Civic Virtue In The American Revolution
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Published: Wed, 03 May 2017
In political philosophy, civic virtue is seen as the cultivation of lifestyle habits that are declared to be significant for the success of the whole community. This term refers to the manner of conduct fixed between individuals and social groups, which is traditional to the civil society and represents foundational principles of law and society. Civic virtue concept was the catalyzing factor of the American Revolution and the foundation of the democratic society in the United States, mainly through the prism of civic liberalism.
However, the American Revolution was a phenomenon of not just ideological nature, but was full of devotion to libertarian beliefs and principles. American revolutionaries were permeated with faith in the truth of libertarianism, or the ideology, encouraging them to give their lives and property against encroachments on their rights and freedoms by the Government of the British Empire. Today we understand that, as libertarians, the revolutionaries did not find conflict between economic freedom on the one hand, and political and moral rights – on the other. In contrast, they considered political independence, moral and civil liberty, as well as production and freedom of trade as a part of a unified and coherent system. The one that in a year of signing the Declaration of Independence, was called by Adam Smith “an obvious and simple system of natural liberty.” Libertarian outlook goes back to the classical liberal movement which arose in the West in the 17th-18th centuries, or more precisely, during the English Revolution of the 17th century (Wood, 2003).
This radical libertarian movement, which achieved only partial success in Great Britain, was able to express itself during the Industrial Revolution, freeing up production and business from suffocating restrictions and controls imposed by state and urban craft corporations. For the Western world, classical liberal movement became a powerful liberation revolution against what may be called the old order, which for centuries ruled over the inhabitants of centralized absolutist states of Europe.
The aim of classical liberalism was the achievement of personal freedom in all its interrelated aspects. The economy ought to drastically reduce taxes, eliminate regulation, unleash the creative energy and entrepreneurial spirit of people, and provide free markets with the opportunity to meet the needs of consumers. It was necessary, finally, to provide entrepreneurs with opportunities for free competition, development and construction. It was also necessary to protect the privacy and civil liberty of people from predation and despotism of the king and his minions. Religion was to be exempt from public pressure or interference, so that the prospects for peaceful coexistence opened up in front of all the religious and non-religious groups.
The new ideal of the classical liberals was peaceful foreign policy. Their goal was to replace age-old struggle of states for gold and territory by peaceful and free trade between all the countries. Since it was believed that wars were generated by the regular army and navy, i.e. by the professional armed forces, tending to a permanent increase in their numbers, it was decided that they should be replaced by voluntary local militia units, consisting of citizens who want to fight just to protect their homes and settlements.
Thus, a well-known idea of the separation of church and state was in a number of other related ideas such as freedom of speech and independence of the press, separation of the economy, land ownership and issues of war and security of the state. In short, that was the removing of state from virtually all the matters. The state ought to turn into an extremely compact organization with very limited budgets. Classical liberals did not create their theory of taxation, but they fiercely fought against any increase in existing taxes and introducing new ones: in the US, taxation issues twice became directly prerequisites for the Revolution (stamp duty and tea duty).
The first theorists of classical liberalism in its libertarian variant were Levelers (the English Revolution) and John Locke (late 17th century), and their followers were the “true Whigs” – radical freedom fighters of the 18th century, who did not accept the Constitutional Treaty of the Whigs in 1688. John Locke introduced the concept of natural right of every individual to control one’s life and property, while considering as the responsibility of government to protect these rights. As mentioned in the Declaration of Independence inspired by Locke’s ideas, “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. In the event that any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, people have the right to change or abolish it and to institute new Government, based on such principles and forms of organization of power, which, as to them shall seem most likely affect their Safety and Happiness.” (Wood, 2003)
Although the works of the English philosopher were popular in the colonies, his theoretical philosophy was not intended to raise the people to revolution. This task was fulfilled in the 18th century by the radical followers of Locke, who wrote in a more accessible, incisive and passionate language, and who overtook the philosophical consideration of the current problems of government, especially in Britain. The most important document, issued within this direction were “Cato’s Letters”, which were a cycle of newspaper articles published in London in the early 1720’s by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon (“True Whigs”). While Locke wrote about the revolutionary impact that might be appropriate when the government impinges upon the civil liberties, Trenchard and Gordon argued that the government always tends to destroy personal rights. As indicated by “Cato’s Letters,” the history of humanity is a chronicle of continuous struggle between authority and freedom, in which authority is always ready for invasions on human rights and freedoms. That is why, therefore, as declared by the authors of the “Letters”, the society must with watchful hostility ensure that authority remained limited and never crossed the narrow borders set for it (Wood, 2003).
Such warnings were warmly perceived by American colonists, who repeatedly reprinted the “Cato’s Letters,” until the beginning of the revolution. This deeply rooted ideology has resulted in what the historian Bernard Bailyn very truly called a transformation of the radical libertarianism by the American Revolution.
The ideas that caused the American Revolution, came from the traditions of republicanism, rejected by the British society. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense” for the first time expressed the belief that America was not just an extension of Europe, but also a new country with almost unlimited potential and opportunities that outgrew the British metropolis. These sentiments laid the intellectual foundation for a revolutionary concept of American exceptionalism, and were closely associated with republicanism – the conviction that sovereignty belongs to people, not a hereditary ruling class (Wood, 2003).
After all, the revolution was not only the first (in modern times) successful attempt to discard the burden of Western imperialism, represented by the most powerful, at that time, world power. Even more significant was that for the first time in history, the Americans limited their government by numerous rules and prohibitions that were fixed in the Constitution and, above all, the Bill of Rights. In all the new states the church was consistently separated from the state, which became a reliable guarantee of religious freedom. The remnants of feudalism were uprooted with the abolition of primogeniture and birthright. The new federal government formed on the basis of the Articles of Confederation was not allowed to impose any taxes on the population, and any significant expansion of its powers could be exercised only by the unanimous approval of the governments of all the states included in the Confederation. And most importantly, the right of the federal government to include the armed forces and to declare war was narrowed with all sorts of restrictions, since the 18th century libertarians knew that war and militarism were the main instrument for strengthening state power.
Alexis de Tocqueville noted the progressive nature of democracy in America, claiming that it permeated all aspects of society and culture in the time (1830’s) when democracy was not in vogue in other places (Wood, 2003).
Thus, America, unlike all other countries, was born during the undoubtedly libertarian revolution: revolution against the empire, against taxation, against the monopoly on trade and against regulation, against militarism and executive privilege. Its result was the government, whose powers were unprecedentedly restricted. But, while the pressure of liberalism in America faced practically no organized resistance, there, from the very beginning, were the powerful elites, particularly among planters and large merchants, who wanted to retain the British mercantile system of high taxes, regulation and distributed power monopoly privileges. These groups dreamed of a powerful centralized and even imperial government: hey wanted to recreate the British system, but without the Great Britain. These conservative and reactionary forces for the first time declared themselves during the Revolution, and later, in 1790’s, formed the Federalist Party and the federal administration. In the 19th century, however, the libertarian ideas demonstrated their effectiveness. Advocates of Jefferson and Jackson, the Democratic Republican, and further the Democratic Party, openly sought to literally extrude the state from the American life.
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