Jefferson's Mistake

By Tippins, Stephen B. | The American Conservative, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Jefferson's Mistake

Tippins, Stephen B., The American Conservative

Jefferson's Mistake [The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution, Jack P. Greene, Cambridge, 198 pages]

HISTORY, IF YOU SUBSCRIBE to the wit of Mark Twain, doesn't repeat, it rhymes. If you prefer the wisdom of William Faulkner, history doesn't exist at all - the past is not even past. The recent turmoil in North Africa has proved that at least one of them was on to something, as American commentators across the political spectrum found in the Egyptian protests reflections of our own heritage. Consider Bill Kristol, who saw a bond, however attenuated, between the protesters in Cairo and "our own bold and far-sighted revolutionaries," who 235 years ago severed ties with Great Britain and began their own democratic tradition, one "anchored even beyond the Constitution" in the Declaration of Independence.

Kristol was repeating a false but popular narrative: that the American War for Independence was a "revolution" in the modern sense and that the American liberal tradition is kindred in spirit to the democratic traditions of other free peoples. But as Russell Kirk once argued, the American Revolution was "a revolution not made but prevented." Jefferson's Declaration notwithstanding, our revolution was not rooted in the fanciful notions of natural rights but was a sustained effort to preserve liberties long secured by English law.

Enter The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution, a timely book by Jack P. Greene and the latest in the New Histories of American Law series published by Cambridge. It's timely because its topic is perennial: since Lincoln, politicians have endeavored to ground their vision for America's future in the ideas of her past, particularly in those of her founding.

Origins, at a brief 198 pages, is singularly focused and easily read. Arguing that the tension between Britain proper (the "metropolis") and her North American colonies (the "peripheries") stemmed from competing interpretations of the British constitution, the book samples the relevant literature of the period. In doing so, it avoids detailing the string of events leading up to 1776. Indeed, the French and Indian War, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, the Tea Act, and even the Glorious Revolution of 1688 - which, as it was with Kirk, is central to Greene's argument - aren't substantively described at all. As a result, Greene's authence will at least need a cursory understanding of Anglo-American history.

As he explains, metropolitan and peripheral Britons lived and operated under three separate constitutions. Within the constitution of Great Britain proper, certain rights and liberties, including the right to consent to taxation, were vested in all Britons, and a transition from monarchial to parliamentarian supremacy increasingly came to define the British concept of limited government. The constitution(s) of the several colonies, by way of custom and necessity, had impressed upon the colonists a notion of autonomy, at least in internal matters. Quoting Burke, Greene writes that in the decades following 1688, the colonies had formed "assemblies so exceedingly resembling a parliament, in all their forms, functions, and powers, that it was impossible they should not imbibe some opinion of similar authority." Yet the third constitution - that of the empire as a whole - was largely undefined. How far did Parliament's supremacy extend? What were the limits of the colonies' autonomy? Were the Crown's attempts to secure a more absolute power in the colonies legitimate?

Numerous and articulate attempts to answer these questions by the learned men of the age are well documented by Greene. Extracts from Dr. Johnson's Taxation No Tyranny, John Dickinson's Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania, Hamilton's The Farmer Refuted, and Burke's speech on American conciliation - among many, many other selections - present the Anglo-American problem as an easily understood arc. At the outset, the colonies enjoy a period of "lax administration," in which promoting the "economic well-being of the empire in general and, not incidentally, [avoiding] political difficulties at home" are the central objectives of British colonial policy. …

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