All Commentary
Monday, October 1, 1990

Where Are the Sons of Liberty?

Dr. Ream, who served for many years as pastor of the First Congregational Church, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, lives in retirement with his wife in Estes Park; Colorado.

The year was 1748 and Virginia, under a regulation of the Crown, was required to grant every Anglican clergyman in that colony an annual salary of 17,000 pounds of tobacco. During the following decade there was a sharp increase in the price of tobacco due to several crop failures. The Virginia Assembly, desiring no doubt that the clergy remain properly poor, passed what were referred to as the Two Penny Acts. These Acts set the value of the clergy’s tobacco at twopence a pound, far below the market price. As could be expected, the clergy objected and brought suit. The dispute became known as the Parson’s Cause and was appealed to the King’s Privy Council which promptly annulled the law. Reverend James Maury brought suit in Virginia and won his case because the judges were bound by the Privy Council’s decision. After the jury had heard Patrick Henry’s defense, it awarded the Reverend Mr. Maury one penny in damages.

Patrick Henry was only in his 20s at the time. No doubt he was trying to build a reputation for himself, but his speech contained a ringing defense for the liberties of free men: “. . . a king, by disallowing Acts of this salutary nature, from being the father of his people, degenerated into a Tyrant, and forfeits all rights to his subjects’ obedience.”

The King’s action through his Privy Council was only one of many threats to the people’s liberties that provided a prelude to the final revolt.

Facing such threats, the Sons of Liberty were formed after the Stamp Act was passed in 1765. Although these groups sometimes may have been unruly, for the most part they were made up of mid-die-class citizens who kept themselves under control. They did, however, make it clear that they would not and could not tolerate the loss of their liberties which George III was seeking to take from them. They frequently disguised themselves, as they did at the Boston Tea Party, burned stamped paper, staged processions, and intimidated English officials.

There is often a misconception on the part of Americans concerning the situation that existed between the people of the 13 original colonies and the British government prior to 1776. This misconception may be due to our 20th century’s poor record at teaching history.

It is widely believed today that the colonists rebelled against the British and King George because they desired freedom from harsh rules and regulations, but the facts are somewhat different. As early as 1763, a decade before the Boston Tea Party, the colonists were free from most of the governmental restrictions we live under in the late 20th century. The colonists’ objection was not that they had no freedom, but that what wide freedom they had was being threatened by new and odious rules emanating from England. They cherished the liberty offered them in this new land and did not wish to forfeit it.

Preserving Liberties

In his excellent work, The Oxford History of the American People, Samuel Eliot Morison makes the same point when he insists, “Make no mistake, the American Revolution was not fought to obtain freedom, but to preserve the liberties that Americans already had as colonials.”

Morison makes clear that Americans of that period probably had more freedom than Americans of any succeeding era. Following the French and Indian War, King George was generally popular. During that period, however, the colonies had grown stronger and more self-confident, considering their own interests primary. They enjoyed complete freedom of speech, press, and assembly, and military service in time of war was voluntary. What taxes were enacted were not burdensome. As Morison puts it, “the hand of government rested lightly on Americans.”

Traveling through Virginia in 1759 a clergyman, Andrew Burnaby, observed, “They are haughty and jealous of their liberties, impatient of restraint, and can scarcely bear the thought of being controlled by any superior power.”

It is perhaps conceivable that this political, economic, and social latitude explains the strong reaction on the part of the colonists when George III threatened and actually began to restrict their freedom.

One has difficulty imagining Americans in our day reacting as did the 18th-century colonial Americans. Oppressive and restrictive laws may annoy us, but overall we are so affluent we would rather do nothing that would imperil our ease and comfort. Over the past several decades we have had our liberties slowly but surely abridged, and most Americans are unaware of or indifferent to how much liberty they have lost. We may murmur occasionally at legislative or administrative decisions that further curtail our liberty, but it is very unlikely we would revolt as did the Americans of 1776, or as did the Sons of Liberty in 1773 when they dumped the tea into Boston Harbor.

Although smuggling was widely practiced in New England, the people were generally law-abid-ing, perhaps more so than their 20th-century counterparts for whom there are so many proscriptive laws that no man knows their number. The more numerous the laws, the more law-breaking there will be. Laws, whether good or bad, are limitations on individual liberty, and when they get to be so numerous and so odious that they become difficult to endure, lack of respect for all law will be the consequence.

Trading Liberty for the Promise of Security

It has begun to happen in the United States today. The majority of long-suffering Americans are the victims of self-seeking politicians whose primary goal, and often apparently their only goal, is to maintain themselves in the cushy office to which they have become accustomed. We have endured continued inroads on our freedom, all made in the name of security and the public welfare. We have done what we were warned long ago not to do, trade liberty for the promise of security. As a consequence we have neither. Do we have increased economic security when government takes five months of our working income in taxes each year and when each family in America owes $44,000 on the national debt?

The American taxpayer could today make a case similar to that made by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence when he listed the failures and shortcomings of George III. Our representatives in Congress have given themselves multitudinous and generous benefits at the expense of ordinary citizens. They have exempted themselves from laws binding the rest of us. They have burdened us, our children, and our grand children with a huge national debt. They have laid on us an ever-increasing burden of taxation. Many of them have been guilty of gross immoral and unethical behavior. They have so arranged things that once in office it is nearly impossible to remove them.

Now comes, perhaps, what may prove to be the last straw—an April 1990 ruling by the Supreme Court destroying the Constitutionally mandated separation of powers between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government. It is Constitutional, the Justices ruled 5-to-4 in a Kansas City school-desegregation case, for a Federal judge to require local governments to increase taxes whether they wish to or not. It is strange beyond credibility that our nation rejoices over the death of socialism in Eastern Europe while seeking to impose it on ourselves.

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson argued the citizens’ right to alter or abolish a government when it became destructive of the basic and unalienable rights of man. He went on to say, however, that experience had shown “that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” Unfortunately, modern Americans seem accustomed to the sins of their politicians and thus are not in the mood to be rid of them. We have not demanded less government, less waste in government, a balanced budget, and a high degree of moral and ethical integrity—and so the sins and errors continue.

Someone once remarked that the trouble with politicians is that their office gives them power, and they come to believe that because they have power they also have wisdom. Certainly a knowledge of history gives the lie to any such absurdity.

The late Ben Rogge of Wabash College once wrote, “Given man’s nature, freedom will always be in jeopardy and the only question that need concern each of us is if and how well we took our stand in its defense during the short period of time when we were potentially a part of the struggle.”

Where are the Sons of Liberty today? We are not without hope. Freedom, the most basic right granted mankind by God, has been burned into the minds of men throughout the history of all civilized society. It remains unquenchable, and when its lack becomes intolerable, men and women will rise up and demand its rebirth.

Barbara Tuchman, in an article in the American Scholar (Autumn 1980), puts it this way:

We cannot reckon the better impulses predominating in the world, only that they will always appear.

The strongest of these in history, summoner of the best in man, has been zeal for liberty. Tune after time in some spot somewhere on the globe, people have risen in what Swinburne called the “divine right of insurrection”—to overthrow despots, repel alien conquerors, achieve independence, and so it will be until the day power ceases to corrupt—which, I think, is not a near expectation.

Where are the Sons (and Daughters) of Liberty? They are among us yet today and always will be. Their numbers are growing. One day they will be successful once more in demanding the end of selfish power- seeking, the end of government by special interests, the end of socialism and centralization of power, and the renewal of freedom under God.

  • Dr. Ream, who served for many years as pastor of the First Congregational Church, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, lives in retirement with his wife in Estes Park; Colorado.