If At First You Don’t Secede…

An Independence Day primer: 

Suppose you live in Montana, and one day you get a tax bill in the mail from the tax collector in Pennsylvania. You have never been to Pennsylvania and have absolutely nothing to do with that fine state. You are about to round file that bill when a friend stops you. He says, “Wait. Aren’t you supposed to obey the existing authorities?” You say, “This is either a mistake, in which case they won’t care, or it is a ludicrous power grab, in which case I don’t care.” You go ahead and round file that tax bill, not because you are defying the existing authorities, but rather because they are not your existing authorities. That is the principle.

The American colonies started being settled in earnest in the 17th century. As they were being settled, a particular legal and constitutional relationship was set up between them and the crown. In the British constitution, with regard to England, the crown was the executive power, and Parliament the legislative in England only. This meant that when the crown established the colonies, they were each established with their own legislative bodies. The House of Burgesses in Virginia and Parliament in England bore the same relationship to one another as the legislature of Montana and the legislature of Pennsylvania do. Parliament had absolutely nothing to do with Virginia, as in “no authority.” The crown had authority, not Parliament.

But as a result of some interesting developments in England during that century and the next, the power relationship between the crown and Parliament was transformed. First came the English Civil War, in which the armies of Parliament overthrew and then executed Charles the First. (At least we colonials didn’t chop off the king’s head, Parliament.) Cromwell ruled as the Lord Protector for a few years, and then his son ruled ineffectually for a short time, and then the monarchy was restored under Charles II. Then came the feckless James II, who was run out of Dodge in 1688 in what became known as the Bloodless Revolution or the Glorious Revolution. William and Mary were settled on the throne by Parliament early in 1689, but as you can see from the foregoing, the power of Parliament had increased greatly, and the authority of the crown had been greatly diminished. Parliament had chopped off one monarch’s head, and had deposed another.

In the meantime, the colonies were going along, minding their own business, using their own legislatures, assuming that everything was as it had been. The Atlantic is pretty big, and was even bigger then. There had been a legal revolution in the mother country (a couple of legal revolutions, actually), but in the colonies, everything was still the same. But in England, Parliament had assumed (or so they assumed) many of the prerogatives of the crown.

When Parliament started to tax the colonies, from the perspective of the colonies, who had their own taxing bodies, their own legislatures, this was a grotesque usurpation. The taxes levied were not resisted because of the level of taxation, or because of what was taxed, but rather because the whole thing was unconstitutional and out of order. The cry “no taxation without representation” was an appeal to the fact that Parliament had no legal authority to tax Englishmen who were not represented in Parliament. This was a principle of the law. The colonies had their own representative bodies, and those bodies, according to the law, had the exclusive power to tax. In short, the colonials were fighting to uphold the British constitution, which had been disrupted and unsettled in England by revolutionary forces, but not yet here.

Consequently, when the colonials went to war over it, they were doing so as counter-revolutionaries. They were the conservatives. This is why Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, supported the Americans — and opposed the French revolution, root and branch, from the very beginning. He saw that the revolution in France was a new spirit unleashed upon the world, and he was right. From the French revolution to the Russian revolution, over the course of the 19th century, with a little extra on each side, a spirit of bloodlust was set loose. It has murdered its millions.

But the American War for Independence had no part of this. Those who fought for Virginia, and Maryland, and Massachusetts, etc. were fighting under the authority they had lived under for their entire lives, and which had been established by God (Rom. 13:1-7). They were fighting for the established authorities.

One more thing. If you look over the Declaration, you will notice that all the complaints are directed at the crown. Parliament is not mentioned. This is because we had nothing to do with Parliament. And our complaint against the crown was that he was not discharging his office, in that he was not protecting us from a usurping Parliament. In the old feudal code, you had a lord and you had vassals. The vassals owed allegiance to the lord, and the lord owed protection to the vassals. If that covenant was broken by either party, as it was in this instance by the crown, the deal was off.

Via Douglas Wilson