Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Defining Liberty and Authority

Res Publica

April 1994

by Jennifer Grubaugh

The following is an attempt to shed light on the development of the American people in relation to Englishmen and the evolution of American political thought. The light shed may grant us a better understanding of how and why Americans think and act differently today than do other countrymen. This entry is an example of what may have appeared in an average, middle-class colonist’s diary written during the eighteenth century. It seems he was writing a letter to England (formerly referred to as the mother country). The letter addresses his feelings and concerns toward pressure from Englishmen to explain how and why he views himself as an American opposed to a British-American. The entry ends incomplete possibly signifying that it was never meant to be sent, but rather merely a way of expressing feelings, concerns and arguments. The entry appeared as:

Mid-Eighteenth Century

Dear Mother (or so you like to call yourself),

I am writing in response to your recent actions toward me an average, middle-class colonial man. Since our separation more than a century ago we have developed different views concerning the issues of authority and liberty. Hundreds of my fellow Americans and I have written several essays to you describing our feelings and beliefs, but it seems as if you do not understand our out-look (or understanding) concerning our lives as Americans separate from English Europeans.

It is my hope that I can bring you to an understanding of how my fellow Americans and I have come to view ourselves as having lives as Americans separate from that of Englishmen. In so doing, I will define for you our perception and understanding of authority and liberty and how our views of each have changed and why.

Since my fellow Americans and I have been fighting for this cause, in which we so ardently believe, the Englishmen claim that if we the colonists break away from England and deny Parliamentary sovereignty that we will be denying our rights as Englishmen, thus, making us less free than we are under English rule. It is easy for me to see their, and presumably your, argument. You believe that we, as Englishmen, have gained our rights through the English constitution and common law. This I do not fully deny. It is true that the English constitution grants me such rights as the right to representation, however, I do not believe that the vehicle through which I have gained my rights is the English constitution. You see, I believe that I have rights not only as an Englishman, but as a man. You may claim this absurd, but let me explain my position.

There have been many influential causes of my new frame of mind and many of which you were the primary underlying cause. First, let me begin with authority and liberty in England prior to life in America. It has been said that the Englishmen are the freest in the world. No other men know freedom and liberty as they. In this context, what exactly is meant by authority and liberty? Englishmen understand authority to be Parliament. Why? Because it is through Parliament that the laws are passed. These laws, once passed and lived under for years, become part of the unwritten English constitution and common law. Liberty is understood as the freedoms empirically outlined and granted through Parliament or England’s unwritten and authoritative constitution and common law.

It has, however, become apparent to me and many other colonists that, in actuality, Englishmen’s liberties, though now enjoyed, are not secure. There is nothing which outlines the authority and restrictions of Parliament or the people. What is to keep Parliament, at any given time, from usurping more power, and consequently suppressing the rights of Englishmen and becoming an arbitrary source of power?

You see mother, after our separation, you did not continue to nurture me as a good mother would have. If you called yourself my mother, why weren’t you prone to act as my mother? I am now speaking generally on behalf of all colonists from 1607 to present day. We left England to have a new change at life and to escape some of the oppression we were then feeling. The Puritans, for example, came to the colonies in 1629 in hopes of establishing social, political and religious regimes. It was not their intent to break away from the Church of England, from which they felt oppression, and establish a new, but merely to purify the old. As we were establishing our lives here, you wanted no part of us. Our actions were of no interest to you. Instead, you left us alone to fend for ourselves. We were not used to the vast wilderness we encountered. You sent not farmers to help settle the colonies, but instead, you have us gentlemen. To shorten the story, you had no part of our lives from 1607 until 1660 when you finally remembered us. Upon remembering, you reimposed your authority over us. (Authority here meaning Parliamentary authority). You did so by establishing the Navigation laws and other means such as the general writs of assistance.

Maybe I should pause for a moment to remind you that during this time, of which you were not a part, we were establishing towns, families and lives. Since each colony was established according to a charter, which outlined each specific colony’s rights and regulations, very separate and distinct colonies began developing. Despite your remembering us in 1660, you were soon to forget us again in 1715.

During this period, commonly referred to as the period of salutary neglect, we began developing our own colonial legislatures and town governments. These developments were caused not so much by choice as opposed to force. Parliament was not concerned with our actions. We were in need of some form of authority to rule our lives. The colonies were expanding and people were moving. We could no longer submit to this authority which was more than 3,000 miles away because their actions and lifestyles were irrelevant to ours. We needed an authority right here at home upon which we could depend to serve our interests and needs. Power was thus, located in the towns as opposed to one centralized power. It is important to note here that we did not see this right, the right of establishing towns and local governments, as being granted to us by Parliament. It was a necessity not a granted right.

You may be asking thus, how exactly did we come to view our liberty and authority as being different from the liberty and authority of England. We have based our ideas of liberty upon the Lockean views of the doctrine of natural rights. After having read and come to understand Locke’s doctrine, we began seeing how we have rights separate from the English. (During the later part of the eighteenth century, in which I am currently living, we have come to resist your attempts to reimpose authority over us by usurping the right to self-rule that has been established in America.)

The first public rejection of Parliamentary authority was made by James Otis in 1662 against the general writs of assistance. Here, Otis saw, and pointed out to us, the possibility of tyranny within the English constitution. He was the first to make us think about whether our self-rule and colonial assemblies, as well as rights, are protected by the English constitution. It was also he who asserted that even without Parliament we have rights as men which need to be clearly protected from abuse and usurpation. It was this notion that suggested that maybe the unwritten constitution of England isn’t the ultimate guarantor of liberty as had once been thought. It was from this that much later Sam Adams, John Adams and Henry Lee suggested that each state should write its own constitution or outline the laws under which the state would want to live. Where, do you ask, did these men come up with the idea of this written compact? The answer is related even as far back as the Puritans, led by John Winthrop, who formed churches through written covenants by the people to live under the law of the Bible.

It was also in May of 1765 that the colonists began to believe they had the right to obey laws of legislation made by the colonial legislatures as opposed to strictly Parliament. They began believing this upon the seven resolutions presented by Patrick Henry. Actually, only five of the resolutions were passed, but the colonists were led to believe that all seven were passed justifying their actions.

It was also possible for colonists to recognize their rights due to education and liberty. Formerly, prior to life in America, many Englishmen had been subjected to rule under feudalism. This system of rule suppressed the people thus, keeping them ignorant. Never before had an average citizen, such as myself, been able to participate as a citizen in everyday societal functions and activities. Under the feudal system, the nobility ruled. However, upon founding the colonies, there were not many of the nobility who were willing to give up their lives and travel to settle in America. It was assumed that the gentry would rule over the yeoman and others. However, due to colonization, many of these second generations were lost. The types of people settling in the colonies were average middle-class citizens. We were left with a society of the middle-class. Who then if left to rule hierarchically? It was these third and fourth generation middle-class citizens who began to take active roles as leaders. Here we see not only the break-up of feudalism, but middle-class citizens ruling for the first time.

It is now evident that the definitions of authority and liberty of the American colonists differ vastly from that of the Englishmen in England. I have shown this as well as an evident evolution of political thought. Through the arguments made by Sam Adams, James Otis, John Adams, Patrick Henry and many others, we see that our liberties, which we have derived from and nature and ultimately God, must be protected and secured. They say the means of this is not merely in Parliamentary sovereignty, but by establishing means higher than Parliament and the common law, namely written constitutions.

In relation to these constitutions, which they were establishing, one can apply a quote made by John Winthrop in 1645, "it is the liberty to do not only that which is good, just, and honest, but what is exercised in subjection authority./" (We see our establishing these state constitutions as means to an authority.) We want to remain free, but we also want to be in subjection to some authority which can protect our rights and protect the nation from foreign abuses and internal abuses. These means are the development of our thoughts and actions.

Jennifer Grubaugh is a sophomore from Mansfield, OH and is majoring in Philosophy and Political Science.

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