David McCullough, in his Pulitzer Prize winning biography John Adams, relates an incident containing the most profound message for us. After the American Army had suffered defeats in the early days of the Revolutionary War, the British believed the time was ripe to end the rebellion by offering amnesty to the rebels. Lord Richard Howe, admiral of the British fleet, sent a message to the Continental Congress requesting a conference with their representatives. John Adams was chosen as one of the American delegates. Admiral Howe apologized at the beginning of the meeting saying that, because the British king did not recognize the new American government, he was forced to treat the delegation not as representatives of the Continental Congress but “merely as gentlemen of great ability and influence.” To this Adams immediately responded: “Your lordship may consider me in any light you please . . . except that of a British subject.”[i]
From the very beginning, our country was founded and structured by those who never
accepted that we were merely “subjects.” It was a revolutionary idea. Almost everyone in the world viewed themselves as being “subjects” of a hereditary ruler, often with their very lives depending upon his whim. But Americans proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that their Creator had endowed them with inalienable rights and
that, instead of being subjects of a government, they had the right and power to establish a government that would protect their rights. When the U.S. Constitution was formed it was
done by “We the people.”
Why this great difference? When William the Conqueror and his invading army conquered England in 1066 they seized the land and put to death those who opposed them. Everyone was subject to the will of the conquerors. Over time the English obtained some rights from their kings, such as those in the Magna Carta, but everyone believed the
source of those rights was the king. They were not inalienable rights inherent in the people. The history of America, however, was completely different. Early immigrants
to the North America wilderness left government behind. What government they had, they invented and agreed to between themselves, as in the Mayflower Compact. With an entire continent open to them, immigrants seeking to escape the tyrannies and poverty of Europe were always able to go to the frontier—where there was no government except what they imposed upon themselves. They were, in reality, not “subject” to anyone.
These two viewpoints are still in conflict today. Many in Washington view us as being subject to their political will, enjoying only such rights and permitted to hold property only to the extent they permit it. This is most obvious in the presumption that the government is free to tax anyone any amount they choose while being free to excuse from paying taxes those who enjoy their political favor. Another presumption arising from the belief that Americans have become merely “subjects” is that—as our master—the government is responsible for providing economic needs, and even luxuries, rather than only providing a framework where we can be in the “pursuit of happiness.” These two fundamentally opposite views of the role of government are still at war, as they were in 1776. The patriots of the revolution—the Founding Fathers of the ever revolutionary idea that we are not
“subjects”—have left us a rare and precious heritage. Will we preserve it?
[i] David McCullough, John Adams, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 157.