Politics & Policy

Those Ungovernable Colonists

Detail of The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1914)
Our founding fathers knew when to build, and when to fight — and what to build, and what to fight.

The American colonies must have been an unruly place, full as they were of religious fanatics and slave traders, second sons and fortune hunters, criminals and former political prisoners, and all manner of people in between. The first settlements hugged the coast, where one set of adventurers looked seaward while another looked to the interior wilderness. It was, in retrospect, almost inevitable that North America would quickly become the wealthiest place in the world by the 17th century.

Why? Because those seditionists, fanatics, and gamblers were impossible to rule. While we are counting our blessings this Thanksgiving, let’s not forget to count that one: Our ancestors did not much like being told what to do, and we — and the world — are immeasurably richer and happier for that.

Edmund Burke called the Crown’s attitude toward the colonies “wise and salutary neglect,” but it was as much pragmatism as it was policy. There were many colonies and colonists, they were not of a uniformly obedient type, they were far away — and, most important, they were extraordinarily productive. By the latter half of the 18th century, there were more iron forges in the American colonies than in Britain, the colonies were exporting millions of barrels of flour and tons of other agriculture products, and one out of three ships in the British merchant fleet was American-built. The economy was booming, and most of the population still lived in rural or semi-rural areas, far from the amusements of urban life, which may explain why the ratio of colonists to subjects back in England went from 1:20 to 1:3 in the course of just a few decades.

One of the reasons why the Industrial Revolution — which is to say, modern civilization — first rumbled to life in Britain rather than in Spain or Germany was the secret unruliness of the English, seemingly one of the world’s ruliest peoples. A combination of happy historical accidents and cultural predisposition meant that Englishmen were relatively free to pursue their own economic ends; even in the late medieval period, England did not have anything so strict as the German guild system or serfdom as intensely enforced as French villeinage. The American colonists regularly flouted laws purporting to regulate trade and manufacturing, and the Crown wisely looked the other way. (Until it didn’t, at which point it got a fight and lost.)

The division of labor is the essence of civilization, the underlying source of practically every good thing about the material conditions of the modern world. It is why civilized countries do not have famine any more, why we are surrounded by technological wonders, why things like air travel and mobile phones go from being restricted to millionaires to being ho-hum over a short course of years. Most of the technological ingredients for the Industrial Revolution had been in place not only in Britain but in Spain, France, Italy, etc., for years. But British subjects and American colonists had the opportunity and the inclination to begin a finer and more robust division of labor than did their European counterparts. They were just a little bit more free — and a little bit more determined to be free — and that little bit made an incalculable difference, not only to them, but to the world.

They built something remarkable. And the idiot children of the Left are today cheering those who would literally burn it down, in Ferguson and elsewhere.

I am generally inclined toward outbreaks of orneriness, whether in Nevada or in Missouri. If the people of Ferguson believe that they are misgoverned, that their police are a problem, that the usual forms of legal and political redress have failed them, then, by all means, shake the foundations. And there may have been about five minutes at the beginning when that’s what this was about. The crowd in Ferguson is now very little more than a lynch mob. Maybe I should be ashamed of it, but there’s a little part of my heart that would leap at the sight of Americans setting fire to a tax office. But setting fire to an Autozone? Pathetic.

There’s a famous meme that made the rounds during Occupy Wall Street, with a hippie-dirtbag protester labeled “Wants More Government” and menacing police in riot gear closing down on him labeled “More Government.” Those of us who want less government do not want only that: We want what flourishes when men are left free to pursue their own ends. The Left, on the other hand, takes every instance of unhappiness as an argument for more government — including bad government. Our founding fathers knew when to build, and when to fight. More importantly, they knew what to build, and what to fight.

The most shocking act of nonconformity in Ferguson, the boldest declaration of independence, would be starting a business rather than burning one.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.

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