Uncommon Denominators of 1776

In all probability, had you just finished conquering your revolutionary foe, you would have hastened to set up a stabilizing organization of governance. For the sake of convenience and familiarity, that government would have looked a lot like the one with which you had been so familiar before all the revolutionary ruckus had begun. You, no doubt, would have lined up several essential common denominators in a row and filled the familiar governmental slots of polity and policy with trustworthy men of the revolution. As soon as the smoke and dust of the final battles had settled, everyone could have taken a deep breath and enjoyed the fresh fruits of the long rebellious conquest. You could then have comfortably taken on the activities of your new nation and set about on a serious development plan for the future.

Had that been the scenario of the rag-tag militia men of the American colonies, a stalwart fellow by the name of Washington would have been crowned as King George. Noble names would have been pinned on the faithful military men, and the valuable property would have been whittled up into pieces of dignified dirt and royal real estate.

All the players of the 1776 victory were former inhabitants of either the isle of England or someplace in Europe. Just why wouldn't they simply rely on the traditions, institutions, and government models of their parents and homelands? Wasn’t this whole idea of colonies, after all, a business model of new trade routes, new markets, new products, and additional revenues? Why wouldn’t the motivation simply be to establish domestic security as quickly as possible and get on with the activities of building the new business model in that part of the world?

The reason for those uncommon denominators was because the revolutionary war had not been fought over stealing away a business model and securing the opportunities to procure new revenues. The revolutionary war had been a slug fest over economic and philosophical ideals. Some of those ideals had been brewing in the hearts and minds of the revolutionary dreamers for a long time. Some of those ideals included vociferous beliefs in property rights, personal liberty, and representative government.

The majority of the victors had earlier exposure to the underpinnings of the English Common Law. That was not necessarily a common denominator across Europe. But the revolutionaries were determined to stake their lives in order to see that the rule of law would not be based on some willy-nilly government- of- the- day getting to set the rules. Their respect for the law was center stage and designed for perpetuity. The concept of the rule of law was based on a higher plane with a constitution determined by a body of independent magistrates and a stalwart balance of governing power. The law was not an instrument of state control or manipulation, but a mechanism open to any individual seeking redress. That was a new and uncommon denominator for that part of the world.

I have come to the conclusion that the successful likelihood of the 1776 experiment would have been very slim to none at any other time or in any other venue of the contemporary world. Colonialism did not prove to be successful because it was a business model not open to the equal participation of all the residents.

In 336 B.C., twenty-one- year- old Alexander of Macedonia, who had been trained at the feet of Aristotle, had been placed on the Greek throne. With cunning intuition he conquered the known world by the time he was thirty-three years old. He had brought to the world security, protection, fairness, a common currency, low taxes, and unlimited opportunities of international trade. But Alexander the Great’s brilliant experiment only lasted until his early death at age thirty-three.

When Alexander was no longer there to be the entrepreneur and protector, his generals greedily torpedoed the good work and sent the experiment to the bottom until Julius Caesar resurrected the concept two hundred seventy-one years later. Caesar’s Pax Romana, with the mild taxation and alluring opportunities for commerce, was dependent on a model of military boots on the groundOccupationism. But occupying conquered lands, whether by the British, the Romans, or the Israelis only lasts until it becomes more bother than it’s worth.

But the 1776 economic and cultural experiment seemed to find a perfect niche in history even though the denominators were mostly uncommon. Let’s look at some of those denominators:

  • No entrenched economic or cultural system had to be kicked out or purged from the country. When the British were defeated they simply went home
  • New citizens were open to system change
  • Many residents had already been reading and studying writings of freedom thinkers like John Locke, and economic thinkers like Adam Smith
  • Agreed that new government should answer to the people and not the people to the established government
  • Geographically private; no aggressive neighboring countries ready to attack and steal choice land parcels or ports
  • No state church to fight or demand tax payments
  • Positive inheritance and experience with Runny Meade and King John’s Magna Carta as model for a new Bill of Rights
  • Background and understanding of British Common Law
  • Agreement on idea of elected term leaders and civil transfer of power
  • No monarchical, social caste system of inherited titles and properties
  •  Healthy work ethic in order to exist on shores of north Atlantic
  • Existing citizens already possessed qualities of morality, honesty, industriousness, and God- fearing religious faith
  • Unity of language
  • Plenty of space for growth and new immigrants
  • Rough land; tough people
  • Huge blue water buffer between England and America
  • Citizens were forced to become independent from the outside, but dependent on those inside the experiment
  • Citizens never entertained demand for equality of outcomes . . . just equality of opportunity and dignity

The common denominators one might have anticipated seeing implemented in the new nation of 1776 could have been strong personalities grabbing positions of power and leadership and injecting rules that would have been massaged and twisted for their own and their personal family’s favor and advantage in the future. That is generally the rule of the day I observe in the developing countries where I have traveled and worked.

Military power, hereditary status, and the systematic looting of natural and human resources by the newly installed ruling caste are the characteristics and denominators that I see as the universal norms even today.

The dreams and ideals of the 1776 incorporators were like a breath of fresh air into the world of political and cultural governance. How refreshing to think that the executive would be controlled by a board of legislators and the lawmakers would be directly accountable through the ballot box. Taxes should neither be levied nor laws passed without the consent of the populace. Issues that required decisions should be taken as closely as possible to those people that were most directly affected. The individual citizen should be free from knee-jerk and capricious punishment and protected from having his goods and property confiscated on a whim. Power should be spread out, and no one including the leader or his family would be considered above the rule of law. Property rights should be absolutely secure, and disagreements should be heard and arbitrated by ad hoc magistrates. There would be freedom of assembly as well as freedom of speech and freedom of religion guaranteed by the very governance.

The more I research and study the improbable experiment of 1776, and the uncommon denominators upon which the experiment was established, the more I marvel that the incorporators were able to even articulate the ideals, to say nothing about getting the experiment off the ground and into the air to fly. And fly it did. And it has achieved the most singularly significant political and cultural environment for enabling human achievement, creativity, and productivity that the world has yet to provide.

The question was asked in a prior article, “but is this what we have in America today?” The simple and unflinching answer to that question is “no.” There has never been a time in the history of the United States when there has not somewhere been a pocket of problem-makers who were determined to dash the experiment and reassemble the American value system into a model of European Leftism where the created welfare state is the alternative.

But in spite of all the intrusions and modifications of the original thrust of the 1776 experiment, I choose to throw my lot with President Abraham Lincoln, who declared in his message to Congress in 1862 that America is “the best last hope of earth.” I am so terribly grateful that even though the dreamer’s experiment proved improbable based on all the uncommon denominators upon which it was built, yet it still stands today as the best last hope of earth.

Next Week: Unintended Consequences of 1776

(Research ideas from Dr. Jackson’s new writing project on Cultural Economics)

© Dr. James W. Jackson   

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