Felicia Muftic – USA: The country that almost wasn’t
June 29, 2010
How are you spending your Fourth of July? Fireworks, barbecue, enjoying the outdoors, maybe displaying an American flag? That is what it meant to me until recently.
The HBO series about John Adams, recent conservative/liberal debates over constitutionality questions and U.S. Supreme Court nominee hearings caused me to look at the meaning of date and what transpired in 1775 and 1776.
We almost were the country that wasn’t. If the British had not overplayed their hand and cracked down on the citizens of Massachusetts who revolted at Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord, and had they not threatened death to all whom did not swear loyalty to the king, it might not have happened … at least then.
There were plenty at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia who wanted to appease the King, who just wanted to register a protest and hope somehow the British would forget the whole thing, or be fairer with their tax policy.
It took a combination of a prickly John Adams and a cerebral Thomas Jefferson to put into words what finally all came to agree: In the light of the British behavior, there was only one course left to them – independence and war.
What if the representatives who wanted appeasement had won? What if the British had eased off a bit? Would we have revolted? Would we ever have been independent? Or would we be like Canada, once a vassal of England, but now independent as well?
It may have played out that way eventually, but we as a nation would have been much poorer for it. The world would have been poorer as well because the Continental Congress set a standard, an ideal for others to copy and emulate.
Fundamental to the Declaration of Independence was Jefferson’s belief that people’s rights did not derive from a king or a government but from a higher authority, the Creator. It was a novel concept, born of the Age of Reason and 18th century philosophers.
The French followed us, throwing off its monarchy in 1789, but their revolution went very wrong. The guillotiners executed the guillotiners, leading to the rise of the dictatorship of Napoleon.
What made the difference between the American and the French Revolutions? I have some theories heavily influenced by the HBO John Adams series.
The French court was removed from its people who were impoverished.
In colonial America the landowners, a large middle class and gentry had developed an economy that was thriving and they wanted to protect it. They did not want to lose it to unfair taxes, though they did not deny the need for taxation. Later, they levied themselves to pay for the Continental Army. They just wanted input into the process and consideration of their needs. They also respected the rule of law, unlike the British rulers who arbitrarily flaunted it.
A key contributor to the standard of respecting the rule of law was John Adams, who himself was driven to revolt when the British removed colonial control of the legal system. There was a structure in place that kept order colony by colony, as well as a legal system that was already accepted customary practice.
The French bourgeois did not have a framework to keep order and fairness and they finally sought order in a dictatorship. Les miserables’ pursuit of fairness persisted for many years thereafter.
The Fourth of July is not about libertarian anarchy or freedom from a government. It is not about avoiding taxes. It is not about the rights of some to trample over the rights of others. It’s about the inherent human rights of people to determine their own destiny, to argue and to debate openly within a framework of fair and agreed upon laws.