It is the strangest dysmorphic transformation of any holiday in history. The day that overthrew a government, July 4, 1776, now celebrates the power of a government that is far more vast, predatory and imperialist than the one overthrown.
Not only is the real meaning of Independence Day forgotten; it has been turned on its head. The ethos of the real July Fourth celebrated sedition as essential to life and liberty. The ethos of the July Fourth that people celebrate today bolsters a government and standing army that punishes sedition with a ferocity and cruelty that would have startled even the British.
If you return to the writings of the original Revolutionary generation, you find that seditious and revolutionary spirit, one completely unlike the fatuous pro-American “patriotism” on display today with pledges, flags and songs about national greatness.
As we learn from Murray Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty, the 1776 generation consisted of a people who rallied around a principle, and that principle was liberty (which stands against government control) and its extension in the right of private property.
Since the writings of John Locke and before, the notion had been advanced that all people have the fundamental right to life, liberty and property. But there is a gigantic distance to travel from theory to practice. What made the link is absolutely indisputable: taxation. It was this above all else that caused the revolting generation to make reality accord with an idea that they had already seen working for 150 years.
Pre-revolutionary America was an experiment in practical anarchism that worked beautifully. There was no central state at all and, therefore, no taxes or regulations. The homeland was not a code word for a bureaucracy, but merely the self-organizing community in which people lived. If the community became oppressive, people moved to the next one. This created a dynamic that unfolded over time with a trajectory toward ever more liberty.
So long as the British overlords were benignly neglectful, there was no problem. But as the British began to see the colonies as a revenue source (Britain had war debts to pay!) and an exploitable extension of a growing empire, the Americans refused to go along. This refusal culminated in the great Declaration of Independence, a revolutionary document that continues to inspire every person who seeks to overthrow despotism.
The action began more than a decade before the Declaration. The direct taxes of the Stamp Act of 1765 and the indirect taxes of the Townshend Acts of 1767 combined to light a fire in the colonies.
Eliphalet Dyer of Windham, Conn., attacked the revenue bill for supporting a standing army and called on the colonies to unite in protest. If they failed to do so, they may “bid farewell to freedom and liberty, burn their charters and make the best of thralldom and slavery.”
The New York Assembly’s “Remonstrance and Petition” proclaimed that exemption from taxation was a “natural right of mankind… a right… inseparable from the very idea of property, for who can call this his own which can be taken away at the pleasure of another?”
The Committee of Correspondence of West Jersey said, “we look upon all taxes laid upon us without our consent as a fundamental infringement of the rights and privileges secured to us as English subjects, and by charter.”
The consistent rallying cries across the Colonies became:
- “Liberty, Property and No Excise”
- “Liberty, Property and No Stamps”
- “Liberty and Property!”
Sir Francis Bernard, a British administrator, wrote on the rural people’s reaction to the Stamp Act: “They talk of revolting from Great Britain in the most familiar manner, and declare that … the British forces… never will subdue the island.” He rightly observed that when the militia refused to obey his orders, “the real authority of the government is at an end; some of the principal ringleaders in the late riots walk the streets with impunity; no officers dare attack them; nor attorney general prosecute them; and no judges sit upon them.”
John Holt, editor of a New York paper, emblazoned on his newspaper the motto: “Liberty, Property and No Stamps.” A British officer who had boasted that he “would cram the stamps down their throats with the end of his sword” had his home burned down.
The Sons of Liberty of Windham at New London, Conn., resolved:
“That every form of government rightfully founded originates from the consent of the people… That whatever those bounds [on government, set by the people] are exceeded, the people have a right to reassume the exercise of that authority, which by nature they had before they delegated it to individuals… That every tax imposed upon English subjects without consent is against the natural rights and the bounds prescribed in the English constitution.”
An aging William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, sympathetic with the plight of the Colonies, presented the following speech in Parliament in 1766:
“Gentlemen, sir, have been charged with giving birth to sedition in America. They have spoken their sentiments with freedom against this unhappy act, and that freedom has become their crime. Sorry I am to hear the liberty of speech in this House imputed as a crime. But the imputation shall not discourage me. It is a liberty I mean to exercise. No gentleman ought to be afraid to exercise it… The gentleman tells us America is obstinate; America is almost in open rebellion. I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people, so dead to all the feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest…. The gentleman asks, ‘When were the colonies emancipated?’ I desire to know, when were they made slaves?’”
Massachusetts attorney James Otis urged one and all to “defend our liberties and privileges… even unto blood.” Gov. Francis Bernard called Otis’ speech “the most violent, insolent, abusive, treasonable declaration that perhaps was ever delivered.” Silas Downer, a lawyer and leader of the Sons of Liberty of Providence, denied the right of Parliament to make “any laws whatsoever to bind us…”
Samuel Adams summed up the essential point in 1772:
“It is the greatest absurdity to suppose it in the power of one, or any number of men, at the entering into society, to renounce their essential natural rights, or the means of preserving those rights; when the grand end of civil government, from the very nature of its institution, is for the support, protection and defense of those very rights; the principal of which, as is before observed, are Life, Liberty and Property. If men, through fear, fraud or mistake, should in terms renounce or give up any essential natural right, the eternal law of reason and the grand end of society would absolutely vacate such renunciation. The right to freedom being the gift of God Almighty, it is not in the power of man to alienate this gift and voluntarily become a slave.”
Remember, too, that the taxes were small potatoes by modern standards. People today would call them piddly. But the point was not their scale; it was their existence at all. Every tax is enforced at the point of a gun. This generation knew that they had to kill despotism in the crib. A seemingly small violation of essential rights was as egregious as any other.
These were the actual views of the generation we celebrate today, views that if spoken today by any American citizen would risk that person’s inclusion in a watch list that could lead to a denial even of the right to travel. And as we’ve found in recent days, the president himself possesses the authority to murder any citizen he deems a threat to public order.
In the immortal words of The New York Times: Obama is “the first president to claim the legal authority to order an American citizen killed without judicial involvement, real oversight or public accountability.”
The revelation made the headlines one day, cycled through the 48-hour news cycle and was forgotten.
Consider, finally, the astonishing transformation of the term “patriot.” In revolutionary times, it meant a person who was willing to do anything to support essential human rights. Today, one of the most despotic pieces of legislation in modern times is called the Patriot Act.
The mistake of the revolutionary generation was not in overthrowing a government, but permitting another one to take its place.
(This article was co-written with Douglas French)