The revolutionaries of 1776 could be just as violent as those of 2020, but they were truly a lot more intelligent and interesting. Eighteenth-century Americans fought with several generations worth of finely-honed arguments—from law, from experience, and from scripture, whereas the protestors of 2020, while armed with anger, seem armed with little else.
In every reformation, there’s a chance of revolution, and, in every protest, there’s a chance of violent upheaval. The line that separates the two can be a fine one, and one should only approach the differences with some circumspection and, hopefully, more than a bit of a broad historical vision. As we approach the Fourth of July—no peaceful protest in its origins—it is worth considering the differences between 1776 and 2020. Though both have been radically violent, the differences between the two is, frankly, staggering.
First, the protestors of 2020, while armed with anger, seem armed with little else. They have slogans, but they have few ideas. When the Americans began to protest as early as 1763, they had years and years—decades, even—of self-rule to reply upon. They also had the traditions of the common law and the natural law. When they fought on Lexington Green, they fought with several generations worth of finely-honed arguments—from law, from experience, and from scripture.
In fine, the colonists believed that they were able to govern themselves, and they resented the relatively recent interest the British had taken in them. The British meant not to lead, but to dominate; not to leaven, but to smash.
When later asked about the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson explained how it had come from years and years of tradition:
This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. 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 elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.
Second, the ideas that the protestors of 2020 hold are those of the politically-correct, left-ish ideological visions of the 1960s: the division of all peoples into races, classes, and genders. When Thomas Jefferson and Congress declared independence in 1776, they did so by proclaiming that “all men are created equal,” each endowed, by the Creator, with life, liberty, and the ability to pursue one’s happiness. There was no asterisk after “all men are created equal,” no hesitations and no caveats. While the Founders did not perfectly live up to the notion of all human beings being equal, they declared it, and, thus declared, it had to, at some point, come true. Jefferson did not want to divide; he wanted to unify. America, from her very beginnings, sought to find, pursue, and strengthen the liberty and the dignity of each individual person, each member of the human race, past, present, and future. Much of her history has been the struggle to secure such dignity and liberty.
Third, the protestors of 2020 have no conservative element or leadership within their protest. In 1776, for every radical Samuel Adams, there were three, four, or five conservatives, such as John Adams and John Dickinson. While Sam happily smashed, John and John did what they could to preserve. The violence of the 2020 protests has been nothing short of sickening in its direction against human beings (from shop owners to law enforcement officers) to monuments of public distinction.
Here is Dickinson on such men:
Some states have lost their liberty by particular accidents: But this calamity is generally owing to the decay of virtue. A people is travelling fast to destruction, when individuals consider their interests as distinct from those of the public. Such notions are fatal to their country, and to themselves. Yet how many are there, so weak and sordid as to think they perform all the offices of life, if they earnestly endeavor to increase their own wealth, power, and credit, without the least regard for the society, under the protection of which they live; who, if they can make an immediate profit to themselves, by lending their assistance to those, whose projects plainly tend to the injury of their country, rejoice in their dexterity, and believe themselves entitled to the character of able politicians. Miserable men! Of whom it is hard to say, whether they ought to be most the objects of pity or contempt: But whose opinions are certainly as detestable, as their practices are destructive.
Finally, the protestors of 2020 have shown almost no interest in discussion. They believe their conclusions are unassailable, and, thus, they see debate as nothing more than delay toward their inevitable future. Yet, when we look back at 1776, we see an entire population that engaged in ideas at every level. Here, though extremely violent, is a typical statement from the American Revolution, a broadside that threatened bodily harm while also expressing serious ideas about the nature of God, the nature of the human person, and the dangers of a standing army:
be not intimidated at the Sight of Soldiers, mercenary Soldiers, who for a penny a day addition to their Wages, would serve Mustaphay 3rd as soon as George ye 3rd. You know their Number: 1000 Slaves are not to give Laws to a brave and free people. They have already began to shew their Insolence. There is now no appeal but go God. Extirpate them Root and Branch, be sure their Chiefs are the first Victims, rise my Countrymen. Throw off the first Fetter of Slavery, a Standing Army—remember your brave Forefathers, men of whom, the world was not worthy. They purchas’d this Land with much Treasure and Seas of their Blood, let them not in this day rise up and see their posterity less brave, less resolute, and less virtuous. My Countrymen we either must unsheath our Swords or be Slaves. Your understandings would be affronted were the Last to be put to you. The day is come. Strike these Invaders of your Liberty, these Enemies of your God and not let them any longer pollute this Insulam Sacram, ye that have got no swords, sell your Garments and buy one. You fear not Death, only Slavery. The Anniversary of our last Stroke to their underhand plots was the 14th August. Let our last and effectual stroke to their open Hostilities be the same. My Countrymen, be Freemen or Slaves, or die, or die.
The revolutionaries of 1776 could be just as violent as those of 2020, but they were truly a lot more intelligent and interesting.
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