We are in the midst of a short series on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. You can get caught up here.
In this post we want to examine Metaxas’s understanding of the relationship between England and the thirteen American colonies, particularly as it relates to the concept of “liberty.”
As my students of colonial America are well aware, the so-called “13 Colonies” were very British at the time of the American Revolution. In fact, much of what the colonists had learned about liberty and freedom stemmed from the fact that they were British subjects. Ironically, it was the British who taught the colonists how to rebel. The British were the most liberty-loving people in the eighteenth-century world and they were proud of it. Their monarch was held in check by the people through Parliament, making them unlike nearly all other nation-states. From the perspective of many of the founding fathers, the American Revolution was the correct and consistent application of British liberty to the imperial crisis over taxation.
But in order for Metaxas’s argument about American exceptionalism to work (we will discuss this in a later post), he must make a clear contrast between England and their rebellious colonies. For example, on p.19-20 Metaxas claims, in reference to the United States, that “back in 1776 and in the decades after, this nation was all alone” in embodying the idea of liberty and its “uniqueness at that time can hardly be overstated.”
On p. 9 Metaxas suggests that the role of “the people” in monarchical government would be “nonexistent.” This may have been the case for France, Russia, or some other eighteenth-century European country, but it was definitely not true for England. Though the colonists portrayed the English government as tyrannical, it is way over-the-top to compare the eighteenth-century English monarchy to a “strongman dictator” like Saddam Hussein (p.18).
Metaxas uses the term “miracle” to describe the American idea of “self-government.” He chides the Tories or loyalists, the nearly one-third of British-American colonies who did not support the American Revolution, for their “shocking” failure to embrace the cause of liberty. He then continues to play the American exceptionalism card by asking : “After all, when in the history of the modern world had anyone entrusted its government to the people?” (p.20). This is a fair point, but it assumes that the American founders had a much higher view of “the people” than they actually did. In reality, most of the founders did not trust the people to govern themselves. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), Thomas Jefferson wrote that “government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone.” Alexander Hamilton called democratic government–rule by the people–a “disease” and a “poison.”
Did the idea of liberty develop in the United States in unique ways? Of course it did. But that is something that occurred over time. It is difficult to draw a straight line between the eighteenth-century and today without taking into consideration the developments that existed in-between. During the 1770s and 1780, the idea of an American monarch presiding over a new American nation defined by something similar to historic British liberties was still very much in play.
Stay tuned for our next segment in which we will discuss Metaxas’s view of the First Great Awakening and George Whitefield.