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
He has erected a multitude of New
Offices, and sent hither swarms of
Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their
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
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
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
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 graduation anyway.
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 below average.
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
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
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
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 1676.
That is the world we have lost. Fireworks won’t get it
Home schooling just might.