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Surprise! Evangelicals Were Once Radical Economic Populists Who Planted the Seeds of Our Own Struggles Against the 1%

In a new book on America's founding era popular-finance movement, William Hogeland brings us forgotten folk heroes who fought against early elites. Many were Bible-toting, end-time Christians.

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in Virginia’s “twopenny” cases that the Privy Council’s voiding a law of the Virginia assembly made the king effectively a tyrant. In 1761, James Otis argued in the Massachusetts “writs of assistance” cases that searching American ships without specific warrants violated rights guaranteed British subjects by the British constitution. The discussion sharpened when Parliament went beyond what American lawyers and lawmakers had long acquiesced in seeing as its legitimate role—legitimate, if annoying—in balancing imperial trade through tariffs. In the 1760s, with new acts known as the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act, Parliament didn’t hope merely to balance imperial trade. It was trying to raise a revenue for the royal treasury.

To liberty-loving Americans, that was a tyrannical innovation in Parliament’s lawmaking power. Taking property solely for the purposes of revenue, without the consent given through representation, seemed to violate essential rights. Consent of the governed went back at least to the Magna Carta, when in 1215, on a fi eld at Runnymede, barons sat King John down and made him sign an agreement that limited his power. Article 52 of the Magna Carta prohibits the king from taking property at will, by levying a tax, say, or just moving his retinue into someone’s castle. He may take property only by consent of the owner. The American gentlemen who in the 1760s and 1770s became resisters to English trade laws called themselves “Whigs,” looking backward to English Whigs of the seventeenth century and the oldest English traditions in government.

In Philadelphia, the lawyer John Dickinson, writing as “A Farmer,” demonstrated the unconstitutionality of Parliament’s taxation for revenue without representation. American merchants, planters, and lawyers read and repeated the Farmer’s words. The stakes kept going up. When Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, it declared its right to tax Americans at will, for any purpose, whenever it wanted. With the Townshend Acts, it did tax them. When Boston suffered occupation by the British army, British tyranny in America seemed unrestrained.

The colonial assemblies responded extralegally. In 1774 and 1775, they sent delegates to the Continental Congresses in Philadelphia. The Delegates adopted a policy of strong, unified colonial resistance to England, ultimately rejecting a competing policy of moderation, accommodation, and loyalism. By the time the British began moving troops out of Boston to Lexington and Concord, in the spring of 1775, many American planters, merchants, and lawyers were ready to fight.

As potted as I can get it, I think that’s a pretty fair tracking of the famous founders’ progress toward the American Revolution. Some have called American merchants, planters, and lawyers touchy, even paranoid, hysterically immersed in seventeenth-century writings on liberty that in England amounted mainly to a literary movement, not a realistic political agenda; others try to show American assemblies as almost superhumanly consistent in their moral opposition to English overreaching. I want to look at what I think today’s most influential history glosses over, explains away, deemphasizes, or simply ignores, regarding the planters, merchants, and lawyers who became the famous American revolutionaries.

That is: In the view of many little-remembered small farmers, artisans, mechanics, and laborers, who made up the overwhelmingly greater part of American society, those upscale, liberty-loving men had long been running the colonial legislatures for the benefit of themselves and to the detriment of everybody else. Parliament and Crown weren’t the only oppressors in colonial American society. For many ordinary people, they were by no means the most direct oppressors.

Rich Americans were.

Here is where we may begin to see mutual hostility, not mutual support, between ordinary Americans and the famous leaders in the Revolution. And here is where Herman Husband began a career that would one day put him in opposition to some of the most famous of those men.