A Brief History of
Why is America free? Millions of men have fought for freedom, but what is the origin of freedom? It must exist for some reason. The following is my humble attempt to explain why the world is what it is today.
The founding fathers imitated ancient Greek and Roman architecture and idealized ancient representative government, but was an imitation of ancients the basis of our freedom? I don't think so. The culture and ideals of Great Britain have more to do with American freedom than those of any classical people, but how did Britain and Western Europe evolve into what they were?
Despite all the criticism of George III in the Declaration of Independence, the real source of the colonists' worries was Parliament - its corruption and the king's increasing influence over it. Boroughs did not accurately represent the population distribution, and some had only a few voters. George III was essentially buying votes in Parliament with government money. Government contracts, lucrative positions in bureaucracy, and distributions from secret accounts were some of the methods. So although many envied Britain as having the best government in the world, it was clearly headed in the wrong direction, and many Brits like John Wilkes, Edmund Burke, and the Earl of Chatham (William Pitt the Elder) were deeply disturbed. Originally at issue with America was internal direct taxation levied by Parliament on the colonists, like the Stamp Act. Although it was widely accepted that taxation on trade was constitutional, the colonists declared that direct taxation was unconstitutional since they were not represented in Parliament. Britain had no written constitution, but centuries of tradition formed a very real constitution which demanded respect. To see how Britain got to this point, lets start at the beginning.
Why is the World Civilized?
Be patient here! Man originally lived as hunter-gatherers. By accident of geography, the plants and animals most easily domesticated were located east to west through Asia. Man's domestication of plants may not have been planned. It may have happened something like this. Gatherers picked the largest and best individual plants to eat. Soon, the best plants were located in the areas used as latrines. The best of these plants were then picked, and the process of human-controlled evolution continued. Eventually, people were better off if they remained in one place and planted seeds. Why does this matter?
Tribes of hunter gatherers were usually small groups which respected private property and organized themselves democratically. The best areas for agriculture, however, were river valleys, so large numbers of people came there to live. Because of the relative ease of transportation, river valleys were relatively easy to control, so dictatorships formed in which private property was a rarity and the leader had nearly unlimited power over the people.
In Greece, the terrain was broken, which in war favors the defense. So Greece was a difficult land to control, and small city states formed where the people owned property and respected property rights. Advances in metalworking permitted many men to afford a panoply of armor, and people who could defend themselves, and their state, had the power and the right to participate in government, so representative government developed. Later, Rome developed representative government and suffrage based on military service and swallowed up Greece and much of the Mediterranean world.
Unlike the modern US system of government in which a Constitution grants the government power, the governments of Greece and Rome had no limits to their power. In addition, manual labor was looked down upon. The rich did not invest in businesses for fear of appearing to be middle class. Many industries in Rome were state owned, including the armaments industry. As a result, quality of armor actually declined over the centuries. Ancient cities were actually destroyers of wealth instead of creators of wealth, and there was little, if any, economic growth. This was not a culture that could progress to our modern levels of wealth and freedom. In fact there was no concept of progress until the rise of Christianity.
So perhaps for the world to progress, the Roman Empire had to be destroyed. The barbarians to the north had kings, but these kings were elected by the people, had limited power, and could be removed. This tradition of limited government power and elected representatives continues to the present day. Pressure from nomadic tribes from the east, possibly because of climate change, forced the Germanic tribes to confederate and move into Roman territories by force. This destroyed the Western Roman Empire, but it may have allowed the world to develop into what it is today.
Western Europe was now composed of a number of kingdoms, each with a weak government. Europe's long coastline made it vulnerable to Viking and Saracen attack while nomadic tribes attacked from the east. The solution was feudalism, a decentralized system of duties and obligations among the king, his noblemen, and the people. The people and the nobles were required to provide military service, and the nobles and king were required to administer justice and defend the people. Failure to do so was justification for rebellion. Although the king was no longer elected, he was required to fulfill his duties with money from his own properties and duties on trade. Any additional taxes required the approval of the people. That was the social contract.
While the Byzantine Empire for the most part shielded Europe from eastern nomads and Moslems, European kingdoms themselves had a number of barriers to conquest including numerous mountain ranges, forests, and rivers. Kings ruled by divine right and wars tended to be limited, if only by necessity. Each sovereign was wary of another gaining more power, so alliances formed and changed to preserve the balance of power. For all these reasons no single king came to dominate the continent.
By the late Middle Ages, military developments were leading to social change. English longbowmen could kill aristocratic knights with armor piercing arrows, and Swiss halberd armed infantry proved a match for mounted knights at a fraction of their cost. In fact, the Swiss successfully rebelled against the Habsburgs in the middle ages and established a confederation with a tradition of local government. While commoners gained an edge over noblemen, the expense of the newly introduced cannon kept this new technology mainly in the hands of kings. With the power to batter down the nobles' castle walls, the king's power grew at the nobles' expense. By the early 1500s, advances in fortification restored many of the advantages of the defense, further protecting the the system of balance of power among governments.
As the Middle Ages progressed, in keeping with the feudal system, most kingdoms had representative bodies to represent the people to the king. Only a fraction of the population could vote for representatives, but this would change later. Spain, France, Britain, Brandenburg-Prussia, the Netherlands, and Sweden all developed such bodies, and in all cases the monarchs would have loved to quash them and institute a more centralized absolutist state better able to survive in a world with gunpowder weaponry. In Sweden, absolutism was avoided because war was fought mainly outside the country and the expenses were largely paid by those in other countries. In Spain, wars against the Moslems provided an adequate excuse for the king to quash the people's representatives. Hardly a bastion of representative government, Spain used the crutch of New World gold and silver to stave off any reform and would later pay the price. Spain became addicted to war and despite its wealth began to heavily tax its subjects. When taxed beyond their tolerance, their territories in the Low Countries rebelled. The Dutch succeeded in the rebellion largely because inconsistent money flows led to frequent mutinies in the Spain armies. The Dutch clung to their convoluted government, and miraculously thrived. Their nation survives to this day. Further taxation in Spanish lands led to the Catalonian revolt which nearly led to the end of the empire. In France, the Hundred Years War allowed the French king to repress representative bodies. And whether because of internal conflict or the Thirty Years War, France further centralized and repressed representative bodies in the early 1600s. They continued to exist, however, and when decades of high spending forced the request of new taxes, the French Revolution resulted with an eventual strengthening of representative institutions. Brandenburg-Prussia was perhaps the worst case. Although once having a degree of liberties similar to that of Britain, the country was ravaged during the Thirty Years War, In response the elector requested that the legislature approve a standing army. When they did, the army marched in and shut them down.
Britain's representative body was called Parliament, derived from the word "parley" from the peaceful meeting of the king and the people's representatives. These representatives could approve new taxes, but they often required new rights and privileges for themselves in exchange. Britain was an island nation with plenty of dangerous longbowmen, a distrust of standing armies, and as an island, minimal chance of invasion. For all these reasons, Parliament retained its power. Like in most European nations, British monarchs wracked up enormous debts during frequent wars.
By the early 1600s a revolution in naval and land weaponry required additional government spending which the king could not afford from the income of his properties. Sometimes, the king would sell his lands to raise money, but this would only lower his future income. As a result, Parliament gained more power. By the mid 1600s, Parliament had gained enough power to relieve Charles I of his head. But after Cromwell's dictatorship, Parliament invited Charles II to reign. When his successor, James II, tried to destroy the power of Parliament and restore Catholicism, William of Orange and his wife Mary were invited to rule. From now on, the monarchy was much weaker. This Glorious Revolution of 1688 forever changed the relationship of king and Parliament. With the representatives of the people running the finances, the king could ignore Parliament only at extreme peril. Parliament had triumphed, and the tradition of representative government continued. When in America the "peculiar rights of Englishmen" were threatened, the colonies rebelled to defend them, as they had every right to do.
America's founding fathers knew this history. To protect the people from government tyranny, they created a WRITTEN Constitution with a Bill of Rights, a document that specifically states that here is a right to keep and bear arms. As history shows, this right helps to protect all the rest.
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