What was the American Revolution really all about? Modern cynics would have us believe that it was about something other than freedom. But examining the words and actions of the American rebels shows that they were struggling for freedom. And not just some abstract notion of freedom, but what they perceived as the “liberties of Englishmen” — specific, historically-grounded liberties.
David Hackett Fischer’s masterful book Paul Revere’s Ride makes this clear. Some of the New Englanders refused to flee as the redcoats came past on their retreat from Concord, on that greatest of days, April 19, 1775. One such was Jason Russell of Menotomy, Massachusetts.
One of these embattled householders was Jason Russell, fifty-eight years old and so lame that he could barely walk. Russell sent his family to safety, then made a breastwork from a pile of shingles at his front door. Friends urged him to flee. Russell answered simply, “An Englishman’s home is his castle.” Others rallied to him, and a fierce fight took place in the dooryard of the Russell house. A party of grenadiers was sent to storm the building. Most of the Americans retreated inside or ran away, but Jason Russell was too lame to run. He stayed and fought, until a grenadier killed him in his own doorway. His wife and children returned to find his body pierced with many bayonet wounds. Altogether eleven Americans were found dead at the Russell house.
One of the great dividing lines in American life is between those who have an emotional, pre-rational love for their country, similar to their love for their parents or children, and those who are repelled by this. I have a friend who is a liberal lawyer, an activist, a smart, hardworking, skillful, honest, dedicated man. On the anniversary of 9/11 I had lunch with him. I offered him an American flag pin. He recoiled. To people like him, even the best of them, American history is one of struggle and reform against injustice, a story of the failed effort to establish a more egalitarian society, a struggle which goes on, and any American greatness exists in a vision of what it might some day be. As Richard Rorty put it, liberals hope some day to “achieve their country”, a country which exists in their minds.
I’ll stick to my approach. America is not a project in the present requiring the bulldozing of the past. Nor, especially is it a mirage, an imaginary and pernicious utopia lodged somewhere in the future. It is a concrete reality of land and people and laws and customs. It is the gift bought with blood at Midway and Bastogne and Little Round Top and Yorktown. It is the work of countless hands that laid the bricks and railroad tracks and power lines, that dug the mines and dredged the harbors, that built the farmhouses and town squares, the skyscrapers and bungalows. It is the work of generations of jurors and schoolteachers and engineers and salesmen and mothers wiping muddy faces. It is the hard suffering of the Atlantic crossing, whether by slaves or free people. And back before all this, even before the rattling of musketry at Concord Bridge, before the pronouncements in the Declaration, the English liberties transplanted to these shores. And even farther, into the distant ages of the past, the slow growth of those liberties over the centuries. And progress, change, development for a conservative must take place with an awareness of this inheritance, and humility before it, in a spirit of custodianship, as part of the larger democracy, as Edmund Burke put it, which includes both the dead and those yet to be.
The universalist statements of the Declaration, “all men … ” were founded not on abstractions but on real institutions, legal norms and practical conduct which embodied and give substance to these rights. The Anglosphere countries have inherited all this. It is up to the rest of the world to come up with their own solutions to realizing in practice these universal rights. Merely pronouncing them won’t do it nor, most likely, will simply transplanting American methods into alien soil. The world presents many challenges and tasks, and the domain of liberty will expand only by hard effort, and then only by fits and starts, and the end of history remains far, far off.
God rest the soul of Jason Russell, American, who knew that an Englishman’s home is his castle, and died for it.
God bless America.