Tuesday, August 30, 2022

America's First Lockean Civil War--1774


             The Appeal to Heaven Flag, a Battle Flag for the American Continental Army in 1775

With all of the disturbing talk these days about the possibility of another American civil war, perhaps now's the time to think about the origins of the two previous civil wars in America.  Of course, we tend to think only about the civil war that broke out with the secession of the Confederate States in 1861.  But we should recognize that the American Revolutionary War could rightly be identified as a Civil War, because Americans fought on both sides of that war--American Revolutionaries fighting against American Loyalists.  In a letter written in 1813, John Adams estimated that about one third of the American people were enthusiastic supporters of the Revolution, one third were not committed to either side of the war, and one third were loyalists supporting the British side.  In fact, some Americans as early as 1774 and 1775 spoke about what was happening as an "American civil war."

To explain the origins of that war, we need to keep in mind three points.  First, it began not in 1776 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence but in 1774 when Americans mobilized to resist British imperial rule after Parliament passed the Coercive Acts for punishing Boston in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party.  The second point is that the primary impetus for the revolution came not from the "Founding Fathers" (those prominent American intellectual leaders who wrote about the abstract principles of liberty) but from those ordinary Americans who joined the popular insurgency for overthrowing British political authority.  The third point is that these popular insurgents were "Lockeans"--not in the sense that they had read and been persuaded by John Locke's writings, but in the sense that their insurgent activity conformed to Locke's teaching.

A good survey of the evidence for all three of these points is T. H. Breen's American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (Hill and Wang, 2010).

After the Boston Tea Party in December of 1773, the British Parliament felt compelled to punish the city of Boston by passing a series of statutes in the spring of 1774 known as the Coercive Acts (also known as the Intolerable Acts in the colonies), which closed the port of Boston to all commerce and restructured the Massachusetts government so that the council would be filled with Crown appointees to carry out the will of the Crown.  This new system was to be enforced by an army of occupation under the command of General Thomas Gage.  Many colonists were outraged by this because they thought this was not a fair way to punish the Tea Party.  They saw this as part of a conspiracy to tyrannize over the American colonies.

Across New England, many towns and villages had public meetings to decide how they should express their resentment against British rule.  They adopted four kinds of action.  First, they decided to boycott British manufactured goods.  To enforce this boycott, they established committees of people in every community to put pressure on those individuals who continued to buy British goods.  The names of people who violated the boycott were published in local newspapers so that they could be ostracized by the community and sometimes threatened with being tarred and feathered.  This boycott worked because within a year the sale of British goods in the colonies had dropped dramatically.

Their second action was to have town meetings that voted for representatives to go to a Continental Congress to formulate policies for a union of the colonies.  This Congress--the First Continental Congress--was an extralegal body that had no legal authority under the British imperial constitution. But the colonists claimed that the people had the ultimate authority to institute new governmental institutions.

Their third action was to dismantle imperial authority.  They vowed not to obey orders from officials appointed by General Gage.  They also closed the British courts by organizing public protests that prevented the courts from meeting.  By September of 1774, General Gage was writing to the Earl of Dartmouth in London, the secretary of state for the colonies, confessing his frustration: "Civil Government is near its end, the Courts of Justice expiring one after another."  The town meetings also voted to refuse to transfer tax revenues to loyalist treasurers.

Finally, these town meetings also decided to order their militia officers to resign, and then new militia units were established under the control of the local community.  They were preparing for armed resistance.

Throughout the summer of 1774, angry crowds harassed suspected loyalists and British officials, often with threats of violence.  But generally the colonial resistance was nonviolent.

This resistance movement began in New England, but it soon spread through all the colonies, particularly through newspaper stories that promoted the political argument against British authority.

Early in September, a rumor spread around New England that General Gage had destroyed Boston with a bombardment of cannon.  In response, across many towns, thousands of men took up arms and marched toward Boston.  This rumor turned out to be false.  But the New Englanders were proud of the strength they had shown by this massive mobilization of armed force.

This military mobilization happened during the first weeks of the meeting of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in September.  The fifty-five men in the Congress were the elite political leaders in the colonies, who assumed that they could guide the colonists through the imperial crisis they faced.  But the popular insurgency had become so powerful that it seemed that the people were marching ahead of their leaders, and so the congressmen felt compelled to become more radical than many of them would have liked.

On September 17, 1774, the Congress almost unanimously adopted the Suffolk Resolves, named after the county in Massachusetts where it was originally drafted by a convention of town delegates.  This was a radical statement of the right of the people to nullify parliamentary statutes that they considered unlawful: "that no obedience is due from this Province [Massachusetts] to either or any part of the Acts above mentioned, but that they be rejected as the attempts of a wicked Administration to enslave America."  Loyalists denounced the Suffolk Resolves as the work of "rebellious Republicans" and "a complete declaration of war against Great Britain."

The Congress also debated how to make the boycott of British goods more effective.  Since the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, a boycott of imported goods had been a primary strategy of nonviolent resistance to Parliamentary taxation of the colonies.  The hope was that the stoppage of British imports would punish British businesspeople so that they would be motivated to put pressure on Parliament to yield to the colonists' demands.  The problem with this strategy was that it was difficult to enforce.  If the American merchants in one city reduced their orders for imported goods, they complained that their competitors in other cities were continuing their normal trade.

The Congress needed a plan that would win the support of all Americans for a boycott, with serious penalties for those who refused to cooperate.  On October 20, 1774, the Congress enacted the "Articles of Association" that was a "non importation, non consumption, and non exportation agreement."  The crucial article for solving the problem of enforcement was Article Eleven. They ordered "that a committee be chosen in every county, city, and town, by those who are qualified to vote for representatives in the legislature, whose business it shall be attentively to observe the conduct of all persons touching this association."  They also declared that when a majority of the members of a local committee saw that someone was refusing to cooperate in the boycott, they were "forthwith to cause the truth of the case to be published in the gazette; to the end, that all such foes to the rights of British America may be publicly known, and universally condemned as the enemies of American liberty; and thenceforth we respectively with break off all dealings with him or her."

At first glance, this establishment of local committees to enforce the boycott of British goods was nothing new.  For many years, "committees of correspondence" had been formed in the colonies to coordinate resistance to unpopular British policies for the colonies.  The first such committee was formed in Boston in 1764.  Through handwritten letters and printed pamphlets, they disseminated information about the resistance movement within and between the colonies.  Often these committees were accountable to town meetings.  Most of the colonial legislatures had created such committees.

But the Congress's Articles of Association turned out to be a more radically revolutionary step.  Since the great majority of adult white males were eligible to vote in colonial elections, the local selection of committees by these voters became a highly democratic process.  Moreover, these local committees were given a wide latitude to expand their powers.  As British authority in the colonies disintegrated, these committees took over the government of the colonies.  Hundreds of committees were created throughout America in the fall of 1774 and the spring of 1775.  By electing these committees and serving as committee members, ordinary people gained experience in self-government.  By some estimates, as many as 10,000 Americans served on these committees.  In effect, this was a federal system of government, with power divided between the local committees and the Congress as the central ruling body.  Thus, the Association functioned as the first American Constitution.

Abraham Lincoln recognized this in his First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861): "The Union is much older than the Constitution.  It was formed in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774.  It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776" (Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, New York: Library of America, 1989, pp. 217-18).  In declaring the independence of the United States as "one people" separated from the British people, the Declaration of Independence was recognizing the national union of the American people that had already been asserted in 1774.  The purpose of the Constitution, then, was not to create the Union but to perfect it, as the Preamble said.

In 1774, the members of the local committees understood the revolutionary implications of the Association.  For example, one of the committees in Philadelphia published a statement in the Pennsylvania Journal saying that "in the present unnatural struggle, where the child is obliged to defend itself against the violence of the parent, an attempt on our liberty is made, under the form of law."  Once Parliament forfeited its authority over the colonies, they explained, "we were obliged to recur to the first principles of the Constitution, and to delegate to men, chosen for the purpose, powers to suspend the former laws and customs of our Country, so far as was necessary for the preservations of our privileges, and to establish others of a temporary nature, to answer the present exigencies."

Notice the implicitly Lockean character of what they were doing.  In response to what they saw as Parliament's "attempt on our liberty," they claimed the right of the people to withdraw their consent to Parliamentary authority over them, and thus to dissolve the government, thereby reverting to a state of nature without government, and then to establish new governmental institutions to secure their liberty.  In reverting to a state of nature, they entered not a state of complete anarchy but rather a social state in which they acted as a community that could consent to establishing the Continental Congress and the local committees as agencies of government.  

This confirmed Locke's argument that a dissolution of government does not require a dissolution of society, because human beings are naturally social animals who can spontaneously organize a social order in a state of nature, and then act as a community to establish formal governmental institutions.

In April of 1775, General Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts, had lost all control of Massachusetts outside of Boston.  The colonial governments across Massachusetts were building up their militias to prepare for military hostilities with the British soldiers.  Gage planned to send an expedition of soldiers to seize military supplies that he believed were stored in Concord.  On the morning of April 19, his soldiers entered Lexington where they were met by Lexington militiamen blocking their way.  It's unclear who fired the first shot.  But the colonials reported that the British soldiers fired first, killing some of the militiamen.  This set off an outpouring of popular rage, and from this point, the largely nonviolent revolutionary resistance of the previous year was turned into a revolutionary war.

As I have indicated in a previous post, proponents of nonviolent resistance to despotism have wondered why the American revolutionaries in 1775 gave up their nonviolent strategy in going to war.  But I think Breen is correct in saying that the colonial leaders in the Congress were forced into this by the passionate surge of ordinary Americans towards a violent response to the British attacks at Lexington and Concord.

On May 10, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia for the first time.  The First Continental Congress had adjourned on October 26, 1774.  This Second Continental Congress became the provisional central government for the United States until 1781.

On June 14, the Congress organized the militia around Boston into the Continental Army, and George Washington was appointed as the Commanding General.  On July 6, the Congress approved a Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, which justified colonial military action as a defense against British attacks, but it also explained that it was not declaring independence from Great Britain.  One year later, on July 2, 1776, the Congress approved a resolution for declaring independence; and on July 4, the Congress approved the text of the Declaration of Independence.

What we see here, as Breen observes, is that the American insurgents were "popular Lockeans," although most of them had never read Locke.  Breen explains:

"In general terms, the Americans were all children of the great seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke.  But one should not exaggerate his influence.  Many Americans had never read Locke's work; quite a few would not have even recognized his name.  They are probably best described as popular Lockeans.  They subscribed to his rights-based philosophy without much caring about intellectual genealogies.  We encounter this perspective on state power in humble statements.  Early in 1773, the inhabitants of Hubbardston, a small farming community in Massachusetts, worked out for themselves the ligaments of this system of thought.  In the language of the folk, they announced, 'We are of opinion that Rulers first Derive their Power from the Ruled by Certain Laws and Rules agreed upon by Ruler and Ruled, and when a Ruler Breaks over Such Laws and Rules as agreed to by Ruler and Ruled, and makes new ones that then the Ruled have a Right to Refuse Such new Laws and that the Ruled have a right to Judge for themselves when Rulers Transgress'" (Breen 2010, 242-43).

As I have indicated in some previous posts on Claire Rydell Arcenas's America's Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life, Arcenas does not recognize that identifying Locke as "America's Philosopher" does not depend only upon showing that many Americans have read Locke, because we might show that many Americans have been Lockean in their moral and political thinking even without ever reading Locke.  The ordinary people of Hubbardston manifested that in affirming the Lockean teaching that political authority rests ultimately on the consent of the people, and that it is the right of the people to judge for themselves when the rulers have violated that popular agreement to a government that will secure the people's liberty.

The American revolutionaries also understood Locke's teaching that when there is a disagreement between the people and their rulers as to whether the rulers have violated the people's trust, the people can "appeal to Heaven," which is to say that the people can go to war and allow the God of battles to decide the dispute.  That's what happened when the American insurgents went to war against Great Britain.

On July 18, 1775, Major General Israel Putnam was leading soldiers of the Continental Army in the Siege of Boston; and at dawn on that day, he organized a ceremony for unfurling a new battle flag--the Appeal to Heaven Flag.  It had a single pine tree against a white background.  Underneath the tree ran the words APPEAL TO HEAVENLater, George Washington commissioned a similar flag for flying on Continental naval vessels.

The pine tree had long been a symbol of New England, and it became known as the "Liberty Tree."  As I have indicated in a previous post, the phrase "Appeal to Heaven" came from Locke's Second Treatise, where it appears many times (see ST, 21, 109, 155, 168, 176, 232, 240-43).  This was Locke's phrase for the Old Testament story of Jephtha, who was chosen by the people of Israel as their Judge and as the General to lead them in war against the Ammonites.  Jeptha prayed that God would give the victory in war to the Israelites, and this would be the judgment of God in Heaven.

When the people go to war against rulers whom they regard as despotic, the people are invoking what Locke called "the executive power of the law of nature"--the natural power and right that people have in the state of nature to punish those who harm them and thus violate the law of nature.  The American Continental soldiers who went into battle under that Appeal to Heaven flag were confirming that Lockean teaching.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Daria Dugina Is Killed in Russia: Alexander Dugin and the Illiberal Traditionalism Behind the Ukraine War

On Saturday, Daria Dugina, 29, was killed by a car bomb outside of Moscow.  Her father Alexander Dugin was riding in a car behind her.  Vladimir Putin immediately praised her and identified her as a "patriot of Russia."  The Russian government has accused the Ukrainian government of organizing her assassination.  The Ukrainians have denied this.

She had been a fervent media commentator supporting her father's illiberal Russian nationalism as the justification for the Russian invasion of Ukraine to establish a Russian Eurasian Empire of Traditionalism to challenge the Lockean liberalism of the United States and the West.

I have written a series of posts on the intellectual lineage of illiberal Traditionalism and the Counter-Enlightenment that stretches form Joseph de Maistre to Nietzsche to Heidegger to Nazism, and finally to the American Reactionary Right to the European New Right and to the Russian Eurasianism of Dugin and others.  In February, I wrote a post on how Dugin's influence on Putin might explain the invasion of Ukraine.

This is a reminder that the war in Ukraine is part of a global battle between Lockean liberalism and Nietzschean illiberalism.

Oddly enough, the best answer to Nietzschean illiberalism, I have argued, is the Nietzschean Aristocratic Liberalism of Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human.  So, in a way, the war between Ukraine and Russia is a war between the two sides of Nietzsche.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

The Lockean Liberal Tradition in America: An Assessment of Arcenas's Intellectual History

In America's Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life, Claire Rydell Arcenas gives us a meticulous and comprehensive intellectual history of Locke's reception in America, from the early colonial period to the end of the twentieth century.  For that reason, anyone who wants to understand that history will have to study her book.  There are, however, some flaws in her reasoning.

Arcenas tries to prove that Locke's Second Treatise of Government did not create "the Lockean liberal tradition in America," as Louis Hartz famously called it.  To prove this, she makes three arguments.  First, she says the term "Lockean liberalism" is so vague as to be meaningless, and thus open to endless conflicting interpretations.  "By merging the adjective Lockean and liberalism," she claims, "Hartz exemplified the murkiness--and malleability--of the concept of Lockean liberalism, which he was among the first to put into words" (138).

Her second argument is that throughout most of American history prior to the middle of the twentieth century, Locke's Second Treatise was not very influential in America.  Even in those cases where we might assume the influence of the Second Treatise is clear--as in Thomas Jefferson's writing of the Declaration of Independence--Arcenas insists that we are mistaken.

Her third argument is that for most periods of American history, Locke's reception in America came not through Americans reading the Second Treatise, but through his other books that were more popular--particularly, The Essay Concerning Human Understanding, The Letter Concerning Toleration, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, and The Reasonableness of Christianity.  Consequently, the political teaching of the Second Treatise was not very influential in America, at least prior to the middle of the twentieth century, because only then did Americans begin to identify Locke as primarily the author of the Second Treatise

I find all three of these arguments unpersuasive.


First, does "Lockean liberalism" have any discernible meaning?  Of course, Locke himself did not use the term "liberalism," because this English word as a label for a moral and political idea did not come into use until sometime around 1820.  But if the word has any meaning, we can ask whether it applies to Locke's teaching.  And as Arcenas indicates, since the middle of the twentieth century, many scholars have defined liberalism in a way that seems to capture the core of Locke's teaching.

For example, in her book John Locke's Liberalism (1987), Ruth Grant identifies the "liberal premise" as the idea that "men are naturally free and equal" (66).  She explains liberal political theory as founded on this premise: "It takes its bearings from the thought that all men have an equal right to govern their actions as they see fit.  No man has an intrinsic or natural right to govern another.  In other words, men are equal in the sense that they are by nature free" (1).  Starting from this premise of the natural freedom and equality of all adult human beings, a liberal political theorist infers that no man can rightly rule over another man without that other man's consent.

Grant can then point to passages in the Two Treatises where Locke affirms this liberal premise.  Locke says that the natural condition of man is a "State of perfect Freedom" (FT, 67; ST, 4).  There is an "equal right that every Man hath, to his Natural Freedom, without being subjected to the Will or Authority of any other Man" (ST, 7, 54).  We can identify this as "Lockean liberalism," and we can then argue about whether Locke was right about this, and whether much of American political thought rests upon this Lockean idea.

Arcenas cites in an endnote of her book the work of Grant and other scholars who see Lockean liberalism as shaping the American political tradition (174n9).  But Arcenas never replies to their arguments.  She does this a lot--citing in her endnotes the work of scholars who would criticize her position but then never answering the criticisms.


Arcenas begins her argument for minimizing the influence of Locke's Second Treatise in America by claiming that in early colonial America (from 1700 to 1760), there is almost no evidence that anyone read the Second Treatise, although they did read some of Locke's other books.  She sees only two pieces of evidence for the Second Treatise reaching colonial America during this time.  The first is a pamphlet by Elisha Williams published in 1744.  She summarizes this long pamphlet (over 60 pages) in one sentence: "Angry about the new limitations being placed on itinerant preachers in Connecticut, he paired the Letter Concerning Toleration with the Second Treatise and used them to demonstrate the 'essential rights and liberties of Protestants'" (27-28).  In one of her endnotes, she mentions a second reference to the Second Treatise by "Americano-Britannus" in the Maryland Gazette in 1748 (176n9).

There are many more cases of published references to the Second Treatise before 1760 about which Arcenas is totally silent.  For example, in 1701, John Montague quoted two long passages from the Second Treatise about "the Fundamental Principles and Ends of Government," and particularly about how the people established government by their consent to secure their property.  This may be the earliest appeal to Locke's ideas in British America--only twelve years after the publication of the Second Treatise in 1689.

Another example is in a pamphlet published in 1725, in which John Bulkley devoted about fifteen pages to quoting and paraphrasing "the Words of that Great Man Mr. Lock" in the Second Treatise about how "all Men are . . . Equal, Free & Independent & remain so till by Contracts" they establish a government to secure their natural rights.  So he affirmed the liberal premise.  Bulkley gave special attention to how Locke quoted from Josephus Acosta's anthropological report about the native Americans in the New World as evidence that the state of nature was a historical reality among the hunter-gatherers of America.  This explains Locke's famous claim that "in the beginning, all the world was America."  

This denies Arcenas's claim that the state of nature is an ahistorical fiction.  Americans had learned from Locke that his argument for natural rights in the state of nature is rooted in what he called "the history of mankind" (ST, 49, 100-112, 175; Essay, I.3.10; II.28.12).  In an endnote, Arcenas expresses her surprise that "observers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not shy away from taking [the state of nature] literally, i.e., historically" (186n14).

In 1728, three years after Bulkley's pamphlet, Daniel Dulany wrote a pamphlet published in Maryland in which he quoted and paraphrased the Second Treatise, including Locke's declaration that the state of nature is "a State of Equality, wherein all Power and jurisdiction, is reciprocal; no one having more than another" (ST, 4).  Here's the liberal premise again.

In 1741, an article in the American Magazine--"Remarks on the Maryland Government and Constitution"--provides another example of someone quoting and paraphrasing the Second Treatise.  This author explained Locke's radical interpretation of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 as a reversion to the state of nature, in which the British People could establish a new government by their consent to secure their natural rights.

Although Arcenas mentions Elisha Williams's political sermon of 1744, she passes over it in one sentence; and thus she does not allow her reader to notice that Williams devoted about eight long pages to a detailed summary of the Second Treatise that began: "First, as to the origin--Reason teaches us that all men are naturally equal in respect of jurisdiction or dominion one over another.  Altho' true it is that children are not born in this full state of equality, yet they are born to it."  Once again, there's Locke's liberal premise.

Oddly, in her one sentence on Williams's sermon, Arcenas says that "he paired the Letter Concerning Toleration with the Second Treatise."  In fact, Williams never cites the Letter Concerning Toleration.  All of his citations are to the Second Treatise.

Once we move into the early American revolutionary period (1760-1776), the references to Locke's Second Treatise become so great that Arcenas has to concede that the authority of Locke's political teaching increased during this time, although it decreased dramatically following American independence.  Still, however, she tries to minimize this evidence of Locke's political influence in the revolutionary debates either by ignoring much of it, or by arguing that many of the references to the Second Treatise were actually distortions of Locke's teaching.

One example of her ignoring the evidence is that she is silent about James Otis's courtroom speech in Boston in 1761 in "Paxton's Case," even though John Adams identified this as the true beginning of the American Revolution.  Although Arcenas might justify her silence about this speech by noting that, as reported by Adams, there is no explicit reference to Locke, the speech does nevertheless echo the language of Locke's Second Treatise.

According to Adams's report, Otis began his speech with "a dissertation on the Rights of Man in a State of Nature."  What he said sounded like Locke's state of nature.  He began with the liberal premise: "He asserted that every Man, merely natural, was an independent Sovereign; Subject to no Law but the Law written on his heart, and revealed to him by his Maker in the Constitution of his Nature and the Inspiration of his Understanding and his Conscience.  His Right to his Life, his Liberty no created being could rightfully contest.  Nor was his Right to his Property less incontestable."

Notably, Otis applied this liberal principle of natural equality and liberty to include black Americans.  Adams reported: "Nor were the poor Negroes forgotten.  Not a Quaker in Philadelphia or Mr Jefferson of Virginia ever asserted the Rights of Negroes in Stronger Terms; Young as I was and ignorant as I was, I shuddered at the doctrine he taught.  And I have all my lifetime Shuddered, and Still Shudder at the Consequences that may be drawn from Such Premises.  Shall We Say that the Rights of Masters and Servants clash?  and can be decided only by Force?  I adore the Idea of Gradual Abolitions!  But who Shall decide how fast or how Slowly these Abolitions Shall be made? (Letter to William Tudor, June 1, 1818).  Of course, these questions have reverberated throughout American history as Americans have struggled to apply Lockean liberal principles of equal liberty to the problems of chattel slavery and racial inequality.

Otis made clear his reliance on Locke's Two Treatises in the pamphlets he wrote in the early 1760s.  In A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay (1762), Otis quoted extensively from the Two Treatises, including Locke's affirmation of the liberal premise: "The Natural Liberty of Man is to be free from any Superior Power on Earth, and not to be under the Will or Legislative Authority of Man, but to have only the Law of Nature for his Rule.  The Liberty of man, in Society, is to be under no other Legislative Power, but that established, by consent, in the Common-wealth" (ST, 22).  In The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764), Otis once again cited Locke's Second Treatise extensively to support his argument for the rights of the American colonists.  He also suggested that the Lockean liberal premise of equal natural liberty must be extended to all human beings, including women and slaves.  He asked a radical question: "What man is or ever was born free, if every man is not?"

Arcenas recognizes Otis's references to Locke's Two Treatises in these two pamphlets.  But she argues that rather than showing the influence of Locke's political teaching on Otis, this actually shows how Otis had to distort and depart from Locke's teaching, because Otis actually rejected two fundamental principles of Locke's teaching.  He rejected Locke's idea that all government was originally created by a social compact.  And he rejected Locke's idea that in that social compact the people gave up or transferred their natural rights to the government.  I suggest, however, that Arcenas has not read Locke as carefully as Otis did, and that in fact Otis agreed with Locke on both of these points.

Arcenas correctly quotes Otis as saying in The Rights of the British Colonies that "government is . . . most evidently founded on the necessities of our nature," and therefore it is "by no means an arbitrary thing, depending merely on compact or human will for its existence."  If government is natural for human beings, it is not an artificial creation of human will.

But if Arcenas had compared everything Otis said about this with what Locke said in the Two Treatises, she would have seen that Otis agreed with what Locke said about human beings as naturally social animals who have a kind of "natural government" in the state of nature.

In his speech in "Paxton's Case," Otis said that in the state of nature, human beings would be "Social Animals by Nature," because their natural sexual desires would bring them together into families and their wider social desires would bring them into larger communities.  Similarly, in The Rights of the British Colonies, Otis spoke of how "the different sexes should sweetly attract each other, form societies of single families, of which larger bodies and communities are as naturally, mechanically, and necessarily combined," which would constitute a kind of "government . . . founded on the necessities of our nature."

Here Otis was echoing the language of Locke in the Two Treatises.  Like Otis, Locke identified human beings as social animals by nature because in the state of nature by the necessities of their nature, they live in families, which constitute "the first society," and within families, parents exercise a "natural Government," which is a "temporary government," over their minor children (ST, 67, 74-77, 105, 170).  In the state of nature, there are social networks of cooperation and exchange extending beyond the family that create communities.  This extended order of community is based on "promises and compacts" and on informal customary social norms that Locke identifies as the "law of nature."  These customary social norms are enforced through violent punishment (including capital punishment), reputational costs for those who violate the norms, and third-party mediation of disputes.  In the state of nature, every adult individual has the "executive power of the law of nature" to punish those who transgress the law of nature, where there is a "law of reputation" to enforce the law of nature through social praise and blame, and where disputes are often settled by those recognized as good mediators (ST, 6-14, 108; Essay, II.28.5-14).  

I have written previously about how Locke saw this in the state of nature in America from his reading of Jose de Acosta's report in his Natural and Moral History of the Indies.  We have seen that colonial Americans like Bulkley saw the importance of this.  In the Second Treatise (102), Locke quoted Acosta's claim that in America there were many societies with "no government at all" and "no kings," but with "captains" or "chiefs" that people chose to lead them when they needed leadership in war or peace.

It might seem confusing or even self-contradictory to say that while there was "no government at all," the people chose those who governed them.  But there's no contradiction if we understand "no government" to mean no centralized bureaucratic state in a hunter-gatherer society that does have some governance by leaders chosen by the people and a system of customary laws enforced by public approval and disapproval.

There is, therefore, a kind of government in the state of nature, although it's a government through informal social institutions and customs enforced by the social consensus of all the adult individuals, where there are no formal political institutions of law and governance.  As I have argued previously, the modern evolutionary anthropology of hunter-gatherer bands in "stateless societies" largely confirms Locke's account of the state of nature as the life of hunter-gatherers in societies governed by informal social institutions but without a centralized state apparatus.

Thus, Locke distinguished the "society" of individuals in the state of nature, where every adult individual has the power to enforce the law of nature, and "political society," where the community has consented to give the power of natural punishment to the officers in a formal legal and political structure (ST, 77, 87).  The first step towards establishing a "political society," Locke suggests, might have been when individual adults expressly or tacitly consented to delegate their natural power of punishment to their fathers: "since without some Government it would be hard for them to live together, it was likeliest it should, by the express or tacit Consent of the Children, when they were grown up, be in the Father, where it seemed without any change barely to continue; when indeed nothing more was required to it, than the permitting the Father to exercise alone in his Family that executive Power of the Law of Nature, which every Free-man naturally hath, and by that permission resigning up to him a Monarchical Power, whilst they remained in it" (74).

Thus, Locke would have agreed with Otis "that government is founded on the necessity of our natures," but Locke would distinguish between two kinds of government.  On the one hand, there is government in natural societies in the state of nature with informal institutions enforced by individuals exercising their natural right of punishment.  On the other hand, there is government in political societies where individuals have consented to give up their natural right of punishment to the formal institutions of law and politics, so long as that power to punish is exercised to secure their natural rights for the public good.

But here Arcenas sees another contradiction between Locke and Otis:  "Otis was interested in the preservation of natural rights in political society, while Locke stressed that rights had to be given up--that is relinquished or transferred" (35).  To support this claim, she correctly quotes Locke as explaining that those leaving "a state of Nature unite into a Community, must be understood to give up all the power, necessary to the ends for which they unite into Society, to the majority of the Community" (ST, 99).

In saying this, however, Arcenas ignores Otis's quotations from the Second Treatise that show that Locke understood that people "give up" their natural power to punish to government with the "trust" that government will use this power to "preserve" or "secure" their natural rights.  "The Reason why Men enter into Society, is the preservation of their Property."  Consequently, if the government acts "contrary to that trust reposed in them" in trying to destroy the natural rights of the people, "by this breach of Trust they forfeit the Power, the People had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the People, who have a Right to resume their original Liberty, and by the Establishment of a new Legislature (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own Safety and Security, which is the end for which they are in Society" (ST, 222).  Thus, Locke argued that people give up their natural power of punishing to government only to the extent that, and only so long as, this serves to preserve their natural rights.

Elisha Williams saw this in Locke--that, as Williams said, "no more natural liberty or power is given up than is necessary for the preservation of person and property," and therefore, "the members of a civil state or society do retain their natural liberty in all such cases as have no relation to the ends of such a society in a state of nature."  And so, for example, as Williams argued, "the members of a civil society do retain their natural liberty or right of judging for themselves in matters of religion."  That's Locke's argument in his Letter Concerning Toleration.  (I have written a post on the evolution of religious liberty in the state of nature.)

We should also notice that there are three circumstances in which Locke believed that people "have a Right to resume their original Liberty."  Two of them arise inside a society.  One arises outside a society.  If individuals leave their society and renounce their loyalty to it, then they are free to consent to join another society (ST, 118-22). And even as they live within their society, in those cases where they might be threatened by an attack on their life, liberty, or property, and there is no chance to call for protection by the officers of government, then they revert momentarily to a state of nature, and they have the right to protect themselves by punishing those threatening them.  So, for example, this would include the right of killing in self-defense (ST, 19).

Finally, when the people see a design for their government to assume an arbitrary power to tyrannize over the people, they have a right to resist and to rebel against the government, and to institute a new government that will secure their natural rights (ST, 214-43).  This sounds so much like the American Declaration of Independence that many Americans have seen echoes of Locke's Second Treatise in the Declaration.  

But Arcenas insists this is not true.  She rejects what she calls "the central myth of the American Revolution"--that the Declaration shows the influence of Locke's political teaching in the Second Treatise.  A few weeks ago, I wrote a post noting that Arcenas is silent about the many verbal echoes of the language of the Second Treatise, which illustrates how she uses deceptive silence throughout her book.

She is correct, however, when she says that public references to Locke decreased after 1776 and during the constitutional founding, because in the debates over the forming of constitutions in America, authors like Montesquieu and Blackstone seemed more helpful than Locke, who was better at stating the principles of good government than he was in stating the constitutional design of government.

Even though there were few direct references to Locke in the constitutional founding debates, Lockean principles can be seen both in the Constitution of 1787 as ratified in 1789 and in the Constitution of 1791 with the first ten amendments.  The structure of the new national government as organized around three separate branches--legislative, executive, judicial--conforms to Locke's account of these three separate powers, with the legislative power being supreme (ST, 124-26, 132-42).  The amended Constitution with its Bill of Rights manifested the Lockean principle that the end of government is to secure individual rights, and it implicitly incorporated the Lockean political philosophy of the Declaration of Independence into the Constitution.  I have written about this in a previous post.

After 1800, when Jefferson was first elected President, there was a lot of discussion of Locke's influence on Jefferson, particularly in his writing of the Declaration of Independence, which continued over the last 25 years of Jefferson's life (1801-1826).  Some of Jefferson's critics in the Federalist Party said that he should not be praised as the primary author of the Declaration because he had copied much of it from Locke's Second Treatise.  Some of his defenders in the Republican Party responded by saying that there was nothing wrong in borrowing some words and principles from a great political philosopher like Locke.  Notice that both sides in this debate agreed that Locke's influence on Jefferson's writing of the Declaration was clear.

Perhaps to settle this debate, Jefferson near the end of his life tried to explain his writing of the Declaration: "Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.  All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c" (Letter to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825).

As Roger Weightman, the mayor of Washington, D.C., was planning the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1826, he wrote a letter to Jefferson inviting him to attend.  In what became his last letter, Jefferson wrote that his bad health would prevent him from attending.  He then wrote about the promise to all mankind opened by the Declaration:

"May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.  That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.  All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.  The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God" (Letter to Weightman, June 24, 1826).

Amazingly, while the people in Washington and across America were celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration, on July 4, 1826, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, two of the leading drafters of the Declaration, died on that same day.  (I must say I have often wondered whether Jefferson and Adams secretly planned this, because it's just too good.)

So Jefferson saw the Declaration of Independence as "an expression of the American mind," particularly in the idea of "the rights of man" as founded on equal natural liberty; and he saw Locke as one of those influential authors who wrote about this idea.  Brad Thompson sums up all of this in a syllogism:

Major premise:  The Declaration of Independence is an expression of the American mind.

Minor premise:  America's revolutionary mind was an expression of Locke's political philosophy.

Conclusion:  The Declaration of Independence was an expression of Locke's mind.

(C. Bradley Thompson, "John Locke and the American Mind," American Political Thought [Fall 2019]: 575-93.)

Looking at Jefferson's letters, we can see one problem with Thompson's syllogism: according to Jefferson, Locke's mind was not the only mind that influenced the writing of the Declaration.  The American mind was shaped "in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.," all of which led to the liberal idea of "the rights of man."  If Jefferson was right, then Locke was important in the formation of the American mind, but only in combination with other philosophic writers and with many American speakers and writers.

This confirms what Michael Zuckert and a few other scholars have said about Locke as contributing to an "American Amalgam":  Locke's mind is a prominent influence, but only in combination with other minds, in forming the American mind as founded on the political philosophy of natural rights. 

As I indicated in my previous post, Arcenas is silent about all of this discussion among Jefferson's contemporaries of Locke's influence on Jefferson, particularly as manifested in the Declaration of Independence.  This is important for her argument.  Because denying the Lockean character of the Declaration of Independence then allows her to assume that whatever power the Declaration had over American political thought was not in any way a vehicle for advancing Locke's political principles in America.  So when she comes to the nineteenth century, she can say that there were few direct references to Locke's political teaching; and she can ignore the possibility that a lot of Lockean political thinking was introduced indirectly through the debates over the Declaration of Independence as a statement of American political principles.

So, for example, she can deny that Locke's thinking had any influence in the American debates over abolitionism and slavery, even though the opponents of slavery commonly appealed to the principles of the Declaration.  She does have to admit, however, that many of the proslavery apologists recognized that "Locke threatened to undermine efforts to develop intellectual justifications for slavery because his most famous thought experiments--the state of nature and social contract, articulated in the Second Treatise--emphasized the idea (catastrophic to their pro-slavery arguments) that men were born equal" (81).  But she does not allow her reader to see any of the evidence that the proslavery Southerners recognized that the principles of the Declaration of Independence were rooted in Locke's political philosophy, and therefore their attack on the Declaration had to be an attack on Locke.

For example, George Fitzhugh, in his Sociology for the South, or The Failure of Free Society (1854), says that the "abstract principles" of the Declaration of Independence are "wholly at war with slavery," and they are rooted in the "false philosophy" of Locke (175).  Fitzhugh scorns the principles of equal liberty in the Declaration as contrary to the natural fact that human beings are born unequal, and some are born to be natural slaves.  He explains:

"Men are not 'born entitled to equal rights!'  It would be far nearer the truth to say, 'that some were born with saddles on their backs, and others booted and spurred to ride them,' and the riding does them good.  They need the reins, the bit and the spur.  No two men are exactly equal or exactly alike" (179)

In 1866, he said that the conflict in the United States between the North and the South was a continuation of the debate in seventeenth-century England between John Locke and Sir Robert Filmer.  The radical North was on the side of the Whigs and Locke.  The conservative South was on the side of the Tories and Filmer ("The Impending Fate of the Country," De Bow's Review 2 [1866]: 561-70).

In her three sentences on Fitzhugh (81, 204n130), Arcenas is silent about this, because she wants to play down the importance of Locke's political thought in the Second Treatise as expressed in the Declaration of Independence as being part of the debate over slavery and abolition.

Arcenas does finally recognize the influence of Locke's Second Treatise in America when she comes to the twentieth century.  She sees here four transformations in Locke's role in American intellectual life.  First, from 1900 to 1930, scholars began to identify Locke as primarily a political thinker and the author of the Second Treatise.  Second, Locke's Second Treatise began to be seen as relevant to present-day problems that people were trying to solve.  Third, scholars began to emphasize Locke's apparent influence on the American founding.  Fourth, as a consequence of these three transformations, Locke's Second Treatise and his "Lockean liberalism" were seen as the pervasive political teaching of the  continuous stream of the American political tradition from the eighteenth century to the present.

Arcenas fills in this story with accounts of how scholars, journalists, politicians, and popular culture have contributed to this twentieth-century story of Locke as America's political philosopher.  Charles Beard, Carl Becker, Merle Curti, the Great Books Program at St. John's College, Life magazine, Louis Hartz, Hubert Humphrey, Leo Strauss, Willmoore Kendall, Allan Bloom, Gordon Wood, J. G. A. Pocock and many more contributors to the story come into play.  She concludes her book with a comparison of John Rawls's Theory of Justice (1971) and Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) as showing two sides of Locke's Second Treatise, with Rawls arguing for a version of the social contract, and Nozick arguing for natural rights in the state of nature.

It's disappointing that she ends her story in the 1970s.  It would have been instructive for her to carry her story into twenty-first century America.  For example, she could have considered the debate over Locke launched by "post-liberal" and "Integralist" critics of Lockean liberalism in America--people like Patrick Deneen, Rod Dreher, and D. C. Schindler--and by those on the new reactionary Right--people like Curtis Yarvin and "Bronze Age Pervert."  This is all part of the renewed debate today between Lockean liberalism and anti-Lockean illiberalism.

In any case, most of what she says about the various ways in which interpretations of Locke's Second Treatise deeply shaped American intellectual life in the twentieth century is persuasive.  But, for the reasons I have indicated, I am still not persuaded that she has shown that Locke's political philosophy had very little influence in most periods of American history prior to the middle of the twentieth century.


I am persuaded, however, that Arcenas has shown that for most of American history prior to the twentieth century, Locke's greatest influence came through books other than the Second Treatise--particularly, the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the Letter Concerning Toleration, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, The Reasonableness of Christianity, and A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul.  For me, this is the most instructive feature of her book.

But I don't see how this proves her primary claim that Locke's political teaching had little influence in America prior to the twentieth century.  Her argument here depends on the false assumption that Locke's books other than the Second Treatise do not convey anything about his political teaching.

Many of the scholars that Arcenas relies on have pointed out that all of Locke's books convey some facets of his political thought, so that readers of Locke's books other than the Second Treatise would learn a lot about his political philosophy.  For example, she has drawn a lot from Merle Curti's "The Great Mr. Locke, America's Philosopher, 1783-1861" (1937).  But she says nothing about the fact that Curti indicates that Locke's "liberal" ideas appear in all of the books that Americans read (see Curti, 111, 115, 119-21, 131, 134-35, 151).  If she thinks Curti is wrong about this, she should explain why.

Similarly, Arcenas gives an account of Leo Strauss's interpretation of Locke's political teaching.  But she does not notice that Strauss's study of Locke's political thought in Natural Right and History cites not only the Two Treatises, but also the Essay Concerning Human Understanding and The Reasonableness of Christianity.

Consider the case of Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration.  Arcenas emphasizes the importance of this book as one of the most widely read of Locke's books.  But she doesn't notice that much of this book summarizes the political teaching of the Second Treatise.  One of many possible examples is the passage of Toleration where Locke speaks of how men must leave the state of nature and enter into a society and establish a legislative power that will secure their life, liberty, and properties (see Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. Mark Goldie [Liberty Fund, 2010], 46-47).

My conclusion from all of this is that Arcenas's book is an indispensable history of America's reception of Locke, but her attempt to minimize the influence in America of Locke's political thought fails.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

The Political Authority of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 Depended on the Historical Reality of the State of Nature in 1774.

Some years ago, I wrote a post on how the idea of the evolutionary state of nature as a historical reality was crucial for the American revolutionary founders.  In a comment on that post, "JG" wrote: "I don't understand the impulse of scholars to take the social contract interpretation of the American founding so deadly seriously.  The problem with it is not just that there was no historical state of nature, but that there was no period during the founding that any 'return' to that state took place.  The Declaration itself was a political act, written and signed by representatives of governments of 'the thirteen united States' 'in Congress' assembled.  States sending delegates to a Congress: This can hardly count as a return to the state of nature.  Regardless of what rhetoric was employed, the actual events of the founding simply do not bear out the myth."

This was a good objection to what I had written, but I didn't respond to it at the time.  Here's my response now.

I would ask JG: How was it possible for those who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence to believe that they had the political authority to do what they did?  

JG answers by quoting the first line of the last paragraph of the Declaration: "We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled."  He explains: "States sending delegates to a Congress . . . can hardly count as a return to the state of nature."

But that begs the question at issue here.  From where did these thirteen new state governments and the General Congress derive their political authority?  In that last paragraph of the Declaration, the signers claimed to act "by Authority of the good People of these Colonies."  But how was it possible for the people of the American colonies to institute these new governments if those people were under the imperial political authority of the British Government?

The only good answer--the answer given by the American revolutionaries to justify what they were doing--was that the American people had entered a state of nature in 1774, and in that state of nature they had a natural right "to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."  They did that by establishing new governments in the thirteen colonies and by establishing the First and Second Continental Congresses to decide on whether they should "dissolve the political bands which have connected them" with Great Britain.

The evidence for this is in the debates in and around the two Continental Congresses from the convening of the First Continental Congress on September 6, 1774, to the declaration of independence in the Second Continental Congress on July 2, 1776.  The crucial question was whether the colonies had been thrown into a state of nature: the Revolutionaries said yes; the Loyalists said no.  If the answer was yes, the American people had the natural right to declare their independence from Great Britain and establish new governments.  If the answer was no, the people had no authority to do this.

This debate is well covered by Mark Somos in his book American States of Nature: The Origins of Independence, 1761-1775 (Oxford University Press, 2019), pages 274-313.

After the Boston Tea Party of December 1773, the British Parliament between March and June of 1774 passed a series of laws to punish Boston that were called the Coercive Acts in Britain and the Intolerable Acts among American revolutionaries.  In response to this and other events, fifty-six representatives of the colonies gathered in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress in September of 1774.  By then, it had become common for the revolutionaries to say that Great Britain's despotic acts had reduced the colonies to a state of nature.  For example, William Tudor said this in a letter to John Adams on September 3, 1774, describing the situation for Massachusetts:  "The People are eager to have Recourse to the first Charter, or adopt some new Mode of Government.  Our last Charter is vacated and the Province reduced to a State of Nature.  Can there ever be a more favourable Opportunity than the present for claiming, resuming, and maintaining the Rights of Mankind, for a thorough Discussion, Definition, and Confirmation of them.  Great Britain, by her despotic Edicts, has forced Us to the Alternative of either becoming Slaves, or recurring to the Principles of Nature for Protection."

The First Continental Congress opened on September 5 in Philadelphia.  The first substantive debate was on September 6.  According to the notes of Adams and James Duane, the day began with a speech by Patrick Henry announcing that the government is dissolved, the colonies have reverted to a state of nature, and they must form a new government.

At about the same time, a letter found among Adams's papers was sent to the Boston Committee of Correspondence.  The author wrote: "As I am of the Opinion, that the Subjects of the Massachusetts Bay are without a King, Governor, civil or military Officers; so the People are again left in a State of Nature.  For if it be Fact that the King has broke his Coronation Oath, by clipping our Charter &c.; it must be Fact, that we are at Liberty to choose what way of Government we like best."

Loyalists in the First Continental Congress--like Joseph Galloway--wanted the thirteen colonies to remain in the British Empire, and they proposed plans for reconciling the colonists and the British.  In arguing for this, they rejected the idea that the colonies had reverted to a state of nature, because they argued that the colonies were still under the rule of the British Government, and therefore the colonists had no right to establish new governments or declare their independence.

Thus, the debate between the American revolutionary patriots and the American Tory loyalists became a debate over the state of nature.  Some of the Loyalists sketched Hobbes's account of the state of nature as a state of war and anarchy that Americans should want to avoid.  The Patriots responded by sketching Locke's account of the state of nature as a social state that could be largely peaceful, even if it often tended to war.  The Patriots argued that in the present state of nature, the colonists were already peacefully cooperating in the erection of provisional governments and congresses to replace British government.

Some of the Tories--both in America and in Great Britain--claimed that the revolutionaries were being self-contradictory by invoking both the natural rights in the state of nature and the rights of Englishmen.  You can appeal to one or the other, they argued, but not both.  The revolutionaries answered by saying that this is a false dichotomy, because natural laws and civil laws can, and should be, compatible: the civil laws should secure the natural rights of man.

The First Continental Congress adjourned on October 26, 1774.  Then, shortly after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress was convened in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775.  This Congress functioned as a de facto national government at the beginning of the Revolutionary War.  On July 2, 1776, Congress adopted the Lee Resolution that declared American independence from Great Britain.  Two days later, the Congress agreed to the Declaration of Independence. The Congress functioned as a provisional national government of the United States until March 1, 1781.

The Revolutionary Patriots won the intellectual debate with the Tory Loyalists over the state of nature, because they showed how Americans could return to the state of nature and then peacefully cooperate in instituting new governments to secure their natural rights.  

But to do that they also had to win a revolutionary war fighting against the most powerful empire in the history of the world.  In Locke's terms, they had to win the "Appeal to Heaven"--the appeal to the God of Battles as the final judge between a revolutionary people and a despotic government.

Arcenas does not consider the possibility that the Americans became receptive to Locke in the revolutionary period because his account of how people can enter and then leave the state of nature helped the Americans to explain what they were doing in the Revolution.  The Americans were doing in their revolutionary practice what Locke had recommended in his political theory.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

The American Declaration of Independence in 1761: Lockean Natural Punishment Through Nonviolent Resistance

In a series of letters from 1811 to 1818, John Adams explained how the American Revolution began not in Lexington in 1775, or in Philadelphia in 1776, but in Boston in 1761 with a speech by James Otis.

In a letter to Richard Sharp dated February 27, 1811, Adams responded to Sharp's proposal for writing a history of the American Revolution:  "But, give me leave to Suggest that the Period you have defined from 1775 to 1783 was by no means the most important nor the most interesting Eight Years of the Revolution.  The Revolution was indeed effected in the Period from 1761 to 1775.  I mean a compleat Revolution in the Minds of the People.  A total Change of the Opinions and Affections of The People, and a full Confidence in the practicability of a Union of the Colonies.  All this was done and the Principles all established and the System matured before the year 1775.  The War and the Peace followed of Course."

In a letter to Jedidiah Morse dated November 29, 1815, Adams repeated this idea that the American Revolution began long before the military conflict with Great Britain: "An History of military Operations from April 19th, 1775 to the 3rd of September 1783 is not an History of the American Revolution, any more than the Marquis of Quincy's Military History of Louis 14th, though much esteemed is a History of the Reign of that Monarch.  The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People, and in the Union of the Colonies, both of which were Substantially effected before Hostilities commenced."  He asked: "When, Where, by what means, and in What manner, was this great intellectual, moral, and political Change accomplished?"

He began his answer to this question by saying that the American Revolution began in Boston in 1761 when James Otis gave a long speech in a courtroom arguing that the British use of "writs of assistance" in the colonies would violate the natural rights of the colonists.  Writs of assistance were general search warrants that would allow British customs officers to search for smuggled goods in any house without specifying the house or the goods, which Otis identified as a violation of the right to property.

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson dated August 24, 1815, Adams repeated this claim about the start of the Revolution: "As to the history of the Revolution, my Ideas may be peculiar, perhaps Singular.  What do We mean by the Revolution?  The War?  That was no part of the Revolution.  It was only an Effect and Consequence of it.  The Revolution was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington."

William Tudor was writing a biography of James Otis, and he wrote to Adams to ask for any information he might have about Otis and his place in the Revolution.  Adams responded by emphasizing the importance of Otis's speech in 1761.  He exclaimed: "Otis was a flame of fire!  With a promptitude of Classical Allusions, a depth of research, a rapid summary of historical events & dates, a profusion of Legal Authorities, a prophetic glance of his eyes into futurity, and a rapid summary of impetuous Eloquence he hurried away all before him.  American Independence was then & there born.  The seeds of Patriots & Heroes to defend the Non sine Diis Animosus Infans; to defend the Vigorous Youth were then & there sown.  Every Man of an immense crouded Audience appeared to me to go away, as I did, ready to take Arms against Writs of Assistants.  Then and there was the first scene of the first Act of opposition to the Arbitrary claims of Great Britain.  Then and there the Child Independence was born.  In fifteen years i.e. in 1776, he grew up to Manhood, & declared himself free."

Adams's interpretation of the American Revolution suggests at least three questions.  How was America's revolutionary political independence achieved prior to 1775?  Why did the American revolutionaries turn to violent resistance in 1775 and 1776?  What was the intellectual and moral content of the "revolution in the minds and hearts of the people" prior to 1775?  

John Locke helps us to answer all three questions.  Locke's answer to the first question would be that revolutionary resistance to tyrannical government is an exercise of the "executive power of the law of nature"--the natural right to punish those who threaten our natural rights to life, liberty, and property.  That natural punishment can be violent resistance to tyranny, as in a revolutionary war.  But it can also be expressed through nonviolent resistance, as in the popular refusal to obey the governmental rulers and popular protests against the government.  From 1761 to 1775, the American revolutionary resistance was mostly nonviolent--popular demonstrations of resistance, boycotts of imported British goods, writings and speeches criticizing the government, refusal to pay taxes, and the creation of extralegal congresses and conventions as revolutionary governments.

Indeed, some of the recent theorists of nonviolent resistance as the best form of revolutionary activity have drawn attention to John Adams's interpretation of the American Revolution, and they have written about the history of the revolution "before Lexington" as showing the effectiveness of nonviolent tactics for revolution.  (See David Toscano, Gene Sharp, Ronald McCarthy, and Walter Conser, eds., Before Lexington: Resistance, Politics, and the American Struggle for Independence 1765-1775 [Boston: Albert Einstein Institution, 2015].)  

I have written (here and here) about the evidence for the evolution of nonviolent resistance as a form of Locken natural punishment.

But if the nonviolent strategy was successful, why did the American revolutionary leaders turn to violent military measures in 1775 and 1776?  Theorists of nonviolent resistance who have studied the American Revolution have suggested six possible answers.  First, there might have been changes in the revolutionary movement so that military action became their last resource.  Second, the nonviolent strategy might have proven to be inadequate to the revolutionary cause.  Third, there might have been a particularly violent party within the movement--with people like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry--who pushed them into violence.  Fourth, one might say that the Second Continental Congress was confronted with a fait accompli after the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill and the seizure of Ticonderoga, so that they had no choice but to push ahead with military forces.  Fifth, the revolutionary leaders might have decided that they needed to form a military as a symbol of sovereignty before the world.  Sixth, we might say that what we see in 1775-1776 is a mistaken premature abandonment of a nonviolent strategy that could have been followed to victory, so that when Great Britain launched a full invasion of the colonies in 1776, the Americans could have defeated the invaders through nonviolent resistance.  The most fervent proponents of nonviolent resistance--people like Gene Sharp and Erica Chenoweth--would probably favor the last explanation.

In June of 1775, when the Second Continental Congress appointed George Washington as general and commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, the Americans decided to make what Locke called an "Appeal to Heaven"--that is, an appeal to the God of Battles to decide the dispute with Great Britain.  In fact, this was made explicit when the "Appeal to Heaven" flag became a flag for the Continental Navy.  I have written about this.  I have also written about how the Americans won the war of independence by not losing to the superior military power of the British.

Adams also suggested, however, that the American war of independence would not have been successful if the intellectual and moral revolution that began in 1761 had not formed a revolutionary mind that understood the Lockean principles of natural liberty and equality.  Those principles were first taught by James Otis in his appeal to the Lockean state of nature.  I will write about that in my next post.