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History

about it. It represented another major


episode in the story, dating back at
least to the Reformation, of mans
revolt against God.
One can scarcely deny the existence of Masons or their destructive
designs. At the same time, such
sweeping dismissals of entire historical events are distinctly unhelpful,
and obscure far more than they
reveal. (Moreover, of the fifty-six
signers of the Declaration of Independence, contemporary Masons
can accurately identify only nine as
Freemasons. By contrast, the vast
majority of French revolutionaries
including Lafayette, Mirabeau,
Robespierre, Marat, and Sieyes
were members of secret lodges.)
scandalous behavior of recent popes,
First of all, if we are going to
rashly conclude that we have not had
argue that the idea of resistance to
a legitimate pope for decades. It can
tyranny is itself an unacceptably
also be seen among traditionalists
revolutionary principle, as a few trawho claim that the new rite is per
ditionalists appear prepared to do, we
se invalid. One can speak at great
will have to ignore a great deal of our
length about the deficiencies of the
own intellectual tradition as Cathonew rite, of course, and indeed I mylics. To be sure, during the terrible
self avoid it entirely,
periods of persecu(much of the American tion in the days of
but this inability to
appreciate nuance
argument was based on the Roman Empire
has led some into
we do not hear
history and tradition,
defending a position
Christians arguing
that Archbishop
unlike that of the
that they have any
Marcel Lefebvre
French revolutionaries, right to resist legitihimself did not
mate authority. But
who despised their
hold.
from St. Thomas to
The same lack of
later scholastics like
past and in distinctly
nuance is evident in
Francisco Suarez
revolutionary manner
the way some tradiand Juan de Mariaimed to uproot it.)
tionalists view the
ana, it was made
so-called American
clear that people
Revolution. (I prefer the term War
did have the right to resist a tyrant,
for Independence to the misleading
violently if necessary.
American Revolution because, as I
More importantly, the American
will argue below, much of the Ameriprotests against British encroachcan argument was based on hisments in the 1760s and 1770s
tory and tradition, unlike that of the
were, by and large, the protests of
French revolutionaries, who despised
conservative men steeped in histheir past and in distinctly revolutiontory and law. It is true that one can
ary manner aimed to uproot it.) They
identify certain radical ideological
contend that it was Masonic, and
trends that attached themselves to the
therefore nothing more need be said
revolutionary cause. But it is both

Revisiting the

by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

he principal traditionalist
critique of the past four decades of Church history has been
that dramatic breaks with tradition
have been portrayed as something
normal, even salutary. The older
idea of continuity in Church history,
of a sense that we are in some way
bound not only by sacred Tradition
but also by ecclesiastical traditions
that are not strictly de fide (and the
Second Council of Nicaea insisted
that we were indeed so bound) has
given way to the suggestion that we
must accede to a constant barrage
of novelty and innovation as long as
authority approves it, regardless of
its lack of conformity to everything
that has gone before. With that said,
the following contextualization of the
American War for Independence may
carry greater resonance.
Nothing in the world is more
important to me than the restoration of authentic Catholic tradition.
Having said that, I suspect I am not
alone in observing that among some
traditionalists there is at times a lack
of appreciation of nuance. This is
evident among the sedevacantists
who, understandably appalled at the
present state of the Church and the

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American
Revolution

Spring 2003

Revisiting the American Revolution

analytically and historically possible


to separate these ideas from the main
thrust of the American resistance to
Britain. The colonists were, in fact,
defending a view of politics that
shared more in common with that
of medieval Europe than with the
modern world.
Let us briefly consider the medieval political order. The great sociologist Robert Nisbet once described
medieval society as one of the most
loosely organized societies in history. Political leaders who desired
centralization found themselves up
against the historic liberties of towns,
guilds, universities, the Church, and
similar corporate bodies, all of whom
guarded their (often hard-fought) liberties with great vigilance, and all of
whom would have been baffled at the
modern idea that a single sovereign
voice, whether of a king or of the
people, could on its own authority
have redefined or overturned those
rights.
In such a society, where competing legal jurisdictions abounded and
no single sovereign voice could be
found, the king did not make the law
but was himself bound by it. Law
was something to be discovered, not
made (as with the absolute monarchs
and parliaments of the modern age).
This is what the great colonial lawyer
James Otis meant when he said in
1763 that only jus dicere (to say or
declare what the law was) rather than
jus dare (to give the law, as something invented) fell to Parliament;
jus dare ultimately rested only with
God. (An excerpt from Otis appears
below.)
Today, however, we have reached
the point at which an institution
called the state essentially defines
its own powers. This is a far cry
from the medieval model, in which
the king possessed certain customary rights, but could not define his
own powers at will, or overturn the
customary rights of the people or
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History

the act in question constituted a


of the various subsidiary bodies of
break with immemorial custom, and
society. He was expected to cover
that therefore the presumption was
his expenses out of the revenues
against its constitutionality.
deriving from his own estates, and
By the latter half of the eighteenth
anything beyond this required the
century, a new conception of Britconsent of the various orders of
ish constitutionalism was clearly
society. Almost everywhere in Latin
ascendant. According to this view, a
Christendom, writes A.R. Myers,
measure was ipso facto constitutional
the principle was, at one time or
if Parliament had approved it. This
another, accepted by the rulers that,
is legal positivism a human law
apart from the normal revenues of
possesses its force not from its conthe prince, no taxes could be imposed
without the consent
The colonists were, in formity to natural
law but simply
of parliament. This
fact,
defending
a
view
of
because the pertipoint reflects the
broader principle
politics that shared more nent authority has
approved it. A legal
that the king could
in common with that of positivist rejects the
not arbitrarily step
medieval Europe than idea that there can
beyond the bounds
of his customary
with the modern world. be any appeal to
some higher authorrights. Custom and
ity or standard when objecting to
tradition were thus important instrua duly promulgated legislative act.
ments in keeping the king within
The American claim that the British
proper and legitimate bounds.
Parliament was in violation of the
The principal similarity between
British constitution because it had
this medieval conception of political
departed from longstanding tradition
order and the American argument in
was inevitably dismissed as nonsenthe 1760s and 1770s is that in both
sical by proponents of this newer
cases it was taken for granted that the
view, who rejected the idea that some
governing authority was not unlimexternal standard e.g., longstanding
ited, but rather was circumscribed by
tradition could bind the sovereign
custom and tradition. In taking the
authority of Parliament.
position they did, the colonists were
If this latter view of constitutionalmaking a stand for a view of politics
ism sounds familiar, it should, since
that was rapidly dying out throughout
it is a broadly accurate description of
the Western world, but which for
the regime under which Americans
centuries had held at bay the total
live today. The federal government
state of the twentieth and twenty-first
today considers itself limited by little
centuries.
more than simple prudence. (Years
A brief word should be addressed
ago, when former Congresswoman
regarding the British constitution,
Pat Schroeder was asked about her
which was at the center of the entire
view on people who objected that
controversy. The British constitutheir tax money was being used
tion was not a single document, like
to fund abortions, she replied that
our own, but rather a collection of
conscientious objection by taxpayers
documents, traditions, and customs.
was impossible as a practical matter,
To describe some government action
since the federal government now
as unconstitutional, therefore,
funded everything.) And particularly
meant something rather different
since the New Deal, whenever the
from what it means in the U.S. today,
federal government appears to step
when simple reference can be made
beyond any reasonable construction
to a single document. It meant that

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History

Revisiting the American Revolution

view of British
of its constituconstitutionalism
tionally authoas something
rized powers, the
outdated and oldSupreme Court
fashioned. It was
can be counted on
these competing
to provide a sufviews of the Britficiently dishonest
ish constitution
interpretation of
and the American
the Constitution
insistence on
to justify the fedmaintaining the
eral usurpation.
it was taken for granted older and tradiIt was precisely
this type of politithat the governing authority tional one that
made the conflict
cal order that the
was
not
unlimited,
but
between the two
colonists attempted
to prevent.
rather was circumscribed sides perhaps
This
James Otis, in
by custom and tradition. inevitable.
philosophical
The Rights of
division also sheds light on the lesser
the British Colonies Asserted and
controversies of the 1760s and 1770s
Proved (1763), developed the idea
that led to the break with Britain,
that something external to Parliasince in many cases the issue can be
ment limited any presumption of
reduced to a question of constitutionunrestricted authority on the part of
alism: is this measure, which breaks
that body:
with longstanding tradition, thereby
unconstitutional and void, or is it
To say the parliament is absolute
constitutional by virtue of its having
and arbitrary, is a contradiction.
been lawfully passed by the British
The parliament cannot make 2 and
Parliament?
2, 5; Omnipotency cannot do it. The
Colonial spokesmen possessed
supreme power in a state, is jus dicea breathtaking command of Britre only jus dare, strictly speaking,
ish history and law. They use the
belongs alone to God. Parliaments
word innovation pejoratively, as in
are in all cases to declare what is
John Adams Braintree Instructions
parliament that makes it so: There
of 1765. They were well aware of
must be in every instance, a higher
the celebrated British documents
authority, viz. GOD. Should an act
to which they could appeal in their
of parliament be against any of his
defense, particularly the Magna Carta
natural laws, which are immutably
(1215), the Petition of Right (1628)
true, their declaration would be
and the Bill of Rights (1689).
contrary to eternal truth, equity and
The controversy surrounding the
justice, and consequently void.
Stamp Act of 1765 is instructive.
Explicitly designed as a revenue meaThe Americans, therefore, atsure for the British government, the
tempted to vindicate this older view
Act required that a wide variety of
of British constitutionalism over and
documents and other paper products
against the legal positivist variant
in the colonies from legal deeds to
with which they were increasingly
newspapers, from tavern licenses to
confronted after the French and Inwills bear revenue stamps, indicatdian War. In his outstanding study
ing in each case that this new tax had
Peripheries and Center, colonial
been paid.
historian Jack Greene notes that the
From the American point of view,
British considered this American

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the British attempt to earn revenue


from them, when they were incapable
of giving the consent to such taxation
that had traditionally been considered
inseparable from a peoples freedom,
was an intolerable novelty. John
Adams condemned the Stamp Act as
unconstitutional, arguing that it was
a grand and fundamental principle
of the constitution that no freeman
should be subject to any tax to which
he has not given his own consent, in
person or by proxy.
A Stamp Act Congress, held in
New York in late 1765, summoned
representatives from the various
colonies to approve a joint statement
of grievances to be issued to the
British government. They protested
that their ancient chartered rights,
according to which they could not
be taxed without their consent, were
being violated. The only bodies
that could licitly tax them, they
contended, were their own colonial
legislatures, where their people did
indeed enjoy representation. In their
words, no taxes can be Constitutionally imposed on them but by their respective Legislature. As in Adams
document above, we see an explicit
appeal to the colonists understanding of British constitutional thought:
the constitutionality of a measure
depended not on the mere will of
Parliament but on its conformity with
longstanding practice and traditional
rights.
Other events in the years leading
up to the break with Britain reveal a
similar attention to law and history.
Consider John Dickinson, the Philadelphia lawyer who played such a
critical role in the events of the 1760s
and 1770s. In 1767 he wrote his Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer in
response to the Townshend Acts the
British had passed that year. Among
other things, those acts imposed a
series of new tariffs, on lead, paper,
paint, glass, and tea. The British had
argued, perhaps disingenuously, that
Spring 2003

Revisiting the American Revolution

from them. This was an intolerable


the colonists could have no objection
innovation on the part of the British
to these tariffs, since Americans had
government. The British claimed
accepted British tariffs in the past
to have concluded from the uproar
more or less without protest (even if
over the Stamp Act that Americans
they were often evaded in practice).
objected to internal taxes (levied
Now consider the legal precision
within the interior of the country) but
of Dickinsons argument. It was
accepted external ones (that is, tariffs
true, he said, that Americans had
collected at customs houses). Dickaccepted the legitimacy of British
inson contended that this artificial
tariffs in the past, but those had been
distinction missed the point entirely,
protective tariffs designed to regulate
that it was not the question of internal
trade within the British Empire.
or external taxation that agitated the
That is, those had not been tariffs for
colonists but whether the tax in quesrevenue in fact, it cost the British
tion was designed to bring in revenue
government far more to enforce their
or not. If it was, then all the historic
collection than they actually earned
restrictions upon
in revenue but
The Americans were
taxation without
tariffs intended
defending
a
traditional
consent came into
to protect British
effect.
products from
order against the
Seen in this
foreign competiinnovating British. The
light, colonial
tion. These tariffs
French revolutionaries
spokesmen may
on foreign goods
be understood as
had been so high
despised the French
having engaged in
that practically
past and sought to make an effort that was
no one had ever
at root profoundly
actually paid them,
everything anew: new
preferring to buy
governing structures, new conservative.
They were not
British goods
provincial boundaries,
aiming at the total
instead. They had
transformation
been intended, in
a new religion, a new
of their society,
short, to regulate
calendar
as the French
trade, to channel
Jacobins would less than a generaAmericas foreign commerce toward
tion later. They simply argued that
Britain and away from her competias British subjects they were entitled
tors. Since this had been a traditional
to all of the traditional liberties that
British prerogative since time imtheir countrymen in Britain enjoyed
memorial again, note the emphasis
and no more. They made constant
on tradition and custom Dickinson
appeals to the past, to the British concontended that it legitimately posstitution, and to legal history. In their
sessed the force of law.
minds, they were not the innovators,
But the Townshend duties were
they who defended historic principle
qualitatively different from these
and prescriptive rights. It was the
earlier tariffs, Dickinson explained.
British who were intent on innovaThese were revenue tariffs tariffs
tion, and they were for this reason to
whose rates were low enough that
be resisted.
Americans would not necessarily
This is why it is simply incorbe discouraged from purchasing the
rect to claim that the American and
taxed goods altogether. Unlike the
French Revolutions were fundacase of protective tariffs, Americans
mentally alike. They were not. The
would pay these tariffs, and the BritAmericans were defending a tradiish government would earn revenue
Spring 2003

History

tional order against the innovating


British. The French revolutionaries
despised the French past and sought
to make everything anew: new
governing structures, new provincial
boundaries, a new religion, a new
calendar and the guillotine awaited
those who objected.
To be sure, one can find contemporary commentators who claim to
perceive a fundamental similarity
between the two events, but as the
great conservative Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn has pointed out, even
some Frenchmen who had fought in
America during the war went home
not having fully understood the actual
import of the conflict in which they
had participated. Edmund Burke, the
father of modern conservatism, considered himself perfectly consistent
in his sympathy for the Americans
of the 1770s on the one hand and his
condemnation of the French revolutionaries of 1789 on the other.
We may certainly regret that the
break with Britain had to be accomplished by force of arms, and
that cooler heads had been unable to
prevail. But the fundamental stance
of the American colonists was an
important and admirable one. When
I set off fireworks this Independence
Day, therefore, it will, as always,
be with a clear conscience and a
patriotic heart.
Thomas E. Woods,
Jr., holds a bachelors
degree in history
from Harvard and his
Ph.D. from Columbia
University. He is
associate editor of The Latin Mass
and co-author of The Great Faade:
Vatican II and the Regime of Novelty in the Roman Catholic Church
(greatfacade.com). His next book,
Ever Ancient, Ever New: Catholic
Intellectuals and the Progressive Era,
will be published next year by Columbia University Press.

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