Editor’s Note: I just came across this old article and enjoyed reading it.
The Revolution of 1776 was, when subjected to the searching analysis of learned and comprehensive philosophy, the commonest thing in nature. The birth of a child, or the weaning of a calf, excite no wonder, and stirs up no fanatical ardor because of their frequent occurrence; yet the birth of a nation, or the separation of a colony from its parent stem are events quite as much in the order of nature as the birth of a child, the weaning of a calf, or the dropping of the ripened apple from its parent stem. The Revolution of ’76 had nothing dramatic, nothing novel, nothing grand about it. Every child and every chicken, that, getting old enough and strong enough to take care of itself, is quite as singular and admirable as a spectacle, as that of the thirteen adult states of the States of America solemnly resolving to cut loose from their state of pupilage and dependence of their parent, England, and ever thereafter to assert and enjoy the rights of independent manhood. It was an exceedingly vulgar, commonplace affair; it had nothing poetic or dramatic about it. A birth, a christening, a circumcision, or the induing of the “toga virilis” – in fact, anything that marked an epoch in life, was quite as admirable as this weaning of the American calf from its trans-Atlantic dam.
Colonies are sure to set up for themselves when strong enough to do so, and had been thus setting up for themselves since the world began, and excited no wonder by the procedure. So well aware were the Greeks of this fact, that they anticipated and obviated this weaning process, which whether it occur with Colonies, calves or chickens, occasions heart-burning, family quarrels, scratching and pecking and fighting – that they sent out their Colonies as full-fledged and independent nations. Declarations of Independence were unknown then. Nothing so pompous, so malapropos and so silly is to be found in history, until our Revolution of ’76. A hundred guns are fired when a Prince is born in France, yet all the artillery in the world, fired simultaneously, could not make the birth or the weaning of a baby or a nation a grand or imposing event. Either occurrence is decidedly vulgar and commonplace, and Columbian Orators, or fourth of July orations, and lengthy Columbiads, in endeavoring to celebrate and dramatise them, only serve to render them more ridiculous.
All the bombastic absurdities in our Declaration of Independence about the inalienable rights of man, had about as much to do with the occasion, as would a sermon or an oration on the teething of a child or the kittening of a cat.
Glendower. At my nativity
The front of Heaven was fully of fiery shapes,
Of burning cressets; and at my birth,
The frame and huge foundation of the earth
Shak’d like a coward.
Hotspur. Why so it would have done
At the same season, if your mother’s cat had
[King Henry IV, act 3d, scene 1st]
It would have been well for us, if the seemingly pompous inanties of the Declaration of Independence, of the Virginia Bill of Rights and the Act of Religious Toleration had remained dead letters. But they had a strength, a vitality and a meaning in them, utterly uncomprehended by their charlatanic, half-learned, pedantic authors, which rendered them most potent engines of destruction. Our institutions, State and Federal, imported from England, where they had grown up naturally and imperceptibly, and adapted to our peculiar circumstances by like natural growth and accretion, might, and would, have lasted for very many ages, had not silly, thoughtless, half-informed, speculative charlatans, like Jefferson, succeeded in basing them on such inflammable and explosive materials as those to be found in the instruments which we have mentioned. The doctrines which they contain are borrowed, almost literally, from Locke’s Essays on Government – Locke distinguished himself in pure metaphysics – deceived and led astray the philosophic world, for two centuries, by a system of materialism and consequent infidelity, which he himself did not comprehend, or at least, the necessary deductions from which he did not foresee. A professing Christian himself, he is the father of all modern infidelity – infidelity in religion, in morals, in everything. Rousseau borrowed from him, and sowed his infidel and anarchical principles broadcast throughout Christendom. Locke’s metaphysics ignored all innate ideas, all instincts, all intuition and involuntary faiths, beliefs and opinions. Man, according to his doctrine, is a mere reasoning machine, and derives all his knowledge and all his judgments and opinions from impressions made upon his mind, through the medium of his senses, by external objects. It is not our business now to refute this theory nor to follow it out theoretically or historically, into its materialistic, infidel and anarchical consequences. We have only to do with him as a political pedagogue: as a presumptuous charlatan, who, as ignorant of the science and practice of government as any shoemaker or horse jockey, attempted to introduce his false and infidel metaphysics into the field of politics.
Aristotle had taught, and his teachings had been respected and heeded for two thousands years, that society or government, was natural to man; that he was born under government, born a member of society, and did not originate government and society; that men, like bees, and ants, and herds and flocks, were impelled into society by their natures, their wants, their instincts and intuitions; that, in fact, society and government, in their origin and grand outlines, were the works of God, and not of man. He taught, further, that in all societies some were formed by nature to command and others to obey; that inequality, not equality, was the necessary condition of men, bees, ants and all other social and gregarious animals: for society can only exist as a series of subordinations. Hence, he (Aristotle) begins his treatise on government with a dissertation on the family, and on slaves as a natural and appropriate part of the family. Human inequality and the natural, God-made organ of society and of government are the distinguishing features of his political doctrines.
Human equality, and the origination and entire construction of society and government by man, are the distinguishing, and only distinguishing features of the would be political philosophy of Locke. He teaches the doctrine of the social contract or compact, and distinctly explains it to mean, that men are not by nature social animals, but originally lived each adult separate, to himself, independent and self governing. That society is an institution which in time grew out of positive agreement or compact, and that only those who entered into this agreement were bound by it. This is all absurd enough; but he is not content with this glaring fatuity. He adds, that not only did men originally become members of society by positive agreement, but that even now no one becomes a subject of government or a member of society except by express agreement.
His metaphysics drove him to these momentous conclusions, for to admit that society was instinctive and not the result of reasoning from experience, was to admit the doctrine of innate ideas – the doctrine of Aristotle and the Peripatetics, which his philosophy was intended to refute.
It is not strange that Locke should have invented the theory of the social contract; but at first view it is passing strange that the civilized world should have accepted it as a political axiom. The wonder is lessened, however, when we find that this theory is first broached by him in reply to Sir Roger Filmer’s Patriarcha, or the Divine Right of Kings, for the world was ready to accept any doctrine rather than consider that implicit submission was due to tyrants however cruel or however incompetent. After frequent reading of Sir Robert’s book, we are quite at a loss to know what was his exact meaning and intention. In some passages he seems merely to hold that government and society are natural and God-made and that all rulers should be obeyed by individuals as if appointed by God. This is the scriptural doctrine: “Obey the powers that be.” “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” This is the doctrine of Aristotle, the doctrine for which we are contending, the doctrine of the South, and of conservatives the world over. Without it there can be no stable Government. Locke cites the following passage from Filmer, which if it stood alone would prove him to be a truthful and orthodox political philosopher: “In all kingdoms and commonwealths in the world, whether the prince be supreme father, or come to the crown by usurpation or election, or whether some few or a multitude govern the commonwealth, yet still the authority that is in any one, or in many, or in all of them, is the only right and natural authority of a supreme father.” This is admirable, for it amounts to be this, the old English doctrine, that the government, ‘de facto,’ is a rightful government quoad the individual.” Society at large has a “right divine” to rise in insurrection to correct misrule or to punish tyrants, and “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” We find the above admirable passage in Filmer, but nothing good in Locke’s essays in reply. They are a tissue of absurdities from beginning to end.
Lord Brougham in his Political Philosophy holds that Locke’s doctrine of the origin of government is absolutely false in fact, but excellent in theory. He holds that the settlement of the crown in 1668, was founded on this theory. This is not true. The concession to the royal stock was a concession to the Divine Right doctrine of Filmer. The settlement, like all other laws and constitutions, was a compromise between opposing parties; result of controlling circumstances, more than the act of Providence than the art of man. …
This passage of Locke is almost literally copied into the first two sentences of the Declaration of Independence. First, “all men are created equal.” That is Locke’s doctrine. Secondly, “governments are instituted among men.” That is, man is not like other gregarious animals, born into society, born a member and subject of government; but society and government are human institutions and discoveries, not preordained by God, like flocks and, hives and herds. This is an infidel doctrine of Locke’s and of the Declaration of Independence. Thirdly, “that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Now, men and horses, and all creatures subject to government, for it implies that all shall think alike, “consentio.” But to constitute government at all, the rulers must think for those who are ruled. Those who consent are not governed, for to be governed requires that one is required and compelled to do, by a superior power, that which, left to himself, he would not do. He alone is governed, whose will is subjected and controlled by the will of another. He submits, but does not consent.
These doctrines of Locke put into distinct and imposing form, in the Declaration of Independence, and exported from America to France, acted like a torpedo shot in a magazine. They blew up first the French monarchy, and soon thereafter all the monarchies of Western Europe, but established in their stead, not the absurdity of a “consent government,” but the great military despotism of Bonaparte.
This disruption and dislocation of all the ties of society consequent upon the doctrines of Locke and our Declaration of Independence, have kept Europe in continual throes of social and political revolution for seventy-five or eighty years. We have neither time nor space to follow out and depict its history, but will borrow from Mr. Carlyle a graphic and poetic description of its consummation, or, at least, most recent exhibitions:
“To rectify the relation that exists between two men, is there no method, then, but that of ending it? The old relation has become unsuitable, obsolete, perhaps unjust; and the remedy is, abolish it; let there henceforth be no relation at all. From the ‘sacrament of marriage’ downwards, human beings used to be manifoldly related one to another, and each to all; and there was no relation among human beings, just or unjust, that had not its grievances and its difficulties, its necessities on both sides to bear and forbear. But henceforth, be it known, we have changed all that by favor of Heaven; the ‘voluntary principle’ has come up, which will itself do the business for us; and now let a new sacrament, that of Divorce, which we call emancipation, and spout of on our platforms, be universally the order of the day! Have men considered whither all this is tending, and what it certainly enough betokens? Cut every human relation that has any where grown uneasy sheer asunder; reduce whatsoever was compulsory to voluntary, whatsoever was permanent among us to the condition of the nomadic; in other words, LOOSEN BY ASSIDUOUS WEDGES, in every joint, the whole fabrice of social existence, stone from stone, till at last, all lie now quite loose enough, it can, as we already see in most countries, be overset by sudden outburst of revolutionary rage; and lying as mere mountains of anarchic rubbish, solicit you to sing Fraternity, &c. over it, and rejoice in the now remarkable era of human progress we have arrived at.”
Such is a just, truthful and eloquent description of the effects of Locke’s philosophy introduced into practice in Europe. Before hastily sketching its effects in America, as introduced by the Declaration of Independence, and other revolutionary documents and proceedings, we must advert to the fact that Locke was permitted and employed to prepare a form of government for South Carolina, which was a tissue of absurdities, and signally failed in practice; attesting the great truth that governments are God-made, not man-made, and grow up by gradual accretion, controlled by circumstances brought about by Providence, and not by man’s will or designs. True, man my modify, adapt and improve government, but he cannot originate it or make it out and out. That is a work of nature and divinity …
At the North, however, all parties went steadily on, “loosening, by assiduous wedges, the whole fabric of social existence,” until it was discovered from inspection of their letters found on the battlefield of Manassas No.1, that Free Love was as generally understood and practiced by their masses, as it was taught by their philosophers.
Paris, the city of insurrections, has not advanced so far in the road of moral perfection as the Yankees. Neither infidelity, nor abolition, nor communism, nor socialism, are such high attainments in the ethics of the radical school, as Free Love. The North is still following along most vigorously and to their ultimate conclusions, the doctrines of Locke, Adam Smith, and the Republican sages of the Revolution of 1776. They are demonstrating, in their everyday practice, that the tendency of that Revolution was towards “dislocation, disruption,” infidelity, sensuality, agrarianism and anarchy …
“We will bid our adieu to the reader by quoting a most eloquent, graphic and prophetic passage about America from Mr. Carlyle, premising that his “Anarchy plus, a street constable,” strictly applies to the North, and to most of Southern Europe, where socialism, communism, agrarianism, divorce, free love and all kinds of radicalism and destructiveness prevail; but not all to the South, which is eminently conservative – has English laws, institutions and government (except in name) and healthy English Tory feelings, prejudices and opinions. With us the tendency is more and stricter government; with the North and the rest of the world, towards anarchy, or no government at all. This fact is the subject of Mr. Carlyle’s Latter Day Pamphlets – which we commend to the reader as the best poem and the best politico-philosophical treatise in the English language.
“I foresee too, that long before the waste lands are full, the very street constable, on these poor terms, will have become impossible.
Without waste lands, as here in our Europe, I do not see how he could continue possible many weeks. Cease to brag to me of America, and its model institutions, and constitutions. To men in their sleep there is nothing granted in this world, nothing, or as good as nothing, to men who sit idly ballot boxing on the graves of their heroic ancestors, saying, “It is well – it is well!” Corn and bacon are granted, not a very sublime boon, on such conditions, a boon, however, that on such conditions, cannot last! No: America, too, will have to strain its energies, in quite another fashion than this; to crack its sinews, and all but break its heart, as th rest of us have had to do, in thousand-fold, wrestle with the Pythons and mud demons before it can become a habitation for the Gods. America’s battle is yet to fight, and we, sorrowful, but nothing doubting, will wish her strength for it. New Spiritual Pythons – plenty of them; enormous Megatherions, as ugly as were ever born of mud, loom large and hideous out of the twilight future on America; and she will have her own agony and her own victory – but on other terms than she is yet aware of. Hitherto she but plows and hammers in a very successful manner; hitherto, in despite of her ‘roast goose with apple sauce,’ she is not much. ‘Roast goose with apple sauce for the poorest man. Well, surely that is something – thanks to your respect for the street constable, and to your continents of fertile waste land, but that, even if it could continue, is by no means enough; that is not even an installment of what will be required of you. My friend, brag not yet of our American Cousins. Their quantity of cotton, industry and resources, I believe to be almost unspeakable; but I can, by no means, worship the like of them. What great human soul, what thought, what great noble thing that one could worship or admire, has yet been produced there? None; the American Cousins have yet done none of these things. What have they done? Growls Smelmangers, tired of the subject, ‘they have doubled their population every twenty years.’ They have begotten, with a rapidity beyond recorded example, eighteen million of the greatest bores ever seen in the world before. That, hitherto, is their feat in history! And so we leave them for the present, and cannot predict the success of Democracy on this side of the Atlantic, from their example.’
George Fitzhugh, The Revolutions of 1776 and 1861 Contrasted, December 1863