These invocations struck a chord across the Atlantic. Speaking of those “Englishmen in this island” who were not “enemies to their own blood on the American continent,” Edmund Burke conceded that the entreaties to the British tradition were appropriate:
We also reason and feel as you do on the invasion of your charters. Because the charters comprehend the essential forms by which you enjoy your liberties, we regard them as most sacred, and by no means to be taken away or altered without process, without examination, and without hearing, as they have lately been.
Burke stopped short of endorsing radical change. Others, however, were more than happy to do so. Charles James Fox, a playboy parliamentarian who lacked Burke’s respect for that which has “anciently stood” — and who most expressly did concern himself with “metaphysical abstractions” that Burke professed to disdain — made a point of loudly supporting the Americans in public, expressly setting the revolutionaries’ struggle as a moral fight against an all-powerful executive that was analogous to the Glorious Revolution and to the English Civil War. In speech after speech, Fox worried aloud that George III did not only aspire to ignore the representative bodies of the British in America but wished also to rule without parliament as the Stuarts had before him. “I say,” Fox maintained in a famous speech, “that the people of England have a right to control the executive power, by the interference of their representatives in this House of parliament.” So too, the recalcitrant rebels. Much to the chagrin of many of his peers, Fox was such a partisan for the American side that he laughed publicly at the news of British defeats and took to wearing the buff and blue colors of Washington’s army in the House of Commons.
Fear of potentates ran deep within the Anglo-American tradition. When the mutinous Immortal Seven ushered in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, their invitation to William of Orange related that the people were “generally dissatisfied with the present conduct of the government, in relation to their religion, liberties and properties (all which have been greatly invaded).” As Daniel Hannan observes in Inventing Freedom, these three objects were philosophically inextricable. Protestantism, Hannan notes, was seen by the architects of English liberty in “political rather than theological terms, as guarantor of free speech, free conscience, and free parliament”; Catholicism, by contrast, was held to consume those virtues and to lead, inexorably, to monarchy. The fear of “popery” that helped to usher in the Glorious Revolution was certainly more pronounced in England that it was in America. But the concerns that motivated it were not, being instead inseparable from the fundamental political question, which was, “are we to rule ourselves or are we to be ruled by Kings and by Popes?” It stood to reason then that those who had become accustomed to expecting to enjoy a relationship with God that was not refereed by a host of spiritual bureaucrats would be able to more easily imagine governing their own worldly affairs, as it made sense that a culture in which the laity was encouraged to read Scripture for itself would be one in which subjects would more quickly rush to the defense of parliaments against the King. As ever, the instinct was toward the fragmentation of power.
With its attestation that all men are created equal, the Declaration of Independence represented a glorious break with all that had gone before. Thomas Jefferson, in Abraham Lincoln’s sparkling phrase, managed to weather “the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people,” and “to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times,” ensuring thereby that a nation that had started as a series of ad-hoc imperial outputs would forever have about it the quality of the mission. In toto, though, it is a reflective, rather than a subversive document — one that is predicated upon ancient principle and marinated in a wisdom that had taken centuries to accrue. That wisdom is timeless and, if it is observed, timely. Modish figures such as Barack Obama may have snazzy websites, killer Hollywood cachets, and a few million Twitter followers, but they possess human hearts still. By threatening Congress and insinuating that its prerogatives are less important than his agenda, our 44th president is not liberating himself from ancient restraints but playing the villain’s role in a musty power play that has been running for more than a millennium. July 4 is a day for celebrating the words that gave teeth to the Enlightenment. But it is also an opportunity to reaffirm the acumen acquired by the men who came before, and who urged us vigilantly to look around us for stray Cavaliers.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.