The World We Have Lost
For most Americans, the story of the American Revolution is more like a series
of museum displays with toy soldiers than a series of events that grab our
collective imagination. Other than George Washington, the most famous general of
the American Revolution is Benedict Arnold. In third place is Gentleman
Johnny Burgoyne. He was a Brit, and he is famous only because of “Gentleman.”
In my library are boxes of microcards. Each card contains tiny images of up to
200 pages. On these cards is every document published in the United States from
1639 to 1811. Yet I rarely consult those cards. I have shelves of books on the
American Revolution. I rarely pull one of them down and read it. I read McCullough’s
“John Adams,” but so did a million other people — or at least they bought
the book. Thirty years ago, I earned a
Ph.D. with a specialty in colonial American history, although my
sub-specialty was New England, 1630-1720, not the American Revolution. But even
for me, the events and the issues of 1776 have faded. Think of the average
American high school graduate, whose history class spent two weeks on the American
Revolution two decades ago.
There was a slogan: “No taxation without representation.” How did that
slogan turn out? In 1776, there was no income tax. So, we got our representation,
but taxes today are at 40% of our income. Washington extracts 25% of the nation’s
output. In 1776, taxes imposed by the
British were in the range of 1% in the North, and possibly 3% in the South.
I’m ready to make a deal: I’ll give up being represented in Washington, but I’ll
get to keep the 74% of my income that they take. I’ll work out something else
with state and local politicians. Just get Washington out of my pocket.
Jefferson put these words into the Declaration of Independence:
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and
sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people,
and eat out their substance.
He had no idea. Not counting troops, who were here to defend the Western
territory from the French after 1763, the number of British officials was probably
well under a thousand. They resided mainly in port cities, where they collected
customs (import taxes): Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. The
average American had never met a British official in 1776.
By any modern standard, in any nation, what Jefferson wrote in the Declaration
to prove the tyranny of King George III would be
regarded by voters today as a libertarian revolution beyond the dreams of any
elected politician, including Ron
Paul. Voters would unquestionably destroy the political career of anyone who
would call for the restoration of King George’s tyranny, which voters would see
as the destruction of their economic security,
which they believe is provided only by politicians and each
other’s tax money.
I have therefore revised the Declaration of Independence, in order to make it
conform to the prevailing American view of liberty and justice for all. You may
read my revision here:
This is why the documents of the American Revolution make no sense to us. We
read the words and marvel at the courage of those who risked their lives, fortunes
and sacred honor by signing the Declaration. But we cannot really understand why
they did it. We live under a self-imposed tyranny so vast, so all-encompassing by
the standards of 18th-century British politics, that we cannot imagine risking
everything we own in order to throw off the level of government interference
suffered by the average American businessman in 1776, let alone the average
If we could start politically where the Continental Congress started in 1775,
we would call home the members of that Congress. We would regard as crazy anyone
who was willing to risk a war of secession for the sake of throwing off an import
tax system that imposed a 1% burden on our income.
The Declaration of Independence points a finger at us, and shouts from the
grave on behalf of the 56 signers: “What have you done? What have you
surrendered in our name? What, in the name of Nature and Nature’s God, do you
people think liberty is all about?”
We have no clue. American voters surrender more liberty in one session of
Congress than the colonists surrendered to the British crown and Parliament from
1700 to 1776.
We do not read the documents of the American Revolution. They make us uneasy
and even guilty when we understand them, and most of the time, we do not
understand them. They use language that is above us. The common discourse of
American politics in 1776 was beyond what most university faculty members are
capable of understanding.
You think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. My friend Bertel Sparks used to teach
in the Duke University Law School. Every year, he conducted an experiment. He
wanted to put his first year law students—among the cream of the crop of
American college graduates—in their place.
He assigned an extract from Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of
England. This was the most important legal document of the American Revolution
era. It was written in the 1760’s. Every American lawyer read all four volumes.
It was read by American lawyers for a generation after the Revolution. Sparks
would assign a section on the rights of property. He made them take it home, and
then return to class, ready to discuss it.
When they returned, they could not discuss it. The language was too foreign.
The concepts were too foreign. The students were utterly confused.
Then Sparks would hold up the source of the extract from Blackstone. The source
was the Sixth McGuffey reader, the most popular American public school textbook
series of the second half of the 19th century.
That put the kiddies in their place.
If you want to be put in your place, pick up a copy of the Sixth McGuffey
reader and try to read it.
Try to read the “Federalist Papers.” These were newspaper columns written
to persuade the voters of New York to elect representatives to ratify the
Constitution. These essays were political tracts. They were aimed at the average
voter. Few college graduates could get through them today, so students are not
asked to read them in their American history course, which isn’t required for
We Have Done It to Ourselves
Our march into what Jefferson would have described as tyranny has been a
self-imposed march. Voters today would be unwilling to go to war to restore the
Declaration’s ideal of liberty. In fact, Americans would go to war to keep from
having the Declaration’s ideal of liberty from being imposed on us. By today’s
standards, King George III was indeed a madman: a libertarian madman, a character
out of an Ayn Rand novel that never got published. On politics and economics,
Jefferson was madder than King George.
But “pinko,” Jefferson wasn’t. Calling for secession was not the same as
calling for a social revolution. The revolutionaries were calling for secession in
the name of traditional rights of Englishmen. They were calling for a reversal of
a slow-motion political revolution by the Parliament, an erosion of political
rights. They saw themselves as conservatives involved in a counter-revolution.
They won the battle. We have lost the war.
Generation after generation, Americans have imposed taxation with
representation. We could use less taxation and less representation. But voters
believe in lots of representation and lots of taxation to match. Voters elect more
politicians, who then hire far more officials, than King George ever thought about
sending to the colonies.
Voters send these politicians off to the various capital cities with a mandate:
“Bring more swag back home than those other crooks extract from us.” Voters
hand a credit card to their representatives and tell them: “Make sure the bill
that you send to us at the end of the year is less than the value of the loot that
you send to us.” So, the bills keep getting bigger. We think Garrison Keeler is
funny with his description of Lake Wobegon: “Where all the children are above
average.” But we all want our elected representatives to keep our tax bills
Cartoonist Walt Kelly drew “Pogo” for decades. “Pogo” was probably the
most politically sophisticated of all American comic strips, including “Doonesbury,”
although not the funniest. Kelly immortalized a phrase, which he put into the
mouth of Pogo Possum: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The statement
rings true because it is true. We did it to ourselves.
This is why the American Revolution seems like a museum display. Our hearts may
be with those men of old, but our minds are not. We live in a fundamentally
different world. Europe is on the far side of Marx and Engels, while we are on the
far side of Wilson and Roosevelt.
My professor, Robert Nisbet, remarked in an autobiographical passage in one of
his books that when he was born, in 1913, the only contact that most Americans had
with the Federal Government was the Post Office. It was in that year that the
first income tax forms were mailed out. Take a look at the original Form 1040.
Consider that the average American family in 1913 earned less than $1,000 a year.
Then look at the tax rates.
We say that we want our high school graduates to be familiar with American
history. But do we? Really? The history of America is the story of our surrender
to a philosophy of government that was alien to the West in 1776. What Jefferson
regarded as a tyranny worth dying to oppose, American voters today regard as a
world so unjust economically that no moral person would want to live in it, let
alone risk his life and wealth to obtain it for himself and his posterity.
Voters get what they think they really want. When things turn out badly, they
re-think what it is that they really want.
What the signers of the Declaration of Independence really wanted was the right
of self-government, beginning with individual self-government. To achieve this,
they demanded the right of home rule politically. They fought a war to attain
We have used home rule to place above us men whose views of the rights of
citizens Jefferson would have regarded as beyond anything King George III dreamed
of in his madness.
Millions of voters who regard the present social and political order as morally
valid are not interested in telling the story of the Revolution from the words of
those who began the fight. They elect Superintendants of Public Instruction to
hire teachers who also do not like that story. The senior bureaucrats then ask
these teachers to abandon the teaching of the story of America prior to 1900, and
substitute social studies.
I am not exaggerating about this either. The battle at the state level to
retain the teaching of American history prior to 1900 has been going on in Texas
high schools for over a decade. Texas public schools buy so many textbooks that
what Texas does—along with New York, California, and Illinois—determines what
the rest of the nation’s students will be taught. The state of Texas allows a
committee that includes laymen to sit in judgment on the textbooks. This is why
Mel and Norma Gabler have been able to inflict so much economic pain on liberal
textbook publishers for the last 30 years. But theirs is at best a holding action.
The story of America is the story of this nation’s self-imposed abandonment
of the Declaration of Independence. This is why the story of the Declaration is
rarely taught in school, and is taught badly when it is taught.
If you want to re-gain your liberty, a good place to begin is with the primary
source documents of the world that existed a century before the Declaration was
written, before the kings of England meddled very much in colonial affairs. It is
hard to believe, but Jefferson would have been regarded as a little bit pinko in
That is the world we have lost. Fireworks won’t get it back.
Home schooling just might.