Every Fourth of July we celebrate American independence — but why, and what does it mean?
The political consequence of the American Revolution was the liberation of the thirteen colonies from British rule. The Continental Congress declared "that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political Connection between them and the State of Great-Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved."
It was a major defeat for the world’s greatest empire, Great Britain. But the Americans did not revolt over light and transient causes.
The Americans rebelled for freedom from their motherland because they had believed that their liberties had been seriously undermined by the British government.
The government had levied taxes on them without their consent — on some items, as high as a couple percent.
The government had searched and seized their property on the basis of unreasonably broad warrants called "Writs of Assistance."
The government was elevating the military above the civil law.
The government was forcing the American people to finance its global empire.
The government was sending forth bureaucrats to regulate and tax the American people.
Do you see a trend here?
The British government had acted despotically and tyrannically, expanding its power further into the lives of the colonists, who had been used to living in a condition of benign neglect for decades. During and after the French and Indian War, the British government became much more interested in the financial dealings of the American people, raised taxes, and compelled the colonists to house and support the troops in their communities.
An important point is that the patriots were not protesting taxes for programs like Social Security or Universal health care — though we can imagine they would, as such monstrous programs would seem perfectly alien to them — but rather, they were primarily protesting taxes and impositions that were being carried out in the name of empire, war finance, national security and mercantilism.
Today’s conservatives should keep this in mind. For just as war and empire had led to financial ruin and tyranny for the colonies, they have meant the same for us today.
But it is staggering the degree to which the U.S. government has now replicated and even been more rapacious than the British empire, as far as American liberties are concerned.
In recent years, with the war on terror and the war on drugs, we have seen a steady erosion of civil liberties. The Patriot Act essentially brought back Writs of Assistance. Indefinite detentions and military commissions resemble the Crown’s Star Chambers that had been vanquished long before 1776.
The degree to which economic liberty has been destroyed in this country is beyond description. We have completely lost our way. The tax rates that average Americans suffer are ten times as high as the tax burden under Britain. Even Britain’s targeted excise taxes on tea that sparked the Boston Tea Party were low compared to today’s taxes on alcohol, cigarettes, and other items.
The U.S. government intrudes into our financial lives in every conceivable way. Every industry is regulated by thousands of bureaucrats and millions of pages of federal regulations.
We have a welfare state only slightly less socialistic than that of most other Western democracies. We have the largest budget, the largest government program — social security — the largest military and the largest prison system on the planet.
And now we are facing a welfare-warfare state crisis that boggles the mind. The Obama administration has continued and built upon the foreign interventionism of Bush, expanding the war in Afghanistan and into Pakistan. On civil liberties, he has solidified most of the worst legal positions and policies of the Bush administration.
Meanwhile, in the economy, Obama is waging another war on the private sector. Every week there is something ranging from ridiculous to downright despotic — tobacco bans, national healthcare plans, the cap-and-trade power grab. In the name of the environment, he is shrewdly imposing one of the highest tax increases ever, claiming new broad powers over our lives, shoveling billions to connected industry and creating a phony "market" in carbon emissions that will surely benefit a very few at the expense of all of us. On healthcare, he is poised to force the uninsured to buy health insurance, or else be fined a thousand dollars, and begin the construction of a command-control health care system with its philosophical underpinnings lying somewhere between Mussolini and Karl Marx. This abominable program will be invasive in countless ways, giving politicians and bureaucrats and others a peak into our medical lives while usurping control over some of the most intimate decisions a human being can make.
In terms of the political meaning of the Declaration, we have come a long way. Our current government is far more tyrannical toward the American people than Britain’s was before the Revolution.
Independence from Britain did not guarantee the American states would be free forever, of course. And from the beginning, American politicians began reversing some of the victories of the Revolution. Taxes and tariffs and Constitutional violations got worse. The principle of secession and political self-determination was violently defeated in the Civil War. The entire 20th century presented a nearly undisturbed growth of the leviathan in Washington, DC. The U.S. soon became a world empire, as Britain was.
But there was another victory of the American Revolution, a victory of ideas. As Bernard Bailyn argues in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, the Revolution gave birth to a "contagion of liberty." The ideas of freedom began to catch on, not just the principle of political self-determination, but the generally connected ideas of personal, individual liberty. The first anti-slavery societies were formed. People began demanding more religious freedom, and voices began demanding equality for women under the law.
Even in our own time, we can see many reasons for hope. The ideas of liberty have never had more champions, from more walks of life. The economic thinking most needed to combat the status quo has never been more refined with as many articulate defenders. Total war, wartime censorship and conscription are not as popular as they were in earlier eras. The courts are more resistant to executive wartime power grabs than they were in the past. Ron Paul has succeeded in making monetary policy and concerns about the unleashed Federal Reserve serious, mainstream issues, for the first time in nearly a century. States are resisting federal impositions left and right, American tax protests and resentment are growing, Obamanomics is meeting public disapproval, and the president’s betrayal of civil liberties and the cause of peace have turned some of the left against him. And now we have the Internet on our side.
And thanks to the long-term consequences of ideals, the traditions we hold dear, there are many freedoms we still have, but they are sometimes easy to take for granted. Freedom from chattel slavery, women’s rights, religious freedom, the freedom of speech, freedom from conscription — in many of these areas, we are freer than Americans were under Britain, and in all these areas, we are freer than many of our forefathers living in the United States.
If these ideas of liberty can win out, then others can too. And only when the ideas win will we get our freedom.
Independence from out-of-control government might seem like a dream now. But the ideas of liberty can be the most powerful thing on earth. To do your part, declare your own independence from the dominant statist zeitgeist, and spread the message of freedom to people you care about today.
Happy Fourth of July.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a research analyst at the Independent Institute and editor-in-chief of the Campaign for Liberty. He lives in Oakland, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.