The greatest threat to the “experiment of self-government” is that self-government is no longer self-evident. Americans have lost their self-governing ways. Their blue-collar identity as American Whigs has turned Loyalist red. Americans have abandoned enlightenment principles. Self-government is denied, disputed, or ignored. Consequently, America finds itself consumed in factional divide. If the experiment of self-government is to survive, self-government must again become self-evident.
Early British American history shows how truly evident self-government was to British Americans. In 1619, stock companies, named the Virginia Company, established the Virginia House of Burgesses, a self-governing legislature. British American colonists enjoyed free trade and general independence with all parts of the world. In 1632, King James I granted Maryland to Lord Baltimore. In 1681, King Charles II granted Pennsylvania to Penn. These self-governing colonial lords had power, with the consent of the inhabitants, to make by-laws for the better government of the province. In 1651, the Virginia House of Burgesses, through treaty, recognized “free trade as the people of England do enjoy to all places.” By 1732, Parliament had imposed heavy trade regulations, including the Hat Act, which forbid British Americans from making hats for themselves from the fur taken from their own soil. British Americans had enjoyed self-government for over one hundred years prior to Parliament usurpation. After one hundred years of liberty, it became self-evident that Parliament’s “series of oppressions,” Thomas Jefferson noted, had become “a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.”
Jefferson knew that despite England’s long train of abuses, many British Americans, rather than embrace full independence, would stay loyal to English privilege. In a letter to Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson reminded Lee that despite loyalists, many other British Americans longed to secure those rights once enjoyed: “[W]ith respect to our rights, and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American Whigs thought alike on these subjects.” Jefferson and those whom he called American Whigs, through proper reflection, remembered their self-governing ways and sought to enlighten other British Americans willing to embrace them.
Through a long experience in self-government, American Whigs cherished the principles of liberty and property that John Locke understood, and the Declaration of Independence later expressed. John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government was published in 1689, seventy years after the first Virginia representatives met at the House of Burgesses. Jefferson’s letter to Henry Lee emphasized this point: British Americans turned American Whigs when they declared their full independence in 1776. Their Declaration was written, “neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind.” Their American Whig expression was the evident truth of self-government.
American Whigs knew what John Locke and Algernon Sidney came to express, that human nature was self-interested but self-interest could secure justice. It was in every man’s nature to preserve one another’s life, liberty, and property. Locke and Sidney were not the first philosophers to advance this point. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates reminds Thrasymachus that it became self-evident among robbers to restrain from harming themselves while harming others. Machiavelli would probably agree with Socrates that “it is plain to see that there was a certain justice in them which caused them at least not to do injustice to one another at the same time that they were seeking to do it to others.” Although crudely true, the robbers understood that preserving each other’s life, liberty, and loot was better for business.
American Whigs, equal to Socratic analogies, both understood that self-government required a reciprocal duty to secure justice for each other. “That to secure these rights,” reads the Declaration, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” American Whigs, rather than impose on each other like Parliament had done, held each other to equal standards under the law. Through this reciprocal duty to each other, they consented to govern and be governed in turn. This was just; it was also in their best self-interest. Consent was given with the proposition that the governing would not trample on the rights of the governed, or else one day the trampled governed would return the favor.
Despite their long tradition in self-government, American Whigs, almost immediately after their Declaration, failed to hold each other to equal standards. Unfortunately, a government based on the people’s grasp of self-evident truths was not void of dilemmas. James Madison wisely knew that self-interest would often fail to secure justice. Madison’s Federalist 10 predicted violent factions, united by impulse or passion, would seek to violate each other’s rights. Madison knew that enlightenment would dim and self-government, in the wake of impulse and passion, would be forgotten.
By 1838, Madison’s predictions were coming true. Factions united by impulse or passion, from New England to Louisiana, executed criminals without due process. Maybe the criminals deserved execution. A mob, however, inflamed by anger rather than reflection, that denied a fellow citizen due process, was also criminal. Yet who would dare question the mob and hold it accountable? Lincoln’s Speech at the Young Men’s Lyceum captures this frustration: “When [decent citizens] see their property destroyed; their families insulted, and their lives endangered; their persons injured; [and when they see] nothing in prospect that forebodes a change for the better; [they] become tired of, and disgruntled with, a government that offers no protection; and are not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose.” When self-government is dimmed, self-righteous factions ravage the rights of others. When self-government is not self-evident, citizens fear to openly declare their opinions. Where ravenous factions are present, there is room for neither truth nor error.
Now in 2018, it seems America is reverting to 1838. Factions united by impulse, perceiving their own cause to be just, plague American institutions. Factions exist in universities, where conservative professors are shunned and conservative students fear to declare their opinions. Still, hope exists. The experiment in self-government has been practiced in this land for three hundred and ninety-nine years. For the experiment to continue, we must call on American Whigs who cherish the principles of liberty and property, American Whigs who still hold self-evident truths and avoid self-indulging factions. The future of self-government depends on the enlightened actions of American Whigs who find it in their nature to preserve one another’s life, liberty, and property.
Guest submission by Samuel Mariscal