [in debt].”
The economist Adam Smith also wrote about the effects of these mercantilist policies. He used the term “monopoly” more broadly than it is used today, to refer any situation in which supply is artificially restricted to a small number of producers. He saw government-sponsored franchises or “exclusive companies” as examples of this practice. Monopolies increase the amount of profit enjoyed by a privileged few, he believed, by denying profit to the large numbers of people who are shut out of the market. Adam Smith’s thinking is reflected in the modern economic concept of rent-seeking. The term is an allusion to feudalism: when landholding aristocrats charged their peasants rent, wealth was taken out of the hands of the numerous, industrious poor and placed in the hands of the wealthy, idle few.
|Against the East India Company's importation of tea, 1773. Note the reference to "private interests."|
When the United States Constitution was being drafted, Jefferson sought to include in the Bill of Rights, along with freedom of speech and freedom of the press, a “freedom of commerce against monopolies.” But he was to discover that there were, even among the delegates assembled to ratify the Constitution, some who would oppose this idea. The changing meaning of the expression “free trade” is, regrettably, too large a subject to be considered here.
 Eleventh Edition. Thomas A. Bailey, David Kennedy, & Lizabeth Cohen. Houghton Mifflin.
 Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.
 Ayn Rand, http://fare.tunes.org/liberty/library/toptt.html
 An Essay on Man’s Lust for Power, 1763 / 1807.
 Benjamin Church, Cited in Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776 – 1787.
 A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689
 Second Treatise on Government, 1689.
 Miriam-Webster Dictionary
 Novus Ordo Seclorum
 See David Seipp, ‘The Concept of Property in the Early Common Law’
 Cited in Seipp, ibid
 Second Treatise on Government.
 ‘Reflection on the Augmentation of Wages.’ 1788.
 Second Letter to Lord Onslow, 1792
 A New History of Great Britain, 1802.
 Report of Cases Adjudged in the Court of King's Bench During the Reigns of Charles II, James II, & William III, Volume 2, 1794.
 George Dempster. 1773. Proceedings and Debates in Parliament.
 Phillips, ‘A Successor to the Moguls: The Nawab of the Carnatic and the East India Company, 1763-1785.’ 1985.
 Essay On Clive, published 1907.
 Speech on Mr. Fox’s East India Bill. 1780.
 Marshall, Problems of Empire
 Lawson & Philips, ‘Perception of Nabobs in Mid-Eighteenth Century Britain’
 Benjamin Faneuil, cited in Francis Drake, Tea Leaves. 1970.
 Ministry Embarrassed with the Affairs of the India Company -- Distress among the Manufacturers. 1773
 A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, 1765
 Letter to A. Donald. 1788.