All Commentary
Sunday, July 1, 1973

The Real American Revolution


Dr. Roche is President of Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, Michigan. This article is from his remarks on April 26, ¹973 at the American Patriot Award Ceremony, a First Bicentennial Salute by the Pittsburgh Committee of ’76 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

For a moment, come with me into the American past, to a period in which our forefathers changed the history of the world. Sometimes we think that 1776 was the starting date for our Revolution; actually the real revolution had already been brewing a century and a half before 1776.

Fully 150 years before the American Revolution, our colonial ancestors had enjoyed a large measure of self-government. From the first, the American colonial experience had drawn heavily upon the traditional liberties of the British subject, upon the heritage of Magna Charta and centuries of common law, stressing property rights and the guarantees of individual freedom.

By the 18th century, however, the British were pursuing a new goal. A new economic idea, mercantilism, had gained dominance in British thinking. King George III and his advisers had accepted the idea of what today would be called the planned economy, the mistaken belief that the individual could not be trusted to discharge his own responsibilities. Large amounts of government planning and control were to be used to regulate society and manipulate the individual.

Today the same idea masquerades under many names: Communism, Socialism, the Welfare State—all systems of coercion having in common a basic distrust of individual freedom and responsibility.

By the concluding third of the 18th century, the American people were running out of patience with this growing governmental interference in their affairs. In the summer of 1776, a man named Thomas Jefferson retired to the upstairs bedroom of a bricklayer’s home in Philadelphia, where he penned a short document which was destined to write a new chapter in human history. In that document, the Declaration of Independence, Americans served notice that they would no longer tolerate governmental interference with their lives and property.

The Declaration charged King George III with various abuses of political power against the colonists. But the document was not merely a bill of indictment against George III — it was serving notice, for 1776, for 1976, and for as long as the American Republic endures, that the American people will never tolerate centralized bureaucratic control of their lives.

A Jurisdiction Foreign to Our Constitution

Consider for a moment the language of the Declaration of Independence:

He has erected a multitude of new offices and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance. He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution and unacknowledged by our laws.

In those ringing words we hear the determination of a nation of free men to protect their heritage of liberty and to fight for that heritage when it is threatened.

Actually, Tom Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence are only one-half of the revolutionary story in that exciting summer of 1776. That same summer, a book was published thousands of miles from the American colonies, a book which was destined to have a profound effect on the real American Revolution. The author was a Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, a man named Adam Smith; and the book was entitled The Wealth of Nations. Smith was not an economist. There were no such things as economists in the 18th century. The world was a brighter and happier place.

Smith was a moral philosopher. And as a moral philosopher he perceived a truth which escapes all too many of us today. Men must be free to make their own decisions. If they are not, a moral paralysis soon sets in. Free choice is a prerequisite for a working moral framework.

Building on that premise, Adam Smith examined mercantilism in England and discovered that this early form of the planned economy was denying men free choice and thus was distorting British society. Economic harm was also being done by the new system. Scarce capital resources were being channeled into less productive areas; individual creativity and productivity were being stifled. In short, Smith discovered that mercantilism was strangling the very economic growth that the planned economy had set out to achieve.

Smith also speculated that free men, men in charge of their own lives, would be productive and effective, both for themselves and for society as a whole. His book was destined to have a greater impact than he could ever have guessed.

A Model for Nations

Eleven years after the publication of the Declaration of Independence and The Wealth of Nations, our Founding Fathers met once again, this time to draft a constitution charting the course for a new nation. The resulting document has since served as a model for the entire world. The fifty-five leaders of American society who met to write our Constitution were motivated primarily by two ideas: the Tom Jefferson-limited government idea and the Adam Smith- free enterprise idea.

The Constitution of the United States is in a sense the most revolutionary of all documents. It is premised upon the truly radical idea that men should be left largely free to pursue their own affairs. For the first time in the history of the world, a major nation was attempting an experiment in freedom.

The real American Revolution began at that moment. In freedom, America rushed forward to produce more material wealth than had any previous social order. More important, that wealth found its way into the hands of more common men, more ordinary citizens, than had ever before been the case in the entire history of the world. America became vastly powerful, while the American citizen became the most prosperous and the most free man on the face of the earth.

Freedom worked well for America.

Freedom worked well because free men are more productive than slaves.

Freedom worked well because our Founding Fathers knew that political power must be kept within strict limits. They knew that most of the decisions made in a healthy society must be made by individuals, by families, by voluntary associations of free men.

Above all, our Founding Fathers knew, as the Declaration of Independence announced to the world, that “Men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

Since men are endowed “by their Creator” with these rights, it follows that God and not government is sovereign, and therefore that government must be without authority to interfere with “certain inalienable rights,” such as self-government and sustenance; that is, the right to freedom, and the right to property as a means of making that freedom meaningful.

America has prospered when it followed its faith in free enterprise and free men, a faith based upon a fundamental belief in God. Today we are beset with problems on every hand, problems caused in large part because our faith in free men sometimes falters. All too often we seem to believe today that we can turn our problems over to government, that we can find someone else to deal with our responsibilities.

America is not going to fail. There are no vast, impersonal forces of history about to engulf us. This nation of courageous individuals, this nation of free men, has always been able to handle the problems which arise. We can do so again — if we are true to ourselves, true to our magnificent heritage, true to the basic American faith in free men and the faith in God which is the ultimate cornerstone of our system.

I ask you to join with me in asking God to grant this nation the continued blessing of individual liberty and the courage to fulfill our individual responsibilities as free men and loyal American citizens.

 

***

Self-Government

I could not omit to urge on every man to remember that self-government politically can only be successful if it is accompanied by self-government personally; that there must be government somewhere; and that, if indeed the people are to be the sovereigns, they must exercise their sovereignty over themselves individually, as well as over themselves in the aggregate — regulating their own lives, resisting their own temptations, subduing their own passions, and voluntarily imposing upon themselves some measure of that restraint and discipline which, under other systems, is supplied from armories of arbitrary power.

ROBERT C. WINTHROP, American Statesman (¹809-¹894) 


  • George Charles Roche III (1935 – 2006) was the 11th president of Hillsdale College, serving from 1971 to 1999.