Almost every American knows the traditional story of July Fourth—the soaring idealism of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress’s grim pledge to defy the world’s most powerful nation with their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. But what else about revolutionary America might help us feel closer to those founders in their tricornered hats, fancy waistcoats and tight knee-breeches?
Those Americans, it turns out, had the highest per capita income in the civilized world of their time. They also paid the lowest taxes—and they were determined to keep it that way.
By 1776, the 13 American colonies had been in existence for over 150 years—more than enough time for the talented and ambitious to acquire money and land. At the top of the South’s earners were large planters such as George Washington. In the North their incomes were more than matched by merchants such as John Hancock and Robert Morris. Next came lawyers such as John Adams, followed by tavern keepers, who often cleared 1,000 pounds a year, or about $100,000 in modern money. Doctors were paid comparatively little. Ditto for dentists, who were almost nonexistent.
In the northern colonies, according to historical research, the top 10% of the population owned about 45% of the wealth. In some parts of the South, 10% owned 75% of the wealth. But unlike most other countries, America in 1776 had a thriving middle class. Well-to-do farmers shipped tons of corn and wheat and rice to the West Indies and Europe, using the profits to send their children to private schools and buy their wives expensive gowns and carriages. Artisans—tailors, carpenters and other skilled workmen—also prospered, as did shop owners who dealt in a variety of goods. Benjamin Franklin credited his shrewd wife, Deborah, with laying the foundation of their wealth with her tradeswoman’s skills. …
America in 1776 was also a diverse nation. The first census, taken in 1790, revealed that only about 60% of the people came from England. The rest were German, Irish, Dutch, Scottish, Swedish and African. …
Another American tradition beginning to take root was female independence. The wife of Sueton Grant ran her husband’s shipping business in Newport, R.I., for more than 30 years after his death in 1744. As a teenager, Eliza Lucas began experimenting with various plants on her father’s Wappoo Creek Plantation, near Charleston, S.C. Soon she was raising indigo, which became one of the most profitable crops in the South.
Philadelphia’s Lydia Darragh, America’s first female undertaker, operated her business for almost a decade before the Revolutionary War began. During the war she was one of George Washington’s most successful spies.
“Domestic felicity” was considered vital to everyone’s peace of mind, and although divorce was legal, it was also rare. Although money played a part in marriages among the more affluent, family life was often full of affection. The love letters Col. Thomas Jones of Virginia wrote to his wife began “My Dearest Life.” …
By 1776, the Atlantic Ocean had become what one historian has called “an information highway” across which poured books, magazines, newspapers and copies of the debates in Parliament. The latter were read by John Adams, George Washington, Robert Morris and other politically minded men. They concluded that the British were planning to tax the Americans into the kind of humiliation that Great Britain had inflicted on Ireland.
As eight years of war engulfed the continent, not a few of the rebels saw that the Revolution was a spiritual enterprise that would never really end. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Pennsylvanian who signed the Declaration of Independence, wrote that the war was onlsy the first step in the Revolution’s destiny to transform America and the world.
History confirmed his intuition. In the next hundred years, other nations and peoples would issue 200 similar declarations.
Paul Brandus, author of the West Wing Report, asks the question of what the Founding Fathers would think of what they wrought, specifically Thomas Jefferson:
Thomas Jefferson’s glorious sentence from his Declaration of Independence — arguably the most influential sentence in the history of the English language — holds true to this day, and remains a beacon to all who cherish or yearn for the human rights he espoused. Abraham Lincoln considered that specific passage one of the most important things he ever read, and regarded it as the bedrock of his political philosophy. …
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index — which bases its ratings on civil liberties, conduct of elections, media freedom, public opinion, functioning government, corruption, and stability — ranks the United States the world’s 19th best democracy, down from 17th in 2010. It says:
“U.S. democracy has been adversely affected by a deepening of the polarization of the political scene and political brinkmanship and paralysis. …
“The U.S… remain(s) at the bottom end of the full democracy category. There has been a rise in protest movement. Problems in the functioning of government are more prominent.”
Specifically, on a scale of 1-10, we get a 9.17 for our electoral process and pluralism, 8.53 for civil liberties, 8.13 for political culture, 7.50 for functioning government, and 7.22 for political participation. Room for improvement, indeed.
Brandus suggests Scandinavia as more democratic than the U.S. Which may be politically true, but that ignores the importance of economic freedom. The Scandinavian countries’ tax rates meet no legitimate economist’s definition of economically free.
About which …
The Index of Economic Freedom, published annually by The Wall Street Journal and the conservative Heritage Foundation, also shows some erosion. On a scale of 1-100 (100 is most free), the United States gets a 76.3. That’s down from 77.8 in 2011, and 81 in 2008, but it still puts the U.S. in the top 10 most economically free countries. Here’s how Heritage and the Journal break the data down, and how it compares with 2011:
Rule of law
· Property rights: 85.0 (no change)
· Freedom from corruption: 71.0 (worsened)
· Government spending: 46.7 (worsened)
· Fiscal freedom: 69.8 (improved)
· Business freedom: 91.1 (improved)
· Labor freedom: 95.8 (improved)
· Monetary freedom: 77.2 (worsened)
· Trade freedom: 86.4 (no change)
· Investment freedom: 70.0 (worsened)
· Financial freedom: 70.0 (no change)
Heritage and the Journal blast what they call “government intervention,” regulations, growing spending at all levels of government, and growing uncertainty in the private sector, and also warn of “fading confidence in the government’s determination to promote or even sustain open markets.”
Nice description of the Obama administration in that last paragraph.
Brandus wraps up with a subject of occupational interest:
Meantime, what of one of Jefferson’s most cherished freedoms: That of the press? “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter” he famously said.
Alas, on this point, the U.S. has fallen sharply. Reporters Without Borders, in its annual Press-Freedom Index, says America has plunged to 47th in the world, down from 20th a year ago. It blames the crackdown and repression of journalists covering the ongoing Occupy movement around the country. Where are press freedoms greatest? Again, try Scandinavia: Finland and Norway top the list. …
As we pursue our own happiness today, it’s important to remember how perishable the freedoms we often seem to take for granted really are. “The natural progress of things,” Jefferson observed, “is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”
What’s ironic about that last paragraph is that many local-level Democratic parties call their annual dinners/fundraisers Jefferson–Jackson Day. Neither Jefferson nor the personally violent Andrew Jackson seem appropriate symbols for the Democratic Party of today, let alone the freedom-squashing Obama administration.
M.D. Kittle of the Wisconsin Reporter channels another Founding Father:
I imagine John Adams in that stuffy room, amid the hot summer stink of Philadelphia, far away from his one true love — writing to her as he could find the time.
“Your Description of the Distresses of the worthy Inhabitants of Boston, and the other Sea Port Towns, is enough to melt a Heart of Stone,” Adams penned on July 7, 1775, as he served in a Second Continental Congress still not entirely sold on the idea of American independence from the empire. …
“Our consolation must be this, my dear, that Cities may be rebuilt, and a People reduced to Poverty, may acquire fresh Property,” he continued, adding a now-famous line that stands like a beacon for any and all liberty-loving people.
“But a Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty once lost is lost forever.
“When the People once surrender their share in the Legislature, and their Right of defending the Limitations upon the Government, and of resisting every Encroachment upon them, they cannot regain it ..” …
The signers of that bold declaration, who pledged to each other their lives, fortunes and sacred honor, some giving every measure of that sacred vow of independence, must be appalled by the level of dependence their progeny have on their government.
From nearly $80 billion in foods stamps distributed each year to billions of dollars more handed out in corporate welfare to an estimated $1 trillion-plus marked for the U.S. Supreme Court-blessed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, the U.S. citizen has become more dependent on its government than any Tory ever was. The better comparison may be government as dealer, citizen as dope addict.
While caring for its weakest – its poor, destitute, sick and aged – is the mark of a good and gracious society, taxing citizens to pay for every ill borne by society is the stain of a foolish and failing government.
Hence, a federal debt rapidly approaching $16 trillion.
There is an arrogance that is often mistaken for generosity, I think, at the core of the government that attempts to be all things to all bodies, which, in return, raises generations of government dependents. …
But how does a nation borne on the principles and statutes of liberty save itself from government dependence?
If only John Adams and his gang of revolutionaries were here to answer that big question.
Jefferson, the first Democratic (then Democratic–Republican) president, also said, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. … It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” We have four months and one day to create our own little rebellion, lest the Obama administration, unfettered by the necessities of reelection, gets the chance to do what it really has wanted to do ever since 2009.