The Corner

Independence Day

Over at Conservative Home, British MEP Dan Hannan looks at this day from the perspective of the Anglosphere:

When Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, he included a wistful line that was excised by the other signatories: ‘We might have been a great and free people together’.

Until that moment, the idea that Americans were engaged in a war against a foreign power would have struck Patriots and Loyalists alike as bizarre. Jefferson, like other Virginia radicals, saw himself as a British Whig, heir to the tradition of Edward Coke (1552–1634), John Hampden (1595–1643) and Algernon Sidney (1623–1683). He did not believe he was laying claim to any new rights; rather, he was defending the liberties that he assumed he had been born with as an Englishman. Right up to the end, he had hoped that such liberties might flourish under the Crown, but George III dashed his ambition. We sense Jefferson’s bitterness in the Declaration’s telling complaint about the king ‘transporting hither foreign mercenaries’. Foreign! How historians have glossed over the significance of that word. In sending his Hessian hirelings against Britons, the Hanoverian monarch was in effect annulling their nationality.

The American Revolution is now described with anachronistic terminology. History books and tour guides talk about how, in 1775, minutemen and militias swarmed to resist ‘the British’ – language that no one would or could have used at the time. Everyone involved was British, and public opinion in the British Isles was divided in exactly the same way as in the colonies. The American conflict was, in truth, a settlement by force of the ancient Tory–Whig dispute which, at least in New England, had passed the point of peaceful resolution. What we now call the American War of Independence would more accurately be termed the Second Anglosphere Civil War – the First having been fought across England, Scotland, Ireland and America in the 1640s…..

Reviewing Mel Gibson’s The Patriot way back when, I made a similar point, but with less erudition:

In many ways the American Revolution was a continuation of a long argument over how Britons should be ruled, the second round, if you like, of the seventeenth century civil war in England. Yes, the troops sent across the Atlantic by (German) George III were sent packing — but it was by folks called Washington, Gates and Pickens. It hurt at the time, but when we British consider our history, a defeat only counts when it’s to people with names like Schmidt, Watanabe or Depardieu. In the Revolutionary War, you see, we Brits essentially lost to ourselves, and that’s not so bad. We just won’t mention that Lafayette fellow.

Hannan concludes on a none too celebratory note, however:

Ours is the civilization that invented limited government. We, uniquely in the world, found mechanisms to hold our leaders to account, to ensure that the law was above the government rather than the other way around, to make the state our servant rather than our master.  That tradition – the Whig tradition, for want of a better shorthand – culminated in Jefferson and his contemporaries.

For a century and a half following the American Revolution, Jeffersonian principles made the English-speaking peoples the wealthiest, freest and best-governed on Earth. Power was dispersed, legislators were elected and decisions were taken as closely as possible to the people they affected.

The decline of the Anglosphere precisely matches the decline of those precepts. Government has grown larger and more remote; taxes and spending have risen to levels which English-speakers would have revolted over as recently as a century ago; elected representatives have ceded power to standing bureaucracies. How Jefferson’s shade would groan to look upon our present age. We might have been a great and free people together.


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