Guest Essayist: The Honorable David L. Robbins

Most students of U.S. history know about the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” that heralded the beginning of the American Revolution on April 19, 1775. The battles of Lexington and Concord, spurred on when British soldiers tried to confiscate the arms of the American colonists, were the first shots in the Revolutionary War. These battles which caused the British soldiers to retreat to Boston with heavy losses were the result of unrest by the colonialists from the harsh treatment from the British Crown. The battles showed the growing resistance to British rule and tyranny.

These battles followed the attempts of the First Continental Congress in 1774 to avoid war with Great Britain by addressing grievances of the colonists. Following the battles of Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress was convened in Philadelphia (1775-1776). Again, the goal was to avoid war, but it also established the Continental Army with George Washington as General of the Army. This Congress also drafted and ratified the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Militias were organized to provide local protection and became citizen soldiers supporting the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. The Militias were the colonial fighters at the battles of Lexington and Concord as there was no Continental Army yet.

By the early summer of 1777 the war for American independence was in full sway and the British believed they could break the resolve of the colonies following recent colonial losses at the Battle of Quebec. The British intended to cut off the New England colonies from the other colonies. Britain’s plan included sending three military columns to converge on Albany, New York, and hand the Continental Army a resounding defeat. British General John Burgoyne’s column of soldiers had been augmented by German troops and Native American fighters. After the Battle of Quebec, the British suffered a defeat at the Battle of Bennington that saw the loss of 1,000 men, and the Native American fighters all but abandoned the British. Burgoyne’s position was difficult. He needed to either retreat to Fort Ticonderoga or advance toward Albany. He decided to move down the Hudson River toward Albany.

With 6,500 fighters, Burgoyne positioned his men near Saratoga, at Freeman Farm, owned by a Loyalist. The Continental Army was led by General Horatio Gates along with Militia, over 12,000 men. The first engagement of the Battle of Saratoga was on September 19, 1777 and lasted for several hours with Burgoyne gaining a small tactical advantage against the much larger forces of General Gates and the Militia. However, Burgoyne suffered significant casualties. For two weeks the British regrouped.

With the tactical advantage, Burgoyne attacked the American forces on October 7 in what is called the Battle of Bemis Heights; this was the second Battle of Saratoga. The Americans captured a portion of the British defenses and Burgoyne was forced to retreat. On October 17, with his troops surrounded and vastly outmanned, Burgoyne surrendered. General Gates accepted his surrender in a respectful manner, allowing most of the British soldiers to return to Great Britain. One American that factored into the success of this battle was Benedict Arnold. He would later become disenchanted with the American military ending in his conviction for treason and his execution.

The final battle of Saratoga was a major defeat for the British and word of British surrender further rallied troops in the Continental Army and the Militias. Although the end of the war and full British surrender was years off, the Battle of Saratoga was a major turning point in the Revolutionary War. It brought the French to fully support the fledging nation with desperately needed military aid along with aid from Spain and other countries. Without such support the new nation might have failed to materialize. This battle and others emphasized the important roll the Militia would continue to play in America’s war for independence.

Almost ten years passed after the Battle of Saratoga ended and the American experiment was in its infancy. After an attempt to bring the colonies (now called States) together via the Articles of Confederation, it was determined a more formal federal government was necessary. This brought about the Constitution of the United States. Strong memory of the excesses and tyranny of the British government pushed the framers of the new government to place limits on this new government in the Constitution and some of its first ten amendments. The first ten amendments also guaranteed certain rights to the people and are referred to as the Bill of Rights. These rights include the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, rights to petition the government for grievances, the right to bear arms, rights of privacy and to own private property.

The founders of the United States recognized the need for a formal federal government, but also realized a federal government without limits could again grow to abuse and suppress its citizens. One of the means Great Britain used to control the colonies and prevent rebellion was the seizure of the people’s arms. This was the purpose of the British advance on Concord; to remove the weapons and power stored there. The Second Amendment is an acknowledgement of the role played by the Militias in gaining American independence and ensuring citizens could protect themselves from government overreach the colonies experienced from Great Britain.

David L. Robbins serves as Public Education Commissioner in New Mexico.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

In an 1825 letter to Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson reflected on the making of the Declaration of Independence and its principles. Jefferson admitted that the Declaration was intended to be “an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, [and] printed essays.”

The “harmonizing sentiments” of the American mind were present during the debate over British tyranny and taxes in the 1760s and 1770s. The American colonists drew on ancient history and philosophy, the English constitutional tradition, Protestant Christianity, and the Enlightenment ideas especially of John Locke in asserting their rights. They claimed the traditional rights of Englishmen and more importantly their inalienable natural rights and the republican ideal of governing themselves by their own consent.

In the wake of the Boston Tea Party and punitive parliamentary Coercive Acts, the Continental Congress met in 1774 as an expression of American unity. The delegates penned a declaration of rights that defended their natural rights and republican ideals. “That they are entitled to life, liberty, & property, and they have never ceded to any sovereign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without their consent.”

The natural rights republicanism continued to shape the American thinking and debate about independence. For example, a young Alexander Hamilton wrote in Farmer Refuted,  “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”

In July 1775, Jefferson helped to draft the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. He wrote, “The arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverence, employ for the preservation of our liberties; being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves.”

In 1776, Thomas Paine electrified the colonies with the best-selling pamphlet, Common Sense, which firmly put republican principles and American independence in the center of the debate. Paine wrote that the rule of law rather than the arbitrary will of a monarch was the basis of guarding essential liberties. “LAW IS KING.” The purpose of that new government would be to protect liberty, property, and religious freedom,” he wrote.

The Continental Congress took up the question of independence that spring. On May 10, it adopted a resolution for the representative colonial assemblies and conventions of the people to “adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular and America in general.”

Five days later, Adams added his own even more radical preamble expressing republican principles. “It is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said Crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as for the defense of their lives, liberties, and properties.” This bold declaration was essentially a break from British authority and declaration of American sovereignty and liberties. He wrote excitedly to Abigail that this measure was “independence itself.”

On June 7, Richard Henry Lee rose in Congress and offered a resolution for independence. “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” Congress appointed a committee to draft a Declaration of Independence while states such as Virginia wrote constitutions and their own declarations of rights.

On June 12, the Virginia Convention published the Virginia Declaration of Rights that asserted the Lockean idea of the rights of nature and maintained that the purpose of government was to protect those liberties. It read: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights… cannot by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

The committee selected Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence because he was well-known for the elegance of his pen. In 1774, Jefferson had written the influential Summary View of the Rights of British North America. In that pamphlet, he described the natural rights basis of consensual republican government. The American colonists were “a free people claiming their rights, as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.”  The colonists argued for the “rights which God and the laws have given equally and independently to all.” He concluded with a reflection on rights embedded in human nature: “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.”

When Jefferson sat down to compose the Declaration, he probably did not have a copy of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. However, he knew the ideas of that book well and had a copy of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which had been printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette on June 12. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams edited the document lightly and submitted it to Congress.

On July 1, John Dickinson and Adams engaged in an epic debate over whether America should declare its independence. The next day, Congress voted for independence by passing Lee’s resolution. Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that, “The Second Day of July will be the most memorable Epocha, in the history of America….It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

The Congress then considered and edited the document much to Jefferson’s chagrin.  It adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4 and enunciated the natural rights principles of the American republic.

The Declaration claimed that the natural rights of all human beings were self-evident truths that were axiomatic and did not need to be proven. They were equally “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The equality of human beings meant that they were equal in giving consent to their representatives in a republic to govern. All authority flowed from the sovereign people equally. The purpose of that government was to protect the rights of the people. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The people had the right to overthrow a government that violated the people’s rights with a long train of abuses.

The American constitutional regime would provide the framework—or “picture of silver” for the “apple of gold” (the Declaration) in Abraham’s Lincoln’s immortal phrase—for creating a lasting republic and “more perfect Union” to preserve those natural rights and liberties in 1787.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. He is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

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Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath

The adoption of the Declaration of Independence of “the thirteen united States of America” on July 4, 1776, formally ended a process that had been set in motion almost as soon as colonies were established in what became British North America. The early settlers, once separated physically from the British Isles by an immense ocean, in due course began to separate themselves politically, as well. Barely a decade after Jamestown was founded, the Virginia Company in 1619 acceded to the demands of the residents to form a local assembly, the House of Burgesses, which, together with a governor and council, would oversee local affairs. This arrangement eventually was recognized by the crown after the colony passed from the insolvent Virginia Company to become part of the royal domain. This structure then became the model of colonial government followed in all other colonies.

As the number and size of the colonies grew, the Crown sought to increase its control and draw them closer to England. However, those efforts were sporadic and of limited success during most of the 17th century, due to the isolation and the economic and political insignificance of the colonies, the power struggles between the King and Parliament, and the constitutional chaos caused in turn by the English Civil War, the Cromwell Protectorate, the Restoration, and the Glorious Revolution. There was, then, a period of benign neglect under which the colonies controlled their own affairs independent of British interference, save the inevitable local tussles between the assemblies and the royal governors jockeying for political position. Still, the increasingly imperial objectives of the British government and expansion of British control over disconnected territories eventually convinced the British of the need for more centralized policy.

This change was reflected in North America by a process of subordinating the earlier charter- or covenant-based colonial governments to more direct royal control, one example being the consolidation in the 1680s of the New England colonies, plus New York and New Jersey into the Dominion of New England. While the Dominion itself was short-lived, and some of the old colonies regained charters after the Glorious Revolution, their new governments were much more tightly under the King’s influence. Governors would be appointed by the King, laws passed by local assemblies had to be reviewed and approved by royal officials such as the Board of Trade, and trade restrictions under the Navigation Acts and related laws were enforced by British customs officials stationed in the colonies. William Penn and the other proprietors retained their possessions and claims, but the King, frequently allying himself with anti-proprietor sentiments among the settlers, forced them to make political concessions that benefited the Crown.

Trade and general imperial policy were dictated by Parliament and administered from London. Still, the colonial assemblies retained significant local control and, particularly in the decades between 1720 and 1760, took charge of colonial finance through taxation and appropriations and appointment of finance officers to administer the expenditure of funds. While direction of Indian policy, local defense, and intercolonial relations belonged to the Crown, in fact even these matters were left largely to local governments. The Crown’s interests were represented in the person of the royal governor. However strong the political position of those governors was in theory, in practice they were quite dependent on the colonial assemblies for financial support. The overall division of political authority between the colonial governments and the British government in London was not unlike the federal structure that the Americans adopted to define the state-nation relationship after independence.

A critical change occurred with the vast expansion of British control over North America and other possessions in the wake of the Seven Years’ War (the French and Indian War) in 1763. Britain was heavily indebted from the war, and its citizens labored under significant taxes. Thus, the government saw the lightly-taxed colonials as the obvious source of revenue to contribute to the cost of stationing a projected 10,000 troops to defend North America from hostilities from Indian tribes and from French or Spanish forces. Parliament’s actions to impose taxes and, after colonial protests, abandon those taxes, only to enact new ones, both emboldened and infuriated the Americans. This friction led to increasingly vigorous protests by various local and provincial entities and to “congresses” of the colonies that drew them into closer union a decade before the formal break. Colonials organized as the Sons of Liberty and similar grass-roots radicals destroyed British property and attacked royal officials, sometimes in brutal fashion. At the same time, British tactics against the Americans became more repressive, in ways economic, political, and, ultimately, military. That cycle began to feed on itself in a chain reaction that, by the early 1770s, was destined to lead to a break.

The progression from the protests of the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, to the Declaration of Resolves of the First Continental Congress and subsequent formation of the Continental Association to administer a collective boycott against importation of British goods in 1774, to the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms issued by the Second Continental Congress in 1775, to the Declaration of Independence of 1776, shows a gradual but pronounced evolution of militancy in the Americans’ position. Protestations of loyalty to King and country and disavowal of a goal of independence were still common, but were accompanied by increasingly urgent promises of resistance to “unconstitutional” Parliamentary acts. American political leaders and polemicists advocated a theory of empire in which the local assemblies, along with a general governing body of the united colonies, would control internal affairs and taxation, subject only to the King’s assent. This “dominion theory” significantly reduced the role of Parliament, which would be limited to control of external commerce and foreign affairs. It was analogous to the status of Scotland within the realm, but was based on the constitutional argument that the colonies were in the King’s dominion, having emerged as crown colonies from the embryonic status of their founding as covenant, corporate, or proprietary colonies. Had the British government embraced such a constitutional change, as Edmund Burke and some other members urged Parliament to do, the resulting “British Commonwealth” status likely would have delayed independence until the next century, at least.

In early 1776, sentiment among Americans shifted decisively in the direction of the radicals. Continued military hostilities, the raising of American troops, the final organization of functioning governments at all levels, the realization that the British viewed them as a hostile population reflected in the withdrawal of British protection by the Prohibitory Act of 1775, and Thomas Paine’s short polemic Common Sense opened the eyes of a critical mass of Americans. They were independent already, in everything but name and military reality. Achieving those final steps now became a pressing, yet difficult, task.

The Declaration was the work of a committee composed of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. They were appointed on June 11, 1776, in response to a resolution introduced four days earlier by Richard Henry Lee acting on instruction of the state of Virginia. Jefferson prepared the first draft, while Franklin and the others edited that effort to alter or remove some of the more inflammatory and domestically divisive language, especially regarding slavery. They completed their work by June 28, and presented it to Congress. On July 2, Congress debated Lee’s resolution on independence. The result was no foregone conclusion. Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson and Robert Morris, both of whom had long urged caution and conciliation, agreed to stay away so that the Pennsylvania delegation could vote for independence. The Delaware delegation was deadlocked until Cesar Rodney made a late appearance in favor. The South Carolina delegation, representing the tidewater-based political minority that controlled the state, was persuaded to agree. The New York delegates abstained until the end. Two days later, the Declaration itself was adopted. It was proclaimed publicly on July 8 and signed on July 19.

Jefferson claimed that he did not rely on any book or pamphlet to write the Declaration. Yet the bill of particulars in the Declaration that accused King George of numerous perfidies is taken wholesale, and frequently verbatim, from Chapter II of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and Constitution proposed by a convention on May 6, 1776, and approved in two phases in June. Moreover, Jefferson’s Declaration clearly exposes its roots in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. It would be astounding if Jefferson, a Virginian deeply involved in the state’s affairs, was unaware of such a momentous event or was oblivious to the influence of Locke on the many debates and publications of his contemporaries.

Three fundamental ideas coalesced in the Declaration: 17th-century social compact and consent of the governed as the ethical basis of the state, a right of revolution if the government violates the powers it holds in trust for the people, and classic natural law/natural rights as the divinely-ordained origin of rights inherent in all humans. The fusion of these different strands of political philosophy showed the progression of ideas that had matured over the preceding decade from the at-times simplistic slogans about the ancient rights of Englishmen rooted in the king’s concessions to the nobles in Magna Charta and from the incendiary proclamations by the Sons of Liberty and other provocateurs.

The structure was that of a legal brief. The King was in the dock as an accused usurper, and he and the jury of mankind were about to hear the charges and the proposed remedy. At the heart of the case against the King were some fundamental propositions, “self-evident truths”: Mankind is created equal; certain rights are “unalienable” and come from God, not some earthly king or parliament; governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed” and exist to secure those rights; and, borrowing heavily from Locke, there exists a residual recourse to revolution against a “long train of abuses and usurpations.”

Once the legal basis of the complaint was set, supporting facts were needed. Jefferson’s list is emotional and provocative. As with any legal brief, it is also far from impartial or nuanced. Some of the nearly thirty accusations seem rather quaint and technical for a “tyrant,” such as having required legislative bodies to sit “at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records.” Others do not strike us as harsh under current circumstances as they might have been at the time, such as King George having “endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purposed obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.” At least one other, describing the warfare by “the merciless Indian Savages,” sounds politically incorrect to the more sensitive among our modern ears.

The vituperative tone of these accusations is striking and results in a gross caricature of the monarch. But this was a critical part of the Declaration. Having brushed aside through prior proclamations and resolves Parliament’s legitimacy to control their affairs, the Americans needed to do likewise to the King’s authority. King George was young, energetic, and politically involved, with a handsome family, and generally popular with the British people. Many Americans, too, had favored him based on their opinion, right or wrong, that he had been responsible for Parliament repealing various unpopular laws, such as the Stamp Act. As well, as Hamilton remarked later at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, the King was bound up in his person with the Nation, so it was emotionally difficult for many people to sever that common identity between themselves and the monarch. To “dissolve the political bands” finally, it would no longer suffice to blame various lords and ministers for the situation; the King himself must be made the villain.

Before the ultimate and extraordinary remedy of independence could be justified, it must be shown, of course, that more ordinary relief had proved unavailing. Jefferson mentions numerous unsuccessful warnings, explanations, and appeals to the British government and “our British brethren.” Those having proved ineffective, only one path remained forward: “We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America … declare, That these United Colonies are … Independent States.”

The Declaration was a manifesto for change, not a plan of government. That second development, moving from a revolutionary to a constitutional system, would have to await the adoption of the Articles of Confederation and, eventually, the Constitution of 1787. True, since the early days of the Republic, various advocates of causes such as the abolition of slavery have held up the Declaration’s principles of liberty and equality as infusing the “spirit” of the Constitution. But this has always been more a projection by those advocates of their own fervent wishes than a measure of what most Americans in 1776 actually believed.

Being “created equal” was a political idea in that there would be no hereditary monarchy or aristocracy in a republic based on consent. It was also a religious idea, in that all were equal before God. It did not mean, however, that people were equal “in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions,” as James Madison would mockingly write in The Federalist No. 10. He and Jefferson, along with most others, were convinced that, if people were left to their own devices, the natural inequality among mankind would sort things out socially, politically, and economically. Even less did such formal equality call for affirmative action by government to cure inequality of condition. It was, after all, as Madison explained in that same essay, “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property” that were the “improper and wicked project[s]” against which the councils of government must be secured.

In the specific context of slavery, the Declaration trod carefully. Jefferson’s criticism of the British negation of colonial anti-slave trade laws in his original draft of the Declaration was quickly excised by cooler heads who did not want to stir that pot, especially since almost all of the states permitted slavery. Jefferson’s later lamentation regarding slavery that “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just” was a distinct minority view. Many Americans had escaped grinding poverty in Europe, had served years of indentured servitude, or lived under dangerous and hardscrabble frontier conditions. As a result, as the historian Forrest McDonald observed, few of them trembled with Jefferson. It remained for later generations and the crucible of the Civil War and Reconstruction to realize the promise of equality that the Declaration held for the opponents of slavery.

An expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty, Professor Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow. Read more from Professor Knipprath at: http://www.tokenconservative.com/.

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Guest Essayist: Jeff Truitt

For thousands of years, nations have looked to the sea as a “global commons” that provides a source of sustenance, a means to efficiently trade goods in mutually advantageous economic transactions, and as a highway for the transport of armies. Since our nation’s own earliest origins, the advantages of efficient commerce over the seas have contributed to our rise as an ascendant economic power, our internal freedom, and our ability to project power and stability around the globe.

In 1775, the thirteen American Colonies were under attack by hostile forces from across the Atlantic Ocean. The Navy celebrates October 13, 1775 as the birth of the United States Navy because that is the date on which the Continental Congress officially authorized the funding of two ships to interdict British forces. However, a month earlier, General George Washington, acting unilaterally, deployed three schooners off the coast of Massachusetts and thereby provisioned the colonies with their first naval forces. Over the course of the Revolutionary War, more than 50 Continental vessels harassed the British, seized munitions, supplied the Continental Army, and engaged in international commerce with European allies like France.

The greatest naval successes of the Revolutionary War were secured by privateers, most famously John Paul Jones whose remains are kept in the crypt beneath the Chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy. A privateer was a private Sailor who was granted authority by a sovereign power by a “Letter of Marque” to intercept civilian merchant ships belonging to an enemy power.  These “prize” ships were hauled into a court which had the authority to award a share of the spoils to the privateer and the ship’s owners. Some 1,700 privateers captured more than 2,200 enemy ships during the Revolutionary War, compared to perhaps 200 ships captured by the Continental Navy.

The game changing event of the American Revolution was the defeat of the English forces at Yorktown in 1781. This forced surrender occurred because the French fleet defeated the English fleet at Chesapeake and were thereby poised to annihilate the English columns with their powerful cannon. Command of the littoral waters enabled land-based forces to prevail, a pattern repeated often throughout history.

Quality Navy ships are expensive and by 1785, the Continental Navy had been completely disbanded. After a decade without a Navy, State-sponsored pirate regimes in North Africa prevented U.S. merchant vessels from engaging in free commerce in the Mediterranean. The Naval Act of 1794 created a standing Navy, featuring the commissioning of six technologically sophisticated vessels that could engage or outrun any ship it encountered. One of them was the USS Constitution, still docked in Boston today.

After restoring freedom of navigation to the Mediterranean, the U.S. Navy prevented the invasion of New York state by the British in the War of 1812. Soon after, the U.S. Navy helped stamp out piracy on the high seas in South America, Africa and the Pacific. Between 1819 and the start of the Civil War, the U.S. Navy operated an Africa squadron which suppressed the slave trade, capturing more than 36 slave ships during this time. The U.S. Navy played a critical role in choking off supplies to the South during the Civil War, again highlighting the power of international trade to shape world events.

Interestingly, although European powers outlawed privateering in the 1856 Declaration of Paris following the Crimean War, the United States declined to join this convention because we feared that our underdog Navy might need such assistance. In the 1880s, we invested in modern steel battleships and by 1900 had built the world’s fifth largest Navy.  Privateering was outlawed for good at the Hague Conference of 1907.

Hopefully most Americans are still aware of the critical role that the U.S. Navy played in defending twice against the German threat in as many generations, as well as its defeat of Imperial Japan in 1945.

Since World War II, the United States Navy has provided a safety umbrella on the oceans around the world for international shipping.  Whether it is the trade of wheat, oil, pork, steel, timber, or finished goods, global commerce is enabled by the protection afforded by the United States Navy. While U.S. taxes support a strong Navy, safety at sea is a collective benefit enjoyed by everyone.

It is critical that we continue to support navigational rights around the world. The right of innocent passage hearkens back hundreds of years and contributed to the economic development of millions of souls.

Today, China has built a fleet that rivals the size of the United States forces. However, China does not vocally advocate for international freedom of the seas. To the contrary, it has claimed as its private domain most of the South China Sea, an area roughly the size of the Gulf of Mexico. This zone is bordered by a number of other coastal states with superior claims, according to an international tribunal that considered the matter in exhaustive detail.

In order to guarantee international freedom and economic prosperity, it is important that the United States continue to invest in a strong Navy and to support international allies who are committed to freedom of navigation on the high seas.

Jeff Truitt serves as a Captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He frequently leads small group seminars at the U.S. Naval War College in operational maritime law, and previously served on active duty as a submarine officer in the Cold War.

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Guest Essayist: David B. Kopel

During the first six decades of the eighteenth century, the American colonies were mostly allowed to govern themselves. In exchange, they loyally fought for Great Britain in imperial wars against the French and Spanish. But in 1763, after the British and Americans won the French and Indian War, King George III began working to eliminate American self-government. The succeeding years saw a series of political crises provoked by the king and parliament. What turned the political dispute into a war was arms confiscation at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775.

In 1774, the British government had realized that because armed Americans were so numerous, they could not be frightened into compliance with British demands. So in the latter months of 1774, the King and his Royal Governors in America instituted a gun control program. All firearms and ammunition imports to the American colonies were forbidden. At the governors’ command, British soldiers began raiding American armories, which stored firearms for militiamen who could not afford their own, and also held large quantities of gunpowder. Because the raids were accomplished peacefully in surprise pre-dawn maneuvers, they caused outrage, but nothing more. Both sides knew that if the British attempted to seize arms by force, the Americans would fight.

Ever since 1768, Boston had been occupied by a British army. In April 1775, a spy informed British General Gage that the Americans had secreted a large quantity of gunpowder in Concord, Massachusetts. Gage ordered his army to seize the American powder. This time, the Americans found out in advance.

On the night of April 18, 1775, British warships conveyed Redcoats across Boston Harbor, so they could march to Concord. Meanwhile, Paul Revere and William Dawes rode from town to town, shouting the warning “The British are coming.” The alarm was spread far and wide by the ringing of church bells and firing of guns.

To get to Concord, the British would have to march through Lexington; while the men of Lexington prepared to meet the British, the women of Lexington assembled ammunition cartridges late into the night.

The American Revolution began at dawn on April 19, 1775, when 700 Redcoats commanded by Major John Pitcairn confronted 200 Lexington militia on the town green. The militiamen, consisting of almost all able-bodied men sixteen to sixty, supplied their own firearms, although a few poor men had to borrow a gun.

“Disperse you Rebels—Damn you, throw down your Arms and disperse!” ordered Major Pitcairn. American folklore remembers the perhaps apocryphal words of militia commander Captain John Parker: “Don’t fire unless fired upon! But if they want to have a war, let it begin here!” The American policy was to put the onus of firing first on the British. Yet someone pulled a trigger, and although the gun did not go off, the sight of the powder flash in the firing pan instantly prompted the Redcoats to mass fire. The Americans were quickly routed.

With a “huzzah” of victory, the Redcoats marched on to Concord. By one account, the first man in Concord to assemble after the sounding of the alarm was the Reverend William Emerson, gun in hand.

At Concord’s North Bridge, the town militia met with some of the British army, and after a battle of two or three minutes, drove off the Redcoats. As the Reverend’s grandson, poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, later recounted in the “Concord Hymn”:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood,

And fired the shot heard round the world.

Notwithstanding the setback at the bridge, the Redcoats had sufficient force to search the town for arms and ammunition. But the main powder stores at Concord had been hauled to safety before the British arrived.

Having failed to get the gunpowder, the British began to withdraw back to Boston. On the way, things got much worse for them as armed Americans swarmed in from nearby towns. Soon they outnumbered the British two-to-one.

Some armed American women fought in the battle. So did men of color, including David Lamson, leading a group of elderly men who, like him, were too old to be in the militia, but intended to fight anyway.

Although some Americans cohered in militia units, many just fought on their own, taking sniper positions wherever the opportunity presented itself.

Rather than fight in open fields, like European soldiers, the Americans hid behind natural barriers, fired from ambush positions, and harried the Redcoats all the way back to Boston.

One British officer complained that the Americans acted like “rascals” and fought as “concealed villains” with “the cowardly disposition . . . to murder us all.” Another officer reported: “These fellows were generally good marksmen, and many of them used long guns made for Duck-Shooting.”

The British expedition was nearly wiped out. It saved from annihilation by reinforcements from Boston—and by the fact that the Americans started running out of ammunition and gunpowder.

British Lieutenant-General Hugh Percy, who had led the rescue of the beleaguered expeditionary force, recounted:

“Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob, will find himself much mistaken. They have men amongst them who know very well what they are about, having been employed as Rangers [against] the Indians & Canadians, & this country being much [covered with] wood, and hilly, is very advantageous for their method of fighting. Nor are several of their men void of a spirit of enthusiasm, as we experienced yesterday, for many of them concealed themselves in houses, & advanced within [ten yards] to fire at me & other officers, tho’ they were morally certain of being put to death themselves in an instant.”

At day’s end, there were 50 Americans killed, 39 wounded, and 5 missing. Among the British 65 were killed, 180 wounded, and 27 missing. On a per-shot basis, the Americans inflicted higher casualties than the British regulars.

That night, the Americans began laying siege to Boston where General Gage’s standing army was located. Soon, the British would begin confiscating guns in Boston. Reinforced by volunteers from other colonies, and commanded by General George Washington, the American forces would maintain the siege of Boston until the British gave up and sailed away on March 17, 1776.

Further reading: David B. Kopel, How the British Gun Control Program Precipitated the American Revolution, 38 Charleston Law Review 283 (2012).

David B. Kopel is adjunct professor of constitutional law at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law.

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Guest Essayist: Craig Bruce Smith

In a wooded clearing overlooking an imposing rock formation, roughly sixty-five miles outside modern day Pittsburgh, the face of North America would be irreparably altered. On May 28, 1754 this spot witnessed the first shot of the French and Indian War (or the Seven Years’ War around the world). The shot was fired under the order, or possibly even by the hand, of a twenty-two-year-old Virginian militia officer named George Washington. At the break of dawn and under the cover of the forest, British, French, and Native forces engaged in this brief (but globally impactful) battle that escalated the long-simmering tension over the contested lands of the Ohio Valley into a world war felt on five continents.

For generations there had been a tenuous stalemate in the territory west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River between the French, British, and various Native American nations. Thinly settled by European colonists, there was a lack of clear authority or the means to impose it. It was a situation that allowed the Natives to pit the two colonial powers against each other. But as these European empires attempted to expand, this balance was shattered. All accused the others of encroaching upon their lands and sovereignty.

By 1753, the French began building a series of fortifications in the Ohio Valley. That same year, Virginia Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddie tasked surveyor-turned-newly-appointed-militia-major George Washington (who spoke no French, contrary to the expectations of the eighteenth-century British gentleman) with carrying a message to the French commander, Captain Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, to withdraw from the contested lands. No retreat followed.

The prize of the region was the coveted strategic position at the intersection of the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny Rivers. The British had previously established a small outpost, named Fort Prince George (or Trent’s Fort after Pennsylvania trader William Trent), to control trade and stake their own claim. On April 17, 1754, a sizeable French force under Captain Claude-Pierre Pécaudy, sieur de Contrecœur, drove the tiny overmatched garrison at Trent’s Fort under Ensign Edward Ward to surrender without a shot being fired. In its place rose Fort Duquesne (today’s Pittsburgh): a symbol of French authority that challenged not only the British but also the Mingo people (part of the Ohio Iroquois) and their leader Tanacharison (also known as Tanaghrisson or “Half-King”).

The fall of Trent’s Fort sparked alarm in the Virginia capital of Williamsburg and before news even reached London the now Lieutenant Colonel Washington and his force of 159 militiamen were marching to the frontier to combat the French threat. From the standpoint of the British and their new Native allies, it could be asserted that French incursions had initiated hostilities, but what followed would escalate the conflict into a war.[i]

After Washington and his troops reached the Great Meadows (located in present-day Farmington, PA), Silver Heels, a Native scout and warrior, reported a band of some fifty French soldiers “hidden” in a nearby encampment in a small glen surrounded by the dense wilderness. Their intentions were clearly set on ambushing Washington and his men, at least according to Tanacharison. The Mingo chief may have let personal matters influence his assessment of the situation, as he was convinced the French meant to murder him and his family. He alleged that this patrol was there “to take and kill all the English they should meet.”[ii] Washington decided to act.

Under the cover of darkness and a torrent of rain, a mixed band of forty militiamen and twelve Natives crept single file though the woods and surrounded the unsuspecting French patrol. As night turned to morning, Washington stood atop a rocky hill, looked down upon his adversaries, gave the command to fire, and personally loosed the first shot (as a signal or with aim is unclear).[iii] A volley immediately followed his discharge. Washington claimed the startled French, commanded by Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville, had “discovered” them and the initial shots were to stop their mad dash to arm themselves. The French version differed, but regardless multiple volleys flashed on both sides. The battle (probably better described as a skirmish) only lasted about fifteen minutes and ended as quickly as it began, with the French “routed” by British bullets and at least some of the retreating men meeting “their destiny by the Indian tomahawks” wielded by Tanacharison and his warriors. Just over twenty Frenchmen survived.[iv]

Their wounded commander, Jumonville, claimed he was on a diplomatic mission. much like Washington had been in 1753. If it were true, under the rules of war and honor, the French ambassador should not have been attacked, as his “character being always sacred.”[v] But this was after the fact and there was a clear communication problem between the two leaders: Jumonville spoke French and Washington only understood English. Tanacharison, having dealt with each colonial power, was fluent in both. Before Washington could make sense of what was happening, Tanacharison buried his tomahawk into Jumonville’s head, killing him on the spot. Removing his embedded hatchet, the Mingo leader turned to French officer Michel Pepin dit La Force and taunted him “now I will let you see that the Six Nations [of Iroquois] can kill as well as the French.”[vi] As the chief raised his blood-drenched blade, the terrified La Force hid behind an undoubtedly shocked Washington who intervened, saved the man’s life, and stopped any further slaughter.

Why had Tanacharison acted this way? Perhaps it was to escalate the conflict to a full-fledged war. Or perhaps it was to defend himself, his family, and his people from what he perceived as French aggression Despite Tanacharison vehement assertions that the French “intentions were evil,” the affair ensured that Washington “never” again dealt with these Native allies or their leader.[vii]

Though the Virginian officer had not ordered the deathblow, his sense of honor, the possibility of truth of the diplomatic mission, and the lack of quarter given to the wounded Jumonville likely troubled him deeply and he feared its implications. Washington’s account of the incident to Dinwiddie glossed over it, saying, “amongst those that were killed was Monsieur De Jumonville the Commander.”[viii] In turn, Washington who was in command omitted Tanacharison’s execution, perhaps because it would reflect a lack of control or authority on the part of the novice Virginian officer.

Still, the full magnitude of this event would not be felt until a few months later in early July, when the again-promoted Col. Washington’s Virginia regiment (joined by those of Captain James Mackay’s South Carolina Independent Company) were besieged inside the wooden palisades of Fort Necessity on the nearby Great Meadows by a vastly superior French force. At the head of the 600 attackers was Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers, Jumonville’s older brother, who was tasked with seeking reprisals for the Battle of Jumonville Glen. Washington and Mackay were forced to surrender. Again plagued by his lack of French, Washington signed the Articles of Capitulation improperly translated by Jacob Van Braam, his former fencing master who possessed a limited grasp of French himself. He thought it said “death” or “killing of,” which was technically accurate, but it actually declared that he had assassinated Jumonville, who was on a diplomatic mission.[ix] This was considered a violation of one of the technically inviolable rules of war. But the grievous language would only be revealed after the French published the document—shaming Washington and Britain before the world.

The young Virginian attempted to defend his honor by refusing to accept this version of events and continued to insist, to both himself and the world, that Jumonville was not a diplomat, but “only a simple petty French officer; an ambassador has no need of spies.” Considering the standards of gentility of the time, Jumonville’s dress, bearing, and actions, in Washington’s estimation, precluded his being an emissary—he didn’t look the part. Rather, he argued, the French diplomatic mission was simply “A plausible pretense to discover our camp, and to obtain the knowledge of our forces and our situation!”[x]

But regardless of Washington’s justifications, his signature allowed the French to cast him as an “assassin,” and while the British disregarded the charge, it gave King Louis XV a pretext for a war. Despite initially drawing harsh British criticism, Washington’ reputation would survive and thrive as a “noble” hero based on his relationship with Dinwiddie and the influential aristocratic Fairfax family. Though he never altered his story, Washington would consider the lesson throughout his life, especially during the American Revolution, where he dealt with British Major John André (part of Benedict Arnold’s treason) as a spy, despite his looking the part of a gentleman.[xi]

While the Battle of Jumonville Glen may not be considered the start of the war from the British perspective, it resulted in an expanded colonial conflict engulfing the world in violence, which then began the rift between Britain and their colonists that set the stage for the American Revolution.

Craig Bruce Smith is a historian and the author of American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era. For more information visit www.craigbrucesmith.com or follow him on Twitter @craigbrucesmith. All views are that of the author and do not represent those of the Federal Government, the US Army, or Department of Defense.

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[i] For an excellent overview of the French and Indian War and its early battles see the following referenced throughout this article: Fred Anderson. The War that Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War. (New York: Viking, 2005); David Preston. Braddock’s Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). For a brief overview of the incident at Jumonville Glen, also referenced throughout: Joseph F. Stoltz III, “Jumonville Glen Skirmish,” Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington, https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/jumonville-glen-skirmish/

[ii] George Washington, “Expedition to the Ohio,” 1754, Founders Online. https://founders.archives.gov/?q=jumonville&s=1111311111&sa=&r=1&sr=,

[iii] “An Ohio Iroquois Warrior’s Account of the Jumonville Affair, 1754,” in Preston, Braddock’s Defeat, Appendix E and p. 25-28.

[iv] Washington, “Expedition to the Ohio,”1754; “An Ohio Iroquois Warrior’s Account of the Jumonville Affair, 1754”; Stoltz, “Jumonville Glen Skirmish.”

[v] Washington, “Expedition to the Ohio,”1754.

[vi] “An Ohio Iroquois Warrior’s Account of the Jumonville Affair, 1754.”

[vii] Washington, “Expedition to the Ohio,” 1754, Founders Online.

[viii] George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie, 29 May 1754, Founders Online.

https://founders.archives.gov/?q=jumonville&s=1111311111&sa=&r=2&sr=

[ix] “Articles of Capitulation,” [3 July 1754], Founders Online. https://founders.archives.gov/?q=jumonville&s=1111311111&sa=&r=10&sr=; Paul K. Longmore. The Invention of George Washington. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999), p. 22-24.

[x] Washington, “Expedition to the Ohio,” 1754, Founders Online; Craig Bruce Smith, American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), p. 38-40.

[xi] Smith, American Honor, p. 38-40, 160.

Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath

“In the name of God, amen. We whose names are under written … [h]aving undertaken for the Glory of God, and advancement of the christian [sic] faith, and the honour of our King and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politick, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid: And by virtue hereof, do enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony ….”

Thus pledged 41 men on board the ship Mayflower that day, November 11, 1620, having survived a rough 64-day sea voyage, and facing an even more grueling winter and a “great sickness” like what had ravaged the Jamestown colony in Virginia. These Pilgrim Fathers had sailed to the New World with their families from exile in Leyden, Holland, with a stop in England to secure consent from the Virginia Company to settle on the latter’s territory. They were delayed by various exigencies from leaving England until the fall of 1620. The patent from the Company permitted the Pilgrims to establish a “plantation” near the mouth of today’s Hudson River, at the northern boundary of the Company’s own grant.

For whatever reason, either a major storm, as the Pilgrims claimed, or intent to avoid the reach of English creditors’ claims on indentured servants, as some historians allege, the ship ended up at Cape Cod on November 9. Bad weather and the precarious state of the passengers made further travel chancy, and the Pilgrim leaders decided to find a nearby place for settlement. Cape Cod was deemed unsuitable for human habitation. Instead, the Pilgrims disembarked on December 16 at Plymouth, so named earlier by Captain John Smith of the Virginia Company during one of his explorations. Since they were now a couple of hundred miles outside the Virginia Company’s territory, their patent was worthless. It became necessary to establish a new binding basis for government of their society.

The result was the Mayflower Compact, infused with a remarkable confluence of religious and political theory. The Pilgrims, like the Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay in 1630, were dissenters from the Church of England. The former opted to separate themselves from what they perceived as the corruption of the Church of England, whereas the less radical nonconformists, the Puritans, sought to reform that church from within. Both groups, however, found the political and religious climate under the Stuart monarchs to be unfriendly to dissenters.

As common historical understanding has it, both groups sought to escape to the New World to practice their religion freely. However, that meant their religion. They set out to establish their vision of the City of God in an earthly commonwealth. As the Compact stated, their move was “undertaken for the Glory of God, and advancement of the christian faith.” Neither group set out to establish a classically liberal secular society tolerant of diverse faiths or even a commonwealth akin to the Dutch Republic, with an established church, yet accepting of religious dissent. The corrosive effect of such dissent would have been particularly dangerous to the survival of the small Pilgrim community clinging precariously to their isolated new home in Plymouth. Indeed, once the colony became established and became focused on commerce and trade, more devout members disturbed by this turn to the material left to form new communities of believers.

The religious orientation of the Mayflower Compact grew out of the Pilgrims’ Calvinist faith. In contrast to the Roman Catholic Church and its successor establishment in the Church of England, Calvinists rejected centralized authority with its dogmas and traditions as having erected impious barriers and distractions to a personal relationship with God. Instead, the congregation of like-minded believers gathered in community. It was a community founded on consent of the participants and given meaning by their shared religious belief. Those who rejected significant aspects of that belief would leave (or be shunned).

In Europe, those religious communities operated within–and chafed under–hostile existing political orders, most of which still were organized on principles other than consent of the participants. Once transplanted across the Atlantic Ocean, the Pilgrims were free of such restraints and could organize their religious life together with their political commonwealth within the Calvinist congregational framework. Their brethren, the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, established their colony on the same type of religious foundation, as did a number of later communities that spread from the original settlements. The successor to the Puritans and Pilgrims was the Congregational Church, organized along those communitarian lines based on consent. That church became the de facto established church of Massachusetts Bay Colony and the state of Massachusetts under a system of state tax support, a practice that survived until 1833.

On the political side, the Mayflower Compact was one of three types of constitutions among the colonies in British North America. The others were the joint stock company or corporation model of the Virginia Company and the Massachusetts Bay Company, and the proprietary grant model, the dominant 17th-century form used for the remaining colonies, such as the grant to Lord Calvert for Maryland and William Penn for Pennsylvania. Of the three, the Mayflower Compact most profoundly and explicitly rested on the consent of the governed. It provided the model for other early American “constitutions” in New England, such as the 1636 compact among Roger Williams and his followers in founding Providence, Rhode Island, the compacts among settlers that similarly established Newport and Portsmouth in Rhode Island and the New Haven Colony in 1639, and, most significantly, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut. The Orders, in 1639, united the Connecticut River Valley towns of Hartford, Windsor, and Wethersfield and provided a formal frame of government. Like the Mayflower Compact, the Orders rested on the consent of the people to join in community, but in their structure they closely resembled the Massachusetts Bay Company agreement.

The political analogue to the congregational organization of the Calvinist denominations was the “social compact” theory, an ethical basis for the state that also rested on the consent of the governed. Classical Greek theory had held that the polis represented a progression of human association beyond family and clan and evolved as the consummate means conducive to human flourishing. In its medieval scholastic version epitomized by the writings of Thomas Aquinas, the state was ordained by God to provide for the welfare and happiness of its people within an ordered universe governed by God’s law. By contrast, the social compact theory rested on the will of the individuals that came together to found the commonwealth. It was a rejection of the static universal political (and religious) order that had governed Western Christendom and in which one’s status and privileges depended on one’s place in that order. After the Reformation, Protestant sects had many, sometimes conflicting, assumptions about the nature and the specifics of the relationship between the believer and God. In similar manner, social compact theory was not a unified doctrine, but varied widely in its details of the relationship between the individual and the state, depending on the particular proponent.

The two social compact theorists with the greatest influence on Americans of the Revolutionary Era were Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, with the latter’s postulates the more evident among American essayists and political leaders. Locke’s reflections on religion and politics were greatly influenced by the Puritanism of his upbringing. Although the governments established under the various state constitutions, as well as those created through the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of 1787, more closely resembled the corporate structures of the colonial joint stock company arrangements, they were formed through the direct or indirect consent of the governed. The Constitution of 1787, for example, very conspicuously required that no state would become a member of the broader “united” community without its consent. In turn, such consent had to be obtained through the most “explicit and authentic act” of the state’s people practicable under the circumstances, that is, through a state convention.

To whatever concrete extent the Mayflower Compact’s foundation on consent may have found its way into the organizing of American governments during the latter part of the 18th century, it is the Declaration of Independence that most clearly incorporates the compact’s essence. The influence of Locke and his expositors on Thomas Jefferson’s text has been analyzed long and frequently. But it is worth noting some of the language itself. The Declaration asserted that Americans were no longer connected in any bond (that is, any obligation) to the people of Britain, just as the Pilgrims, having sailed to a wilderness not under the control of the Virginia Company, believed that they were not bound by the obligations of the patent they had received. The Americans would establish a government based on the “consent of the governed,” “laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness,” just as the signatories of the Mayflower Compact had pledged.

So it came about that a brief pledge, signed by 41 men aboard a cramped vessel in 1620, “with no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses, or much less towns to repair unto to seek for succour,” with “a mighty ocean which they had passed…and now separate[d] them from all the civil parts of the world” behind them, and with “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men” in front of them, deeply affected the creation of the revolutionary political commonwealth founded in the New World a century and a half later.

An expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty, Professor Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow. Read more from Professor Knipprath at: http://www.tokenconservative.com/.

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Guest Essayist: Gary Porter

 

— The yearning for self-government springs eternal –

In the first Federalist essay, Alexander Hamilton famously observes: It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. Reflection and choice or accident and force, which will it be? Fortunate indeed are those who get to choose.

**

The Virginia colony was off to a rocky start.

As April 26, 1607 dawned, the colonists spied the coastline of Virginia. Three weeks later they came ashore 40 miles upriver at Jamestown.

After surviving a harrowing five-month voyage from England, the intrepid Virginia colonists anxiously opened the sealed envelope that would identify the seven members who were to govern them. As they read off the names, one stood out: John Smith? Whoops! John Smith was being held on board their ship, securely in chains. There had been this little “incident” mid-voyage, you see.

The exceptionally slow voyage (a normal crossing took three months) allowed disease to spring up in the cramped quarters and factions to form among the colonists. This did not escape notice of the expedition’s leader: Captain Christopher Newport. When the expedition docked at the Canary Islands to take on supplies, Smith, a swashbuckling adventurer and soldier whose life story reads like a Hollywood script, was suddenly clapped in chains by Newport, charged with trying to “usurp the government, murder the council, and make himself king (of Virginia).” He would eventually be released to assume his place on the council, but suspicions persisted.

The plan of the Virginia Company was to govern the new colony through a 13-man council in England and a similar though smaller council in Jamestown. What the planners of the expedition did not count on, were the austere and hazardous conditions the adventurers would encounter: Within six months, 80% of the colonists were dead from illness, the seven-man council had been reduced to four, and President of the Council, Edward Wingfield, had been impeached for maladministration. He was the one now in chains, perhaps the same ones that had restrained John Smith. Captain John Ratcliffe replaced Wingfield as President of the Council, but Smith would soon assume de facto command of the colony.

Unwilling to simply let the colony die, Smith enacted harsh measures, akin to martial law, to ensure that “gentlemen” and commoners alike contributed equally to the raising and hunting of food. Despite his efforts, the winter of 1609-10 became known as the “Starving Time.”

In an attempt to breathe new life into the colony, by then hanging on by a thread, a new charter was granted in May 1609. The new charter included a provision that the colony would now extend from “sea to sea,” a gesture which provided no help to the beleaguered settlers. The charter established a new corporation and a new governing council in London that became the permanent administrative body of the corporation. A new governing council was created at Jamestown as well. A “Governour” was given extensive powers including the right to enforce martial law, if necessary.

By 1612, things were beginning to turn around. Numerous replenishments of supplies and manpower accompanied by a tenuous peace with the local natives had turned the settlement into a profitable and growing venture. A new, third charter was granted that year, extending Virginia’s jurisdiction eastward from the shoreline to include islands such as Bermuda. New settlers were each granted 100 acres of land.

On Friday, July 30, 1619, the newly appointed Governor, Sir George Yeardley set in motion the concept of self-government in the colony. Under instructions from the Virginia Company, he called forth the first representative legislative assembly in America, establishing “the oldest continuous law-making body in the New World,” Virginia’s House of Burgesses (today, the Virginia Assembly). The group convened in the colony’s largest building, the Jamestown Church “to establish one equal and uniform government over all Virginia” which would provide “just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting.” The Governor, six men forming a Council of State, and, initially, twenty burgesses, two from each of ten settlements — “freely elected by the inhabitants thereof” — prepared to get underway.

An eleventh settlement, that of Captain John Martin, was not immediately allowed seats. A clause in Martin’s land patent exempted his plantation from the authority of the colony.[1] There would thus be little point in including him as a Burgess; any laws he participated in creating would not apply to his own settlement. A secretary, (former member of Parliament John Pory) and a Clerk (John Twine) were quickly appointed to their positions. Prayer was offered by Reverend Richard Buck: that “it would please God to guide and sanctifie all our proceedings to his owne glory and the good of this Plantation.”

An oath was then administered to all present The Oath of Supremacy, first established in 1534, required any person taking public or church office in England to swear allegiance to the English monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Roman Catholics who refused to take the oath were dealt with harshly. In April 1534, advisor to King Henry Sir Thomas More had refused to take the oath. He was imprisoned, tried for treason, and despite his close relationship with the King, beheaded the following year. Oaths, at least back then, were serious stuff.

The ten settlements represented that day in 1619 included “James Citty, Charles Citty, Henricus, Kiccowtan, Smythe’s Hundred, Martin’s Hundred (a different Martin than John Martin), Argall’s Guiffe, Flowerdieu Hundred, Captain Lawne’s Plantation and Captaine Warde’s Plantation.”

The lead representative of Warde’s Plantation, none other than Captain Warde himself, was immediately challenged by another Burgess as having settled in the colony without proper authority from the Company in England. But due to the great efforts Warde had made towards the colony’s success, particularly in bringing in “a good quantity of fishe,” he and his lieutenant were allowed to take their seats.

Once again, the Burgesses turned their attention to the issue of Captain John Martin’s two representatives. After a review of Martin’s patent it was decided that the two Burgesses-in-waiting should leave until such time as Captain Martin himself appeared to discuss the matter. But the assembly was not quite done with Martin. The Burgesses were next presented with a complaint that an Ensign Harrison, under Martin’s employ, had forcibly taken corn from Indians who had refused to sell to him, leaving the Indians with some “copper beades and other trucking stuffe.” The Indians had complained to Chief Opchanacanough, who had complained to Governor Yeardley. False dealing with the Indians was a serious offense; the shaky, on again, off again peace with the various Indian tribes was fragile, easily broken. It was ordered that Captain Martin appear before the Burgesses forthwith. The order to appear began: “To our very loving friend, Captain John Martin, Esquire, Master of the ordinance.” Martin’s last title in the salutation might explain the gentle tone taken.

Next, the “greate Charter, or commission of privileges, order and laws,” sent from England in four books, was presented. It was decided that two committees would be commissioned to review the first two of the books to see if they contained anything “not perfectly squaring with the state of this Colony or any lawe which did presse or binde too harde, that we might by waye of humble petition, seeke to have it redressed.” The two committees gave their reports the following day.

The Burgesses composed six petitions to send to the Council in England. The first four dealt with administrative matters; the fifth asked the Council’s permission to build “a university and colledge” in the colony. This “colledge” would eventually be named Henricus College, which today lays claim to being the oldest college in North America. It’s primary purpose? To educate the natives. The sixth petition asked permission to rename Kiccowtan settlement.[2]

The next day, Sunday, August 1, one of the Burgesses, a Mr. Shelley, died unexpectedly.

On Monday, August 2nd, the infamous Captain Martin appeared before the Burgesses. He was asked whether he would disavow the stipulation in his patent that his settlement would be exempt from the established laws. He would not. Whereupon the assembly voted that his settlement’s representatives not be admitted. As to the charge that his employees had unfairly dealt with the natives, Martin acknowledged the charges as true and said he would put up a security bond to ensure it would never happen again.

The issues with Captain Martin thus settled, the Burgesses set about to make some laws (why not?)

Laws against idleness, gaming, drunkenness and “excesse in apparel” were enacted. Settlers caught gaming at “dice and Cardes,” the winners at least, would forfeit their winnings; all the players would be fined “ten shillings a man.”

Not forgetting one of the main reasons for the settlement: the “propagating of Christian Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God,”[3] each settlement was to obtain “by just means” a number of the native children who would be educated by the settlers “in true religion and civile course of life.”

Each settler was required to plant six mulberry trees each year for seven years.

On Tuesday the 3rd of June, more laws.

On Wednesday the 4th of June, with many of his assembly coming down with malaria, Governor Yeardley decided that was enough for this session of the Burgesses and adjourned this first experiment in self-government. Many challenges lay ahead. While the 1619 House of Burgesses proved a turning point in the governing structure of Virginia; but it did not end the economic difficulties brought on by crop failures, war with the Indians, disputes among factions and bad investments.

For instance, after several years of strained coexistence, Chief Opchanacanough and his Powhatan Confederacy decided to eliminate the colony once and for all. On the morning of March 22, 1622, he and his men attacked the outlying plantations and communities up and down the James River in what became known as the Indian Massacre of 1622. More than 300 settlers were killed, about a third of the colony’s population. The fledgling developments at Henricus and Wolstenholme Towne, were essentially wiped out. Jamestown was spared only by the timely warning of a friendly Indian.  Of the 6,000 people known to have come to the settlement between 1608 and 1624, only 3,400 would survive.

In 1624, King James I finally dissolved the Virginia Company’s charter and established Virginia as a royal colony. In 1776, when the Fifth Virginia Convention declared its independence from Great Britain and became the independent Commonwealth of Virginia, the House of Burgesses was renamed the House of Delegates, which continues to serve as the lower house of Virginia’s General Assembly to this day.

Gary Porter  is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people.   CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text.  Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes a weekly essay: Constitutional Corner which is published on multiple websites, and hosts a weekly radio show: “We the People, the Constitution Matters” on WFYL AM1140.  Gary has also begun performing reenactments of James Madison and speaking with public and private school students about Madison’s role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and Constitution.  Gary can be reached at gary@constitutionleadership.org, on Facebook or Twitter (@constitutionled).

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[1] Martin had been a member of the original Ruling Council; how he had received such a unique patent has not been explained.

[2] It would eventually be renamed Elizabeth City, site of the present day Hampton, Virginia.

[3] Found in the First charter of 1606

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

In the early seventeenth century, gentlemen adventurers and common tradesmen voyaged to Jamestown and established the first permanent English settlement in North America. They were free and independent Englishmen who risked their lives and fortunes to brave the dangers of the New World for personal profit and the glory of England.

The settlement was part of the grand national political, economic, and religious European struggle for imperial preeminence. Unlike their Spanish counterparts who received official financial backing, the enterprising individuals created an entrepreneurial joint-stock company.

In 1606, John Smith and other wealthy adventurers and merchants organized the Virginia Company and received a royal charter to colonize the territory. They were promised the rights of Englishmen “as if they had been abiding and born within our realm of England.” The crown charged them with the religious purpose of spreading the Protestant faith to the Native Americans. While primarily interested in getting wealthy from gold and silver and the discovery of the fabled Northwest Passage to Asia, the company received rights to the commodities it found.

Almost 150 adventurers and sailors crossed the Atlantic in a harrowing voyage that took some five months. They sailed on the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery. They suffered a variety of contrary winds and storms that impeded their progress and caused tensions to escalate aboard the ships. The contentious John Smith ran afoul of the leaders of the armada and was clapped in chains and nearly hanged in the Caribbean.

The ships finally sighted Virginia and over the next few days went ashore where they erected a cross, encountered several groups of Indians who alternatively attacked and traded with them, and explored the James River. On May 14, 1607, they disembarked at Jamestown because they thought it bountiful and defensible against expected Spanish attacks. The instructions from the company were opened and the appointed leaders of the colony—including John Smith—were sworn into their offices.

While they had several peaceful trading encounters with the local Indians, the settlers suffered a large, deadly attack a few weeks later and decided to build a fort. That was only the beginning of the colony’s troubles. That summer, most of the company was sickened by drinking brackish water from the tidal James. They suffered a variety of maladies including salt poisoning, typhoid fever and dysentery. The settlers were mostly too sick to work or plant food. However, the gentlemen leaders of the colony believed that the colonists were being lazy. Moreover, disputes among the councilors resulted in the imprisonment of President Edward Maria Wingfield. The colony was in chaos.

The remedy was worse than the problems the colony faced. The leaders imposed draconian laws on the settlers, and Smith forced men to work or suffer punishment. The settlers did not enjoy the rights of Englishmen they were promised. They also had very little incentive to work because they did not own land or the fruits of the labor as they toiled for the company and consumed food from the common storehouse. They also completely depended on the goodwill of the Indians for food through trade or coercion at gunpoint.

The situation over the next few years did not improve because the colony was still governed poorly and based upon the wrong incentive structure. They depended upon regular resupply from England but sent scant precious metals or valuable raw materials back to England.

In 1609, the company dispatched a fleet of ships with 500 settlers and supplies led by the flagship, Sea Venture. A massive hurricane dispersed the fleet and sank the Sea Venture near Bermuda with the admiral of the fleet, the new president of the colony, its instructions, and most of the supplies destined for Jamestown. The shipwrecked survivors were stranded there for nearly a year.

Meanwhile, in Jamestown, the rest of the fleet had arrived with hundreds of tempest-tossed settlers but few supplies. In addition, people tired of John Smith, and he barely survived an assassination attempt and departed the colony. With the dearth of food and the leadership vacuum, the winter of 1609-1610 became known as the “Starving Time.” Desperate colonists ate rats, dogs, and snakes, and resorted to trying to eat leather goods and even each other. The colony was hanging by a thread.

In May 1610, Gates and the Bermuda castaways finally arrived in Jamestown but quickly decided to return to England before all starved to death. As they were sailing down the James, they encountered another supply fleet bringing the new governor, Lord De La Warr, who ordered the colonists to return to Jamestown. The governor attempted to rebuild the colony through the same methods that had failed the colony to date: martial law, harsh discipline, forced work, and communal ownership.

The colony barely survived over the next few years even with the arrival of tons of supplies and additional settlers to make up for the horrific death toll. Even the planting of tobacco did not fundamentally alter the structure of the colony or facilitate lasting success as commonly assumed.

Only in 1616 and 1617 did the colony find the path to permanent success and prosperity in Jamestown. The introduction of private property gave colonists the right incentive to grow crops including food and tobacco to sustain themselves. Moreover, the company finally guaranteed the traditional rights of Englishmen rooted in the common law including liberties and trial by jury. Most importantly, in 1619, the House of Burgesses—the first representative legislature in America—was created for just laws and good government.

Jamestown began to thrive over the next few years as opportunity beckoned despite the still frighteningly high death rate from disease. Approximately 4,000 settlers migrated to Virginia for greater opportunity. Women finally arrived in large numbers to support families and a lasting colony. The first Africans arrived in 1619 and had a largely obscure status until slavery was codified over the next several decades.

The settlement of Virginia had entrepreneurial origins that developed only in fits and starts and after almost a decade of failure. The introduction of private property, freedom, self-government, and a capitalist ethos laid the foundations of a successful colony and shaped the colonists’ thinking. Those ideals rested uneasily with the development of slavery, and this contradiction of slavery and freedom would continue for more than two centuries. However, the founding ideals of America were established along the James in Virginia.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

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Guest Essayist: Wilfred M. McClay

We Americans need to know our history. And we need to know it far better than we have in the past. We are not a people bound together primarily by blood and soil. Instead we are people with our origins in many bloods and many soils, linked by shared principles embodied in shared institutions, and embedded in a shared history, with its shared triumphs and shared sufferings. There is a growing danger that we have been failing to pass along that flame to our posterity, with untold consequences. We have neglected an essential element in the formation of good citizens when we fail to provide the young with an accurate, responsible, and inspiring account of their own country – an account that will inform and deepen their sense of identification with the land they inhabit and equip them for the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.

“Citizenship” here encompasses something larger than the civics-class meaning. It means a vivid and enduring sense of one’s full membership in one of the greatest enterprises in human history: the astonishing, perilous, and immensely consequential story of one’s own country. That’s what the study of American history should provide.

We need this knowledge for the deepest of all reasons. For the human animal, meaning is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Without it, we perish. Historical consciousness is to civilized society what memory is to individual identity. Without memory, and without the stories by which our memories are carried forward, we cannot say who, or what, we are. A culture without memory will necessarily be barbarous and easily tyrannized, even if it is technologically advanced. The incessant waves of daily events will occupy all our attention and defeat all our efforts to connect past, present, and future, thereby diverting us from an understanding of the human things that unfold in time, including the paths of our own lives. The stakes were beautifully expressed in the words of the great Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer: “When a day passes it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t told or books weren’t written, man would live like the beasts, only for the day. The whole world, all human life, is one long story.”

Singer was right. As individuals, as communities, as countries: we are nothing more than flotsam and jetsam without the stories in which we find our lives’ meaning. These are stories of which we are already a part, whether we know it or not. They are the basis of our common life, the webs of meaning in which our shared identities are suspended. Just as we need meaning, so we need a sense of belonging. Without them we cannot flourish. The pathologies that we see creeping steadily into our national life—rise in suicides, youth depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and astonishingly an overall decline in life expectancy—how can these not be related to a catastrophic loss of meaning, a sense of disconnected from others, and from the great story to which, by all rights, every American belongs?

I wrote the book Land of Hope to try to begin to redress this problem, to be a fresh invitation to the American story. It does not pretend to be a complete and definitive telling of that story. Such an undertaking would be impossible in any event, because the story is ongoing and far from being concluded. But what it does try to do is present the skeleton of the story, its indispensable underlying structure, in a form particularly appropriate for the education of American citizens living under a republican form of government. There are other ways of telling the story, and my own choice of emphasis should not be taken to imply that the other aspects of our history are not worth studying. On the contrary, they contain immense riches that historians have only begun to explore. But one cannot do everything all at once. One must begin at the beginning, with the most fundamental structures, before one can proceed to other topics. The skeleton is not the whole of the body – but there cannot be a functional body without it.

Permit, in concluding to say a word about my choice of title, Land of Hope, which forms one of the guiding and recurrent themes of the book. As the book argues from the very outset, the western hemisphere was largely inhabited by people who had come from elsewhere, unwilling to settle for the conditions into which they were born and drawn by the prospect of a new beginning, the lure of freedom, and the space to pursue their ambitions in ways their respective Old Worlds did not permit. Hope has both theological and secular meanings, spiritual ones as well as material ones. Both these sets of meanings exist in abundance in America. In fact, nothing about America better defines its distinctive character than the ubiquity of hope, a sense that the way things are initially given to us cannot be the final word about them, that we can never settle for that. Even those who are exceptions to this rule, those who were brought to America in chains, have turned out to be some of its greatest poets of hope.

Of course, hope and opportunity are not synonymous with success. Being a land of hope will also sometimes mean being a land of dashed hopes, of disappointment. That is unavoidable. A nation that professes high ideals makes itself vulnerable to searing criticism when it falls short of them – sometimes far short indeed, as America often has. We should not be surprised by that, however; nor should we be surprised to discover that many of our heroes turn out to be deeply flawed human beings. All human beings are flawed, as are all human enterprises.

What we should remember, though, is that the history of the United States includes the activity of searching self-criticism as part of its foundational makeup. There is immense hope implicit in that process, if we go about it in the right way. That means approaching the work of criticism with constructive intentions and a certain generosity that flows from the mature awareness that none of us is perfect and that we should therefore judge others as we would ourselves wish to be judged, blending justice and mercy. One of the worst sins of the present – not just ours but any present – is its tendency to condescend toward the past, which is much easier to do when one doesn’t trouble to know the full context of that past or try to grasp the nature of its challenges as they presented themselves at the time. My small book is an effort to counteract that condescension and remind us of how remarkable were the achievements of those who came before us, how much we are indebted to them.

But there is another value to the study of American history. Many Americans, including perhaps a majority of young people, believe that the present is so different from the past that the past no longer has anything to teach us. This could not be more wrong. As I say in the book’s epigraph, borrowing from the words of John Dos Passos:

In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present and get us past that idiot delusion of the exceptional Now that blocks good thinking. That is why, in times like ours, when old institutions are caving in and being replaced by new institutions not necessarily in accord with most men’s preconceived hopes, political thought has to look backwards as well as forwards.

With the grounding provided by a sense of history, we need never feel imprisoned by the “idiot delusion of the exceptional Now,” or feel alone and adrift in a world without precedents, without ancestors, without guidelines. But we cannot have that grounding unless it is passed along to us by others. We must redouble our efforts to make that past our own, and then be about the business of passing it on.

This year’s Constituting America study is going to be particularly valuable in this regard, since it revolves around the study of particular moments in the American past when something highly consequential was decided. Dates, you say? What could be more boring? Ah, but we sometimes forget, to our detriment, that nothing in history is predetermined, and no outcome is pre-assured. History can turn on a dime, in a single moment, on a single date, and that’s why dates matter.

History is all about contingency, about the way that our positive outcomes depend not only on our big ideas but on our actions, our character, our courage, our determination—and on our good fortune, on forces beyond our control that somehow have seemed to work together for our good. Some people call this “good fortune” Providence. The American Founders certainly did. See if you don’t agree that they were on to something, when you hear the stories to come. They will make you think twice when you hear about “the blessings of Liberty” which our Constitution was designed to secure.

Wilfred M. McClay is the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, and the Director of the Center for the History of Liberty. In the 2019-20 academic year he is serving as the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. He served from 2002 to 2013 on the National Council on the Humanities, the advisory board for the National Endowment for the Humanities, and is currently serving on the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission, which is planning for the 250th anniversary of the United States, to be observed in 2026. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Academy of Education, among others. His book The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America won the 1995 Merle Curti Award of the Organization of American Historians for the best book in American intellectual history. Among his other books are The Student’s Guide to U.S. History, Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America, Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past, Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Public Life in Modern America, and most recently Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story. He was educated at St. John’s College (Annapolis) and received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1987.

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