Wednesday, July 04, 2007

American Liberty

Today is Independence Day. It is a common ritual for me, on this day, to read the Declaration of Independence in order to reconnect with the "ideals" of liberty that have shaped this country's identity for the past 231 years. I put "ideals" in qutation marks because I am more and more dissatisfied, and a bit impatient, with the word. When men fight, they fight for something much more concrete than "ideals". They fight for home, family, community, and honour (for my fellow Americans, yes, I know, it shouldn't have a "u", but it just does not seem right without it).

"Ah," you ask, "is not honour an ideal?" Well, no. You see, when we describe someone who is honourable, there usually is good reason to do so. For instance, we may call someone who is reliable, consistently moral, upright, magnanimous, and generally worthy of high estimation as an "honourable man." Such individuals are looked upon with a great degree of respect because there is a history of a commitment to honouring their commitments, and are thus worthy of that high estimation. Dignity, worth, nobility, esteem-all of these are wrapped up in the word honour.

Honour is in fact the very last word of the Declaration of Independence: "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor." Now what precedes these stirring words are, first of all, general guidelines for when and under what circumstances one people may dissolve political ties with another, and alter their form of government (argued in good Lockian fashion). A detailed set of "evidences" that occasioned the move towards separation from Crown and Parliament follows. Since Crown and Parliament had not honoured their commitments to treat the colonials as free Englishmen, then they, the signers of the Declaration, would put their worth, esteem, and dignity on the line for the cause of liberty.

Now what is meant by liberty? It seems clear that, for the signers of the Declaration, liberty was no abstract notion or ideal. After all, Frenchmen would later in 1789 take up the fight against the French crown on the ideals of liberte, egalite, fraternite, resulting eventually in a cartload of headless corpses and a tyrant. As Edmund Burke would argue, the French Revolution was fought for the sake of abstractions. Noot so for the signers of the Declaration: something more substantial than an "ideal" was at stake-their rights as Englishmen. It is on this basis-i.e. their traditional and ancient rights as Englishmen-that they made their case. Liberty, then, like honour, is tied up in very specific and historically-rooted circumstances. John Locke argued along the lines of traditional English constitutional law in order to establish the common rights of men living in civil society (Second Treatise on Government). Likewise, the signers of the Declaration appeal to their common inheritance of English Common Law tradition, and this Burkian sense of ratioanl liberty that takes into account the "consent of our ancestors," as well as the governed. By "rational liberty," Edmund Burke meant one in which men are free to pursue their just and equitable needs and desires for happiness (as in Aristotle's eudaemonia, or that condition of well-being that results from virtuous actions), always with a view of our ancestors' input. He underscores this relationship between tradition and liberty in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1789):

"Through the same plan of a conformity to nature in our artificial institutions, and by calling in the aid of her unerring and powerful instincts, to fortify the fallible and feeble contrivances of our reason, we have derived several other, and those no small benefits, from considering our liberties in the light of an inheritance. Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity. This idea of a liberal descent inspires us with a sense of habitual native dignity, which prevents that upstart insolence almost inevitably adhering to and disgracing those who are the first acquirers of any distinction. By this means our liberty becomes a noble freedom. It carries an imposing and majestic aspect. It has a pedigree and illustrating ancestors. It has its bearings and its ensigns armorial. It has its gallery of portraits; its monumental inscriptions; its records, evidences, and titles. We procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle upon which nature teaches us to revere individual men; on account of their age, and on account of those from whom they are descended. All your sophisters cannot produce anything better adapted to preserve a rational and manly freedom than the course that we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations, our breasts rather than our inventions, for the great conservatories and magazines of our rights and privileges."

Thus, far from being an abstract "ideal", liberty is grounded on a bedrock of experience and natural law. For Burke, as well as for the signers of the Declaration, the common Englishman (and American) knows his rights not on the basis of abstractions, but on the basis of an inherited trust, one bequethed by his ancestors, forging a bond between the past, the present, and the future. What is bound up with with liberty? History, tradition, and natural law.

By birth, I am Cuban, but by adoption (if I can co-opt a Pauline metaphor) I am an Anglo-American. This means that this nation's history has become my history, its laws, rooted in English Common Law tradition, are my laws. As a result, I hold deeply a love and admiration for English history, law and institutions, which gave birth to the country I now call home.

So I raise a good pint of Sam Adams to my dear Republic. Long may it prosper! And I also raise my glass to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. Long may she reign!


D.A. Silvestri said...

Well said -I'll raise a glass to the Republic. Long may she preserved from her enemies and may God guide her aright. As for the royal family -well I'll say ne more.

Benedictus said...

"As for the royal family -well I'll say ne more."


The silence is deafening!!! ;-)

Yes, I toast Her Majesty, because the signers of the Declaration of Independence had no intentions of getting rid of monarchy on the British Isles. As a matter of fact, except for Thomas Paine and his cohorts, they had no intentions of exporting "revolution" around the world. The American Revolution, remember, is not the French. As a matter of fact, they hardly called it a "revolution". It was usually called a "war of independence"-two different animals, in my humble opinion.

I'm reminded of Edmund Burke's lament of the death of Queen Marie Antoinette in his Reflection onthe Revolution in France:

"It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in, glittering like the morning star full of life and splendor and joy. 0, what a revolution! and what a heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream, when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone. It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness."

Mind you, this from the man who supported the American War of Independence! Everytime I read these words, I want to shout "Here am I, Mr. Burke! Send me!"

And if any ill-conceived "republican" in England wishes to demote Her Majesty the Queen to the rank of commoner, then this American Cavalier will be there, sword drawn, in her defense!

"I am often asked if I am a republican or a monarchist. I am neither, I am a legitimist: I am for legitimate government. You could never have a monarchy in Switzerland, and it would be asinine to imagine Spain as a republic." Archduke Franz Joseph Otto von Habsburg (

D.A. Silvestri said...

Whew! I guess I deserved that.
It's funny but I've never even thought of demoting HRM Queen Elizabeth to a commoner, i have a lot of respect for her personally. I am a republican because i think that Australia should be one. Although, it probably wouldn't work because we don't have anyone able enough to write a constitution that would avoid eroding our civil liberties, whilst enshrining political correctness as the ultimate basis of judging everything.

Interestingly enough, our constitution still has us down as subjects not citizens. If we became a republic now it would be used to further the erosion of our European heritage in favour of a kind of banana-republic tacked on to greater Asia. Being a Celt of Irish-Welsh descent i am strongly republican on behalf of Ireland, Scotland , and Wales, who historically have long have been subjugated to English interests.
As for the question as to whether i am republican or monarchist; i am a republican but NOT a revolutionary, perhaps a reformer, definitely a Celtic partisan.

Benedictus said...

"I am a republican because i think that Australia should be one. Although, it probably wouldn't work because we don't have anyone able enough to write a constitution that would avoid eroding our civil liberties, whilst enshrining political correctness as the ultimate basis of judging everything."

This makes me glad that at least our constitution was written 210 years ago, when men still had a robust sense of natural law and ordered liberty.

I don't think I trust very many people today writing constitutions, so I'm with you there. The reason is because so much of the current climate in European politics is geared towards a revolutionary impulse that is akin to the French model, which was patently anticlerical, as opposed to the English Enlightenment, which was not. The English Enlightenment as a matter of fact saw the church's contribution (not dominance) to the body politic as good, necessary and useful. George Washington, a child of that Enlightenment, said that Christianity was essential in rendering a good, just and ordered society.

Sadly, that sentiment is quite lacking today, where the European Union's ersatz "constitution" has no place for Christianity. That's why I defend institutions like the monarchy in England, which are (besides the Church) the last vestiges of a traditional way of life in this cold and heartless world. In America, I am a proud republican, celebrating its institutions and traditions. In England, I bow to Her Majesty.

And by the way, I am sure that you would be there, with me, with your sword drawn, in Her Majesty's defense if any godless revolutionary were to seek to dethrone her. There is no contradiction between being a republican partisan for Australia and defending her crown rights in England. I think there is a bit of the Cavalier in you, my friend :-)

D.A. Silvestri said...

Well -you have me there, I always did side with the cavaliers against the Roundheads. How could any true romantic not take his stand against their pragmatic minimilism. The danger is everywhere; the death of poetry, beauty, glory, honour, purity; as the ideals die, so the words die, as the words die so do the things themselves pass out of memory.

Benedictus said...

"The danger is everywhere; the death of poetry, beauty, glory, honour, purity; as the ideals die, so the words die, as the words die so do the things themselves pass out of memory."

It may be that our churches and monasteries will be called upon once again to act as the places where beauty, poetry, purity,and the arts of civiluzation can be maintained in the midst of all this prosaic banality we call the "post-Christian world."

Kyrie Eleison!