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Stand Up For Justice

December 5th, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.”[1]

In writing the Declaration of Independence its principle author Thomas Jefferson drew heavily from the writings of John Locke. Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government was published in 1690 in response to an unstable political situation in Britain at the time: the issue of where the right to rule found its origin. The years of Locke’s lifetime had seen a Civil War, a Commonwealth, the restoration of absolute monarchy, and one king displaced by another by Parliament. The fundamental issue was whether the King could rule without Parliament, as he claimed, or whether at the will of Parliament. If the King was correct, he derived the right to rule from God, but if the Parliament was correct, the King derived the right to rule from the people. The coronation of William and Mary permanently established Parliament as the ruling party in England, thus making it what we call today a constitutional monarchy.

Locke’s argument, arising from the political situation he had lived through, was that all sovereignty and liberty originated in the individual person in the state of nature. Locke supposed a time when people lived in a condition where no one owned anything and all were able to equally enjoy perfect freedom and liberty. This is where the concept of natural rights comes from: the rights of the individual in the state of nature, which incorporates perfect freedom with the only restriction being that no one may violate the rights of another.

Locke asserted that all people were born equal, as we find in the Declaration, “all men are created equal.” But in Locke, and also for Jefferson and our revolutionary leaders, all men did not remain equal. What differentiated them was property. The differentiation arose because for all of the attraction of a world without constraints on individual liberty the flip side was that there was no one to protect your liberty. Locke specifically equated liberty with property, and theorizes that at some point those people who owned property formed a civil society in which each property owner gave up some of their liberty in order to protect all of their liberty. As time went by this evolved from being obligated to directly aid a fellow property owner under attack to the establishment of a legislative and executive to govern and protect the property of those who voluntarily created it. Thus the right to rule derives from the people, but not all of the people, rather only those who have a stake in the government, established by giving consent to taxation: the property owners.

Locke states forcefully and repeatedly that the purpose of civil government is to protect property. At the end of his treatise Locke notes the tendency of government to forget its purpose and, rather than defending liberty, denying it. The original argument of the revolutionaries was that Parliament was taking property in the form of taxes from Americans when they could not give consent because they were not represented in Parliament. Hence the slogan taxation without representation is tyranny!

As early as 1765 in response to Parliament’s Stamp Act there developed in America and in particular in Massachusetts a sense that Parliament’s action in taxing Americans when they were not represented in Parliament was a violation of their basic liberties. Oppositions groups sometimes calling themselves the Sons of Liberty created violent civil disturbances throughout the colonies. In Boston the home of Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson was ransacked and thousands of pounds worth of private property destroyed. Another opposition assembly harassed British troops assigned to protect the Customs House culminating in what would be described by Samuel Adams as the Boston Massacre.

One of the reasons the relationship between Britain and the Americans started an irreversible downward spiral was because the British soldiers who had fired on the civilians were either acquitted or had their sentences reduced because of a skillful defense by John Adams. The Americans, encouraged by the inflammatory rhetoric of Samuel Adams and others like him including Paul Revere, felt that justice had been denied. The crisis came to a head in 1775 with the enactment of the Tea Act that eventually resulted in what we call the Boston Tea Party and the burning of by then Governor Hutchinson in effigy. This would be the crisis that led to war and the Declaration of Independence.

Most of this is common knowledge. We all know the American side of the story; we’ve been indoctrinated in it since we were in elementary school. We may be a little fuzzy on the details but we are indoctrinated almost to a person in the idea that these revolutionaries were heroic. They are our heroes. But I am sure that we rarely if ever consider that the most liberal estimate of those who favored independence from Britain at almost any time during the Revolutionary War was 33% of the population. Approximately 40% remained loyal to the crown, with the rest trying to stay out of it. At the end of the revolution thousands of loyalists were forced to flee to Canada or Britain to avoid retaliation.

Consider what the revolution looked like to those who remained loyal to the Crown. For us they are now on the wrong side of history but at the time they were the upstanding citizens: those who supported the rule of law. Their responses show us that they viewed the actions of those in opposition to the Parliament as extreme: mob violence; rioting. The British saw the Americans as criminals. And, interestingly, because most of Europe drew their information about what was happening in America from the British press, so did most of Europe.[2] Americans were radicals, brigands, criminals.

At the time of the writing of the Declaration of Independence the understanding of liberty and protection by government focused on property rights. But over the course of the Revolutionary War the definition of liberty changed to incorporate a broader meaning encompassing personal rights that eventually became codified in the Bill of Rights. You can see this shift in definition by comparing the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789. In the American document “all men are created equal” (in the state of nature), but in the French document “all men are born and remain free and equal” [emphasis mine]. In other words, liberty came to be understood as embedded in the individual rather than in property.

And so we may say that as our definition of liberty changed so did our understanding of the purpose of government: from protecting property to protecting rights, the most fundamental of which is the right to life.

From the point of view of the British and loyal Americans, those resorting to mob violence and rioting and ultimately rebellion were not to be taken seriously. If they had grievances against the government there were ways to go about expressing them that didn’t harm innocent people and deprive them of their property. What were those who harassed and harmed tax collectors and destroyed private property but thugs? But from the point of view of those we now call patriots, the government had broken its contract with them by depriving them of their fundamental rights, and the only recourse left to them was to bring an end to that government and replace it with one that would fulfill the function of government: protecting liberty.

Today, there is a large and growing number of people who are convinced that the government is violating their rights. Most are protesting peacefully but some have lost all faith in government. They believe that the time for peaceful protest is over, and so they have resorted to violence: what Martin Luther King once called “the language of the unheard.”[3]

Don’t think that what is happening in our country today is the work of a small group of criminals and rabble rousers. What is happening is a response to historical injustice that will not go away until it is addressed. It will not go away as long as “large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”[4]

If we are to survive as a nation, we must all listen to the still, small voice that says, “Stand up for justice.”

[1] King Martin Luther, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr (New York: IPM/Warner Books, 2001), under “Chapter 8: The Violence of Desperate Men,” accessed December 5, 2014, http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/publications/autobiography/.

[2] Eliga Gould, “How Did the British Press Cover the American Revolution? and What Lessons Does This History Hold for Today’s Upheavals?,” Foreign Policy (July 3, 2012): 1, accessed December 5, 2014, http://foreignpolicy.com/2012/07/03/how-did-the-british-press-cover-the-american-revolution/.

[3] Martin King, “The Other America” (sermon, Grosse Pointe High School, Grosse Pointe, MI., MArch 14, 1968), accessed December 5, 2014,http://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/mlk-gp-speech.pdf.

[4] Ibid.

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