|For those of you unfamiliar with the Conceived in
Liberty events, they are organized irregularly by Edmontonians Matthew Johnston and Bruce
Armstrong. The only one on a set day and theme each year is the Fourth of July lectures.
Nearly 200 attended this third annual celebration in Alberta's capital. And for the first
time, Johnston and Armstrong took their show on the road to Calgary and Vancouver this
Vin Suprynowicz, the well-known
libertarian columnist and author from Las Vegas, was the keynote speaker at all
three, and I was fortunate enough to give a lengthy prattle at the one in Edmonton.
It appears below.
Columnist, The Edmonton Journal
Editorial Board Member, The National Post
The Intellectual Foundations of the American Revolution
A speech by
to the third annual
Conceived in Liberty
Thursday 4 July 2002
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
see a group such as this one, I am reminded that in the 19th Century people
often did this that is, gather together in the evening to hear lectures as a
form of entertainment. There were, of course, no movies, no television, no radio; lectures
were the WWF of their day.
At the height of the lecture-as-diversion era the
highest paid public speaker in the world was Mark Twain. As much money as he made from
selling books and newspaper articles, he nearly doubled with his speaking engagements. And
he would frequently shock and appall audiences with his opening remark.
At the time in the United States, George Washington
was close to a god in peoples estimation, or at least a saint, he was considered to
be without sin. And Twain would thunder after he took the stage, I am a better man
than George Washington. When the gasps faded, he would explain, He could not
tell a lie. I can, but I refuse to do so.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am a newspaper
columnist. Youre on your own deciding how honest this address will be.
Permit me to begin tonight by reading the opening
paragraph of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which was passed 226 years ago today.
When in the Course of human events,
it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected
them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal
station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to
the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to
Later, Vin will no doubt enlighten us as to how the American
Republic has lost its way -- freedom-wise -- from the heady days in which that heady
document was written. (At least that better be what hes going to talk about, his
speech is entitled [sic] The War on Freedom: America's Betrayal of the Founding
But I have the happier task. I get to explain what
Americas Founding Fathers were thinking more than two centuries ago, what were their
motivations, what was their purpose.
Why is a two-centuries old foreign document important
to Canadians? In one way or another, I imagine all of us in this room have had to answer
that question when friends and families have learned we were coming here. My answer is
simple: The Declaration of Independence is one of the seminal statements on the natural
right to freedom in human history, and the American Revolution one of the seminal acts
perhaps the foremost act in the long struggle for freedom from repression.
To permit their significance and spirit to be lost would be to speed the diminution of
freedom everywhere, including here in Canada.
And believe me, the intellectual significance of the
American founding is under attack. Everywhere the revisionists are attempting to make us
believe that the American War for Independence was not what it appeared to be, that was
not a struggle for individual liberty.
Permit me to name three fairly recent books as
examples of what I mean: Garry Willss A Necessary Evil, Michael
Bellesiless Arming America, and Richard Matthewss The Radical
Politics of Thomas Jefferson.
All of these volumes, frankly, are trash, and
laughably so. Each seeks to justify some modern perversion of freedom Marxism, gun
control or big government by insisting the American Founding Fathers were a)
collectivist, b) indifferent to right to bear arms or c) not especially suspicious of
Matthewss Radical Politics of Thomas
Jefferson is the dumbest of this trio and Bellesiless Arming America far
and away the most fraudulent. But it is Willss book, A Necessary Evil, on
whether or not Americans possess an innate suspicion of government, that is the most
Matthews claims Jefferson was not a Lockean advocate
of minimal government, property rights and maximum individual liberty, but rather a
prophet for the coming of Karl Marx. At the very least, Matthews sees Jefferson as a sort
of Robin Hood of Monticello, entirely in favour of taxing the rich and expropriating their
lands to give to the poor.
It is true Jefferson was dubious of the concentration
of power in private hands. But it was the concentration of power within government that he
feared. He opposed a standing army and a strong federal government, among other
manifestations of central power, because he trusted no government institution to keep its
mitts off the peoples liberty. He was also among the strongest advocates ever for
the virtue of private property.
Yes, I mean the virtue of owning and enjoying
property. Jefferson believed deeply that property ownership improved a mans
character and that that improvement was vital to proper functioning of a republican
But Ill let Tom defend himself:
To take from one because it is thought that his
has acquired too much, in order to spare others who
exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of
association (notice that the first principle) the guarantee to every one of
a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.
He also said Our wish is that
may be] maintained that state of property, equal or unequal, which results to every man
from his own industry or that of his fathers.
Oh yeah, that sounds pretty much the same as From
each according to his means, to each according to his needs. Yeah, Jefferson was
pretty clearly making a path for the coming Marxist messiah.
See what I mean, Matthews revisionist history of
Jefferson is just dumb.
Bellesiles, a professor at Atlantas Emory
University, is, rather, just dishonest. In Arming America, he insists that guns
were uncommon in Revolutionary America -- basically, they were owned only by rich white
men. So the notion that ordinary Americans have always believed in the right to own
guns is, in Bellesiless thesis, a fantasy and a dangerous one. The implication is
that working class Americans have always been at least indifferent to guns, if not
downright afraid of them. Therefore modern gun control efforts not the Second
Amendment are the natural fit culturally and constitutionally for the United
Aside from the fact that Bellesiles work is
fraudulent, his assertion that Americas so-called gun culture is a relatively modern
development is ridiculous. What exactly does he think the Continental Army used to defeat
the British, insults and flatulence?
For one thing, there is the Second Amendment, itself,
guaranteeing the right of individuals not just to keep, but to keep AND bear arms. It was
added to the Constitution shortly after the Revolution. And it was presumably added second
for a reason, after only freedom of speech and religion. When youre making a list
it's human nature to list the most important items first.
For crying out loud, the Americans had just fought
and won a shooting war for their freedom from oppressive government. They had no intention
of ever permitting those freedoms to be taken from them again, so they were equally intent
on keeping their guns as a deterrent to anyone covetous of their liberties.
By now, though, Bellesiles should be completely
discredited purely on academic grounds. He claimed to have discovered this hitherto
unknown scarcity of guns by searching probate records of the post-Colonial era, during
which he found fewer than a quarter of the wills bequeathing guns to the deceaseds
children or friends.
But many of these probate records arent where
Bellesiles claimed they were. Indeed, some of the ones he cites dont exist at all.
Important collections in Vermont and San Francisco, on which Bellesiles based many of his
more strident conclusions, cannot be found. The San Francisco example is the funniest.
Bellesiles claimed in his book that California records from the 19th Century
vindicate his thesis i.e. few Californians owned guns, even though the state was a
chaotic, gold rush frontier. But, of course, most of San Franciscos records were
destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Oops.
Finally, when challenged on the glaring holes in his
work, Bellesiles claimed to have saved none of his research to his computer, and that his
handwritten notes had been destroyed when his university office was flooded. Despite this
dog-ate-my-homework excuse-making, Columbia University refuses to strip him of the
prestigious history prize it awarded him last year, Emory University still employs him
(although they have at long last launched an investigation into his honesty) and his book
is a bestseller.
But if you doubt whether the American Founders
thought the right to own guns was an individual right versus one reserved only for the
states militias, as is often claimed these days, consider these quotations from the
Founders at the time of the Revolution or during the ratification of the U.S.
To strip citizens of the right to own guns and use
them at their individual discretion, John Adams wrote in1787, would be to demolish
every (state) constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by
James Madison defended the U.S. Constitution against
skeptics in Federalist paper No. 45 by explaining that it preserved the advantage
of being armed which Americans possess over the people of almost every other
nation...(where) the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.
And Noah Webster rejoiced that The supreme
power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the
people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can
raised in the United States.
Now that seems pretty clear to me. But then I
dont have a Ph.D.
Which brings me to Garry Wills, on of Americas
most successful academic historians. Like Bellesiles on gun culture, Wills insists the
American cultural mistrust of government is a fairly new phenomenon. It is a
tradition that belittles America, Wills wrote, that asks us to love our
country by hating our government, that turns our Founding Fathers into
that obliges us to despise the very people we vote for.
So whats wrong with hating government a
or a lot? My government hates me. It doesnt trust me with a firearm. It
doesnt trust me to spend my own money, which is why it confiscates half of it every
year. It doesnt trust my charity or my stewardship of my own land or my
self-control. So it taxes and regulates me with impunity, while it devises schemes to
reengineer my mind, muzzle my speech and gain control over my property.
I now have one question I ask most politicians: Can
government be made to work better? If they answer yes, as nearly all of them
do, I know they are lost causes. The correct answer, of course is No, government
cannot be made better, therefore it must be made smaller.
But I digress.
Wills wrote Necessary Evil in response to Newt
Gingrichs Contract with America Congressional triumph in 1994. You can read Wills'
bias for the Democratic party and for big government on nearly every line. He insists
Americas founders were not suspicious of big, central government. Like Bellesile, he
insists the right to bear arms is not an historic right, and he concludes government is
actually a necessary good.
Of course, the American Founders were deeply
suspicious of government. Many were downright hostile to it. Consider this line from the
second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence whenever any Form of
Government becomes destructive of these ends [life, .liberty and the pursuit of
happiness], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.
It was common through the first two centuries of the
American republic to hear liberties defended as a bulwark against tyrants foreign
AND DOMESTIC. It has only been in the past 30 years that the attitude represented by
Wills has prevailed, in which the majority of academics, journalists, politicians and
other opinion leaders have been blind to the possibility that their own government might
become the biggest threat to their freedoms.
Jefferson uttered that famous anti-government
quotation, one of his best known quotations, The tree of liberty must be
refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural
Patrick Henry exhorted Give me liberty or
give me death, not Give me more efficient prescription drug benefits
for the elderly or give me death.
For more a decade before the American colonists fired
the first shots at the British Army in 1775, their leading thinkers wrote pamphlets and
tracts, declarations and entreaties outlining the injustices being done against them by
the government in London by their government, their king. It took more than a
decade for the concept to take hold that their own state and federal governments were
THEIR governments and the English Parliament a foreign or even enemy legislature.
Jefferson wrote the Summary View long before he
penned the Declaration. George Mason, a Virginian like Jefferson, wrote the Fairfax
Resolves. Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense. Even the line from the Declaration that I
quoted off the top tonight is another example of how the American Founders sought to
justify their sedition by appealing to world and legal opinion.
These were men incensed by the Sugar Act, which
regulated the importation of molasses (mostly for rum) into the colonies; the Currency
Act, which forbade the colonies from issuing their own money, the Stamp Act; the
Proclamation Act, which blocked their colonies westward expansion, the Declaratory Act,
which invalidated colonial laws; the Quartering Acts, the Intolerable Acts, and on and on
In the Declaration itself, 24 separate grievances are
set out, and not one of them blames the colonies woes on inefficient administration
in London. If anything, they blame too efficient government for keeping them down.
The Patriots did not start shooting at Red Coats
because they wanted a chance to improve government. They wanted relief from government.
Wills is clearly trying to rewrite American history
the history of liberty to rationalize all the modern misconceptions on
Forest McDonald, the great conservative historian of
the Revolutionary period and of the U.S. Constitution, enumerates that after the Colonists
had dispatched the British and were debating a new constitution, Locke was repeated
iterated (often) without reference to source. Six delegates cited Montesquieu.
Alexander Hamilton and Madison frequently quoted David Hume. George Mason quoted James
Harrington. And the very first speech at the Constitutional Convention referred
approvingly to William Blackstone, the eminent British constitutionalist who identified
three ancient rights of freeborn Englishmen: self-defence, freedom of movement and
association, and the right to own property. Blackstone also argued it was part of the
ancient Common Law that subjects had the right to own guns to defend these three ancient
and absolute rights.
Robert Sherman of Connecticut, who helped Jefferson
draft the Declaration, argued government is instituted for those who live under
it. It ought therefore to be so constituted as not to be dangerous to their liberties.
Hamilton claimed the one great objective of government is personal protection
and the security of property.
Founding Father after Founding Father argued that
government existed only to ensure no ones personal security or property was
infringed upon by anyone elses -- only for that reason.
There is no doubt in my mind that the American
Founders were deeply suspicious of government and of the expansive instincts of
politicians, and that they would be appalled by Prof. Willss use of their good names
to advance his modern desire for velvet totalitarianism. Jefferson might even identify
Wills as a candidate for some of that liberty-tree refreshing.
I am absolutely convinced that more American Founders
were aware of the dangers of government, and articulate about why it was dangerous, than
any modern group of U.S. politicians, and certainly than most supposedly educated
academics or Canadian politicians.
Why do I care about the American spirit of individual
liberty? Because it is a beacon that shines well beyond the border of the United States.
Our own politicians would be even more rapacious towards the freedoms we Canadian have
left, if there werent the example of the U.S. to point to. And if their beacon dims,
the first places to lose the light will be outside the United States.
I want to close with a toast. It is my favourite
quotation from the Revolutionary period, by Massachusetts Patriot Sam Adams.
If ye love
wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest
of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and
lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity
forget that ye were our countrymen.
The toast is: To Freedom!
Index to some of Lorne Gunter's articles
On global warming
On other issues
ON PROPERTY RIGHTS & WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU, by Dr. Michael S. Coffman Ph. D.; August 23, 2006,