Saturday, September 24, 2016

Review: The American Revolution and The Politics of Liberty

It’s interesting that Barack Obama’s newest press secretary, Josh Earnest, characterized the conflict between ISIS and Obama’s friendly treatment of ISIS (aka ISIL), a brutal, mass murdering terrorist organization, as a “war of narratives.” In short, he denigrated any opposition to ISIS, or any criticism of Obama’s overall pro-Islam policies, as arbitrary say-so. Doubtless Earnest would also characterize the arguments between Britain and the colonies in the 18th century as a “war of narratives.”

Pamela Engel, writing for Business Insider, wrote on September 19th:

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, told CNN on Monday morning that the US was in a "narrative fight" with ISIS.

Earnest appeared on the network as authorities in New York and New Jersey investigated bombs found throughout the area over the weekend, including one that injured 29 people when it exploded on Saturday night in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood.

Authorities on Monday morning seemed to be changing their initial assessment that the bombs weren't connected to one another and did not appear to be related to international terrorism.

"What I can tell you is that we are, when it comes to ISIL, we are in a fight, a narrative fight with them, a narrative battle," Earnest said, using an alternate name for the terrorist group, which is also known as the Islamic State or Daesh. "And what ISIL wants to do is they want to project that they are an organization that is representing Islam in a fight, in a war against the West and a war against the United States."

Earnest continued: "That is a bankrupt, false narrative. It is a mythology. And we have made progress in debunking that mythology."

It is a “bankrupt, false narrative” only in the minds of Earnest and the rest of the Obama administration. Islam is without a doubt at war with the West, but the West refuses to acknowledge that declaration of war. It can’t bring itself to concede that Islam is more a political ideology than it is a “religion.” The Obama meme is that Islam is basically a “religion of peace” (continuing the George W. Bush line) that was “hijacked” by murderous renegades. This is the actual “mythology” that should be debunked.

But the Obama administration and the MSM and all their minions will not be persuaded otherwise. It would scuttle their whole approach to combating Islamic terrorism. They have a vested interest in the Progressive/Left ideology that defines their world view. They are ideologues trapped in a locked room in which they go round and round, chasing their own tails.

Robert H. Webking, author of The American Revolution and the Politics of Liberty, contradicts the received wisdom that the revolutionaries were little more than ideologues who had no philosophical or moral foundation on which to base their opposition to the growing expansion of British power over the lives of the American colonists, and so they declared their independence from Britain more from roiling emotion than from principle. Webking is a professor of political science at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Webking offers illuminating insights into the writings and thinking of several prominent revolutionaries, all of them “intellectuals”: James Otis, Patrick Henry, John Dickinson, Samuel Adams, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Their efforts contributed mightily to the arguments of colonial churchmen and “activists and to the moral certitude of the “common man.”  

Webking, in his Preface, lays down his plan:

The subject of this book is the political thought of the intellectual leaders of the American Revolution. I seek to clarify the arguments about human beings and their governments made by the most thoughtful and influential of the American revolutionaries to explain their opposition to the policies of the British government during the period immediately preceding the American war for independence….The Americans explained their resistance to the British in principled terms….They claimed that British actions were not merely unwise or impolitic but fundamentally wrong and unjust….” (p. ix)

In his Introduction, Webking elaborates on his purpose:

For much of this century [the 20th] it was the accepted opinion that an examination of the arguments made by the American revolutionaries would yield no important knowledge. Scholarship during the first half of this century was dominated by historians who minimized, if not denigrated, the place of ideas in the genesis of the American Revolution. Known collectively as the Progressives, these historians turned to material interests, class structure, property holdings – in general, to socioeconomic factors – to explain the revolutionaries’ behavior. They believed that the revolutionaries to have been moved by what was in their pockets, not by what was in their heads; or rather…they believed that what is in human beings’ pockets controls what is in their heads.” (p. 1)

 Which is more than just a Progressive state of mind; it is a Marxist state of mind, pure and simple. Men’s minds are governed and fashioned by their “class structure” and “economic circumstances,” not by their independent thoughts, says Marxism. They cannot “think” or behave otherwise, or think outside the sealed Marxist envelope. Among other chalk marks against Marxism, is its denial of human volition. Marxism is a philosophy of determinism.

Webking exposes the Progressive determinist premises of such prominent historians as Bernard Bailyn, author of one seminal work, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, 1967):

Insofar as Bailyn is unclear as to what he means by the ideology of the Americans, he has left unanswered a serious question about the causes and rationality, of the American Revolution. There is, however, much evidence in his work to suggest the question. And the evidence suggests that Bailyn’s contention is precisely this: the revolutionary Americans were acting in irrational ways because they were determined to do so by an ideological paranoia that gripped them and left them incapable of both of perceiving political reality and of acting politically like rational human beings.” (p. 7)

Webking notes:

Of course it would be possible for men driven by ideology to attempt to appear rational and prudent by using language they didn’t mean or by uttering prescriptions they never genuinely followed. Still, the Declaration [of Independence] does suggest that the leaders of the Revolution were moved more by rational calculation and less by irrational ideology than Bailyn concludes. (p. 11)

Bust of Patrick Henry in the Virginia State

Capitol, Richmond, by William F. Sievers
The Declaration of Independence is the culmination and high point of Western Enlightenment thought about liberty and political freedom. It is certainly more than mere “rational calculation.”

Webking emphasizes that the first great intellectual leader of the Americans during the period preceding the Revolution was James Otis of Massachusetts. Otis, in 1761, argued that the British “writs of assistance,” which allowed customs officials to search “wherever and whomever” they chose to search property to enforce British anti-smuggling efforts. (p. 16). Webking quotes extensively from Otis’s pamphlet, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764).

Otis closes his introduction with two long quotations from [John] Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government confirming the conclusion that the people have “a supreme power to remove, or alter, the legislative when they find the legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them.” (p. 23)  

Webking moves up the hierarchy of intellectual leadership to Patrick Henry, John Dickinson, Samuel Adams, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, with an explication of each leader’s contribution to the intellectual and moral foundation of the Revolution. Henry, who was regarded in his time by many of his contemporaries as a crude country bumpkin, was actually better read in the classics and in the political science of the time than most would credit him for. His extensive “self-education” allowed him to author the Virginia Resolves, which denied Parliament the right to tax the colonists without their consent. In May of 1765 he rose in the House of Burgesses, Virginia, and stunned the body with his oratory and rational arguments against the Stamp Tax. Webking writes:

A copy of the Sievers bust of Henry,
at Red Hill, Virginia, Henry’s last home.

It is unfortunate that Patrick Henry’s speech…to persuade its members to adopt the resolves was not preserved. However, it was not the speech that actually passed the House of Burgesses but the resolves as published in the papers [throughout the colonies] that stirred resistance to the Stamp Act…(pp. 31-32)

In Book Four: Empire, of the Sparrowhawk series, I dramatize Henry’s speech in the House introducing the resolves. I wrote speech itself, based on the style of 18th century oratory. Please excuse the hubris, but I think I captured Henry’s style and character. Here is Henry in action, towards the end of his introduction of the resolves:

            Henry had removed his hat and handed it again to Colonel Munford. He took a step away from his seat. “The honorable gentleman there,” he said, pointing boldly to Peyton Randolph, “spoke now, not of the rightness or wrongness of the resolve in question, but of ominous consequences, should this House adopt it. I own that I am perplexed by his attention to what the Crown can and may do, and by his neglect to speak to the propriety of the resolve and the impropriety of this Stamp Act. Should he have examined for us the basis of his fears?  Yes. But, he did not. Perhaps he concluded that they were too terrible to articulate. So, I shall examine them, for I believe that he and I share one well-founded fear:  The power of the Crown to punish us, to scatter us, to despoil us, for the temerity of asserting in no ambiguous terms our liberty!  I fear that power no less than he.  But, I say that such a fear, of such a power, can move a man to one of two courses. He can make a compact with that power, one of mutual accommodation, so that he may live the balance of his years in the shadow of that power, ever-trembling in soul-dulling funk lest that power rob him once again.
            “Or – he can rise up, and to that power say ‘No!’ to that power proclaim: ‘Liberty cannot, and will not, ever accommodate tyranny!  I am wise to that Faustian bargain, and will not barter piecemeal or in whole my liberty!’”
            Henry folded his arms and surveyed the rows of stony-faced members across the floor. “Why are you gentlemen so fearful of that word?” he demanded. “Why have not one of you dared pronounce it?  Is it because you believe that if it is not spoken, or its fact or action in any form not acknowledged, it will not be what it is? Well, I will speak it for you and for all this colony to hear!”  His arms dropped, but the left rose again, and he shouted, stabbing the air with a fist, “Tyranny! Tyranny! Tyranny!  The arm dropped again. “There!  The horror is named!”
            Henry wandered back in the direction of his seat, though his contemptuous glance did not leave the men on the opposition benches. “You gentlemen, you have amassed vast, stately libraries from which you seem to be reluctant to cull or retain much wisdom. Know that I, too, have books, and that they are loose and dog-eared from my having read them, and I have profited from that habit.”  His voice now rose to a pitch that seemed to shatter the air. “History is rife with instances of ambitious, grasping tyranny! Like many of you, I, too, have read that in the past, the tyrants Tarquin and Julius Caesar each had his Brutus, Catline had his Cicero and Cato, and, closer to our time, Charles had his Cromwell!  George the Third may – “
            The opposition benches exploded in outrage. Burgesses shot up at the sound of the king’s name, released now from their dumb silence, and found their argument. They cried to the Speaker, “Treason!” “Treason!” “Enough! He speaks treason!” “Expel that man!”  “Silence that traitor!” “Stay his tongue!” “Treason!”
            Speaker Robinson was also on his feet, shaking his cane at Henry. “Treason, sir! Treason! I warn you, sir! Treason!”
            Henry, determined to finish his sentence, shouted above the tumult, “ – may George the Third profit by their example!”         
            Henry stood defiantly, facing his gesturing accusers, then raised a hand and whipped it through the air in a diagonal swath that seemed to sweep them all away. “If this be treason, then make the most of it!” he shouted. He stood for a moment more, then turned and strode back to his seat. But, he did not sit, for he was not finished. (pp. 235-238, Book Four: Empire. Sparrowhawk)

Webking describes in detail how each of the five resolves that were passed and promulgated (not by Henry himself) throughout the colonies was interconnected by unassailable logic to each of the others. (pp. 32-38) Patrick Henry “topped” his speech in the House of Burgesses in his “Give liberty or give me death” speech at St. John’s Church in Richmond ten years later.
"Give me liberty, or give me death!"

John Adams, wrote Webking, more or less seconded Henry’s Richmond speech:

In his attempts to balance the evil of mob violence with the evil of despotism, Adams ultimately makes his decision on the basis of the importance of liberty to human beings and of the seriousness of the threat to liberty presented by the principle of absolute parliamentary authority. He concludes that to allow a right so valuable to human beings to be removed without a fight is a greater evil than the right to fight. He says that in such a fight  the people, even if they lose, cannot be unsuccessful: “because, even if they live, they can be but slaves, after an unfortunate effort, and slaves they would have been, if they had not resisted. So that nothing is lost. If they die, they cannot be said to lose, for death is better than slavery. If they succeed, their gains are immense. They preserve their liberties.” (p. 91, Italics mine.)

Robert Webking’s book is highly recommended to anyone wanting to grasp how “intellectual” were the founders and the basic principles on which they argued for liberty. Unlike today’s political establishment, they did not argue as fatuous ideologues who cannot or refuse to explain why Americans must become slaves or wards of the state or deferential lackeys of the political elite (and I include in that condemnation the Left and the Conservatives and the Neo-Conservatives). This is the tactic of the enemies of freedom today. Their purpose is to de-legitimatize this country’s founding principles. They can only snort, smirk, and sneer at those principles.

The American revolutionaries were not engaged in a pathetic non-intellectual “war of narratives” with their enemies. Webking ends his book with this observation:

The leaders of the American Revolution argued, worked, and fought for peace, stability, and, most important, for liberty. The study of their revolution is the study of the rational pursuit of human liberty. (175)

The American Revolution and the Politics of Liberty, by Robert H. Webking. LSU Press, 1989. 181 pages.