Lots of people celebrate July 4. I do not.
The Declaration of Independence justified armed secession. It was signed by a handful of lawyers on July 4, 1776. Secession was a way of transferring a great deal of power to colonial legislatures, where most of these lawyers were members. It was a way of replacing governors appointed by the King with governors elected by men of the colonies.
Then the law of unintended consequences once again made itself felt: higher taxes, hyperinflation, price controls, default on state debts, The Politically Incorr... Best Price: $1.51 Buy New $8.71 (as of 06:15 EST - Details) and (in 1788) a new centralized government that dwarfed the power of the British Empire’s distant sovereignty in 1776. Finally, a new firm of democracy arose, a democracy of nine Supreme Court justices. The sovereignty of “we the people” — the most rhetorically powerful and most misleading phrase in American history — morphed into the sovereignty of five justices.
Surprise, surprise — but not to the Anti-Federalists of 1787, and surely not to the loyalists of 1776, who had their property stolen by the new national government after 1783. A hundred thousand of them were in Canada in 1788, living under a far less centralized government.
I am a great believer in secession. I just do not believe in the armed form. Armed secession is sometimes valid as a defensive measure against an illegitimate invasion by the central civil government, but only rarely in history has armed secession not strengthened the political power of the secessionists more than the central government from which the secessionists are seceding.
Secession is first of all a moral rebellion. People perceive that the civil government under which they operate had become inherently No Treason: The Consti... Best Price: $3.95 Buy New $2.99 (as of 08:15 EST - Details) immoral. Also, the government shows no sign of reforming itself.
Secession begins when someone offers a moral critique that begins with the individual. Moral reform is above all self-reform. If it is not grounded in a call for self-reform, it is just one more call for a transfer of power to a new group of power-seekers.
Next, this reform impulse spreads to institutions that use private funds and individual talents to begin to reform society. If this program of reform is confined to politics, I recommend the following strategy: keep your hand upon your wallet, and your back against the wall.
Until there is institutional evidence of superior moral performance and superior practical performance in a wide variety of voluntary associations, especially the family, do not commit your money and your emotional commitment to any political reform movement.
Armed rebellion requires arms. Arms require money. Money requires taxation. Taxation has three main forms: direct (income, property, retail sales), indirect (wholesale sales), and monetary inflation.
Armed rebellion requires loans because revenues are never enough to buy the arms.
Armed rebellion requires a top-down chain of command: military ranks funded by centralized taxation. A History of Money and... Best Price: $5.53 Buy New $42.06 (as of 08:00 EST - Details)
Armed rebellion throws up — in both senses — new leaders. Their claim to fame during and after the rebellion is their successful management of a new central government.
We can find defenders of armed rebellion who live to regret its outcome. The most famous example in American history is Patrick Henry, a rhetorically skilled lawyer whose political career began with a series of lies and culminated with a profound truth: his famous comment on why he refused to participate in the Constitutional convention. “I smelt a rat in Philadelphia.”
PATRICK HENRY’S RHETORIC
There is no turning-point speech in American history more verifiably false than his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech in 1775. None comes close.
First, there were no notes of it. It was reconstructed by William Wirt and published in 1817 — 43 years after Henry gave his speech, whatever he said. Second, here was its central core (we are told by Wirt): Conceived in Liberty V... Best Price: $35.13 Buy New $29.95 (as of 08:10 EST - Details)
The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate.
Slavery? Under Great Britain? Parliament had been cutting colonial taxes ever since 1766. It had cut taxes on tea so much that the price of much-favored British tea — by way of India — fell below lower-quality Dutch tea. Against this intolerable act of tax-cutting, the failed former collector Sam Adams in late 1773 organized what we call in retrospect the Boston tea party. It was a revolt against lower tea taxes and lower tea prices. (As Casey Stengel used to say: “You can look it up.”) Paul Revere & Co., in their disguises, tossed privately owned tea off of a privately owned ship.
Sam Adams organized the revolt through his branch of a secret society, the Sons of Liberty. The Sons had been created in 1765 to resist the stamp taxes. They kidnapped tax officials, stripped them naked, poured liquid tar over them, and then covered them in feathers. They threatened any tax official with more of the same. Then Britain abolished the taxes. But the organization persisted, as violent secret societies usually do. The Politically Incorr... Best Price: $2.06 Buy New $9.95 (as of 05:25 EST - Details)
Adams mobilized the remnants of the Sons of Liberty to oppose the reduced tea tax in 1773. The Sons organized the tea party in December. The British closed to port of Boston in response to what was clearly criminal activity by a revolutionary secret society. In response, Adams began mobilizing the inter-colonial committees of correspondence. Henry gave his speech as an extension of Adams’ mobilization.
Slavery? OK, here is a pop quiz. Write down the names of three nations that offered its residents greater liberty than Great Britain did in 1775. I will give you a hint: a mountain nation that never goes to war and which is not known for any inspiring political rhetoric. Name two more.
Neither could Henry.
Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.
Ah, yes: temporal salvation through politics. To use Homer’s tale of Odysseus pinned to the mast, this is mankind’s great siren song, right up there with that follow-up lyric: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.” As with Lincoln’s hallowed (sacred) ground at Gettysburg, Bryan’s cross of gold, and Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 imagery of the flight of the moneychangers from the temple of civilization, Henry’s rhetoric invoked the Bible: idols that hear not and see not.
Then he upped the rhetorical ante: “Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss.”
Then came the bottom line: a call to political revolution in the name of God. “I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!”
And fight they did. To pay for it, Congress printed money: the continentals. This produced America’s only hyperinflation. To stop price inflation, it imposed price controls. Starvation at Valley Forge was the immediate result. Congress and the colonies borrowed. After the war, neither the central government nor the state governments could repay these loans. All of the governments taxed. And taxed. And taxed. The level of taxation after the war was at least three times what it had been before, and it never went back to those pre-war levels again.
Then the young men of the revolution had to settle for political offices in the states. The war was over. Wartime centralization ended. The national government of the United States of America had little influence after 1783. It had to have unanimous support of the states to pass any law, and it could only rarely get this. There were tight chains on national political power. The result was another secession movement organized by the young men of the revolution: secession from the Articles of Confederation.
In the summer of 1787, a closed conclave was held in Philadelphia. No outsider was allowed to attend. It was held on the second floor, so that no citizen could hear the debates. Then the new Constitution was ratified illegally. There was no unanimity required for ratification, and no legislature could vote — a violation of the Articles.
Henry correctly identified the nature of this conclave. I have written a book on it: Conspiracy in Philadelphia. It’s free. Henry did his best to keep the Virginia convention from ratifying the Constitution, but his rhetoric failed this time. Madison outflanked him.