In a speech to the House of Commons on March 22nd 1775, Edmund Burke didn’t exaggerate when he warned that his majesty’s North American colonists “augur misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.” Burke understood colonial resistance to Parliamentary rule and monarchal abuse was not a recent development, but rather the predictable outcome of radical concepts developed since the late 17th century.1
For most of the 17th century, the English government restricted the free flow of ideas in theater plays and print media. This ended when parliament allowed the Licensing Act to expire in 1695. Newspaper and political pamphlet publication exploded, not only in England, but in America as well.2 The genie was out of the bottle and wouldn’t return.
Previously insular English government suddenly had to deal with public exposure of corruption at the highest levels. Few political scandals can match the South Sea Bubble of 1720, in which insider trading of public debt, lubricated with generous bribes to leading politicians, nearly brought down the English economy. The scandal exposed an unsavory fact; unless the public is sufficiently vigilant, those in power will readily line their pockets at the public expense. The danger accelerates as government grows. English newspapers described a constitution gone bad.3
Despite the reforms of the Glorious Revolution, English monarchs still wielded enormous and corrupting influence over Parliament. To bend legislation to their will, kings offered lucrative administrative jobs to key members of parliament and funded their elections. A young John Dickinson studying law in London in 1754 was shocked at the callous disregard of free government. Over £1,000,000 he said, was spent on efforts to manipulate recent elections. “Bribery,” he wrote, “is so common that it is thought there is not a borough in England where it is not practiced.” Those who wished to be bought found ready purchasers.4
After the South Sea collapse, an ideology of political opposition spread and grew in America. The ground was fertile. Our 17th century experience made it so. These ideas were more important here than in England itself, perhaps because Americans were so free. Americans by this time had already developed a superior attitude; God had special plans for us. Our duty to Him was to fulfill our destiny. The world would never be the same after the Bible, the American experience, and The Enlightenment intersected freedom of the press.
The great fear was that top-down corruption of the English people in England would spread to America.5 In 1753, newspaperman Ben Franklin wrote to an English friend, “I pray God long to preserve to Great Britain the English laws , manners, liberties and religion (to prevail against) the corruption and degeneracy of your people. O let not Britain seek to oppress us, but like an affectionate parent endeavor to secure freedom to her children; they may be able one day to assist her in defending her own.” The first goal of the American Revolution, which transformed American life and introduced a new era in human history, was not the overthrow or even the alteration of the existing social order but the preservation of liberty threatened by corruption of the constitution.6
While America was still a collection of rough colonies on the outskirts of civilization, the typical American in growing towns was not bereft of the lessons of the ancients and the Enlightenment. But, instead of slogging through Latin in unaffordable books, the provincial American was entertained and educated in free government principles through newspapers and pamphlets. What were their sources? What ideas shaped their worldview? From private letters, public utterances, and above all, pamphlets, the colonists shaped opinions through the eyes of the great works and intellectuals of western civilization. Most conspicuous were the ancients. Anyone with an education at all was familiar with them.7
Their focus was the late Roman republic and early empire through the eyes Plutarch, Livy, and above all Cicero, Sallust and Tacitus. These men lived when the Roman republic was fundamentally challenged or when its greatest days had passed, and its moral and political virtues decayed. Pamphleteers contrasted corruption of the English constitution with a better past. Our great Enlightenment leaders, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson spoke the language and shared the ideas and writings of Voltaire, Rousseau, Beccaria as well as conservatives like Montesquieu and especially Locke who was endlessly quoted on natural rights and the social and governmental contract.8
The ultimate origins of this distinctive ideological strain lay in the radical social and political thought of the English Civil War and the Commonwealth period. Colonists identified with these heroes of liberty, but felt even closer to contemporary strains of thought which they applied to current English politics.9
If any single work may be credited with affirming what Americans already sensed from experience, John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government stands far above all others. Colonial Americans learned Locke and more through Cato’s Letters: Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, a series of opinion pieces written by two Englishmen, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. Much to the chagrin of members of parliament, especially Prime Minister Robert Walpole, Cato’s Letters appeared weekly (1720-1723) in The London Journal. They deftly exposed Parliamentary corruption of the age and warned of the dangers of incipient autocracy.10
Cato’s Letters were endlessly reprinted in American newspapers and pamphlets from Massachusetts to Georgia well into the 1760s. From the historian Bernard Bailyn, “ . . . the writings of Trenchard and Gordon ranked with the treatises of Locke as the most authoritative statement of the nature of political liberty and above Locke as an exposition of the social sources of the threats it faced.”11
More from Bailyn: “To say that . . . opposition thought was quickly transmitted to America and widely appreciated there is to understate the fact.” Opposition thought from the late 17th and early 18th centuries “was devoured by the colonists.” James Franklin’s New England Courant began excerpting Cato’s Letters eleven months after their first appearance in London. The entire collection from The Independent Whig, was reprinted in Philadelphia in 1724 and 1740. By 1728, Cato’s Letters had already fused with Locke, Coke, Pufendorf and Grotius to produce a prototypical American treatise in defense of English liberties overseas, a tract indistinguishable from any number of publications that would appear in the Revolutionary crisis fifty years later.12
In less than fifteen years, Cato’s Letters merged in American minds with the opposition’s writings of the Roman historians in what might be called a “Catonic” image in which the lessons of Livy combined with the words of two London journalists. Their key concepts – Natural Rights, the contractual basis of society and government, and the uniqueness of England’s liberty-preserving “mixed” constitution – were commonplace to liberal thought. But, if these concepts were ordinary, the emphasis placed upon them and the use made of them were not.13
The fruition of The Enlightenment passed England by. In America, her rough colonists recognized approaching tyranny and were intellectually nourished and motivated to stand, fight, and if necessary, die in the defense of liberty.
1. Burke: “In other countries, the people, more-simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge
of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they
anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness
of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach
of tyranny in every tainted breeze.” Less than a month after Burke’s reconciliation speech, British regulars met American Minutemen at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts.
2. Coward, B. (2003). The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714. Harlow, Essex: Pearson Education Limited. 390.
3. Reckless Endangerment, by Gretchen Morgenson may come close.
4. Bailyn, B. (1992). The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 90.
5. Recall the twenty-seven charges of corruption, the indictments of George III in our Declaration of Independence.
6. Bailyn., 89, 19.
7. Ibid., 23.
8. The breadth of citations extends to Delolme, Voltaire, Beccaria, Grotius, Pufendorf, Burlamaqui, Vattel. Bailyn., 25, 27.
9. The first English hero was Algernon Sidney, who was executed in 1783. Prosecutors used his private manuscript, Discourses Concerning Government as the second witness at his trial for treason. See also Bailyn., 34.
10. Cato’s Letters passim.
11. Bailyn., 36-37.
12. Ibid., 43.
13. Ibid., 44 – 46.