Politics & Policy

A People without a King

Pulling Down the Statue of George II by the ‘Sons of Liberty’, engraving from a painting by Johannes Oertel (Library of Congress)
How the world turned against tyranny

King George III surely had courtiers and sycophants who demanded that the colonials “respect the office.”

And they meant it about the office: The idea that a people could not only survive but thrive without a king, or something very like a king, was seen as beyond radical and more like just plain nuts. Even the Most Serene Republic of Venice had its doge. The Americans thought differently, and they sent the king and his courtiers a public letter written by Thomas Jefferson: “Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.”

That is polite 18th-century English for “Kiss my ass.”

It was the political version of a “Dear John” letter. It might have been a suicide note.

There’s no reason George Washington and all those gentleman farmers and wild boys from New England and Virginia had to win. From time to time, it looked like they wouldn’t. We had some help from the French, including the teenage Marquis de Lafayette. Coming from a family of military aristocrats, he was commissioned as an officer at 13 years of age and joined the American cause as a 19-year-old general. He didn’t do all that much in his first tour, but he came back late in the war, and his forces were, at one point, practically all that stood between Cornwallis and the American and French forces preparing for Yorktown.

We sometimes forget how hard the French can be: The United States lost 53,402 men in the Great War and were so shocked by the experience that we tried to withdraw from the world stage: “Another European war,” we said, shaking our heads, “What’s in it for us?” The French, with a much smaller population, lost 1.2 million. In the next war, the French lost 4.5 times as many men as we did as a share of their population. That’s a lot of blood shed together in the cause of liberty, and there’s a lot more to the Franco-American alliance than a big statue in New York Harbor.

What would have happened without that support? Benjamin Franklin surely was correct in his assessment that we’d all hang together or hang separately. The American republic was founded in an act of treason — glorious treason, but treason nonetheless. King George would not only have been within his rights to hang every last rebel and conspirator from George Washington on down, it would have been his duty to do so. Violent revolution is not something that can be taken lightly. The right side won that war—even the English must quietly acknowledge as much today — but whether that was going to be the case must have been far from obvious at Valley Forge, where men were freezing to death for something higher and finer than free false teeth.

We eventually made peace with the English. I hope that it happened in real life the way it happened on HBO. (Like the cinematic Gandhi, the television John Adams is more quotable than the historical figure.) And we have fought more battles alongside them than we ever dreamt of fighting against them, from the Pacific theater in World War II to Helmand province in Afghanistan. In the 20th century’s long war against tyranny and the 21st century’s long war against Islamist fanaticism, we have been lucky in our allies, whose sacrifices we sometimes forget: A hundred thousand Canadians died in the world wars. In Afghanistan there have been hundreds of British and Canadian casualties, and lives lost from France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Denmark, Australia, Spain, Georgia, the Netherlands, Romania, Turkey, the Czech Republic, New Zealand, Norway, Estonia, Hungary, Sweden, Latvia, Slovakia, Finland, Jordan, Portugal, Korea, Albania, Belgium, Lithuania, and Montenegro. Not all of our allies thought we were making the right decision in Iraq, but 46,000 British troops joined the invasion, along with 2,000 from Australia and thousands from our other allies.

That isn’t politics. That’s something more.

A great many of those troops — Americans, British, Australian, Italian, Finnish—probably rolled their eyes when they heard politicians making fine speeches about what our nations were up to in Afghanistan or Iraq. And no doubt the first thing the Marquis de Lafayette heard when he returned to France to lobby for support for Washington and his forces was: “What’s in it for us?” That’s a fine question, but it isn’t the only question. Americans can be — and often are — everything our critics say we are: impulsive, vulgar, oafish, clumsy, greedy, vain, belligerent, sanctimonious, hypocritical. But we are something else: a catalyst. We’ve had 241 years of hit-and-miss government, but imagine going back to 1776 with a prophecy that one day, in the not-too-distant future, the English, French, Germans, Spanish, and Italians — to say nothing of the Israelis and the Japanese and the Indians — would form a restive and sometimes turbulent but enduring alliance against tyranny and oppression, and that this alliance would be loosely and imperfectly organized around something like the ideals ratified on July 4, 1776.

No tyrant walking the Earth is powerful enough to stand against a nation of truly free men.

We have our political, economic, and religious disagreements with our friends and allies, but everywhere in the world where people fight against tyranny, we hear an echo of 1776. Everywhere in the world where people risk everything they have to tell the king, führer, caudillo, secretary general of the central committee, dear leader, ayatollah, or president for life to kiss their asses, we see something of ourselves. When things get bad enough, we join in, and have spent untold blood and treasure in the pursuit of other people’s liberty. Why? What’s in it for us?

It is in our nature. We aren’t our politics. We aren’t our government or our president or even our Constitution, which is subject to revision from time to time. We are the people who decided that rather than just change kings, we’d do away with kings altogether under the radical theological premise that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, irrespective of the king’s good opinion. A people with no king showed the world that life without tyranny is possible, and in fact that no tyrant walking the Earth is powerful enough to stand against a nation of truly free men. Castro, Putin, Maduro, Kim — they are sad and more than a little ridiculous by comparison.

It emphatically is not the case, flatulent rhetoric notwithstanding, that the desire for freedom has been planted in every human heart. But where it has been planted, Americans know a kinship beyond blood. When Ronald Reagan demanded of Mikhail Gorbachev “Tear down this wall!” no one asked, “What’s in it for us?” We already knew.

We still know.

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